Getting directions in Kenya is always interesting. Usually, it involves a casual wave of a hand, and instructions to “Just Go.”
My panicked American thoughts when this happens go something like, “But which way?? Left or Right? And how far?!”
When this happens, my strategy is to travel further in the same direction. But before long, I stop to ask another person, who will wave me backwards if I’ve gone too far.
This funny advice, to “Just Go” resonated spiritually for me this year. Since January, I’ve been wrestling through the decision to extend my stay in Kenya or move back to the US at the end of December.
Although some people receive specific callings or direction, I feel that God has actually been counseling me to just do what I want. Surprisingly, this has been scary! I’ve been very challenged to trust that God loves me, is in control, and has been shaping my desires and experiences in good directions.
A verse that has proved very reassuring along the way is Joshua 1:9-10.
“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
So. Finally I have decided. After much prayer, research, calculating, brainstorming, meeting with ministries that have caught my attention, crying, thinking, and verbal processing, I have decided to come back to the US. I hope to attend grad school next fall, probably in social work.
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” – James 1:27
This Term, our Volunteer Service Club spent some afternoons at a local children’s home. Our heart for this started with our own Uhuru Academy high school students. We prayed that their eyes would be opened and their hearts moved by the needs in their own communities. However, I’ve been surprised to find that many of our students are already extremely familiar with these needs.
Kenya fascinates me. When parents pass away, leaving children behind, extended relations most often embrace them and adopt them into their own families. This aspect of culture boggles my mind, as I contrast it with the U.S. foster care system. Many of my high school students have lost both parents. They are not wandering the streets. They aren’t being shuffled through unstable government-designated situations. They have adopted moms and dads who love and protect them.
The beauty in this shines even fiercer when I consider the circumstances of some of these absorbing families. Compassionate women who are literally waiting on God for their next meal have taken in a teen or two. Their stories testify that God shows up. He feeds them, often miraculously.
[Disclaimer: It’s easy to write a blog. I’m here without any kids, and plenty of valid reasons why I have no plans to take one in now.]
But the need is real. And this need has faces. And acting to meet this need can look like adoption or fostering, but doesn’t have to. Agencies like UNICEF help orphans by addressing bigger-picture problems. I also know people whose adoptions were only possible because others gave time and money. Or just go visit kids. I am definitely no expert on orphan-care. But I’ve been deeply impacted by our Service Club outings. These kids are hungry for love and attention, desperate for grace and enthusiasm, longing to be remembered and to make someone proud. That someone could be you.
Relationships take time. It’s taken 9 months, but I am getting to know our students as individuals. We’ve reached the beautiful exciting stage where we’re comfortable and confident enough with each other to open up. I LOVE IT.
For a long time, I have been stuck in the habit of categorizing students and making assumptions. I assess: what grade level are they? favorite subject? scholarship or paying student? outgoing or shy personality? And think I know who they are. Their school uniforms are anonymous, most of them are sweet and polite, and it’s been easy to remain at that level of relationship with most of them.
But unexpectedly this term, God started opening doors. I don’t think I’ve done things so differently. But my absolutely greatest joy these months has been in one-on-one conversations. Only in really knowing can you really love. You can approve the surface, affirm the deeper God-identity-truths, enjoy the company of someone. But when the ugly, difficult, strange comes out (we all have those pieces of ourselves), the choices are to retreat, shield ourselves with disgust, or love – love looks like the choice that will bring the most pain. And it does. Sharing the brokenness of students’ lives and relationships, most far from my power to fix, is confusing and shocking and depressing. But something about these experiences has been soul-sustaining.
In Psalm 63:3, in a dry and weary land, David says to God, “your love is better than life.” I’m starting to see that given or received, the love of God truly is brighter, sweeter, and more satisfying than anything else in my life.
Today marks 8 months in Kenya. So what is my life really like here?
Mornings start either in a mad rush, or very slowly. Some days we’ll have early meetings or a student Bible study. Other days I’ll drink coffee on the couch, reading and snuggling with my spunky little kitty cat.
Uncomfortable things are becoming normal. Power outages, potholes, and the lack of appliances don’t frustrate me nearly so often. I’m adapting to a mindset that expects difficulties and delays rather than efficiency and ease.
Uhuru Academy is our home base. During most lunchtimes, we’re here, snagging a student to chat one-on-one. I love this part of my job. The girls really appreciate when you take an interest in them. They constantly surprise me (in good ways) with their depth and vulnerability.
