Friday, 27 December 2013

The weight of the thin line

Kenya is a wonderful place. There's no denying it.

Maybe you've been here, maybe you haven't, but you know it's true. You've got a TV, right? You've seen the mass migration of wildebeest as they attempt to dodge the hungry crocs inhabiting the Mara River. You've heard about the endless beaches complemented by the warm waves of the Indian Ocean. You may even have heard of the legendary hospitality of the people here.

But, in the background, there is a thin line, that permeates from the shores of Lake Victoria to the Coast. What is this 'line' I speak of? The thin line between life and death. Westerners make the thin line as thick as we possibly can, we hide the line, we do all we can to avoid the line, but it is always there, and has always been thin.

Still reading? You're braver than most.

You cannot hide from the thin line in Kenya. In my first ten years of teaching in England I can remember the deaths of two parents of children from the school; but in Kenya, I can think of three similar deaths at my school in just one term. In the North of Kenya people die from so many different things: malaria, yellow fever, snake bites, scorpion stings, hyena attacks and yes, even from a lack of food and water. I don't know anyone in England who has died from any of these things. Some roads are best avoided. Travelling on the infamous Nairobi-Mombasa Highway, I was aware that it had a bad reputation, but, on arriving in Kwale, I discovered that about 600 people have died on it in the last two years - on one road! On the 24th December 18 people lost their lives when two buses collided head-on.

Surely the Coast is safe though? We haven't travelled far, but of the areas that I've been to in the last 3 weeks, one retired white guy was sadistically murdered in his apartment, two different men were gunned-down by the road and there was a failed attempt to throw a grenade into a tourist vehicle.

And then the thin line really got under my skin... I hate terrorism. I hate it even more now that it has taken a life of a girl I knew. Fatuma was something of a star in Korr, embarking on a career in singing, whilst studying. I'd asked her all kinds of dumb questions when she sat next to me at Raphael's house - she grinned and was gracious. She had gone through the school system in Korr and had so many options ahead of her. Until she got on a bus in Nairobi on 14th December. We never know it's going to be the wrong bus. I never thought that I'd shaken her hand for the last time.

I think Kenyans understand the thin line better than most westerners. Many in my country might say: "Life is short; make the most of it." Here in Kenya people are more likely to say: "Life is short; trust God with it."

I feel the weight of the thin line, like never before. I cannot think of anyone who answers my questions about the thin line better than Jesus Christ. He was executed, buried, but came back to life. And what does He say about the thin line?

"Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me."(John 14)

Saturday, 14 December 2013

The secret of happiness...

The Kenyan school year ends in November and restarts in January, so that's quite a slice of time.

What to do?

Thankfully, I have been given the opportunity to shadow an older American couple, Wayne and Joyce Raychard, throughout December. They work as missionaries with the Digo people in the impressive hills around Kwale.


The Raychards have committed their lives to telling people about Jesus in Africa. They are one of the happiest couples I have ever met. Even though Joyce only has vision out of one eye, she has adapted and always points out that God is her strength. Wayne seems to have a brain the size of a small planet (okay, he's going to hate that I said that). I'm sure that he could have had a high-powered job back in The States, but he chooses to work amongst the marginalised and the poor. It's such a privilege to learn from these guys.

Kwale sure is different from where I teach in Korr. Stuff actually grows here!! Fruity stuff! If you are what you eat, then I am about to turn into a large pineapple. There seem to be more coconut palms than people. (Can you imagine if ALL your neighbours have gardens packed with palm trees?) I was genuinely impressed as this local guy shunted up a twenty metre palm tree and began hacking away at the harvest. No safety harness; just skill and muscle. I'm thinking that it's going to be too late for me to start a tree-climbing career. Shame.

My days are mostly spent walking with Wayne to various villages. With the high humidity levels, it's just one sweaty t-shirt after another. Yum! Wayne regularly heads out to local houses to explain the Bible to people who request his help. Over the course of 25 years he has become ridiculously fluent in the local languages of Swahili and Chidigo, so he conducts any studies in the 'heart language' of the people he works with. You should see the faces of the people he visits: when they see Wayne their faces light up and there is an intensity to their bible study, like a thirsty man who has found a well. Or, as Jesus said:

"But those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life." (John 4:14)

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Throw away your TV?

