Our First Few Days in Kenya


Today was a day of firsts.  It was our first morning to wake up in Africa, having arrived last night at 9:00 p.m. after 26 hours of travel.  As we hurried off the airplane, anxious to meet our Kenyan loved ones after such a prolonged and expectant wait, we were greeted with a long (and very slow) line waiting to either obtain visas (which we already had), or be processed through the immigration desk.  After another hour and a half, we made it to the baggage claim area, only to discover that none of our bags had made the trip with us.  While John was processing the paperwork and receiving instructions on when to return to the airport to check on the bags, I went on out to the area where I found a sea of beautiful black faces, waiting for friends or relatives.  In an instant, I recognized our hosts holding up a sign that read, “John & Mary Catherine.”  What a joyful moment to embrace these two precious people!

After an alarming ride through Kenyan traffic and Texas-sized potholes, we made it to The Pink House, and upstairs to their home.  There, she began to prepare a meal of ugali, boiled beef, and something I can’t pronounce that tastes exactly like turnips.  Ugali is prepared by boiling water and then stirring in some type of flour until it makes a stiff dough.  That’s about it – no seasoning, nothing.  You just cut a piece off and dip it in the other food in your bowl.  The children (8, 7, and 5) were still up waiting for us.  We all ate at midnight.


Before we sat down to eat, we had a tour of their house which they have transformed into a warm and inviting home.  There were pictures of us hanging everywhere, including our wedding picture.  Our host is quite proficient on the computer, and found these tucked away on my Facebook page.  When we walked into the bedroom they had prepared for us, we were shocked to find 8×10’s of us hanging on the wall.  The funny thing was, however, that neither picture was actually of us, only who they THOUGHT was us.  In John’s place was a picture of my dad; they thought it was John as a young man.  In my place was a picture of Kate Jackson, which was left among my Facebook pictures from the Doppleganger phase when everyone was posting pictures of the celebrities people thought they most resembled.  It was hilarious, and we told them that John’s picture was actually my dad, but we didn’t have the heart to tell them that the other picture was Kate Jackson.  When I wrote several friends and family about it that night, Sam Center wrote back and remarked how interesting it was to have Kate and Gene side by side, wondering how he would have felt about that.  Ha!

For months, I have assured John that The Pink House would be perfect for us to stay in, even though I thought we would be staying downstairs in one of the classrooms.  I had seen pictures of the bathroom, complete with a bathtub and shower – lucky for me, as I thought I couldn’t exist without a hot bath at night.  Big surprise to find out that the tub is only piped for cold water.  There is a switch outside the bathroom that you must remember to turn on, because it supplies electricity to the hot water for the shower.  The shower head itself is not enclosed in a separate cubicle.  The water simply falls onto the bathroom floor which has a curb at the door.  That might work except for the fact that the floor is not sloped to the drain.  After your very quick shower, there is a mop in a bucket to help push the water toward the drain.

Thank goodness we had put a few wash cloths in our carry-on baggage.  They were used for cushioning binoculars and our camera during the trip, but served as bath towels until the luggage arrives.

I sent money ahead of time and our host was gracious enough to buy bedding for us.  I know how very proud they must be to have bought us a set of sheets.  I won’t even try to describe the material they’re made of.  Very interesting texture.

Crawling into bed was a challenge.  This was certainly the first time for me trying to sleep underneath a mosquito net.  It must be tucked in all around.  Guess I never considered the effort and coordination it would take to tuck one in after you’re already in the bed.  The net is suspended from the ceiling and provides a very tight fit, so unless you were sleeping by yourself smack-dab in the middle of the mattress, you would find yourself with a mosquito net stretched across your face all night.  Of course, no luggage means no handy little noise maker/air filter.  It’s amazing how spoiled we become, relying on the sound of a ceiling fan or an air filter to sleep.

When morning came, there was a great deal of excitement.  The students were arriving downstairs and I could peek through the curtains and see all the commotion that was going on.  All the chairs were being moved into the courtyard for a welcoming ceremony for us.  I couldn’t resist peeking through the curtains, which brought squeals of delight from the children.  John and I were escorted downstairs at exactly 8:00 o’clock, and were treated to the sweetest reception of our lives.  The program began with a ribbon cutting ceremony in which I was privileged to cut the ribbon, officially opening The Pink House as the Valley of Truth Learning Centre. Then the fun began – children singing praise songs and reciting poetry, three-year-olds quoting Scripture, the whole group singing songs that included our names, teachers singing beloved hymns that I couldn’t resist singing along with.  I have so many precious pictures and videos to share, but here is the sight that greeted us.  As you can see, the numbers have grown.  We were shocked after the school moved to its new location to learn that we had jumped from 38 to 60 children.  There are now 82, and the challenges of that number are beyond explanation.

