I was on chemotherapy during the summer of 2007. My mom went to church one Sunday and I stayed home because I didn’t feel well. I turned on the T.V. and watched George Stephanopoulos’ program. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were in full swing, and at the end of his show every week, they rolled the names of soldiers who had died that week.
As I watched the names of the fallen scroll across the screen, I saw the name Jason Kessler. He and I had been Resident Assistants together in college, and our wings had been paired as “brother/sister” wings, so he and I planned lots of activities for our dorm wings to do together.
And that’s how I found out that he had died. The world already seemed wrong and dark and unfair as I was going through chemotherapy at age 28 for an invasive, aggressive form of breast cancer. Jason’s death only added to the grief. I turned off the TV and wept for a long, long time.
Hi, friends!!! I just wanted to write a quick update to let you know how things are going.
A month ago, I was on my way to Kenya to deliver medical supplies to a school for orphans on Rusinga Island, in rural western Kenya. I enjoyed my time with the kids there, and it was very gratifying to be able to give supplies to the school and train the teachers on how to provide medical care to the kids.
And then I got sick with malaria and typhoid. I was on medicine for a few days and still didn’t feel better. I was worried that my health would deteriorate further and I’d get very sick like I did in Togo, where I ended up unconscious on the floor and then in the hospital for a few days (apparently, my body and malaria do NOT get along.)
So I left the island five days early and went to Kisumu, a city several hours away. I stayed at a guest house there, and it was just what I needed. Hot showers, no mosquitoes, a comfortable bed, a fan and delicious food in the restaurant downstairs.
I flew from Kisumu to Toronto, where I met up with my parents for a few days, and then spoke at a youth camp. From Toronto, I flew to Phoenix, where I spoke at a fundraiser for a program that cares for orphans in Cameroon.
And now, I’m on lockdown for the next 10 days in a tiny little studio apartment in California, finishing my second book. (My deadline is June 6th, and the book is scheduled to publish in the fall of 2017.)
I’m feeling a ton better than I did when I left Kenya, so I’m very thankful for that. I’d appreciate your prayers for inspiration and focus as I wrap up this writing project.
With that…I’m logging off the internet for now
On Monday night I took a short flight from Kisumu to Nairobi, and then took a red-eye flight from Nairobi to Amsterdam. I had a layover in Amsterdam before I flew to Toronto, where I’ll be spending a few days exploring the city with my parents before speaking at a youth conference this weekend.
During my Amsterdam layover, I went to a coffee shop in the airport and ordered a large Americano — the first real espresso/coffee I had in more than three weeks. (In Kenya, everyone drank black tea. Coffee wasn’t really a “thing.”)
I sat there at the coffee bar, savoring each sip of my drink, checking in with myself, reflecting on the past three weeks, wondering how to evaluate my latest venture.
The problem was, I didn’t know what metrics to use.
I had a long, running mental list of the good things that happened during my trip.
I got a new stamp in my passport (I’d never been to Kenya before), so that was cool.
I had the opportunity to see Lake Victoria, the largest lake in the world.
I did health screenings on 120 kids, most of whom are orphans whose parents died of AIDS.
I took medical supplies to the school for orphans that will probably last them two years.
I trained the staff on how to provide basic First Aid, and how to treat diseases they see often, like pinworms and malaria.
I had the unique experience of living at a homestead with no electricity or running water, where I helped the women cook over an open fire and do loads and loads of laundry by hand.
I introduced some of the kids to pop music (they especially loved Geronimo and My House), we had some epic dance parties, and we watched Finding Nemo and Toy Story.
Except for some interpersonal drama within the family I stayed with, and except for contracting malaria (again) and typhoid, over all it was a good trip. I’m glad I went. I feel like I did as much good as I could do there, at least for now.
And yet, as I sat there contemplating the trip, I had to acknowledge that part of me felt disappointed and incomplete.
When I wasn’t doing projects with the staff or the students at the school for orphans in Kenya, there were two places I’d go. The first one was the cyber cafe, where I paid 1 shilling/minute to use the internet. The second was the Rusinga Guest House, a hotel in town that lets you sit in their courtyard cafe and use their electrical outlets to charge your devices, provided you buy a drink or some food from them.
The guest house cafe has a T.V. that mostly showed Bollywood soap operas dubbed in English. Whenever I needed a writing break, I would take out my headphones and watch a few minutes of the show.
After my experience in Kenya over the past 2.5 weeks, I feel like I have a good script for them. During the time I was there, I lived with no electricity, running water or indoor plumbing. I used the latrine out back, and took “showers” by sponging off with a bucket of rain water. I washed clothes by hand and cooked over an open fire.