Without access to a TV I do a lot more reading these days. I read this great story about how we treat people. Hope it speaks to you like it spoke to me.

Teddy Stallard certainly qualified as the least of one of these. No interest in school. Musty, wrinkled clothes; hair never combed. One of those kids in school with a blank face, expressionless - sort of a glassy unfocused stare. When Miss Thompson spoke to Teddy he always answered in monosyllables. Unattractive, unmotivated and distant. Put simply, he was hard to like. Even though his teacher said she loved all in her class the same, down inside she wasn't being completely truthful.

Whenever she marked Teddy's papers, she got a certain perverse pleasure in putting crosses next to the wrong answers and when she put F's at the top of the papers, she always did it with a certain vigour. She should have known better; she had Teddy's reports and she knew more about him than she wanted to admit. The reports read:

Class 1: Teddy shows promise with his work and attitude, but poor home situation.

Class 2: Teddy could do better. Mother is seriously ill. He receives little help at home.

Class 3: Teddy is a good boy but too serious. He is a slow learner. His mother died this year.

Class 4: Teddy is very slow, but well-behaved. His father shows no interest.

Christmas came and the boys and girls in Miss Thompson's class brought her Christmas presents. They piled their presents on her desk and crowded around to watch her open them. Among the presents there was one from Teddy. She was surprised that he had bought her a gift, but he had. Teddy's gift was wrapped in brown paper and was held together with tape. On the paper were written the simple words:

                                             For Miss Thompson from Teddy

When she opened Teddy's present, out fell a gaudy rhinestone bracelet, with half the stones missing, and a bottle of cheap perfume.

The other boys and girls began to giggle and smirk, but Miss Thompson at least had enough sense to silence them by immediately putting on the bracelet and putting some of the perfume on her wrist. Holding her wrist up for the other children to smell, she said, "Doesn't it smell lovely?" And the children, taking their cue from the teacher, readily agreed with "oo's" and "ah's."

At the end of the day, when school was over and the other children had left, Teddy lingered behind. He slowly came over to her desk and said softly,

"Miss Thompson...Miss Thompson, you smell just like my mother...and her bracelet looks really pretty on you too. I'm glad you like my presents." When Teddy left, Miss Thompson got down on her knees and asked God to forgive her.

The next day when the children came to school, they were welcomed by a new teacher. Miss Thompson had become a different person. She was no longer just a teacher; she had become an agent of God. She was now a person committed to loving her children and doing things for them that would live on after her. She helped all the children, but especially the ones who struggled with their studies, and especially Teddy. By the end of the school year, Teddy showed dramatic improvement. He had caught up with most of the students and was even ahead of some.

She didn't hear from Teddy for a long time. Then one day, she received a note that read:

Dear Miss Thompson: I wanted you to be the first to know. I will be graduating as second in my class. Love Teddy

Four years later, another note came:

Dear Miss Thompson: They just told my that I will be graduating as the first in my class. I wanted you to be the first to know. Love Teddy Stallard

And a few more years later:

Dear Miss Thompson: As of today, I am Theodore Stallard, a qualified doctor. How about that? I wanted you to be the first to know. I am getting married next month, the 27th to be exact. I wanted you to come and sit where my mother would have sat if she were alive. You are the only family I have now: Dad died last year. Love Teddy Stallard

Miss Thompson went to that wedding and sat where Teddy's mother would have sat. She deserved to sit there - she had done something for Teddy that he could never forget.

In the words of Jesus: ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’ Matthew 25v40

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Chalbi Desert

The class with the best results at school were rewarded with a special treat - a day out. Where's the best place to take kids for a day trip, when they live in the semi-desert? Yup, you've got it - the full on desert!!

On the way to The Chalbi Desert we stopped in Kargi. And one of the first people we met? Sam (above), who showed us his pet scorpion... Don't try this at home: these little beasties pack a heavy punch, causing intense pain for 24 hours, but the good news is, if you're still alive after a day, you're probably going to live. Needless to say, I didn't let the scorpion ride on my arm! And then the rain came...

After a few hours it was decided that the roads were clear enough of water for us to continue to the desert. Upon arrival, flat nothingness for mile after mile greeted us, with Ethiopia visible in the distance. Undeterred, the kids marched off towards the middle of nowhere. Check out the mirage picture!

