There are folks running around criticizing the work that we have been doing in Kenya and of course it is a bit frustrating. This was written a decade ago and may give some perspective. I had more hair then The child was HIV positive. I wonder if he survived.
Kenya, East Africa – August 2005
I came back from Africa in the middle of August and before Katrina blew everything else off of the news I realized that Africa is “hot” again. Not “hot” in terms of climate, although it can be that, but “hot” in terms of public perception. Angelina Jolie has a special video diary of her time in Kenya. The September issue of “National Geographic” is completely dedicated to Africa. The movie “The Constant Gardener” was filmed in Kenya and even Oprah has made a trip there and came back with pictures and television images. At a presentation I made in Minnesota someone in the question and answer period said that Kenya seemed to be the “mission field du jour”. I don’t know what that means in light of the fact that the African continent has more Christians than the U.S. The Africans are quite capable of doing their own mission work in my opinion but more on that later; the point is that what I see today in public perception is in stark contrast to what I saw in December of 2003. A great case in point is Kisumu.
You can’t get much closer to the equator without being on it than Kisumu. Nestled on the Eastern edge of Lake Victoria and up against the Ugandan border it is the home of highlands malaria. The road from Nairobi to Kisumu is a nightmare of ruts and broken pavement. The huge trucks that carry the cargo freight crates from Mombassa to Nairobi continue on this road and further into the continent and have blasted this road so badly that at times is easier to drive in the ditch and dodge the charcoal sellers and the grilled corn kiosks and the goats and chickens and donkeys. This is my second trip on this road and this time I want to get a better look at Lake Elementiaga off to the left. It appears to be drying up and I remark that it has islands out in the middle until the realization hits me that I am looking at thousands and thousands of flamingos. The “islands” shift and move with the light until the entire center of the lake takes on a beautiful pinkish hue that shimmers in the midday sun. Troops of baboons have set up shop not far from the corn grillers as if they know that travelers will throw the cobs out at just about this distance. Zebra dot the landscape as we go from what I call Savanna to desert and back to Savannah again.
My memories of the first time I was in Kisumu are of a very neat town without the usual garbage littered streets and a Hotel right on the shore of Lake Victoria that literally was the host to my party of 4 and perhaps 2 other people. There were no whites anywhere and when I would ask where the tourists were people would shrug and say “terrorists”. Kenya was attacked in 1998 at the American embassy in Nairobi and a hotel in Mombassa. State Department warnings went out and no one was traveling to Africa. My other memory had to do with terrorism as well; at a bar in Kisii a group of men were openly identified to me as Al Queda. At the church in Kisumu we were taken to a small grassed area at the back to a Bible study for what were called the “lost boys”. They ranged in age from four to 19 and they literally had no one and no thing. I was told that they were being actively recruited by Al Queda and that the church had brought them in to feed and cloth them.
This time it is different. There are so many visitors that we are staying at a very modest place on the edge of town that is desperately trying to make it. The bed in my room takes up the whole room and I have to put my suitcase on half of it. The bathroom is what I have come to expect – a toilet that is leaking on the floor and a shower that has no hot water and no towels. Once I put the mosquito netting out I literally have about 6 inches of room between the bed and the door that leads out to a courtyard where a large bat is flying around. Our host is the director of special projects for the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Kenya and we are going to his house for supper. On the way we stop at a new addition to Kisumu – a Nikumat store – their equivalent of Wal-Mart, to buy a gift for our hostess. We pick a frying pan at the suggestion of her husband and all we can think of is what would our wives do if we brought then a frying pan as a gift? Suddenly the roof sounds as if it will literally be torn off and we go out to see the most violent rainstorm I have witnessed in years. All the power goes off and we go to our hosts home is a driving rainstorm and almost total darkness. The night is extremely dark in this part of Africa anyway because there is very little street lighting even in Nairobi – but this is amazing. We drive down a dark alley in between some small huts and walk through a small alleyway to our host’s house. His children, (he has three and he is keeping three)
orphans) all have malaria and are not feeling very well. They sit on the couch in the dark while his wife serves us a meal of rice, ungally, chicken and tilapia. I have video of them all watching us as we eat in the light of a hurricane lamp. It is here that I find out that every Pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Kenya is in charge of orphans either in their own homes or in the church. “Every church now is an orphanage” says our host, “ but we have good news – the infection rate of AIDS has dropped. Our education projects are working by God’s grace”.
Back at our hotel and there is still no power so we are all given a candle. Candle light in a cramped room covered mostly by mosquito netting is a recipe for disaster but I’m so tired it makes no difference. In the morning I take my cold shower and dry off with my sheets and we go to see the progress made by the offerings of Sunday School children in a chicken production plant at the church in Kisumu that feeds the “lost boys” and has enough production to sell some eggs to local hotels. We meet one of the last Pastors to receive a cow from the Cow project. He waited for several hours with his cow tied up by the side of the road just to thank us. At LCMS World Relief and Human Care we talk about building capacity and here we see it first hand. We have simply helped these gifted people to develop their own capacity.
That brings me back to why Africa is “hot” again. I believe that here in the West we are starting to understand that these people are in the frontlines of the war on terrorism. It is their work that keeps terrorist recruiting in check and they are also on the front lines of the war on AIDS. They are doing wonderful work in trying circumstances and they deserve our prayers, our support and our thanks. I just received an email and pictures from my host of children receiving some pencils that we gave them with this note (Spelling not changed)– “Receive many greetings from Kenya. Time is really running since we were together in Kenya. Schools were closed and now the sessions are on. I have distributed some of the gifts you brought along to both Kibera Lutheran Nursery School and Kisumu Lutheran Nursery School. Attached with this e-mail find some of the pictures I took. It was great joy as these gift were received. May I on behalf of ELCK thank you for this very generous hearts you have for the children of Kenya. Your gift, though may look small to you, have a big impact in the lives and education of these young ones. Be reachly blessed” .