Read On!

Man, do I like to read. I strive to mostly read good books, but sometimes it can't be helped...bad books do cross my plate. Bad books bother me, they make me feel like I've wasted my time. To make matters worse, I can't easily just put down a book I've started. It's rare that i start a book and don't finish (although it does happen, like with Undaunted Courage. It was just too long and I was too impatient and felt like I had better things to do. I know it's supposed to be a good book and all, but really...) Most bad books I've read, though, I've read from front to back. I can't stop even when I recognize the book stinks.

I read fast, some would say. I say I just read at "real time." I read at the same speed I think or speak. When I'm following along with a conversation in a book, it moves apace pretty much at real time in my head. I can read faster, much faster, but it takes conscious effort to do so, and I fall out of the "zone". When I'm in the "zone", I'm not conscious of the act of actually reading. I'm not aware of words, of turning the pages, of re-reading sections...nothing. The words simply come to represent thought, and in my head I don't "read", per se, I just "think."

People who know me occasionally ask what I've been reading. This, to me, is a bit of a loaded question. On one hand, I'm sometimes tempted to throw out some challenging, eclectic, fabulous title with which they may or may not be familiar. This, of course, means, in turn, that I am sometime tempted to actually buy and read such challenging, eclectic, fabulous titles just so as to be properly armed when the question comes along. This is a bad way to choose books.

On a second hand, books are intensely personal. What books I like may be worlds apart from books you like. What I find stimulating and meaningful and intense, you may find droll, stupid and worthless. To further compound this scenario, you may actually find ME droll, stupid and worthless based on the books I'm reading! I know that I have to fight against this tendency when someone tells me they're 1) reading a Max Lucado book, and 2) they love it! How can I ever look at this person again with anything resembling respect!?! Seriously, I've learned over the years that there's no accounting for reading taste. I'm usually hesitant to recommend, or buy, books for others because there is just no way to ever account for such a personal experience. I don't mind talking about books I like, and why I like them, but I always have to remember that books I like may not be for my neighbor.

NOTE: This is why I despise the reaction to Oprah's Book Club. I don't mind the concept of Oprah recommending books, it's the rabid, uncritical acceptance of these books that irks me. One of purest joys of being a book reader is the discovery process, of following either hints and clues or instinct to locate winners. The serendipity of a good book found beats the mundane nature of a great book recommended any day (in my - ahem - book.)

Here are some books I've read lately, and my opinions:

The Sleeper Awakes and The Time Machine - both by H.G. Wells. Both are "classics" (whatever that means.) Both are prophetic in ways (in The Sleeper Awakes, Wells describes aerial battles taking place in aeroplanes...several years before the Wright brothers and Kitty Hawk.) Both involve what I would call fantastic, wildly imaginative story lines. However, both fall a little flat. The Sleeper Awakes seems to end in mid-sentence, as if Wells grew suddenly tired (like the protagonist in the story), while The Time Machine hinted at much more than it delivered. All in all, though, great reads of a great author.

The Man Who Was Thursday - G.K. Chesterton. Very interesting book, with an odd, surreal feel to it. It being Chesterton, there is a lot of wit and insight into human nature. There is also a lot of Christian allegory here, as you might expect. The premise of the book involves an undercover policeman who infiltrates a group of anarchists. These anarchists have a "council" whereby they name themselves after the days of the week. The book quickly takes bizarre, almost absurd directions as more and more of the anarchist plot is revealed. Again, the ending left me a bit at a lost, but all in all a very worthwhile read.

Personal Finance for Dummies - Well, what can I say. It's for dummies, it's about personal finance, and it's yellow. Some good stuff in there, some which didn't apply to me. Par for the course with the Dummies series.

The Innocent Man - John Grisham. A sensational account of "justice gone bad" in small-town Oklahoma. I'm sure Grisham did his homework, and he does paint a compelling, tragic scene, but I just couldn't shake the feeling that I was 1) only getting a small part of the story, and 2) that Grisham was predisposed to lean heavily on the side of the law and lightly on the accused. A quick, somewhat interesting read which I will only vaguely recollect in 6 months.

The Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad. This book was brilliantly recast as the movie Apocalypse Now. To our 21st century eyes the book may not seem to hold the same psychological power as the movie, but we'd be wrong. It is a dark, compelling, creepy book. This book required my full power as a reader. There was so much going on beneath the surface that I had to read and re-read certain parts. But make no mistake, this is a great book written by an author who's power was on full display. "The horror! The horror!"

