We are in what some would call “chaos”. This time of transition, which can take from several months to a couple of years, is stressful and represents “culture shock” in the true form. This is not the short term culture shock that one experiences on brief trips such as being appalled by bad smells or feeling overwhelmed by new and strange sounds. This a deeper, more profound sense of being out of place in a new culture and disconnected from one’s home culture. We are currently in what is called the honeymoon period where everything is new and exciting. But it is also a time when we are trying to sink our teeth into the Kenyan culture which will ultimately allow us to better minister to the people we are serving. Connecting better with the culture here can also potentially soften the blow of culture shock down the road, at least in theory. Language acquisition is a big part of learning the culture as it provides a direct way for us to interact with Kenyans. The challenging part of this period of growth is that it is a process. It is a humiliating, frustrating, embarrassing, funny, but ultimately very rewarding process. We thought we would share some of these experiences.
It is amazing how unfamiliar words and sounds carry so much meaning. In Swahili, a single change in one vowel can communicate the difference between “to be drunk”, “to understand”, or “to be married” (kulewa vs. kuelewa vs. kuolewa). For a newbie-Swahili speaker, this can spell disaster. Fortunately, we have excellent teachers who have pointed out these language land mines so we can avoid making some embarrassing mistakes. However, I am a slow learner, and generally learn best by trying a bunch of wrong ways first. An important part of our day is spending time with a language helper. These are Kenyans who come to our school to sit and chat with us in Swahili. The first week, my language helper and I just stared at each other in uncomfortable silence as all I could say was, “Jina langu ni Heath.” After 15 minutes of repeating what my name was, it was clear that my helper was bored and could not understand why I have such a weird name. But as we have progressed, the conversations have gotten longer and more interesting, and with this has come as many mistakes as there are correct pronunciations. The other day, I was discussing my favorite foods with my helper. I eagerly explained that my favorite food is beef, which in Swahili is said “meat of cow.” As I finished, I glowed with pride that I was starting to actually be able to communicate. But my helper began to smile. First just a little, then a lot. “What?” I asked. “You just said your favorite food is cow butt.” “Oh…”
So, that is how it goes. But recently, I have been able to use Swahili to actually communicate important information. For several nights in a row, one of the guards who patrols the grounds where we are staying sat by our window and played music on his cell phone at maximal volume. It sounded like a distorted Swahili version of “Party in the USA” by Mylie Cyrus. It was funny the first night, but by the third night of our girls not sleeping well because of the music, I decided I needed to say something to him. I carefully planned the Swahili words I would use, then went out and explained that our girls were unable to sleep and asked if he would mind turning his music down. Graciously, he stopped playing it. However, I felt bad because here was this guard protecting our house and vehicle, and I wouldn’t even let him play his music. So, I decided that I would give him an extra pair of ear buds which we had brought, and he seemed very pleased to have them. As I walked back inside, I felt good that I had been able to solve a cross-cultural dilemma with both sides feeling happy. “Maybe I am cut out to be a missionary,” I thought. Once back inside, I began to hear what sounded like a dying cat singing Mylie Cyrus in Swahili. It was the guard singing his heart out to the music that only he could hear through the ear buds. I guess he had never used ear buds before, and he seemed to have no idea how loud he was. Angela laughed so loud in response that it woke up our girls who then they couldn’t go back to sleep because of the singing.
Another way we have been learning the culture here is through stories told by our Kenyan instructors. The other day, one of our instructors, who had grown up in a remote area of northern Kenya, told us a hunting story. He loves to hunt and hopes to come to the U.S. someday to shoot some bears. Several years ago while hunting in a remote area of Kenya, his dogs cornered a jaguar. Now, most Kenyans would prefer to avoid jaguars, however, the big cat began to attack one of his dogs. In response, the hunting party was forced to kill it. After jabbing a few spears into it, our instructor went to roll the animal over only to discover that it wasn’t completely dead. The jaguar attacked and ultimately was shot, but not before rewarding our esteemed teacher with several wounds whose scars are still easily visible today. I was quite amazed by this story which apparently showed in my expression. He asked me if I had a story like that, and without completely thinking through my response I said “yes”, and I proceeded to tell him about the time when I found a stray kitten in Angela’s grandmother’s barn. When I had tried to pick up the fierce kitten, its mouth clamped down on my finger giving me a nice puncture wound. After a trip to the ER, a tetanus shot, and a course of antibiotics, I made an uneventful recover. When I had finished my wild animal story, our teacher just stared at me with similar amazement that I had showed him. Although, I would imagine he was amazed for different reasons. What a display of the contrast between our two cultures.
