Sunday, May 23, 2010

Leaving Africa

As we left Nairobi, the pilot pointed out Mount Kenya, to my right. It was covered in snow, a contrast to the dark green vegetation all around. Dark green faded into reddish brown, as trees gave way to desert. We crossed northern Kenya and Sudan through red clouds - the red dust had been blown or sucked up even to our height.

After a few hours, we left the coast of Tunisia behind and crossed the Mediterranean. Below me were the Straits of Messina - Scylla and Charybdis in Greek mythology - the eastern tip of Sicily and the big toe of the Italian mainland. I watched the Italian coast slip away far to my right. Next we were over Corsica and then over Nice.

Very quickly, mountains were there to keep me company again. This time it was the Alps (see photo), with all the peaks coverered by a dusting of icing sugar snow. Delicious. Then they, too, were behind me as we passed Grenoble, and then followed the Rhone Valley for a while, past Macon, and slowly towards the northern French coast, the Isle of Wight, and finally London.

Usually, a long flight is something to be endured or ignored. A means to a destination. But today I had the gift of a glimpse of the beauty of Creation.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Crossing cultures...

We have come to the end of two weeks of intense meetings, coping with (depending on where we came from) varying levels of jet lag, culture shock, theology shock, and probably internal shock- absorber shock as our minibuses navigated potholed roads. It has been exhausting. I need time to be quiet and reflect. But I am very glad to have been here as part of a group of international visitors to worship with Friends from Burundi, Rwanda, Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda, and to receive Kenyan hospitality.

How can we help those coming to the world conference from outside of East Africa to prepare for the experiences? At the heart of our FWCC work is going to those places where the differences exist: the differences of culture, language, history, belief and ways of worship. We leave our comfort zones and travel into places where we feel strange and confused, sometimes like helpless babies, but there are Friends in these new places to welcome us in. We cross these boundaries not because of some notion that it is intrinsically useful, but because it is who we are as a People. We are a mixture of all those differences, so we have to find ways to navigate them, if we are to allow the Light to shine through us as a global faith community.

Transition time

Duduzile left this morning to fly home to Johannesburg. Mama Gladys and I were there to say goodbye with many hugs. While I hope to see Dudu at next year’s meetings, Gladys is completing her term as clerk of the Africa Section and has been replaced by David Bucura of Rwanda. Dilarwar left after breakfast, so that leaves just three of us at Savelberg retreat centre.

The others left for the airport after our meeting closed yesterday. So there is time to enjoy the bird calls, the gardens and watch the occasional wildlife. We were surprised by a couple of very large monkeys with white whiskers, jumping among tree branches.

It was a relief to see the big monkeys – a reminder that wildlife is here, even in the city. My only previous experience of East Africa was in Arusha, Tanzania, and I had expected Kenya to be similar, with baboons at the roadside and larger animals all around. I knew the towns would be a bit more developed, but I expected similar countryside.

I was mistaken. Kenya – the parts I have been in at least – has been intensively farmed for more than a century and that does not make a hospitable place for wild animals. It’s good to see such healthy and juicy potatoes and carrots on sale at the side of the road, and great that there is such a variety of vegetables available, but tough on the antelope, zebras, gazelles and warthogs.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Mabanga to Nairobi

Yesterday was full of ups and downs. On the up side I have the memory of lively worship led by African Friends, and of some of the contributions that we visitors were able to make, in presentations and in leading semi-programmed worship with favorite readings and hymns from our traditions. I also treasure the enthusiastic welcome that we received, which continued throughout the meeting. We women were all given white USFW headscarves.

