27 April 2011

The Starving Situation

Anybody who's read the blog lately probably senses a recent theme: my (Jim's) struggle to wrap my mind around poverty.  One comment on the last blog post said something about me (Jim) really 'getting it.'  It's not really like that.  God has to beat things into my brain in order to get me to actually think about them quasi-spiritually.  It's not as if I visit the vegetable market and suddenly feel convicted about poverty and privilege.  Actually, most of the stories are much more shocking and they've taken nine months to sink in.
Zack Distributing Maize

Several months ago, we began partnering with a Kenyan national on an HIV project feeding women and families who are HIV positive once per month.  You may recognize hearing about him in this earlier post.  A couple of months ago, Zack showed up at our door and said, "I have a domestic problem."  The way he said it almost made me laugh.  Then he explained that his wife was down at the hospital.  They had been expecting a baby, but began to fear something was wrong.  The hospital ultrasound revealed no heartbeat.  They'd lost the baby.  I was embarrassed at my initial flippant attitude.

He quickly explained that surgery was necessary but they could not afford it.  The bill was to be nearly 400 dollars.  He asked us for a loan of the money.  He was frantic.

I was concerned; Four hundred dollars is over half the average annual income of 730 US dollars...  an income most probably inflated by a few incredibly wealthy individuals - the ones driving brand new Mercedes, Lexus, and Hummers through dirt streets.  We paid about half the bill as a gift and the other half as a loan.

I felt totally conflicted.  Were we helping?  Was a loan fair?

I felt like an idiot.  How much could Zack earn as a piki (motorcycle) driver?  It wasn't even his piki.  I couldn't imagine his profit was very much.

Things were fine until a few weeks later - only two days after our ride to the HIV project, actually.  Zack dropped by to tell me more news.  The owner of the piki had sold it and was starting a new business.  Zack was unemployed.  Shame and fear were written all over his face.

We left the next day for a trip to Mombasa.  When we returned a week later, I received a text message from Zack, "Is there any way you can help. I want to avoid the starving situation."

A few days ago, Zack and I sat down to work out a loan to get him back in business.  As we talked numbers and terms it became clear what his financial situation was.  He had been making around $3.75 a day six days per week to feed, clothe and house himself and his wife.  How long would it take to repay that $200 medical loan?

$3.75 Shocking.

Then I calculated his annual income: 1,211 dollars.  Much BETTER than average.  An income that had been 166 percent of average was now zero.

The food I eat for a SINGLE meal here in Kenya probably costs about $3.75, to say nothing of food, housing, clothing, etc...

I asked Zack how he'd cope with such a debt.  "Maybe eat less.  Maybe if you are taking meat with some meals, instead you take maize.  If you are taking milk in your chai, you take the chai black.  If it is only for a time, it is ok."

One unplanned emergency and he was stuck under a mountain of debt.  Two and his situation was hopeless.  This, a man with a better-than-average income.  It's then I really began to grasp the true nature of poverty - it's a trap.

I still feel incredibly convicted on this subject and I STILL have no idea what to do.  The sheer scale of my wealth is humbling.  The much larger problem of poverty paralyzes my thoughts.  How do we help?

"Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday."  Isaiah 58:9-10 ESV

22 April 2011

Because We Are Very Poor

Photo Credit: Hannah Sterling
I (Jim) just got back from a trip to the vegetable market where about eight women sit waiting for people to come buy vegetables.  I'm told that you used to have to haggle over prices but now prices are all fixed - a very good thing for this mzungu who provides plenty of entertainment without clumsy bargaining.  I don't do well when I visit the veggie market.

Apparently, and I found this out after the fact, the normal routine goes something like this:  Each time you enter the building, you move in a counter-clockwise rotation, buying a small amount from each of the ladies until you've gotten everything you need.  At that point, you are supposed to remember where you left off and begin at that point the next visit.

The first time I went to the veggie market, I traveled CLOCKWISE around the circle and, in typical Kenyan style, nobody wanted to tell me I'd messed up!  In fact, it wasn't until the next visit, when I walked to my beginning point, that I even knew I'd ever messed up in the first place.  There was some disagreement among the women about where I should begin and who I should be buying my vegetables from - finally, I was told, "You just go backwards again from this spot."