The Poisonwood Bible - Barbara Kingsolver. A positively acclaimed author. An "African" theme I might connect with. A pretty cover. How could I go wrong? Blech. This book was one of the "bad" books I wrote about above. I kept waiting, and waiting and waiting and waiting. For something, anything to come along and redeem the price of a hardcover book. No such luck. The story itself had some bright spots, but only in general terms. Nothing grand or even interesting was ever pulled off. This story came, stayed while, and left, all without making the slightest impression on me. The very epitome of why newer books scare me...they receive lots of undeserved attention.

I'll stop here for now. I have a lot of other books to write about, I'll try to get around to some of them later on. I'll also try to put together a list of some of my all-time faves. If you are one of the 4 people in the world who read this, leave me a list of some of your favorite books, maybe I'll give them a go.

Is Anybody There?

There is a fine line, I suppose, between loneliness and solitude. Loneliness, I think, is more self-centered. It's more inward-looking. When a person feels alone, they often express things like, "I wish there was someone out there for me," or, "I'm tired of being alone all the time," or, "Why can't I be with someone." Loneliness is, perhaps, a state of hyper self-awareness, accompanied by a dulling of the awareness of things external. Loneliness is a sort of disconnect from things and people outside of ones self.

(I don't want to diminish the value, the appropriateness even, of certain amounts of loneliness. Just as we need nourishment from food, we also need the nourishment we derive from company. We are created as social creatures; we need to inter-relate, to form bonds and friendships, to discourse, to stand in relief against others. I suspect loneliness sometimes acts like hunger, a warning signal that we need some social nourishment. Too much or unresolved loneliness is not just unhealthy, it's downright dangerous if left untreated. A little bit of loneliness, however, might do our souls a bit of good. It may drive us to interact, to step out, to live.)

Solitude, on the hand, usually involves the physical fact of being alone without the accompanying feelings of loneliness. Additionally, like some, I tend to think of solitude as being alone with something bigger than myself. The beach. The mountains. The desert. God. In this respect I suppose solitude is more outward looking. A person recognizes the state of being alone, but this fact is more than counter-balanced by an appreciation of the external environment, and the embracing of the internal dialog which, as a result of being alone, occurs. The real joy of being "out there" all alone is the opportunity to focus intently on the "out there," to allow the "out there" to be your companion.

As I've come to realize over the years, to really benefit from solitude, to be good at it, a person needs to be very much comfortable being their own company, not a thing everyone has mastered. You have to be able to refrain from putting pressure on yourself to do...anything. You have to allow yourself to think or to not think. To reflect or not reflect, to ponder or not ponder, to mull or not mull. Solitude is great for having deep, momentous conversations with yourself, for really "figuring it all out." Solitude is also great for going hours without having a single thought worth having. Solitude allows you to spend 6 hours thinking about your place in the universe, or to spend 6 hours thinking about the hangnail on your pinkie finger. Not everyone has the ability to allow themselves to do this; it's an art and it takes practice. You have to learn to like your own company and you have to learn to enjoy the company something other than people (the beach, the mountains, etc..)

I suppose this all could come across as a bit new-agey; it shouldn't. If you know me at all you know that's not how I operate or how I believe. But having spent considerable time by myself in some awesome places, you'll have to trust me when I say that few things I've experienced can match the pure bliss of being alone, of being internally quiet and at rest, and having something much bigger than myself to hear.

(By the way, Big Bend National Park is primo for finding all the solitude you could want. I highly recommend it.)

Africa Trip Recap: Singular Moments (part 3)

If you read my sporadic posts from this most recent trip, you might remember that a certain Tuesday was quite a big day, primarily for two reasons: one, we visited the Korogocho slum, and two, we said goodbye to the kids at the BCC. I'll try to wrap up my "singular moments" theme with these two things. First, the Korogocho trip.

The Korogocho Slum
You can look up the Korogocho slum on the internet and find out all sorts of facts: It is the third largest slum in Kenya, with an estimated population ranging anywhere from 150,000 to 500,000 inhabitants. It is located adjacent to the Dandora dump site, a 30-acre steaming, fuming mountain of trash and waste and mess which emits a stench barely imagined. (Apparently there is even a society of children and men who "live" in the trash, defending their "area" as violent gangs. If you want to read in more detail about the Dandora dump site, go here.) As you might imagine in a place such as this there is a serious lack of water, supplies, health care, schools. Crime is prevalent. Disease, AIDS and TB in particular, runs riot. No, Korogocho is not a nice place.