Despite embarrassing moments, set-backs, and struggles we remain grateful for these experiences and for new friendships. I have looked forward to practicing medicine in a place with such tremendous need, and indeed, I am counting down the days until I am able to get back into the operating room. However, this time in language school has been an incredible time of learning and transition which I would not trade. Next week, we leave for Tenwek to start yet another transition and do so with anticipation and gratitude, humbled by being strangers in a strange land- at least for the moment.
This summer has been spent very differently for us than any summer past. Instead of family vacations, cook outs, and days at the pool we have been learning a new language and adjusting to life in a foreign land. Some of our favorite memories of summer in our “Knoxville home” are of days spent on the lake. So when we had the opportunity to visit a nearby Kenyan lake, we jumped at the opportunity.
In Kenya, the 4th of July is not a holiday. But since our language school currently has mostly students from “Marekani” they decided to give us all a holiday on July 4th. We already had plans to visit our field director in another town, so decided to stop at Lake Naivasha on the way. Crescent Island juts out into this large lake, housing many wild animals (minus the predators) allowing for an amazing “walking safari.”
We took a picnic lunch and explored the island, walking alongside giraffes, zebras, wildebeests, cape buffalo, water buck and gazelles. Our boat ride included sightings of many amazing birds and some close-up visits with hippos. This was a little nerve-racking considering that more people are killed in Africa each year by hippos than any other animal. No skiing or tubing in this lake!
It was a surreal experience to “celebrate” our American Independence Day in this new land that we now call “home.” Surrounded by God’s amazing creation in the Great Rift Valley of Africa on that day, I was aware in a new way of God’s greatness. I am so grateful that God’s love and redemptive plan transcends culture and patriotism and language and earthly nations. I am so grateful that we live under the promise that one day people of every ethnic group and every tongue will be praising God together…a true “One nation under God.” I pray daily in this new place that God will give me His eyes, erasing any cultural bias from my heart and mind…that He will let me see the culture and people around me as He sees them and allow me to love as He loves.
“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” Revelation 7:9-10 ESV
“Praise the Lord, all nations! Extol him all peoples! For great is his steadfast love toward us, and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever. Praise the Lord!” Psalm 117 ESV
Greetings from Kenya! What a whirlwind the past few weeks have been. In just the past couple of weeks we packed our 27 pieces of luggage, closed on our house, sold our furnishings and our last remaining vehicle, traveled via U-haul to Atlanta, said goodbye to family, flew to Kenya, and started language school. We arrived to Nairobi feeling relieved to finally be here and grateful for how God has prepared the way.
Our journey to Kenya began in Atlanta. As we pulled up to the departure zone in a U-Haul loaded down with all of our luggage, we were greeted with wide-eyed stares from the baggage attendants who were waiting curbside. “27 bags? How many people? Four?! Hey man (yelling to his buddy), these people have 27 bags for 4 people!” This remark was repeated in astonishment to each person we encountered. Gradually, we proceeded through the check-in process, watched our bags and foot lockers be checked, and then made our way toward the gate. We travelled through Chicago, London, and then ultimately to Nairobi over the course of the next 24 hours. When we arrived in Nairobi, it was after 9:00 pm, so we quickly got our visas and went on to collect our luggage. Again, baggage attendants (this time Kenyans) asked us how many bags we had and whether we needed help. “You have how many bags? 27? How many people? Four?!” He then yelled to his buddy in Swahili, that I suspect if translated would sound something like, “These crazy four people have 27 bags!!” After collecting our luggage we made it through customs, and then hauled our things on 6 carts out into a rainy African night. Thankfully, our field directors met us outside and helped shepherd us to 2 vans which took us to a guest house where we all crashed and burned.
