Teach, Pray, Love: A Week in Peru

It has been well over a month since Ellie, Sandi and I returned from our week in Trujillo, Peru. Enough time to recalibrate to North American schedules, people, problems and routines. But thankfully, any time I travel outside my “normal”, normal gets redefined, and that is a good thing.

Something I’ve learned about life (now that I’m solidly in my late thirties) is that things that matter the most are in the context of a relationship. A week is a short time to spend in another country, yet our week in Peru was meaningful because of the threads of relationships that brought us there and were strengthened.

I told you how Sandi, Ellie, and I were invited to come to Peru to train staff at an orphanage about educating children with special needs. I typed that story into cyberspace and our people responded. Within 24 hours an entire Amazon.com wishlist of Spanish books and games were ordered by you to fill our suitcases. The principal at the school where I work, Sandi’s son’s 2nd grade teacher, childhood friends, aunts and uncles, and many others responded. My college roommate’s dad donated a laptop in a shiny new case for Alex, the orphanage director. Glenwood Community Church  generously supported us financially. Evergreen Public Schools equipped us with quality, current information for some of our training sessions. Dozens more of you called, texted, emailed, prayed, and encouraged us. All of you sent us to Peru for Spring Break.

Here is who you impacted by your kindness to us and our Peruvian friends:

My daughter. Oh, Ellie. You exceeded all my expectations of how a nine-year-old girl going to a foreign country with a distracted mama would respond. Hours and hours spent on airplanes and airport benches. Dozens of not-like-home meals. Many, many happy voices and questions (some in Spanish) surrounding your introverted self 14 hours a day.

scooters

You flew your little kite outside at the orphanage, and when one of the children accidentally tore off the strings, you just wrapped up what was left and tucked it in your backpack without a word. With head held high, you tried the cow heart kabob and the ceviche nestled in an octopus broth. You didn’t forgot to put the toilet paper in the waste basket or rinse your toothbrush with bottled water. You held strong in the Lima airport until our 2:00am flight with only the tiniest of meltdowns at 10:30, followed by a cheerful second wind. You didn’t whine or complain, and you never demanded my attention. You went with the flow until mid-week when you saw that I could finally look up from our piles of notes and PowerPoints, then quietly asked if the two of us could spend some time together. I was so proud of you.

My teammate, Sandi. If I liked Sandi before Peru, I consider her a dear sister now. Sandi’s quiet, thoughtful observations were so timely and helpful. When she opened her mouth to speak, it was with wisdom and love. She delighted in having a nine-year-old companion as part of our team and watched out for Ellie like a mama bird (even more so than Ellie’s actual mother did).

Sandi is that rare combination of exemplary competence with humility and flexibility. She is a natural leader who took the co-pilot or the passenger seat without a fuss. She listened more than she talked. She remained unflappable when plans changed or were not announced until moments before an event. She generously poured out encouragement on me. She made a room full of exhausted workers cry from her empathetic stories of working with adolescents with special needs. She broke a toilet seat our first day in Pablo and Sarah’s home. And admitted it.

Sandi and CT girls

The whole Cenepo-Torres family. Every minute we spent in this family’s presence was life-giving. So much laughter, love, and steadfast, faithful living. Pablo and Sarah wear many hats and serve, give, and pray without ceasing. The word “yes” is almost always on their lips. They open their home to visitors from Peru and around the world every month. Just a week before our arrival, they hosted 14 children from the orphanage for an extended Easter holiday weekend.

dinner table

Our trip overlapped by a few days with our now-North Dakotan friend, Brian Martin

Sarah seamlessly manages a myriad of practical details when hosting visitors, and somehow attends to each person individually. After watching Ellie quietly acquiesce to every appointment of our full week, Sarah made sure we squeezed in a trip to the ocean. She was so right – boogie boarding with the girls on the South American side of the Pacific Ocean was Ellie’s absolute highlight of the week.

boogie boardingbeach - hannah gabriella ellie

The four Cenepo-Torres daughters are delightfully unique and flourishing under their parents’ love, education, and discipleship. I LOVE these six Peruvian-Americans and am grateful for their presence in Peru and their friendship with my family.

see saws

Alex, Nancy, Paola, and all of the faithful, hardworking staff at Hogar de Esperanza, the orphanage I visited four years ago and have been supporting through prayer and email conversations. Alex initiated and organized this whole endeavor. He reached out to workers from other local orphanages, and for the first time a large group of workers from multiple institutions came together for two days of trainings while we were in the country.