So it was with some trepidation we undertook a side-trip to visit the slum, and in particular to visit a church/youth center/school/safe haven, started and managed by a most amazing man with a most beautiful name: Pastor Eutychus. In order to reach Pastor Eutychus, however, we first had to navigate the narrow, teeming passageways through the slum. Prior to departing we received a briefing from Tom Okore, a Buckner in-country staff person, who went over some do's and don'ts for the trip. Do keep your windows closed as someone might try to reach in the van and snatch valuables; do remain calm; don't exclaim aloud about what you will see; don't gasp or look get the picture. Needless to say, we were a rather subdued bunch as we neared the slum.

As we turned off the main, paved road and entered the slum, it was like entering a city within a city. We had seen some slums from the vans as we drove through Nairobi - identifiable by their rusted metal roofs - but to actually enter one was a pretty powerful change of scenery. The road was very narrow; several times we came to a standstill waiting for people to clear out of the way. (Stopping was always a bit uncomfortable as we all stared out the window at all the people staring back at us. I couldn't help but feel like these people thought of me as a gawker, like someone at a car wreck. ) Like most of Nairobi, there were people everyone, motion everywhere. The road was lined shoulder-to-shoulder with shacks, or shanties. Most were offering some sort of commodity for sale: old clothes, shoes, underwear, buckets of coal-like rock (for cooking, I assumed), bicycle parts, wood, chickens, roasted corn, metal bits, plastic bags, hats, was a never-ending river of home-grown commerce. Busy, noisy, active.

As we made our way slowly down the narrow road, my eyes taking in so much I had never seen before, I began to become very conscious of something, something I already knew but which was slowly becoming real for me. I began to think about the fact that these people I saw - the shop keepers and children and mothers and workers and drifters - in many cases were born here, would live there their entire life, and would die here in the end. What I was seeing was their way of life, as it happened every single day. I didn't know then why this became such an overriding thought to me, but it did. I think now it's because you go into a place like Korogocho with a kind of "tourist attraction" mentality. I mean, the slum becomes a quest, a destination, something to see. You know people live there, but you're not prepared for what that means. It means that this fellow, the guy I'm looking at from my window, the one on the bicycle, the one looking back at me...that fellow goes to bed here, gets his water from here, uses the bathroom here, finds his friends here...he calls this place "home." As we drove through the street and among the denizens of Korogocho, that is the thing that struck me most. As bad as the slum may have seemed to me, this was home to unknown thousands, and it was a place with a life, a pace, a current all it's own. People live here, in every sense of the word.

Soon we came upon the compound of the Highridge Baptist Church, home to Pastor Eutychus. Bordered by tough metal fencing on three sides, the Highridge Baptist Church compound roughly formed a square. Within this square of bare earth lay something of a miracle. There was order, there was quiet, there was relative peace. Forming a "U", with the open end towards the front gate, were several buildings and structures. woodshop at center small.jpgA woodshop was there, where men turn out desks for the school classrooms, as well as other items to sell. Hairdressing is taught is here in a small salon; Pastor Eutychus has us step inside to meet the instructor and 3 of her students. There is a metal shipping crate, the kind you see on cargo ships. Inside this crate lunch is prepared for the students who attend school here (for many their only meal of the day). And, of course, there are classrooms. Several classrooms, each one filled with boys and girls, looking sharp in their school uniforms. I'm not sure of the exact ages but I think there were kids from what we would call kindergarten on up to 6th or 7th grade, maybe 8th. As pastor Eutychus guided us along, he told us about each building, about each class, about each structure. We were able to step inside to visit briefly with the students in each room; each class recited a Bible verse for us, and some classes sang songs. The children appeared very ordered, very respectful, a bit shy, but engaging. They smiled, waved, nudged one another. They were great.littlest ones at koro school small.jpg

Towards the end of the tour, Pastor Eutychus took us to see a very deep hole near the back fence. This hole was around 15 feet deep, about 6 feet wide, and Pastor Eutychus wanted to show us this hole to illustrate part of his situation. You see, the entire compound, while situated adjacent to the current Dandora dump site, sits upon parts of the old dump site. In order to build any permanent structure here, one with a solid concrete base, one which won't settle and crack, they would have to dig down past the 15 feet of old, compacted garbage which forms the landscape in order to hit solid earth for the supports. Otherwise, the weight of the concrete would cause the trash to settle further, cracking the slab. As we looked down into the hole it was obvious what Pastor Eutychus was describing. Where you might expect to see layers of earth and rock, you saw instead layers of plastic bags, garbage, waste, long compacted and integrated into the "soil" that makes up the Highridge Baptist Church grounds. It was pretty sobering to contemplate the fact that this place of refuge was perched atop a mountain of waste.

