Best friends, Elephants & 84 Steps


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).


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:


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.


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


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



Well, how about playing with baby elephants?


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.


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?)


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.


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).


Kenya Beckons


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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The Friday Five: Surprising Practices of the Luo Tribe

I have spent several years visiting various tribes and cultures across Africa. The one people group that James and I are most familiar with are the Luo tribe of western Kenya.

Here are five surprising practices of the Luo.

1. Luo names describe the circumstance of your birth. Were you born in the morning? You will be named Onyango (for a boy) and Anyango (for a girl). Born at night = Otieno/Atieno. Born when it was raining = Okoth/Akoth. Born in a prostrate position facing down = Ouma/Auma. Born with the umbilical cord around your neck = Owino/Awino. And it keeps going - born in a time of abundance, born as a twin, born in famine, born while it was cloudy...

2. Polygamy is a common practice. A predominantly Christian tribe, the Luo have continued to follow the practices of the Old Testament of keeping multiple wives. Co-wives share in the household and child rearing responsibilities of the home. Polygamy is not practiced by everyone - many more progressive Luos have denounced it and have committed to a monogamous marriage.

3. There is a specific role of a twin in a funeral. It turns out that if your identical twin dies, you are not permitted to attend his or her the funeral. It brings too much pain to everyone who is reminded of your twin by your common appearance. 

4. Punctuality is not practiced, except for times of honoring the dead. The Luo, and most of African culture, do not carry a concept of time like Americans do. In fact, the saying is The Americans have all of the watches, but the Africans have all the time. Which is why I am shocked to see community members arrive promptly on time (if not early) in circumstances of funerals and events of remembering those who have passed. I asked my Luo friend, Robert, about it and he said that people believe that the spirits of the dead are as powerful, if not more powerful than God. So they make sure they come on time.

5. Once a young couple is married, the in-laws must never stay the night in the couple's home. Taking seriously the Biblical role of a child leaving their parents and the man and wife cleaving to one another, this Luo practice protects the complications of parent and adult child relationships. Robert told a story about how he was getting so tired of finding alternate places for his parents to stay when they visited, that he finally just pulled out a mattress in their main room and told them to stay there. Robert walked out at 2am and his dad was just sitting on the mattress refusing to sleep. Robert's parents stayed for five days, so eventually his father gave in, but it was not for lack of trying!

When Love Walked In

Love comes in various forms, and I am convinced that it comes mostly through the people around us. Many of you have been following the story of my friend, Kabale, who has been thriving as an HIV positive community leader in the desert of Marsabit, Kenya. She was recently diagnosed with throat cancer, and requires a $4000 surgery to remove the tumor, a cost that is unobtainable for those living in extreme poverty.  Even with significant generosity from Kabale’s friends and family, any offering would still pale in comparison to the amount of money required for such an operation.

On Sunday July 15th, Kabale hosted her community gathering to raise support for her surgery. As expected, those who are closest to her came to offer what they could. Most of the 100 guests were members of HIV/AIDS support groups who had been impacted by Kabale’s leadership and courage to be the first person to come out publicly about her HIV status.

One by one, women wrapped in brilliant fabrics and men in sandals and traditional caps came with their offerings – some with 300 shillings ($3.75), others with 500 shillings ($6.25) and a few with 1000 shillings ($12.75) – all as demonstrations of sacrificial and joyful love for their sister and leader. It was a magnificent picture of the way community ought to live. And with that demonstration of generosity still came the reality of limitation of resource and geography.

As they sat in fellowship with one another on that Sunday afternoon - knowing that the money they had pooled together was not enough - a surprise parade entered in. First, a group of teachers who had worked with Kabale in a local school. Then, the leaders of her church. And then national staff of our partner, Food for the Hungry. And then the clinicians of the Tumaini clinic where Kabale serves as community advocate. And finally, a group of government officials came in.

This broad array of community had battled all odds and collectively raised 280,000 shillings ($3,500) for Kabale. And there in her home was proof that love had walked in. I spoke with our friend Zachary, who was there that Sunday, and asked him if this is a normal occurrence for someone who is in need of significant medical support or if it was unprecedented.

“No,” he said, “this does not happen for everyone.”

So, why did it happen for Kabale? “Kabale is our hero,” he said. “She is the one who has given the people here hope for life. The school, church, government and hospital all know that their services have been successful because of her leadership. We all need her.” Blood:Water Mission (and many of you) have made an offering to ensure the rest of the expenses are covered, because she is our hero, too.

Today is the day of Kabale’s surgery. She is deep on my heart, and on the heart of so many others. May God be with her through the operation, and may she feel the prayers and love from all of us.

The Friday Five

Here are five photos to share for the week: 1. Marsabit District is populated by pastoralists who move around the desert of northern Kenya. The curved branches on the camels assemble into a dome, and they lay materials over the structure to create their homes.


2. AIDS Support Group in Torbi, Kenya. The woman on the very far right in the blue dress and gold earrings is Clara, our fearless leader and nurse who ensures that those who are HIV positive are receiving proper care and support.


3. Paloma Grace, our 4-month-old niece has made it strongly through an open heart surgery and another follow-up surgery. We are overjoyed to see photos and hear that she is thriving.