On the down side my brand new glasses went walkabout. I had left them, carelessly, on a dining room table and in the midst of black-outs I had not needed them, so I didn't discover they were missing till next morning. To try to get a police report so I can claim on insurance, I was taken to the police station in Webuye. It was a scary place, with two doors behind the counter, one marked "cells" and the other "female cells." I decided not to photograph the interior in case I might end up in the latter. They were unable to do the report on the spot, but promised one would be available to someone going to Eldoret today. We'll see if this is forthcoming and if it catches up with me in Nairobi before I leave early Friday. Another down side is news of volcanic dust closing parts of British airspace again,

The journey from Mabanga to Nairobi was mixed. We were divided into three groups and my group went to Webuye, which is part of East Africa YM (North.) Once again we were warmly welcomed and there were efforts to present part of the service in English, in addition to the Kiswahili and Luhya that they customarily use. Part of the program was an evangelist (probably not a Quaker - it was a kind of street preaching Pentecostal style) who yelled at us all with his lips touching the microphone. It took several hours for my ears to recover. The visit there was completed by drinking tea or Milo at the home of the clerk of the monthly meeting and his wife. We ate hardboiled eggs (straight from the chickens that were running around, perhaps) and fragrant honey.

We then drove to Nakuru, where we met up with the others at an Ethiopian restaurant and then on to Nairobi. On the way we saw zebra, gazelles and antelopes. The new main road was closed in certain parts, from repairs and in once case because of a horrible accident. The rain got increasingly torrential so it was hard to find Savelberg Retreat Centre, where we are holding our final meeting, but it is actually just behind the FWCC office on Ngong Road.

Mabanga at sunset

You probably found it as hard to see Mabanga in the black-out post as I found it to walk around my room. Here is a picture of Mabanga at sunset. The photo doesn't really do justice to the brilliant orange sky each evening.

Friday, May 14, 2010

What do my flowers really cost?

I love cut flowers. To bring a vase of flowers into a committee meeting lifts spirits. In late February, after a long and difficult winter, small bunches of daffodil buds appear in grocery stores and I buy one to take home and watch them bloom, with their promise of spring. I don’t think much about where they come from, though I know it is not Philadelphia. Somewhere further south, blessed with a more temperate climate.

During the worst of the volcanic dust crisis, when I was happily stranded for an extra week in Ireland, I heard stories of misery; of people stranded at airports without funds or other assistance. And I heard of Kenyan cut flowers, destined for Europe, having to be destroyed because they could not be flown north.

This week, I saw where many of those flowers are grown – under plastic sheeting near to Lake Naivasha, in the fertile Kenyan rift valley. Lake Naivasha has the distinction of being Kenya’s largest airport for a while. Between 1937 and 1950 BOAC flying boats ran a service from London to serve the large expatriate community that had settled there. Another of the lake’s distinctions is that it has fresh water, while many of the other lakes in the area are alkaline because of the volcanic activity. So the lake’s fresh water is used for irrigation and it turns out to be a perfect growing place for flowers. According to my Lonely Planet guide, it is a $360 million industry. Flowers can be picked early in the morning and be in Europe later that day.

$360 million is a useful sum to flow into the Kenyan economy. But there is a price to pay – not only with the impact of road and air transportation on the planet, but also with the pesticide and fertilizer runoff into Lake Naivasha. I have been told that even with the distance and air freight, the carbon footprint of Lake Naivasha’s flowers on the world is less than if they were grown in heated greenhouses in northern Europe. I have no way of measuring. But I know that there are costs as well as benefits to economic development and the spreading of a little happiness to a cold northern hemisphere. We are interconnected in so many ways.

Thursday, May 13, 2010


We completed our work in Nakuru during twenty four hours without power and another long outage the following day. Once I got used to finding my way around my room in the dark, I appreciated some of the advantages. The stars were brilliant and plentiful at 4:00 am when I decided to step outside. Candlelight dinner was romantic. Those who came with LCD lights on bands round their foreheads looked funny. We functioned well. It was only after a day that things became challenging. The batteries on our laptops and mobile phones ran down. Some of us had documents on our computers that we needed to refer to. If the outage had been much longer I think anxiety would really have risen.

Many countries that had no extensive infrastructure of telephone lines have leaped from no phones to mobile telephony. Places like Kenya where there isn’t a robust system of broadband are using mobile phone technology for computing. So while my office in Philadelphia is plugged into a system of cables, and my home has wireless courtesy of a fibre optic cable laid by the phone company, the Africa Section’s computer uses Safaricom, with a dongle/mobile-modem/USB stick. These use mobile phone SIM cards.

