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Monday, August 26, 2013

A LAMent

I'm reading Psalms, and there are plenty of laments.  How LONG oh Lord?  Why?  Remember how it used to be?

So I think a small lament is in order today, for the departure of our eldest son.  His last day was perfect.  Early church where the rocking arrangement of hymns during the offering included How Firm a Foundation, which has been a theme for my faith as a mother in his life (reached through my sorrows to grab me when I was tenuously pregnant with him and visiting McLean Presbyterian Church, and repeated randomly as we walked into the chapel at Yale to drop him off for college). Sunshine like we have barely seen in these southern hemisphere winter months.  A couple of hours of fooling around with tennis and soccer after a huge cinnamon roll post-church brunch.  Last meal at Habesha, an Ethiopian restaurant that was mouth-watering spicy and delicious and enjoyed with a fireplace view of the second half of the Tottenham game on the way to the airport, family expanded with Bethany and Jack's friend Rich.  Then the flurry of getting his trunk off the roof-rack, the still-discombobulated post-fire airport (WAY WAY more organized than our last post-fire disaster departure), hugs and lines and finally he tells us to get going home since it will be well after ten when we stumble down the escarpment in the extreme dark with groceries to unload.

And so the summer comes to an end.  And what a run it was.  If I had to name this boy's main talent, it might be the ability to get back to Africa with funding and a purpose and yet manage to seem to have loads of time to enjoy life and this place.

This year he took up a question I've had since many years ago in Uganda, seeing kids born with spina bifida, and wondering about a possible connection to malaria.  Only now there is technology for geographic information and ways to statistically look at this, and we now live in a country where malaria is not a universal blanket but a disease with a distribution.  He and his colleague, another delightful student, worked on collecting data which they can now analyze in their Fall research course.
But though that was the structure and justification for the summer, he packed in much more.  Motorcycle rides and repairs, camping with nothing but a pan and a blanket, hikes, bus ride to Mombasa and back, friends and more friends (Mom did I tell you so and so was going to spend the night?), football practice with his little brother and tennis with his sister, indoor soccer nights, swahili, Top Gear on satellite TV, med school applications, cooking or making coffee, all with background music from new artists on his ipod instead of ours, all with a presence and passion that is unmistakable.

And now all that is over and gone, the very house feels empty.

Our firstborn has many gifts.  Perhaps they are best described as an exuberance of life.  Energy.  Curiosity and insistence.  A whirlwind of greasy tools and strewn clothes and empty coconuts and finished books.  Loud music, ready arguments, fresh viewpoints, new ideas.  No fear in pushing back against the status quo, calling us on our own sins and inconsistencies.  What used to feel like a strong-willed frustration I now see as a gift that sharpens and grows us as parents.  He revels in Africa, in all its crazy washed-out roads and hard-to-understand customs and loss, in all its spectacular vistas and animals and freedom.  He is deep-down loyal, to us, to family, to mission, to place.  He is a force that draws all of us into his orbit for a while, and leaves us a bit bewildered in his wake.  His siblings look up to him, and he cares about who they are.  Though he is surrounded by the epitome of success-reaching colleagues, he is bold enough to define that in his own terms.  Though as a mom I could wish for a little less love of risk-taking, I believe that because of that characteristic he will be a blessing in this world.

So today feels a bit grey, a bit flat, a bit subdued and too easy.  I am remembering the summer, particularly those golden 9 days with the WHOLE family here, with a mixture of thankfulness and longing.  It has been five full years since we first dropped this boy off, so small, age 15, drove away with him standing under the tree in the parking lot of RVA, both Scott and I with flowing tears, our car silent and edgy.  Every year adds more goodbyes.  That was the moment which launched independent directions for our family, necessary and right, but my heart wished it could have come five (or twenty or a hundred) years later.  Since then, the rhythm has not been a nuclear family with occasional separations, but a dispersed family with occasional reunions.

Our mission's motto: for the world's good and God's glory.  This is the cost.  Independent kids with a drive to do and be, who move out with courage.  And who, so far, come back, and with that I have to be content.

