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.

Screen Shot 2015-08-03 at 3.48.18 PM

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)

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My Kenya Adventure: Part 2, Sowing Seeds

This is the second of a three-part story of my trip to Kenya this July. You can read Part 1 here, describing the team of Kenyans and Americans I served with


400 Seeds

Back in April I was spending a lot of time in my garden, an annual springtime activity for me. I planted several hundred seeds, knowing that not all would take root, but many would. As the seeds started to sprout, I pictured the brown earth covered with green, growing tendrils and baskets of beans, squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, and flowers I’d be bringing into the house all summer long.

For some reason this year, our local deer were more intrepid and determined to breach the garden walls than in the past. Time and again, they broke through our netting and devoured the small plants, guaranteeing that there would be no garden harvest this summer. I was devastated. I tried to make light of it by posting a little graphic on Facebook: Screen Shot 2015-07-27 at 7.53.12 AM

My dear friend commented, “I think God must want you to cultivate some other things this summer!”

It was just the shift in perspective I needed. Sure enough, I was quite busy preparing talks and getting things sorted for the upcoming trip to Kenya. Once I fully gave up on the garden, not having to water, weed, and harvest did free up some time.

Our first full day in Kenya, we met with administrators in Kikuyu and heard their plans and goals for the week. The schedule of trainings and activities carefully arranged for our visit was like a plot of well-cultivated soil, ready for planting.

DEO

The key participants at the trainings would be early childhood and first grade teachers, special needs teachers, deputy head teachers (principals), and parents of special needs children. Over the course of the training days, about 400 of these women and men attended, and like seeds, planted themselves in the soil, and soaked in the nutrients we offered.

The three of us mzungus (white people) were only a small part of the team of farmers there to empower and equip the teachers and parents. Because we didn’t douse our Kenyan seedlings with pure American fertilizer on an American time table, they took root. We could see them furiously scribbling notes, straining to look at the projected images, leaning forward, asking questions.

Each morning we started the sessions with one of our Kenyan teammates interacting with the participants, gathering as much information as we could to assess their needs, capacities, and desired outcomes. At morning tea break, our team huddled together and planned the rest of the day’s program based on the participants’ responses. It required flexibility, but we wanted our seeds to flourish and didn’t want to give them bad soil or add unwanted weeds to the plot.

huddle

Most mornings we could see on their faces and hear through their comments, the pall of hopelessness and discouragement they lived under. The daily task of teaching and parenting special children from a place of little resources and lack of knowledge is unspeakably challenging.

Some of their challenges:

  • One Special Needs teacher (no assistants) for a self-contained classroom of 25 children with the full range of cognitive, physical, communication, medical, and academic challenges
  • Children who come to school hungry, tired, and inadequately clothed for the weather
  • Children who are emotionally or physically abused
  • Lack of curriculum or resources for the range of needs and abilities in their classrooms
  • Punishment being the primary behavior management tool used with children with disabilities
  • Parents not bringing their children with special needs to school out of hopelessness, not trusting the educational system, or not valuing the potential of their children
  • Children who have delayed or minimal speech and language with no access to speech therapy or an alternative communication system
  • Children with primarily physical challenges being educated below their cognitive level
  • Overcrowded regular education classrooms with up to 60 students and a single teacher without training in special needs education
  • Early childhood teachers paid the equivalent of $2-3 US dollars per day
  • Misinformation and lack of knowledge about the causes, symptoms, and effective treatment for autism
  • Overuse and misuse of special diets and medications for autism, epilepsy, emotional/mental illnesses, stuttering, etc.

As the trainings progressed, as they collected knowledge and tools to help their children, you could literally see hope appear on their countenance. Liz wisely invited a few friends who lived full, flourishing lives even with disability, such as cerebral palsy and visual impairment. Their abilities  outshone their disabilities, and they spoke of the parents and teachers who believed in them and helped them achieve their best. george

Liz spoke of the preciousness of each child under their care, and exhorted them to believe that God chose each of them to nurture and love their children, and will equip them to do so.

liz talking to parent groupregistration

Karen also arranged a visit to Gertrude’s Children’s Hospital in Nairobi during our last Saturday in Kenya. We offered a half-day training to parents of children with disabilities, and about 50 parents attended. Most of these Nairobi parents were educated and had resources to access the services at Gertrude’s. Yet, it was clear they were hungry for information about autism and other developmental disorders. They had so many questions that we finally had to hand out paper for them to write down their questions, and we are still corresponding with these families today.

Last April, as I pulled out weeds and cleared my garden’s soil for planting, I never would have imagined that these were the seeds I would end up cultivating.