Everywhere, in the tiniest villages, there are signs on stores advertising mobile phone top-ups. Several of our group bought pay-as-you-go dongles so they can reach the internet in places where there is no wireless signal. I am in the process of inventing new words and phrases. Since the noun is a dongle, how about the verb to dongle? Meaning to insert the dongle into the computer. And now I have invented the ministry of dongleology – the kindness of lending your dongle to another (thank you, Liz) so that he or she can check urgent emails, or post a blog?

But here’s another dimension of life here when organizing events. What happens when the power goes out for a very long time, as it did for us in Nakuru, and our mobile phones and laptops go into hibernation because they have completely run out of battery power? That’s when we get anxious. How will we do simultaneous interpretation without electricity? Perhaps we can just speak in tongues. Or perhaps we rediscover singing and chatting together, and let the work wait for another time. It can be pleasant – but it keeps it very local. It doesn’t make it possible for me, on one continent, to communicate with you on another, while I am actually here. And I am really enjoying doing that.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

We’ve reached Mabanga!

We are now close to the Uganda border in a country area outside Bungoma, at the Mabanga Agricultural Training Centre, which belongs to the Kenyan Ministry of Agriculture. We loaded into two vans this morning and drove up the main road to Eldoret, crossing the equator again. Lunch was at a hotel in the center of town. I ordered fish curry and chappatis and was surprised but not disappointed to come face to face with a whole tilapia, eyes and all, on my plate. To accompany it I drank a bottle of Stoney Tangawizi, which is ginger beer bottled by Coca Cola (no escaping the multinationals here.) I remember Stoney from Tanzania and enjoy it, though I am not usually a great fan of carbonated drinks.

Some of our group escaped briefly and bought fabric and other goodies, but they were quickly rounded up and put back in the vans for the rest of the journey. The road had started off well. In fact the surface is so good near Nakuru that rumor has it that a certain FUM staff member from the US got stopped for speeding on it, but managed to sweet talk her way out of an on the spot fine and an appearance in court next day. We were stopped a couple of times by police but waved on when they realized we were in a private hire vehicle (which is not regulated) and not a matatu, which now have strict rules about overcrowding and safety following some horrible accidents.

After Eldoret the road was pretty awful and sometimes it was better to have eyes closed rather than wonder what was going to be round the blind corner while we were overtaking a long truck. But we arrived here and are now happily settled in. A cup of tea and home made bun at 4 o’clock made a big difference. The rest of the Central Executive Committee, including Ray, clerk of my Section and Kenya from Cuba, have all just arrived all the way from Nairobi so there have been more hugs and greetings.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Going to church

On Sunday morning we split into groups to worship at three different Friends churches. Two of these were in Nakuru – the main church and one that serves a poor area of crowded homes. I went out of town, to Njoro, a small agricultural town.

We arrived at church at 9:00am as the small a capella choir was beginning to sing. Later they were supplemented by an electronic keyboard player, but they did just fine without that – they made a delicious sound. The half dozen of us visitors were all asked to stand at the front and introduce ourselves, which we did, bringing greetings from our home meetings and churches. I was very relieved not to be asked to preach, but later we were asked to sing a hymn to the congregation. It pays to be prepared. Valerie, from Australia, was quick to her feet to teach us all a chorus. The pastor preached on a range of texts for almost two hours; altogether it was a three hour service.

We explored the clinic next door, for which the United Society of Friends Women of Nairobi Yearly Meeting had raised the funds a few years ago. Unfortunately, there is a shortage of doctors in Kenya and with the salaries that the community can afford they have not been able to retain the staff, so a solid and well-equipped building is not being put to full use. We had tea in the church hall and left for a picnic lunch.

The three groups reconvened and we had a picnic lunch in Nakuru National Park, just before the entrance gates where serious money has to be paid, so we only saw the flamingoes as a long pink stripe in the distance. We had a fun encounter with a couple of vervet moneys when we parked under a tree in which they were playing. As we photographed them, one jumped into our van, eager to get to our sandwiches. It was chased away, but we decided to move some distance away to eat lunch.