Over the back fence, which was a fairly small wire fence, there was a drop off down to a river. Just past the river lay the defining feature of Korogocho, and the source of the smell: the Dandora dump site. I have never seen anything like it. It was an enormous, gigantic mountain of trash, spread over acres and acres. Furthermore, it breathed. A noxious vapor rose from the mountain of trash, reminding me (geek alert!) of the evil land Mordor from Lord of the Rings. As I've learned since my visit, methane gas is generated in the depths of the trash due to the decomposition of organic material, and this gas sometimes spontaneously combusts. Fire burns in this heap, and it produces a fog of stench and fumes and who knows what else. This fog, when the wind blows, can move and settle over Korogocho, including the Highridge Baptist Church. My thoughts instantly turned to the kids in school, and how resilient they must be to focus and learn and play with such a thing laying over them.

Out in the trash were a multitude of birds, as you might expect. Also in the trash, moving here and there, were people. Lots of people. men in dump giving the bird small.jpgFrom a distance, they appeared to be boys and young men, scavenging for food, for things to sell, for drugs. When I lifted my camera to take some photos, several of the men raised both hands in a defiant, obscene gesture. I felt pretty lousy for taking their pictures. My mind reeled thinking about their existence, thinking what their lives must be like. Between the mountain of trash and myself was a small river. Alongside the river were about 15 women, washing plastic bags. I found out that they scavenge these bags (think "Wal-Mart bag"), wash them in the river, and then sell them. Spread out around the women were scores of plastic bags, drying in the sun. There were also a group of kids playing, turning playing by river by dump small.jpg

As I turned away from the dump and the river, the kids began to come out of their rooms for recess (I suppose, although they probably don't call it that.) There were a LOT of kids, more than I thought initially. My guess is that there were probably 150 kids. One of the trip participants, Scot Mayfield, had a pretty big group around him, so I rolled on over. Scot was doing a magic trick, the old "where'd the coin go, oh let me pull it out of your ear" routine. He was quite good and the kids loved it. (They also really wanted the coin.)scot doing magic trick small.jpg

Scot is amazing with kids, speaks a smidge of Swahili, and was a joy to watch as he interacted with the students. After while, though, I realized that I was pretty much alone with this large group of kids and it appeared they were waiting for me to do something, something fun. As I talked to them, I asked them to sing me a song, which they did, and then I tried to find out who was in which grade. Having established the facts of school grades, I began to wonder what to do next. Then it hit me! Let's just count out loud. So for the next few minutes, with a ring of about 50 kids around me, we counted, we shouted, from 1 to 10. I would yell "ONE!", and they would all echo "ONE!" Then "TWO!", then "THREE!", getting louder and louder each number. By the time we hit "TEN!", we were as loud as we could be, everyone yelling and jumping and laughing. I never dreamed that counting to 10 could be such fun, but I'll never forget the experience.

What really stands out to me, though, is the experience I had, on several occasions, of focusing on one particular child and really giving him or her my full attention, if only for 30 seconds or so. In such a big, noisy, excited crowd it can be hard to really "notice" any one person. But every so often I would tune out all the questions and touching (the kids like to feel the hair on your arm and on your head), bend down and just talk to one child..."What's your name?", "How old are you?", "Why are you so pretty?", "What's your favorite thing in school?" We would get quiet together, even in the midst of all the ruckus. I would try to hold their hand, get close, make the short time as intimate as I could. I don't know what they thought of the experience, but for me these times were really a "singular moment" within a "singular moment." Very special to me, something I'll never forget and always long for.

Soon after it was time to go. The kids began to move back to their classrooms and our group began to gather together one last time with Pastor Eutychus. It was an honor to meet the man, to see what he's doing in such a place with so little. Seldom are you able to cross paths with someone so committed to such a long, difficult, arduous road. His love of Christ and for those he serves really shone through Pastor Eutychus. He has so many needs, so many difficulties in his way, but his faith and confidence in God truly inspires. Just before we left Pastor Eutychus led us in prayer (one of the greatest prayers I've ever heard!), thanked us for coming, and saw us off.

