Thursday, August 25, 2011

VG shirts are love.

This is my nephew, Kim. He joined us when we visited the slums, and he helped give candy to the kids there. Here he his modeling his Visible Grace shirt in front of a modern art exhibit.

You can order your VG shirt here. They are made by American Apparel, designed by Ashby Rauch and Tim Coe, and they are helping to fund the building of a home for orphaned children.

Buy one.

Friday, August 19, 2011

On Community: part one.

What was it like to bring friends from Oregon 'home' to Kenya?

Wonderful. Difficult. Exciting. Exhausting. Scary. Relieving. Trying. Challenging. Ridiculously fun.

I laughed a lot harder, and a lot more often, then I have in ages. I learned a lot: about myself, about others, about my shortcomings and my strengths, and about making chocolate chip cookies under pressure. I learned that most people have a better sense of direction than I do, and I learned that Keith cannot multi-task. I learned that there is no puppy guarding in hide and seek.

Several friends have come to visit me in Kenya before, but this was our first official 'team', and it was the first time I had the privilege of traveling to Kenya with people. I have come to accept the fact that I may never be able to articulate how wonderful it is to not have to drag my every everything into the bathroom in the airport. I confirmed how nice it is to have friends to talk to on the plane, and friends to sleep on. And we discovered that I get really, really shrill when we are landing in Nairobi.

I mentioned before that the six of us stayed in two apartments, four Americans in one, and two of us sharing Susan and Wilson's apartment. Because their kitchen is fully furnished, we prepared and ate our meals in Susan and Wilson's house. As you can imagine (and here the introverts shudder and the extroverts beam in approval) it was pretty crowded. Pretty real. Pretty communal, if you will. I personally loved it, as I always love an opportunity to pretend I am living with friends. Everyone did really, really well. Considering that eight of us were sharing one computer, one kitchen, two bathrooms and four bedrooms, it's pretty miraculous that we are all still friends- oh, but this is an exceptional group of incredibly gracious people. So there you go.

There were mornings when I felt like my life was perfect: Keith washing dishes. Linds making beds. Susan singing in the shower. Pete making eggs, or coffee. Ang on the computer. Muso poking her little head into the living room to ask if Auntie Lindsay had learned Kikuyu yet. Wilson ironing his, my or Susan's clothes. I'm not SO great at mentally preparing for a whole day, remembering everything I need to take with me, and getting dressed, especially when I'm exhausted and distracted, and there were days when I barely made it out the door- but there were, as I said, moments when I felt that everything was exactly, wonderfully perfect.

Because I love people. I love being around people. I love feeling loved. And I have wanted, for some time now, to live with friends in Kenya.

I spent some time with some good friends in Haiti last year. We stayed in a children's home, and there was a community room we spent a lot of time in. This provided me with glimpses of my 'dream life': someone on this couch, reading, and someone else on that couch, talking. I would be sewing or knitting or playing with my camera, and some of us would be washing dishes, and others would be learning Creole. Living life, together: that's what I want, so much.

So this, again, felt like a glimpse, like a fleeting moment that I wanted to capture and bring back with me. Those were the perfect mornings.

And then there were mornings where everything was awful, and disastrous, and I felt like I wasn't going to make it. Oh yeah, did I mention I can be difficult to live with? And that people like their space? And that they had jet lag and culture shock, and I wanted things to go my way, most (okay all) of the time, and that when I get stressed and overwhelmed, I don't communicate well?

I didn't mention that? Weird.

But again: people. Gracious, loving, grown up people, people who care for one another and who choose, morning after merciful morning, to follow Jesus.

So I mean, things weren't perfect, or magical, but after all, I did make chocolate chip cookies, so it probably could have been worse.

Sunday, August 14, 2011


Okay: on the Saturday before we left, we scheduled a trip to visit the slums in Ngong.

Some background:
Ngong town is a suburb of Nairobi. It is the nearest town (bus stop, grocery store, internet café) to Susan and Wilson’s apartment. It is where I buy bananas, and phone credit. And it has a large slum curving around behind it, hiding God knows how many people, people we walk past every day, people buying and selling food, buying and selling produce. defines a slum as follows: slum: (often pluralized): slums: a thickly populated, run-down, squalid part of a city, inhabited by poor people.
So. There’s that.

Visible Grace is making an effort to establish a relationship with the people in the slums for several reasons. I want them to know what Visible Grace is about. We will most likely be adopting some of these children: the kids who have lost their parents and are taken in for by their neighbour, kids who don’t stand a chance, who will end up back here in the slums, begging. Subsiding.

