Thursday, August 28, 2014

Doing the best they can

August 1, 1996
Nairobi, Kenya

Dear Maggie and Emma,

… Nairobi houses an interesting mix of people, cultures, and religions. When we drive around town, we can see any number of churches, mosques, cathedrals, and temples.

A significant number of Nairobi’s citizens are of Indian heritage, descendants of immigrants who helped build the railroad from Mombasa, on the Indian Ocean, to Kampala, Uganda, starting in 1896. Referred to here as “Asians,” they tend to work as shop owners, businessmen, and doctors.
Numerous international agencies and corporations headquarter in Nairobi, too, as do embassies and a United Nations office, so people from around the world live here. Most dress in either Western or African clothing, but it’s not unusual to see an Arab man dressed in a traditional long white robe and flowing red and white headpiece—seated in the back of a chauffeur-driven Mercedes Benz.
Nairobi has several universities and colleges, and many Kenyans have a good education, hold responsible jobs, and dress well. They tend to make up the small middle class.
Nevertheless, the unemployment rate is about 55 percent, a staggering figure. But it’s more than a statistic. Real people have no way to feed their families, real people feel real hunger, and real people need medical help. They love their children just as much as we love ours. Can you imagine their desperation? For more than half of Kenya’s people, poverty and malnutrition are ongoing, everyday realities.
For generations, many Kenyans have lived on family farms and survived on their own grain, vegetables, fruit, chickens, goats, and other animals. Traditionally, when a man dies his children subdivide his shamba (farm) but, inevitably, plots have grown smaller and smaller until some aren’t large enough to divide any more. Coupled with severe drought, living off the land has become increasingly difficult.
To support their families, thousands of Kenyan men have moved to Nairobi to find jobs, leaving their wives and children upcountry to work the shambas. The men send money back home but, considering some of them earn only a couple of dollars a day and must pay for their room and board (often in one of Nairobi’s slums), they don’t have much left to send home. Nevertheless, because they love their families, they do the best they can.
Many of Kenya’s citizens get up before dawn, splash off with water—often from a neighborhood tap—and sometimes eat nothing for breakfast. When the sun comes up at six, we see thousands of people on the streets walking for miles to get to work; most can’t afford the bus.
Too many wear worn clothes and tattered shoes, often the wrong size, sometimes without laces. Many work for the equivalent of less than eighty dollars a month, and yet they are the blessed ones—they have jobs. The unemployed look for jobs but, all too often, they simply can’t find work.

Our friend Bernard (pronounced BARE-nard) has more training than many and works as a driver in Nairobi. Like thousands of other men, he sends money home to his wife and children upcountry, where they farm their plot of earth.

He told us he sold his maize crop for a few hundred dollars, an amount he depended on to cover most of his family’s needs for an entire year. The buyer took his maize, and that of many other families, but never paid for it. This left those families on the verge of starvation.

After months of controversy, the buyer said they could have their maize back—if they came and got it. These families are so poor they can hardly feed their families, let alone hire a truck to transport grain, so now they have neither their maize nor their money for it.

For several weeks, we have watched Bernard turn increasingly gaunt. We worry and wonder if he’s going without food so his children can eat. Or, maybe it’s something else, like AIDS.

We don’t want to pry, but we hope that soon he’ll let us know how we can help. (from Chapter 18, Grandma’s Letters from Africa)

Thursday, August 21, 2014

No excuse for feeling sorry for myself

Lately I’ve been whining, griping about our water and power shortages when we lived in Nairobi, Kenya, and bellyaching about plumbing problems, and whimpering about spotty, quirky phone service.

But I’ve also been a bit uncomfortable about these recent posts so I’ve been pondering the attitude I had back then, and considering my attitude now, all these years later.

Here’s the thing. I had no reason to feel sorry for myself.

Millions of Kenyans had no running water, no electricity, no plumbing, no phones.

Most, but not all, of the Kenyans I knew lived in massive slums. Kibera was the biggest slum in Nairobi.

“On a rainy day in Kibera—one of the world’s largest unofficial settlements, or shantytowns—you are ankle deep in a soupy, earthy smelling mess of red mud, human waste, and plastic shreds,” writes Tasha Eichenseher.

I’ve seen Kibera from the road and from the air, and I’ve walked through a similar slum in Nairobi. I can identify with Tasha’s descriptions:

“Kibera is a sea of corrugated tin,” she said, but she forgot to mention it was rusted tin.