4. The Sound of Music (well, kind of). The wonderful group I traveled with to Rwanda all agreed that one of our co-travelers, Susan, looked and acted just like Julie Andrews in the Sound of Music. We had just finished attending a special Rwandan celebration (note the lime green dresses) and went to Lake Burera for lunch. We had Susan, a guitar, a scenic background and "play clothes" and therefore couldn't resist staging this photo.


5. Community Health Visits in Lwala, Kenya. The woman in red is Lilian, a new mother of twins. The woman in the back is Sheila, the community health worker who has supported her through pregnancy, delivery and post natal care. The baby in the picture is Godfrey.


When the World Breaks Your Heart

Sometimes just walking through the world will break your heart. Through the cold fog of the morning in Marsabit, Kenya, I went to greet Kabale (pronounced ka-bah-lay), our courageous leader and volunteer at the Tumaini Clinic. Several years ago amidst the cultural stigma and fear surrounding HIV/AIDS, Kabale was the first person to tell her community that she was HIV positive. She normally carries a strength that I envy, a powerful presence that commands your attention and an unconscious smile of a few missing teeth that makes you involuntarily smile back. And yet today, it all seemed to be missing. Kabale held an uncharacteristic stoicism, a heaviness that buried her smile and tempered her charisma.


Her first words to me this morning were, "I am found with cancerous growth in my throat." Cancer is a bad diagnosis for anyone. But for someone who is HIV positive, it is tragic. It's a double whammy of shitty luck.

Kabale has developed a large growth in her neck and she can no longer swallow or speak without severe physical pain. Her viral load used to be at a healthy level due to taking ARVs, but it is plummeting as her immune system struggles to keep up. Kabale needs immediate surgery to have the growth removed, and our clinic cannot perform such operations. She must go to Nairobi (a 20+ hour drive away on dangerous roads) and come up with the 300,000 Kenyan shillings (about $4,000 US) needed for the removal.

"I will be strong with the courage I have," she whispered to me. "What I want most is prayers. With prayer, God comes close to people."

Kabale stopped me from asking more, and changed the subject. "The HIV positive people here are getting the prayers you are sending and we are happily receiving the care through the funds to the clinic. We have 22 support groups now, and even the HIV positive men are joining. We will continue to grow."

Oh, Kabale. What a beautiful and faithful woman.

I found out that this Sunday, Kabale is hosting a harambe, a community fundraiser with her family and friends. They will cook food, and people will come with donations to Kabale. Most of her neighbors are living on less than $2 a day, so this is an unprecedented amount of money for a community such as this. My heart sinks at the enormity of it all. She may very well get the surgery, and find that there is more cancer in her body or that her immune system cannot sustain it.

Kabale has provided life for so many people here, and yet she struggles to save her own. The world so often seems unfair, and it can break your heart. This morning, pledges were already made on behalf of the staff of the Tumaini Clinic, Blood:Water Mission and the HIV/AIDS support group. I am reminded of the call to reciprocate love as often as we are given it.

The Magic of Development

Today I visited the desert of Marsabit, Kenya. The last time I was here was early 2011 when water was already a challenge, and the drought of 2010 simply flaunted its severity. The rain tanks sat empty. The earthen dam was dry, and the animals lay dead upon its crumbled surface. The expected rainy season passed over northeast Kenya without a drop to share. The following rainy season simply did the same.


I remember flying away from Marsabit in a small missionary plane, dumbfounded by the cruelty of the earth and by the limitation of man. As we left, we had encouraged everyone to continue the work, but it honestly felt futile. Why would you build a rain tank when you have lived a year under cloudless skies? Why would you teach your neighbors how to properly care for water when there is simply no water to care for? Why risk the fool by believing in a good God when the earth continues to stand dry? I looked out the window into the desert and wondered if the tears of the dying were the only drops of water that would come. I prayed, but with disbelief.

Today, I flew back in that same missionary plane and saw a land different than when I had been here 18 months before. And what I have seen in the process of such hardship is the enduring belief in the ability to hope and to take responsibility for one's situation regardless of circumstance. Day in and day out, the people of Marsabit continued on with utter resilience to survive. They faithfully built the tanks and repaired the dams as dust devils swept across their land. They developed health and hygiene clubs, dug pit latrines and carried on with a commitment to improving their lives regardless of the circumstances that they could not control. Many people in the US would consider an empty rain tank a failure, but the actions of these communities prove greater success than most places I have seen. Poverty gets the worst of humanity when it tells people that they are without any hope or dignity or ability.

The rains had finally come last October. Like manna from heaven, the rain filled the tanks and the dams. And because the people of Marsabit had worked through the drought to construct the catchment systems, they were able to collect every drop. We visited schools with rain tanks, and the children sang songs about the importance of clean water and hand washing. They were thankful to God that the drought had subsided, and they proclaimed how they were stronger together by enduring through it.


Progress comes in ebbs and flows, and it shows itself in stops and starts. We wish for change to come quickly, but more often than not, it comes slowly and gradually. It is a lost cause to judge success by rain or drought. The magic of development is in the spirit and belief of communities who work diligently together through times of both scarcity and plenty. I am so inspired by our friends in Marsabit.