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A Dream So BigOur unlikely journey to end the tears of hunger
By Steve Peifer Gregg Lewis
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2013 Steve Peifer
All right reserved.
Chapter One"What in the World Am I Doing Here?"
Two contrasting yet interrelated feelings hit me the moment I walked through the exit doors of the terminal at Nairobi International Airport at 6:00 a.m. and stepped into Africa for the first time. Number one was the worst, most exhausting case of jet lag I'd ever experienced. The second was a sudden, heightened awareness of my own alienness.
After a twenty-eight-hour journey from the United States, including a fifteen-hour layover and whirlwind tour of London, with my wife, Nancy, and our seven- and ten-year-old sons (who'd had all of six hours of sleep over the previous two days) in tow, I understood the exhaustion. I was simply glad to have survived my very first international travel experience and have all eight pieces of our luggage arrive in Kenya with us.
What caught me by surprise was how suddenly and totally out of place I felt. We definitely weren't in Kansas anymore. I'd lived in Kansas for a few years before I moved to Texas. And Nairobi wasn't anything like anywhere I'd ever been before.
Most of the hour-and-a-half drive to our final destination remains a blur on my memory screen. Any travel-guide spiel offered by the man who met us at the airport and drove us out to Kijabe went right over, or in and out of, my head, although I clearly remember that I found driving on the left side of the road so disconcerting that I couldn't count the number of times I flinched in anticipation of a horrendous crash.
But a few of the sights and sounds and smells of Africa penetrated the fatigue enough to leave some lasting impressions. All of which fed my out-of-place feeling. Every direction I turned, everything I saw looked so ... so foreign.
More than three million people live in Nairobi, Kenya's capital and largest city. Most of them seemed to be out walking shortly after dawn on this weekday morning. The rest rode in matatus (privately owned vans and minivans) that serve as the country's primary "mass" transportation. As many as thirty Kenyans will pack into a van built to hold nine people comfortably; I saw some matatus with riders on top and others with "outside passengers" standing on running boards or hanging from luggage racks or clinging to open and swinging back doors.
Neither drivers nor pedestrians hesitated to cross multiple lanes of moving traffic wherever and whenever they wanted. Then there were the donkey carts using the same lanes as motorized vehicles. And the chickens, goats, and sheep that wandered all over the place.
The city was so crowded and dirty, even the new buildings looked tired. Vendors peddled anything and everything you can imagine (and some you can't) in what looks like an endless roadside f lea-market. The farther you get from the downtown business district, the more frequently you see and smell trash burning right along the streets. Somewhere between one and two million people make their homes in Nairobi's slums, living in sheet-metal shacks with dirt floors.
Even if you aren't a big city fan, you can enjoy the energy of New York, the vitality of Chicago, the diversity of San Francisco. It was hard to find anything in Nairobi to appreciate, except for the more than three million individuals who live there in some of the most deplorable conditions you can imagine.
When I managed to look past the constantly moving mass of people walking along, and back and forth across, the roadways to focus on one person at a time, what I saw was even more unsettling—young kids the age of our JT and Matthew carrying around large jars of glue, sniffing all the time. And as I looked more carefully, I was amazed by how many people I noticed in the background—sitting, staring, and going nowhere. There seemed to be no hope in their eyes.
Even after we got out of Nairobi, a steady stream of trudging pedestrians paralleled the road, as many people walking away from the city as walking toward it.
There wasn't quite as much to see in the countryside, but what was there in that vast rural landscape felt just as foreign to me as anything I'd seen in Nairobi. Which made me wonder yet again (and not for the last time), What's an ordinary, unadventurous (some might say "humdrum"; I prefer "typical"), suburban American guy like me doing in a place like Kenya—for a year, no less? What was I thinking when I agreed to this?
The short answer is that it seemed like a good idea at the time. Our family had recently gone through such a painful and difficult time that Nancy and I decided a change of scenery and the chance to leave the past and get away for a while would be good for all of us.
Friends had convinced us that spending a year in Kenya as short-term volunteer dorm parents at a boarding school for the children of missionaries would be just the way to provide the time and opportunity for even the deepest of our emotional wounds to heal. But that was before I realized just how far away we were getting. After two days of travel that landed us half a world and eight thousand miles from home in a place that felt like a different planet, a year suddenly didn't seem very short-term at all.
It wasn't as if I didn't expect to have to make some major adjustments, coming from American middle-class suburbia to life in rural Kenya. Almost every instructor at the intensive three-week orientation and training session we'd gone through just before leaving the States had emphasized a variety of challenges we should expect. I'd been particularly interested in and focused on the cross-cultural differences we were told we might encounter.
