Monday, October 28, 2013

Traveling Mercies

"Have a safe trip."  How many times have we uttered those words to loved ones before a trip?  If you are like me, you have said it many times, often without thinking. In North America, most of the time it is said without much conviction that there will be a significant problem:  roads are pretty safe, air travel is pretty safe, walking is pretty safe.  In Africa, those words take on a whole new meaning.  Praying for traveling mercies is not something that is said lightly.  Additionally, after praying for a safe trip, how many times do we forget to thank God for traveling mercies?  Again, if you are like me, you only remember when there was a close call.  Not in Africa.  People regularly pray for traveling mercies and seem to always remember to thank God for safe travel.  My trip to Kakamega yesterday may shed some light on to why this may be.

Driving in the dark has not been a practice of ours in the eight years that we have lived in Africa.  We have done everything we can to avoid it.  The business class that was held at the Deliverance Church in Kakamega ran from 2 pm - 5 pm, resulting in the return two hour drive taking place mostly in the dark (especially as we did not get out of class until about 5:40 pm).  Since I had class again in Kitale on Monday morning, I thought driving back Sunday evening would be necessary.  And the rule for not driving at night was mostly true for West Africa, I rationalized to myself.  I had yet to test the need for such a rule in Kenya.  Suffice it to say, I learned my lesson - the same rule does apply - and I will find alternatives to driving at night even if I have to stay in Kakamega late and need to be back in Kitale early the next morning!

Here are a few reasons:
  • The roads are often narrow, with no shoulders at all.  In fact, when there are shoulders, they are often a sharp one to two foot drop as the tarmac meets dirt; often there are chunks of tarmac missing right on the edge of the road due to the lack of support.  So vehicles are forced to drive very close together.  
  • Vehicles are often overloaded, both with goods and people, making them risky to drive behind.  People may jump on or off moving vehicles in front of you (and a couple of times they jumped on the vehicle I was in).   

  • Pedestrians are all over.  Yesterday we drove after a very heavy rain, so the shoulders were muddy.  People chose instead to walk on the road.  In the dark, without street lights, seeing them is problematic.
  • Motorbikes and bicycles are all over the road, transporting people and merchandise.  When a truck decides to pass a motorcycle or bicycle, they are forced to the middle of the road (due to the narrowness), making it difficult for on-coming traffic.  If we both have bikes on each side of the road, someone has to slow way down and take turns. 
  • People move their goods in all sorts of manners, including these carts, which also need to move on the road, as there are not sidewalks or shoulders.
Hard work, yes.  But also blocking traffic due to slow movement.
Lorries with sugar cane.
  • In addition to all this, this area of Kakamega is sugar cane country, and lorries and tractors are moving up and down the roads, with wide loads of harvested sugar cane.   A few times, the produce brushed up and over the car as we had to pass so closely to the tractors.
Tractors with sugar cane.
A typical matatu.
So last night, we left for Kitale at dusk, enveloped in darkness about thirty minutes into the trip.  The roads were wet and muddy with rain.  As we rounded a bend in a road, going down a hill, a matatu (van-bus) was foolishly trying to pass a lorry, going uphill and around a blind corner.  A head-on collision seemed imminent.  The next five seconds passed very slowly as I stepped on my brakes and found my car sliding due to the wet roads and mud filled (slightly bald) tires.  Looking for a path to avoid collision, there was no shoulder on either side as the road was up against the bush.  By the grace of God, the matatu was able, at the very last second, to swing in front of the lorry and we passed without a collision.

And so today, even though I had a different blog prepared, I felt I had to take a moment and thank God publicly for traveling mercies.  And I have promised not to do this ride again at night.  And as we speak, the mechanic is working on my brakes as well as replacing the two front tires.  I have joked that I want a Kenyan shilling for every person that I avoid hitting - while I say that with a smile, I know that EVERY DAY that I do not have an accident is through the grace of God and because of His protection.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Inspiration from the Field

This past week, Jeff Bloem (research assistant intern) and I spent four days in Kakamega. On the map to the right, you can see Kitale (white arrow) on the western side of Kenya, close to Mt. Elgon.  Kakamega is south of Kitale (red arrow).

