I’ve been in Kibera for about a week now, and honestly have been too busy to write up to this point. I was terribly sick yesterday, but fortunately had a lot of people praying for me, and I recovered very quickly. Thanks to everyone who was praying. The trip is still ongoing, so there will not be much in the way of reflection. That will undoubtedly come later. I can say that I have learned a lot this week, and have more questions than I started with. They are not bad questions though, and I’m sure they will lead to growth and a bettering of my understanding about how to partner with the church in Africa. For now then, here are some pictures from the trip. When I get home and I have had time to ponder, I will write more.
For those of you following this blog for the photography aspect, all of these pictures were shot with my small Canon G1X. The large SLR frankly was just too conspicuous and risky to pull out. U til next time.
This is just a very short post today, for those who are following our trip. We made it to Kenya yesterday, and today was our first day in Kibera, Africa’s largest slum. We visited with Pastor Obedi and his wife Helen. It was good to see them again, as well as the fact that things have improved since last year. We also spent a lot of time with the kids, about 45 of them today! I did say this would be short and I will keep that promise. Until next time…
In my last post I wrote a bit about agreements. It’s been a while since I’ve written, but the subject is still on my mind. Now that I’ve become aware of it, I have become more able to see what kind of agreements people make (including me) that we shouldn’t enter into.
In the movie “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” Tommy is telling the others about how he met with the devil at a crossroads and agreed to give up his soul in exchange for being able to play the guitar. Delmar responds with, “You sold your ever loving soul to the devil for that?” To which Tommy responds, “Well, I wasn’t using it.”
The agreements we make are frequently not made so explicitly, but they are made nonetheless. I’m finding that most of the agreements we make are made not because we met with the devil at a crossroads, but because bad things enter our lives, and rather than fight them, we become comfortable with them over time, until we finally fail to see them at all. Then, even when we are given an opportunity to be free of what plagues us, we’re so comfortable with our affliction that we choose not to give it up.
This blog is mostly about Africa and missions, so let me give you an example from that vein. I will shortly be going back to Kibera, Kenya. I’ve been to a lot of places in Africa that seem hopeless, but Kibera is possibly the worst. The filth alone is enough to completely overwhelm. People live (and I use that word loosely) on less than two dollars a day. Disease is rampant. Sewage runs between all the shacks. Children are abandoned during the day as mothers go out looking for work. There are constant fires because of electrical shorts from spliced wiring as people steal electricity from neighbors. Garbage has literally formed layers like a geological feature that you can see from the past hundred years. When you ask people what they have hope for, they literally come up with nothing because hope is a distant relative that died a long time ago. For some people poverty is a temporary thing; a temporary setback until they are able to get back on their feet. Kibera’s poverty is something much worse. It’s poverty that is over 100 years old. It’s no longer simply a lack of resources, it’s now a pervading state of mind. It’s old, generational poverty.
Many people living in Kibera do not have what it takes to extricate themselves from the slum, but some do. These are probably the saddest cases, because they have made an agreement that Kibera, as bad as it is, is ok. The first time I was in Kibera, after about forty five minutes, I literally felt like I needed to get out. From that point to being so comfortable with it that you decide not to leave even if you can is almost unfathomable to me.
Now, I’m going to preface my next statements by saying that I have a real problem with prosperity doctrine, which is unfortunately popular both in the United States and Kenya. It teaches basically that if you have enough faith, God will bless you and make you rich. I could go on for an entire blog about how this is wrong both scripturally and in the real world, but I won’t. While I don’t believe it is God’s intention to make us rich, I do believe he cares for us as his own children, which we are. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11. ““Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead?Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” Luke 11: 11-13
The bible frequently talks about how we will suffer along with Christ if we follow him, but if we realize that we are beloved children of God, when he sends the opportunity to be freed from bondage and suffering, it hardly makes sense to then say, “No, that’s ok. I’m good”. While we are called to suffer with Christ, we are not called to make agreements with the devil simply for the sake of taking on suffering. “My marriage is bad, but it’s ok.” “I live in filth, but it’s ok.” “My children are starving, but that’s just life.” These are all agreements from the pit of hell. Something I have been learning is that I don’t pray big enough. I pray for something but cut short the full extent of what I need, or the needs of someone I’m praying for. When you realize you’re praying to an infinite God, it suddenly seem stupid to put limitations on your prayers. I met an Ethiopian pastor recently who said “I always pray for something, then double it.” He’s not praying for riches, he’s praying for the lost to be saved, for the captives to be set free, and for a bit of God’s kingdom to show up here on Earth. The first step in that process is to stop accepting the physical, spiritual, and mental squalor that we have agreed to live in.
