Wednesday, July 22, 2015

One Week Left

Well, I will be leaving Nairobi in seven days, ten hours, and eight minutes. * 
*by the time you read this, that count will no longer be accurate. Sorry.

These last few days will be bittersweet, to be sure. I have learned some of the most important lessons of my life while living here, and I've also been challenged in ways I could have never imagined before. I have had some of strange, funny experiences this summer. I have struggled, but I have succeeded.

Though I'm not usually one to reference Scripture in my everyday life, the passage from the second chapter of James about faith and works is incredibly relevant to my life this summer, and I'd like to share it here.

"(14) What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don't show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? (15) Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, (16) and you say, 'Goodbye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well' - but then you don't give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do? (17) So you see, faith by itself isn't enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.
(18) Now someone may argue, 'Some people have faith; others have good deeds.' But I say, 'How can you show me your faith if you don't have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.'"

I have loved this verse ever since my youth minister Doug taught me about it in Sunday School nine years ago, when I was 14 years old. Throughout my teenage and young adult life, my relationship with the Christian Church has ebbed and flowed. But this lesson stays with me and guides me. No matter how lapsed my church attendance becomes, I remember that, at least for me, it's not about memorizing verses or sitting through sermons. It's about living my beliefs and committing my life to making this world a little better. Sometimes I don't even know exactly what I believe in, but I always have faith in Goodness. And, like the verse says, I will show you my faith (not by going to services or reading Scripture every day or posting cryptic Christian messages on Facebook, but) by my good deeds.

Now, I'm not trying to toot my own horn here. If you'd like to hear about all the ways that I have messed up and been bad and failed to do good, just block off a few days in your schedule and give me a call. But my time here in Nairobi has been a huge step toward showing my faith in exactly the way that I want to.

I came here to empower other people of faith to work for peace. The project I support at Catholic Relief Services is making enormous strides toward peace in communities all over Africa. These small communities have been given the tools to spread a message of indiscriminate love to parts of the world that experience violence and hate every day. I have been part of that amazing work, and I have been honored by that opportunity.

This is how I want to show my faith. I don't want to go to church every Sunday, because sometimes I'd rather go for a run. I don't want to evangelize to my friends who've chosen secular morality. I don't want to carry a Bible everywhere in case I need to make an important decision - I will make that decision myself. But I do want to work with other people who believe in Goodness. I want to show the scary, sad parts of the world that peace is possible. I want to empower others, even if it makes me uncomfortable or scared or anxious. I want to always show my faith through these good deeds, just like I have this summer.

As I prepare to say goodbye to Kenya, I know that this lesson about faith and works is more salient to me now than it's ever been. If nothing else, this experience has helped me understand who I am, what I want, and how I will serve. And for that I will always be truly grateful.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Thank You Notes Revisited

I wrote a few thank you notes several weeks ago, and it feels like it’s time to write a few more. I only have twenty days left here in Nairobi, and I want to fill those days with as much gratitude as I can, so here are today’s thank-you’s:

Thank you, CRS security staff, for greeting me warmly every morning when you open the security gate for me. And thank you for always saying, “see you tomorrow!” when I leave the office in the afternoon. You make me feel safe, as is your job, but you also make me feel welcome, which goes above and beyond your job requirements. I appreciate you all.

Thank you, Mark Medlin, for putting your worried dad hat aside while I’ve been on this adventure. You have supported me, listened to me babble, and remained engaged in my journey all summer. I can’t wait to hug your neck in a few weeks!

A warm thank you to Nairobi Java House and its out-of-this-world carrot cake. The reasons for my appreciation should be obvious.

Thank you, Stuff You Missed In History Class podcast, for teaching me about Charles IX and the history of harmonicas this week. I have learned so much from your podcast over the years, but I am especially grateful for your delightful lessons while I’m here.

Thank you, Brian Dooley, for your patience and support. You’re such a great guy and I can’t wait to see you again.

