Mystery murders stalk candidates.” I stared at the bold headlines of the Nairobi magazine, Saturday Standard. The murder story engrossed a woman waiting for the same flight to Kisumu as I was. After trying to disentangle meaning from the awkward phrase, my fogged brain gave up and appealed to my friend sitting next to me. Anthony shrugged his shoulders.
Kicking my feet out, I listened to Anthony recount his life in East Africa. A man stealing his passport from under his nose. A woman attempting suicide by throwing herself in front of his car. His stories failed to reassure me, but I knew this was the raw narrative of a former Tanzanian missionary. Still hours from our final destination, I wasn’t sure what to expect; nevertheless, I was assured this trip would exceed my expectations, for better or worse.
Mission trips are often painted as spiritual-high-inducing experiences complete with heart-wrenching — but perfectly photographed — moments of poverty and hunger. Pictures to be shared upon the return to wifi in the hotel, of course, as proof of new-found spirituality. And gratitude. “You’re going to be so much more grateful when you get back!” people reminded me before I departed. But as I sat in the plane descending over Lake Victoria, the question pressing on me remained heavy: “Why was I going on this trip? What was my motive?”
From Kisumu, we traveled south to Kisii, the southwestern county near Tanzania. Four wheel drive propelled us over roads pitted with potholes and lined with speed bumps. One missionary was kind enough to share how he felt about Kenyan transportation: “Much more dangerous than the Philippines,” he nodded with grimness. I wasn’t sure how anything could be more dangerous than trying to cross a Filipino road, but three hours later, I had a change of heart.
I opened my eyes, looking at the pale ghost of a mosquito net staring down at me. It was 3:30 am. I thought about my first impressions of Kenya so far: warm days, cool evenings, and low humidity — more than I could ask for back home in the Southern U.S. And the food. I was enjoying my introductions to sukuma wiki (collards), ugali (cornmeal cooked into a dough-like consistency), and masala chai tea.
Seven hours later, Chad, Anthony, and I were on the road to a church in Nyamusi, a 1 1/2 hour drive. It wasn’t the food making my stomach tighten; it was the marked-up notes for a lesson sitting in my lap as we flew over another speed bump. This would be my first time preaching a lesson with an interpreter. Why was I so anxious? As I quizzed the missionaries for tips, one explained, “Trust me, you’ll know if your interpreter doesn’t get it. If he keeps stopping, looking at you with a blank face, and saying ‘What?’, you’ll know.”
An hour later, my interpreter gave me the dreaded blank look for the fifth time. But it reached a new level when I dropped the word “zombie”. The moment the word left my mouth, I knew I’d made a mistake. Would they know I was referring to a walking revived corpse? Then I made eye contact with Anthony who was now convulsing in laughter, confirming my fear.
“Zombies” would be the new inside joke for the next couple of days.
After worship, Chad and I ambled around the one-room church building. Plaster walls, dirt floor, tin roof. “They have a nice building,” Chad noted, “compared to some.” I met Chad in 2014 on a mission trip to the Philippines. Now, he spends all his time in Kenya, and I don’t know anyone else more passionate about East Africa than he is. When he cautioned me on pointing my camera in people’s faces, I paid close attention. My shutter button finger was twitching, but I put my photo-capturing device aside, deciding to focus on people, not pictures.
As we went to leave, an old man stopped me and asked if I would take his picture. Incredulous, I glanced at Chad before nodding to the old man. He wanted the Americans to know who he was, a request I promised to fulfill. Earlier, Anthony told me how some still believed cameras could steal ones’ soul. This man must not have shared those same fears.
Today was the day I could shoot to my heart’s content. Because I came all this way, the missionaries said I had to visit the Masa Mara Reserve. For someone still familiarizing himself with the culture, this adventure by myself would be interesting.
Waking up at 4:30 in the morning was no big deal since 3:30 seemed to be my new internal alarm . Nicholas, a native Kenyan, and his wife picked me up for the 2 1/2 hour drive to the park. The ride was silent, his English broken and my Swahili nonexistent. I was a testimony to the tired joke, “What do you call someone who knows three languages? Trilingual. What do you call someone who knows two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who knows only one language? An American.”
The other missionaries thought the joke was funny.
A vast Savanna, 60 miles wide, extended before us. We drove down the plateau into the valley below where I paid for entry and met our driver, William.
“Do you want to see my gun?”
I felt a paradoxical relief at this question. How else were we going to protect ourselves from animals? Maybe this was far fetched, but having someone armed with us sounded like a good idea. Pulling his shirt tail up to his belt, he pointed to a 6-inch scabbard holding a knife. “My gun,” he laughed. I wasn’t sure if my response should be relief or worry.