Afternoons, we plan the content of our clubs and Bible studies. My greatest satisfaction here comes from digging into God’s word, seeing him more clearly, and then feeling that I’ve done my best to present these truths to our girls. I am witnessing him reveal his goodness to our students, and it’s beautiful.
Students are in classes All Day, so for many of our working afternoons, we relocate to the (only) coffeeshop in our small town. $1 lattes and a real fireplace!
Did I mention the town where we live is quite small? Zero nightlife. But something new for me: we know everyone. Gas station cashiers, guards in compounds, waitresses… we know their names and look forward to catching up with them.
We have a club or other student-activity 6 afternoons per week. I’ve shared quite a bit about Uhuru Academy, but many of our clubs are actually at other local schools! This is a real joy and challenge because each school culture is very distinct:
The enormous girls’ school whose students are already seated and quiet when I arrive; high achieving sensitive sweet girls.
The Islamic school where students are comfortable and boisterous and speak excellent English, despite many being immigrants from Somalia and other African nations.
The beautiful school in the tea fields, whose parents earn maybe $1 per day, where we have a small Bible study with serious young ladies who hunger to know the Word of God and make disciples.
The mixed boy/girl school where they are stone-faced in group settings, but open up one-on-one about major pressures they face with drugs and sex.
The home/trade school for young ladies with physical or mental disabilities. Our newest club. A joy. This week, two of them literally screamed with excitement when we arrived.
Although my attendance record is nothing to brag about, I’ve found a church! It’s small, 20-30 adults, but we pray a lot and I feel genuinely welcome there. The service is mostly in Kikuyu (the tribal mother-tongue of half of Kenya), but when I am present, they are kind enough to also translate into English. My friend Ann originally invited me. When I’d visit her vegetable stand at market, she’d share Bible verses she’d read that morning. So encouraging! Though it looks like she has a very limited venue to share God’s Word (a working mother, running a small produce stand, in an unimportant town, in a developing Christianized country, in Africa), God uses her faithfulness tremendously for his glory.
Finally, evenings look like Bible Study or Zumba with other ex-pats. Graphic design projects!! Dancing, singing, exuberant Chapels at Uhuru Academy. Boring exhausted nights watching movies and sleeping early. And sometimes, a video chat with friends or family 🙂 I want to talk with you!
Whewww thanks for clearing that up. This Is Not True.
This place is actually pretty good.
Blue Band is margarine. I’m somehow skeptical.
Painted on a tree.
A very official endorsement.
Minimalist. I like it.
This is a movie about a spelling bee. Oh the irony.
Public art – it’s a beautiful concept.
These signs for Love Portion and ManPower are all over Nairobi.
“God helps you when you help yourself. When you read [study], God helps you remember for the exam.” – Sharifa
Right now, I have the amazing privilege of working with students at Uhuru Academy, a boarding school for Kenyan girls, grades 9-12. Our philosophy of education is to empower students by teaching them to be critical thinkers.
Secondary school is not free in Kenya. Only 42% of teenage girls in Kenya even attend high school (source: UNICEF).
However, Secondary education tremendously alters the trajectory of a person’s life. Kenyan graduates are much more likely to be formally employed (versus holding a farming or other low-skilled, self-employed position). Female students also have dramatically fewer teen pregnancies (source: this paper).
I am so proud of our school. The dedication of the staff and students blows me away. The high quality of student-centered teaching is unique in Kenya. And finally, the make-up of our student body is designed to empower students who are impoverished and underprivileged: we accept 40% paying students and 60% scholarship students.
“I have started working so much harder at my classes, after seeing how the scholarship students study.” – Paying student
Scholarships to Uhuru Academy are merit-based. The girls must perform exceptionally well on their Primary school final assessments in order to earn a place at our school. Their full scholarships are not “handouts.”
Our students on scholarship bring an unbelievable work ethic, gratitude, and belief in the power of education. They also possess a wealth of faith in God, genuine faith forged in adversity. I am so thankful for them.
Paying students contribute soft skills such as higher-level English, confidence in speaking with adults, and connections with employment opportunities that scholarship students would never have access to otherwise.
Our paying students (generally from wealthier Kenyan families) also benefit from the economic diversity. Interacting with classmates who are on scholarship grants them a more correct, complete, and compassionate view of major issues facing their country.
Although it is an ongoing process, I can attest that our students enjoy an unusual level of unity between the various economic groups. Check out the marvelous story above, of our students coming together to be the hands and feet of Jesus to a fellow classmate.
Hannah Wanjiku wants to be a broadcast journalist because most people from her community think that they are small and insignificant. She wants to shock them that someone small can be on TV.