And just to prove that I was actually there...
A glorious day, really. On days like this, it's great to have someone to thank. Makes me think of some words from Psalm 100:

A psalm of thanksgiving.

Shout with joy to the Lord, all the earth!
    Worship the Lord with gladness.
    Come before him, singing with joy.
Acknowledge that the Lord is God!
    He made us, and we are his.[a]
    We are his people, the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving;
    go into his courts with praise.
    Give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the Lord is good.
    His unfailing love continues forever,
    and his faithfulness continues to each generation.
And how did the day end?

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

I'm glad I crashed the wedding...

So how does a Rendille wedding work?
May I begin by saying that I only have a basic understanding of weddings, in any culture. My appreciation of Rendille weddings is minimal at best. There are some similarities with what I'm used to. Lots of people standing around for the day, waiting for the next meaningful event. Men dressed up. Women dressed up. A blushing bride. A nervous groom. Relatives. Friends. Dancing. Joy.
As for the differences...
Sunshine is pretty much guaranteed. The outfits are far more colourful and in keeping with the warmer climate. Not a shirt and tie in sight. At about 7am the groom appeared with his buddies to sing his way (rather mournfully) to the mother-in-law's house, with two goats leading the way. Once at the house, one goat is slaughtered outside on a bed of leaves/branches... throat cut, blood/life draining away slowly, the goat skin is removed with surgical precision and fat is removed. It's quite something for a Westerner to see an animal die in front of your eyes as part of a wedding. For everyone else this is totally regular wedding stuff. Looking into the eyes of the dying goat felt anything but regular. The bridal party were nowhere to be seen at this point.  
After a careful carving of the animal, the groom had to carry strips of goat fat into the mother-in-law's tent. The first time around, he reversed into the Min (house), carrying his fresh cargo. After re-emerging into the heat of the day, the guy had to carry yet more goat fat into the home.  
The symbolism of the dying goat underlines the significance of each marriage. One man explained:
"The goat dies and this represents a deep truth. The couple are now dead to their old way of life, as they begin their new life. The man and woman are united by the death they have just proclaimed. They cannot separate, unless death takes them."
That image of  the goat, bleeding and dying, will stay with me. I don't know how the warriors managed it, but they killed the goat and it was silent throughout, as the life drained from its body. The image takes me to another location, where history changed forever, outside the city of Jerusalem. Jesus Christ, the God-man, allowed himself to be sacrificed, hanging like a common criminal. The blood and the life slowly left his body. I love the words of the prophet Isaiah written hundreds of years before Jesus walked the earth. The whole of Isaiah chapter 53 is a staggering prediction of the suffering saviour:
Isaiah 53v7: He was oppressed and afflicted,
    yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
    and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
    so he did not open his mouth.
Rendille Warrior in the wedding procession.
Bridegroom walks backwards into the mother-in-law's tent, carrying goat fat.

Sharing chai with the Rendille warriors, who were just gearing up for some dancing.
It's all or nothing on the dance floor.
In the thick of it...
Bridal party, with the happy couple on the right. 
The "Maid of Honour/Bridesmaid" enjoying the day.
The dancing was just warming up again as the sun went down.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Photos explained.

Footy match after school. Quite a few barefoot players.
Anyone for footy? Colleagues Job and Jay.
Lads from school: Caleb (left), Adukan (right), Chulayo (rear).

Pastor James. Heads up Korr AIC Church. Busy man!

New footy to play with. Thanks go to Jacky.
Trip out to a nomadic village.
Views from my compound.
Kids at the nomadic village love a bit of gymnastics!
Lots of my colleagues in this photo, plus 2 others.
Goat night, with some of the teachers from the Secondary School.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Settling in

I'm really surprised how quickly I'm settling into the whole teaching-in-a-remote-part-of-Kenya thing.

You know the routine, right?

Alarm goes off. Climb out of the mosquito net. Check the floor and shoes for scorpions and other toxic treasures. Wash in a bowl. Wolf down some cereals. Proceed across the (always) windy, semi-desert for a little under half an hour, pass a few wandering Rendille warriors along the way and the occasional camel...and you're THERE. Primary school. Settle down in the small rectangular staff room and shake hands with anyone who's there already.

