Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Day 8: Love wins

Life in Kenya changed this week, though I'm not there right now to experience the new reality. On Saturday, terrorists stormed and took siege of the largest and most popular mall in Nairobi, creating an indelible mark on countless lives and the communal identity of our city. Striking a place employing and drawing every echelon of society, every nationality and race, every age and religion - they acted with strategic brilliance to maximize the impact of their terror.

Going through the pictures of the siege (which I have forced myself to do daily in honor of those lost and those who survived), I see horror and fear that cannot be erased. These lives are changed. These souls face months and years of recovery, flashbacks and fear. All these tangible responses alongside the less tangible but undoubtedly shifted lens to the outside. How to make sense of the classmate who does not return to school, or the empty desk at work, or the missing askari at one's favorite shop? Tangible and intangible, terrorist is the perfect name for these perpetrators. While we must not honor their purpose or fight fire with fire, the sad truth is they have succeeded in wreaking havoc.

Often, when I'm writing about my time in Kenya, I shy away from the hardest of stories or daily realities of living alongside poverty in a still-evolving post colonial society. I do not want to dishonor my second home, a country that has welcomed me in and accepted my work and energy with open arms, by telling stories that would discourage others from visiting. At times like this I am compelled to write - to tell the story, to try and communicate how intimately connected to this shifting paradigm I feel, to try and process something that is virtually unfathomable. Words can only do so much to tell the true story after all. As I try and connect the dots, I cherish those who upon hearing the news of this attack reached out immediately, even though I am now in the US. Somehow, they understood what it might mean, how terrifying it was to try and track down friends who I knew could be there. As Sudarsan Raghavan so eloquently articulated a few days ago, it could have been me.

Reviewing photos from the attacks, the one below stood out. The woman in the center is an American friend of friends, and is thankfully ok. I find this picture represents both the terror of Saturday's attack, alongside the beauty that is the city of Nairobi. Here are three people who are some mix of different races, religions and nationalities, holding each other up in response to those who use terror to seek control. I find so much hope in these three people, as excruciating as it is to attempt to understand the fear they must have been feeling. As I meditate on this photo I appreciate the words of a Muslim victim at the end of this video: "our religion preaches peace, understanding and humanity." Most do - and in that way we are one.

Photo Credit: NY Daily News

In war, we must align ourselves in a way that prioritizes peace above all else. How else can we do this than to walk arm and arm with our differences, turning our back on those who place terror above the possibility of peace.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Day 9: The Son

A few years ago I thought I had found my church. After years of feeling slightly overwhelmed by large congregations and the group identity that often accompanies them, I stumbled upon a house church. This church was being led by a pastor whose heart was rooted in Jesus, and not the various factions his birth, and subsequent death, led to. For just a few weeks I gathered in a small apartment amongst fast friends and random strangers to go back to the beginning of the story. We broke bread together and gave testimony of God's presence in our lives just as the earliest Christians did. Since I had fallen in love with the pastor along with the church, when the relationship ended I struggled to reconcile what I'd lost. A friend's community church provided solace during those first few Sundays when I sat weeping silently in the absence of romantic love, but surrounded by the sanctity of God's love. I moved away shortly thereafter and soon returned to a feeling of distance between what Christ represented in his life, and what religion has done with these truths. Since that time I have recognized the presence of God in a number of gathered moments (both in church and beyond), but have not been able to bring myself to return on a regular basis.

In the past year I have been depleted and raw in a way that is utterly and profoundly new. Now, I'm no stranger to anxiety and depression - but I sense that what's going on lately is largely a result of near constant movement and a depleted immune system thanks to various ailments incurred while living abroad. Here I am with a dream of a job based on service and empowering those in need (in other words, what I understand Jesus stood for), but my body and personal faith has become so depleted it feels constantly threatened by my own exhaustion. As I settle into new rhythms and opportunities to take care of myself and rebuild my strength, I have been humbled by a call towards faith I haven't felt in quite some time. 

Historically, my faith has always revolved around the Holy Spirit, whose near constant presence I've felt throughout my entire life. This sense of a higher power is so profoundly emmersed in love as a counter to the desolation of human existence and impact on each other and planet, that I can't help but believe. As I was exposed to the Christian paradigm fairly early on, it has always been my lens, and I have never been able to find any fault with Jesus. But my distrust (and frankly, distaste)for many Christians has made it a strange and often solitary path - never wanting to align myself with the aspects of faith that condemn so many people I cherish, while at the same time knowing that my life depends on the ability to rest in salvation - not just for myself, but for this devastating world we live in.