I’d also urge you to consider how you can be part of Uhuru Academy! By sponsoring a student scholarship, you can help bring them true Freedom (“uhuru” in Swahili). More details about sponsorship, and bios of some of our students, can be found here.
I sincerely apologize for how long I’ve gone without an update. Won’t happen again!!
The last few months have been a whirlwind. I’m getting used to being in Kenya, but am still constantly experiencing “firsts”:
1) First Easter in Kenya! Our Discipleship Team spent most of Easter weekend with Uhuru Academy students. This included my first viewing of The Passion of the Christ (I highly recommend it). We also considered how the cross directly impacts us (we symbolically nailed our sins/struggles to a wooden cross). Finally, the students created a video, testifying how Christ’s resurrection has transformed their lives! We are redeemed! Please pray that we’d preach nothing but “Christ and him crucified (1 Cor 2:2)” to these young ladies, and that the gospel would be real to them.
2) First exam period. Yikes. My perception of education overseas was way off. For 2 weeks, students woke at 3am to study for exams that lasted all day. Our senior class took 27 exams in that short period. Please pray that their education prepares all our students, from every background, for successful, thoughtful, and impactful lives!
3) First Discipleship Leaders Training! The first day of Term Break, our Discipleship team hosted a Leaders Training event for local high school students. Co-led by Kenyans and Americans, about 30 male and female students discussed what it means to be disciples of Christ, and practiced sharing their testimonies with one another. Although we started 2.5 hours later than advertised (Kenyan Time is a real thing), it was encouraging and convicting to see God raising up leaders among our students! Please pray for God to continue equipping our students to love and lead their peers.
4) First vacation at a deserted resort. For our Term Break, including my first birthday in Africa, we headed to the coast! In addition to it being low-season, the Kenyan tourist industry has taken a terrible hit from recent terrorist tragedies; our hotel was deserted. Like the setting of a Scooby Doo episode. I took my first swim in the Indian ocean, fished from my first hand-carved canoe, and battled my first thieving monkey. Praise God for rest!
5) First tuk-tuk ride through the jungle, singing Nelly. Our last day at the coast was an adventure! A tuk-tuk is a form of public transportation. Like a partially enclosed 3-wheeled motorcycle with a bench in back. I was accompanied by 2 blue-eyed Americans, a fishmonger, 2 toddlers, and the tallest Kenyan I have met so far. Yes, all together on the same tuk-tuk. Clearly no further explanation is needed. Praise God for adventures!
6) First houseguests in Kenya. I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of hosting a few new friends over the last couple of months! However, the struggle of really missing you wonderful NC people has set in. Know that I love you! Please pray that I’ll make more friends and meaningful relationships here 😦 It’s hard to meet people y’all.
7) First solo drive down The Escarpment. The Escarpment is a 10-mile two-lane road carved into the wall of the Great Rift Valley. It is intimidating. Also gorgeous and exhilarating. Sadly, my first solo drive was to collect 3 students who had been attending the funeral of another student’s mother. Pray for our many students whose parents have already been taken from them – may God be their mother and father, and the church be their family.
8) First short-term volunteer trip. Super-fun college students from Vanderbilt University came for a week! We led GLOW clubs together, got our hands dirty on Uhuru Shamba farms, built relationships with students, and generally had a blast. I loved spending time with this team! If you are interested in a trip to Kenya: good news! There is another scheduled October 16-25.Please pray that God uses these trips to build His kingdom on earth, and that those who come would see Him more clearly as a result.
9) First piki-piki ride. Piki-pikis are public transport motorcycles. This was actually my first time to ride a motorcycle, period. It was much less frightening than I expected! Although, my driver told me that he had been scared the whole time… Maybe that I would fall off? Or maybe just by the many children running alongside us, screaming with glee at his white-girl passenger? Please pray that I’ll continue adjusting to life here, and find the humor and adventure in my circumstances instead of having a complaining attitude.
10) First new GLOW Club!! [GLOW = Girls Leading Our World] I’m thrilled that God has opened the doors for a brand-new club! This one is at an Islamic secondary school, with many Somali students. They are high-energy and very, very sweet. Please pray for these students to know the love of Jesus, to be truly served by this club, and for us to be wise and bold as we lead.
Emotionally, it’s been a heavy few weeks, but God is moving. Just to catch you up on what I’ve been doing: We’re talking (slowly) through Matthew in weekly Chapel at Uhuru Academy. I’m meeting with Uhuru Academy girls one-on-one throughout the week. And I’m leading two GLOW Clubs, one at Uhuru Academy and one at another local high school.