As I was thinking about all the posts I’ve done about Africa, photography, and missions. I’ve done posts on the people I’ve met and the broader concepts of all things related to Africa, but I’ve never published a post about the landscape of Africa. When people think of Africa, they usually think of herds of animals on the grasslands with the occasional Acacia tree breaking up the horizon. Sure, there’s that aspect of Africa, but there is so much more to it than that. There are jungles, scrublands, deserts, big cities, mountains, even glaciers. Today I decided to feature some of the landscapes I’ve seen on my travels in East Africa. These are all from South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Kenya, so you can imaging all there is to see in the other fifty or so counties. I’ve specifically tried to exclude people from these shots to focus on the landscapes, but there are some. Let these give you a sense of place, and please enjoy them. All can be clicked on for a larger view.
In just two weeks I leave for Ethiopia. I remember the first time I traveled to Africa; the excitement, but also the sense of fear. The feeling of “oh dear God, what am I doing?” Things are different now. This is my seventh trip to Africa since 2010, and my third in the last eight months. There is no longer any fear involved. It’s only my second trip to Ethiopia, but I feel as if I’m going to visit an old friend. That old friend is Africa. I love the people. I love the places. I love the friends I’ve made along the road. There are people in South Sudan and Kenya in particular that I talk to on almost a daily basis, and they’ve become good friends to me.
My first trip to a country is normally where I get the lay of the land. My second and subsequent trips are when I make friends. I don’t know why that is, but that seems to be the way it plays out. Perhaps I am only able to understand the people after I’ve been there once already. Each culture is different, and it’s often hard to understand the way people think until you understand at least to a point the environment they’re coming from. Friendship only comes after understanding. So even though I made friends on my last trip to Ethiopia, it is this time that I feel I will cement those bonds. So this blog is written for my old friend Africa, for the old friends I’ve made in South Sudan and Kenya, and to the new ones I’ll make in Ethiopia.
I will be posting update blogs as I travel whenever I can, and as a photographer I will have photographs whenever bandwidth will permit. Feel free to follow this blog for email updates. I’ll be traveling into new territory, so I’ll try to be as honest with first impressions as possible. I’m not saying where I’m going yet, but will post once I’m there. Here’s a few of my friends from over the years.
There has been a reoccurring theme lately with random things I’ve read; with conversations I’ve had with people, and with the events in my own life and the lives of people around me. That reoccurring theme is the faithfulness of God and hearing God’s voice. The initial catalyst for this theme for me I think was the decision to go back to Ethiopia, but other things have built upon it since then.
As I’ve been drawn more and more into the events and the lives of people in Africa, I’ve become closer with certain people in ways I never would have imagined just a few years ago. I find myself wishing I could go back and visit with many of these people again, but there is only so much time and funding available for someone with a family and three kids. Besides, many times East Africa doesn’t necessarily need my physical presence, as many things can and should be done through and by people already there.
I talk a lot with a friend in Kenya, who has given up a lot to minister to kids who have been lost along the way somewhere. He ministers to girls in a reform school, many of whom are estranged from their parents, and to kids who are in prison, among others. He has given up any form of financial security to do this, as this is all volunteer, and any funds that come in are through the generosity of people who believe in his vision, and by the grace of God.
Last week, he asked me “how do I hear God’s voice concerning the things he wants me to do?” This question caught me a bit off guard, because I felt totally unqualified to answer it. For me, it was like Michael Jordan saying to me, “so tell me about this game you call basketball.” You see, the problem is that while he is out there doing, I am still currently unlearning what I have either been taught explicitly or by example from American culture. The great depression taught our culture a lot about security and setting up contingency plans. Our parents and grandparents swore they would never go through something like that again. Their children found a good job with a pension that would take care of them. They valued job security above everything else. Work that job for 35 years no matter how miserable you were; no matter how far from your true calling that job was. Get a job with health benefits, dental, pension, matching 401k. Wait until you are financially secure until you have children so they won’t have to go through the things you went through. Leave nothing to chance. Leave nothing to faith. Leave nothing to God. I don’t need God anymore, because I’ve got a contingency plan for everything. Life’s decisions became based on fear of the lack our parents had, and not on faith, or even on reality.
