Monday, April 30, 2012

A Conversion Experience

In Africa, I discovered that I needed to repent.

We started our learning experience with a visit to a Genocide Memorial in Kigali, Rwanda.  What a disturbing, heart-rending afternoon that was!  It also laid the foundation for almost everything else we saw in the rest of our trip.  Because of the genocide, there were refugees in the camp we visited for two days.
We visited men, women and children who had AIDS as a result of the genocide.  And street kids, many of whom were homeless (either directly or indirectly) because of the genocide.
Visiting one of the "homes' for street kids

Our hosts, Jen and Serge, are missionaries with International Teams, developing ministries that give practical support for each of these groups of courageous people.  I am a very focused person, with a mere two week "Refugee Highway Learning Team" trip to cram in as much learning as possible, so at first I struggled with the idea of spending time with these non-refugees.  But their stories grabbed my heart, their resiliency and faith inspired me, and as I reflected on our encounters, I realized I needed to repent.

As a missionary to refugees, I've narrowed my focus to the extent that I've not allowed myself to also be moved by the needs of the homeless and hungry people in my community, even though they have much in common with our refugee friends.  Just as the impact of the genocide wove its way through much of Rwandan society, the brokenness in our community cannot be segmented.   I received a very special gift in Rwanda- a gift given by women with AIDS and boys who'd grown up on the street, and I plan to treasure it as I open my eyes to the greater needs in my neighbourhood.

Saturday, April 21, 2012


I've been asked what the response was to our visit.  If you can imagine, we were 6 people, all white, mostly women, arriving by car.  All these already made us stand out, and we often heard "muzungu"  wherever we went. Muzungu means "white", but it also implies wealthy, privileged, powerful, in contrast to many of the wonderful people who opened their lives to us during our two week visit.  And, no, it is not derogatory.  

Serge translating for us
Back to the original question, and a bit more background.  Our team was hosted by International Teams workers in both locations, so they acted as guides and translators, introducing us to people they work with every day, as they try to alleviate suffering, build capacity, and share Jesus with refugees in Rwanda and Kenya. The welcome we received speaks well of the excellent reciprocal relationship these missionaries have with everyone we met.  How different it would have been if we had tried to do this learning trip without these connections!

Take my picture!
All that said, I was surprised by the welcome we received.  We were honoured guests almost everywhere we went, starting with being mobbed by children, Bieber-style(!), in the refugee camp. Fortunately, they wanted us to take THEIR picture, which was an easy gift to give!  
Many of our days were spent asking questions, and answering some, too.  The camp has it's own unpaid, democratically elected government, and we were privileged to have a visit from the president.  He even answered many of our questions!  In his diplomatic welcome to this Canadian delegation, the president said, 
"It's a sign of love that you would come so far, just to see us.  And God must have brought you."   
Each of the six different groups we visited during our two weeks were equally gracious and ready to engage with us.  Let me share an interesting response we  received in Kenya.  
First, some more background, lest you also struggle to receive this compliment.  
  • Kenya straddles the equator, and while we were there during the rainy season, each day was still hot, very dusty and dry.  
  • Many neighbourhoods have no running water, so people walk far to carry what they need for each day.  
We spent a day with a group of Rwandan refugee women in Nairobi who try to support their families by creating handbags*.  

Sewing to feed her family
These ladies generously took the day off and exuberantly welcomed us with, 
"It's such a blessing to have visitors, it's like rain!"  
 Along with all the treasured input these resilient folk shared with us, I also have a new perspective on rain that I hope will be a permanent gift.  

* PS Watch for an upcoming Welcome Home Coffee House, when you could become the proud owner of one of these bags!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Getting from A to B in order to survive

There’s one picture of my days in Africa which is imprinted in my mind and continues to break my heart.  It’s of the exhausted face of an old woman, trudging up the precarious mountain path with an immensely heavy load of firewood on her back. Perhaps it’s my grey hair, but I was particularly sensitive to the older refugees in the Kiziba camp, and how incredibly hard every day’s physical work was for each person, from the smallest children to the oldest, most frail senior.  With no electricity or running water, that work involved ceaseless carrying.

Grocery Shopping
Walking was by far the most common way people got around.  I don’t mean on a sidewalk, for a short time, in the daylight.  Narrow roads were lined with rivers of people walking miles, in the middle of nowhere, day and deepest, darkest night.  Lugging food, firewood, water, basins of wet laundry, building materials- whatever needed to be transported- on their heads or backs.