Jeff, Richard, and myself.
Prior to going to Kakamega, however, we spent a day on the farm of Richard Lukuyu.  Richard was my interpreter for the business class I taught at the Friends Church in Kitale.  He is a micro-biology and business professor in Eldoret during the week, and does farming as a "hobby" (his word).  His farm was featured by the Ministry of Agriculture last week and over 200 farmers came out to his farm to see what he is doing.  He informed me that when we started talking about Business as Mission earlier this year, he decided to set a portion of his farm aside for demonstration.  It was really quite amazing how many different crops and varieties that he is using on his farm.  I am priviledged to be Richard's mentor now(at his request), as we are starting the mentoring component of our work in Kitale, although I have told him that he has more to teach me than the other way around - I'd rather see myself as having the opportunity to be his assistant!

Canola is a new crop in this area.  There is a new factory that is expected to be set up in Kitale, and many farmers are beginning to plant Canola - Richard being one of the first.  This woman is talking about the crop and the advantages of this oil.  The plants behind her are Canola plants.
When I started the class in March, I printed a number of agricultural "how-to" posters for the farmers in the class.  I wondered whether it was worth the cost of printing and if they would be used or tossed aside.  Richard took those posters and immediately set up a number of compost piles at his farm.  Here are three.  The stick in the middle is how they measure the heat.  If they pull it out and it is hot, they know composting is taking place.  Once it is cold, they know the composting is complete.
We then traveled to Kakamega, a city of about 100,000 persons, to meet the business owners from the Deliverance Church.  We really enjoyed the worship and the service, especially because they sing some songs in English and translate the message as well!  One thing that was very unique about this church was the way they give their tithe.  The picture to the left shows Pastor Charles Keya (who attended the second BAM class that I taught) receiving the envelopes of tithe from each person.  Everyone giving a tithe lines up and places it directly in the Pastors hand.  He spends a few seconds with each person, warmly greeting them, sharing a few words, laughter, thanking them for their faithfulness, and the person then finds their seat.  I found it fascinating to watch.  I've seen many different churches handle tithing differently - many processes which have made me squirm.  But there was something about this - about giving your tithe to a person, rather than a plate, to a person who represents the church and the ministry, that was special and unique.  There was something about the affirmation received in that.  And undoubtedly, in the 52 subsequent business visits that we made over the next few days, over and over again, the businesses told us about how important tithing is to them. Maybe this church is on to something.  It's true that our tithe is between us and God, but there is definitely a community aspect to it as well.  The tithe was in envelopes so there was no evaluation of the gift, just a receiving with a smile, a hug, and a kind, encouraging word. 

The businesses that we met with were a wide, wide range of service industry, retail, wholesale, manufacturing, and some farming.  Many were very solid SMEs (small and medium size entrepreneurs) with 20+ employees.  Several were small businesses and a handful were micro-businesses.  We will begin teaching their class on October 27 and will travel to Kakamega every week for 12 weeks to teach each component.  The church had 120 businesses ready to take the class, but we decided to split it into two groups of 60 each.  The first class that I teach will be in English only, and the subsequent class will be in Swahili.  I'm very relieved that it is English only as it allows a lot more content to be covered rather than losing time in translation!  For the pilot project, we needed to conduct a baseline survey to assess where the businesses are prior to starting the training.  Let me introduce you to some of the businesses.
Humphrey is the head of an organization that has worked to help 3200 farmers start poultry farming!  He has over 40 employees, many of whom work as extension officers with these farmers.  They have a slaughter slab where they butcher the birds but do not yet have a cold storage, so they are forced to sell immediately.  These farmers average 100-200 birds per farm, and can turn over these birds every six weeks.  A conservative estimate puts this at over two million birds per year! This is only one component of the work that Humphrey does.  Very impressive!

The woman on the left is Mary, the owner of Ushindi Snacks.  She produces probably twenty different baked goods that are mass produced and then shipped out; she has twenty fulltime employees and quite an amazing story of how she grew this business.  The two subsequent pictures are of her business as well.  (She makes shortbread, bundt cakes, mandazi, donuts, and on and on.)
Ushindi Snacks operates out of a very cramped building.  Here we see some of the mandazi (Kenyan fried bread that are eaten with chai on a daily basis) being produced.
And here the women are bagging the baked goods for delivery.
Mary (right) instructs one of the many orphans (left) she has taken in and cares for.  That was another theme with many of these business owners - caring for orphans.  Mary's English is not very good and she would like to send this young lady to the class on her behalf, but the training works best with the business owner, so unfortunately, Mary will have to wait to attend the second class in Swahili.
Jeff interviews Keziah, owner of Rejoice Boutique, a successful clothing store that has been open for twenty years.
Three Wasps is a security business owned by three brothers, located in both Kakamega and Mombasa.  They have 38 security guards employed, plus three office staff, just in the Kakamega office.  We kept the visit short because of the sign in their office, which I had to take a picture of.  :-)
We met two women who have made their own worship CDs and are writing their own songs!  Decimah (above) had just sold the last twenty CDs she had that day, so I wasn't able to get one.  She promised to save one for me the next time I see her.  CDs like this sell for 100 Kenya shillings (about $1.20 US).  Very affordable but not much profit for the effort.