“…tin over a maze of earthen walls” she continued. I saw walls made from scraps of lumber, bits of metal, and cardboard.

“… and dark narrow paths.…” Yes, I remember those shadowy paths, sometimes with open sewage running through them, usually with trash in them.

“It is home,” Tasha continues, “to anywhere between 500,000 and 1 million people—likely more than a fourth of Nairobi’s population—and is crammed into just 620 acres.…”

Just imagine living 24/7 with no toilets, no power, no lights, no refrigeration, no water—no water for anything: cooking, bathing, laundry, cleaning.

Tasha writes of “children dropping their trousers next to makeshift sewage canals” in Kibera, and of flying toilets. I remember those flying toilets—plastic bags used in place of toilets, hurled through the air.

According to Elora Nicole, in Kibera:

  • 1 in 5 kids won’t live to see their fifth birthday
  • 50% of the population is school-aged
  • 66% of the girls will trade sex for food by age six
  • Usually eight to ten people live in a 12’ x 12’ home.

You see what I mean? I had no reason to feel sorry for myself.

I admit that sometimes water problems left me baffled, power rationing inconvenienced me, phone calls were often impossible. Many things left me flabbergasted. Countless times I chose to laugh instead of cry. But I had no reason to feel sorry for myself.


Thursday, August 14, 2014

Robbin’s story: Why I hate laundry

So we were coping—at home (remember yellow flowers in our toilet bowl?) and at West Nairobi School—with the worst drought since the 1940s.

At home we had water in our pipes off and on, but the school had a glorious, amazing, delightful borehole with a fantastic water supply.

Robbin and David
The borehole didn’t belong to the school property, however. It belonged to the city council, and the school had the council’s permission to use it. Other people could also ask permission to use the water, too. The school owned the pump and the pipes, so as you can see, it was a tangled arrangement.

David and Robbin, who worked with us at the school, lived a stone’s throw down the lane from us in an aged but charming settler’s home, a remnant of the British colonial era. They were a busy family with several young kids and another on the way.

Robbin and David's home
They, too, had to deal with water irregularities.

Here’s Robbin’s laundry story in her own words:

I finally figured out why I hate laundry now. I didn't hate laundry before. Back home in the States I threw the clothes in the washer, when I had time I threw them in the dryer, and when I needed to wear something I got it out of the drier.

Now I live in a 100 year old house, and the pipes aren't the same and I don't have sufficient water pressure to fill my washer. That means I have to stand there with the hose and fill it up.

It also means I have to be there as soon as the rinse cycle starts in order to turn off the machine and fill it up or the motor will burn up.

This is very time-consuming because if I put the hose in the machine and walk away for a minute, when I come back the machine is overflowing. I am not sure how it happens.

Also I catch the wash water to throw on the plants, and catch the rinse water for the next load of wash.

I don't have a big enough tub to catch all that water, so I fill buckets and tubs and other plastic containers, which means I have to be there the whole time it is emptying.

I must admit I have missed it before and it has emptied down the sink. This is because the machine is a bit spiteful. If I am standing there it takes 40 or so minutes to empty and spin, but if I don't catch it in time it does the whole thing in two! I think it enjoys my frantic run to catch the water.

And I have to get the whole thing done before we lose power.

Someone asked if I have a timer to remind me to go check the laundry.  No, this would only work if the machine was reliable—but it isn't.  It takes anywhere from 1 to 45 minutes for any given cycle, depending on what else I am trying to get done at the time.
Why I Hate Laundry:

  • Because laundry takes so long I am not getting to do all those messy, time-consuming science experiments I would love to do with the kids.
  • We don't eat as healthy as I would like due to the time I have to spend doing laundry rather than food preparation.
  • The reason I am getting flabby isn't because I am too lazy to exercise, I just don't have time because of the laundry.
  • I am not getting older—I have wrinkles and gray hair from worrying about the laundry.
  • My refrigerator doesn't work well and I finally realized it's because it is jealous of the time I spend with the washer.
  • My electric stove gives me little shocks every once in a while. It must be jealous of the washer too.
  • If the car breaks down I figure it's because we don't wash it enough since we use so much water on the laundry.
  • The drought and power rationing are probably a result of my laundry. 
  • Yes, anything that goes wrong I can now blame on the laundry. 