Friday, August 23, 2013

African Alpine

Last weekend our family of five (missing Caleb) headed into the high mists of the Aberdare Mountain range, a national park situated at ten to thirteen thousand feet, only a couple of hours from Kijabe.  We packed for self-sufficient wilderness camping, and took a not-often-traveled spur off the main gravel road to a camp site deep in the bush.  The track was basically a barely discernible set of tire tracks bouncing through a bog and forest.  At one point we thought we had arrived, but I detected further tracks and walked ahead to look for the actual camp site.  As I emerged there was a snorting and crashing of dark shapes through the dense brush, two buffalo, as I hid behind a fallen tree and shouted!  Thankfully they never came back, but we could see areas of pressed grass where others had lain, and plenty of droppings in the vicinity.  We set up our tents in the dusk and got the fire going to heat up our chili.

The most magical aspect of that campsite, besides the spacious shade, the uninterrupted sky, the dense greenery, the distant sound of falling water, the complete absence of human noise or presence, was the bushbuck.  These curious deer-like mammals came to check us out as we set up camp, and became pleasant pests throughout our stay.  As long as we sat still they approached us, gingerly, carefully, ears pricked and noses quivering.  We set out some salt, and they were hooked.  By the end of the first evening they were licking salt out of our hands, nosing into our tents, pawing through our ashes.  We learned that they make a dog-like (or baboon-like) bark when alarmed.  We were quietly entertained by the half-dozen or more that grazed around us.  The males were darker, with spiraling horns, bolder.  The females were more skittish, preferring to approach in pairs.  In twenty years of game driving we have often spotted bushbuck and reedbuck, but they were always a glimpse of fur disappearing into a thicket.  It was truly amazing to observe them at leisure, with no fear, inches away.

Of course it would not be a Myhre vacation if we merely grilled tandoori chicken and nan by a blazing fire, or made pancakes and coffee as the day warmed.  We headed out Saturday to try and climb to the highest point in the range.  Only the road to the trail was almost as untraveled as the road to the campsite.  Time and time again Scott locked into low-4WD to grind through mud and puddles.  We looked out over the lobelias and bamboo, the tussocks and bogs, the purples and yellows of wild flowers, spectacular alpine scenery.  And we had very nearly made it to our goal when a particularly muddy uphill slowed us down to a crawl, and then we began to slide.  Within seconds the car was wedged into a deep rut, nearly axle-deep in mud that dripped down from a hillside bog.  Good thing we have Luke and Jack along to push, I thought, we'll be out in no time.

However what followed was about a two-hour ordeal.  We were very very far from any park headquarters, out of cell phone range, on a road no one else seemed to travel.  Scott dug, moving mud behind our wheels, creating better tracks.  Jack and Luke cut down branches and small trees to lay down for traction.  Julia and I hiked back to a culvert where we gathered stones to laboriously drag back to wedge under the wheels.  We pushed and rocked, stood on the sideboards to provide counter-weight, revved and spun.  After a herculean effort Scott got it going in reverse, and we traded one swamp for another.  Julia and I jumped off the side as the car tilted a perilous 45 degrees into more muck. More digging, more stones, more tree-cutting, more spattering mud and spinning tires, until we at last emerged back onto the road.

Turning around was not an appealing option, and probably not possible at that point.  Scott decided to try the hill one more time, staying far to the other side.  The boys put down more branches.  We all got inside to improve traction, and Scott got up as much momentum as we could.  However we slowed and slowed and just at the point we were starting to slip back, Scott yelled "PUSH" and Luke and Jack were out their doors in two seconds flat, shoulders into the rear of the car, shoving.  Which was exactly enough to keep us from repeating the slide into the bog, and they muscled us up to the top of the hill.  I think that was my favorite moment of the trip, the sudden leap out the door rescue.

After all that time and struggle, we did not end up pursuing the hike.  Instead we drove out of the park by another gate, took washboard farming roads in a big loop, came back into the park on the salient side, drove by buffalo herds and jumpy wart hogs and graceful waterbuck, then climbed back to the alpine meadows from the other side.  As we drove each day we had periods of gathering clouds, driving rain, and pounding hail.  Real ice, falling from the sky here near the equator, piling in little white frozen drifts on the roadside.  It was cold.  Very cold.  But then the rain would stop and patches of blue would open up again.