HdE - alex

These people may have different titles, but every one of them has a heart like Jesus – broken and swollen with compassion for hurting, abused children. The kids they care for are not easy. Yes, they are cute, but the trauma they experienced left them with lasting damage that presents in developmental delays, emotional and behavioral struggles, and learning problems. This can also be true for vulnerable children here in the US, but in Peru, they don’t have the social services and educational supports families here can access.

These workers are in the thick of dark, hopeless stories, yet they persevere because of the love they have for the children and the strengthening love of God. They were eager to learn new strategies to help their children make progress physically, emotionally, academically, and spiritually.

HdE workers

What we actually did during our week in Peru was in the context of these relationships, which is important, because our Peruvian friends are the ones who will actually be carrying on the work and applying the skills we taught to their context.

HdE - CTs and kids

The week skipped along, with Pablo as our guide and interpreter.

Two days we spent at a local orphanage where Alex had gathered representative workers from the various orphanages to come and share their experiences and learn new skills. The participants included caregivers, tutors, social workers, psychologists, and directors.

group shot

Sandi and I presented a trauma-informed approach to caring for and teaching children in their settings. We talked about developmental milestones, making observations, and determining measurable goals for the children in their care. We gave them ideas for teaching academics, social skills, and communication to children with special needs. We filled their notebooks with positive behavioral strategies. They shared their struggles and we listened and cried.

teaching

The next two days we spent at Hogar de Esperanza. Sandi and I enjoyed meeting with a rotation of one or two caregivers at a time, and helped them apply their learning from the previous days to their actual reality with the children they care for.

The orphanage staff we talked to described their children with deep affection. Many have worked with the same kids for years, yet the problems that brought the children to the home and cycles of trauma and confusion that continue impact their functioning. It was a privilege to hear their hearts, offer strategies when we could, and join them in prayer.

We gave them a huge suitcase filled with books and games in Spanish and the laptop, all donated by YOU, our friends and family. Thank you for giving these children quality materials that will be used to enhance their learning and social skills.

gifts

Finally, Sandi and I met with a couple families from the area who have children with special needs. In one family’s home, we gathered close and demonstrated some ways the parents could increase the communication of their nonverbal son who has autism.

family

Pablo and Steve were our fearless interpreters. These two guys are missionary-pastors and we stretched their brains and language skills with all of our special education jargon. Pablo gained a new appreciation for his amazing wife who, he came to realize, educates and parents their daughters using many of the evidence-based, effective techniques Sandi and I shared with our audiences. You rock, Sarah!

pablo and sandi

We left Trujillo on the day of Peru’s presidential election, going our separate ways. Sandi headed to the mountains, where she met her husband and son for sightseeing in and around Machu Picchu. Ellie and I flew home to our grateful boys.

jack and jenae

At home, I slowly eased back into life with my little family. I returned to my job in a bright, modern elementary school filled with highly trained teachers and staff, and multiple levels of support for children with special needs. I filled out our licensing paperwork for foster care, thankful that even though this system isn’t perfect, at least it is something. I opened the same Bible that was read by the Cenepo-Torres family in Peru and prayed to the same Father who hears our prayers and knows what we need even before we ask Him.

I continue to teach, pray, and love those God has placed in my life. I believe these are things He created me to do. I am grateful for the days Sandi and I did so together, with our friends in Peru.

sarah jenae sandi


Epilogue:

A couple days after we got home, I spent an evening with Jack, and John spent the evening with Ellie. I asked Jack what he wanted to do during our special time together. After a quick stop at McDonalds for a Happy Meal, he asked, “Could we go to a gas station, get a treat, then sit on a park bench together and hug?” So we did.

park bench

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From Bystander to Responder: An Invitation


heidi and familyThis is a guest post written by my friend Heidi Kellar. Heidi and I have been working with a team of friends to raise awareness about the largest humanitarian crisis in our world right now. Read her thoughtful words about her journey from ignorance to action. Then join us on June 4th for a family-friendly, interactive experience about the Syrian refugee crisis


That would be me, right?

Ever since the fourth grade, my mind has been intrigued by what some might say is a strange topic: the Holocaust. I read any book I could find, studied it in college, and even made a special visit to the world-renowned Holocaust Exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London.

I am equally appalled and enthralled. Appalled, obviously, by the extent of the atrocities committed by ordinary men against the Jewish people.

Enthralled by the heroics of those committed to rescuing those in need.

