Tag Archives: kenya

Chama Chama

 

Our eight-person team from the University Church of Christ in Malibu recently spent two weeks in Kenya on a mission trip and experienced the full spectrum of emotions, which most definitely included gut-busting laughter. One of the chief causes of hilarity was a popular Swahili song titled, Chama Chama (translated, Party, Party). It is unbelievably long (fourteen minutes) and the cheesiest kind of romantic, which is even funnier when the sultry voice transitions from Swahili to broken English, e.g., “I can’t get off my eyes from your photos.”

One day we were touring Mathare Valley, a famed slum in Nairobi, and were crammed into a tiny shanty when surprisingly Chama Chama blasted across a neighbor’s radio. Our host was confused by our initial reaction and then burst into laughter when we burst into song.

I took pictures and video clips from our trip and assembled a video to chronicle our trip—the sessions with the graduates, the home and work visits, the safari, and the friendships, both old and new. Of course the video is fourteen minutes long, and of course Chama Chama is the soundtrack. I doubt anyone beyond the eight of us who were there really want to watch, but it might be worth it just to join the Chama Chama phenomenon that is now sweeping Southern California.

Sunset on the Mara

Mara PicMy great privilege occurred to me as we raced along the bumpy roads of the Maasai Mara. The tans, browns, and yellows of the passing landscape waved our direction and the unspoiled breeze blasted our faces as we stood and braced for the ride of a lifetime. There are many in the world whose primary dream is an African safari, and in a moment it occurred to me that I have now been twice. What a humbling thought.

The hunt for rare sightings was exhilarating, and the sensation of racing through the Kenyan wonderland defies description, but the animals themselves are the superstars. Of course I snapped pictures. The lioness and her cubs. The curious giraffe. The lumbering elephant. The lazy leopard. The stalking cheetah. The ridiculous ostrich. The enormous hippopotamus. But every so often I remembered to put the camera away and simply be present in the wild with the magnificent creatures. It was in those moments that I discovered an unforced smile and a childlike sense of joy and wonder.

The sun set on the Mara at the end of our first game drive, and our driver stopped so we could behold the glory. From our vantage point the flaming ball of fire descended through an iconic acacia tree as we furiously snapped pictures as if we could ever forget. Yes, the animals are the stars of the safari, but the sunset stole the show.

Nature. That’s the word we use to describe the indescribable reality of that which is beyond human production. We create platforms to simply to stand as humble spectators and observe the magnificent world that we did nothing to create. Such primal beauty is difficult to see and even more difficult to comprehend immersed in what we call civilization. But I was privileged to catch a glimpse as the sun set on the Mara.

(Wishing I Could) Run Like a Kenyan

Kenyan RunKenyans are clearly the best distance runners on the planet. And I am clearly not. But I do love running, and I do love Kenyans, and if flights cooperate as planned I will be in Nairobi trying to figure out a way to go for a run when this update posts on Monday.

When I first visited Kenya two years ago, my friends, Dusty and Cecily, got up early with me one morning to go for a run with Paul, a wonderful young man and ultra-talented runner (pictured above). He took it easy on me, which provided the unforgettable experience of matching a Kenyan runner stride for stride, but when we approached the home stretch on a short run in the tiny village of Kamulu he challenged me to turn up the speed. Unfortunately, my speed was already turned up, so I told him to go for it. He did and left me smiling in the dust.

My wife and I decided on that trip that we would return and targeted two summers down the road. We are fortunate that our plan came to fruition in a church-related trip with six other good friends. So the blog will be on hiatus for a couple of weeks as we spend time in Nairobi and on safari—and if God keeps smiling on me, as I go for another run in this special place.  Stay tuned.

Peace on Earth

img_4126Thanks to our friend, John, and the Pacifica Institute, we recently hosted Muslim families for a Christmas dinner at our house.  That’s right, Muslim families for a Christmas dinner.  It was wonderful.  The stated purpose of the dinner was to build bridges of respect, understanding, and friendship between Muslims and Christians—and it sure worked.  We instantly have new friends and were honored to accept a return offer to visit their homes in the new year.

All of our guests came to the United States from Turkey, and as we talked over dinner it was sobering to sense the sadness in their hearts when they spoke of conditions related to terrorism in their home country.  And it was even more sobering to sense the fears they live with in this country when the actions of religious extremists lead others to associate such terrible violence with the religion they practice and love.

Possibly my favorite moment of the evening came when one of our guests slipped money to our youngest daughter when she shared about her work in Kenya last summer with street kids from Nairobi slums.  It seems that our guest has a soft spot in his heart for poor African children, and he couldn’t help but give money to support the Christian organization when he heard about the good work it is doing.