We read books and listened to a sermon, cooked great meals, made up stories.  As we left Sunday we hiked to a spectacular serious of waterfalls, the Karungu Falls, plunging hundreds of feet over sheer rock, splitting the steep jungle.

It was truly an out-of-time experience, the alpine world seeming farther away than would be possible on a short drive.  My "love language" is quality time, so a weekend campout with my kids (most of them) is a huge gift to me.  I returned to the sheer stress of the ICU, three babies with overwhelming infections have died in the last two weeks, the struggling nights I had spent seeming to be for nothing.  Grieving families and blood and CPR drain life, and I am thankful for an African alpine weekend of restoration.

(Note pictures are mostly Luke's which is why he isn't in them . . .)

Sunday, August 11, 2013

What I read on my summer vacation

A novel of the plague, based on the true story of an English village in 1666.  Brooks writes in what comes to my ear as an authentic middle-ages voice (until the end, when the plot turn was in my opinion too 21rst century), poetic and compelling.  This is one of my favorite genres because the issues of disease and survival, and the outlook of a spiritual universe, are so close to Africa today.  The voice of the rector is for the most part one of grace in the midst of loss.  Good character and plot development, an overall great read.

A surprisingly good read--illusion and magic, a plot that jumps through time, beautiful writing, and mystery.  Like the above, I was not fully fond of the ending.  However I think it is an interesting parable of good and evil and the way they perhaps play out in the real universe.  Interesting time setting of the late 19th century too.  Definitely a good read.

This one was a gift from a fellow book-loving friend.  I believe it is a "young adult" genre, but I like reading that too.  The two main characters are teens with cancer, who struggle through support groups and the longing for love and friendship and the impending possibility of death.  Which is pretty much what all our lives are about.  I think the characters are the best part of this novel, really unique personalities that are wonderfully developed. Poignant and hopeful without being sappy.  Liked it a lot.

This book was a pleasant surprise.  Though I suspect it is of the genre that gets chosen for Oprah book clubs or something (not usually my favorite), it has a quirky sweet quality and an underlying seriousness that makes it worth reading.  A middle-aged man gets a letter from a former colleague who is dying, and sets out to mail a reply, only as he walks away from his own unhappy home he keeps going on the eponymous unlikely pilgrimage.  Which is more than a physical walk, as he confronts himself and his past.  My favorite part was the sense that every plain person one meets has an interesting story beneath the facade.  And the touch of redemption.  Good read.

This was my one serious book, which I had started prior to vacation but savored during the week.  Dawn writes poetically with an academic soundness, and shares enough of her life to make her conclusions compelling.  She is grounded in historical Christianity but willing to live it in a counter-cultural way.  I need her sabbath perspective.  Worth reading, and will do so more than once.

Mixed feelings about this one.  A real page-turner tale of a wife gone missing and a husband accused, with decent writing and major plot twists.  Works as a cautionary tale of mental illness and infidelity.  But a bit trashy.  And not terribly satisfying.

The best for last.  This book is just as beautiful and tragic as one would expect from Hosseini.  In the opening chapter, a father tells a tale to his children that frames the whole story as one of sacrificial parental love.  Hosseini is a real artist, and the style of this book is amazing.  Each chapter is a different part of a connected story told from a different character's point of view.  He is able to write believably in many different voices.  As with his other novels, this one gives a glimpse into a country (Afghanistan) we would otherwise be hard pressed to know much about on this side of the world.

One week, seven books.  Several of those books were recommended by my newest book-loving friend, Ann M.  One was a gift from Bethany F.  I was able to borrow several electronically from my old library in Virginia, which is a great way for missionaries to read current literature.  I bought the first and the last and am glad I did, they are worth it.  A book a day at the beach is pretty much my definition of a great rest.

Previously this summer I read two books which were both written by different missionary colleagues here at Kijabe (both left in July for good, after longish terms of service).  I'll mention those two here as well, since I rarely review books on the blog.