So here’s how that went. The children of the baby boomers who grew up with everything provided for them came to expect everything. They (we) still live on a fear based existence, unable to live without a well thought out escape plan from all of life’s struggles and problems, but now we expect to have everything handed to us. Well, let me tell you thing from the point of view of a business owner; job security is a myth, as fictitious as the Minotaur or the Medusa. There is no security in life, only the illusion of it, so prettily put together in a welcome packet with a brochure of your company’s stock options with a big red bow on top. We’ve given up our God given talents, our vision, that fire God placed into us to make the world a better place, and traded them for a matching 401k.
What would it look like if we started living by the seat of our pants again? What would it look like if we took risks? After all, there is no reward without risk, and we’ve given up an awful lot of reward. We’ve fooled ourselves into thinking the only reward is financial, and in doing so given up our souls. Hebrews 11:6 says, “And it is impossible to please God without faith. Anyone who wants to come to him must believe that God exists and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him.”
I’m still pondering this idea in my head, and I’m not yet fully sure if it’s true, but my thought is that God speaks to us the most when we put ourselves into a position in which we MUST hear him. This is why I feel unqualified to speak to my friend in Kenya. He has given up everything, and put himself in a position where he has to hear from God if he’s going to move forward. I personally believe this is the way to go. It’s not a comfortable way, because there’s always that gap between hearing from God and when everything comes together, but the alternative is to live in a manicured facade of security that I know does not exist. I would rather live in a manner that fulfills the destiny God has placed me here for. As such I have started to wean myself off of the high overhead that comes with the typical American life. I believe it’s healthier in the long run, allows me and my wife more freedom to do what God calls us to do, and is a far better example to my children. This has not yet all fully ruminated for me, so as I think further about this, I will probably write again. What I learn this time in Ethiopia may further clarify things for me as well. So until next time…
This is my 100th blog post on South Sudan Traveler, and what better way to celebrate it than with some of my favorite pictures of all time. Some you’ve seen in previous blog posts, but many others are brand new (at least to you). I think back to my first time going to South Sudan back in 2010, before it was its own country. I think back to how green I was, but fully aware that I am simply a different shade of green now. My perspectives have changed since that time, but thankfully I have the pictures to document how those perspectives changed. So please enjoy Africa as I’ve seen it over the last five years, from South Sudan to Kenya to Ethiopia. Soon I will have even more. All pictures can be clicked on for a bit larger view. Also, I am beginning to work on a book that will feature the unexpurgated version of Africa you don’t see in the brochure. More on that later.
The first time I saw Africa was not looking out the window as I flew into Nairobi. It wasn’t when I got off the plane in Jomo Kenyatta Airport late in the evening to the cool air and the smell of charcoal smoke. It wasn’t the next morning waking to the cawing of the large ibises that are ubiquitous to Kenya. It wasn’t even the next day when I stepped off the next plane into the suffocating heat of Juba, South Sudan. The first time I saw Africa was several days later.
In the book, “Heart of Darkness”, Joseph Conrad writes of nineteenth century travelers, “Most seamen lead, if one may so express it, a sedentary life. Their minds are of the stay-at-home order, and their home is always with them-the ship… In the immutability of their surroundings the foreign shores, the foreign faces, and changing immensity of life, glide past, veiled not by a sense of mystery but by a slightly disdainful ignorance… A casual stroll or a casual spree on shore suffices to unfold for him the secret of a whole continent, and generally he finds the secret not worth knowing.”
I believe this to be the case as much today as it was in 1899. People like the idea of seeing another culture, but would rather do it as one looks at fish in a bowl. This is why cruises are so popular. Go to a new place every day, take the sanitized, expurgated tour designed to solidify preconceptions and stereotypes you came with, and at the end of the day be safely back within the insular confines of familiar comforts.
This is why the first time I saw Africa was several days after I got there. It was when everything familiar was left behind that I really saw Africa, and it was a day I will never forget. It was the day that I realized this was not a one time event, but something that was to become part of me. It was the day it occurred to me (because it hadn’t yet) that I would be back many times.