In college, a professor assigned the book Conscience and Courage by Dr. Eva Fogelman. In this book, the author, a psychologist, researches and reports on the lives and motivations of those who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. She draws conclusions more holistically about what it takes for people to stop being a bystander during tragic events. If any book spoke to my heart and mind at that formative stage of life, it was this book.

Conscience and Courage

Here are a few of the quotes that I underlined in 2002 about the individuals and the types of people who responded during the Holocaust (all emphasis mine).

“[The rescuer’s] humanitarian response was derived from an inner core of religious values…She asked… “What if this was my child, my mother, or me needing shelter? What would Christ have done?” (p. 173).

“Similar to their World War II predecessors, today’s rescuers are not larger-than-life heroes, but ordinary people who see inhumanity and feel a personal responsibility to address it.” (p. 314)

“Modern-day models of moral courage display a willingness to see what others choose not to notice. There is a determination, some would say a stubbornness, to pursue truth no matter where it leads.” (p. 317)

My young college self read these lines and brazenly thought, “I would have been a rescuer. I would not have sat by and let my fellow man be treated so terribly. I would have pursued truth no matter where it led, darn it!”

That would have been me. Right?

Reality

Fast forward about fifteen years. I am no longer that dreamy-eyed college student. Three young children, a part-time job, church leadership responsibilities, a Mt. Everest laundry pile in my living room, a never-finished sink full of dishes. You get the idea.

Plus, when I do get a chance to relax and sit down with the paper on Sunday morning, I am more interested in the sports page and the grocery sales. The World News page is just not that interesting, okay?

This is why it took me four years. Four years to notice the largest humanitarian crisis in our world right now. In fact, the largest number of refugees in human history are right now struggling to escape to safety, struggling to wake up in a place where they do not fear death daily.

It took the image of a little boy washed up on a beach to wake me from my apathy.

refugee boy picture

A little boy who looks so much like one of my own. A little boy whose family were desperately trying to escape violence to travel to their relatives in Canada. A little boy whose father gave a heart-breaking message to the world at Christmas.

I wept. I wrote a passionate Facebook post. I sat on the bathroom floor on the phone with a friend, praying for an hour one Saturday morning. We sat with other friends over dinner to ask and pray. What can we do? What can we do?

Would we see inhumanity and feel a personal responsibility to address it?

Would we display a willingness to see what others choose not to notice and pursue truth no matter where it leads?

 Would we ask, what would Christ have done?

In the meantime, life marched on. Dishes and laundry piled. Children argued. Every-day duties summoned. Still vaguely sad and convicted about the Syrian Refugee Crisis, I felt my lens zoom back in to my own “problems”. This would still likely be true if God had not intervened, using some fellow ragamuffins like myself to compel me to action.

Loaves and Fishes

Courtney, another busy mom in our area, also felt heartbroken and drawn towards action. And at six months pregnant with her fourth child, she had even more of a reason to keep her head in the sand.

But Courtney felt a personal responsibility and bravely called a meeting in January. A half dozen of us met late one night to begin the process of asking, what can we do?

Nobody present had much money. Or time. Or resources. Or connections. But we each had a little bit. Could it be used to help somehow? We didn’t know.

Do you remember the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand hungry people with only two small loaves of bread and five fish? Do you remember who gave him those fish? A young boy. It was his lunch and it would have been so easy for him to take that lunch and feed himself with it. It wasn’t enough for more people anyway.

But, thankfully he didn’t. Instead, he gave it to Jesus. And Jesus – the Provider, the Bread of Life, the one who could have ordered that bread shower down from heaven to feed everyone (after all, God had done that before!) – took that little boy’s lunch. He gave thanks. And he multiplied it to feed all of the hungry people with plenty of leftovers.

The six of us didn’t have much more than our lunch to give, but we decided to gingerly offer it up. Offer it up to the One who multiplies.

And it worked! Through teamwork, prayer, meetings and effort, we eventually decided to host an event for families.

The purpose is, first of all, to help others see the inhumanity behind the Syrian Refugee Crisis.

Second, we hope to help people feel a personal responsibility to address the needs.

Third, we want to invite people to offer up a small loaf or fish so that together we can watch it multiply. 

Are you willing to see what others choose not to notice?

Will you pursue the truth no matter where it leads?

After all, today’s rescuers are not larger-than-life heroes, just ordinary people offering up the little they have to the One who provides.