Next, we went into the town to do some shopping (our reward for several days of non-stop planning work from 9:00 am to 9:00 pm.) Nancy, clothes shopper par excellence, had learnt that if we could supply the fabric, a seamstress could stop by where we are meeting early Monday morning. She would measure us and deliver back garments ready made by Wednesday morning. Sounded perfect. We would have locally-made clothes to wear to the FWCC Africa Section meeting in Western Kenya later in the week. So we split up into small groups, each with a Kenyan to help us negotiate, and went to a fabric market and bought our cloth.

Just as we reached the hotel where the minibuses were parked there was a torrential storm, so we had our cups of tea under plastic sheeting on the terrace, then went in search of the equator.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Equator

I remember the first time I crossed the equator. I was on my way to Tanzania, and we came in low over Lake Victoria to refuel at Entebbe. I think I was as excited as those whose sea voyages involved some kind of ceremony involving Neptune.

In this part of the Rift Valley, crossing the equator is commonplace. In fact, for all who travel between Nairobi and Western Kenya, because of wiggly roads, it may happen several times on one journey. But fortunately, the Local Arrangements Committee anticipated that for some living further north or south, it could be a memorable experience, so we went out in the early evening, after heavy rains, just a few miles up the road from Nakuru, to a visitor center that is being developed on the equator, to check out if this would be a good place to visit on excursion day.

With partnership funding from the European Union, a small visitor center building with maps and geographical information has been built. There are steps to a metal globe sculpture which offers photo opportunities as well as a place for performances such as choirs. Over the road are small shops where a women’s cooperative sells high quality handicrafts. There is also a pitcher of water and container to test out the question of whether the water really does go down the plughole clockwise and anticlockwise, depending on where you are standing in the northern or southern hemisphere.

William Kimosop, who is in charge of this, is a visionary. He sees the symbolism of the equator linking nations and continents, and wants donations of large flags for the flagpoles (they get worn and frayed quickly in the wind and sun.) He would like to see gardens planted to beautify the area. He wants to develop a walking trail throughout Kenya, based on the Trans Canada Trail, which he had studied. I loved his enthusiasm. Yes, this would be a good place to visit in 2012. I’m not sure if we can capture William’s vision of 1,000 Friends all gathered there for a session, but certainly it would be good for some of the excursions to visit.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Campus Tour

Yesterday we were taken on a campus tour, where we checked out all the buildings we plan to use. We counted and photographed beds, chairs, toilets and showers. We estimated the capacity of each space. It’s a very well-equipped university; only ten years old, and built on the site of a high school on farmland donated by former President arap Moi, who is Chancellor of the university.

On our way from the guest house we drove past the driveway to former President Moi’s home, the homes of the senior university administrators and the 1,000 student boarding high school’s new buildings. Kabarak is a fairly small Christian university which is open to people of all faiths, with 1,500 students. It is similar to a small U.S. college, on a self-contained campus with most of the classrooms round a quadrangle. Lawns, bushes and flowers are kept neatly trimmed. The high school, the primary school and the university are known collectively as the “Kabarak campus.” Farming activity is visible all around.

There is clearly enough space for our conference – they are going to be hosting 3,500 very soon – the main practical challenge this week will be to decide exactly what activity to put where. There’s a Student Centre with bank, post office and supermarket, and a small swimming pool. The two-storey dormitories mostly sleep just two; some in twin-bedded rooms, some with bunk beds where the upper one is fairly easy to reach. Bathrooms are at the end of the downstairs corridor.

Today we will spend time looking at the program as a whole, the centrality of worship in the program, and some aspects of local arrangements before returning to campus facilities. Today’s picture shows members of the International Planning Committee touring the facilities and the kitchen where our meals will be prepared.

Friday, May 7, 2010

The road to Nakuru

Yesterday we traveled from Nairobi along the perimeter of the Rift Valley. Seeing it for the first time was a huge surprise and delight. It runs from the Middle East to southern Africa, from the Dead Sea all the way south to Mozambique. Africa did not split despite nature's best efforts, and only the Red Sea remains as a sign of that split. There are volcanos in various stages of life in part of the rift bed.