Even the wheels are made of wood

In the camp, an ingenious hand-made scooter attracted our attention.  We had to watch that we weren't run over by the boys racing up and down the hills delivering loads of firewood.

In the hilly city of Kigali, motorcycles were a common taxi, and I shouldn’t have been surprised to see a passenger balancing a door under his arm as they navigated a chaotic intersection beside us!   In the middle of a congested downtown street, trucks, motorcycles and people on foot all shared the road, going about the business of transporting and making deliveries.

Riding side-saddle

Rwanda also had a uniquely adapted bicycle, with energetic riders eager to carry people or materials on an extra long and strong rear rack.

I had the hardest time believing that this different continent I was in was really Africa.  That got resolved on the day we went to visit a Giraffe sanctuary.  It wasn’t seeing the giraffes in their natural habitat that did it, however.  It was on our return to downtown Nairobi- catching a glimpse of a rider and his camel whisking past the capital buildings!

Cold and rainy, too
What was different in Kenya?  The donkey, sometimes taking the place of a human mule, hauling even larger, heavier loads on a rubber-tired cart.  And the rainy season began, turning roads full of potholes into a slippery quagmire.


As I buckled my seatbelt and began my long flight home, I tried to imagine what a refugee thinks and feels as they leave this world they knew.  For many, this strange new mode of travel will lead to a much less exhausting existence, a longer life expectancy, and hopefully, a brighter future, perhaps even for eternity!

Monday, April 9, 2012


Team photo outside the Nairobi Chapel
I had the best April Fool's joke ever, in a Nairobi Church service!  There was a new Mercedes parked prominently outside the mega-church, and it was announced that one of the pastors was donating this gift she'd received, as a fundraiser. Everyone was invited to drop in a bid, with the winner to be announced at the end of the service.  It was only after many hundreds of eager bidders responded that Pastor Janet revealed that the joke was on them!

While that was memorable, there were many other once-in-a-lifetime worship experiences in Africa.  International Teams missionaries in Rwanda and Kenya made it possible for us to meet with those they're serving, and each experience will continue to resonate through my heart as I re-enter my life here in Canada

Youth choir in a Kizumu church service
My first Sunday was spent on a mountain-top-at the Kizumu Refugee Camp in Rwanda. After years of anticipation, I was beside myself with excitement to actually BE in the camp!!  We slip/slid our way down a muddy hill into one of the many churches there.  Light came from the doorway and small windows at the front of the rectangular building.  As my eyes adjusted, I saw that there were gospel stories painted on the rough clay walls. I also saw where the beautiful music was coming from!  We were thrilled to have four choirs, including the moms-with-babies-on-their-backs choir, take turns inciting us to worship and even though I couldn't understand a word, the joy being expressed was infectious!  Tears came to my eyes as I shared this time with my brothers and sisters in Christ.

Dancing out our trust in Jesus!
Back in Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda, we worshipped again, this time with Ubuzima, which means "Life".   It's a group of people with AIDS, one more devastating effect of the genocide, who are sustained and revitalized by their mid-week teaching and worship time under the leadership of "Mama Deborah".  As they burst into dance, we were pulled into the circle and invited to joyfully celebrate God's unfailing goodness.  (Thankfully, no one laughed at our lack of rhythm:)

We had been warned to be ready with a verse, a story, or even a short message to share with the various groups we would meet.  This weekend was my turn. I was given the privilege of sharing from Psalm 16 with a group of MBB's (M*slim-born-believers).  It was the most exciting experience I've ever had in my life!!   I sat beside women wearing head coverings who were passionately worshipping and praying to Jesus!  I was so caught up in the miracle of worshipping with these lovely, courageous people, that I had to work hard to focus on what God wanted me to share. (Needless to say, I can't post any pictures.)  

I started this blog with April 1st at the Nairobi Chapel, but need to add that the worship in Swahili and English was familiar and outstanding, the message was inspiring and the choir can dance their way into my home church anytime!  I'm so glad that the missionary team in this city has such a solid source of local inspiration and support.  And, speaking of support, that brings me to Easter, once again at home, and the thrill of worshipping with my church family again, as we join with believers all around the world in celebrating the Risen Christ!