If you are interested in joining us, please consider attending our Syrian Refugee Awareness Night next Saturday from 4-6 at Compass Church. Please read the invitation below and invite friends!

Syrian Refugee Night Info Sheet

Want to know more, but can’t attend on June 4th? Check out the website my sister-in-law, Heidi Dryden created with loads of information, videos, and interactive websites you can view with your family: Syrian Refugee Awareness Night.

Kid Abolitionists Read 1,000 Books

I have two fairly normal, grade school-age American kids. They like Legos, comic books, candy, screens, The Dollar Store, terrorizing each other, and avoiding all manner of hard or boring work. They daily need reminders to be polite, generous, grateful, and diligent.

They have kind of a weird mom. One who spends her summer trying to sneak into their Red, White and Blue childhood colorful, abstract concepts like justice, abolitionist, commitment, overcoming obstacles, compassion, slavery, bystander, educational equality. At the same time I worry that both my kids will end up in therapy because they haven’t yet been to Disneyland.

Can you feel my angst?

My friend Heidi and I lead book clubs for kids and moms during the summer in which we attempt to impart these lofty ideas to five-to-ten year-olds.

Juliette

We are educators and enjoy the challenge of making the abstract concrete and empowering children to learn and impact their world. This is what teachers do. Likewise, we ourselves never want to stop learning and impacting our world!

heidi

At the beginning of the summer, Heidi and I met and discussed how to help our book club kids’ hearts and heads get smarter and do something to help raise awareness about modern day slavery and funds for International Justice Mission.

The book we read with the boys this summer was “Snow Treasure” by Marie McSwigan.

Snow Treasure

In this story, children in Norway during WWII secretly transported over 1,000 bricks of gold bullion on their sleds past Nazi soldiers to a hidden ship ready to embark for America. It took the cooperation and teamwork of the entire village to ensure that the gold made it safely to America, away from the Nazis’ knowledge and hands. The book was full of Big Ideas like teamwork, bravery, commitment, perseverance, creativity, and sneakiness.

In book club, we set a big goal: Reading 1,000 books together as families during the summer. Stacking up (figuratively) 1,000 bricks (of the literature type) required teamwork and effort. The idea was to raise awareness and challenge friends and family to support our fundraising campaign.

book poster

On the other side of the world, on Lake Volta in the African nation of Ghana, there are thousands of boys who are trapped in slavery in the fishing industry. Just this year IJM started its first rescue operations and is in the process of working with the government and local law enforcement to put an end to impunity for slave owners. Putting slave masters behind bars prevents the continuation of the slave trade on Lake Volta and shows that justice for the poor is possible.

Latest figures from the Global Slavery Index reveal that there are an estimated 36 million slaves in the world today – more than at any other time in history. IJM has operations and casework all over the world, but it is these boys in Ghana that our book club has chosen to learn about, pray for, and advocate for.

The abstract became concrete to me and my kids when we read about the first rescue operations on the Lake last March. This summer we retold the story at book club using Lego minifigures. We showed the book club kids the note signed by IJM’s Office of Investigations for our book club’s advocacy and support: “Your encouragement means the world to us and to those living in freedom because of you,” they told us.

IMG_4853

I love looking for and strengthening the connections between my little family and community and the wider world. A thousand gold bricks, a thousand books, a thousand dollars, a thousand prayers, a thousand slaves, a thousand ways a person, even a child, can make a difference.

1000 book challenge

On August 18th, I was a little worried we wouldn’t reach our goal – we were barely halfway to 1,000 books. I should have known that procrastination and fighting for justice are not mutually exclusive. By the end of August, we surpassed our goal of reading 1,000 books and surpassed our fundraising goal of $1,000.

Then, we celebrated. I have found that joy is a fruit of doing justice. Gary Haugen, President of IJM, once said to an audience of aspiring abolitionists, “Jesus wants to give you five things: extravagant compassion, moral clarity, sacrificial courage, persevering hope, and refreshing joy.” When we move in obedience to him, God has a way of showing up and moving in power on behalf of the powerless and oppressed. He multiplies our small offerings and equips us for the journey. It is only natural to celebrate and give thanks together when we see him move and big challenges are overcome.

A group of book club families and others who support our book club gathered together this month to celebrate meeting our reading and fundraising goals. We also invited Mike Hogan, an IJM director who lives locally.

Mike gave us a snapshot of IJM’s work around the world, and the many different types of people who skills and passions are needed to make the organization function (he all but guaranteed future jobs at IJM for our book club kids). He passed on greetings from the Ghana team who had seen our video last year, and gave us updates about their ongoing casework.