Backwards?  I had no idea.  From that point on, I have been the mzungu who does his shopping backwards and each time I enter the room, snickers and smirking smiles greet me.  For months, I tried to scheme a way to switch directions while saving face, but it never worked.

Today, I'd forgotten where I last finished buying so, I told the veggie ladies, thinking they'd remember.  Remarkably, they didn't.  One of the ladies said, "You just buy something from each of us, because we are very poor."  This was IT!!  The golden opportunity - the chance to travel counterclockwise.  I totally missed it.  I'm STILL the one that does his shopping backwards.  So, I bought something from each of them; I spent 30-50 shillings at each spot (40-60 cents) and went on my way.

The whole walk home, I thought about that woman's statement: "Because we are very poor."  She wasn't kidding.  After paying their suppliers, they probably each earned 10-12 cents doing business with me.
Photo Credit:  Hannah Sterling

I (Jim) think most of us have heard the parable of the rich young ruler at some point in our lives - and I think most of us understand the basic lesson.  Yes, it's difficult for the rich to put their trust in something other than material provisions - obviously.  Now this may sound strange, but I don't think we (the church) understand this parable very well.  I don't think most of us really understand what it means to give up everything.  Somehow, Jesus' command to sell everything and give the money to the poor fails to register fully in our Western minds.  If we sell everything and give the money to the poor, then WE will be POORER than them.  Could I give away everything and become destitute save for my knowledge of Him?  I can't even imagine living on less than $1.25 a day as approximately 50% of Sub-Saharan Africa does.

I am the rich young ruler.

In the states it was easy to deny - as a teacher with a family of four, we lived just above the "poverty line."  Here, on a missionary salary, we are wealthy:  Wealthy enough to have a change of clothes every day.  Wealthy enough to buy more than maize.

Some say salvation is free - and theologically, they're absolutely right.  But the truth is, following Christ costs us everything.  We're still called (every one of us) to give up everything and follow Him.  Matthew 13:44  "The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up.  Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field."  Can I really surrender everything?

When outsiders look at the church in America, many see hypocrites hiding a multitude of sins behind opulent church facades while much of the world suffers.  And in some sense, they are right - we are wealthy.  Like the rich young ruler, much of our trust and comfort is in our wealth.  If God told me to give all my possessions to the poor, could I?  The totally honest answer is, "I don't know."  I'd like to, but really, could I?  So then the assay: if I am unsure that I can abandon everything to trust and follow Christ, then am I trusting and following Christ?  I think I'm typical of Western Christians and I'm afraid we may be spiritually bankrupt.  Can we surrender everything?  We need to.

Because we are very poor.


Life at RVA is non-stop crazy.  During the course of the term we don't really have much time to think so our second-term break was much-needed.  We left RVA and all our cares behind and took a trip to the coast.  It was hot, but a great time to be a family and to relax and think.  On the way, we stopped for two nights in Tsavo West National Park and stayed at an older safari lodge with million dollar views, as many bugs and lizards and a whole lot of character.  I (Jim) woke up to watch the sunrise the first morning and it was stunning.  The bird songs were amazing, the view looked like something out of a magazine - fake almost - and I sat there thinking about how awesome our God is and snapping pictures.  Then I realized that pictures alone did not come close to capturing the moment, so here's a video - turn up the volume and watch the sunrise

The video's short for a reason and it's not the ridiculously slow upload speed of an internet connection in the developing world.  If the audio is turned up loud, at the end there's a little 'thump.'  That was the sound of Joel falling out of his bed, knocking a glass off the bedside table to its glittery end.  Needless to say, my morning reflection was over.  I was left thinking it would be really nice to ACTUALLY leave everything behind.  I've said it before: I'd really like to become a hermit, live in a cave, watch sunrises and think - nothing else.  It's hard to balance all of it:  Am I so busy working to 'fulfill my calling' that I neglect to listen to the one who called me to that work?  Or am I so busy trying to listen to God and discern my calling that I fail to actually DO any work?  Too often I think I'm stuck at one extreme or the other, absorbed by doing or paralyzed by lack of direction.