Harry Kraus is a surgeon from Virginia who spent the last several years working at Kijabe.  He has written a slew of books in a genre I have heard described as "medical realism meets Christian romance."  They feature doctors, with page-turning fast-moving plots, mysteries that turn on a medical detail, and characters that struggle with spiritual dilemmas.  This one though is unique, because it is actually SET IN KIJABE.  Some of the details are recognizable lore from this place, but he weaves a fascinating plot involving witchcraft and politics and corruption.  Fun read for those of us who live here, and worth reading for others.

Steve and Nancy Peifer moved to Kenya more than a decade ago, intending a year filling in as dorm parents to provide space for healing from the loss of a baby with Trisomy 18.  Instead they stayed on and on, taught French and Driver's Ed and did College guidance counseling, adopted orphaned Kenyan twins, and eventually started a program to provide needy Kenyan schools with food for kids' lunches and solar-powered computer centers that have touched the lives of thousands and thousands of kids.  What makes this book a treat is that Steve writes with Dave Barry-like humor and self-deprecating honesty, always giving credit to God and to others.  This is a book about GRACE in the life of an ordinary family who did something extraordinary in God's hands.  A definite must-read.

If those aren't enough, I bought for my kids Orson Scott Card's Gate Thief/Mither Mages series (only 2 so far, very good, but more of mid-late teen to adult level), Andrew Peterson's Wingfeather Sagas (haven't read but Julia devoured them), and Josh Trott's Illumen's children (fantasy with a Christian allegorical bent, excellent).  And for Scott, A Rumor of War, which I haven't read yet.  So the total book consumption at the beach was considerable.

Happy reading.

Every Tribe and Tongue

A celebration of Kenya's cultural wealth by AIC today.  Five different tribes came in traditional dress, dancing in one by one to present songs, clapping and shaking, stomping and ululating. The Kikuyu, the Kamba, the Agusii, the Turkana, and the Maasai.  Each with their own rhythm, their own scale.  Music that originated from a time of rivers and sun, before any influence from radio and TV.  Jumps and spins that recall the grace and flourish of wildlife rather then the ubiquitous moves of Youtube.  A tribute to the glorious plurality of the Trinity, the billion reflections of God's nature.

And in the middle, a sermon by a Turkana man who had been in line to inherit his father's role as a witch doctor, but who preached the victory of Jesus over the powers of the world from John 16:33.  From Isaiah, he read about the promise of new things, of water in the desert and related it to the discovery of a deep water table under his arid homeland.  Echoes of Jesus' words in Revelation 21:  Behold, I make all things new.  Behold, the victory.

Which led to an interesting Kingdom paradox:  celebration of traditional culture with proclamation of a new way.  Holding onto the beauty of tribal songs but changing the words and focus to the one true God.  This tension between rejecting witchcraft and embracing tradition has challenged the church in Africa.  I doubt that we get it right.  But today was a solid attempt to hold onto the past and view it in the truth of the present.  
And a last paradox:  the service was conducted in KiSwahili, the common language forged by slave traders on the coast to bridge between the 40-plus tribes of Kenya.  A picture of redemption, that a language born out of enslavement and injustice now binds diverse peoples and is raised in praise.

Friday, August 09, 2013

A saga of departure

The great cousin visit came to an end today.  Sadly.  And of all their African adventures--  snorkeling coral teaming with neon rainbows of fish, being knocked by high tide waves on a deserted beach, gazing at lions and wildebeast, camping under the stars, hiking a volcanic peak, tutoring school kids and teaching art projects, playing with hospitalized children, sipping chai in our dusty little town, working on a tile project, making pizza, touching baby elephants, surviving Nairobi traffic or jolting cross country, bargaining in the market or crossing the Rift Valley --of all of this, the four hours between pulling into the gates of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and getting onto an airplane this morning will probably be the most memorable.

48 hours before their departure, the Arrivals Terminal, which is the hub of the airport, burst into flame.  Well, burst may be an exaggeration.  Some reports indicate a small fire grew and grew out of control, because the firetrucks had been auctioned for lack of repair funds, the hydrants were dry, the response system was slow, until the fire was an uncontrollable inferno pictured above.  The fire occurred on the 15th anniversary of the US Embassy bombing in Nairobi, so terrorism was of course suspected, but so far the cause is not clear.  Whatever the cause, this fire gutted the main international airport in the country, which is the portal for tourism all over East Africa.