Three examples had stuck in my mind.
One instructor illustrated a difference in cultural mindset by saying that in our Western culture, if a kid hits a ball through a window during a game, it is considered his fault and he's responsible for the repair bill. In Kijabe, Kenya, if a kid hits a ball through a window, the whole team bears the responsibility for it because "the game did it." I thought there was much to be said for that sort of shared community and family spirit.
A veteran missionary at our orientation training told about being invited for a meal at a national family's home where a tribal tradition is to give the oldest male present the honor of eating the head of the chicken being served for supper. When the missionary asked his host how to eat it, the national laughed until he fell down, and then summoned all his neighbors because he could not believe that an adult male did not know how to eat a chicken head. (FYI: You eat it all, including eyes and beak. It is considered rude not to try, but if you truly cannot eat something, you apologetically say, "It defeats me!" which I suspected would quickly become a Peifer family tradition with Matthew whenever we had spinach.)
A professor of anthropology had talked to us about how different cultural views of the world can lead to very different conclusions. He told of visiting one tribe (there are fifty tribes in Kenya, and tribal loyalty is still the strongest and primary source of affiliation among Kenyans) that still practices multiple marriages. The custom in that tribe is for each wife to live in a different hut, and a husband stays overnight in a hut with a wife only if he is planning to be intimate with her, which means the entire village knows when he is going to be with each wife. The professor looked at a man with four wives and concluded that the national was oversexed. But then the national came to the professor's home and looked at the bedroom and asked if the professor slept there. The professor said, yes, he did. "Where does your wife sleep?" the national asked. "She also sleeps here," replied the professor. "Every night?" asked the incredulous national. His conclusion: Americans are oversexed.
It had been one thing to contemplate rather fascinating cultural differences from thousands of miles away. Somehow the differences seemed a lot bigger, or at least a lot more real, now that I'd actually landed in Kenya. The differences, the reminders that we were indeed in Africa—for a year, no less —were suddenly all around me. And they were all I could really absorb that first morning.
I was reassured somewhat, if only temporarily, when we turned off the main, trans-Kenyan highway and drove down a steep, rutted gravel road into Kijabe, where we pulled into a long drive and then through a gate into what felt like an oasis of familiarity right there in the African bush. Rift Valley Academy had the look and feel of many small college campuses I'd visited back in the States, a haven that instantly felt more like home than anything I'd seen since we'd walked off the plane at dawn that morning.
In our family's three-bedroom upstairs apartment in the dorm that would be our home, it took all of twenty minutes to unpack and put away everything we'd brought to wear for twelve months. Then as Nancy further explored and inventoried our new residence, I took JT and Matthew down to the playground just across the road to release some of their pent-up energy after two grueling days of confinement and travel.
As I watched my sons run and play, an American man about my age walked up and introduced himself. I told him who I was, that my wife, Nancy, and I were going to be the fifth grade boys' dorm parents, that we were from Grapevine, Texas, and that we'd just landed in Nairobi earlier that morning.
No sooner had I articulated those few particulars than he asked, "Hey, do you want to preach down in the valley this Sunday?"
"Well, uh ..." I was a bit taken aback by his question. "I've never preached before, but if you really need someone to speak ..."
"You've never preached before?" he exclaimed. "What Bible college did you go to?"
"I didn't go to Bible college. I graduated from Northern Illinois University with a degree in political science." Why did I suddenly feel like I needed to apologize for that?
My new colleague just looked at me, as if he simply didn't know what to say to that. Finally he asked, "Well, how long you here for?"
I'd learned that some people come to teach or work at RVA for only a term. So I proudly replied, "A whole year."
"You came all this way for just one year?" he asked. And before I figured out how to answer such a judgmental question, which sounded more like an accusation, he abruptly left. Which I took to mean I wouldn't be expected to preach in the valley that Sunday after all.
I figured that was probably just as well, since I felt rather more prepared to eat a chicken head than to preach a sermon.
Truth be known, until we'd landed in Nairobi and I felt so suddenly out of place, I hadn't been worried so much about adjusting to African culture as I was that being a missionary might be what would "defeat me."
I wasn't a preacher, a teacher, a doctor, or anything else I'd ever thought a missionary needed to be. And much of our experience at orientation school had underscored my sense of inadequacy. Other people there preparing to come to Africa not only seemed so much better equipped professionally; they all seemed to be so much better people, so much more sincere Christians than I was. Many of them had an obvious passion for Africa I'd never felt, or a lifelong sense of calling that I'd never experienced. I felt privileged to be among such committed, faith-full people. But I also found it humbling because I realized I wasn't at their level.