And so in these months of renewal and rebirth, I sense a need to get to know the Son - the name upon which so much division and angst is born, but who for me is starting to provide incredible comfort and care in this desert of a time. As has often been my experience, as soon as I open that sliver of my heart and mind, provision flows forth, and I have once again found my church. 

Since returning to the US this summer, my parents and I go to a book group studying the underground church with a handful of senior citizens every Wednesday night. I am brought to tears nearly every week as these beautiful souls despair over the state of the world, and the distance our religion has created between itself and the God we believe in. We talk weekly about Jesus and his disciples' "radical hospitality." We explore how the Christian "church" was founded on inclusivity and service. For it was this that made the early Christians stand out - not their proclamations or commitments to do good. 

One of the women who attends each week is caught in the struggle of "where to start?" and "what does it matter if no one will listen?" I studied her profile today as she repeated these questions, her soft gray hair twisted up atop her head and the lines of many decades framing the pain in her eyes. I told her afterwards of the philosophy that first took me to Africa - that we can't fix all the hurt in the world, but if each of us is open to doing something - the world will change. I told her that every time she is willing to speak up for those in need, the world DOES change.

On Sundays, I still lose focus from time to time during sermons that feel more like lectures than the discussions my brain finds easier to process. When this happens I focus on soaking up the rays of sun that come in through the wall of windows facing the Santa Lucia mountains. My dad insists we sit on the right side of church so we can enjoy the rose garden next to the sanctuary, which is never a problem as there is always plenty of space (it's an aging population, afterall). For most people my age, there would be nothing to tie them here - no music that stirs the heart, no strategically quirky sermons to make them feel like they're on the right path. But for me, it is the church I have been looking for - for it is bound to what Jesus came to earth and died for - radical inclusion, radical service, radical humanity. 

After book group tonight one of the attendees held back and pulled the pastor aside to ask if he could sleep at the church tonight. He is without a physical home, but like me, has found his church. What a privilege to receive the same welcome and to be able to worship beside him and this community of seeking servants. 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Day 10: Rebirth

I come to this blog when the need to write and process outweighs the various blocks that get in the way: exhaustion, lack of clarity and sometimes, fear. Still, it remains one of the most honest outlets I have - because though I know that in the coming years my "reality" will continue to change and I may not always think/feel/believe what I do here - in the moment in which I write, it is my utter truth. I bring to this page honesty, and the attempt to document the larger truths that life removed from the world I once knew has brought about.

Often, in the past year, I have felt lost. I have been detached from the clarity of purpose that brought me here. I'm no longer a student, no longer a representative of a global organization, no longer new and that exquisite combination of naivety and total openness to truth. In the past week I have heard myself warn expats contemplating a move to Nairobi with the same callous and arrogant attitude I used to loathe in long-time development professionals. I cringed as I heard the words come out of my mouth.

This remains one of the most challenging parts of a life split between countries, and the general passing of time therein. In a moment, I can indulge in all that I have guarded against - and in another, experience the land and people here as if for the first time.

On Tuesday, I drove just 20 minutes from my office to Kiserian, one of many towns in Kenya whose name I've heard countless times, but had yet to visit. As I journeyed up a rock-strewn drive, the Ngong Hills reined on the horizon. The trip followed a few days of rain, and the earth around us had that renewed quality of life springing forth. I could not stop marveling at the view, and the visit got better when reaching our destination. I was visiting the workshop of one of our brass suppliers; a twenty-four year old named Emmanuel. I had not realized that Emmanuel's missing bottom teeth were symptomatic of his Maasai upbringing, nor that he employed a staff of Luo street boys - significant in a culture in which tribe continues to dictate a fair amount of business and community engagement. Emmanuel demonstrated the jerry-rigged furnace and system he and his brother Moses use to melt old brass fixtures in order to recycle them into jewelry. I filmed Emmanuel's hands as he sifted the sand and molasses he uses to cast metal into jewelry pieces - including the starfish his workshop is making for a special Mother's day order for Sasa Designs. Amidst the back drop of one of Kenya's most famous landscapes, a handful of people are making their way and creating the best quality brass pieces I've found here yet.

Before we left, Moses asked me if I have hiked the Ngong Hills - I told him I had years ago when my best friend visited. He is a well-known guide of the area, and he quickly ran inside to give me a copy of the wild flower book he provided consultation on for the hills, proud to point out his picture and name in the authors' listing. Like his brother, he exudes generosity - somehow sensing the poverty of spirit that can plague even those who represent wealth in this country still fighting the ravages of poverty.

