Africa

"One Thousand Wells" Video Blog

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Today's blog post is actually in video form. Friends of Blood:Water sent in questions about my new memoir, "One Thousand Wells," releasing August 25. If you'd like to know anything about my book, please leave a question in the comment field of this blog post. I'd love to answer as many questions as I can. https://vimeo.com/134614440

You can pre-order my memoir at onethousandwells.com.

A World Without Nelson Mandela

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July 18 is Nelson Mandela International Day. It's celebrated every year on his birthday. I'm bringing back a post I wrote in 2013, five months before Mandela's death while he was ill. I said in the post I wasn't ready for a world without Mandela. That still holds true today.

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July 10, 2013 — My introduction to Africa was as a college student on a study tour to South Africa in 2004. I did my best to understand the complexity of race, economic disparity and a devastating history of apartheid. Nearly a decade later, I still don’t understand it. I continue to feel as uncomfortable in South Africa today as I did as a college student.

Roger Cohen provided a beautiful op-ed in the New York Times, reflecting ironically on the ease he had growing up as a Jew in South Africa, while blacks endured the crippling violence and oppression as victims of apartheid. While Cohen’s family picnicked on Table Mountain, Nelson Mandela spent another day of his 18-year imprisonment on Robben Island (27 years total imprisonment). The juxtaposition of free and oppressed was real, and it was cruel.

We continue to rejoice that apartheid is no more, at least legally. South Africa is still broken today and separation continues to live on – just as it does in every place where there has been a history of violent oppression.

And yet, Nelson Mandela has unified a nation in a way that most people didn’t believe possible. He is a hero, a man who transcended the underbelly of injustice with vision, patience and endurance. He made us believe that we can triumph over the depravity of others, and of ourselves, with love.

We need heroes to call us to our better selves. We need them to remind us that we can love better, that we must love better. I am not ready for a world without Mandela in it. I know none of us are.

Graced with Second Chances

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Betty and Teddy (on the left) are the leaders of our partner ACT Ethiopia. Nadia (on the right) is my Nairobi-based colleague. 

My short trip to Addis Ababa was powerful in so many ways. It was my first time to back to visit a Blood:Water partner since I was pregnant with Jude in 2013. It was also my first visit to Ethiopia - and to see the work of our HIV support to our partner, ACT Ethiopia. I had the gift of walking through Suki, being welcomed into the homes of new friends and hearing their brave and remarkable stories. I have so many to share, but here are a few remarkable people you should know.

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Suki is an informal settlement on the southwestern edge of Addis - where most residents of the capital city have never heard of - it's a dwelling by default, because there is nowhere else in the city to stay. The families here are dramatically overlooked, and those who are HIV positive have endured traumatic experiences of loss, abuse and isolation.

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Meeting Ehetenesh nearly broke me.  She is an HIV positive single mother of two small children. One night, a man came into her home with the intent to sexually abuse her 3-year-old daughter, and Ehetenesh offered herself as a substitute for her daughter. She became pregnant with twins, and endured a bought of tuberculosis during the pregnancy, which caused her to lose one of the babies. The surviving twin, Yonathan, is now 10-months-old and still HIV-free.

Ehetenesh acknowledged that cannot speak regularly of these past experiences because she does not want to hate her baby. I couldn't blame her.

"I am a free woman," she said surprising me with her resilience, "both physically and spiritually." Ehetenesh is an active member of the ACT program and receiving HIV treatment. "The support group really cares for one another. They cared for me when I was sick. They packed lunches for my children and took them to school. I thought the community would stigmatize me, but they have been helpful and kind."

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The next day, we met Alem, a 45-year-old widow with a 9-year-old boy Tigstu (means His Patience) and a 4-year-old girl Banchamlak (means By Your God). Both children are negative. They live on a mountain community next to Suki, called Fana. Alem has received care through ACT over the last two years. Her CD4 was 140 and it's now up to 360.

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"I used to be beggar. I couldn't help my neighbors or be a part of the community. But now I am well, I am weaving baskets and baking injera to sell in the area. I can now be a part of the community, I can attend funerals, I can help the sick." Alem's faith in Jesus is her rock, giving her the confidence that she can face anything. She has become an ambassador in her neighborhood, visiting others and encouraging them to get tested for HIV.

Alem's hope for her future is that her children continue with an education and that they thrive. Alem has requested that the blood:water community remember her and her children in their prayers.

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While ACT's primary beneficiary is the HIV-infected and affected family in Suki, they are also focused on the well-being of vulnerable non-HIV families, especially in the areas of malnutrition and mental illness. Dejene & Asalefech are not HIV positive, but their two week old twin boys (Isaac & Nathaniel) were only 1kg each. They were severely malnourished and they searched for help for two weeks, eventually learning about ACT.

The ACT team has been providing formula, water purification packets and other basic resources that the family has been needing. Four months later, the twins are healthy, vibrant and full of life. "We were so worried about our babies," the father said. "Thank you for what you have done, and thanks to God that we can praise Him as our children are getting better."

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This photo captured their reaction when we asked them to smile for the camera and think about the moment they first met. It's possible that Nadia and I both cried.