I also think it’s an important reminder for myself and other Americans: this is how people live. It’s easy to forget, in Nairobi. There’s affluence here. There’s ice cream. The roads are paved, and the internet is fairly reliable. It’s so easy to ignore the hurt and the poverty. But it’s right there, and once you see it you really can’t forget it.

Another reason we go to the slums, to be perfectly honest, is because I am so anxious to be doing something. It’s real hard, when I’m staring at spreadsheets all day, to feel and believe that I am making a difference in kids’ lives. I struggle with this a lot. So walking through the slums for a day, distributing groceries and clothing, visiting people and praying for them, helps me feel a little closer to it all.

The point is, on Saturday the 23rd of July, Susan and I left the house early to meet people in Ngong. The team stayed behind to have breakfast and get ready like normal people (I hate mornings).

Susan and I spent a couple hours running errands in Ngong. Highlights include drinking tea, calling our driver, calling Christine, going to the bank, buying groceries and staples for ten households in the slums (and candy for the kids) and having the food total be the exact same amount we had budgeted. I mean exact: I had 8,000 shillings, and after I impulsively bought candy, and added salt to our grocery list, our total came to 8,000 shillings. EXACTLY.After meeting the team, and shoving candy in everyone's pockets, we spent a few minutes waiting for the chairperson (the slums have an elected leader, someone who communicates among the people, and brings their needs to the local government) in a church compound. We of course collected a small fanclub- kids who most likely smelled candy on us- and our friend Christine quickly organised them into rows and began leading them in praise songs.

As one does.

After the chairman arrived and we had distributed the kids’ clothing (which our team had brought from home) and the groceries amongst ourselves, we started walking. I’ll be your eyes, don’t worry. Look there, the ground is very uneven, and if you slip, you’ll be covered in dust and there’s trash everywhere and that bush- it has thorns. Here is a puddle that cannot be sanitary- be careful, now. Look to your left, there’s a small boy peering at us through the barbed wire. His dad is methodically sweeping the front step, see? Take a photo, yes, be careful as we walk down this alley- there’s a ditch running right down the middle. Here is the community toilet, it’s covered in burlap and those nails have rusted. Be careful. Be careful. Be careful. See these kids following us? That baby is carrying a baby. (Yes, Kim, give them candy.)

Here’s a house- duck low through the gate and we can all squeeze into their entryway- two of us will go inside, the man is bedridden. You’ll have to squint; it’s so dark and the window is covered. He’s there, in the bed, behind that curtain- this half of the house is their living room. He’s in bed; he is sick; the neighbor brings him food every day. We’ll leave her with shoes for her son. This small stove is his kitchen. These are his only belongings. This pile, here. That’s his laundry. It’s time to leave, shake his hand- now we’ll go outside and squeeze down the next alleyway, the next aisle, the next dusty path- to the next family.

The afternoon passed quickly in this manner. Ten homes, ten bags of groceries, ten prayers, ten stories. We visited a friend (Mama Saidiki) last, and gave her the rest of the clothing we had brought. We talked with her for a while and took myriad photos. Saidiki is a former classmate of Susan’s, who now spends his days begging in Ngong. On this particular day he had gone to visit his grandmother, who unbelievably lives in a neighbouring slums.

Oh, this cycle. It never ends. What kind of world do we live in, that three generations end up living in squalor and destitution? And when, for crying out loud, is Jesus coming back to rescue us?

I am grateful, so grateful- for a bed to sleep in, and a community who loves me- for resources enough to buy food for myself, and for others. For friends who donate their children’s clothing so that we can bless these precious few families.

But it’s never enough. It’s never enough.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

news. letter.

You'll probably receive a copy in the mail, in your inbox, and on facebook, but just in case, the latest copy of our newsletter (mercifully edited and designed by the lovely Simone Finney) can be found here- complete with copious pics of our team and a link back to this very blog. Full circle, etc.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

mtoto and mtoto

Of the many things I love, giraffes and babies are pretty high on my list. This is fairly well known among anyone who’s known me for longer than six seconds- especially the part about babies. I have a ‘baby voice’ that I have absolutely no control over: I get really excited and high-pitched when I see a puppy, or any child under the age of seven, or even a pregnant woman. I also have a ‘mom voice’ which I can only bring out when the occasion demands: when they ask for the tenth time if they can have dessert, even though they know they can’t. When one sibling is hitting the other, and I’m driving the car. When a child turns off their listening ears and runs in front of a car.

Or, apparently, when a four day old giraffe decides to walk toward its mother.