At the other local GLOW Club, we are finding that astronomical numbers of these young ladies have been raped and abused. The police force here is mostly corrupt; the girls cannot go to them for justice. My heart is hurting for these students. I have been so afraid for them, as I think about the devastation sexual abuse wreaks on a person’s life, the few resources available to our girls in their poverty, and Kenyan culture where rape is a taboo subject. As I’m praying, sometimes all I can say is, “help.” I am not a professional counselor, and honestly, I don’t really know what to do.
However. Jesus, man of sorrows, has borne our pain on the cross. The Holy Spirit, living inside us, is the best Counselor. And God is a God whose light shines brightest and most beautifully in the dark. So please pray for these young girls, their attackers, and their country, with sincere hope.
“Lord, in the daytime stars can be seen from deepest wells, and the deeper the wells the brighter Thy stars shine.”
Life in Kenya is becoming more normal! Here are some of my day-to-day bits.
I appear to have a glorious golden tan. But it is mostly dirt.
Worshipping with our Uhuru Academy girls at Thursday night Chapel is a highlight of my week. They sing and dance their hearts out. Sometimes the Wobble happens. Much of it is in Swahili, so I am learning to focus on Jesus who loves me, and just dance along.
When we are out and about in the rural area where we live, the word “Mzungu” (white person) echoes around us constantly. It’s a bit disconcerting. Once a legit BUS even drove by, with a young man leaning his top half out of the window, pointing at me, yelling, “MZUNGU!!!” It’s the same way I react when I see a monkey. But I can’t really blame people – when I see white people now, I also stare.
Kenyans drive on the left side of the road, like the British. I still consistently get into the wrong side of the car.
We filter all the water we drink.
My biggest struggle has been dealing with my own incompetence and lack of independence. I feel like a child again. And I’ve worked so hard to grow up 🙂 As I’m adjusting, though, this is getting better.
THE HIGH SCHOOL GIRLS WE WORK WITH ARE SO FUN. They have been willing to open up, and real relationships are beginning to grow.
Sometimes I’m woken by a chorus of Honking, resounding from under my bed. Our house is on stilts, and our landlord owns a flock of 14 geese. They get all up under there.
Most exciting wildlife encounter so far: Mongoose. Think dog-sized weasel, with babies. My roommate was lying in the yard, enjoying the stars, when she heard some creepy breathing in the darkness beside her. Yeahhhhh she came inside real quick 🙂
We are working on naming our car, a wee purple Mazda Demio. “TUHMIHNAYTAH” [in a deep voice] was rejected. But “Mokimo” is growing on everyone. Mokimo is a popular potato/veggie mash with a really cute name.
It is hard communicating with friends only through WhatsApp!! I miss you lovely people.
I have officially been in Kenya for 3 weeks! I am loving it. Just wanted to share a few things that are rolling around in my mind:
1) God has provided
• Travel was absolutely ideal. It was my first time traveling alone, but I was covered every step of the way!
• The cottage where I live is Adorable. With beautiful back-porch views, a cool roommate, and indoor plumbing.
• Soon after I arrived, the discipleship team realized that having a second car would be necessary for our work. We partner with 3 different local schools, and anticipate some space+time conflicts. Just before I left the US, I received a surprise donation for the exact amount we would need to purchase a second car. Of course, I didn’t know about that need at the time 🙂 But God knew!
• I’ve successfully learned the names of all our current students!! This is truly an answer to prayer. I stink at names, and these girls wear identical uniforms and change their hairstyles constantly.
• This last one is minor, but… I have a cat named Fupi! The last discipleship staff person was not able to bring him back home to the US as planned. Fupi is full of personality and can be quite naughty, but he still makes me happy.
2) Nothing will happen without prayer
I’ve been extremely impressed by the structure of Uhuru’s discipleship programs, the relevancy of the content being shared with students, and how caring and wise the staff are. However: I’ve been equally impressed with a conviction that despite all this, nothing significant is going to happen without prayer. These things are important. But they cannot change hearts or bring healing or clarify truth or give the power of salvation. Only the Lord can do that, and he tells us to pray.
Please please pray with us, that our young people will Know How Much They Are Loved By The Lord. May Jesus have his good way in their lives!
3) Ask for Big Things
In a similar vein, I’ve felt convicted to Not pray small prayers. God is GOD. He is the ultimate power and provider. And he loves our girls. He sent his one and only Son Jesus from the very throne of heaven into our dusty painful world. Jesus died a tortuous death on a cross, separated from the eternal presence of his perfect Father, for us. For his enemies. And he rose again, beating death and sin, inviting us to enjoy him forever, for his glory. He is willing to do big things! Ask with us!