This delightful woman is Florence, who is one of three landlords with whom we met.  People use their land very well here.  They either use every bit of space for farming or they build additional units to rent.  Florence has built five 3-room units on her property, which helps to supplement her income.  She has been doing this since 2010 and has yet to receive a late rent payment!
This is Simon, who is the founder and owner of Zulmac Insurance.  He employs seven people.  I think we had our longest interview with Simon.  In fact, Jeff said that if Simon had offered him a job, he probably would have taken it on the spot!  He is a very dynamic, charismatic, articulate, and wise business man.  He gave the best answers to some of our interview questions.  His success seems to hinge on not being satisfied with having satisfied customers - he wants delighted customers.  Not an easy task in the insurance business.  But in the time we spent with him, we watched him do it time and again with passersby. 
What an honor and a privilege to work with such impressive business people!  I was so inspired this week after meeting them and I thank God for the privilege to get to know such industrious souls.  I look very forward to starting with this group and seeing what God is going to do as we work to reclaim the Marketplace for Christ in Kakamega!

I am in need of a prayer partner for each business going through this training.  A prayer partner will pray for a business for the twelve weeks of class, praying through each aspect of the training as the business owner works to apply it to his or her business.  If you are interested in being a prayer partners, or are interested in more information, please email me at  Thanks!

Lastly, a picture of a truck we drove behind for a bit.  Since these huge logs were not tied down in any way, I decided I'd rather pass than stay behind.  Unfortunately, as I passed, the road narrowed, with a two foot drop off on the side so I had to inch very close to the truck.  Poor Jeff ducked as he thought the log (on the right) was going right into our car.  We thank God for traveling mercies daily here!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Mystery of Marriage

Since 2005, the blog has served as a witness to my life - both personally and professionally.  And you, the faithful readers, continue to keep me company on this journey - bearing with me through the good, the bad, and the ugly.  This entry is much more of a personal entry - the last few entries have been work related.  

If you have been reading my blog for a bit, you know that in July, I announced that I was "surprised by love" and in a relationship with Michael Thomson (click here for that entry).  Several of you have asked how it has been going since then, especially since I am now 7500 miles away.  The short answer is that our relationship continues to be moving on with great strength, and love continues to deepen daily.  We spend at least two hours a day together on Skype (for me from 5:30-7 am, which is 10:30-midnight for Michael), and then either during his lunch break or mine if it works out.  We spend that time talking, reading books to each other, or playing Scrabble.  We debate, discuss, laugh, share, and occasionally fall asleep mid-conversation.  Our relationship started with this distance and a very solid foundation of intense communication continues to carry us.  That is not to say that the distance is easy - it is not.  We enjoyed the summer together, being able to talk face to face, to have activities together, or just to stop by for a "drive-by hugging" (as Michael puts it) on his way to or from work.  But we knew what we were getting into when we decided to step from friendship into relationship.  Despite the distance, both Michael and I continue to feel the surprise of this relationship; it is almost daily that one of us will shake our heads and wonder how this happened.

That is the short answer.  The long answer goes much deeper.   As I shared with you in July, when Michael and I decided to go out for a coffee upon my return to Grand Rapids, we emailed our pastors to inform them, and in a way to ask for their blessing.  As I shared, they both responded very enthusiastically which was a pleasant joy and surprise.  But what made Michael and I chuckle was that BOTH pastors (in separate emails) immediately recommended that we start reading a book called The Sacred Marriage by Gary Thomas.  Additionally, Pastor Dave gave us a homework assignment in which we had to reflect on what fruits of the Spirit were developed in us through our last marriage, how we failed in our last marriage, and so on.  We chuckled because at the time all we had proposed was going out for coffee - on a "date" - and our pastors were preparing us for marriage it seemed.  But it seemed our wise pastors know something about how older persons approach relationships, getting into deep discussions rather quickly. We quickly saw the value of reading books like this, and so began reading The Meaning of Marriage, by Tim Keller, 101 Questions to Ask Before Remarriage, by H. Norman Wright, and The Mystery of Marriage, by Mike Mason.  [Yeah.  We like reading :)] 