We drove slowly down to the base of the Rift Valley, passing flower farms (produce destined for Europe) and safari parks. It was a favorite of the expatriate community. Young Princess Elizabeth became Queen Elizabeth II here. She heard of her father George VI's death while staying in the area, and Joy Adamson, author of Born Free, lived here. There was no time to pause to check out the lakes and national parks on the way, but we did see a few zebras strolling beside the highway and pink dots surrounding a lake (all flamingoes.)

Kabarak University has a small campus in Nakuru, but the main campus is about 12 miles north of the city, on farmland donated by former President Daniel arap Moi, who lives next door. It is a delightful site. Much cooler than we expected. Although we are near the equator, we are high enough to experience breezes, though the sun is very strong. Today's picture shows the view from my window, overlooking the farmland.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Last hours in Nairobi

- before setting off for Nakuru. After a night not-sleeping in a plane, followed by a wild taxi-chase to find where I was meant to be staying, it has been good to spend 24 hours in the same place which is also the right place. I am at the AOSK Tumani Centre, a Catholic retreat and training center close to the FWCC office. AOSK stands for Association of Sisterhoods of Kenya.

Harry, Bevar and Jonathan arrived last night. Duduzile and Ramón came this morning. Ramón’s appearance gave us all particular delight as he had had setbacks getting a transit visa from Cuba and had had to be re-routed at the last minute. Whew. And Pradip arrived five minutes ago. So far, those of us who are meant to be here are all present. I do hope that continues.

I can’t help wondering about whether getting 1,000 Friends here will be ten times more complex or if these things aren’t in fact exponential. So long as people get to the International Airport in Nairobi within a certain time frame, and there are buses waiting to transport them to Nakuru, it should work out.

Navigating the airport was straightforward. I filled out my landing card and visa application on the plane, and got into the queue for visas in the arrivals hall. You have to have the right change, in the right currency (Euros, Pounds Sterling, Swiss Francs and US Dollars only) and then it seems pretty automatic. Then you pick up your bag from the carousel and walk into the area where people are greeted. There are currency exchange offices, but I was advised to draw money out of a Barclays Bank ATM nearby, which worked just fine. While I assume that for the world conference we will be picking people up in buses, for those arriving at other times it is reassuring to be able to book a taxi at a counter in the arrivals area, and to be able to pay in advance for the ride.

The picture shows the lovely ritual of washing hands before each meal. Edith brought in a pitcher of warm water, soap a towel and a bowl and poured the water over our hands. It feels like a form of grace to me.


Last night Valerie and I went out to dinner with Edith, secretary in the FWCC Africa Section office. We ate chapattis and greens, the delicious not-quite-spinach-but-definitely-not-collards-possibly Swiss chard that accompany the carbohydrate, whether it is in the form of rice, bread or ugali. Lonely Planet’s definition of ugali is “boiled grains cooked into a thick porridge until it sets hard, then served up in flat slabs.” We ate in what was called a canteen, a tiny café where taxi drivers and other locals got simple, nourishing food. Kenyan tea comes as a tea bag and a thermos flask of hot milk. Good to be in the country where the tea comes from.

Everyone is here!

It was wonderful to see everyone "trickle" in from various parts of the world: Cuba, Jamaica, South Africa and so on. I think there is a chance of a modem/dongle that I will be able to use on my laptop, so pictures could be coming very soon (I photographed yesterday's ugali, greens and crispy chicken in the hope that they may reach a wider audience very soon.) I emptied my camera's memory chip yesterday so I room for 600 new pictures. Thanks for your patience while I overcome the technical challenges.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Safely in Nairobi

Because of a breakdown in communication, no-one was at the airport to meet me so after an hour I took a taxi to where I was told I was staying, miles away. Due to a second breakdown in communication that turned out not to be the right place. It was an evangelical counseling center and had the same name (Kiswahili for 'hope') as the Catholic retreat center where I was meant to be. Fortunately the receptionist guessed the confusion and suggested the taxi driver take me to the second place. That was the right center, but of course because of the first communication breakdown they were not expecting me till tomorrow.