Anyway: Friday, July 15. In order to fit in as many things as possible, and in order to kick jet lag out of the way, I packed our first few days in Kenya pretty full. Friday’s agenda was as follows: children’s home, lunch, giraffe center. Keeping in mind that we are taking public transportation, this is dangerously close to a full day. Miraculously, everything went as planned. Which is harder than it sounds- it’s not like we’re a bunch of fools, and can’t get anything done. It’s not like I didn’t give us any credit.


So when I say ‘everything went as planned’, I mean that the busses were actually running, and on time no less. The children’s home let us in even though we were a larger-than-normal group. Lunch was actually available and served in a timely manner. The giraffe center was open. Etc. Let us celebrate the small victories, here. It was a pretty good day.

New Life Children’s Home was founded in the early 90s by a British couple living in Kenya. They take in abandoned babies, care for and nurture them, and adopt them out to loving homes. Their oldest children are preschool aged.

We arrive around eleven in the morning; this involves two bumpy bus rides, a ten minute walk, and a brief stint to buy a banana and take several pictures of a cement wall. We check in at the gate, wait patiently in the lobby, and go through a brief introduction to and tour of the home. We are taken to the back to put on aprons. They are out of aprons.

We go upstairs so they can show us the toddlers. One baby literally lunges toward me, and since I haven’t washed my hands yet, I can’t pick him up. I try to explain this to him and he throws himself at my feet.

It is torture. I somehow survive.

We decide to forage ahead, apronless. We wash our hands hospital-style. We are reminded that picture taking is okay, but posting said pictures on Facebook is not. We are free to choose a room, choose a baby, choose an activity.

I meander upstairs and back into the toddlers room. There are about a dozen children here, and a few Kenyan workers who will tell us the babies’ names if asked. Untold are their histories, their sob stories, their HIV status. We don’t need this; it’s just the morbidity in me that wants to know the nitty and the gritty. I’m just being honest here- judge me if you must.

Speaking of honesty, this is as good a time as any to admit that this children’s home was mostly worked into our schedule for Lindsay’s benefit. Lindsay loves her some babies, and in her fundraising efforts for this trip would ask her sponsors for money ‘so she could go to Kenya and hold babies’. Of course, the rest of us enjoyed the visit as well, and I always think it is beneficial for Americans to both see the need in Kenya, and the people who are working toward a solution. But between you and me, this particular day was mostly for Lindsay’s benefit. And after watching her sit in silence and bliss with a baby in her arms, I can confidently tell you it was worth it. In the meantime, my newfound friend (whose name I can’t remember) and I played a rousing game of ‘take Pete’s hat off Ashby’s head and put it on Pete’s and then put it on his own and then back on Ashby’s’. He won every round.

Eventually I became aware that while babies always, always need love and affection, the reality is that there is a lot of behind-the-scenes work that needs to be done to run a children’s home, so I asked an employee if there was anything we could do to help them. She mentioned that after the kids went down for a nap, they’d be folding laundry and mopping floors, and that in the meantime, there were dishes to be washed if anyone was interested?

We were. Pete and I found the kitchen (leaving Keith to the mercy of several children who only reached his knees) and began washing cups, cups, sippy cups and more cups. This is notable because for one, do you see how selfless I was being here? not playing with babies when I could have been? does anyone feel my pain? And two, it is a rare man who will wash dishes in Kenya, and I think the workers at New Life were duly impressed. As Pete washed and I rinsed, I chatted with the woman whose station we had taken over. I was pleasantly surprised to find that she was a volunteer. It seems uncommon to me to find a Kenyan who is willing to work for free, and I’m not sure how they manage to survive in Nairobi without an income. But with a 50% unemployment rate, clearly a lot of them are managing somehow.

After a couple hours of baby play, dish washing, and a crash course in Diaper Folding 101, we say goodbye, collect our things and depart. Our next stop: lunch. Fairly uneventful, but Kimberly would like me to mention that her ice cream was disappointing.

I will spare you the details of the bus ride for the sake of brevity (key words: bumpy, crowded, confusing). The point is that we got to the Giraffe Center, and the REAL point is that we got to see, pet, feed and photograph giraffes to our hearts’ content.

The Giraffe Center lies on the outer edge of the Nairobi National Park. They have several acres reserved specifically to protect the Rothschild Giraffe- a breed which is endangered, and which slightly differentiates from its cousin, the reticulated giraffe. (The Rothschild’s spots are different.) For slightly less than $10, you can climb up a balcony until you are head level with a giraffe. You can feed it. You can pet it. You can take your picture with it. If you hold the food in your mouth, the giraffe will take it from your lips. But if you aren’t holding food, watch for head-butts.

I know I say this a lot, but this time I really mean it: this is one of my favourite places on earth. I don’t get tired of them. I don’t do a lot of touristy things while I’m in Nairobi. But there is something incredibly life giving and therapeutic about seeing a giraffe at such a short distance.