Here's the structure: eight forty-minute lessons a day for each class. Each teacher teaches only two or three subjects and they rotate around the different classes. Various tea/chai breaks. One daily mid-morning devotion for teachers, led by the school pastor. ALL the teachers have a school dinner (something very ricey or maizey) brought to them and they generally all eat it.

I'm really pleased with how the lessons are going: the children seem appreciative; there are very few discipline issues; and you pretty much teach from a textbook, so it's supremely straightforward. To the amusement of the children, I really struggle to work out what they are trying to tell me, as they speak English with a heavy Rendille accent. I keep myself amused by watching the small birds flutter around the classroom - they are in every lesson!!

One really cool thing is that I only teach about 5 lessons a day, so the rest of the time is good for chatting, marking and preparation. The staff are SUPER chilled out and are nearly all Kenyan and male. There's tons of banter. I only teach English and RE - LOTS of English and RE. I like it!!

Jesus also lived in a land of scorpions for his whole life. I love the way that he talks about scorpions in the book of Luke chapter 11:
11 “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for[f] a fish, will give him a snake instead? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”



Sunday, 15 September 2013

Just photos.

One of my classes: 7 East.

The staff room 
Two of my colleagues.  
Front of the church. 
My room. 

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Arrival and survival

I've been in Kenya since last Wednesday and I think that my brain is wondering what on earth is going on. After a couple of days in the whirlwind that is Nairobi, I boarded a Cessna to the middle of the desert, from where I am now writing. 
About to board the Cessna from Nairobi to Korr.

                                  The bad news? I've seen far more creepy crawlies than I imagined was possible in such a short space of time. When I chose to call my blog "sunsets and scorpions" I was cool with seeing sunsets every night. NOT cool with seeing scorpions every night. People keep telling me: "They're very poisonous." Not fatal, just insanely painful. Comforting. 

Allow me to give you an example of one of my creepy evenings (I am definitely an English coward). I was walking back from the other short-term missionaries' house after dinner when the fun began: the torchlight revealed a menacing looking camel spider, which the guard and I stepped over; back in my compound there was a little black scorpion scuttling away in the shadows; but the icing on the cake has to be my attempt to then visit the toilet - I lifted the lid and a huge BAT flew out and over me! I ran out of the outdoor convenience, and laughed, "Whatever next?" Gathering myself, I stepped once more into the breach. My sonic friend returned, hanging upside down over my right shoulder and watched as I completed my evening task. There was a cockroach under the seat just to add to the menu. They tell me that: "You are never alone in Korr." True, so true.   

The good news? The Christians here are ace! I was wondering how it would be, trying to get on with a bunch of American missionaries - all I can say is: so far, so good. There have been lots of laughs and I'm looking forward to discussing the day with them over dinner each night. 

As well as this, the Rendille guys from the local church have been amazing. They have treated me as one of their own and are really looking out for me. After telling my bat story, and asking: "Is this normal?" two of the guys wanted to check out my accommodation and before I could say "nocturnal animal" they were sweeping my floor, carpets and inspecting the toilet. They promise to follow this up tomorrow. I'm sure that they have better things to do, but these men live out the words of Jesus: 

"By this will all men know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." (John 13v35)

There's nothing quite like travelling to a totally different culture and seeing the love of Jesus working through the hands of a couple of Rendille men. They made a big difference to my day. It challenges me to live like Jesus would, to love others like he would, and to make a big difference to someone's day.  

Monday, 26 August 2013


So I leave tomorrow, but , do you pack for a year? And how do you prepare yourself for being a missionary in Africa? I take a lot of heart from this Bible verse:

"When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realised that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus." (Acts 4v13)

In short, you know me, right? "Unschooled... ordinary..." seems to fit quite well! Peter and John were average guys too: the key thing for them was that they had been with Jesus. May I stay close to Jesus this year and make the most of the days.  

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Passing on the baton

It would appear that the British Athletics Team are not that great at passing on batons in relays, if the Men's 4x100m is anything to go by. Thankfully, some people know how to pass the baton and one of those people is Hannah Jackson.

Having spent one year in Korr as a missionary, Hannah has just returned, so we met the other day to discuss how the experience worked out for her and I peppered her with all manner of questions for hours. I was so grateful to have the chance to hear all her stories and to be even more aware of the opportunities that lie ahead. Excited! (I'll be in Nairobi in a week).

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Not long now...

I'm off to the remote north of Kenya in August, so watch this space!