When Fantaye's first husband died, she feared that it might be HIV. Eight years ago, at the age of 52, she met and fell in love with 60-year-old Kombi-Ketere. She attended a health and water treatment education outreach hosted by ACT and she learned about ACT and their testing services. When she tested positive, she told Kombi (who was negative), and contrary to most spousal reactions of rejection and abandonment, Kombi held her. He feared that if people found out Fantaye was positive, that people would try to separate them.

He suggested they leave Suki and hide away in his family's village so they do not lose each other. This demonstration of love is like nothing anyone has seen before. When the ACT nurse Hiwot began working with them, she assured them that they didn't have to disclose any information to the community and they could stay together. They continue to monitor Fantayes's health and provide support to ensure that it is not transfered to Kombi-Ketere.

Fantaye feels significantly better since starting ART and ACT gave her a watch to help alarm her when it's time for her to take her medication. "Because of God and ACT, we are well. Our medical and food expenses are covered. When we are facing challenges, they are praying for us. We are living full of joy, love and comfort. This organization has helped us so much. May The Lord bless you for all of your efforts."

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I have taken in a lot this week: the horrific combination of HIV/AIDS and abject poverty; the social isolation of stigma and fear; the overwhelming stories that tempt one to question the goodness of God; the transformative power of social workers and nurses who walk with those who feel as though they have no one to go to; the Lazarus effect of bodies and souls that rise with access to medication, nutrition, education, acceptance and community; and the lasting belief that everyone - no matter your story - should be graced with second chances. I am so proud of Blood:Water's choice to champion a partner and a community that go - and stay - in the hard places.

Best friends, Elephants & 84 Steps

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After a 24-flight delay (thanks to two dramatic inches of snow in Nashville), we finally embarked on our first trip to Kenya as a family of three. The only benefit of traveling with a baby (and I promise, there is only one) is that they put us in the bulkhead where there was more leg room in front for Jude to move around. A baby bassinet hangs from just below the TV - but Jude was a little too big to fit comfortably in the makeshift crib. So he ended up on James' lap for most of the 20+ hour journey (Saint James). IMG_9714

And after flights from Nashville to Detroit to Amsterdam to Nairobi - and after forgetting to pack CASH for visa entries - we made it! (And so did that other guy).

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By the way, who gets on a plane for a month to Africa with only $47 dollars in her wallet? Yep, that crazy lady with a stuffed giraffe hanging from her side. Thankfully James happened to have some random Kenyan shillings to cover our difference.

We spent Sunday getting acquainted with our Airbnb furnished apartment and reuniting with one of my best friends, Autumn, who is joining us for the week during her R & R from her intense humanitarian work in South Sudan. James introduced me to some other working moms he knows through his NGO contacts and arranged for driver and nanny support while he works from Lwala. We oriented ourselves to the peculiarities of the water pump and heater, the occasional power outages and the 84 steps (yes, I counted) that it takes to get up to our top floor apartment. Here is our view from the patio:

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Dealing with the jet lag with an eleven month old has made that previous international flight feel quite mild. An upside down clock for a baby is not something you can reason your way out of. So each morning, Jude and I have been walking down the 84 steps and across the street to a nearby cafe to shake off the long (or rather, short) nights. At that time of day, the air is a perfect 60 degrees before the warmer sun comes out.  Jude has won over our regular waitress, Jane, and he loves to interact with anyone there who will give him attention.

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Which is why he was in extroverted baby heaven when the Kenyan national rugby team showed up for an early breakfast yesterday!

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Scrambled eggs AND rugby players who think he's cute? What more could baby Jude ask for?

 

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Well, how about playing with baby elephants?

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Autumn, Jude and I visited the Sheldrick Trust where there is an elephant orphanage, and an opportunity to interact with the baby elephants. It was such a great experience - an intimate hour-long program that allows you to learn about the protection and preservation of wildlife, and to see (and touch) the 30 elephants in their care.

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Their skin felt like you were touching a dirt path. Not so sure if Jude was truly taking this in. (He'll probably love to see these pictures of him when he gets older, right?)

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So if the baby elephants weren't enough, we thought we would stop by the Giraffe Center to feed the giraffes. It's a delight to get to be so close to them. Jude wasn't as delighted, but I'd say he was cautiously interested.

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Oh, and it was such a gift to share the experience with Autumn. For so many reasons - but shared histories and common passions in the world make for rich and enduring friendships.

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Besides enjoying the elephants and giraffes, it's been lovely to catch up over meals together and enjoy the familiar company of a dear friend.

It's possible that Autumn and I were more excited about the excursion than Jude was because when we got home, Jude returned with great vigor to his favorite activity: blocks in a can.

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So, I didn't remember to bring any cash for our month in Kenya, but I did, however, find a way to pack Jude's can and blocks from Nashville. (Saint Jena).