Early Childhood Teachers

Early Childhood Teachers

head teachers

Deputy Head Teachers

parents

Parents

Heritage teachers

Primary School Teachers

daughters of charity staff

Special Needs Teachers

school girl

Taking a Cup of Tea

Every day, multiple times a day, we were offered tea. Within moments of arriving at a school or office, we were whisked into a special room, and the ubiquitous thermos (present in every Kenyan home, so Liz told us) appeared, along with a tray of cups, a bowl of sugar, and some delicious pastries. The host would pray over our cup, and we would be refreshed. Even if we were wildly off schedule, there was always time for tea.

The fragrant black tea, mixed with hot milk, was especially welcome. We didn’t realize during our packing preparations, that July is the coldest month in Kenya, and Limuru (where we were lodging) was the coldest region in Kenya. How ironic to leave 90+ degree weather in the Pacific Northwest, and land only a handful of miles from the equator and find ourselves requesting additional blankets and wearing two pair of socks for the 40+ degree nights in Limuru.

The minutes spent sipping and visiting with our many gracious hosts and new friends were always a balm, creating an atmosphere and relationship that steeped into the rest of the visit. We have much to learn about hospitality and togetherness from our Kenyan brothers and sisters. The Swahili word, karibu (welcome), was uttered to us everywhere we went, and taking the tea completed the sentiment.  cup of tea

One woman, as she poured our cup explained: “When we take a cup of tea, we are no longer strangers.”

Wel-come Vi-si-tors

A most diverting activity in our schedule was visiting classrooms in Limuru and Kikuyu. Upon arrival at each school we visited, we were welcomed by head teachers or administrators by taking a cup of tea, of course. Then we peeked inside some classrooms, and were greeted in typical Kenyan fashion by the children:

These classrooms lacked some of the materials, books, and resources we are familiar with at home, but they did not lack discipline! We were surprised to learn that while the teachers at one school participated in a 3-hour training we facilitated, their students managed themselves quite nicely without supervision, working diligently through a long list of schoolwork during their teachers’ absence.

school childrenclassroomdaughters of charity classroommath

It was so good to step inside the context of the teachers we had been training. Plus, having spent every single September-through-June of my entire life in a classroom of sorts, you can imagine my delight at walking into a room of beautiful children with their pencils and books, on the other side of the world.

heritage childrenchildren


Part 3 coming tomorrow: Immeasurably More

My Kenya Adventure: Part 1, The Team

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

Karen, cracking herself up while texting her husband on the other side of the world.

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).

Karen is standing on a curb here to help correct the vastness of space between our two heads.

Karen is standing on a curb here to help correct the vastness of space between our two heads.

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.

jenae, karen, sharon

I can’t imagine more amiable companions with whom to spend 36 hours on airplanes.

sharon and karen

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).

karen, sharon, jenae

My Kenyan Older Sister

Elizabeth

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.”

Liz and kids

Liz, Tiffany, Matthew, Mark

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.

maasai blankets

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.

fruit treesgoatgardens

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.

liz and the big blue house

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.

Liz and her mother

Liz and her mother

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.

jenae and liz - kikuyu

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.

liz and maasai woman

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 speaking

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 and Jenae

Lorna treated us to a delicious Kenyan lunch at her favorite restaurant, where we stuffed ourselves full, laughed, and exchanged stories.

lunch

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. jenae and mercy

Mercy affectionately calls this photo, "The Giant and the Cockroach"

Mercy affectionately calls this photo, “The Giant and the Cockroach”

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.


Part 2: Sowing Seeds

Part 3: Immeasurably More

Africa, Amazing Africa

“Hi! Do you want to go to Africa?”

I heard these words in the very purple women’s bathroom at church a couple weeks ago from a woman I only knew as an acquaintance. I knew she was a retired Special Education teacher, and that she had travelled internationally with medical teams providing training for educating and supporting children with disabilities. I had volunteered alongside her in a Sunday School classroom once or twice.

“Yes!” Was the word that surprisingly escaped my mouth. I was obviously disoriented by all the purple and the floral wallpaper.

She went on to tell me that she was putting together a small team of educators and therapists, traveling to Kenya to provide training to teachers and parents in a community outside of Nairobi. Special Education for children with disabilities and communication disorders is nearly non-existent in some parts of the world, and in a previous trip to Kenya that was directed toward physicians and providers in a local hospital, she got connected to educators who wanted similar training in how to teach and support these children at school. She was putting together a team and was looking for a Speech-Language Pathologist. So, naturally, she cornered me in the bathroom.

