I started writing this as a way to process all I had done and learned during my two weeks in Kenya this July. It became pretty long, so I decided to break it up into three parts. Part 1 introduces some of the key people I met and served with on this trip.
Several months ago, a woman sent an email to a Kenyan friend of hers whom she had met on a trip to Africa. She wrote that she would be in Kenya again this summer; could they meet up while she was there? Those few lines took on a life of their own, and as this woman walks by faith, she followed where the Spirit led.
That email led to the creation of a campaign to create training and awareness about learning challenges and disabilities in Kenyan public schools for teachers and parents. It also led to an encounter with me in the ladies’ room at our church, and the question, “Do you want to go to Africa?”
Walking by faith, I said “yes”, and I am so glad I did. That “yes” turned into something immeasurably more than anything I could have imagined.
The Twins and the Tall One
Our North American team consisted of three ladies who love God, love children, and are passionate about educating children with special needs. Other than those qualities, we were a curious trio, a spectacle wherever we trod – starting at the Washington DC airport where the three of us first met up.
Karen Robbins is the woman who invited me to Kenya. She was the leader of our small team and put in countless hours of careful preparation. I am grateful for her organizational and communication skills. She is gracious, flexible, and loves to laugh.
Karen and I had travelled together from PDX and we looked for Sharon when we landed in DC. I spotted her first. Why? Because I hover a good 12 inches above Karen, and the woman in question happened to be Karen’s identical twin – easy to identify (for me, at least, as I could see scores of humans ahead of me and Karen could maybe see two as we strode the airport walkway).
Sharon and Karen happily reunited and I was introduced. For the next 13 days we would be inseparable. The twins joyfully invited me into their sisterhood and I became very familiar with their inside jokes, outbursts of giggling, and twin-y banter. I was grateful for their past experiences in Kenya, and they were thankful that I could reach the overhead compartment on the airplanes into which I loaded their carry-on luggage.
Henceforth, whenever we were introduced in Kenya, we were first identified by our country of origin (as if that were not painfully obvious; Sharon is from Texas, for goodness sake – it’s hard to shake off Texas), our profession, and then our host announced that Karen and Sharon were…TWINS! This was always met by giggles, raised eyebrows and gasps by the audience, as twins over a certain age are somewhat rare in Kenya, due to various circumstances. Although not officially announced as such, I was often referred to as “the tall one”. Whenever we were spotted on city streets, passersby called out, “Mzungus!” (white people).
My Kenyan Older Sister
I could write an entire series of posts about our host in Kenya, Elizabeth Nyokabi Njuguna. Perhaps someday I will. Karen and Sharon met Liz on a previous trip to Kenya. She is a physiotherapist with a private practice, and also does educational research for a non-profit organization in Kenya. It was to Elizabeth that Karen wrote that first fateful email.
Our activities in Kenya were inspired and executed by Liz. She is the type who sees a small portion of loaves and fish and can envision the bounty God will produce from the offering. Liz is passionate about empowering women and children and knows that improving educational opportunities is one of the most powerful vehicles for breaking cycles of injustice and poverty. She believes that God is on the side of the oppressed and powerless, and he is at our right hand when we spend ourselves on their behalf.
Based on the little I learned about Liz before going to Kenya, I told my husband, “I think I am going to really like this woman.”
When Liz received that email from Karen back in January, she immediately went to work. She networked and surrounded herself with others who caught the vision of creating awareness and support for children with learning challenges in Kenyan classrooms. She found a group of administrators and officials in Kiambu county who were willing to fund a 3-day training for parents, teachers, and principals in Kikuyu sub-county. They determined who would be the key participants attending, and provided meals and transportation to the training. Karen, Sharon, and I let them know our areas of expertise and potential training topics, and they sent us their goals and ongoing plans for the trainings.
Besides the three days of large-group training in Kikuyu, Liz also planned some visits to individual schools, informal trainings for smaller groups of teachers, and a few other experiences, taking advantage of every slot of time. She never got tired of answering our questions, repeating herself when we couldn’t understand her Kenyan-English accent, driving us over countless bumpy roads, and waiting for us and assisting us as we bartered in Kenyan markets.
Liz spoke the language of my heart. As she addressed teachers, parents, and government officials, I felt like I was listening to someone out of the many books I have read about places where injustice seems to reign until you spot the light of regular people who tirelessly oppose injustice with their words and actions, and make a difference.