Currently, IJM’s focus in Ghana is to strengthen its ties with local and national law enforcement, help shape government policy, and restructure the justice system, so that Ghanaians themselves can bring rescue and justice to their own people. Based on IJM’s successful interventions in other regions of the world, it is estimated that the system of slavery on Lake Volta could be completely eradicated within the next 10 years.

Mike introduced us via a photograph to Benson, the Ghana team’s aftercare director who ensures that every child rescued from the lake is brought to physical, emotional, and spiritual health, educated, and when possible, reunited with family.

Mike concluded by giving the kids some action steps. He told them that one of the most powerful things they could do to bring an end to slavery is to tell their story. He encouraged them to tell friends and family about slavery in Ghana and what their book club is doing about it. Simple advocacy of regular people telling their story builds and multiplies awareness, which in turn becomes a grassroots movement that becomes loud enough to draw the attention of legislators, corporations, and philanthropists.

Screen Shot 2015-09-25 at 1.54.22 PM

Ellie took his words to heart. That night after we came home, her fourth grade homework assignment was to write for 20 minutes on any topic of her choice. She chose to write about what she learned from Mike about slavery on Lake Volta. The next day at school, she volunteered to read her paper aloud to the class.

The words we speak, Mike told us, will have an even greater impact that the dollars we collect. I pray that these kids bravely use their voice and their pencils for good, for the rest of their lives.

Banceusesther

We did end up collecting a few dollars for IJM, however. As of today, our fundraising total is $3,075 – three times our goal of $1,000!

And reading 1,000 books is not a bad way to spend a summer.

Mike asked the kids if they had any time to play with all that reading. Of course, they reassured him. They are just normal American kids. But they are also kids who want to make sure every child, everywhere has opportunity to read and play.

boys book clubgirls

They are abolitionists.

1000 books

 

What Legos and the Virginia Reel have to do with Justice

Last week we concluded our fifth summer of justice-related book clubs for kids and moms. Each summer I have met new people, discovered a new author, strengthened ties with the larger, global justice community, and been witness to God’s work in the world and in our family.

Last year I shared how I came to start leading book clubs for moms and kids around the topic of justice. This time, I want to process how I see the book club facilitates developing a heart and mind for justice in a child and a family.

~ A circle of moms, daughters, and sons: When we gather at a local park on summer mornings for book club, we form a large circle-ish shape. The moms sit on blankets with their littles and bigs huddled next to them or on laps. I love seeing all their faces – most of whom I know well. Some are friends of friends. Some of their children I already know and love, and all are loved intimately by God.

I heard an interview with Atinuke, an author of books we read last year. She said that her name means: You were loved before you were born. This is what I know about each child and mother in that circle: You were loved before you were born.

We gather together around a common purpose and each of us approaches the learning and activities differently. Each mom brings her own experiences and talents, each child brings her and his own readiness, attention span, and personality. We form connections with each other and to the larger world around us. Seeds are planted and watered in moms and kids, and the One who loved us before we were born will grow those seeds in time.

Juliette

~ Books: Together, we read a book throughout the summer, one that was carefully chosen to stimulate our heads and our hearts. Our “head and heart” books have been vehicles for discovering different places, cultures, and perspectives that a child growing up in the sheltered environment most of us live in needs opportunities to explore.

readingSnow Treasure Ghana PosterNaomi Reflection

Justice Heroes: Each time we gather, we learn about a real justice hero – men, women, and children who have stood for justice and acted with courage and compassion in their time and place. These are people who were not bystanders, but acted in the face of injustice, and we are inspired to do the same.

~ Action: Sometimes we read, talk, and listen, and our heads and hearts get smarter, but then we keep that smartness to ourselves and never do anything with it. At book club, we encourage the kids to do something. So, they become abolitionists. They use their words and actions to raise awareness about modern day slavery, and support International Justice Mission, a global organization that protects the poor from violence in the developing world.

They write thank-you notes to encourage the rescuers, office workers, survivors, care providers, and investigators on IJM’s Ghana Team. They are encouraged think creatively about acting justly now as children and as grownups.

IJM letter

Together as families, we challenged ourselves to read 1,000 books and raise $1,000 for IJM by September! As of this week, we are very close to meeting our goal.

Counting books

~ What Legos and Dancing have to do with Justice: Engaged brains and happy hearts facilitate learning. But a lot of the content related to global justice issues is complicated and sad or frightening.

