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!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

“Please light your candles”

Month after month, the electric company came up with new ways to torment us while we waited—impatiently—for power at our school.  One week, for example, they surprised us with a new condition they’d failed to tell us about earlier.

Another week they tried our patience with additional forms to fill out—Why hadn’t they told us about the forms earlier?

With regularity, officials sprang added stipulations on us and dumped on surprise prerequisites.

Those bureaucrats were experts at creating a black hole of ever-increasing hoops we had to jump through.

But by June, after months of haggling, the electric company finally provided West Nairobi School with electricity! We had succeeding in wading through and out of the bureaucratic morass! 

Using my computer at a moment when we had power!

Hooray! We could use computers, printers, copiers, overhead projectors, and ceiling lights. In the teachers’ break room, we could make coffee! And keep lunches in the fridge! And zap our lunches in the microwave! Sweet!

That was the good news.

But there was bad news:

Power rationing had increased due to the ongoing drought. We had no electricity from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., six days a week, through November—six months!

One Sunday our Kenyan pastor declared that KPLC (Kenya Power and Light Company) stands for "Kenyans, Please Light Your Candles." The mostly-Kenyan congregation roared!

P.S. West Nairobi School invested in a generator, which worked when we could find fuel, and we were very thankful!

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Dysfunctionality was the norm

During our fourth year in Kenya, my husband, Dave, opened West Nairobi School for missionaries’ kids. Our first campus was rented—a lovely old colonial home in a residential part of town. So many people were so excited about WNS!

Our original (rented) campus in a lovely old colonial home.

Meanwhile, construction began on the permanent campus. March 31, 2000, we moved in—and it was grand! (More on the school in a future blog post.)

But we couldn’t get the power company to hook up the electricity! We had thought power rationing was bad, but no electricity was even worse. (Can you imagine trying to run a school without electricity? Think computers, printers, copy machines, science labs, ceiling lights….)

Days turned into weeks. Weeks turned into months. Still no power.

The electric company seemed to enjoy torturing us. Every few days bureaucrats somewhere dreamed up a different requirement for us to meet, a new hoop to jump through, a new rule to follow. (Could they have been waiting for a bribe?)

By then, our seventh year in the country, Dave and I knew full well that dysfunctionality was the norm.

Seven weeks into the ordeal, the PTF held a bazaar on campus and I was giving a tour to little Peter’s parents, Paul and Kyle.

“Peter says the classrooms get so much natural light,” smiled Paul, “that they almost never need to turn on the lights.”

I wonder if Paul saw the surprise on my face.

Apparently parents didn’t know: The school didn’t have electricity!

Maybe the students didn’t notice, either. What a credit to those flexible, patient, creative, can-do teachers!

Thursday, June 26, 2014

From 6:30 until 12:30 unless it was 4, but sometimes it was 2:30

Electricity rationing! It was a pain in the neck—and we endured it all the years we lived in Africa.

Have you ever tried to entertain guests—long-term houseguests or just dinner guests—while at the same time working around power rationing? Sometimes we lived with planned rationing, and that was doable, but surprise outages really challenged me as a hostess.

We opened our home to many guests over the years—usually colleagues from around the world, sometimes friends or family from the States. Occasionally various guests landed on our doorstep at the same time, and others had overlapping stays, so I got lots of practice managing my domestic world with great doses of flexibility.

During our first year in Kenya, when a friend from home, Pete, came to visit, we invited two teachers of MKs (missionary kids) to dinner one evening. Both of them worked as tutors, one in Kenya and the other in Tanzania.
Pete's visit overlapped our daughter Karen's visit.

That day we had no electricity for most of the day but it came on at 4:30 so, after work, I hurried home to get meatloaf in the oven—an electric oven.

However, fifteen minutes later we lost power again.

My cooker (pronounced KOO-kah) had two gas burners and two electric burners, so I took the meatloaf out of the oven, formed it into patties, and fried them over the gas.

A few minutes later the power came back on, so I put the patties into a baking dish, topped them with mushroom soup, and popped them back in the oven.

My husband raved about how good they tasted—and I admit, they were yummy, but I hoped no one asked for the recipe! (from Chapter 5, Grandma’s Letters from Africa)

Fast forward seven years. During our final year in Kenya, Dr. Thom Votaw was staying with us for a week or so. (I introduced you to him last week in A cardboard box, a gas cylinder, and a car battery. Be sure to check out his valuable ministry, Teachers In Service—TIS—which helps place teachers in schools for missionaries’ kids. )

Thom is a talented cook and invited a few colleagues over for a Saturday evening dinner. For several days we planned the menu around two of his delicious chicken recipes.
Thom reading my memoir. :)

Thom and I both knew it would be tricky planning a dinner around electricity rationing, but Saturdays the rationing lasted from 6:30 a.m. until 12:30 p.m., though there was some fairly official adjustment in the rationing that stated that instead of 12:30, the electricity would come on at 4 p.m. (though sometimes it came on at 12:30 and sometimes at 2:30).

Any way we looked at it, we figured that with some cooking ahead, we could have dinner ready for guests on Saturday night.

But we should have known better than to make plans and have expectations: 12:30 came and went, so did 2, so did 4. Still no electricity.

Meantime Thom arranged chicken, potatoes, and herbs in the oven roaster and wrapped dinner rolls in foil—everything was ready to pop into the oven.

But the clock kept ticking and when the sun hung low in the west, Thom and I started to get nervous. Guests were due to arrive at 5:30 (people liked to get home early in the evenings due to dangers of driving after dark).