07 April 2011


Our last visit was to a woman Zack calls Grandma Ann.  Grandma Ann has a very different experience with HIV.  She is very old - I'm not sure how old - and is taking care of her five grandchildren.  In Kenyan culture, kids provide for their parents financially after they've grown old.  There is nothing like saving for retirement.  Grandma Ann's son and wife died of AIDS leaving behind 5 orphan children.  Now Grandma Ann is trying to provide for them.  

As we ride down dusty trails we finally reach Grandma Ann's house.  I'm shocked - even by Kenyan standards, this place is run-down.  Zack tells me, "When I first met her, I was scared - 5 kids and a woman in that house!"  The pit toilet has sheets for walls, the house is cobbled together with old pieces of tin and other scraps of sheet metal gleaned from who-knows-where.  Five kids and an elderly woman living in a house measuring maybe 10 feet by twelve feet.  Poverty.  This wasn't the way it was supposed to be; it's certainly not what Grandma Ann had planned: alone, nobody to support her, five extra mouths to feed...

Grandma Ann isn't home, but looking at her house, I'm reminded of my own wealth.  In the states we were 'poor.'  We received government aid: help with food, heating...  It was easy for us to say how shameful it was that teachers were paid so poorly.  Really, we're wealthy.  We own a house house, we have health care, our kids have the opportunity for a complete education.  Our house has windows, a roof that doesn't leak, more rooms than people, a floor.  Our kids have never known hunger.  In one morning driving through desperate poverty, hunger, and squalor it's easy to see that we're filthy rich. 

I'm reminded of Luke 12:48...  Most of us know the watered-down, "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be required."  But taken in context, it's a scary parable.  Really!  Our Western world has exceedingly great wealth; we have more than plenty.  Am I using it faithfully?

When I look at Grandma Ann's house, I am scared - 5 kids and a woman in that house!  I want to help, but I'm paralyzed.  How?  The problem is huge; houses like this litter Kenya - a stable African country.  What can we do?  Pray that we can be faithfully serving him with our lives and resources.

06 April 2011


Today I (Jim) made a trip down to the valley floor to a town called Maai Mahiu.  It's located just below Kijabe and serves as a truck stop on the highway to Nakuru and to Uganda beyond.  For a while, we have been working with a Kenyan named Zack who is trying to find creative ways to help families struggling with HIV.   Once a month, Zack collects funds to buy maize and beans to serve a meal for around 20 families struggling with HIV.  On our trip today, I was finally going to meet a handful of them.  Today and tomorrow I will attempt to share some of my reflections on the experience.

The day began with a ride by piki (motorcycle) to the valley floor..  Most rides in Kenya are white-knuckle affairs as drivers negotiate crowds of people, sheep, goats, bicycles, cows, donkey carts and other diesel-belching vehicles.  This ride had none of that - the road is far too rough for crowds in transit - but was still a white-knuckle affair as we raced down a pretty gnarly 4WD road to the valley floor, on a cheap Chinese road bike, me trying desperately to land on the seat instead of the metal luggage rack but still glad enough of sticking a landing on the metal rack after the largest bumps.  The ride took 15 minutes which, in hindsight, is scary.

Once in Maai Mahiu (which has all the charm of a truck-stop - Kenyan style) we bought 45 kilograms of maize and hired another piki to deliver it about a mile out of town where Zack had arranged to meet 5 of the twenty HIV positive women he helps on a regular basis.

We are enthusiastically greeted by a woman named Nelly who invites us into her home.  We sit in the wooden shack on wrought-iron 'couches' waiting for the others to arrive - me puzzling over the antique hutch sitting against one wall obviously imported from Europe during the days of British Colonialization, them speaking in Swahili and Kikuyu.  I'm wondering what it will be like to meet these women; then wondering what it would be like to be diagnosed HIV positive and wonder how long you'll be able to hang on.

My thoughts turn to a more personal vein: Will they serve me chai?  Will it be boiled?  Should I drink it?  I don't want another stomach bug.  These 'couches' are really painful.  I'm not sure which is better: the piki rack or the couch?  How in the world did that hutch find its way HERE?