We were at the coast and made phone calls to Kenya Airways by that afternoon.  Should we try to take our nephews to the Mombasa airport instead?  Would planes be diverted?  No, my agent informed me.  By Friday morning, he said, I promise you that flight will be leaving from Nairobi.  Drive back. My nephews had a great visit, they were fun to be with, and game for most everything.  But they were ready, after 3 weeks, longer and further than they'd ever been from home, to go back.  They missed their family and friends and the familiarity of their normal food and normal beds.

At the 24 hour mark, Thursday morning, we tried to check in on line, but clearly that system had been disabled, so the computer would say "checked in" but then not print the boarding pass.  We checked the news, and it looked good.  Kenya Airways had resumed over a third of their flights on Thursday and planned full service on Friday.  They updated their facebook page with crisp, confidence-inspiring reports on their efforts.  All flights were now being processed through the peripheral domestic terminal, with the addition of some tents.  Domestic flights had been moved to the cargo terminal.  No problem.  African can-do, we won't let a fire stop us, we can improvise.  So we all breathed a sigh of relief, and piled in the car and drove ten hours back to the Nairobi outskirts for a few hours of sleep at the Massos (thanks!) to be poised for an early airport trip.

Friday morning, up and out by 5:30, into the airport complex a bit after 6, as the sky was lightening into grey.  Our first clue that the systems may not have been exactly worked out was the gridlock of cars on the entry highway.  It seems the traffic circle and parking lots which surround the still-smoldering charred terminal were closed, so the cars were just piling up on the road.  No big deal, we just got out in the middle of the gridlock and got the suitcases off the roof and walked.  As we approached the small domestic terminal, I could see lines of taxi drivers waiting for arriving passengers with their placards, groups of people struggling with suitcases, tents set up outside, people with clipboards and reflective vests.  I found a Kenya Airways uniformed lady and asked her where to go for the Amsterdam flight.  Amsterdam?, she said, move to the door, we're taking Amsterdam now.  Great.

Until we came around the corner and saw that the door was one small portal surrounded by about 500 people with suitcases and carts and backpacks, all in a mob shoving towards the entrance.

This is how one pays school fees at a bank, or buys stamps at a post office, or drives in a traffic jam, or gets anything on this continent.  Push.  Get to the front.  Try to get someone's attention.  After two decades in Africa I wasn't afraid to join the fray, pulling the carry-on's and my nephews behind as I tried to obey the instruction to move forward.  Only the employees at the door didn't seem to be letting anyone in.  It was utter chaos.  No organization, no lines, no prioritization, panicked passengers, an entire airport's worth of flights and people fanning out from the pinpoint door.  In classic style, they had declared that all flights would go from this terminal, and left the details of that to play out as they would.  A couple of time frustration rippled through so violently it was a bit frightening.  We were pressed so tightly you couldn't have fallen over even if you tried.  I tried to talk to the employees, plead our case, that our flight was due, that we needed to get in.  It took about an hour, and people around me said they'd been there much longer.  When I finally fought my way in I had to beg to get my nephews; at one point I reached OUT the door and grasped Noah's hand and literally pulled him in.

We hustled through security, which was minimal, and then found an even more depressing sight.  There were as many people inside as there had been outside, another mass, 30 deep from the check-in counters, fluid lines, not as tightly packed or aggressive, but not exactly organized either.  Twice I found employees and checked, should we be waiting in this area for the Amsterdam flight?  Yes, stand here, wait your turn, we will call Amsterdam passengers forward if it gets too late.  We inched.  Another hour.  Longer.  The time for the flight departure came, and went.  People chatted, sighed.  I could hear a baby wailing in the noisy seething mass of humanity.  Kenya Airways people in reflective vests mosied here and there.  Finally we were only about 3 people from the front.