We had wanted to start baking the chicken by 4:30 and eat at 6, but when the power did not come on by 5 o’clock, Thom and I got out the little one-burner-on-a-gas-tank and a large pot and gently simmered the chicken and potatoes over the flame.

That evening the electricity never did come on so we lit candles throughout the house and all of us relied on our missionary flexibility: While the chicken and potatoes cooked, I made salad and we and our dinner guests ate it with crackers (we couldn’t warm the rolls in the oven).

When the chicken and potatoes were ready, we ate them while the vegetables (carrots, broccoli, and cauliflower) cooked over the gas tank in the chicken and herb juices.

When we finished eating the chicken and potatoes, we served the vegetables along with unheated rolls.

For dessert, we ate melted ice cream and brownies (baked the day before)—everything in the glow of candlelight.

Everyone was a good sport, we were all creative and flexible, and it was a fun, memorable evening.

P.S. The electricity eventually came back on at 11 p.m. long after our guests were at home asleep. It stayed on for 10 or 15 minutes, then it went out again until 4 a.m.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

A cardboard box, a gas cylinder, and a car battery

Dear Maggie,
      The hot, dry season has lasted too long. I can hear the earth groan. This parched and weary land cries out for rain. Farmers cry out for rain, people in the city cry out for rain. I cry out for rain. We look up to the heavens and ask God for rain. Each day we search the skies for clouds. We’ve watched a few form but, day after day, they drift on over us. Soon the rain must fall. We must have rain. (from Chapter 13, Grandma’s Letters from Africa)

I wrote that to my granddaughter during my fourth year in Kenya.

Drought plagued Kenya off and on during our eight years there. Dry seasons lingered too long.

And in 2000, the lack of rain resulted in what the TV news called “The worst disaster ever.” It was the worst drought since the 1940s.

Millions of people were praying for rain to fall on their sun-scorched land.

Electricity was severely rationed all over the country seven days a week.

In September of that year, we had electricity three mornings a week and three evenings a week, and every other Sunday evening. For the most part we had no electricity any afternoon.

The rationing schedule gave us a 28-hour period three or four times a week in which we had only seven hours of electricity, and that’s while we were asleep at night!

It was challenging but we were accustomed to it—by then we’d lived with power rationing for years—and we coped well. We’d been warned “Flexibility” would have to be our middle name if we wanted to work on the mission field. That was for sure!
Thom's car battery!

For example, we took a huge cardboard box a refrigerator had been shipped in, and we cut out the back panel and the bottom. That left us with a perfect insulator (did you know cardboard is one of the best insulators?) which we could easily slip over the fridge when electricity was off for hours on end. 

We also bought a short, squat gas cylinder with a ring on top to cook on when we had no power to use our cooker (stove).
Thom using his computer in our living room.

Around that time, Dr. Thom Votaw made a trip to Kenya and occupied our guest room.  A retired prof from New Mexico State University, he’d been making short trips to Kenya for a couple of years to develop grad courses and a master’s program for missionary teachers overseas.

By then he’d made enough trips to Kenya to be well acquainted with power rationing—but Thom was a scientist! He knew how to outwit those power outages!

Thom's makeshift lamp.
He arrived from the States carrying a car battery, and he rigged it up so he could continue using his computer, electricity or not. What a guy!

He also invented a reading lamp of sorts to use in our guest room when the electric lamp was out of service.

That’s what I call real missionary flexibility!

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Survival in a sun-scorched land: "The worst disaster ever"

“The worst disaster ever.” That what the TV news called it.

It was August, 2000, and Kenya was suffering the worst drought since the 1940s.

Millions of people were praying for rain to fall on their sun-scorched land.

Electricity was severely rationed all over the country seven days a week.

Water was also severely rationed. At our house, sometimes we went two weeks or more without water coming through the mains.

Many businesses were struggling and even failing.

That meant thousands of people were losing their jobs.

That meant people who were already very poor—millions of them—suffered even more than before.

A couple of months earlier, in May, the unemployment rate was a staggering 55% but the drought caused the unemployment rate to increase.

Authorities reported that literally millions of Kenyans faced starvation due to drought.

Sometimes these are just statistics to us, and to you. But the reality was that a number of Kenyans we knew and worked with went without food on a regular basis.

For example, Martin, our night guard, ran out of food and money almost every month—to pay doctor bills for his wife, who was very ill—so for the last two weeks of that month, August, we sent him home with food for his family.

Across the road at the school, often we didn’t know if a specific employee was without food but from time to time I offered food supplies. Others did, too.

Dave and I were going through a puzzling situation ourselves, financially. Wycliffe Bible Translators doesn’t pay its members; instead each family develops a team of financial supporters who send money, usually once a month. Our home church in the States had pledged to support us financially during that time, our final two years in Africa, but their donations never arrived. It was a troubling time for us financially. After several months, I wrote to the church and asked about the situation, but they never replied. To this day, all these years later, I’m still puzzled by that. But God knew our situation, and He knew what we really needed.

God had already given Dave and me many experiences in learning to pinch pennies, live frugally, and watch Him provide for us. That was simply the next chapter.

And here’s the best part: We rejoiced—I mean really rejoiced—that we could help not only Martin, but 16 other Kenyan families during that harsh, discouraging, tenuous time.

And isn’t that what God has told us to do? From cover to cover, the Bible urges us to help the poor and needy, to feed the hungry, to help the sick. And God said not to worry about our own needs—He’d take care of that, too. And He did.

Now, looking back, it was a beautiful experience, and I remain delighted at the way we helped others in their time of need and God helped us in ours.