The Land Rover sailed across the sea of grass in the growing light, the vastness overwhelming. Soon, we passed elephants, giraffes, hyenas, birds, gazelles, and creatures I didn’t even know the names of. Listening to the driver, Nicholas, and his wife hold a conversation in Swahili, I snapped my 500th picture, hoping this wasn’t a dream.
The sun now shining at its zenith, we pulled away from the lions I had been capturing. “And they were only 15 feet away,” I kept telling myself. I didn’t need binoculars to see the lion, flanked by his lionesses, turn his head and bore his eyes through me. Lost in a trance, the Land Rover jarred me alert to the herd of elephants blocking our path.
And they weren’t happy.
Unintelligible Swahili words flew by as William put the Land Rover in reverse. One elephant started to charge. William moved into a lower gear, revving the engine, shattering the stillness. Creeping around the herd, dark smoke billowed out of the exhaust. The elephant bellowed after us but the fumes created a magical barrier between animal and man. “Elephants don’t like smoke,” William said in passing. Nicholas looked scared, but I was too ignorant to know any better. If I knew in the moment how close we were to being flattened by an elephant, I would have reached over to Nicholas and said, “Don’t worry, Nicholas! Remember? William has a gun.”
The shared experience must have solidified our new friendship because Nicholas and I talked for a while on the way home. I learned he was the one who established the first Kisii congregation in the 1970’s. I felt a tinge of guilt for not trying to get to know him better in the first half of our adventure. For me, it took an entire day with no one around to learn how to move into deeper — albeit harder — conversations with someone much different than myself.
A close encounter with angry elephants will do it too.
My room with its shower, toilet, and clean sheets looked like Solomon’s palace as I closed the door and turned the key. Chad and I were leaving Itibo to stay at the village of Nyansakia for the next three nights. Charles and his family’s home would not be like Itibo, Chad said, but it would be comfortable.
After driving past dirt floor huts with plaster walls and thatch roof, the concrete floor house with brick walls and tin roof looked inviting indeed. Charles’ family lived on 3 acres covered in maize, collards, tea, coffee, and napia grass. Our house had no bathroom, shower, sheets, or electricity, but it was comfortable.
We spent our morning walking through maize and studying the Bible with people. Chad loved to start a study by singing in Swahili, a gesture that never failed to impress them. At the end of each study, we would stand to pray. After one prayer, I moved to exit while everyone sat down. Confused, I sat down only to stand back up with everyone else moments later
“Why did everyone sit back down after the prayer?” I asked Chad.
“It’s called ‘leaving your peace’,” he explained. “You sit back down to leave your peace before departing. It’s a sign of respect.”
Before lunch, we met a lady named Agatha. The moment she saw us, she danced, jumping up and down with joy. Chad proclaimed her the happiest woman in Kenya he had ever met. I was thinking the happiest woman I had ever met. Ever. She knew no English or Swahili — only her native tongue Kisii.
“Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” she sang, grabbing both our hands and repeating the one English word she knew.
She invited us into her home to pray for her. Some believe a msungu — a white person — coming inside to pray blesses their house. Knowing she thought this made me uncomfortable. Whether I or my Kenyan friends prayed made no difference in the quality or quantity of the blessings. All spiritual blessings flow from the heavenly places — regardless of language, color, or gender. Entering inside the thatched hut, there was nowhere to sit. I wondered if we could still leave our peace without sitting.
After lunch, the church’s open air weekend campaign began. I was to preach on the book of Hebrews for the next three days. This time, it would be my voice traveling through a PA system to the village of Nyansakia. No pressure. But it went well, giving me confidence in the face of two more lessons.
After the meeting, I sat on the grass watching the football game. It was Chad’s idea to bring the community together with a tournament complete with referee, whistle, and wooden soccer goals. Before the game, they discussed positions and plays — a subject far beyond my sport-deprived brain. I volunteered to be Chad’s water boy.
In the dimming light, the school walls watched the field transform into vivid orange and darkening shadows. Little kids played with their own plastic-bags-tied-into-a-ball. “This is a snapshot of something 100 years ago,” I thought to myself. Minutes later, I caught the phone-wielding teenagers snapping pictures of me. No one feared soul-stealing magic here.
I gave my best shot at Swahili — habari ya njioni (good evening) — and they howled in laughter. Meanwhile, Chad played football and laughed in Swahili with the young men. If only I could connect like that with these people.
Before leaving for Nyansakia, Dale and I discussed preaching. “Samuel, you know what the key to preaching is?” I leaned forward in rapt expectation for the answer. I first met Dale, along with Chad, in 2014 in the Philippines. But my respect for Dale only grew after this first week. He told me how this planet would be a better place if someone burned all the ties and suits up. Needless to say, I felt a deep connection with Dale.