So we play with legos, or more accurately, use legos to teach about justice.

IMG_4853

Telling the story of IJM’s casework on Lake Volta using Legos

We dance. I am so grateful to have a friend to whom I can say, “Hey, you know that one part in “The Year of Miss Agnes” where the village has a dance? Do you think you could teach our book club girls “The Virginia Reel?” I wish you could have heard the peels of laughter in the park that morning (scroll down to hear a sample).

~ Widening the Circle: We teach our children that being an abolitionist means speaking up on behalf of those who are oppressed. So the kids sent letters to grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends. They answered questions and tried to speak up when a grownup asked them about the book club. They tell about slavery in Ghana and what our book club is trying to do about it.

And the circle widens. Five-year-old Genevieve’s grandfather in California received a letter from his granddaughter and shared it with his co-workers at an auto shop, who were encouraged by the little girl’s initiative and responded with a donation to IJM.

Genevieve

Ripples of relationships from each book club family grow ever wider, and more come to know about modern day slavery through the words and actions of small children.

Together, we grasp the outstretched arm of God who hears the cries of the brokenhearted and uses his children to bind their wounds and set captives free.

boys circle 2

We clasp the hands of those that go before us,
And the hands of those who come after us.
We enter the little circle of each other’s arms
And the larger circle of lovers,
Whose hands are joined in a dance,
And the larger circle of all creatures,
Passing in and out of life,
Who move also in a dance,
To a music so subtle and vast that no ear hears it
Except in fragments.
(The Larger Circle by Wendell Berry)


Thanks, Katie Jenks and Shawna Demaray for the photos and video!

My Kenya Adventure: Part 3, Immeasurably More

This is the third and final post about my trip to Kenya in July. To get the rest of the story, go here:

Part 1: The Team

Part 2: Sowing Seeds 


On Becoming a Kenyan Lobbyist

Liz was full of surprises, offering and using us immeasurably more than we had expected. One afternoon after our key teacher trainings came to a close, she announced that the next day we would be driving to Nairobi and visiting an official from the leading political party of Kenya. He was a friend of hers and because of her advocacy, he was interested in learning about the work we had been doing with parents and teachers in Kikuyu.

He shared with us about President Kenyatta’s party’s commitment to education and their desire to lift up those with barriers to their education – people groups such as the Maasai, poor families who cannot afford early childhood or secondary education, and children with special needs. He listened to our summary of the previous days’ trainings, the positive response of teachers, administrators, and caregivers, and their hunger for more information and training.

He caught the momentum of what we had started and began making plans and avenues for Elizabeth to meet further with government leaders in the Parliamentary Education Committee, and even the First Lady of Kenya. He suggested a path forward that was exactly in line with our own private hopes – sending Elizabeth and a small team to the United States to observe and learn how government policy shapes and impacts the education and outcomes of children with disabilities in the classroom. (He also suggested a path forward along the lines of introducing me to his single brother, but Elizabeth kindly explained that my husband back at home would not appreciate that so well.) TNA

We shook hands, took photos, accepted parting gifts of hats and T-shirts, and were on our way. How that Friday morning meeting in Nairobi will continue to unfold is exciting to me. To imagine that our little team could have planted a seed that could flower into the first legislation of its kind in Kenya for children with disabilities and special learning needs…immeasurably more than we ever expected.

Meeting the Maasai

The Maasai are well known in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. They are a semi-nomadic people group, and from what I understand, are the last remaining tribe in Kenya who proudly continue to practice their traditional culture. Life centers around cattle and other livestock, and a Maasai man’s chief occupation is herding and grazing his cattle, and protecting his family and livestock from harm (usually from wild animals). joseph and the goats

Due to their semi-nomadic lifestyle, there has understandably been conflict between the Maasai culture and the modern influences that have swept over the rest of Kenya, such as formal education, legal land boundaries, and western medicine and health practices. However, most Maasai welcome education for their children and have found ways to maintain traditional practices while interacting with the rest of the population.

And here is where our story intersects with the Maasai.

Elizabeth’s middle name, Nyokabi, is from her grandmother. It means “of the Maasai people”, or “taken from the Maasai”. Liz’s grandmother was a Maasai girl, living close to the boundary between the Maasai lands and the neighboring Kikuyu tribe. Maasai and Kikuyus both herded goats and cattle, and would often raid one another’s lands, stealing animals. A group of Maasai warriors might raid Kikuyu lands and steal a herd of goats. The Kikuyus would retaliate by raiding the Maasai, and steal not only goats, but a few girls as well. These girls would be given to Kikuyu warriors.