The guys ahead of us were South Africans headed home, in good spirits.  Just as they got to the front, they turned and told me, hey, we just heard that lady get turned away, the Amsterdam flight is full.  About the same time I heard yet another man with a clipboard talking to people at the end of the counter.  I left the boys to hold our place and pushed my way down to hear.  He was telling people the flight was now full.  I couldn't believe that we were about three hours into the process now of creeping our way from the car to the counter, through a thousand people or more, and it was all for naught.  I told him that the Kenya Airways rep had told us to come because all was fine, that I had checked them in on line but couldn't get a boarding pass.  A lady checked the computer and said no, they aren't on, but go back to your line and get a number for stand-by.  Evidently they simply announced that as of Friday they would fly, and everyone who missed flights on Wednesday and Thursday as well as all the Friday passengers were there vying for seats.

Back to my line, which had now collapsed with no semblance of order, I got the agent to type my nephews' information in her computer.  She said it was full, but checked their bags just in case something opens up.  I told her my reasons that they should have seats.  She said wait a few minutes over there and I'll try to get you boarding passes.  I said I'm sorry, but I can't leave this counter without boarding passes, because I've been standing where I was told for hours and now it looked like that was not going to be good enough.  Can you move them up to a different seat?  She printed one boarding pass in first class, but said only one.  No, we said, they have to both go.  She went back to print a second and now the first one was "gone".  Finally she gave us two boarding passes (no longer first class), but said they were standby.  How many people are standby?  Oh, about a hundred so far, she said, but they will prioritize those who actually had a Friday reservation.  Meanwhile all around me other Amsterdam passengers were being turned away.  I was thankful for our standby passes.

Another herculean struggle to get away from the counter, which was mobbed by angry people.  Again I had to go back and make a way for my nephews.  We handed their passports for stamping at the temporary immigration table, and then pushed up to security.  I asked and learned the flight was already boarding.  We barely said goodbye, I rushed them through.

Now I felt like I couldn't really leave, without knowing in this chaos whether they would get on the plane or be vomited back out of the tiny gate area into the sea of chaos.  I sat and waited.  I should mention that throughout this ordeal, my nephews never complained.  Not once.  I'm sure they were overwhelmed by the intense atmosphere, the crude physicality of the shoving crowd, the lack of information, the depressing prospect of not getting home.  But they were troopers.  I kept watching through the second gate security area, worrying whenever I saw someone a bit tall and white that they were being sent back.  I should also mention that about two hours into the ordeal, Luke and Jack managed to get through the outdoor crowd, climb up to the metal grating and wave to us while we stood in the pre-counter mass.  My phone is broken so Luke wanted to give me his to communicate with Scott and my kids in the car now pulled off to the side of the road.  I explained this to an airport employee who braved the crush of the door to get it from him and bring it in to me.  With no airtime, but at least Scott could call me every half hour or so for progress reports.

After half an hour, I got a lovely young Kenya Airways employee to go check and see if my nephews were chosen.  She came back and said they were not yet on the plane, but there were still 47 seats to board.  I waited. I tried to help a mom with kids.  I decided to pray for the airport employees, as I watched disgruntled people upbraid them for the disastrous situation.  I prayed for the boys to be chosen from the standby list.  I saw the group I'd been smooshed with most of the morning arranging a hotel, having given up on Amsterdam.  An hour, and I found another Kenya Airways uniformed woman and asked her to look up my nephews again.  This time she checked on her computer:  they were through the doors of the plane she said.


I have to say that the prospect of repeating this four hours of struggle the next day or the next was pretty grim, so I was VERY GLAD for their sakes and ours that they were chosen.

I wiggled and excused my way back out through the crowds, back to the blackened smoking empty main building, back to the road.  My nephews finally took off, hours late, missing their connection, and are now having the adventure of a hotel in Amsterdam courtesy of KLM.  I suspect they were even more relieved than I was.

I love Kenya.  In spite of the maddening aspect of simply declaring that the flights will depart without really preparing for it, I admire the courage and sheer determination to simply carry on.  I admire the uniformly pleasant nature of every harried employee I interacted with.  On most continents I think the airline and airport personnel would have dissolved into a heap of tears if confronted with the terminal I saw today.  In Kenya, they took it in stride, they smiled, they listened, they tried.

But don't believe the press when you read that operations are back to normal.

And do hope with me that the country buckles down and finds the  money to rebuild, that the airport which arises from these ashes will be a fittingly beautiful welcome to this spectacular place, that whether the evil was corruption and incompetence or hateful purposeful sabotage, it will be overcome.