“The key to preaching is to connect. If you’re not connecting with people, you’re wasting your time.”
The word connect danced in my mind as I read my notes for Hebrews. This would be my last — and hardest — lesson yet. I walked into Chad’s room and explained my conundrum. To illustrate God’s holiness, I wanted to use the sun. The sun is good, radiating life-giving energy to earth; but this same pure power is also dangerous. For example, if a spaceship traveled too close to the star’s presence, the heat would obliterate the ship.
“Will they know what a spaceship is?” I asked.
Chad thought for a second. “If you explain it this way: ‘Say we all get on a plane. And the plane goes way up into the sky. And the plane keeps going up, up, up, past the sky, all the way to the sun.’ But by then, they’ll completely forget what you were talking about.” If I used this illustration, I would blow their minds right past my point. This was going to be harder than I thought.
Evening found me sitting next to a tree, studying my notes, and glancing up at the people on the street. Someone was singing into the PA system, interjecting with the standard “Hallelujah!” between songs. Motorcycles and cows passed by the hodgepodge of microphones, dusty benches, and Swahili songbooks.
As I waited for my turn to speak, a group of young kids walked over goggling and whispering msungu. Most were shy, smiling and hiding their faces when I looked up. Except for one kid. A 12-year-old approached with confidence, his friends giggling behind him. He muttered something.
“What was that?”
“Give me shillings,” he said with more force.
“Um…I’m not giving you shillings. Sorry.”
“Give me shillings,” he demanded, moving closer.
After a back and forth, he disappeared with his friends over the hill. Fifteen minutes passed and he reappeared with none other than a machete. I shifted in my seat. The audience remained mesmerized with the song: “Nimekubali kumfuata Yesu, Nimekubali kumfuata Yesu.”
“Give me shillings,” he said with an air of triumph.
“No shillings,” I said with all the coolness I could muster.
“It’s no big deal,” I thought to myself. “If this escalates, I can wrestle a machete out of a 12-year-old’s hand with no problem. But how everyone else would respond…”
“You see this machete,” he said with a raised voice.
“I do,” I smiled, trying to play it off.
“My machete cuts grass. My machete cuts sugar cane. My machete cuts people.”
“Wow, I see you’re strong,” I responded, attempting to divert his attention.
“I am strong,” he said, examining his flexing small arm.
“Do you know who made you strong? Jesus! He made you strong.”
“Give me shillings.”
When faced with intense conflict, my body responds in the most unfortunate way. I don’t fight or take flight. I laugh. No doubt, escalating the tension, I laughed and proceeded to ask if he had cut anyone before.
“Yes,” he said solemnly. “Many people.”
The kids behind him giggled again. After five minutes of this, someone noticed and made them leave.
It was now my turn to speak. To illustrate God’s holiness, I decided to use my sunburn as an example. Chad was more surprised than I was, shocked how only two hours in the sun could wage this level of damage on my pale skin.
“Because I’m a msungu, I burn easily”
I waited for my interpreter to translate.
“Yesterday, the sun burnt my skin!”
“So you see, the sun is good and dangerous.”
As I made the connection back to God’s holiness, they laughed, exclaimed, and discussed among themselves. I didn’t see how the illustrations were so funny, but this is where our perspectives on humor would diverge. But I was happy. It felt like I was breaking through and connecting.
Over dinner, the Kenyan preachers asked me to retell one of the illustrations. They roared in response, again, and I looked at Chad and shrugged. He smirked before coming over and sitting next to me. We watched them talk over the English-dubbed reality TV show playing in the background.
“You see this?” he nodded at the preachers talking amongst themselves. “This is discipleship.” We didn’t come to tell them what to do or how to do it. Our goal was simple: help them mature, grow, and take steps toward becoming self-supporting, self-propagating, and self-governing churches.
This wasn’t the kind of work that would get “ooh’s” and “ahh’s” in a mission report back home. But watching them laugh over the never ending supply of chai and conversation, I knew something much deeper was happening in Nyansakia. The dim battery-powered light bulb swayed from the ceiling. And I dozed off to the flickering image of a 12-year-old boy with a machete.
Today was our last day in Nyansakia. It felt strange to say goodbye to all this, forever leaving it behind in mountains and maize fields. We walked to worship and Chad preached for 2 hours. They followed the lesson with a 2 1/2 hour service. After exceeding the four-hour mark, I resolved to never complain again when the preacher at my home congregation went over.
Everyone else showed no signs of fatigue. Even the kids were well-behaved. I saw one kid on his stomach, lying on the wooden bench. He kept spitting into the dirt floor, mixing saliva and clay with his finger. My best guess was the Sunday school teacher taught about Jesus healing the blind man’s eyes with spit and mud. Next, with an air of artistic thoughtfulness, he painted the side of the bench. Finger and brush became one, combining the elements of clay, spit, and wood with magnificent strokes.