She didn’t know that my heart had been firmly fixed in Africa all last summer. There was all that reading, praying, and fundraising we did as part of our summer book clubs. We learned and raised awareness about child slavery on Lake Volta in Ghana. We read two books set in Africa by the brilliant Nigerian-Welsh children’s book author, Atinuke: Anna Hibiscus and The No. 1 Car Spotter. I read books and watched TED talks by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, another brilliant Nigerian who warns us of the danger of a “single story” about Africa. We studied Nelson Mandela who was instrumental in ending apartheid in South Africa, and William Wilberforce, who helped bring about the end of England’s African slave trade in the early 19th century. My brother began a relationship with another brilliant, darling young woman who grew up in Africa and whose parents are missionaries in Kenya.

She could have replaced the word “Africa” with any other place in the world, and I would have paused before speaking. And I did pause, after the initial “Yes!” jumped out. She also didn’t know that I am not a girl who enjoys adventures. I like home. I have to work myself up for a camping trip to Crater Lake with my family. I like being with my husband, who takes care of details and worries about parasites and airports and unfamiliar streets, languages, and cultures for me when we travel. I had never been away from my kids for more than a couple days. This experience would be decidedly out of my comfort zone.

Then she added more details. She explained that the SLP on the team would be particularly helpful in providing strategies for teaching and supporting children with autism and social communication delays (yep…that would be the one area I have focused on in the incredibly broad field of speech-language pathology in my 12 years as a SLP). She named a man who had accompanied her on previous trips, who happened to be a Portland-based SLP I interned under in graduate school and highly respected (ok…check). The trip would take place during the summer, when I would not have to take time off from my job to travel. The specific dates were a little troublesome with some family stuff going on during July, but within a couple days, she was able to rearrange things to make the dates align to a schedule nearly perfect for me (wow). Things were falling into place in a way I could only describe as miraculous.

After clearing out of that purple bathroom, I couldn’t shake Africa from my mind.

Every chapter of Anna Hibiscus begins with: “Anna Hibiscus lives in Africa. Amazing Africa.”

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Anna Hibiscus illustration by Lauren Tobia

Yes, I realize Africa is an enormous continent full of varied nations and tribes, cultures and languages. So does Atinuke, the author of Anna Hibiscus. There is no single story about Africa. But I started wondering… perhaps a trip to a single place in Africa would be better than never setting foot on the soil and sharing words and a table with people in Africa at all? There are many stories of Africa in my head and heart, but they are fuzzy and dim. Here, someone was offering me an opportunity to shade in one of these stories with bright colors, sounds, and tastes. To listen to Kenyans from their own mouths and hearts, exploding my stories like fireworks. Not only that, but I could offer something from my experiences and training, helping Kenyan teachers reach a population of people who are among the most marginalized and vulnerable in the world – children, in a developing country (one author I’m reading would say “lean country”), with disabilities.

Here in the United States we protest about class sizes, COLAs, not enough staff assistant time, too much standardized testing, underfunding of the arts, lack of resources in poor school districts, and an incomprehensible teacher evaluation system. There is much broken and many inequalities in the educational system here that need to be fixed. I’m thankful for my galvanized colleagues who educate themselves, then give voice and take action on the issues (please give our Washington teachers a smile and a wave tomorrow if you see them out of their classrooms sending a message to our state government).

But if you know me at all, you know that I tend to get more fired-up about education in Haiti, orphans in Peru, and slavery in Ghana than what’s going on in my own state (we need all types, right?).

Merger classroom

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” (Martin Luther King, Jr.).

Just as I am grateful to have friends who would gladly accept an invitation to Olympia or DC to advocate and lobby for me and my fellow educators here at home, I am so excited to have this opportunity fall in my lap that seems to be custom-fit for my passion and skills.

I had to make a decision quickly, so I sought advice. My loved ones rallied and encouraged me. John proposed taking time off work to be home with the kids while I was away. Even my mom, who worries about me living on a dark road in Washougal was excited and supportive. Following much prayer, the small voice in my heart never protested. How could I say no? Within six days of the bathroom invitation, I answered, “Yes” (for reals, this time).

The next morning African butterflies filled my gut and I started praying for courage. I purchased a couple books online and put on hold every children’s book about Kenya I could find in the Fort Vancouver Regional Library system (because books bring me comfort and kids’ books are faster to read).

Kenya books

Africa, amazing Africa, I am coming.

Thank you, Mrs. Maxey

Two years ago, I sat on some bleachers in my daughter’s elementary school gym. Her kindergarten class was performing their end-of-year “Hoedown”.  It was the cutest, most hilarious, tears-streaming-down cheeks, darling school performance I have ever seen. And there was my girl’s teacher, twirling and swaying, mouthing words, directing movements, with 22 pairs of eyes fixed on her as they do-si-doed and kazooed around the gym.