Mama and Papa, the host couple I’m staying with in Kenya, have lots of visitors that drop by for tea in the late afternoon/early evening.
Last week there was a man in his early 60’s, wearing a threadbare suit, with impeccable posture and a Bible under his arm, who dropped by.
Mama and I went to the kitchen to brew a pot of tea and prepare a plate of sliced white bread (which is commonly served with tea) for our guest. As we worked to get everything ready, Mama told me that the man was a visiting preacher, here on Rusinga Island for a week of revival meetings before he took a bus back to his village, which was about 4 hours away.
When everything was ready, we brought the tea and the plate of bread into the main room, where the man and Papa were conversing in Swahili.
During my time here, I’ve learned that whenever there is a new person in the home, it’s polite to shake their hand, learn their name, and tell them your name before sitting down.
So I greeted this man, and then he asked me to sit in the chair next to him, which I did. As we sipped tea, he spoke to Mama and Papa in Swahili, and then he turned to me.
“You are from America?” he asked.
“Yes, yes,” he said as he took a delicate sip of tea, speaking in a low, reflective tone that would fit an Ivy League professor.
“You know,” he said after a few moments. “English is our national language in Kenya.”
I spent most of the day Friday doing health screenings on 60 children who attend the school for orphans. I was happily surprised that most of them are up to date on their immunizations, are growing well and are getting adequate nutrition — mostly because the school makes it a priority to feed them healthy, nutritionally-dense foods.
I walked back to the homestead in the late afternoon on Friday. I meant to lay down for a few minutes….but woke up 5 hours later because Papa was calling my name.
It was after 9 p.m., and the family was sitting down to eat. (They eat late at night because the women don’t start cooking until 7 p.m., when the sun has gone down and the heat in the kitchen is tolerable.)
Dinner consisted of boiled red beans, sautéed cabbage and large, round pieces of fried bread called chapati (like a thick, slightly chewy savory pancake.)
I ate a few bites of food and drank some black tea, but I was exhausted and nauseated, so a few minutes later, I went back to bed.
The first day I arrived at the homestead here in Kenya, I met the older couple I’d be staying with for the next three weeks.
They invited me to call the Papa and Mama, and they began to call me “daughter.” We drank a lot of tea that evening and they told me about their 7 children, 6 of whom are married. They told me about my “brothers” and “sisters” and my “nieces” and “nephews”, the family members in Africa I never knew I had.
We stayed up talking for quite a while, and by the time we went to bed, it was settled. I was family. Or, as Mama said in Swahili, “Familia.”
I woke up the following morning to the sounds of a rooster crowing outside my window, birds chirping in a nearby tree, the donkey braying in the pasture, and the cows moo-ing in the tall grass on the far side of the garden.
And, just outside my door, I heard Mama’s voice say something like, “Dirty.”
A few minutes later, she called again, saying something that sounded like, “Dirta.”
I thought Mama was talking to another woman, and then I realized she was saying, “Daughter.”
“Yes, Mama?” I called.
She came into my room and sat on the edge of my bed. “Daughter, good morning,” she said. “The tea is prepared for you.”
When I left for Togo last year, it was shortly after the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and many people asked me, “Is it safe?”
I usually answered, “I don’t know for sure that it’s safe, but I do know for sure that I’m supposed to go there.”
When I left for Kenya last week, several people asked me the same question. “Is it safe?”
Kenya borders South Sudan and Somalia, which have both had violence and unrest and Nairobi, the capitol of Kenya, has experienced several terrorist attacks. In addition, it’s rainy season here, which means lots of mosquitoes, which means the risk of contracting malaria is 10x what it is in the drier seasons.
Lots of people have written asking how they can help the school for orphans where I’m currently serving in Kenya. For $12 you can feed 120 orphans breakfast and lunch for a day. Please give what you can so these kids can be well, think well and learn well!
Today is my 4th day in Kenya. So far it’s been a great experience….very friendly people, a kind host family, fun kids and a very responsive staff.
And yet, it has certainly been a stretching experience. I’ve only seen two other white people on the island so far. Francis said they’re with the Peace Corps, and they’ve been here for a few years.
I haven’t had coffee since I got here because in this region, it isn’t a “thing.” You can’t even find it at the grocery store. Everyone here drinks black tea, water or Coca-Cola.
Every time I walk through the streets, the children yell, “Mzungu!” Which is the local dialect (Kiswahili) for “White Person.” And, just like the children in Togo did, they run to me and try to touch me to see if anything magical or disastrous happens