Now my playground encounter with a real-life, experienced, veteran missionary only amplified the question I'd asked myself during our training and again on the long drive from the airport to Kijabe: "What in the world is someone like me doing here?"
* * * Before we left the States, we promised family, friends, and other people who gave financial support so our family could go and work in Kenya that we'd stay in touch by sending regular emails to keep them updated on our experiences. I wrote my first email report after we'd had a chance to recuperate from the trip and had a week or so to settle in. After recounting some of our orientation school experience and a few details from our journey, I offered this brief description of where we were:
The Rift Valley Academy (RVA) is located at an elevation of seventy-five hundred feet, to be above the malaria level. It is almost one hundred years old, and it is like a small college campus. There are dorms and classrooms throughout the campus. Teddy Roosevelt laid the cornerstone for one of the oldest buildings during one of his African hunting trips. Although we are at the equator, our elevation means that it is cool during the winter season, which is now. There is no heat except our fireplace, and the house is cement block (which all houses are here because of termites), so it can get pretty cold for us Texans. It was fifty-three yesterday. We also have a fireplace outside to warm our water for bathing.
The official languages here are English and Swahili, so Nan and I will be attending language school next week for several weeks. My bride received her college degree in linguistics, so she is thrilled. Since her slow husband can make her break out in a rash with his French accent, I am sure Swahili will be more of a challenge to me, but we are excited about it.
It is beautiful here, and the nationals are wonderful people. The poverty is almost beyond understanding; the average African makes two hundred and eighty dollars a year. Kenya has the highest amount of AIDS in the world, and the large mission hospital just down the hill from the campus says one out of four patients are there because of HIV. There is currently a drought too. We are in the rainy season, but are not getting any rain, just fog and damp. The crops are already damaged, but if no rain comes soon, they will be totally lost. Please be praying for rain. RVA was between terms when we arrived in late July. Which meant the campus felt almost deserted with many of the faculty and staff away during the break and no boarding student scheduled to return until the first of September for the new school year. But that gave us time to get acclimated and prepare for all of our responsibilities, which would begin with a bang when the kids got back and the term started.
As part of our introduction to Africa, a group of us from RVA, including a number of new staff members, took a day trip to Lake Nakuru National Park a couple of hours away. It is a large park, almost two hundred square kilometers in size, where you can drive around grasslands and forests on unpaved roads and see, in their wild and natural habitat, fifty-six species of mammals and four hundred fifty species of birds, including a f lock of hundreds of thousands of flamingos.
After touring the park for several hours, our group stopped to eat lunch. As we sat around enjoying our picnic, a baboon leaped into our circle, grabbed a sandwich, and plopped down to eat it.
There are several things I didn't know about baboons before I arrived in Africa. To be honest, I don't recall ever giving baboons a thought until I got to RVA and realized we shared the campus with a number of them. But they have two-inch canines, and four of them can take on a lion, so you don't mess with them. A common defense is to throw stones near them; you don't want to throw at them, because that can make them mad and they will charge. Or they'll pick up the stones and hurl them back!
So after a stern warning from a veteran missionary not to show our teeth, because that is a sign of aggression, we drove them off with stones and moved our picnic. Five minutes later, they invaded again, and grabbed potato chips and calmly ate them, until we got more stones and drove them off. Then we stood guard so they wouldn't swipe our food for the rest of the meal. It seemed even African picnics required some cross-cultural adjustments I'd never considered before.
* * *
In one of my next emails home, I reported on yet another cross-cultural dining adventure our family experienced when the electrical power on campus was off all day and we went "out to eat" for the first time since we'd arrived in Kenya.
We walked down and out the main gate of the campus to the dukas (or shops) serving the neighborhood that line the road that runs past the school. Dukas like these are a common sight everywhere we've been in Kenya, but if they were in the States, we would think they were abandoned and would never imagine they were places of business. They look like shacks made of wood or tin with tin roofs. They are painted bright colors, if they are painted. And they usually have any available surface covered with large signs advertising everything from Coke to Blue Band (the margarine of choice here) to cell-phone providers.
We walked into a duka that said Nehemiah's Hotel. (Hotels here are restaurants.) There was a dirt floor, open windows and doors (no screens), and no electricity, so it was semi-dark. There were five non-matching tables and about fifteen chairs, each different from the others.
Excerpted from A Dream So Big by Steve Peifer Gregg Lewis Copyright © 2013 by Steve Peifer . Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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