One our way back from Kiserian, Emmanuel told me about his years as a moran, the time in which he lived in the forest with other Masai youth in order to learn how to be a warrior. Emmanuel is soft spoken and delicate, yet he came alive as he talked about how each of the youth had to hold the lion's tale before it was wounded, before they killed it. It is illegal for the Masai to kill a lion anymore as a right of passage, but as a group they participated in this ritual - also staring it in the face as part of the process. In a dusty and borrowed SUV, I dodged potholes and thought of the danger I am so frequently aware of in Kenya while listening to one who has looked a lion in the eyes and lived to tell the tale.

As we drove, my phone rang for the fifth time that day, flashing the name, "Daniel Doc." Daniel has been saved in my phone for years that way - the "doc" referencing the fact that when I met him he was recovering from being hit by a car, and asked for assistance in paying his medical bills for the leg surgery that was not healing correctly. Daniel has no hands.

The day before I met Daniel roughly four years ago, I had made an internal decision that it was time to learn to say "no." For the majority of my life in Kenya, I have received requests for assistance on a daily basis. When the phone doesn't ring, the silence is peppered with the small hands that greet my window and many of the intersections that any daily commute entails. When indirect, the request is still there in the faded folds of kangas draped around babies on the backs of mothers who trek into town to beg. As I hear in the U.S., "they only want to buy booze," here the talk is of women who make more in a day begging than they would at an honest day's work. Somehow the blank stares and the rare conjured smile belay this suggestion.

So I told myself I couldn't afford to keep saying yes - no matter how small the pittance I offered was. I was a student of Development after all, these small fixes were only perpetuating a culture of charity and reliance - they failed to honor or empower the people they were meant to help. A piece of me still strongly believes this.

But on the day I met Daniel, I felt as if my quiet identity as a believer was being shaken to its roots. For here stood a man with no hands, reaching out nonetheless, asking for help. In what world could I justify saying no?

Thus began years of raising money, identifying lawyers to help him plead his case, providing school fees (both via my Rotary club) to help him learn how to use a prosthetic provided by another supporter, and more recently, support for his daughter's college diploma fees. Throughout the experience I've grown weary of working with Daniel, impatient of his inability to look beyond the day's needs - wary of his insistence that he has a plan to have a farm and earn his own money if only I can give him what he needs today.

When his daughter, Dorothy, started asking for money something didn't sit well. Her requests were always urgent - always exceptionally pleading - and often, when I first responded with "I do not have anything to give right now," followed up by what became a common phrase, "I won't ask you again." All of these requests came in extremely crudely typed English, discouraging to someone who has made peace with the fact that I can't help everyone - but the brightest students deserve help the most.

In her last request I received the following text, amongst others:

"plz just save my future."

Does this not get to the root of the reality of poverty? Here I am spending years trying to learn how to say no in order to in some way compensate for a career path that invokes a fear of ending up penniless and alone - and this young girl is literally begging for the money to take her final exams.

There are no words to describe how much I loathe being in this situation. To represent wealth, to be a vehicle for wealth thanks to the generosity of family, friends and my extended community who entrust me with donations to dole out to those in need. Years ago I had the only proper fight I've had with one of my best friends about the merits of giving to homeless people on the street. I maintained that it wasn't about changing their lives - they may very well spend that $.50 on booze and cigarettes. But who am I to play God? Who am I to question in that moment of passing them how they'll spend the few coins I deign to offer? Now, these many years later, I question constantly - even those who I have known for years and count as my local family. The weight of holding these precious funds too small to go around is ever heavy on my heart.

Today, a colleague shared the following verse, and told me that I was on her heart when she read it.

"Therefore, Your Majesty, be pleased to accept my advice: Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed. It may be that then your prosperity will continue.” Daniel 4:27

She told me that she sees me working to serve the poor, and she wanted to encourage me in this work. What an honor, and yet what further need to somehow document how hard this continues to be for me. And I cannot say how hard this is, as if it is definitive and universal. I truly believe there are saints on earth who find service to be far more natural, and far less complex, than my path has become. 