Over the next couple of days, we did some shopping in Nairobi for essentials and then travelled to the town where we will be staying for the next 2 months of language training. At this point we have a grand total of 10 days’ worth of Swahili-learning under our belts, so we know just enough to be very amusing to our Kenyan friends. Our girls are taking Swahili classes in the morning, and Rees in particular soaks up vocabulary knowledge like a sponge. Ahhh… to have a young brain! Overall, our time thus far has had both challenges and rewards:
Challenges: We were once highly efficient people…but not anymore. Almost everything we do takes more time, more work, and more brain power than expected. From preparing meals, to doing emails, to brushing our teeth, things are just different. Fortunately, many aspects of our life are much simpler. For example, we spend less time doing things like driving a car to work (we walk to class just around the corner) or watching TV (there is no TV). One of the more interesting challenges has been the temperature. Typically, the lows are in the upper 40’s to mid-50’s. Highs sometimes get up to the upper 60’s, but only if the sun is out. Doesn’t sound too bad except that there is no indoor heating. Even if the temperature in the house is in the upper 50’s, it feels really cold and we bury ourselves under piles of blankets to stay warm at night. In our short time here, we have also had a number of interesting encounters with bugs in our house. Part of the problem is that we have no idea which bugs are harmless and which ones are not. I (Heath) found a really cool looking black and red bug crawling on the wall the other day which I flicked off the wall with my finger. Someone explained to me later that it was a Nairobi Eye and that when squashed it releases some type of acid which causes burns on the skin. What!? Angela (who would never describe any bug as “cool”) closed the curtain one night to be met by a very large and hairy spider just hanging out on our curtain. Not cool!
Rewards: Despite expected and unexpected challenges we are blessed with many rewards. Kenyans are very hospitable people who laugh easily and are a joy to be around. Our Swahili instructors are all Kenyan, so classes (despite being a challenge due to the large volume of material) are full of laughs. Kenya itself is beautiful. Over the weekend, we journeyed across the Great Rift Valley on our way to Tenwek for a quick visit. It had been 14 years since our last trip through the valley and I had forgotten how big and amazing it was. Mary Taylor would say that all of the chameleons have been a big reward. Typically she has 2 or 3 of these slow moving lizards crawling on her at any one time. She names them all and calls them her “pets” although so far we are not letting her keep them inside. Yesterday, while hiking, she carried one on her head. Kenyans really do not like chameleons, so when they passed us on the trail, we were met with wide-eyed stares of horror. Overall the rewards far outweigh the challenges, and we feel privileged to be able to serve in this place.
For the next 2 months we will remain at language school, and then in mid-August we will transition several hours west to Tenwek. Please continue to pray for our transition to our new culture as well as for “young”, absorbent brains so that we learn Swahili effectively. Please also pray for our daughters. They are clearly in a period of adjustment and our move has been challenging for them as well. Finally, continue to lift up the surgical residents at Tenwek Hospital. These young doctors are the future of Africa and it is our prayer that through them, with the Lord’s guidance, the kingdom will grow in the region.
Boompa was my (Heath’s) grandfather. His name was Don Many, but somewhere around middle age, when he became a grandfather, he assumed the name Boompa which was the name of Jimmy Stewart’s character in “Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation”. We usually just called him Boomp and he was married to Myrtie Many, my grandmother, who we called Ma. Ma and Boomp had nine grandchildren, and for years lived in an A-framed house perched on the side of Hickory Mountain near Sparta, North Carolina. Visits to Ma and Boomp’s house are some of the best, most vivid memories I have from childhood. I can still smell the scents of their mountain home and see their warm faces as they greeted us when we pulled into their steep driveway. Trips to their home were full of adventure. I would explore the woods and hills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and there, planted the first seeds of my love for the outdoors. In fact, I still have a book which they bought me when I was a young teenager called Edible Wild Plants of the Eastern United States. Using this book, I would scour the hillsides of Hickory Mountain looking for wild plants I could eat with the thought that if I was ever to be stranded in the wild, I could survive by eating roots from wild carrot or something. Once I ate some wild potato (I think?) which rewarded me with a sleepless night of profuse diarrhea. But I digress…
Boomp was a great story teller and jokester. He generally cycled through a series of 7 or 8 running jokes, which in looking back I really didn’t understand or get, but somehow still make me laugh today. Like many of his jokes, his dinner blessing was a constant: “Our heavenly Father, we thank you for life and the joy of living. We thank you for our family, our friends, our home; for health and strength. And for these blessings that I love. Amen.” The first few words, “we thank you for life and the joy of living”, in my mind, characterize Boomp. He was gracious and from my perspective as a grandchild, he truly embraced the joy of life. Ma and Boomp’s joy of living overflowed into the lives of their grandchildren. I think I can confidently speak for my sister and my cousins by saying that times spent with Ma and Boomp were a joyous escape and something we all miss.
