(Click on the photos to see the complete picture, and go to the full album by clicking on”latest photos” in the left column).
I’ve been trying to determine at which point the trip became more than I’d planned on – more than I thought it could be. I went into it excited about time with the students but nervous about the unknown living conditions. Particularly.. squatty potties, with which I was not yet an expert, despite my nearly three years of living in Africa. Andy was glad for me to get out of Nairobi and see some more of up-country Kenya. I guess I was glad for that too, in a sort of disengaged kind of way. I certainly didn’t expect my life to be changed by the people of a small community called Olepishet.
When we arrived on Friday afternoon, we met with our host coordinator, a Maasai man near my age, named Patrick. He was dressed in Western clothes, but all the other young men with him were dressed in traditional Maasai clothing. This means lots of red, beads, and dangling things. There were fourteen of them and fourteen of us. Their role was to focus on us for the five days that we would be there – as our cooks, our guards, and our “entertainment” (or, as it turned out, our friends).
I’m not going to give you a full detailed minute-by-minute account here. Instead, what I want to focus on is what or who I found when I went on this trip with twelve high school seniors and one other adult sponsor. I found a treasure nestled in a lush green area of the Rift Valley. I’ve been in Kenya for a while now. I’ve seen a lot of it and met a lot of people, but never had the chance to engage with people in a traditional culture for so long and in so intense a fashion. The Maasai have many fascinating aspects to their culture, and pretty much none of it is similar to our own American culture. Although I was sometimes surprised, shocked, and befuddled by the cultural differences, I rather quickly began to melt into their community and found myself changing to become more like them. After spending time with these men, along with their wives, children, and other family and community members, I found that something was happening in my heart. There’s no other way to describe it other than that I fell in love with this community.
What was special about it? I had met Maasai before (spent a weekend at a ladies retreat with 40 Maasai women and loved it). There are, however, many unique and beautiful things I found in the Olepishet community. Our team talked this all through during our debriefing time following the trip. The students mentioned that the church’s worship in the Sunday service was amazingly pure, their hospitality and generosity was unparalleled in our collective experience, and that their lives were unusual even for Maasai (they farmed as well as herded cattle).
We talked about how the community leader, an elder named Ole Kijabe, had an amazing testimony of faithfulness and perseverance which stood as a challenge to us all: that one person can actually make a difference in his community, for generations to come. For me, though, the specialness of this place was hard to name. It was a profoundness which rocked me as I looked in their eyes, as they gave to me without asking in return, and as I found myself becoming a better person when I was around them. It seemed that the love and warmth that I always had wanted to show the people of Africa, but for some reason had never been able to, had found a grateful place to land, and so it grew and blossomed. I discovered that I was smiling more freely and with a sincerity that was startling even to me. The bond I formed with several of the community members, despite the language barrier, made it nearly impossible to leave. I think the only thing that kept me from staying behind was my own dear family waiting for me back in Nairobi.
There are a few snapshots I want to give you of the beauty I found in Olepishet. First, an old woman who approached me after our group had sung for the community. I had spoken before the songs we sang to explain the meanings, and thus was singled out amongst the fourteen of us. Also, I was the only adult female in our group. She (the old woman) and I were completely unable to verbally communicate, with the exception of “Sopa”, which is their greeting. She stood there before me, grasping my hand and mumbled something. I looked around desperately for one of the Maasai guys who could interpret her Kimaasai language for us. He said she really wanted to greet me. Since we had already greeted each other with “sopa”, I wasn’t sure what more she wanted, as I don’t completely understand the culture. She was so old that she couldn’t speak intelligibly, so he couldn’t tell me much more. However, as she stood there, just looking in my eyes and seeming to want to say something that she was unable to say, I started to think that she felt a connection to me. Something had touched her, while I was speaking or singing or maybe it was my appearance, that made her want to cling to me. Of course I’m guessing here, but it impacted me deeply. I wanted to speak with her. To listen to her. To understand her. Oh, that I had time and ability to sit down and do those things!
Next portrait: a little girl I met in the cattle corral. They were showing us the cows that had just come in for the evening. Their culture revolves around cattle, so this was an important field trip for our group. However, I wasn’t as interested in cows as in the kids who were milling around staring at us. There was one little girl who eventually warmed up to me. She, like the other children, was wearing old, dirty, hand-me-down and re-sized clothes and had been carrying a baby, presumably her sibling, on her back. The dirt-covered, barefoot children with swarms of flies in their faces stood near us timidly, smiling beautiful smiles and breaking my heart. The little girl and I played together (speaking Kiswahili) for a while. I taught her to say “boo” to the boys who kept sneaking up for a peak at me. Finally, she just wanted to stand by me. I was wearing my shuka (Maasai blanket) around my shoulders. Shortly before this, an older woman had tied it on for me, Maasai-lady style. The girl got under the shuka and clung to my waist. You wouldn’t have even known she was there, she was completely hidden. I discovered from my English-speaking Maasai friend, Geoffrey, that she is his cousin, is six years old, and her name is Sietoi. I had to leave her when the sun finally set. The next day, Geoffrey helped me by telling Seitoi’s mother that I wanted to see Sietoi again. She came to our campsite after school (she walks quite far to and from school every day) and we exchanged gifts. She gave me a beaded bracelet. She didn’t want to let go that day, since it was “ole sere” (good-bye) for us. Neither did I. Her mother came to say “ole sere” and “ashe oleng” (thank you very much) the next day as we left the village, and she brought yet another bracelet for me from Sietoi.