I shared with our guests the story from Kenya at this time last year when the terrorist group, Al-Shabaab, commandeered a bus that held Christian and Muslim passengers.  The terrorists demanded that the passengers separate by religion so they could execute the Christians, and the Muslim passengers, mostly women, led the refusal to answer by saying that if they would execute one they would have to execute all.  They were neighbors after all.  Miraculously, no one was killed.

Our guests had not heard the story and were visibly encouraged by it.  One of our new friends said that such reactions should be the standard response.

I sense that many are wary of the concept of interfaith dialogue, thinking that it means a dilution of religious conviction—a sort of “I’m-okay-you’re okay” approach to religious belief.  If you spend much time with any religious belief system you’ll realize that would be sort of silly.  Instead, I have to wonder what is terribly wrong with moving toward a world where we have “join us for dinner” relationships across all sorts of lines that purport to divide us.

Sharing dinner in our homes with new friends would sure go a long way toward a world where the scene that occurred on that Kenyan bus will be the standard response to those who deal in violence.  Not uniformity or watered-down beliefs, but neighborliness and solidarity for peace on earth and good will toward all.  I am a Christian, and at this time of year we remember an angelic proclamation to a group of shepherds about such things.  This particular dinner sure felt like a step in that direction.

Jeremiah’s Joy

My daughter, Hillary, is in the middle of a summer photojournalism internship in Kenya and recently published her first blog post and set of photographs.  First off, she didn’t have to show up her dad by out-blogging him on the very first post, but what can you do with these millennials?  And second, her photographs are simply stunning.

With no actual reason, I immediately set out to narrow the 150 pictures to my favorite one.  This proved impossible.  There are several that feature little kiddos that are just too awesome.  Like, for instance…

MITS 3

But my quest continued, and I succeeded in identifying two photographs that go together in my opinion to tell a powerful story.

As its website explains, “[t]he mission of Made in the Streets is rescuing children from the streets of Nairobi, Kenya, meeting their physical, emotional and spiritual needs, loving them fully, equipping them to earn a living and sending them out to a new life.”  It is a beautiful thing to observe firsthand, and what is full of beauty are the children.

Now don’t be mistaken.  This is not some make-believe world where staff members ride in on unicorns and pick up innocent children off puffy clouds and ride off on rainbows while angels sing.  No, it is messy work, and these children have seen and done and had done to them terrible things.  But what is striking when hanging out with these rescued kids are their good hearts in spite of such a painful past.  Their smiles are contagious.  Their basic human dignity is unmistakable.

Which is why I narrowed down my daughter’s works of art to two particular photographs.  The first is of a young man still living on the streets, and I love this particular picture because his smile betrays that good heart although he remains in the frightful streets of Nairobi.

MITS 1

But there is a second picture that in my mind completes the story.  It is Jeremiah, the first student I met on my trip earlier this summer.  Jeremiah is a big boy, close to my height and twenty times stronger.  He could be intimidating, but he is just the opposite—a kind, thoughtful, funny, tender young man.  Jeremiah sits in the front row of his classes and is an eager learner.  He likes to act in drama productions.  He is a good friend to many.

Hillary took a picture of Jeremiah being silly, and I absolutely love it because at one point Jeremiah was that young man in the other photograph, living in abject poverty but with a smile that betrayed his good heart I’m sure.  And the “after” photograph powerfully shows Jeremiah’s joy.

MITS 2

(And, I can’t help but say it given the title of my entire blog, I love that he is looking up.)

Kenya Believe It?

IMG_2941

I woke up in the East African village of Kamulu under a mosquito net listening to a rooster that apparently got something stuck in his throat while learning to yodel; in other words, not in Malibu.  Appropriately, a man named Moses led our team’s exodus from the Nairobi airport the night before, but when the morning light replaced the darkness, I was surprised by my surroundings despite multiple reports from previous church trips, including my own family.  It was simultaneously more primitive and wonderful than I had anticipated.

Why did I travel to Kenya?  It isn’t wrong to say that my wife insisted but probably more accurate to say that I needed to see for myself what had stolen her heart. Well, mission accomplished.