This past week, at the age of 92, Boomp went to be with the Lord (and with Ma) after a long, blessed life. The current complexity and direction of my family’s lives has led us to Colorado Springs for a month of training prior to leaving for Kenya in June. When I heard the news, I scrambled to get a flight to North Carolina hoping spend time with my extended family. Unfortunately, a mechanical problem with my flight resulted in a domino effect which prevented me from getting there in time for his funeral. I was forced to cancel the trip. So instead, on the day of Boomp’s funeral, Angela, the girls, and I went on a hike in the mountains surrounding Pike’s Peak. Throughout the day I could not help but to think about Boomp and his blessing that I had heard so many times: “Father, thank you for life and the joy of living…” These words, combined with the thrill of being “out”, brought me such peace and rest during a time in our lives which has been so incredibly stressful and difficult. We have been consumed by “our plans”: leaving our practices, selling our home and the stuff in it, and preparing to depart for Kenya. God commands us to take Sabbath, to rest, to recharge. Boomp, even after he is gone, reminds me of the importance of taking time to enjoy and to be grateful for this life we have been given. Thank you, Lord, for the blessing that you gave us in Boomp.
Last week Rees’ memory verse for school was Psalm 46:1-2. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble…” After quizzing her on the verse, I launched into my usual “What does this verse mean?” conversation. I asked, “Do you know what ‘refuge’ means?” I had several words and phrases in my mind ready to answer and discuss…shelter, safe harbor, place of protection, comfort, haven. But Rees confidently stated “Oh yes, I know what that means…HOME.”
Maybe her answer should have been an obvious one, but it took me off guard. Maybe her answer does not seem that earth-shattering to you, but for me on that day it was God speaking straight to my heart. In a week when my house has been a revolving door of friends shopping my belongings, a week with showings for potential buyers for our house, a week of planning when our goodbyes to family will take place before we fly across the ocean leaving all that we know of “home,” God used my nine-year-old to remind me that HE is my HOME.
I so easily forget this. More often I feel like Mr. Bird in one of my favorite Dr. Seuss books “The Best Nest.”
You see, I love my house on Kensington Drive. I love my neighborhood. I love my back porch. I love my favorite chair where I have my morning coffee and prayers. I love the sound of my children playing in their playroom or laughing while they swing in the backyard. These places and the memories wrapped up in them represent comfort, safety, security, protection…refuge. They also represent love and acceptance…knowing and being known. I think God wants us to experience these joys of HOME, but without forgetting that even at it’s best and most wonderful state, our home here is only a faint shadow of the HOME we have in God. Scripture is packed with verses about God being our refuge, our protection, our comfort, our dwelling place…our HOME. He is the only place where these deep longings of our heart for security and belonging and safety are truly fulfilled.
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved to the heart of the sea…” Psalm 46:1-2
Yes, Rees…God IS our HOME.
We are so thankful for our Church and for the many individuals who have been the body of Christ to us in these past months of preparing to serve the people of East Africa. We could not do this alone (nor does God intend us to!). Thank you for partnering with us in your prayers, words of encouragement, and finances. (This video was played at our church earlier this month).
The title of this post is from Philippians 1:6 and it gives followers of Christ reassurance that God is faithful in his promises. Over the past few months we have seen God meet us at every step of our journey, giving us reassurance in his calling us to the mission field. We thought we would share some of the highlights.