But all's well that ends well. They found a room for me and I could finally let the taxi driver go. He was wonderful - a Pentecostal pastor from with a wife and three young sons near Samburu who was working in Nairobi to pay the bills. The taxi belonged to a Presbyterian, so we had a laugh about his ecumenical activity.

The center called the FWCC Africa Section office and a different taxi came to pick me up and take me there, where I had my first meal in Kenya: Ugali with greens and delicious crispy chicken. I feel very well cared for by Friends here. (PS photo is of my neighbor's meal. I don't drink fizzy orange.)

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The boarding pass is printed...

- so it looks as if I have a flight. My cousin told me that volcanic dust has shut down Irish airports again. Even though the dust won't reach Kenya, it could delay my departure and my return if British airspace gets shut down again. I don't want to even think about it.

Just visited my 104 year old aunt (my mother's older sister) and she is ready to go with me to Kenya, but that isn't going to happen. She doesn't look a day older than she did last June when I last saw her, and she was only 103.

This morning I picked up the Lonely Planet guide to Kenya, and I was able to find on the map not only Nakuru, site of the first of three meetings, but also Bungoma, way over in the west near the border with Uganda.

Hard to imagine as I sit in an airy food court close to East Midlands Airport in the middle of England (on my way to dropping off the rental car at Heathrow) that this time tomorrow I should be in Nairobi, resting at a guest house.

On Thursday morning we will all be on the road to Kabarak University in Nakuru, which the Lonely Planet describes as "a pleasant town." There we will not only work out a schedule for the entire time of the conference, we will discuss on excursions and perhaps decide in which rooms activities will happen. We will be there for six days so expect the planning to be detailed and meticulous!

Among the things we will be considering are the balance between:
-being together as 1,000 Friends and the need to be in smaller groups.
-being challenged by unfamiliar worship and beliefs and ensuring there are points of familiarity and retreat.
- concentrating on the theme, the worship and "the serious stuff" and opportunities for relaxation and fun, which can also build relationships across cultures.
-allowing for flexibility and also having anchors.

I have no idea what access there will be to the internet but whenever I get the chance, I will post again. Please beam prayers for safe travels who all of us who are headed to the International Planning Committee - from Australia, Cuba, Jamaica, Nepal, South Africa, the US, the UK, and of course our Kenyan hosts who will be busy beyond belief for the next couple of years.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Traveling mercies

Sunday night, I was back in Philadelphia; my return from vacation in Ireland having been delayed a week by a cloud of volcanic dust coming from Iceland. It was a scramble to catch up on work and re-pack for travel to Africa. By Friday my jet lag had disappeared, but now I am back in Britain (picture shows a May day in Hampshire), so my body has to revert to last week’s time zone.

I am on my way to Kenya, to three different meetings, in three different locations. The meetings have grand names: International Planning Committee, Africa Section Triennial and Central Executive Committee. Translated, this means I will be helping plan a World Conference of Friends that you will be able to attend in 2012, at the university where the conference will take place; I will be worshiping with hundreds of African Friends and watching how they carry out their Quaker business, and I will be part of the body that governs FWCC at the global level.

I have never been to Kenya. My Kiswahili is embarrassingly inadequate, and my facility in other Kenyan languages is nonexistent. The information from the US State Department about dangers to travelers in Kenya is hair-raisingly scary (I wish I had never logged on to report my travels there), and on top of all that, my flight from London to Nairobi was canceled from under me earlier in the week. On the bright side, I have been booked onto new flights. Yesterday I found out the name of the guesthouse where I will be staying between my arrival in Nairobi, and I have decided that since God wants me to be doing this wild and crazy work with all its challenges, God will take care of me by bringing people into my life just when I really need them to tell me what to do next.

I have no idea what kind of access I will have to the Internet, but here at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 glass cathedral, I am setting up the blog and stepping out in faith at many different levels. I’m almost ready – but I would appreciate prayers for, as Kenyan Friends say, Traveling Mercies, that I and all of us who are traveling to Nairobi, through the Rift Valley and on to Western Province, will be safe.