As we drove back out through the slum, I had a somewhat altered perspective. This was a terrible place, to be sure, something most of us can barely imagine. But even in the midst of such poverty and hopelessness and ruin and sickness, God thrives. He thrives through Pastor Eutychus. He thrives through the teachers at the school who instruct the children. He thrives in the lives of the children themselves, bringing them peace and joy, it is hoped. God is irrepressible, He can (and will) be found in all places and among all people. I have read some people describe Korogocho as "hell", but I disagree. It certainly is "hellish", but amongst the workings of the devil in that place there is love and faithfulness and joy and happiness and laughing. I was saddened to tears for what I saw in Korogocho, for the fact that people live in such a condition, but I was also strangely encouraged. I went into the slum prepared for the worse, and wasn't disappointed, but I also found God was there as well, doing what He does best - bringing hope and joy.

Here are some additional pics from Korogocho:

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View up the road from the Highridge Baptist Church compound.

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Some of the kids jockeying for position for a photograph. The kids LOVE to see themselves in a photo...makes having a digital camera with a screen an almost necessity. As soon as you take a photo you have to quickly pull it up and show the kids.

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This is the childhood home of Joseph Chege, one of the BCC workers, located directly across from Highridge and Pastor Eutychus. Joseph grew up here and was a part of Pastor Eutychus' program as a child. Joseph's mother, father and sister still live here, selling books and ice (so they claim). Some of the group went over to introduce themselves.

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Inside the salon/beauty shop. The woman on the left is the instructor. Her students are the three ladies to the right. The posters on the wall illustrate various hairstyles.

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The youngest kids at the school (again) with their teacher. They don't have desks; instead the children crowd onto the benches. The woodshop will hopefully have desks completed soon. These classrooms are quite small and lights, no electricity. On the other side of the red metal wall is the next grade. Keeping quality teachers is a real struggle for Pastor Eutychus.

Africa Trip Recap: Singular Moments (part 2)

I apologize for writing so much about Nairobi. As I reviewed this first recap post I realized maybe I went a little overboard. Regardless, I hope I was able to convey the fact that Nairobi, to me, is a pretty amazing place.

The next "singular moment" I want describe is going to be hard to accurately get across, but it stands as one of the most meaningful points of my trip...of ALL of my trips. This singular moment is the experience of going to church at the BCC.

Church at the BCC
The BCC (Baptist Children's Center) is home to around 40 kids and quite a few staff: caregivers, gardeners, cooks, watchmen, etc. Running the day-to-day show at the BCC is Tony Wenani, one of my favorite people in the world. As the director of the BCC, Tony wears many hats. He helps supervise and manage all aspects of the operation. He keeps up with the children in terms of their schooling, health and general well-being. He provides information to Buckner staff regarding budgetary needs. He is, in the fullest sense of the word, a "manager." Tony is also something else. He is the pastor of the small church located on the grounds of the BCC..

BCC churchGoing to church at the BCC has been a highlight of my Africa travels. I'm a little embarrassed to admit this, but I am not what you would call a real regular in church. I struggle with this part of my walk, and will leave it at that. However, if I could swing it somehow so that I could attend church at the BCC on a regular basis, I would never miss. I think it's a combination of the Swahili language, the music, the heartfelt praise that goes on, the presence of so many children, and the gentle, genuine, loving spirit displayed by so many of the Kenyans I've met that lures me.

Now, don't get me wrong. I know that above all things church is about worship and learning. It doesn't matter if you're in Nairobi, Kenya, or Pencil Bluff, Arkansas. If a church doesn't focus on God then it falls flat. But that's the thing about the BCC church...I have rarely, if ever, been a part of a service where God - and his goodness - was such an integral, understood, implicit part of everything that goes on. I think a large part of the fact that most of the congregates, which includes the BCC children and staff as well as people from the local community, have a deep, passionate sense for the sufficiency of God. Their lives are such that self-pity, despair even, is an ever present danger and a real reliance upon God is a necessary ingredient of faith. I may be wrong, but I sense that due to the fact these people are living so close to the edge in terms of poverty, loneliness, despair, and hopelessness, they have developed a more genuine appreciation for God's mercy and grace, and are more enthusiastic in their praise and more focused in their thanks. If I'm right (and I may not be), I can't help but to consider the irony in the situation: these people who seem to lack so much, who would seem to me to have so little to be thankful for, are most filled with praise and thanksgiving, acknowledging God's goodness in what little they possess and hope for.