Thank you to the Aberdares water company for supplying the CRS office with clean water that does not make me sick. I have learned the hard way that my tummy does not trust many foods or drinks here, but your water never fails to provide pain-free refreshment and hydration.

Last but not least, thank you, Naked Pizza, for your amazing customer service and excellent product. I never expected to be able to order fresh, yummy pizza online and have it delivered to me while in Kenya, and your establishment has quickly become one of my very favorites. I will be blaming you for any extra pounds that come back to America with me, but I hope you’ll take it as a compliment.

That’s all for now! I hope my thank you notes have inspired you to show a little more gratitude today. This world can use all the thank-you’s we can give it, don’t you think?

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Getting Wild

This post is a tough one for me.

I work very hard to defy stereotypes and help people understand the complex cultures of African countries. I get frustrated when people ask me, "How's Africa?" because no one would ask a friend, "How was North America?" after a trip to Phoenix. I've made a huge effort to make sure that my friends and family know that I'm living in a big city and working in an office, not traipsing through the jungle or running away from lions. These African stereotypes frustrate me so much, which is why this post is hard for me. I contributed to the stereotype this weekend. 

I went to see giraffes and elephants.

In my defense, Kenya's tourism industry is a vital piece of its economy, and I wanted to support that industry as much as I could. Tourism in Kenya has been on the decline for several years now due to security threats, and the country is hurting because of it. So, in a certain way, my patronage of the giraffe center and elephant orphanage were contributions to Kenyan economic growth. 

The fact that the animals were super cool and really cute was just an added bonus.

The African Fund for Endangered Wildlife's Giraffe Center does amazing work in conservation, preservation, and animal rehabilitation. When I arrived at the center on Sunday morning, I was just in time for the giraffe's breakfast. I could tell you all about it, but it's much better in pictures:

The entrance sign - notice the latitude. I'm so close to the Equator!

Stacy and Eddie, two of the four giraffes I met on Sunday.

Kelly and Jacques, the other two giraffes I met on Sunday.

Stacy says, "Good morning!"

Stacy was hungry, but Jacques was more into the grass and leaves.

The elevated feeding platform was the perfect height for the giraffes to eat right out of our hands.

After breakfast with Stacy, Kelly, Jacques, and Eddie, it was time to go see the baby elephants. The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is an incredible organization that rescues orphaned elephants and rehabilitates them until they can be returned to the wild. Many of the orphans' parents were victims of poaching or other human-caused fatalities. DSWT is taking a sad, desperate situation and turning it around, saving hundreds of elephants over the years.

The elephants are only allowed to come out and play with people for one hour a day because DSWT doesn't want them to get too used to humans. From 11am to noon, the elephant orphanage is completely packed with excited people ready to see some of the cutest babies in the whole world. I had a great time watching the elephants play!

The babies were fed right after they arrived, and they were hungry! See that wheelbarrow full of milk in the corner?

Some of the elephants like to play soccer. They're the jocks of the group.

Just rolling in the mud, as babies tend to do.

This little guy was my favorite.

So many elephants!

I watched the elephants play for a whole hour, and I still wasn't ready to go even when time was up. They are so precious, and they are also very lucky to have made it to the Wildlife Trust. So many beautiful animals are killed every year by humans, and I appreciate that DSWT is trying to undo some of that damage. It was a truly uplifting experience to learn about their organization and share the morning with these beautiful little elephants!

Despite my misgivings about this outing, I definitely glad that I went. The truth is that I will probably never have another opportunity to see these animals up close again, and I learned that the facilities they're in are ethical conservation sites, not scary zoos. I am still committed to discouraging stereotypes about Kenya and Africa in general, but that doesn't mean I didn't have fun this weekend. In fact, I had a great time!