There was no chai.  All five women (Nelly, Leah, Mary, Jane, and Shiroh) were very grateful for the maize - a few days worth.  I was surprised by something:

I expected to see women who were the victims of poor choices, but I think the notion that it was going to be THEIR poor choice tainted my expectations.  I expected younger women who were never able to establish themselves before their lives were altered drastically by the consequences of a single bad decision.  Perhaps one of them fit that mold, maybe two.  But the thing that surprised me most was that three were older women; wrinkled skin, stooped shoulders, toes splayed, even signs of grey hair which, for Kenyans, indicates someone much older than me.  These women already had families, probably several kids and most likely, they are suffering from a husband's poor choice.  It's probably not their fault.

The visit ends on a tense note.  These women visit the hospital every Friday for Anti-Retro-Virals (ARVs).  These medications can temporarily slow or prevent the progression of HIV to AIDS.  Rumor has it, the hospital has had problems obtaining the weekly ration of ARVs.  Questions show plainly on their faces.  The fear is palpable.  When life is such a tenuous thread...

My mind is full of questions: How do we bring these women hope?  What about the kids?  Their future?  How do you help them?  What if it were me?  Would I be so joyful?  What kind of a god allows these things to happen?  If that were me, would I have faith?

03 April 2011


A month ago, we celebrated Joel's fourth birthday.  The birthdays seem to come faster and faster each year.  Although somehow, knowing that we are on the brink of doing this all over again makes the birthday season (Faith's is coming up in about a week) seem a little less bittersweet this time around.  Most of the time I am thankful that Faith and Joel are learning more and becoming more independent every day.  It will certainly make caring for a newborn at the same time a little easier!  

This year, Joel's birthday reminded me of more than just how blessed I am to be his mom, and how thankful I am for a happy, healthy little boy to love.  It reminded me of some important lessons I've learned along the way, both in mothering, and in missions.  

One of the phrases that we heard quite often during our season of preparing to move to Kenya was "be flexible".  And I would agree, it is quite an asset to being a missionary if you can 'go with the flow' and 'roll with the punches'.  Between daily life with a whole different set of amenities than our home country, and the complexities of cross-cultural communication, life sure can be interesting here.  However, I believe my flexibility training began when I became a mom.  And some days here, there's a blur between the mothering hiccups and the cultural ones.  Joel's birthday was a good example of that.  

Joel and Faith both woke up excited for the day, ate some breakfast, and Joel got to open a few presents while Skyping with some family, since the time zones aligned well.  Only in Kenya will they be spoiled with such instant gratification!  Jim went off to school at 7:30, and we sent Faith off to start her school day at 8.  Joel and I proceeded to enjoy our morning together.  We read some books, looked at a few of his new treasures, talked, and laughed.  Around 9, we ventured into the kitchen to start his birthday cake.  I borrowed a new recipe from a friend for a milk-less, egg-less cake, because her family was joining us for the birthday dinner, and their son is severely allergic to both of those ingredients.  So with a little prayer that it would turn out well, we popped the cake into the oven, timing it so it would be done a few minutes before we would head up to Tuesday morning playgroup.  Joel was pretty excited to get to see so many friends on his birthday.  

At 9:50, I opened the oven to pulled out what I hoped would be a perfect cake, to find the oven mildy warm, and the cake rather unbaked.  Sigh.  Our gas bomb had run out.  To use our stove, we have a 13 kg tank that hooks up to the oven.  There aren't any gas lines here with a seemingly unlimited supply of fuel, like the states.  And the gas always runs out when it's least convenient.  Most of the time it is a Sunday, when you don't have a spare tank, and everything is closed.  So then you run over to the neighbor's with half-cooked whatever, hoping they aren't in the same predicament.  Well, this wasn't too bad, I had an extra bomb in our laundry room.  So I laughed, looked at Hannah, our inside helper, and asked her if she knew how to change it.  She looked at me with wide eyes and shook her head.  School being in session, I wasn't sure right away who to call.  Jim was in class, as were all our neighbors.  It was just a few minutes before staff chai time (a daily meeting) so I quickly called the husband of the family joining us for supper, as he teaches later on in the morning.  His wife and kids already on their way up to playgroup.  So he ran over, saved the day, and I left instructions with Hannah for taking the hopefully decent cake out of the oven, in the form of "I have no idea when it will be done..." 