Fast forward a year and my son is on the cusp of starting kindergarten at the same school, with the same teacher. I remember having a few weeks of panicky doubt – should we have had a third baby? Just like that, and Jack will be dancing at his Hoedown and that sweet, silly, wonderful five-year-old world of kindergarten will be gone. He hadn’t even had a first day in Mrs. Maxey’s class and I was already mourning saying goodbye to her.

Well, that day came, folks. Jack sauntered in the gym with his kindergarten friends, waving his hat, swingin’ his partner, warming his hands by the “campfire” and singing, “Come a ti yi yippee yippee yay”.

Kindergarten is oh, so sweet.

We have lots of friends who homeschool their children, and there are many moments that I consider the advantages of keeping my kids close at home and giving them a very individualized, very purposeful education. But our family has prayerfully and intentionally chosen to have our kids attend our neighborhood public school. How thankful I was when our first baby-turned-five-year-old landed in Mrs. Maxey’s class at Gause Elementary.

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Mrs. Maxey is one of those teachers who seem born to teach. Her classroom is organized, bright, welcoming, with just the right visuals and tools at hand at the right time. Her default expression is a smile. She looks happy to be in that classroom, with those children. Her voice even smiles when she introduces a new sight word, a new math strategy, and reminds forgetful children of prior learning. Finger spaces between words are a joyful experience! Choosing books for one’s book box is a matter of great importance and fun. Seemingly small tasks, such as taking only three seconds at the drinking fountain and remembering your coat for recess are cheerfully recited, just as if she was saying them for the first time in her life, not the nine thousand and ninety-seventh.

Mrs. Maxey has eyes on the back of her head and can attend to many unrelated tasks at once. She can direct multiple parent volunteers, coordinate schedules with her team teacher, check neglected backpacks, remind just the right students to move their lunch tags to the correct slot, cajole another sentence from a distracted child, and deliver her son to his preschool class in the building. All in the five minutes before the bell rings.

Kindergartners have so much to learn. Like how to smile for a school picture.

She knows that teachers never stop learning. She goes to kindergarten teaching conferences during summer vacation and workshops on the weekends. When the Common Core came down last year, she created and found new activities for new standards, and she adjusts and modifies assessments and lessons year-to-year, week-to-week, hour-by-hour, even!

Most teachers breathe a sigh of relief and settle down to eat their lunches in the staff room or in the blessed quiet of their classrooms while their students raise ruckus in the cafeteria. Not Mrs. Maxey. She and her team teacher, Mrs. Goodling, scarf down their meal while the children are at recess, then during Kindergarten lunch, you will find them walking up and down the cafeteria benches. They twist open lids, poke straws into holes, wipe up messes, sweetly insist that children not neglect their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, tear open stubborn packages, and mediate arguments. They instruct upon the nuances of the compost bin, the recycle bin, and the trash bin. They heap on smiles and cheerful encouragement to kids who are Ready To Go Home.

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And – Mrs. Maxey has spirit, yes she does. On October 31st, you might find her dressed as a “Despicable Me” minion; at the annual Sport-a-thon, she runs laps with her kinders; and on Muffins with Mom morning, there she is serving juice with a smile.

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When Mrs. Maxey goes home, I know for a fact she does not collapse on the couch in exhaustion (as I would after a day like hers). Her police officer husband is off to work for the evening, and her name changes to “Mom”. She has two boys, one of whom is a 2nd grader in my daughter’s class. She makes dinner, drives to football practice, and supervises homework. The proof of consistent and caring parenting is evident in her sons.

Then there is the Hoedown. Mrs. Maxey pretty much had me at “hello”, but the Hoedown endeared her to me forever. It makes me consider adoption so I can have another kindergartner someday. How do two kindergarten teachers get 44 five- and six-year-olds to gallop in a line, kazoo on key, wave cowboy hats and swing “lassos” in synchrony, swing their partner, and sing “Happy Trails” while swaying to and fro without utter chaos erupting? Magic, I tell you. Plus they can all read and write and add and subtract and walk quietly in a line and treat their friends with kindness and respect. Nine months of marvelous kindergarten magic.

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Thank you, Mrs. Maxey and Kindergarten teachers everywhere for the way you love our children and teach them how to read, write, listen, raise their hands, think about others, play kindly, take turns, eat respectfully in the cafeteria, work hard, forgive offenses, make good choices, and sing and dance. I don’t really want to say goodbye. I hope you don’t mind when I continue to wave into your doorway on my way to the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade classrooms.

Love, Ellie and Jack’s mom