Yesterday, I finally picked up one of Daniel's calls. He asked how I was and told me the place he stayed in the slum had been damaged in the rains. He asked for help paying for a new place, and as my anxiety grew I told him I don't have anything to help him with. This is a half-truth. I do not have enough money to support this and get through the month based on my salary, but though my time in Africa has greatly dipped into my savings, I still have some left. While I am scrambling to figure out how to increase my income, the reality is if I needed to - I could give Daniel a little money. But where does it stop? And how do I create a life for myself alongside a life as the person who will always pick up the phone, even if I put it off - even if I don't talk nicely once I answer?

Many of these thoughts spilled out after my colleague shared Daniel 4:27 and Isaiah 58:10-11. Her moment of encouragement turned into that subtle scratch of only a thin-layer of surface skin, giving way to the anxiety and battle life in Kenya has become for me each time the request comes.

After we'd talked for awhile, she told me the story of a Kenyan friend of hers who was recently walking through downtown Nairobi and passed a mother begging with a crying child beside her. "Mama, why can't you take your baby out of the sun? Can't you see she is crying?" she asked. The mother moved the baby, but the crying continued. "Mama, are you hungry?" She walked to buy bread and milk, returning and giving them to the woman and her baby. The crying continued and the woman noticed that the baby had a very soiled diaper. Weary and starting to feel frustrated as she was in a rush, she still went to a local shop and bought diapers and baby wipes. Returning, she changed the child's diaper and said goodbye to the mother as she returned the baby to her arms.

As she walked away, a man tapped her arm and said to her, "It has been a long time since I have seen God. But I saw God today."

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Day 11: Stillness

I spent today luxuriating in an empty and solitary house. I enjoyed every moment - which I mention only because I spend a large amount of energy avoiding this very scenario. I'm not someone who typically enjoys long periods of time alone. More often than not, I'd rather wrap my schedule around the workings of friends and family than start a day based solely on the demands of my own body and soul.

In the wake of yet another trip across the Atlantic, this weekend has been a welcome time to let my body and brain ease back into my ever-evolving Nairobi life. Last night as I sat in a taxi, skirting downtown Nairobi and climbing the newly finished road to Westlands, I felt like I was experiencing the city as a stranger does. Somehow the result of my pattern of movement between two continents and multiple homes has unsettled the sense I briefly had of "knowing" this place. Relationships aside, my surroundings feel strangely foreign and I find myself retreating indoors in a vague need to distance myself from the spectrum I know this town to be.

This afternoon I sat on the balcony reading in the locked-in warmth of late afternoon sun. My muscles tingled from doing laps as they gradually relaxed into stillness, and I felt for a moment like I was at my family cabin in the mountains (one of of the few places in which I know how to simply relax and let the day be). In the approaching twilight I realized my profound need to rest and gather myself against the raging competition of need that is infinitely presented by the outside world - different here than there, but existing, above all.

When I am exhausted or brave enough to let this stillness in, it almost always results in a need to write. Thus now I find myself comparing my pin-prick on the universe life to that of this grand country I have crept in and out of for the past five years.

For tomorrow, Kenya votes.

We, the people who live here (if not all who will actually cast a vote) have stocked our pantries and fridges, stored up on phone credit and cash and determined to stay home until word is given that all is well. We sense that the next few days are likely to be calm, but that the chance of a runoff means we will repeat this preparation a month from now as the two main candidates go head to head.

In the quiet simplicity of my last two days, I realize that this election is just like an individual life. It is full of earnest proclamations and damning critiques aimed at limbs dangling from the same gangly body. It is drenched in sound and energy, in the pulsing of the promise that victory will surely propel the body forward, away from its demons and into the next frontier. Perhaps such victories will ring true, but (as in most places) the most innovative thinkers don't seem to stand a chance. Surely, the status quo will reign - and as such, the whole country may erupt in havoc for a time.

While I hope this is not the case, I have to remember that should all hell break loose in this election cycle, it will inevitably find its way back to the stillness I stumbled upon this weekend. For in this moment I am reminded that the utter exuberance (and sometimes agonizing confusion) of my life between two countries boils down to a basic path of learning bit by bit what it means to be human. As an individual I need to understand this in order to know my role in the larger world. More often than not, I need it to simply make peace with the soul I wake up with and put to sleep each and day.

If Kenya is not yet ready to align with the best interests of its people, to unify as a nation and not as a collection of tribes - it surely will be someday. For just as any individual must recognize, there comes a time when whatever distractions or challenges set give way to basic need. The body must be nurtured, fed, rested and relaxed. It must learn to listen to its deepest longings and guard against the banter when it threatens to drown its unique cadence. There is true humanity and identity in this stillness. I pray that both Kenya, and I, can find it.