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Kenya Beckons

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I'm not quite ready, but in less than 48 hours I will be boarding a plane to head back to Africa - after nearly two years of being stateside. I knew that having a baby was going to change my life, but after traveling to Africa every three months for TEN YEARS (!), it was a major adjustment to be so homebound. Prior to pregnancy, there was a rhythm of life that I had established - one foot rooted in my Nashville life, and another in my African (mostly Kenyan) one. But over the last two years, I have had to adjust to a new rhythm - one that holds the fort down, whether in the home or in the office while I have sent James or my Blood:Water colleagues to the places I love the most. It's been sobering to watch my them travel to and fro, feeling both joy for their opportunities and jealousy as I felt like I was missing out. I've had to wrestle with questions about my identity without that consistent African rooting, alongside the addition of my added identity as mother. But I wouldn't trade it for anything. I have been given so many new experiences, joys and adventures by way of ushering a new life into the world.

This is the last time James & I were in Africa together (Cape Town, South Africa 2013)

So, now the time has come for my return. And I am different now. James and I will be returning, not as two, but as three. I will no longer be called Anyango or Nyakenya. Instead, they will call me Mama Jude. And I am proud of that name, but I am still getting used to it. I think Kenya will feel different for me now. I have never felt as vulnerable as I do now as a new parent. Or as cautious or unadventurous. (Don't get me wrong - taking our 10-month-old to Kenya is certainly going to be an adventure - but I feel less wanderlust and more circumspect. I feel more exhaustion in anticipation for long plane rides and jet lagged nights, too!).

But I am also so excited to bring Jude to the place that his dad and I love so much - to introduce him to another part of the world (I'll have to take a lot of photos since he won't actually remember where he'll have been). It will be Kenya light - spending most of our month in a nice apartment in Nairobi, working remotely and reconnecting with old friends. My dear friend Autumn will be joining us on her R&R from South Sudan for our first week, and I will get to visit some Blood:Water partners in Lwala and Ethiopia, as well. And maybe we'll take Jude to the giraffe manor. I bet he'll love it.

We're scrambling and packing and my heart is full of anticipation and joy because the time has finally come - Kenya beckons!

p.s. Baby Jude got his first haircut today to be ready for his big adventure. Cutie pie.

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Ripple Effect

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Have you ever found yourself Googling or Facebook searching for someone from your past life? For someone you once knew, but as time as passed, you knew not where to find them? Twelve years ago, I sat in a small room of my college commons and heard the personal stories of two individuals who were HIV positive. One was a man named Bill whose body continued to betray him from the intense regimens of medication (Ironically, the side effects of the medications were as unbearable as the symptoms themselves). And the other was a woman named Julie who shared what it was like to become HIV positive from a blood transfusion after the birth of her daughter.

At the time, I had been studying the effects of HIV on the immune system in my medical microbiology class, but this was the first time I had heard from people who were living through it.

Their stories were powerful to me. They were so human, so broken, so honest, so real. The science of the virus morphed into the stories of people. I remember, in particular, the audacity with which Julie spoke. She had said things like,

"It doesn't matter how I contracted HIV, even though people see my circumstance as more innocent than that of others. I don't want to be treated differently. We are all in it together." 

and

"I had 3 children, and I was told I would only have five years to live. But I decided I wasn't going to live like I was dying. I was going to live it fully. "

As a college student searching for purpose, Julie and Bill's stories were the spark that sent me finding stories of other HIV positive people around the globe. It's what led me to Blood:Water.

I have often wondered about Bill and Julie. I mostly wondered if they were still alive. And a year ago, instead of wondering, I did as most of us do when we wonder where in the world someone might be. I took my questions to Google. I grabbed my college notebook to find the last names of Bill and Julie (yes, I still have my college notebooks - ultimate nerdom, I know), and this is what I found:

Bill: The only thing that came up was that he was a member of the Spokane HIV/AIDS Speakers Bureau in Spokane. There was no clear date to ascertain whether or not he was still speaking, or still alive. My search ended there.

Julie: She was also listed in the Spokane HIV/AIDS Speakers Bureau. But different than Bill, there was another link with her name in it - an article from Spokane's Inlander. It was confusing at first because the article was about a guy who was part of a Seattle-based hip hop duo called Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. (Before you all go judge me about not knowing who they were, this was before they had become a national sensation. Okay, you're right. I probably still wouldn't have known).

As I read through the story, it became clear that the Julie I was looking for was Ryan Lewis' mom. And she was alive. And was continuing to relentlessly advocate for HIV/AIDS issues. In an act of serendipity, the article revealed that I already knew Julie's husband, Scott, through our nonprofit circles. I found an old email from him, and I reached out.

Last week, I went to dinner with Julie and Scott in Seattle. I shared with Julie how the courage of her story more than a decade ago was a significant catalyst in my life. That her testimony compelled me to find the testimonies of others.

That the ripple effect meant more than 60,000 HIV positive Africans with a second chance at life and flourishing - and nearly a million people in AIDS-affected communities with clean water. That in the moments when you just don't know if your story means anything past sympathy or inspiration, it can mean so much more.

Take the time to circle back to those who've inspired you - and thank them. And pay attention to the way your own life and story can have a ripple effect beyond your wildest imagination.

ps. When I showed Julie the notebook, I asked about Bill. He, too, is alive. I can't wait to go meet him and thank him, too.

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To learn more about Julie's work, go here.

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis have partnered with Julie in the 30/30 Project.

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