The day I’m referring to was about my fourth day in South Sudan. We originally had no plans to go where we ended up going, but the pastor we were there to visit arranged for us to go and visit his home village, about a three hour off-road drive from Bor, where we were staying. That day I saw things I never imagined I would see. The cattle herders herding cattle with horns so immense it’s hard to imagine how something could carry something that large. The grass fires rolling across the plains, set by people deliberately to renew the land with fresh grass for the next season. We met the chief of the village of Liliir, a man with three wives, seventeen children, and I’m not sure how many grandchildren. He had been the chief of this village of 60,000 for fifty years, and ruled not with an iron fist, but with wisdom and respect. I met a man who was 110 years old that day, and who could remember when the British colonialists came. His wife was much younger, and when I asked to take her picture, she hurried into her hut to put her best clothes on. As we traveled back that day, by chance we came across a gathering of two cattle camps. They were there for South Sudan’s favorite sport, wrestling. We asked the driver if we could stop and watch, and the cattle camp got the first foreign audience they had probably ever seen. It was absolutely amazing. That was the day I became immersed in the culture; where all the familiar was left behind and I was able to experience Africa as part of Africa, and not through the glass. It was a turning point for me, when the foreign became not so foreign, and my worldview changed. It was the reason I write this blog today, and the reason I’m going back to Africa in less than two months.
I met James on my last trip to Kenya in September. He has an incredible heart for lost kids; kids estranged from their parents, kids in prison, kids estranged from God. He used to have his own television show in Kenya, but gave that up when he was presented with the ultimatum to either give up his show or give up ministering to lost kids. Here we might say we work on a shoestring budget. Jimmy has no permanent employment, and his budget is whatever God gives him through faith. This week James wrote about one of his recent trips, and his message really spoke to me, and it goes right with the spirit of this blog. When God spoke to Moses from the burning bush, he asked him, “What is in your hand?” Moses had a staff, and God used it in amazing ways. In James’s hand are two sewing needles, a ball of string, a bible, and a pile of buttons. Here is James’s message from this week.
“Are We There Yet?
As I prepare to leave for ministry with our girls, I keep thinking about my trip to Baragoi. That trip changed my life, the way I look at ministry and my personal plans. It was the best way to conclude a fruitful year of ministry in 2014.
I wake up everyday with the intention of bringing a smile to the faces of the children and young people we minister to and mentor. The recipients of our programmes are children who need a lot of encouragement and opportunities. I used to have a list of people and a grand plan of how I wanted to get them involved.
Going to Baragoi had not been in my plans, in fact I had prepared to attend two weddings in our church. Yet when I heard about the trip, my mind was set and made up. I have done so many things on a zero budget. But going to Baragoi was the first time I wasn’t going to worry about provision because everything was provided. I left home with my Bible, a pair of scissors, hundreds of buttons, two balls of thread and two sewing needles. These were the tools I was going to use while ministering to children in Baragoi.
As our journey progressed, I kept asking, “Are we there yet?” Two days after leaving Nairobi I was asked to share the Word of God at the Full Gospel Church and so began my ministry. By the time we were leaving, I had run out of sewing thread and buttons. I also, reluctantly, parted ways with one of my needles after one of the mothers asked for it.
On our way back to Nairobi, God shown me how He can grow my network. Like I said before, I used to have a list of people I would like to have in my network. I still do. But after Baragoi, I have surrendered and have entrusted God with building my network.
As I was getting off the bus at Uthiru, a lady whose contacts I had been trying to get in 2014 called out to me. “From today you shall be known as Jim Buttons,” she said. “Here is my number. I would like us to talk more about your ministry with young people. May God bless your button ministry and see you soon!”
Perhaps you are a young person who desires to be used by God and your worry is provision and not knowing the right people. Or maybe you are worried about not being qualified or ready. Let me tell you something. God wants to use you – right now and right where you are – with what you have available.
I met a young woman who is now rubbing shoulders with doctors, lecturers and even politicians simply because she is willing to travel to places like Turkana, Samburu and the rest of Kenya just to deworm children and talk about nutrition.
I don’t know about you or what you are waiting for. Sign up for mission and outreach in your church, campus or let us know if you are looking for mission and outreach opportunities. Venture out and help reach out to a person that needs your smile, hug and time. Your life will never be the same again.