A tour of the school followed the ceremony and we saw for the first time how much more we need to accomplish.  The children are packed into their tiny classrooms; potty breaks are scheduled by classes, with 82 children using one bathroom; a matron is cooking for all these children plus six teachers on a tiny four-burner, apartment-sized stove; the classrooms have been created by building plywood partitions and some of the rooms didn’t even have a light bulb.  In a couple of the approximately 10×10 rooms, there were 24 children.  And yet, in the midst of these challenges, I have never witnessed such excellent education and spiritual training.

Next on our schedule was a trip to purchase some things we saw as necessary.  Another first:  Never before have I been wanded before entering a grocery store!  As we pulled into the parking lot of Tusky’s (sort of equivalent to a Super Walmart), we were stopped by security guards who searched the trunk of the car for weapons.  Then, as we walked into the “mall” which contained the grocery store, we were stopped again and wanded.  This heightened security is a result of the Somalian retaliation because of the Kenyan military offensive against Al Shabaab.  Amazingly, we felt totally safe inside.

There we found almost every product we could imagine, though the brands were unrecognizable for the most part.  One exception was the candy aisle.  We saw Snickers, M&M’s, and Mentos, in addition to many new goodies.  The big shock came on the rice aisle.  I have never seen as much rice in my life.  We walked down a row at least 50 feet long and 6 feet high – all rice!  On the other side of the aisle was every variety of dry beans imaginable.

Our loving and supportive church family in Cherokee blessed us with a generous gift before we left, to be used at our discretion.  (This was in addition to their monthly support of the school.)  We purchased a huge, heavy aluminum pot and lid for cooking at the school, and two nice heavy stainless pots with glass lids for our host.  What she was using to cook with amounts to aluminum bowls with a round, flat aluminum piece as a cover – no handles.  We also picked up a nice colander for her and light bulbs, both for the house and the school.  There was an immediate need for a First Aid Kit.  John had brought a Case knife as a gift for the husband.  It was his first, and he ran his thumb down the blade before John could warn him, and he sustained a very deep cut which bled profusely.  We all decided it was a blood covenant of friendship.

Meals are scarce and sparse, but the children never complain.  The family has been blessed beyond measure by the goodness and generosity of everyone who has helped us.  Even so, their diet is limited and it seems to me that their children are not getting enough to eat.  As far as the students go, there is just not enough money to adequately feed all of them.  They are served porridge at 10:00 in the morning and a lunch of beans and corn around 12:30.  Most days, the children do not receive anything to eat at home in the evening, so it’s a long stretch between meals.  John suggested to the wife that they might try to feed breakfast earlier, when the children first arrive, and she saw the wisdom in that, and immediately made a change in the daily schedule. We are committed to raising enough money to add a small snack to be served immediately before they leave at 4:00 to help tide them over ‘til morning.  We have also had a conversation with them about making every calorie count, not feeding them anything with empty calories, but concentrating on nutrition.  They seemed surprised to learn that a donut has zero nutritional value.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Today was the most amazing day of our lives, to date, except for those most blessed of days when we received our own three children into this world.  We traveled some distance to another school where our Director’s sister works.  Their mother had the vision to start this school.  It began some years ago in the parent’s back yard where they built little tin buildings to house deaf children who were not receiving any sort of education.

In the African culture, deafness is an embarrassment, and parents hide their children at home rather than send them to school.  The mom went out into the neighborhood to find these children and offer to teach them.  They started with three and it soon grew to nine.  Once the children began to learn sign language and the parents saw the vast improvement, the children (and the parents) wanted them to live at the school.  That was the humble beginning of their school, serving not only deaf children, but the hearing as well.  There are 102 students living there and they are indescribably delightful.


The children conducted the service and when they were asked them who wanted to preach, six of them raised their hands.  They decided by lot, before we came, who would preach and who would conduct the service.  The young man who preached is named John.  Even before he took the pulpit, before we knew that he would be preaching, he was among the “Praise Team” who led the entire group in the most beautiful spirited singing I have ever heard.  He’s on the far end.  It was if a light was shining on him the entire time, he was so anointed.

I learned later that he is 20 years old.  He came to the school 3 years ago, not able to read a sentence.  He now reads very well, and speaks English so proficiently that I thought he had been brought up knowing the language.  He is an orphan, and has been on the fringes of society, on the verge of trouble, bounced around between living with an aunt and living with friends.  I knew none of this when he came up to preach, and I have rarely, in the United States, seen or heard a preacher with such a powerful message and delivery.  I found him afterwards while we were touring the facility, put my arms around him, and whispered to him what my observations had been, and that I believed that God had set him apart for great things.