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Nun-venture of a Lifetime: Part II


If you haven’t read Part I, please scroll down and do so. It will put all of the following observations and ruminations into much better context for you. Please and thank you.
            I can say with complete confidence that I had the most interesting commute of my entire life this week. The ride from my apartment to Chem Chemi Ya Uzima, the AOSK learning center, was a truly fascinating experience. I got to see parts of Nairobi that I never would have seen otherwise, and I had so much fun people watching during the traffic-ridden commute from Westlands to Karen. Most of the time I feel very confined to my immediate neighborhood, so I was especially grateful for the chance to safely explore a bit of the city on my way to the workshop.
CRS has a partnership with a private car service, and my drivers’ names were Peter, Paul, Samuel, John, and Amialto. I was worried that the company only hired Biblically named drivers until I met Amialto. What a relief! I told him so, and he seemed confused. Oh well.
            Along the way to Karen, I saw the Nairobi International School, the Embassy of Hungary, countless people selling furniture along the side of the road, and three enormous shopping malls. I had plenty of time to look around and notice every little thing, too, because traffic in Nairobi is notoriously atrocious. The 12-mile ride took between 45 minutes and an hour each way, and every day the drivers commented on how light traffic was that day. I was appalled! The impatient, hurried hummingbird in me was sure there had to be a more efficient way to get from one place to another. But then the relaxed, laid-back part of me remembered that it’s not like I’d be late for anything – I never have plans here. So I sat back and enjoyed the ride, taking everything in and committing it to memory.
            Though the commute was an adventure all on its own, a whole different kind of adventure began once I got to Chem Chemi. The seven AOSK Sisters who participated in the CIRCA workshop were opinionated, determined, and very suspicious of me. I respect their lives and their work very much, but there were many times when I felt a bit awkward with them. We experienced cultural differences and miscommunications almost every time we spoke.
Some of these miscommunications were comical, like when Sister Ann asked me if she should consider the turn up when planning her workshop agenda. I thought she was asking about turnips, which obviously wasn’t relevant, so I said no. Then Sister Mary Joseph explained that if the turn up was bad, it might be best to reschedule the workshop so more people could attend. Only then did I realize that they were talking about the number of people who would show up – the American idiom is turnout, not turn up. Goodness.

Other differences were less easy to laugh off, though. During a small group discussion, one Sister mentioned that she would probably not invite too many women to her workshop because they were unlikely to speak up, and some women would have to miss the workshop because they can’t leave the house during their periods. The liberal feminist inside me started doing jumping jacks and push-ups, getting ready for a fight. But the composed Southern belle in me realized that I couldn’t discourage the Sister’s ideas. The whole point of these discussions was to empower the Sisters to create their own ideas and design their own projects. I don’t understand their cultural contexts, but it’s not my place to object to them. It was a hard pill to swallow, but I’m glad I simply listened instead of interjecting.
Below you’ll find some photos of Chem Chemi. The Catholic learning center’s campus is absolutely breathtaking, and I feel so blessed to have spent three days there. Despite my distinct lack of Catholicism, the quiet solace was a welcome change of pace that I enjoyed very much.


The Sisters were not at all what I expected them to be, since my best knowledge of nuns comes from the Sound of Music and Sister Act, but I am glad I met all of them and learned from them. I wish I could tell my grandmother all about it – she’s the reason I know every word to the Sound of Music, and I’m sure she’d love to hear that I met real-life Marias and Mother Abbesses.
             This week has been challenging and inspiring for me, and I know that I’ll remember it for years to come.

The Nun-venture of a Lifetime: Part I

Sometimes all you need is a three-day retreat with Kenyan nuns to put everything into perspective.