Look at where sewing children’s torn clothes and replacing buttons is taking me. I may lack the money I need for my big picture and vision. But at the end of the day, I have my Bible, pair of scissors, needles, thread, buttons and my passion to reach out to children. What about you? What do you have at hand?”
Last time I was in Kenya, I was in a car with my wife and two of the Kenyans who are our good friends. As we neared the edge of Kibera, Africa’s largest slum, our car was stopped by two men who had placed a large rock in the road. Their “business” if you will, was to put a rock in the road and demand money from people as they drove by before they would remove it. What they got instead was a stern talking to from Jimmy, who had given up a fairly comfortable life to live in the slum.
I have to admit, I’m quite angry right now. One of our friends from the United States is currently helping Jimmy in Kibera. There is a small library there, and it’s not much to look at, but it gives kids who would normally be abandoned during the day a place to go. Outside the library is a festering cesspool of human waste that runs between the library and the next building. Yesterday Jimmy, our American friend, and a group of willing people built a platform over that gully, not just to cover the filth, but to create a small area for kids to sell goods so they can support themselves. On the first day, the children took in about $30, which is quite an accomplishment considering most people live here on $2 a day. It gave the kids a way to learn initiative and self-respect, and keep them from selling drugs.
Over night, some people came and destroyed the bridge they had built, for no other reason than misery loves company. This is the incredible difficulty in poverty alleviation. I’ve seen this happen in Kenya. I’ve seen this happen in South Sudan. I’ve seen this happen on the Indian Reservations in the United States. The attitude is, “I’m Ok with misery and lack as long as you have misery and lack, too.” Confucius said, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” The same can be said for envy. You can’t sabotage someone else’s work and expect that the same is not going to happen to you. That in a nutshell is why Kibera still exists. The unfortunate and politically incorrect truth is that no rich man is needed to hold down the poor. Given the opportunity, the poor man will do it himself. This is why it is impossible to separate the spiritual from poverty alleviation. Poverty is rarely just a lack of resources. It may start as a lack of resources, but quickly turns into poverty of spirit. That’s why it is so hard to lift a community from poverty once they’re there. This is the fundamental flaw in western understanding of poverty.
A couple months ago, I was watching the news. Some member of a European royal family (which one I don’t remember) was in Africa with a large entourage and a film crew and reporters. This royal was touring a village and looking around at the poverty. He was interviewed by one of the reporters, and asked what he thought should be done. The royal responded, “They just need resources. They’re not getting the resources they need.” All I could do was sit and shake my head. It wasn’t the resources that were the problem, it was the poverty of spirit that keeps people poor even when the resources are there. You can give a man in the slums fifty dollars, and for some rare individuals he’ll take it and start a business. But more likely than that is that he’ll take it and get drunk, then come home and beat his wife. This is the harsh reality of the slum. That’s why Kibera has been there for over 100 years. This member of the royal family’s heart was in the right place, but the understanding is not there. He’ll go back to Downton Abbey, and probably raise a bunch of money that will be sent back to this community. In ten years, there will be no sign that he was ever there.
What the slums need is people who are committed for the long haul. People who realize that change comes slowly, one person at a time, through personal sacrifice. What the slums need is leadership from within, not the white man to come from outside and fix all the black man’s problems. The slums need partners who will identify and empower the people and the human resources that already exist there. The slums need Godly men and women who are willing to sacrifice personally so that others won’t have to, and to be examples to people who wish ill to anyone who wants the slum to become a better place. This is all a lot harder than throwing money at the slum. I wish I could convey this concept to anyone who hasn’t been to Africa, but unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. After my first trip to Africa, I knew in my knower that you could throw all of the worlds financial resources at Africa, and if that’s all that was done it would bankrupt the whole world. If you’ve ever thought about traveling and seeing the world, I want to encourage you in the strongest possible way, to go and see the developing world. Go the the slums. Go see what most of the world lives like. It will give you an understanding of the world, and an understanding of yourself that you didn’t even know you lacked.
For now, all I can do is pray for our friends in Kibera that they will have the fortitude to start over. I will also pray for those that put rocks in the road and destroy other people’s work, that God will break through to them and show them that all they’ve done is hurt their own communities and themselves. I’ll pray for those that think that tearing someone else down somehow lifts them up. But tonight I’m just sad and angry.