The center keeps one male, for breeding, and several females. Male babies are sent away when they are three. With us today were several hungry, impatient female giraffes, one bull, a few warthogs, and one tiny, tiny baby giraffe.

Like, four days old. Like, as tall as our friend Keith. (Who wants to give birth to something six feet tall? Raise your hand.)

After everyone had taken a turn feeding the giraffes, taking myriad pictures, walking around the grounds (there are a couple tortoises and a souvenir shop. Also for our viewing pleasure, a local kindergarten was making a field trip that day) we began to drift to various areas: Susan and Lindsay sat down at the café. Pete took a few too many pictures of turtles. Keith mooned over the love of his life, Daisy. And Angie, Kimberly and I hung out on the balcony.

With our arms dangling over the side, our heads angled absently toward a distant giraffe, and a cool breeze in our face, we reflect on the day. Our talk turns to animals, among them, the ‘big five’: the five quintessential game animals that everyone must see when on safari.

‘Giraffe...’ I think, ‘…and lions, for sure.’

‘Rhinos’, Angie adds.

Kimberly counts on her fingers: ‘Rhinos, lions, cheet-‘ I clutch her arm with the urgency of someone choking on a hot dog and shriek: ‘THE BABY IS MOVING!!!!!!!!’

You honestly would have thought my baby was moving; that I was 9.2 months pregnant and my water had broken, or that my newborn infant was about to fall into a pit of crocodiles. (NO. I’m NOT PREGNANT. Quit starting rumours.)

Angie, Kimberly and any other human with a camera frantically turned toward the infant giraffe and photographically documenting its every move. I’d started a digital riot. I didn’t even have my camera with me (the battery was dead, or something). I had already seen baby giraffes before. I hadn’t meant to cause such an uproar. I hadn’t meant to violently scream out about this groundbreaking news.

But in my defence, the baby was really, really cute.

(For the record, the big five are the rhino, lion, leopard, elephant and buffalo.)

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

a start.

Wednesday, 13 July

we step off the plane. it's late. it's hot. it's so very African, even from here.

I've prepped everyone for this: for the long queue, for the visa-luggage-money sequence, for the muggy stickiness and the tiredness. I didn't prep them for my cranky exhaustion (though...they all know me, and praise God, they are all more patient than I am). nor did I anticipate my impulse to run ahead of everyone in order to hug Susan. they handled it like champs, though.

I told them about the taxi ride, the visa fee, the exchange rate. I didn't tell them a Somali family would try to cut in front of us, and that I would let them, and that the immigration officer would verbally harass them and that my mama bear instinct would kick in and that I would end up clenching my fists and gritting my teeth and trying not to yell, or cry. but my team- my friends, oh- seemed relatively unfazed by this. probably because they've met me before.

racism is alive and well in this tired, broken world, and it seems that it's best NOT to address it when you're running on no sleep, and when no one cares anyway.

I reconcile myself to the situation by this compromise: I politely cut the queue, greet the official in Swahili, and recommend he find a fellow employee and ask them to help with 'crowd control'. this seems, I point out, more effective than his trying to multi-task from behind his desk. (and by multitask I mean 'occasionally look up from his work to yell at the Somali man.) he politely ignores me. I politely step back into line. Kimberly and I pass the time by staring openly at the Somali woman's henna, which beautifully covers her arms and her feet. her husband is busy juggling visas and paperwork at the desk. her mother is standing by her side.

I project a lot, and I assume a lot of this family: that they are escaping from hell. that they are entering purgatory. that they will spend a lot of time being treated poorly here in Kenya.

make no mistake: Kenyans are a wonderfully accepting and hospitable people. there's good reason for me to feel so at home there. but Somalis, for whatever reason, seem to be destined to live a difficult life. I can only pray they are, somehow, someday, rewarded for their trials here.

but, oh, I digress.

after hours (okay, hour) in line, we finally go downstairs to get our luggage. and then we finally stand in line to change our money. and I finally can take it no more, and I leave my friends behind to rush outside and into Susan's arms.

people stare.

after everyone has changed money, we pile into two waiting taxis and head home. home, to Susan's apartment complex, where Lindsay and I will share 'my' room, and the other four members of our team- Angie and Kimberly, Pete and Keith- will share another apartment. we pay the taxis and make quick introductions and shove our luggage into respective living rooms and head to bed, because it is late, and because we've been traveling for 24 hours.

'you're great', Pete tells me. I assume he means, 'it's pretty fun to see you look so happy- happier than I've seen you in a really long time.'