Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Kwaheri, Mzee!

It must be my scraggly and ever-whitening hair... In any case, I was twice addressed as "Mzee," or "Old One," yesterday. Fortunately, that is a term of honor in Kenya, as in: "Mzee, my mother/father won't listen to me, but he'll listen to you because of your age. Please tell him he needs surgery."

Women run their hands through my hair in amazement, men nod deferentially, and last week three kids ditched the bundles of kindling on their own heads so they could run and tousle mine. Since the local beauty "saloon" stylists are intimidated by mzungu hair, I'm quite the white-haired wonder by now.

I'm also a mixture of anxiety and excitement -- admittedly a year older and perhaps a day or two wiser at the close of my first mission term here in Maseno. Heartfelt welcomes and equally heartfelt goodbyes are genuine blessings in Kenya. It's not easy to say "kwaheri" to so many wonderful people this week, uncertain if/when I'll return. But I am also eager to see family and friends in the U.S. and to give my six grandchildren very big hugs!

Linet says I need to be back in Maseno by December 13th, her 26th birthday. Now there's a goal! If my youngest daughter is willing to celebrate her 40th two days early, maybe it's even a possibility. My flip-flops are flapping...

Meanwhile, we continue to pray, from and for this and every corner of the world: for food and water, for integrity and leadership, for joy and compassion, for grace and gratitude, for peace in our time. (Linet and I created our own version of "Praying Hands," above.)

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Musings on Mission

Fair warning, Friends... This is essentially my annual report.

One of the greatest joys in my life is learning to walk in someone else's moccasins – or flip-flops, more accurately, here in Kenya – through whatever conditions we may share on God's not-always-green earth. (We would have happily shared New England's soggy June!) The harvest has been sparse in Maseno, and the infrastructure is more fragile than ever. But life does goes on and hope does spring eternal, thanks in great part to all of you.

Walking in someone else's flip-flops is also one of my greatest concerns, as I try to be accountable to "people back home." My missionary heart still leaps in response to the plea I heard from Central America's Primate, Bishop Martin Barahona: "Walk with us, mano en mano (hand in hand) and side by side. Don't forget us!" I loved walking and working with the people of El Salvador in 2007, and I love walking and working with the people of Kenya today. I can't – and don't and won't – forget any one of them. At the same time I can't – and don't and won't – forget any one of you.

I am painfully aware of my own culture's pressure to be "cost-effective," to "accomplish things" and to "create self-sustaining projects." I have been frugal, but is that the same as cost-effective? I have not "accomplished" any great things in the almost-year I've been in Maseno, but I take comfort in Mother Teresa's words, "We can only do small things with great love." I have not created any yet-proven self-sustaining projects, but I've been quietly working with our Kenyan brothers and sisters to facilitate several of them.

At the request of Bishop Simon Oketch, Diocese of Maseno North, I have tried to help support a weary hospital staff and nurture its wearier-still patients. I've also tried to be of support to Nan and Gerry Hardison, our deeply committed Episcopal Church missionaries who have been serving in Kenya for 10 years. Through my hands, you have given 160 chickens to Esiamboko AIDS orphans for school fees and sustenance; helped to establish fledgling community pharmacies in both Ebwali and Ekwanda; and created a scholarship fund - via its choir's CD sales – for St. Philip's Theological College. You have also contributed money for 650 orphan blankets for kids who sleep on cold, jiggers-infested ground. And you have generously donated four x-ray view boxes, two suction machines and two life-sustaining oxygenators to Maseno Hospital, plus $8,000 for pharmacy supplies.

I am grateful for those opportunities because, in every case, we were specifically invited to help. And I remain convinced that it is presumptuous for us to impose our best-intentioned ideas upon another culture without being asked. No one is going to save, or even change, the world, but together we really can make a difference, especially if we let go of our own definitions of "change" and listen to the people who are in need. After a year in Maseno, I have renewed respect for the realities of poverty and for the efforts of the men, women and children who "keep on keeping on," in spite of those realities.

People can and do live with dignity in poverty, to paraphrase a remarkable missionary who works in Tanzania. It seems as important, to me, to honor that dignity as it is to work alongside people to help them alleviate it. It is a holy thing to step out in faith, to walk mano en mano and side by side, in one another's flip-flops. Mission is about this kind of relationship. Asante/thank you for stepping out and walking with us in Maseno.

Ours is a ministry of presence and praxis (diakonia: practical service in the name of the gospel) as much as, or even more than, it is a ministry of accomplishment. Yes, that creates a conundrum, a moral dilemma of sorts, as we continue to support and LIVE mission in the world, especially during our currently "interesting times." Times probably weren't any less interesting 2000 years ago, however, when Jesus said, "Love one another." He didn't say, "Love one another when you can comfortably afford it." Jesus also said, "Feed my sheep." He didn't say "Count them."