First of all, as most of you know, we are not experienced missionaries, and in particular, the task of building financial support seemed daunting as we approached it. We had fears that this process would drag on indefinitely as we scoured the country looking for those willing few who wanted to support us. Many questions came to mind: Would we need to move into Sam and Brenda’s house again (Angela’s parents who we lived with for a short time in medical school) so that we could save money to go overseas? Would we need to live in a VW minibus? Would I have to give up Starbuck’s? We quickly discovered that God had already been working in the hearts of our future partners, and that really, we just needed to figure out who these folks were. Our role has become to simply connect people to the incredible work that God is doing throughout the world and in Kenya where we will be serving. So, as we have discovered, it is not about us at all, but about God. With that burden lifted, building support for our ministry has turned out to be an incredible experience.
We have given talks to various groups such as Sunday school classes and friends. We have travelled to our old stomping ground in Memphis, TN to build relationships with churches there. We have reconnected with life-long friends and connected with new friends. Through all of these connections and experiences we have been truly blessed by seeing people’s enthusiasm and interest in what we will be doing. We have had opportunities to spend time and share conversations with people who have played special roles in all stages of our lives. It is humbling to see how God has woven together a network of amazing people in our lives who are now excited to partner with us in ministry.
In addition to building support, we are slowly beginning to connect to the ministry at Tenwek Hospital where we will be serving. In September, we spent a week at WGM headquarters doing some training and getting to know other missionaries and the headquarter support staff. While there we met two families (John and Linda Spriegel, and Chuck and Amy Bemm) who have served at Tenwek for the past eight years and are currently home on furlough. It was encouraging to hear stories of God’s work through their ministries. We bombarded them with questions, and getting words of wisdom from our future partners in the field was priceless.
The first weekend in November, we travelled to Chicago for a PAACS Commission meeting. This is the group that helps guide the surgical residency programs in Africa (one of which is at Tenwek Hospital). This commission is made up of accomplished surgeons who volunteer their time to construct academic and spiritual curriculums for the residents. PAACS brings Christians together from around the world to train and disciple African surgeons, with the goal of seeing them living out the gospel and ministering to the sick in Africa. God is at work in Africa through PAACS and through Tenwek Hospital. We are eager to join Him!
“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Philippians 1:6
Well friends, we are overwhelmed by the amount of encouragement and enthusiasm shown to us this week by friends and family, from near and far, in response to our decision to serve God through medical mission work in Kenya! Thank you! Our next few blog posts will aim to answer some of the many questions we have been asked about our ministry plans. An FAQs of sorts…
- When are you leaving? Hopefully next spring (2014). Our exact timing depends largely on our financial support needs being met. We are currently fundraising. Prior to leaving we must have our funding pledged for our first 3 years of service.
- How will you raise support? While some of our support will come from churches, a large portion will come from individuals who take an interest in being a part of this ministry. If you are interested in financially supporting our ministry, please go to the “You Can Help” page on this blog for more information.
- How long will you be gone? Our first term in Kenya will be 2 years. We are serving as part of the Missionary Discipleship program through World Gospel Mission, which will help prepare us to become career missionaries. After being commissioned as career missionaries, we will continue to serve ongoing terms with intermittent time spent at home.
- What do Rees and Mary Taylor think? The girls have mixed emotions, but overall seem excited about the adventure. They have heard that there are lots of chameleons, and already have plans to keep one as a pet! (Actually, Mary Taylor is asking for a pet snake, cat, and monkey as well; I think she is overcompensating a bit for not being able to take our dogs with us!!).
- Where will your girls go to school? Angela will likely be home-schooling Rees and Mary Taylor, although there may be a teacher coming to serve. If a teacher is able to come, it will free up more time for Angela to be involved in the medical ministries.
- Where exactly will you be living? Tenwek Hospital is located in the western highlands of Kenya in the small town of Bomet, which is about a four-hour drive from Nairobi. (And yes, that means four hours from a grocery store)! The landscape is made up of rolling green hills with scattered small farms. An adjacent river provides hydroelectric power to the hospital grounds (and may provide for some canoe rides, Heath hopes!). We will live in a house or an apartment close to the hospital.
- Have you been there before? We spent our last 2 months of medical school (in 2000) working at Tenwek Hospital. The pictures on this post are the much younger versions of us at Tenwek 13 years ago!