Next, I want to tell you about Lillian. She is the wife of Patrick, our host and the pastor of the church. Lillian seems quite young. Maybe early twenties, but I’m not sure. She and I met on our second day and saw each other once a day afterwards. We could only communicate with each other in Kiswahili, but neither of us were very good at it since for both of us, Kiswahili is our second language. So, we spent most of time smiling at each other, holding hands, wanting to say that we wanted to get to know each other but couldn’t even get that far. Women in their culture are quite separated from the men. It seemed to be unusual to find a husband and wife actually standing together. So, getting anyone to interpret for us was pretty much impossible. Finally I asked Patrick if he could tell her that I had a gift for her. He brought her to me, so they were together when I gave it to her, and I was thus able to say a little of what I wanted to say. I gave her a few things, including my small Bible, and said that I hoped she could use it as she learned English, as I knew she was trying to do. She gave to me a beautiful beaded necklace, which was very elaborate and probably cost her a great deal to make. When we were loading into the vans the next day, she was there to say “ole sere”. She gave me another amazing necklace and clung to me. What I can’t forget about Lillian is her expressive eyes. I long to know what she wanted to say.
The fourteen Maasai men, (you could call them warriors, though most had already past the official warrior age, which begins in your teens and extends into your early twenties), surprised and warmed my heart. You won’t believe this, but we bonded over volleyball, playing Uno, and some amusing incidents around the campfire. I taught them my few card tricks and nearly beat them at Uno (they were too good, though). A few of them spoke English, which was wonderful. Most of them spoke decent Kiswahili, so communication went quite well with their group, especially since we had two Kenyan students in our group.
Three of them are teachers in nearby communities, where there are schools, though they have not been to university. Geoffrey, whom I mentioned earlier, told me about some seminars he has taken to learn how to teach math and he hopes to go to university some day and study early childhood development. This surprised me, and yet, when I saw him with the children, I could see that he was serious. The rest of the men work with the cattle and in the fields each day, just like every member of the community. Many are married with small children. They all live in nearly identical manyattas, (mud huts). Most are related to one another in some way, since many of them come from Ole Kijabe’s family.
We actually did work and not just play Uno, but only a little bit. We helped fortify a fence with branches from trees for several hours. The majority of the time was spent learning about their culture and their community, and also just hanging out. Had we gone there just to work, the experience would have been very different. The downtime gave us the opportunity to ask questions, laugh, sing, and bond. The students had a great time, too. We grew together as a team, as well. But, our focus wasn’t on us as much as it was on the Maasai, which was as it should have been.
By the last evening, around dinner time, it had really sunk in to me that this trip was proving to be a pivotal point in my life. I had begun to recognize that I had been changing and that I liked who I was becoming. I began to get worried about leaving and not being able to come back. I began to worry that I would forget about it once I got back to “reality”. I saw that the love for the people that had been growing in me seemed to be reciprocated, as my collection of jewelry gifts was growing (in the end I had been given twenty different items), as people wanted their picture with me, and I was called on more and more to speak and pray for the group. It made me realize that five days was not enough for these new friendships. God was building something beautiful, I knew it.
Beginning on the drive back, I began to pray and reflect. What was God doing? Surely every CFS (‘Cultural Field Studies’ – our school’s program) wasn’t like this! How could people live with the heartache of leaving every year? I asked around other groups, I asked the students in our group, I asked teachers about other places/trips and I realized that my personal experience wasn’t the norm. Those who had experiences like mine were few and far between. I knew that God had sent me there for a purpose and that the connection I found there was something that began long ago when I started to dream about going to Africa. That this was the place I had dreamed of, and these were the people.
As I reflected, I knew that I still feel called to the school, to teaching theatre, and to my students (third-culture-kids, specifically) and that Andy’s job is the best job in the world for him. None of that had changed with this trip. I realized, though, that this was an answer to prayer for us. Andy had been talking for a long time about us going up-country as a family occasionally, as he gets to experience so much on his trips of Africa outside of Nairobi that we never see. He knew it would be good for me and for the kids. We had been watching other families, both at AIM IS and at our school, who have ministries up-country which they do “on the side,” but I could never understand how they started those and why. Now I get it. God must forge the relationship and He must originate the passion. It just hadn’t happened for us… yet.
There are some places, Olepishet being one of them, which have already had missionaries there, (and in this case, the missionaries have left), and where a healthy church has been established, but that still have needs in the community. Education, health-care, church-leader-training, and clean water are all areas of need that I can immediately see in Olepishet. Their joy in the Lord, purity of worship, and generosity masked their needs, but I knew there had to be more than they were saying. I actually don’t even know what the specific dreams are of my new friends Patrick and Ole Kijabe for their community. But I intend to ask.
Andy and I have agreed to try to go there as a family over Spring Break, if we can arrange it with them, to introduce my family to the community, to continue the relationship, and to try to find out what God wants us to do there. The “God-thing” about it all is that some of the hardest part has been done, the foundation of friendship and trust has been laid, which is only because of the format of this particular CFS site, the chemistry between our group and the community, and the stirring of the Holy Spirit in me to not let it end. Andy and I are praying even now about some particular ideas and we are excited to see what God does.
Would you pray with us that we will follow God and listen carefully? We’ll definitely keep you informed of anything concrete that comes up. Will you also pray for my new friends in Olepishet? I think you can see the needs behind the stories. Thank you for your love and openness to the people of Africa through your support of us and prayers. God is doing something great. What a privilege to be even a small part of it.