P.S. When I told David the reason I was getting flabby was because of the laundry, he offered to do the laundry for two weeks to see if it would help. I blame the sarcasm in his voice and smirk on his face on the fact that the laundry must have shrunk his shorts.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Yellow flowers in the toilet bowl

We had water problems (plural) from the day we moved into that house across the street from the school.

Sometimes we had no water because of rationing.

Other times no water flowed through the mains because the city turned it on only sporadically. Once we endured that predicament for more than two weeks.  

There were other reasons for lack of running water. For example, in our preacher’s neighborhood, the city removed water pipes so they could replace them—but it took them six weeks to hook up the new ones!

When water did flow through the mains (hooray!), we had storage tanks in our backyard to hold onto that precious stuff.

Those beloved water tanks. What would have done without them?
Usually we had a little water in an attic tank for showering, but that ran out a couple of times.

Then we got mighty discouraged when Dave suffered from influenza-turned-pneumonia, the tank in the attic drained empty, and the tanks out back dried up. Despite being sick and weak, Dave set out to haul water in barrels from across the road at the school—but there was no water to be had.

A few weeks after moving into that house, we upgraded our water system significantly (meaning at our own expense, even though we were renters) and yet we still had a problem—which persisted for three months—but the problem was not because of the lack of water. We had water. It just wouldn’t come out of our faucets.

Eventually we learned the problem was due to our plumber.  Rumor had it that plumbers seemed to be trained to create air locks.  (We’d never heard of an airlock but learned that if you get air in the water pipes between the tank and your faucet/shower, you don't get any water coming out of your faucet. That's an air lock, and undoing that is a miserable task.)
Our drinking water filter

It took head-scratching and re-thinking and flexibility and creativity (and outwitting our plumber) but eventually we began picking up on the idiosyncrasies of how to make our water system work for us.

We became experts in conserving water. When we had water and could shower, we stood in a plastic laundry tub and reused that water to flush the toilet or fill the washing machine—for the wash cycle, that is; we used fresh water for the rinse cycle. Then we drained the washer into a big barrel and reused that to water our gardens.

If we had an airlock, we hauled water from the backyard tanks to fill our drinking water filter, wash dishes, clean house, and flush toilets. Much of that occurred during the muddy season—er, the rainy season—which meant that with every bucket of water, we brought orange mud into the house on our shoes. Grrrrr.

If you had visited our house around that time, you would’ve found yellow flowers in our toilet bowl.

Yellow flowers in the toilet bowl? Well, yes.

You see, in our backyard beside the water tanks grew an enormous old tree covered—and I mean covered—with bright yellow blossoms. It dropped those lovely blooms to the ground like snowflakes and they covered our back yard with a fluffy yellow layer.

When we walked outside, those blossoms drifted down into our hair and onto our clothes and into those buckets of water that we lugged into the house and poured into the toilet.

At first, I tried to sift out the flowers but it was a time-consuming battle so I just dumped in the water, blossoms and all.

I must admit that using our toilet provided a more exotic experience than I’d ever had with any other toilet.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Of newfangled cell phones with Danish instruction manuals

Eventually the phone company fixed the school’s tangled phone line. We no longer had St. Lawrence’s number. We had some other business’s number, but at least we knew what that number was!

A lovely old colonial home became the school's Admin Building
You’ll remember that we’d waited (impatiently) for two years after the property was purchased to get telephones installed. We were delighted to have two lines but the service was always poor, with static and other interference.

In fact, it was not unusual to have no functioning phones at all.

This was not a good situation for keeping in touch with the outside world, including parents who needed to connect with children, emergency situations, or everyday business.

And so, eventually the school purchased one of those newfangled cell phones, mainly for when land lines were down. It came in handy, too, when a teacher went on a field trip.

The only problem was that the instruction booklet was in Danish, so it was hard to figure out how to make the cell phone work—and remember, back then cell phones were new and mysterious to most of us.

One day I stopped by the dealer and told him we needed instructions in English.

“Oh, yes,” he smiled, handing me a booklet.

“Here are instructions in English—but they are for a different brand of cell phone.” 

Friday, July 25, 2014

We no longer had St. Lawrence’s number—but we didn’t have our own, either

Shortly after we moved onto West Nairobi School’s new campus, my brother sent an email saying Mom was very sick.

I longed to call her, but Dave and I didn’t have a telephone. (Cell phones were almost unheard of at that time.)

Wonder of wonders—the new campus had just gotten two phone lines (having waited two years from the time the land was purchased!) so I arranged to use the school phone, promising to reimburse the school when the bill came.