Because so many friends have been to Made in the Streets (“MITS”) before me, it would be silly to recount the same observations, like the yummy-ness of chapati, the joy-filled singing of liberated street children, the endless skies on the Maasai Mara, and the beautiful kids jumping streams of raw sewage in the Mathare Valley slums.  Instead, I’ll just share a few personally unforgettable moments:

  1. Meeting Vincent, an impressive seventeen-year-old young man, covered with mud, living in the mud, high as a kite to stave off hunger and cold and yet still able to carry on an intelligent, respectful conversation. I liked him immediately yet left him in such terrible circumstances with a fist bump and will never see him again in person.  But he will never leave my mind.
  2. A sunrise run through Kamulu on a crisp morning with Paul (pictured above), a MITS graduate who has become a part of our family since my wife practically adopted him, and for a moment, matching him stride for stride while imagining what it is like to “run like a Kenyan”—and then watching him effortlessly leave me in the dust down the home stretch.
  3. Traveling with Jackton and Millie to meet four MITS graduates now working in Nairobi: (i) listening to reggae music and enjoying a vanilla milkshake at the American-themed Java House with George; (ii) eating scrumptious mandazi prepared by Chef Brian in his apartment; and (iii) sharing in an impromptu Bible study with the two Marys. Four glowing successes.
  4. Standing with my wife in the darkness outside our safari tent and looking up at the African sky to discover more stars than I had ever imagined one sky could hold.
  5. Sitting under the ceiling fans at church in Kamulu and listening to rescued street kids sing Amazing Grace, particularly the verse that proclaims: Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come / ‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.

If I’m honest, I think I went to Kenya to check it off my list.  Instead, it did a number on my heart, too.  Kenya believe it?

 

Reflections from a Matatu

In Kenya

[Photo credit: Lee Morgan]

Hip hop music blasted from the Kenwood and Pioneer speakers aimed at the passengers’ faces on the matatu (bus) ride from tiny Kamulu to the big city of Nairobi.  Including the three members of my family, there were exactly three mzungus (white people) on the bus, and if we weren’t conspicuous enough, I fell into a lady’s lap as I boarded when the matatu unexpectedly (to me) lurched forward.  It turns out that my ability to make an impression transcends national borders.

Jackton, our friend and guide, warned us that it would be noisy, but I was still unprepared.  As DJ Simple Simon dropped the beats featuring the best in East African hip hop, an even louder horn consistently announced our presence to potential passengers.  Either that, or there was a Kenyan soccer fan on the roof with a turbo-powered vuvuzela, which would not have surprised me.

I learned that the young man dangling off the side of the matatu was the “conductor” who was responsible for picking up and dropping off passengers by yelling and banging on the side of the bus with his free hand.  Our conductor wore black Nike flights, a navy blue trench coat, and a brown flat-billed cap with a bright yellow sticker on the bill.  In California, I would have guessed he was from South Central, but we were most definitely in Kenya.

The matatu was named “The Inspector,” and as the kids like to say, it was dope.  The interior walls surrounding the aforementioned speakers were decorated with PR shots of the popular artists, and the ceiling was royal blue with white stars and had colorful Converse sneakers glued to the ceiling upside down.  The best feature, however, was the countless numbers of passengers that came and went all along the route.  After my graceful entrance, we had seats for the hour or so journey, but at times there were so many people on board that I made it to second base with multiple Kenyans without having to move a muscle.

It was quite a ride.

At one point my wife noticed that DJ Simple Simon offered a remix of a Taylor Swift song, a jarringly strange occurrence, and when we heard that Mr. Simon would appear in a Labor Day showdown at a club in Pomona, California, I no longer knew which planet I was on.  While my first matatu ride powerfully engaged every one of my senses, I particularly sensed that the world is a fascinating place, at times vast beyond imagination, and at times so tiny that our connections are undeniable.

Two of the three mzungus on The Inspector that day are now back in California, but the third, our youngest daughter, remains in Kenya for a summer internship.  Tomorrow is her birthday, and she seems so far away right now.  But I know that in certain and important ways she isn’t far away at all— and that she is with Kenyan friends she considers members of her family.  I hope she has the best birthday ever.

#PrayForOrlando

[Note: I’m taking a blog vacation for a couple of weeks and anticipate returning to action at the first of July.]

I will travel to Kenya this week with family and friends to spend the last half of June with an inspiring organization called Made in the Streets.  The U.S. State Department issued a travel warning for those traveling to Kenya, potential violence, terrorism, and whatnot.  I very much take such warnings seriously, and yet, in Santa Monica, California, this morning, fifteen miles from my house, a man was caught with chemicals, assault weapons, and ammunition on his way to terrorize a gay pride parade—just hours after the deadliest mass shooting in American history occurred at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida.  Where exactly are the safe places in the world right now?

For reasons specific to my personal belief system, I am neither shocked by nor afraid of the violence that currently dominates the headlines, but I do find it terribly sad, and my heart goes out to the victims and those who love them.  I join the chorus that urges everyone to #PrayForOrlando.