When I sit among these fine people, I see around me a church of the most basic construction. And it's beautiful. Simple wooden benches to sit upon. Open windows to allow the breeze. A tin roof held in place by wooden beams. A basic altar-slash-podium behind which the preacher begins his sermon. There aren't even any lights, only the natural sunlight coming in through the open doors and windows. Untitled-2 copy.jpgThere is a very basic sound system, consisting of two microphones and two old speakers in the back, long past their prime - the sound coming from them isn't very good. There is a keyboard, a djembe drum and a very old looking drum set.

The service itself would be familiar to most of us. There is a time of greeting, of hand shaking and introductions. Then comes the music. Now, I'm not one who normally gets all revved up about the music portion of a service. For starters, I have a painfully poor singing voice. Secondly, in most churches I've attended the singing isn't done very...enthusiastically. Most people seem as if they just want to get it over with, which, by the way, is how I feel as well. But not here. Here, at the BCC, I could go on with the music for an hour, maybe two hours. The joyful noise created here is unmatched in my limited church-going experience. I suspect that those who attend, or who have attended, predominately black churches, where passionate, soulful singing seems to be tradition, might know where I'm coming from. But different. More African (obviously), more rhythmic, distinctive in sound and pace and cadence. The Swahili language contributes, undoubtedly, to give the music a more sing-song, lyrical quality. Even though I don't know the language, I can sing along, using the songbook as a guide (English speakers can at least pronounce Swahili pretty accurately, even without knowing the words.) And motion, always motion. Everyone sways and claps and bows and spins, raising arms here and stepping in circles there. Can you imagine such a scene in your church? And, speaking of motion, let me assure you that the Kenyan people are able to move with a grace and fluidity that us "mzungus" can only dream about (I'll let you look up the word "mzungu" on your own). When Ecclesiastes speaks of "a time to dance", this is surely what is meant.

After the music (no, don't end!), Tony presents the message. Again, the message is delivered such that we would all be familiar. Normally, I'm sure, Tony preaches in Swahili, but for our benefit he speaks in English, employing a translator to speak to the non-English speakers. (Actually, during my March trip one of our trip participants, Rev. Kevin Hall, presented the message and Tony translated to Swahili.) It's fascinating to me to hear the words of the Bible translated to another language. To hear what appears to me as babble, but to know that the meaning of these unknown words is the very same as what I might hear in the US, is a profound thing. The Bible I know and read is the very same word of God that these Kenyans know and read, and, despite our many differences, we worship the same God. We really are members of the same family.

One great thing about church at the BCC is, of course, the kids. The BCC kids, and kids from the community. I love sitting with them, listening to them sing, listening to them recite verses. They are so well behaved. They listen, they participate, they worship. Some of the kids play the djembe during the music, others help with the microphones. Few, if any of them, wiggle or fuss, not even the littlest. They humble me with their knowledge of scripture and their ability to sing, they inspire me and make me proud.

There is an offering, by the way, during the service. Two of the BCC children pass a small pouch on either side of the church collecting the gifts of those who give. It is very humbling to see members of the congregation giving their tithe, knowing what a sacrifice even a few shillings must be. I can't help but think of the $40, $80, $100 dollars in my pocket, 3 months wage for some of them, as it just sits there, doing nothing. (One of the enduring questions raised by my trips is "What do I do with what I've been given?") Despite the nagging sense of shame, I am touched by the willingness I see to sacrifice monetarily.

The service concludes as most others. There is prayer - eloquent, soulful - and a benediction. After it ends, we file outside, pausing at the door to shake Tony's hand (and Kevin's) and begin to mingle with the others, meeting those we might have missed inside. The two times I've been (once we went to church at another place...similar experience) there have been lots of children present who don't live at the BCC, children we don't know, so we spend some time visiting with them and their mothers after the service. Eventually, though, people begin to move towards home, or, in the case of the BCC folks, towards the Dining Hall for lunch.

All in all, Sunday service at the BCC creates in me a sense of peace, a sense of joy and reverence, a sense of God's presence and love. I can't wait to go back.


A little girl from the community all dressed up.

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A mother and daughter headed to church.

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Tony (on right) and translator preaching.

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Grace (a caregiver) teaching Sunday School prior to church.