            On Tuesday morning, I arrived at Chem Chemi Ya Uzima, a Catholic retreat and learning center sponsored by the Association of Sisterhoods of Kenya. Chem Chemi is in Karen, a beautiful, lush suburb of Nairobi that’s about 45 minutes from my apartment in Westlands. The quiet campus is absolutely beautiful, and I immediately felt refreshed just by being there.
            The CIRCA program manager (who is also my boss) met me at the gate and showed me to our classroom. Seven nuns greeted me softly, and I settled into a desk. My boss and I had previously discussed that during this week, I would be student-teacher-observer hybrid, helping her with administration and logistics but also providing insight for the Sisters as needed. We said opening prayers and began the workshop.
            CIRCA is a series of workshops designed to increase the capacity of religious groups to participate in interfaith community projects that sow seeds of peace in areas of religious tension. The AOSK sisters have already completed the first two CIRCA units, so it was time for Unit III this week. Over the course of several days, the CIRCA program manager and I helped the sisters learn how to facilitate a consensus building process with people of different faiths, and then the sisters began planning their own connector projects.
            Connector projects are an essential piece of the CIRCA program, and they fit in perfectly with the theory of change that CIRCA uses. The theory states that if religious leaders of different faiths can come together to provide some kind of service for their divided communities, those communities will not only benefit socioeconomically, but they will also gain understanding and be less vulnerable to religious extremism. Basically, it’s kinda hard for an Anglican woman to say she hates all Muslims after she’s spent three months building a children’s health clinic with members of the local mosque. This theory has been proven effective all over the world, and the CRS CIRCA project has successfully brought it into action in six African countries.
            Back to the Sisters: these seven ladies are from all over Kenya, and they represent diverse communities affected by all sorts of challenges. They are brave and smart and determined, and I have every confidence in them. After learning the core concepts of effective workshop facilitation and consensus building, the nuns put their new skills into practice with a role-play exercise. In the hypothetical scenario, the nuns played various community members who were in conflict because of a local safety issue that pitted Muslims against Christians. The Sisters devised a creative plan to make their land safer, employ disadvantaged youth, and bring people together to form an interfaith public safety committee. Talk about problem solving! After that exercise, I knew that whatever the Sisters’ real connector project turned out to be, it would be inspiring.

       This experience has taught me so much, and I’m incredibly grateful that I got to participate in and observe the workshops I’ve been helping to write. It’s one thing to sit in an office and work on these ideas, but it’s a totally different adventure to see them put into practice. The CIRCA Program Manager is a truly amazing woman who facilitated the Sisters’ learning process flawlessly, and it was a pleasure to learn from watching her work.
      I also learned a lot from the Sisters themselves, but I think the most precious gift from this week was my renewed commitment to this work. Peacebuilding might be the hardest job in the world, but these Sisters are not discouraged. They come from parts of Kenya like Garissa and Mpeketoni that have experienced devastating religious violence first-hand. Relations are tense, and people are afraid. But these nuns, these middle-aged, orthotics-wearing, tea-sipping nuns, are committed to change. They are protected by the Catholic Church; they could easily step back into their ranks and hide from the controversy in the safety of their convents. But these seven Sisters have chosen another path. They’ve chosen to work for a better, more peaceful world, even though it might be the most dangerous thing they every do. And if they can do it, so can I.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Thank You Notes

Have y’all ever seen The TonightShow with Jimmy Fallon? I personally love Jimmy Fallon (especially his friendship with Justin Timberlake), and I think his show is fantastic. Jimmy has this segment called Thank You Notes, which is incredibly honest and very funny. I have been meaning to write my own thank you notes, and I think this blog might be the most efficient way to get my gratitude out into the world. So, here goes!

Thank you, Craig Zelizer, for teaching your Conflict Resolution Skills class last fall. I have been contributing to the CRS CIRCA Project Manual since I got here, and the skills I acquired in your class have been immensely helpful. I’m writing the units on mediation, negotiation, and facilitation for this manual, and I’ve been using the assigned readings from your class as my resources. I’m so grateful that I can apply what I learned from you to practical work in the field!

Thank you, Religion Department of Boston University, for molding me into a thoughtful, respectful scholar of religion. Even when I’m outside the classroom, I still find ways to learn and grow from other people’s beliefs and values. Working for a religious organization and attending a new kind of church here in Nairobi has been rewarding and lovely, and I doubt I’d ever have taken these spiritual leaps without guidance from you.