Elizabeth’s maternal grandmother was one of these girls, who at 14 was stolen from the Maasai and lived among the Kikuyu the rest of her life. Hence, Elizabeth is 3/4 Kikuyu, 1/4 Maasai in ethnicity. Her grandmother, Nyokabi, became a teacher and an influential woman, well known for advocating and working on behalf of oppressed women and increasing educational opportunities in her community.

Those who know Elizabeth see her as carrying on her grandmother’s legacy. One of her connections to the Maasai people is a pastor named Joseph, who lives on Maasai land near Suswa, about an hour’s drive from Limuru. She told Joseph about her American visitors and our purpose in coming to Kenya, and Joseph invited us to visit his home and meet some of his neighbors.

manyatta

Joseph’s home, a manyatta

liz in the manyatta

Liz inside the manyatta, where sheep’s milk is simmering for our tea

manyatta under construction

Manyatta under construction – Maasai women build the houses

maasai women

Besides building homes, caring for children, and cooking meals, these women make and sell beautiful beadwork

maasai boy with donkey cart

They roasted a goat for our lunch

They roasted a goat for our lunch

maasai women 2

Strong Maasai women

Joseph’s son

Joseph showed us his traditional clothing

Joseph showed us his traditional clothing

Joseph’s neighbors walked an hour or more to gather at his homestead for our visit. Elizabeth used this opportunity to talk to the parents and assess the educational needs in their community. To get to school, children walk two or three hours each way. The very young ones, therefore, do not attend, and the rest may attend only a couple days per week. Because of these challenges, many of the children are years behind their peers and repeat the same grade over and over.

The primary school may have a teacher with only an 8th grade education, who has neither the training or resources to differentiate for special learning needs, or for a child who is cognitively capable but has not had opportunity to adequately access school, or for the children who may be present, but physically tired and hungry from the exertion of travel. Some of the children had special health or learning needs which are not being addressed.

maasai group

maasai gatheringliz talking to maasai

Joseph told us that his community is raising funds to build a church near his home (the church body currently meets outdoors under an acacia tree). It would be a simple iron-sheet structure, probably costing about $5000 US dollars. We explored the idea of using the completed church building as a school as well. It seemed like a feasible solution that would bring a school closer to home for many children, or serve as an early childhood school to give young children a strong start and increase their opportunity for academic success in primary school.

We were completely honored by the hospitality and welcome from Joseph and his friends and family. I do not know how our short visit will bear fruit, but I look forward to seeing how Elizabeth and Joseph’s community continue to collaborate and improve the educational outcomes for their children.

maasai boys

Amazing Africa

giraffes

Tourism is the largest industry in Kenya, due to its diverse geography and wildlife. On our last day, we joined the rest of Kenya’s visitors and became tourists. We took a morning game-drive through Nairobi National Park, and visited the Elephant Orphanage and the Giraffe Center. For the first time since our arrival, we were surrounded by pale mzungus, finally blending in (as much as a 6-foot tall woman and her five-foot tall identical twin companions can).

“Nelson Mandela” was our driver for the day and he expertly drove us around the park, helping us spot antelope, baboons, hippos, giraffes, zebras, ostriches, and lions, even lions feeding, in their natural habitat.

Nelson Mandelabirdgiraffeostrichantelopehippolion feeding

Only in Africa can you drive up to a giraffe crossing the dirt road ahead of you, and watch herds of zebra grazing among the acacia trees. why did the giraffe cross the roadzebra

The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi is an orphan elephant and rhino rescue and rehabilitation program and conservation organization for wildlife and habitat protection in East Africa. Africa’s elephant and rhino populations are threatened due to poaching for their ivory and horn, and loss of habitat due to human population pressures and conflict, deforestation, and drought. The trust rescues orphaned animals and rehabilitates them over a period of several years and successfully reintegrates them into the wild. We enjoyed meeting dozens of baby elephants and seeing the attentive care they receive from their keepers. elephant

It was thrilling to see the landscape and wildlife I had only glimpsed in books and documentaries. Amazing Africa.

acacia thorns

Beyond the beautiful landscape and wildlife abundant here, Kenya’s people have within them stores of wisdom and wealth that is not necessarily measured or highly valued in our culture. Americans often view Africa as a poor, corrupt, disease-ridden, famine-stricken, developing continent in constant need of our help (money) and expertise. But when you actually walk around in Africa, meet the people, hear their stories, see their industry, a different picture emerges.