Africa Trip Recap: Singular Moments (part 1)

Life is made up of a series of events, it seems to me. As we experience "life", we really just move from one event to another. Some events are quick and brief (you wreck your car, you get in a fight, you buy a camera.) Others are long and drawn out (you have a career, you find a best friend, you pursue a hobby.)

Furthermore, some events are small, mundane and relatively unimportant, while others are bigger, maybe much bigger. Some events leave lasting impressions, they remain long after they've run their course: you visit the Grand Canyon, your first love, you graduate college. Finally, at the far end of the spectrum, are those events which aren't just big, they fall into the category of "life changing." These events don't simply leave impressions, they change your very being, your rock-bottom paradigm of life: The birth of your first child. Marriage. The death of a parent.

To break it down even further, I've come to think that events, both big and small, are themselves comprised of smaller, more distinct granularities. These I call "singular moments", for lack of a better vocabulary. With small events these singular moments are the most insignificant. I get into my car, drive down the street, turn on my blinker, park, get out of my car, go inside...this is my trip to the Dairy Queen. With bigger events, the singular moments may take on more weight. Some singular moments, in fact, may come to define the event to a large degree. A man may remember his wedding, may realize that over the course of his entire life this event ranks at or near the top in terms of defining all that comes afterwards...but what he really remembers is the site of his bride walking down the aisle, and not much else. This image, this singular moment, may be so powerful that other moments fade away somewhat, leaving this one moment to define, in many ways, the entire event.

My trips to Africa have become "big events" in my life. Undoubtedly, I will have other big events, some of which will overshadow even my trips to Africa. But for the time being, these trips loom pretty large. As I reflect, I see that these trips, these events, like all others, are made up of singular moments, points in time in which the specific serves to create the enormity of the overall. Since the trips are too big and complex (and probably too boring to others) to put down in toto, allow me to concentrate on some of the singular, defining moments of my most recent trip. Perhaps by doing so I can provide an easier way for others to get a sense for my experiences there.

Driving Through Nairobi
Perhaps no other experience has so powerfully created in my mind the sense of "Africa" than my traverses through the city of Nairobi. Admittedly, the safari trips leave no doubt as to "where" I am, but in terms of being slapped in the face with the all-out African-ness of it all, nothing beats driving through Nairobi. It is truly an incredible place, a place unlike any to be found in the US, and unlike any I've ever experienced before. I have no doubt that other, maybe many other, third-world cities are similar to Nairobi, and I suppose those who have traveled the globe might possibly find Nairobi to be somewhat unremarkable, but to them I can't relate and for them I don't write. I may be a textbook example of traveling naivete', but I personally find the city to be amazing! Nairobi is a city which literally teems with motion, with sights, with sounds, with smells. Everywhere I looked my eyes found something of interest to rest upon. As we moved through the city in our vans, windows slightly ajar, a constant, never-ending parade of fascination rolled by.

The first thing I notice (as do most others) is the traffic. Most adapt quite easily to the sensation of driving on "the wrong side of the road", British style, but hardly anyone accustomed to driving in the US gets used to the sheer chaos of it all, especially in the short span of a week or two. To begin, there is a lot of traffic. It was difficult to tell the difference between the "busy" times and any other time. There were always vehicles, everywhere. Secondly, there seems to be no hard and fast rules to speak of. Sure, most drivers keep to the left, but beyond that it seems that anything goes. Passing against oncoming traffic? No big deal, they'll move over. Cutting people off? Who cares?!? As long as your front bumper is past the other person's front bumper, you can do what ever you want. Stop signs? Uh, no. And for the coup de grace, there are the traffic circles. The circles I've been in (London, Scotland) require a sort of politeness, a recognition of right-of-way, decorum. Not so in Nairobi. Drivers plunge into the circles with hardly a glance, taking advantage of the smallest, most minuscule opening between bumpers. They hug the inside of the circle, darting to and fro, only to shoot across all lanes at the last moment to head off in a new direction. And, of course, so is everyone else. It really is something to be a part of, if you can stand to look. The final thing to notice regarding traffic is how close people drive to one another. In the US, getting close to someone else with your vehicle is an insult, a "disrespect", and can lead to anger and confrontation and road rage. In Nairobi, as long as you don't impact the other vehicle (well, impact hard), you're OK. There were times when we were literally traveling along with no more than 6 inches between our van and the vehicles on either side. And front. And back. The Nairobi drivers just don't seem to care, and they certainly don't take it personally when someone behind them is following, say, 3 inches off their bumper. (NOTE: It should be noted that even amongst the hurried masses of Nairobi drivers there is a particularly virulent species: the Matatu. These taxi-like vans dart and zoom around in a most reckless manner, incurring the wrath of all others. The drivers of these Matatus depend on picking up and dropping off large volumes of customers in as short a time as possible, and to this end they show absolutely no concern for any other vehicle or person. They are actually quite dangerous.)