Driving through the city, both on the way to the school and afterwards on the way to the mother’s house, the streets were packed with throngs of worshipers, out in their Sunday best, walking to church, catching buses to get there, then on to fellowship with their own loved ones.  It was a sight to behold.

We spent the afternoon at her house, the house where all of the siblings were raised.  The food was delicious and the hospitality was intoxicating. We were moved to hear the story of the mother’s vision for the school. All the siblings showed up to welcome us, except the one brother who has passed on.  Jesus said that He is the vine and we are the branches.  That is exactly the picture of how their vision grew; it took root and then the vision for our little school branched out from there.  This family is impacting lives for God’s kingdom.

When we stood to go, they joined in prayers of thanksgiving for us, for our children and grandchildren, for divine protection, giving God all the glory.  The Spirit was so strong in that place, it was as if we were physically being lifted into the presence of God!

Monday, July 09, 2012

We have been without water now since Saturday night, but that seems of no consequence.  Nothing seems to dampen the spirits of these dear people.  Your first thought may be about how we bathe or cook; think of the more pressing issue:  how to deal with potty breaks for 82 children and 12 adults.  The teachers handle it with dignity and grace.

We had the opportunity this morning to meet with all the teachers collectively, to tell them how God had impressed them on our hearts, and how totally blown away we are with what they are doing.  These dear people have absolutely nothing.  We have been able since April to provide them with a meager salary, but will go home with a renewed determination and a better understanding of what we’re working for.  We made them all honorary Texans, and pinned a red, white and blue Texas-shaped lapel pin on each one.  They were so appreciative and so happy.

In our first couple of days here, we went not only to Tusky’s, but also to Nakumatt, another chain of superstores, and have purchased all manner of needed food and household items.  However, we are looking forward with great anticipation to visiting the local market to purchase the fresh vegetables for the school.  Modester buys fresh vegetables once a week, and must travel on foot, and then by taxi, in order to transport that quantity of food back to the house.  I know that they are thankful for the brief time that we’re here to have the luxury of a car.

I cooked a big pot of spaghetti and meat sauce one evening, but it didn’t taste anything at all like what I make back home.  I couldn’t find tomato sauce in a can, but finally located it in something the shape of a ketchup bottle.  I wondered about it, but the bottles of regular old Heinz Ketchup were on the shelf as well, so I assumed that their tomato sauce was just packaged differently, especially since the ingredient label sounded like plain old tomato sauce.  The end result was good, but it didn’t taste like spaghetti; it tasted like Sloppy Joes – very, very sweet.  One amazing thing happened as I was working in the kitchen, preparing to add a can of mushrooms to the mix.  I asked the wife where the can opener was and she looked at me blankly.  When I explained what I needed, she nodded in recognition and got out a butcher knife.  With that, she proceeded to open the can.  I was saddened, because one of the things I intended to bring her was a really good can opener.  Next trip to Tusky’s, we’ll be looking for one!

The only spice she had in her cupboard was salt.  The first thing John bought was a container of black pepper.  She looked at it when we got home and asked what it was used for.  Next trip to the grocery store, when I purchased all the ingredients for the spaghetti, I found what I needed – oregano, thyme, basil, etc. – and they provided a new taste sensation for our gracious hosts.  The children, I believe, especially enjoyed the sweetness of the spaghetti sauce.

Speaking of the children, they are absolutely precious.  One evening, as we were all sitting in the living room, I had my laptop in my lap, writing this report.  The kids were almost on top of me and the 5-year-old started reading out loud what I was writing – every single word!!  I couldn’t believe it.  I had to help him a bit when he would come to a word like “unrecognizable” or “hilarious,” but he read everything else without a single error.  “Doppleganger” gave him a bit of difficulty, as well, but who wouldn’t stumble on that one?!!

After these past few days, I have perfected the art of bathing, using a small plastic bucket of water.  It’s not so much the small quantity as it is the ice cold nature of it.  Ha!

There is so much to report, but no one will ever read it all unless I can find some way to filter and condense.  I want so to write, for my own sake, so that I won’t forget a single experience, a single impression.  However, I cannot seem to find adequate time to do so.

Love you all so much!!!

Mary Catherine

One comment on “Our First Few Days in Kenya

  1. Modester Muragwa says:

    What a wonderful experience in Kenya!!!!!!!

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