Limuru tea fields

You meet resourceful people who creatively do much with little. In smaller towns, there are few vehicles, but there are dozens of donkeys pulling carts of produce and animal feed. For those who don’t own a donkey, they pull the cart themselves, sometimes partnering up with a buddy who pushes from the back, while another pulls. And for those who don’t have a donkey cart, well, they have their own strong backs.

donkey carts

Every available patch of good earth is planted with corn or other vegetables along the sides of roads and between structures. A family that has more space than it needs to grow food for itself, rents out its acreage to others to grow and then sell produce in the market. Empty water bottles are transformed into creative irrigation for foliage at a park. Building materials are used and recycled again and again into all manner of construction.

Mini-busses called matatus are the chief source of public transportation and pack an impossibly large amount of humans into a small space. Even better, if you know someone who knows someone who has a car and they are traveling where you need to go, you are virtually guaranteed a seat, avoiding the longer wait and crowd of the matatu.

You also notice the force of the social fabric that binds Kenyan people together, making them strong. Time and again, I heard stories of families who worked as a unit to send all the siblings to secondary school or university. When the oldest family member graduated and got a job, his wages were not his own. He was not forced to pay his siblings’ way through school, it was his privilege and responsibility.

We learned that families within individual schools or communities often pool resources to supply uniforms, meals, or fees for children in the neighborhood whose parents could not provide. Every morning and afternoon, we watched dozens of children walking to school (nary a sidewalk or parent in sight), stronger together, small ones holding the hands or riding on the backs of the older ones.

kikuyu school children

Family and social relationships are valued higher than individual achievement. For Elizabeth, to flourish as a person means going back to her Maasai roots, doing what she can to learn from the culture of her grandmother, and using her resources and skills to create opportunity for them.

In Kenya, it is customary to think of we and ours before me and mine.

Amazingly, children in Kenya (and adults who went to school) speak two or three languages. In their homes, they hear and speak their mother tongue, or the tribal language of their parents (and every Kenyan knows his or her ethnic tribe). The official languages of Kenya are Kiswahili and English. Kiswahili is the common language spoken between people, and English is taught in school. Most families don’t own a single book (and bookstores and libraries are rare outside of Nairobi), but the richness of their oral language puts us Americans and our sound-bite, directive way of communicating to shame.

speak in englishschool sign

“Go Well”

Karen, Sharon, and I sat down to our evening meal on one of our last nights in Kenya. The enormity of joy and gratitude for all we had experienced weighed so heavily we could hardly speak. We received our food and couldn’t even string words together in prayer as was our daily custom. One of us just whispered, “Thank you.” Tears dripped onto the tablecloth as we looked at each others’ faces and laughed at all God had done.

The next day we enjoyed a celebratory lunch with Elizabeth and her children (at KFC, of course) and were forced to admit that it was time to part. The four of us hugged and cried, and Liz reminded us that we were sisters and would see each other again; we would not say “Good-bye”.

KFC

“Go well,” she called out instead. Which only made me cry all the more.

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Book cover illustration by Lauren Tobia

My Mzungus

This story isn’t complete without a shoutout to my amazing husband and kids. I was a bit anxious about our separation, as you may recall. My days were so full in Kenya, I hardly had a moment to worry, but sometimes in bed at night, or while waiting for Karen and Sharon to tease and curl their hair in the mornings, I wondered how Ellie was doing at camp, or if John was tucking Jack into bed with extra time and care to make up for my absence. Were they eating enough vegetables? Was John extraordinarily lonely?

The report upon my return was that everything went better than expected at home. The children were happy and well behaved. Everyone stayed healthy. Camp was “awesome!” John and the kids picked over a hundred pounds of blueberries and blackberries, stuffed the freezer with their goodness, and made three batches of jam. The only time Jack cried was when he banged up his knee at the park one day. The house was cleaner than it has ever been. I think John is secretly scheming for a change of regime here – swapping the full-time working and mostly-stay-at-home parenting roles.

My gratitude for how God provided for all four of us swelled. I looked at my dear mzungus and imagined the four of us in Kenya, perhaps for a visit in the big blue house surrounded by goats, chickens, and fruit trees, ready to plant more seeds, prune some branches, and strengthen our ties to our Kenyan brothers and sisters. looking at photosmaasai visit


Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us…

(Ephesians 3:20)