There are things that should be done, and we (however defined) should do them, but there is no easy fix in this world for hatred and violence.  I continue to believe that the complicated solution is a revolution of indiscriminate love and maintain my commitment to such a revolutionary practice.

I really do believe that love, eventually, wins.

Crazy Dreams

I almost did something insane. My wife and I are on a team headed to Kenya this summer (note: this is not the insane part) to live for a couple of weeks alongside an inspiring organization called Made in the Streets (“MITS”) that rescues street children from the Nairobi slums. Our youngest daughter is going, too, but she will spend her entire summer there as a photojournalism intern. Both my wife and daughter are in love with MITS from past trips, and I must go see for myself what has grabbed their hearts.

Still not the crazy part.

I’m a runner. Well, I’m a runner who is struggling to find motivation to keep being a runner, so I emailed Dusty, our fearless leader to Kenya, to ask what opportunities there might be to run with the Kenyans while there. Dusty had an idea or two and then suggested looking for a race in Nairobi. Well, I didn’t find a race in Nairobi, but I discovered that one of the toughest marathons in the world will occur about four hours north of Nairobi while we are there.

Now to the crazy:
1. The race is held a hundred miles from the equator, so 90+ degrees.
2. Add high humidity.
3. Add the dust from running on a dirt road.
4. Add the thin air of a 5500’ average elevation.
5. Add that I don’t have enough time to train for a normal marathon (and this would be my first).
6. Add actual lions.

Yep, actual lions. The race is held in a game preserve, and in addition to 140 armed rangers it is stated nicely under the “safety” tab on the marathon’s website, and I quote, “A helicopter and Supercub light aircraft monitor the movements of the large species during the race.”

In. Sane. Cray. Zee.

I actually came to terms with going for it—until I learned how much it would cost (and by cost, I mean financial; for some reason, the potential human cost did not deter me). Registration is $250 (steep, but okay) along with a $1,500 fundraising requirement (steep, but I would have bugged all of you for it anyway); however, it would cost $2,000+ more just to travel there and back and sleep in a tent. I’m crazy but not crazy rich.

Here’s the deal. Somewhere in the insanity I found motivation to run again. Okay, sure, the nightmares featuring lion attacks helped, but for the most part, I’m back at it again even though I am not going to run this amazing race.

I haven’t exactly identified the lesson here, but if you are in need of some motivation in some aspect of your life, you might ask someone for suggestions and be open to considering possibilities beyond your wildest dreams. It somehow got me out of bed this morning.

Permanence

Nothing says next stage of life quite like receiving a text/picture of/from your youngest child in her Seattle tattoo parlor of choice. It is a real attention-grabber. The gentleman/artist in the photograph with her did appear to be wearing surgical gloves, which felt like a win all things considered.

She may or may not be my child; I am without tattoo, at least none that I have discovered, and I have been with me at almost all times. My tattoo-less status is not a moral stand, however; instead, my particular phobias include in no particular order: fear of physical pain, fear of permanent markers, and fear of misspelled words. If the tattoo artist was an actual boa constrictor, it would be my worst nightmare.

My dad had a large, prominent tattoo of a battleship on his bicep, which made perfect sense for a WWII sailor, but I am embarrassed to say that it took me a couple of decades to realize that “Ruby” was probably not the name of the battleship. The lack of texting technology during the Second World War worked in favor of the emotional state of my grandmother.

But our daughter is so cool. She carefully chose her tattoo, a Swahili phrase, and described it this way:

Nakupenda was the first Swahili phrase I learned on my first trip to Kenya back in 2012. It means “I love you” and is a constant reminder of my love for Kenya, for the students at MITS, for travel, for education, and for doing all I can to help bring more love to the world. This phrase has meant so much to me for the past 4 years and now, in the handwriting of my Kenyan brother, Paul, it will always be a part of me.

I love it. And her. But I confess that my first thought upon hearing that she was actually going through with it was, “Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Which, actually, was not a conscious thought, but a deeply-repressed and possibly unspoken lesson from childhood that said, “No, that is not a good idea.” Why not? The voices in my head said something about permanence. This youngest child of ours now has a message permanently imprinted on her body (laser removal technology notwithstanding).

Here’s the funny thing: She chose it because of its permanence. That’s the point.

“…it will always be a part of me.”

Yes, it will, sweetheart, and that makes me smile. You know, come to think of it, ink or no ink, all of us are tatted up by our life experiences and the deep values that shape who we are and what we hope to become.

Permanence has a negative side, but it has a glorious side, too.