First I called the international operator.

(It had taken me several months to figure out how to do that. The phone book said to dial 0196 or 0197. Actually, we had to dial 0195! That’s what I meant last week when I said cross-cultural living can be funny, annoying, humiliating, terrifying, amusing—occasionally all at the same time.)

So I dialed 0195 and told the international operator Mom’s phone number in Seattle.

Now you might be thinking that was all I had to do, but no, no, no. It wasn’t that easy.

Here’s how it was supposed to happen: You give the operator the number you’re calling from, and he calls you right back, usually in less than two seconds, and then he connects you with your party in the States.

So I gave him Mom’s number and the school’s number and I hung up and waited for the operator to call back—but he never did.

I called again, getting a different operator, and started the procedure over again. But still he did not call back.

So I called a third time. By then several international operators knew some mzungu (white foreign) woman was having trouble calling the States. I could hear them talking about me in the background.

The man told me they kept calling me and they couldn’t understand why I never answered.


I told them my phone was not ringing.

I was beginning to conclude that the phone worked for outgoing calls but not incoming calls (not an unusual thing).

No doubt about it, cross-cultural living can make a person confused, baffled, disoriented, bamboozled, stymied, befuddled, and even angry.

After hemming and hawing, the man told me to hang up and he’d try for another ten minutes to reach me.

A couple minutes later the phone rang!  I was so excited! 

I picked up the phone and a woman with a very American accent said, “I’m sorry to bother you. I know I’m not supposed to use this number to call my son at your school, but I’ve been trying for a week to reach him and when I dial your other phone numbers, no one answers....”  

As she kept talking, she mentioned her son at St. Lawrence. St. Lawrence?!?! She’d reached West Nairobi School—St. Lawrence was down the road from us.

Immediately I put two and two together, the kind of outside-the-box thinking one develops after a short while, and figured that the telephone company got our line crossed with St. Lawrence’s.

With wires like these, no wonder we had problems!
The lady continued talking, saying she was calling from Seattle. “Seattle?!?” I think I almost hollered at her.

“I’m sitting here in Kenya trying to call Seattle, quite unsuccessfully,” I probably shrieked, “and out of the blue this telephone rings and you are calling from Seattle!”  

I told her the l-o-n-g story of trying to reach my mother, and she told me her equally puzzling story of trying to reach her son.

She wasn’t just calling from Seattle: She lived only eight miles from my mother. I lived about a block from her son. Can you believe it?!

“Tell ya what,” I said. “If you’ll call my mom and tell her I’m trying to reach her, I’ll get in touch with your son and tell him he needs to call home.”  It was a deal! At least Mom knew I was thinking of her and praying for her, and that was the most important message for her to have at that time anyway.
P.S. Eventually the phone company did come out to fix our tangled phone line. We no longer had St. Lawrence’s number. We had some other business’s number, but at least we knew what that number was and gave that to parents and others who might need to contact the school.

Sigh.... Like I keep saying, we had lots of opportunity to exercise flexibility on the mission field!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The electricity is off so the phone works

So, like I was saying, we finally got hooked up to electricity at the school—except that due to rationing, the power was on only when students were at home at night, 6:30 pm to 6:30 am.

But having no power was not all bad.

One day several of us were standing in the office, visiting with newcomers from Canada, Don and Holly, when someone picked up the phone, listened for a second, and then said, “The electricity is off so the phone works.”

A puzzled look crossed Don’s face.

The rest of us burst out laughing—in a split-second we all remembered.…

When we saw that look on Don’s face, we all were thrust back to that knot-in-the-stomach feeling, the jarring, the dizzying that hits a person when first immersed in another culture.

“No, really,” we hurried to tell him. “When the power is on, there’s a loud static interference that makes it nearly impossible to use the phone.”

Cross-cultural living can be funny, annoying, humiliating, terrifying, amusing—occasionally all at the same time. 

Cross-cultural living can make a person confused, baffled, disoriented, bamboozled, stymied, befuddled, and even angry.

And in time, we adjusted—
with supportive, seasoned colleagues to mentor and orient us,
with prayer,
with humility,
with an attitude of being a learner,
with patience,
and with a sense of humor. 

Over time, we tried to develop realistic expectations, to bend, to stretch, to go with the flow, and “to be content whatever the circumstances” (Philippians 4:11).

And so, we learned how to welcome power outages once in a while—when we needed to use phone!