Thank you, Mavis Beacon, for torturing me with those typing games in Mrs. Harris’s fifth grade computer class. I hated you at the time, but now I understand how much of my success I owe to you. Begrudgingly, I thank you.

Thank you, Christina DiBartolo and Colleen Chiochetti, for helping me create a loving, happy home in Washington DC. In the immortal words of Winnie the Pooh, “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.” I love and miss you both, and I am grateful for you every single day.

Thank you, Domino’s Pizza, for magically and inexplicably having a location in Nairobi that offers free delivery.

Thank you, Stuff You Should Know Podcast, for providing me with hours and hours of entertainment and for teaching me all sorts of things that I never thought I would learn. Josh and Chuck, you are truly wonderful.

Thank you, Janet Phelps, for bringing me into this world twenty-three years ago, and for keeping me alive every day since then. You are my rock, my steadfast cheerleader, and an incredibly patient funder of my many adventures. I promise one day I’ll buy you a house or something, but to be honest, I know that there’s nothing I could ever do to repay you for everything you’ve done for me. I love you.

Thank you, solar-powered hot water heater, for providing me with warm showers every day.

And thank you, blog readers, for your interest in my summer adventures. I appreciate your readership and hope that I live up to my aspirations of being a funny, interesting, insightful blogger who broadens your horizons and warms your heart.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Today is my third Friday in the CRS East Africa Regional Office. I imagine that many people who have heard that I'm in Kenya for the summer might have images of villages, animals, or even deserts in their heads. Maybe people think I'm trekking through the savanna to remote locations. Unfortunately, if you're one of the people who thinks that's what I'm doing this summer, you are mistaken. No judgment here! Kenya is a far-away and mysterious place for most Americans. But I'd still like to set the record straight.

I live in a residential neighborhood in Nairobi, Kenya's capital city. Nairobi is an African regional hub, similar to Paris or Rome being European regional hubs. That being said, Nairobi does not look or feel like Paris, or Rome, or any other city I've ever visited. This sprawling city is lush and green, with more trees and bushes than buildings. Maybe that has to do with the fact that it's rainy season, but either way, it's a very different experience for me, and it gives a whole new means to the phrase "urban jungle."

Nairobi is busy and crowded. Traffic is always jammed, and stoplights only exist on the major highways. Sidewalks are also very hit-or-miss, so as a pedestrian, I am usually relegated to the dirt (it's rainy season, though, so mud) path next to the road. In short, getting around this city is nothing short of a daily adventure.

My office, which is a short walk from my apartment, provides me with a space to write, edit, and research for the CIRCA project. I will attend one or two CIRCA workshops this summer, but most of my time will be spent in the office. Though it would be exciting to get out in the field, I am constantly reminded that my work supports amazing programming all over the continent. The office itself helps me remember this fact, since there are beautiful photographs of CRS beneficiaries throughout the building.

Though I will never get to meet these people, I can see their faces, look into their eyes, and learn something about the impact of this work. CRS provides so many services for people all over the world, in addition to helping to strengthen communities so they won't always need humanitarian aid. The smart, resilient people who partner with CRS to help their families are working hard to build a better future. I see this every day in the people who work in this office, but it hits home in a more powerful way when I look at these photos.

Sitting in an office all day may not be some people's idea of a true "African Adventure," whatever that means. In some ways, those people are right. I'm not climbing mountains or journeying across the countryside in an all-terrain vehicle. I'm not sleeping in a hut or catching fish with a spear or trudging across the desert. But that's none of that is a reality for millions of Africans, and it's not a reality for me, either. I'm a city girl, so I moved to an African city. And though there may be a few degrees of separation between me and the people who benefit from my work, I still feel connected to them. And thanks to the internet, I also feel connected to my folks back at home, too. So, in a way, I serve as a connection between Kenya and America. If you ask me, that's pretty cool.

This precious child thinks it's cool too.