While all the books have been good and enjoyable, The Mystery of Marriage has resonated particularly well with us.  Mike Mason is a deep and poetic author who has articulated very well the profound mystery of marriage.  There is so much I would like to quote from this book but I will restrict myself to a couple of quotes as I believe it captures the experience of the last six months. 
Marriage is a trap.  It is a trap of pure love.  The love is so pure, so intense, that it can be like a big iron gate that clangs shut behind us.  And there we are.  Imprisoned, of our own free will, in the dungeon of marriage.  And the one and only key has been handed over to our partner, a total stranger, to swallow.  No prison is darker than that of an imprisoning human relationship, and no marriage can escape without tasting to some extent of this sense of imprisonment.  For this is just the sort of thing love loves to do.  It loves to back us into a corner.  It loves to rip out our independence like a rug from under our feet, and then stand back and watch what we will do.  It loves to see us take enormous risks for its own sake, only to turn around and leave us in the lurch.  There is perhaps nothing in the world so treacherous, nor ultimately so cool and calculating and intractable, as love.  How infuriatingly irresponsible it can be, sweeping people off their feet and turning around their lives as casually as if they were leaves in an autumn breeze!  Many people are very surprised to find out what love can be like underneath its charming exterior.  Of course, love has its own purposes.  And those purposes involve nothing short of a worldwide revolution:  a revolution in which everything in sight will be turned into pure love.  That is what it has in mind.  And that is why it employs this cruel and drastic strategy of backing people into corners, squeezing them into impossible situations in which the only way they can ever hope to pry themselves free is by responding in kind with love, allowing themselves to be made more and more loving, to be made the tools and pawns of love, and learning to love what love has done to them.  When the prison door of love clangs shut, the only thing to do is become more in love than ever.  There is just no other way to get out of it.
This has been what it has been like for us and why I refer to the continual sense of surprise.  Neither of us were looking for this or even thinking about this.  And yet, there it was, out of the blue, and so powerful and scary at the same time.  Several times we nearly walked away, each of us believing at different points that we couldn't be good for the other person.  Yet we couldn't leave and in some ways we felt backed into a corner.  We had to make a decision to move forward in faith, believing through a number of revelations that God has brought us together for a specific purpose.  That purpose has been slowly revealing itself.  While a little traditional in roles for us, the book The Sacred Marriage had some good insights and reminds us that the purpose of marriage is not happiness but rather holiness, with marriage making us more aware of God's presence.  Through the mystery of Michael's thorough love of me, I have become much more aware of God's love and delight in me.  As I shake my head at my own continual delight in spending time with Michael, I am reminded of God's great delight in him - and in me - and I shake my head again.

Mason goes on to say,
One of the ways we know that love is from God, and that it is love, is that it always come in a form and a manner we never could have anticipated.  It comes out of the blue.  For it is grace, pure and free, one of the most spectacular ways God has of pouring Himself out upon people, exploding into their lives with breathtaking unexpectedness and bringing about sweeping renewal and transformation.  To fall in love actually means (whether or not a person cares to admit this) to have a revelation from God.  It is to receive from Him a new vision as to the true nature of things and new insight into the power and potential of life.  But right away the lover has a decision to make, a decision as to how much he is willing to let his life be governed by a vision.
Some of you may view this entry as "mushy."  Others of you may be thinking that we may "feel this now but just wait."  If you are thinking that, I would remind you that both of us were married for 19+ years (in fact, this Sunday, October 20 would have marked Bob's and my 23rd wedding anniversary).  Michael and I are very well aware of the realities of marriage.  But as middle-aged people who know such realities, we celebrate the goodness and love of God that we see in and through this.  We want to hold on to the teachings of this love and be able to pour that into those around us.  We don't want to forsake the revelation from God in the anticipation of struggles.  There is a sweeping renewal and transformation going on in each of our hearts and souls.  And when those struggles come, we want to remind ourselves of the call to holiness that is true in our relationship, looking to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.  If you are married, whether for a long time or short time, and have not read these books, I would encourage you to read them - not separately, but as a couple if possible. If you are not married, but considering it or longing for it, reading these books helps to put things in the right perspective.