As I near the end of my first term as a Volunteer in Mission for The Episcopal Church to the Anglican Church of Kenya, I am especially grateful for the love and support you have given me, the hospital staff and patients, and the community of Maseno. Together we have made a difference. Together we may even have dispelled a few stereotypes about North Americans: "Wazungu (Europeans/white people) all look alike." "Wazungu are all rich." And "a shangazi (old lady – especially a mzungu old lady!) doesn't climb mountains." I trust that, together, we have dispelled a few stereotypes about our African neighbors, as well.

Above all, I pray that, together, we will continue to work toward a more healthy, hopeful and loving world... "with God's help," as we say every time we reaffirm our baptismal covenant. Archbishop Tutu more succinctly says, "We are all missionaries, or we are nothing." Because of you and people like you, I have been working alongside others who are serving the needs of kids and adults alike in a small, impoverished community in East Africa, where HIV/AIDS is rampant and where two out of ten children die of malaria before the age of five. There is reason for grief in our world, but there is also reason for hope. You are helping to provide that hope.

The people of Maseno know that I am here because you care about them. I know I am here because you care about me, too. We have been working together in body and spirit at the hospital, orphan clinics and in the community, treating everything from AIDS and anthrax to typhoid and TB. Poverty, disease and, sadly, corruption are devastating Kenya. People are struggling to simply survive. Forty-eight percent of medical care in the country is provided by mission hospitals which get no support from Kenya's government, nor from the NGO's. The hospitals are struggling to survive, as well. This hospital and its patients are surviving because of you who are sharing so fully, in so many ways – walking in our flip-flops! – in a ministry of healing and hope and love.

Loving one another, as I recently wrote to friends at St. Andrew's, is the first and great – but by no means the easiest – commandment. Mission is just one way to love, of course, and mission is "done" in our own back yards, as well, so these next few months will be a time of discernment for us all. I feel honored to be invited to return to Maseno, on your behalf, after a few weeks at home in the fall. We have a very good start on fund-raising, but I will need your prayerful support. If I am to be a continuing presence here, we will all need to consider some significant personal, family and financial matters. Perhaps we will also need to consider what my/our absence would mean.

In my admittedly anxious dotage, I go "back to basics" and revert to my Midwestern childhood. I turn to prayer, to morality tales (The Little Engine that Could) and even to nursery rhymes. Do you remember "Deedle deedle dumpling... One shoe (flip-flop) off and one shoe (flip-flop) on"? Well, at the moment, one of my flip-flops is in Kenya, and one is in the U.S. I am waiting for one or the other to drop, wondering where it will land, as we discern together. And I am praying. Where is God in all of this? Where are we? And how "will we seek to serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves?"

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


Well, now I know... Worse than seeing faces is not seeing them. Susan's bed was empty when I arrived for morning rounds yesterday. She died on Thursday, following a massive GI bleed. Her medical record had not yet been filed away: "RIPF" (Rest In Peace Forever) was printed on the cover of the chart, those initials carefully placed in the quadrants created by a hand-drawn Christian cross.

Noticing my obvious distress, Linet tried to console me, "Ni shauri ya Mungu/It is the will of God." "Not my God," I snapped back -- and then apologized. I'm afraid I still have much to learn from our African friends.

When I saw that Pamela's bed, too, was empty, my heart sank. Then I was told that she had been discharged on Friday. A student nurse reported that Pamela had promised to eat and rest and exercise and take her meds -- and that her co-wife had promised to encourage her.

We next rounded on Pediatrics, where I was dismayed to see that Gastone, 7, was also missing. The dazed little boy, in shock and pain, had been brought to the hospital one week ago by his frantic parents. He had picked up a fallen live electrical wire while playing with a friend. The voltage had shot through Gastone's body, creating first and second degree burns on his face, neck, upper and lower limbs. The deepest wound was a hole beneath his jaw.

We were also worried about the child's heart because he complained of chest pain on admission. He explained, though, that he had fallen "hard" on the ground, on his chest, when the electricity had raced through his body. His cardiac status was fine, but Gastone developed severe edema on his face the next day. The potential for a constricted airway was real, but it never materialized, TG. And Gastone never stopped playing with the Matchbox tow truck we gave him on admission -- a very hopeful sign. (Thank you, Church of the Advent, for the toys!) We administered Pethedine for pain, tetanus toxoid, IV Ceftriaxone and fluids. His burns were cleansed and debrided, and Dermazene was generously applied.

I was relieved to learn that Gastone, too, had been discharged over the weekend. He may never pick up even a dead electrical wire again, but his wounds will heal. Thanks be to God.