The next thing I notice about Nairobi as I ride along is the number of people walking. I've been to NYC and seen vast numbers of people walking about, but those numbers shrink to literal irrelevance when compared to the number of folks walking about in Nairobi. Everywhere you look, people, large numbers of people, are walking. Take your busiest section of New York City, find the highest concentration of pedestrians, and then multiply that number across every street in Manhattan. That's what I'm talking about. Men, women, boys, girls, cows,'s all there. Every road has a well-worn walking trail alongside, and every walking trail is busy. As I go, I think, "Who are all of these people? Where are they going? Where have they been? What are they doing?" Some of the people are on obvious business: pulling a cart full of scrap metal, toting a bag of cloth on her head, hauling a bundle of sticks, going to school. Others just seem to be...walking. They have no load, carry no object. Perhaps they have an appointment. Going to see a friend. Looking for a job. Who knows? It's a mystery to me, and I love it.

The third thing I notice is the smell. It's, well, hard to ignore. There are so many odors demanding time of my nose that it's difficult to sort it all out. The exhaust from the traffic alone makes most people nauseous...the Kenyans don't seem too interested in air quality controls. Most vehicles just seem to belch raw, unfiltered, unprocessed exhaust. On top (or underneath, or alongside) of the exhaust smells are the smells of trash burning. Nairobi is a city full of trash. Everywhere, EVERYWHERE, is trash. And often, you'll drive past a small pile of trash as it burns. Usually these small piles of burning trash contains something organic, something which really puts a punch in the air. The most common comment I've heard is, "That smells a lot like marijuana!", which it does, only a lot stronger. There is also the smell of the rivers and creeks. Undoubtedly these contain some of the most polluted water on earth (excepting industrial waste). The smell of human waste and trash and who knows what else seeps from these dead waters like a kind of backdrop to everything else. They can literally bring tears to your eyes. And finally, there are the usual industrial smells that any big city seems adept at creating. When combined, this orchestra of odor gives Nairobi a very distinctive aura, an unmistakable air (pardon the pun) which further lends the city its character. The strange part of this is, as much as I find the smell of the city disgusting, I also find myself welcoming it, warming to it as simply another part of the city of which I'm becoming quite fond (in a weird sort of way.)

The final thing I'll mention is, to me, the most important. It's the people of Nairobi. You have to understand that Nairobi is a city of around 3-4 million people, many whom live in one of the city's slums. The Kibera slum, the largest slum in Africa, is home to an estimated 1 million people (this is the slum shown in the movie The Constant Gardener). In addition to Kibera there are several other large slums (including the Korogocho slum, the slum we visited during our stay) and numerous smaller ones. Although Nairobi is a cosmopolitan city with a relatively large amount of wealth, Kenya is a third-world country and a large percentage (close to 50%) of the population lives at or below poverty. In the slums many people live on what amounts to be around $1/day. Through it all, though, the Kenyans I've seen in Nairobi strike me as kind, polite, decent and honorable people. They take pride in their appearance. They seem to value family, hard work and discipline. They are proud of their country and their city. They are a people of faith. I can't claim to really know all that much about your average I said earlier, they are a mystery to me as I observe them walking about...but my impression is that they are, by and large, fine people. Very different from me and you, to be sure, but very fine people. I wish I knew them better.

OK, I know I've gone on way too long about Nairobi. Please know that I love being there, I love the sights and sounds and smells and people. It really is a place which amazes me. Below I've provided some photos, although they don't really do the city, or the experience, justice. The only means of taking photos available was either through the windshield or out the side windows (somewhat dangerous due to the risk of someone swiping the camera.) I'll continue the "Singular Moments" theme soon.

Here is a view of downtown Nairobi from an overlook. I have no idea if the people in the photo were waiting for something or if they were just hanging out. (The buildings appear to tilt due to the wide-angle lens I used.)

View out of the van window. Notice the schoolboy walking in the ditch.

A couple of Matatus and a busy street.


A view out the window. Some apartments in the background.

Out the window, again. The purple building on the left is titled "Best Lady Salon."