So what does the future hold for Michael and I?  Allow me to let the devotion I just read from Jesus Calling answer that question:
I have lifted you out of darkness into My marvelous Light.  Though I have brought many pleasures into your life, not one of them is essential.  Receive My blessings with open hands.  Enjoy My good gifts, but do not cling to them.  Turn your attention to the Giver of all good things, and rest in the knowledge that you are complete in Me.  The one thing you absolutely need is the one thing you can never lose:  My Presence with you.
Open hands.  Turning to the Giver of all good things.  Trusting Him for the next step and the one after that.  That is all we have.  And that is where we are.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Africa is Blessed

The gang's not all here, but this is most of the group.
On Thursday, the first session of the Training of Trainers was completed.  It was a great class with many debates, discussions, a few good-natured arguments, a lot of laughter, and new friendships formed.  The class concluded with an exam and the turning in of a daily journal in which the students recorded their thoughts and what the Holy Spirit was saying to them during the class.

It's always a joy for me to read these journals and I would like to share excerpts from two of those journal entries with you (with permission from the authors). 

The first except was taken from the day when we focused on Reconciliation and the Marketplace.  One of the things that has gone so wrong with Africa is that the media continues to tell one story: a story of corruption, war, hunger, and poverty.  And Africa is so much more than one story.  What is disturbing is that it is not only those in the West who have chosen to believe the negative only about Africa, but Africans themselves often see their continent in such a dark way.  So as we work toward the ICM goals of "Africans solving African problems with God's solutions" this mindset needs to change.  We spend time looking at facts about Africa.  This is what Pastor Andrew wrote in response to that challenge.

Africa is Blessed – Pastor Andrew Madara Neondo

I’ve been thinking about the statistics we received touching Africa as a continent:  that Africa is the world’s richest continent in terms of natural resources; that Zambia, Zimbabwe and DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo] have enough agricultural potential to feed the whole continent; and that the richest black person in the world is a man from Nigeria (Aliko Dangote).  These statistics among many should help us as Africans to change our perspective about our continent.  These should help us realize that Africa is blessed! 

We will only come to the full realization of the riches and potential that God deposited in Africa by way of changing our worldview about Africa.  We cannot realize this potential if we continue to look to the West for aid and handouts.  We have to radically change our perspectives and begin seeing Africa the way God sees it.

This is one of the great tasks we have as men of God and Church leaders in Africa.  I pray that God will help me to help the believers in my church as well as the community members at large begin realizing that God can help us tap into the resources He deposited in Africa thus utilizing them for His glory to better Africa!

Recently new aquifers were discovered in the arid region of Turkana, in northern Kenya.  To read about that you can go here.  How cool is that - that the creation God made so long again, can now support 7 billion people and we continue to find new resources!  Talk about a model of sustainability!

The second excerpt was written by a business man who also serves as a youth leader at his church.  It was great to have a mix of business persons and pastors in this class, as they shed light on the realities on the ground from both contexts.  Here is what he had to say in his journal on the day when we discussed the broken relationships between Man and Man, and Man and Creation in the business world:

Marketplace Reconciliation - Graham Alivitsa

Most of us, I personally included, the better part of our life we have learned most of the time about reconciliation between man and man and reconciliation between man and his Creator (God).  I am prompted to say that business people ought to reconcile with themselves before they reconcile the market place.  We have done it so wrong in many instances - in many instances in our business.  We have created using the wrong scales; we have stolen in order to increase on our profits.  And in the process we have hurt and even killed our business competitors, our customers, our friends and relatives because of the ill motives we used in carrying out our business.  We need to ask for forgiveness and forgive those who led us and those we led into debts; forgive and be forgiven over bad business competition that break other peoples businesses so that we can an reconcile with each other and our businesses to be reclaimed by Christ and move ahead into reclaiming the marketplace for Christ Jesus.  Forgiveness and reconciliation are very much needed in our businesses and at the marketplace for Christ to reclaim with is rightfully His - the marketplace.  May God lead us into this. 

We found that football (read soccer if you are in North America) analogies worked well.  The analogy of playing football without any rules is how it is for the poor to work within the rule of law in some developing countries (i.e. it's all about networks and who you know instead of legal institutions functioning with their laws).  Another pastor wrote this analogy:
Like a football team which has eleven payers, the Church has been using only one player (the pulpit preacher), while the devil is using all of his eleven players to attack the church.  God has been reminding me that I have not been a good coach.  The business people have been spectators in the stadium, keeping the bench warm, instead of being out on the field.  Our God is a God who loves variety and needs people of all types, talents, and skills to do His work and His ministry.  We should train and allow business people to serve God and be affirmed in their ministry in the Marketplace.
 Can I get an "Amen"?
Harvesting of maize has begun, however more than usual rains for this year has hampered the drying process and has created some loss of crops due to rot.