So Joel and I headed out the door, I, wondering if I would be making a replacement cake when I got home.  Just behind our house is the elementary school, and we were headed to a home on the other side. It was just recess time for the Titchie students, so I expected to catch a glimpse of Faith playing with her friends, which is always fun.  Instead, I immediately saw her coming right towards us, headed home.  She was hanging her head, she was nearly doubled over, and as soon as she was within earshot, she started bawling.  Tummy ache.  

Turn around.  Go home.  Give her a banana, half a tums, and some water.  Go back to the school.  Talk with the teacher.  Decide to keep her with me to see if the food helps, or if it's something worse.  Get to playgroup 30 minutes late, after carrying sick daughter up the hill and dragging Joel along behind.

Phew.  Joel is happily oblivious, tells everyone that he is four, and runs right over to the sand box.  Faith doesn't seem to improve, so I take her home, leaving Joel to play.  I carried her back down to our house, put her in bed, got her some sprite and a puke bucket, tell Hannah I have to run back to get Joel, hoping for the best while I am gone.  

I am completely exhausted after climbing the hill (yet again) to get Joel.  Two hours earlier, I was thinking it was going to be such a relaxed, blissful day with my sweet four-year-old!  We get home, to find Faith had been sick, and Hannah sitting with her, rubbing her back.

Sometime, during all of this, Hannah had babysat the baking cake, removing it from the oven at the perfect time.  And browned all my meat and onions for the sloppy joe birthday dinner.  Have I told you how thankful we are for her?  She is a wonderful second set of hands, she loves Faith and Joel, and she makes living in Kenya just a little easier on us.  

I get Faith settled again, Joel's off playing, and now it's time to start thinking about lunch.  And birthday dinner for that matter.  

Amazingly, by the time Jim got home for lunch, Faith had perked up some and joined us.  

I started to put together the sloppy joes, but realized I needed tomato sauce.  I called a friend, asking if she had some in the pantry, and she said no, but her worker was going to the dukas (local shops) and she'd add it to her list.  Well, funny thing.  Kenya has their version of ketchup, and it's called Peptang.  We know of one American who likes the stuff.  (Autumn, that's you.)  Well, turns out, it says "tomato sauce" on the bottle.  So that's what showed up on my counter that afternoon.  Obviously, that's exactly what was on the grocery list, it just wasn't in my still-longing-for-Safeway mind.  It is neither tomato sauce like the nice little 8 oz cans of Hunts, nor is it ketchup.  It will probably sit in the cupboard for the next 18 months, until we bring it back for you, Autumn.

So, I put in a few cups of diced tomatoes.  Close enough.

On goes the day.  I'm a little more tired than I bargained for, but Faith doesn't seem to need a trip to the hospital, so things are looking up.  Turns out Joel was a little more tired than I bargained for as well.  Right before supper, he gave his sister a good swat, which, even if it's your birthday, gets returned with some discipline around here.  Then there was a repeat performance when his friend succeeded in blowing out the birthday candles before Joel did.  That made for a memorable birthday video!  

Finally the kids are in bed, the wrapping paper cleaned up, presents put away to be enjoyed in the morning, company gone, and the house is quiet.  Jim decides to tackle a few dishes before we crash into bed for the night.  He walks into the kitchen and... the power goes out.  We laugh.  And go to bed.

01 April 2011

A long time

It's been a long time since anything was posted here... over a month, in fact.  I (Jim) guess it's fitting that the last two posts were about being incredibly busy and the struggle to find time for things that should be priorities.  We're a week into our break now and we've had some time to breathe, refresh and get caught up on sleep.  Heather's still busy growing a baby, but all I have to do right now is think - a luxury that will probably get me in trouble at some point during the break.

Here at RVA it's feast or famine as far as quiet, unscheduled time is concerned.  The last three months were one contiguous struggle not to 'drop the ball' or a ball or...    suffice it to say that there were enough balls in the air at one time that no amount of juggling could have prevented at least a couple of drops.  Now the calendar is virtually empty for the next three weeks.  To add to that, we've had some rain lately.  It's provided a very tangible relief from the dusty, brown, drab monotony that the last couple of months had become and everything feels like spring which, for the first time, matches the feelings of everybody at home.  Hopefully in the next few weeks we'll be able to share some news; from reflections on the past term to our current thoughts and a looking forward to our immediate future.

Here's a picture from a walk on Thursday that basically captures my mood this 'season.'