At one point, Chad leaned over and asked if I was okay. I affirmed with a questioning eye.
“You’re not saying anything.”
As I shook my head in confusion, he muttered, “It’s worship. You should be talking.” I almost laughed out loud, but if I did, it wouldn’t have mattered. Everyone was talking. Except for the reclining artist.
After services, I walked down the path through the field of tea. Another Kenyan was accompanying me back to the main road to meet our taxi driver. He asked if I was coming back.
“Hmm. I would,” pausing for extra effect, “to see you.”
He shrieked with laughter. Once you understood their humor, it was as entertaining to watch them laugh as it was for them to laugh at what you said. We talked for a while before he grasped my hand in his with an air of childlike cheerfulness.
For the past two weeks, I had been as accommodating as possible. “Flexible, nimble, and adaptable,” as Dale would say — the three most important attributes for a missionary. But this was too much. I released, waited, and then sighed with relief. He continued talking with rapidity, not noticing the few seconds of agonizing awkwardness.
Chad and I left Nysankia to spend one more night at Itibo. Despite the rugged facilities, awkward situations, and cultural differences, it was sad watching the village disappear into the trailing dust. Even Chad looked out the window without a word. Yes, I missed flushing toilets, hot showers, and the internet. But what would replace this tangible feeling of making a difference in the lives around me?
Monday morning arrived and we all packed into the van, speeding along in typical figure-eight patterns around potholes and oncoming traffic. I discovered if I angled my body the right way and gripped the seat in front of me, the speed bumps wouldn’t send my head crashing into the metal roof. Dale sat beside me in the back seat, his attempts to not crash proving to be unsuccessful.
“What do you wish people back in the States understood about mission work?” I asked Dale. “If there was only one thing you could tell them, what would it be?” “What I would say,” Dale answered after thinking for a moment, “is they would learn if they would come. Get ‘em here and then they’ll understand.”
What had I learned? This trip had transformed my entire perspective about the church, missions, and discipleship. But for the entire two weeks here, the question was still weighing on my mind.
Why did I come? What was my true motive?
Later in the conversation, Dale said in passing, “I would be fine if no one knew who I was.” His primary work was in the Philippines, and if he could live and work there till his dying day, he said he would. What a strange sentiment, clashing with the culture of “I am known and liked, therefore I am.” The idea of fading into obscurity in a third world country would be some people’s worst nightmare.
In the Kisumu airport, I scrolled through my photos. Yes, my Instagram would look nicer than usual for the next month. Yes, I would have cool stories everyone would want to hear. For a while. But I knew nothing I shared, captured, or wrote could replace the experience of going. Why I had gone was still lost to me.
Getting off the plane in Nairobi, my stomach churned. “One flight in, four more flights and 30 more hours to go,” I repeated to myself. As we walked outside to get lunch, I stopped by a fire hydrant and threw up my breakfast of peanut butter and bananas. Chad said my face looked as shocked as they felt. At least I had an extra pair of dirty pants.
Four hours later, I had thrown up three times in two different bathrooms and once in a hallway garbage can. I croaked to Chad this was what I got for saying the day before, “I can’t believe I haven’t got sick yet!” He grimaced, giving me another clay capsule to soak up whatever remained in my stomach.
As we taxied off the runway, I surprised myself by filling a barf bag half full. Even more astonishing, the paper bag never leaked. I offered a prayer of gratitude for whoever designed barf bags. One last embrace of the toilet and I crashed in exhaustion.
“Feeling better?” everyone asked. We were waiting for our luggage, New York City’s skyline rising out the window before us. Prior to leaving, I prayed to God that He would keep me healthy in Africa and once I returned home. But I forgot to mention the air time. I became sick the moment we landed in Nairobi and felt better the moment we landed back in the States.
Who says God doesn’t have a sense of irony?
We parted ways and I walked alone to the terminal for home. After claiming one of the last remaining seats left, I plugged my ears with music to decompress. How was I going to explain this experience when I returned? How would I even come close to giving justice to these missionaries? They would be more than happy to use their fleeting life in a third world country for the gospel, A sacrifice even I’m not sure I would be ready for.
But a sacrifice was waiting for me back home. In fact, it had been waiting a long time for me to open my eyes and acknowledge its presence. Would I invest my time building relationships and connecting others to the gospel — without caring if anyone ever saw or admired?
Shaking my head, I realized it took traveling to Kenya to learn what I was meant to be doing back home all along. It took a crazy, 2-week adventure to change my heart.
I took my earplugs out.