I told you about a children’s book author I admire, Atinuke, whose main character in one of her series lives in “Africa, Amazing Africa.” Anna Hibiscus is a little girl who lives in a big white house in an unnamed African city, surrounded by fruit trees, goats, and chickens; and shares a full, generous life with her parents, brothers, grandparents, aunties, uncles, and cousins. Anna is a girl who enjoys a good life, but notices those in her immediate vicinity who have needs and reaches out to meet those needs creatively.
One day, Liz drove us to her childhood home, where her mother and two of her brothers still live. It’s a big, sprawling blue house, surrounded by gardens, fruit trees, rabbits, goats, and chickens, where Liz grew up with eight brothers and sisters. Her family welcomed in relatives, neighbors, and whoever needed a room or a pint of milk, living with open hands that worked hard and gave generously.
I gazed around the family compound with an open mouth. I said, “Liz, you are Anna Hibiscus, all grown up!” I laughed at the goodness of God for leading me to this home that my kids and I had imagined so vividly through stories. Liz led us into an unoccupied section of the house with two comfortable bedrooms. “This is where you and your family will stay when you next visit Kenya,” she told me.
Karen, Sharon, and I spent almost every day of our Kenyan adventure with our patient guide and sister, Elizabeth. Early on, I claimed the front passenger seat of her car, with the apparent excuse of needing an extra 12 inches of leg space during the hours we spent on the roads weaving around Limuru, Kikuyu, and Nairobi (The twins in the backseat entertained us with their endless donkey sightings and happy chatter). Really, I just wanted to be close enough to hear Elizabeth talk, and mine her for details about her beautiful life and country. She became a sister in the way that women do, locking hearts when working together toward a common purpose with common passion.
Liz continues the movement, riding and growing the momentum we started together in Kikuyu. She has big dreams for Maasai women and children, and will be a tremendous asset to her country in any classroom, government office, or remote village she visits.
The Lovely Lorna
I was so excited to meet Lorna. Lorna Muthamia-Ochido is a trained speech-language pathologist in Nairobi. She runs the largest private practice in Kenya as well as in East and Central Africa. With a population of over 40 million, Kenya has less than 10 formally trained SLPs, and the government does not cover the cost of seeing an SLP in the school system or in hospital settings as they do in the US.
Lorna was part of our team of presenters for the three-day training in Kikuyu and was invaluable in contextualizing our training to the needs and cultural understanding of the participants. Lorna has this lovely, musical voice, with a trace of an Australian accent, where she received her higher education. She is passionate about her work with children with communication disorders and is an expert in the relationship between language and literacy. She is beautiful inside and out, and incredibly smart.
Lorna and I found we had much in common. Besides being SLPs, we are about the same age, both have a daughter and a son, and share a love for children’s literature. However, her hair is way cooler than mine.
Lorna treated us to a delicious Kenyan lunch at her favorite restaurant, where we stuffed ourselves full, laughed, and exchanged stories.
A Hero Named Mercy
During our first couple days in Kenya, we met many women and men who had been instrumental in organizing the parent and teacher trainings. One young woman stood out to me the first day. Her name is Mercy, she is about 20 years old, and she was acting as Elizabeth’s assistant for many small, but important details associated with the event.
Mercy’s childhood is a sad one, and it is her story to tell, but it may be sufficient to say that statistically speaking, Mercy should be a single mother, entrenched in a cycle of poverty, struggling to feed, clothe, and provide shelter and health for her family.
But she’s not.
Mercy is a shining star of a young woman. Parentless at 16, she climbed out of a desperate situation with the assistance of a caring mentor who probably saw the same spark that Liz saw in her and I observed within the first few minutes of meeting her. She completed her high school education, working hard to provide for herself and her younger sister. She is now in an undergraduate program for Accounting and achieved an internship at a financial institution.
Mercy carries herself with poise and warmth. She is decidedly intelligent, well-spoken, and open. Cute, too. I asked her if she had a boyfriend. She laughed and went on to explain that she has goals for her life, and having a boyfriend would most certainly distract her from realizing her dreams. Her most precious dream is to become a doctor, however that path currently has too many barriers to overcome. She trusts deeply in God’s care over and plan for her life, knowing that she is upheld by his mercies day by day.
I could picture Mercy as a doctor – caring for her patients with a depth of understanding wrought from her own experiences. I also wish more young girls who are stuck in murky circumstances could meet Mercy, a hero who did not stay stuck in the mire, but wrote a new and better story for her future.