Bathed in Golden Light



“As hard as I have tried to remember the exact moment when I fell in love with God, I cannot do it. My earliest memories are bathed in a kind of golden light that seemed to embrace me as surely as my mother’s arms. The divine presence was strongest outdoors, and most palpable when I was alone.”

Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church


Dreaming of Mandela


My introduction to Africa was as a college student on a study tour to South Africa in 2004. I did my best to understand the complexity of race, economic disparity and a devastating history of apartheid. Nearly a decade later, I still don’t understand it. I continue to feel as uncomfortable in South Africa today as I did as a college student.

Roger Cohen provided a beautiful op-ed in the New York Times, reflecting ironically on the ease he had growing up as a Jew in South Africa, while blacks endured the crippling violence and oppression as victims of apartheid. While Cohen’s family picnicked on Table Mountain, Nelson Mandela spent another day of his 18-year imprisonment on Robben Island (27 years total imprisonment). The juxtaposition of free and oppressed was real, and it was cruel.

We continue to rejoice that apartheid is no more, at least legally. South Africa is still broken today and separation continues to live on – just as it does in every place where there has been a history of violent oppression.

And yet, Nelson Mandela has unified a nation in a way that most people didn’t believe possible. He is a hero, a man who transcended the underbelly of injustice with vision, patience and endurance. He made us believe that we can triumph over the depravity of others, and of ourselves, with love.

We need heroes to call us to our better selves. We need them to remind us that we can love better, that we must love better. I am not ready for a world without Mandela in it. I know none of us are.

“I have been dreaming of Mandela. An old idea: He who touches one human being touches all humanity. I have been murmuring his name: He broke the cycle of conflict by placing the future above the past, humanity above vengeance.

He reminded us of what is most precious in Jewish ethics: What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man — or, as the Mosaic book says many times, you are to treat the stranger well for “you were a stranger in a strange land.” Repair the world. Be a light unto nations.

The truth is we did not deserve him. We could not even imagine him. But, as I learned young in South Africa, the human spirit can avert even inevitable catastrophe.”

- Roger Cohen

A Lost Cause

HIV/AIDS support group in Kitgum, Uganda

HIV/AIDS support group in Kitgum, Uganda

When I was in high school, I was voted most likely to devote my life to a lost cause. I was mildly offended, but ultimately took it as a compliment.

Because sometimes the most important work in the world looks like a lost cause.

Day-in and day-out, a commitment to a person or an ideal can certainly feel like a lost cause, too.

Yesterday, Reuters reported that seven African countries have cut child HIV infections by half.

It’s a remarkable piece of news, and a tell-tale reminder that the fight against HIV/AIDS is not a lost cause. Twenty years ago, we couldn’t have dreamt of such a concept, and now it is within our reach.

In fact, it’s so close that hundreds of thousands of us are committed to live in a world where there will be no baby born with HIV by 2015.

We still have a LONG way to go, but the end of HIV/AIDS is also within the reach of our lifetime.

It’s why we can’t wait.

It’s why we can’t slow down.

It’s why we can’t get distracted by naysayers or by complacency.

It’s why, one community at a time, we walk alongside Africans in their commitment to ending HIV in their home villages.

You can consider it a lost cause if you want. I consider it a cause worth waking up every day to fight for.

Ten Years Later

This week marks the tenth anniversary of the United States’ invasion of Iraq.

I was a junior in college, simply trying to make sense of what was about to ensue. None of us knew what this would mean for our nation, for Iraq, for terrorism, or for the world. As we consider our personal journeys and stories along the way, it is important to remember that much of our own story is deeply impacted by the stories of others – good and bad – the stories of the world that somehow intersect into our own. I couldn’t have known then that both my brother and sister-in-law would be sent to war, and would never be the same, as a result.

The following excerpt is my journal entry from March 18, 2003 – just a day before our nation initiated war in Baghdad.12345678In many ways, life is completely different than it was ten years ago. But in some ways, it’s still the same. How have you seen the world change in the past decade?

Kenya Elections: An Update from the Field



This week, we have a guest post from James about the current elections in Kenya. I posted a bit about this last week, but I wanted James to give us a look into the situation from the perspective of one of Blood:Water Mission’s partner sites in Lwala, Kenya. James is the Executive Director of Lwala Community Alliance.

The Election
The election on Monday was generally peaceful, as I am sure many of you who have been following in the news may know. The results are still coming out, and you can click here for a very good way to keep up with them. If you hover your cursor over individual counties you will see that the results per county are a little troubling. For instance, in the counties near Lwala in the West (our county of Migori, or our neighbors in Homa Bay, Siaya) Raila Odinga took nearly 100% of the vote. In Central Kenya (e.g. Nyandarua and Nyeri), Uhuru Kenyatta is winning nearly 100% of the vote. Overall, it looks like Odinga will lose to Kenyatta, which, of course, is counter to the hopes of the people in and around Lwala. Looking ahead to the certified results, which should come out on Friday or Monday, our immediate worry would be that some people in Migori, Kisii, and Homabay counties will handle this news poorly. Our hope is that they will not respond violently.

It is also possible that Kenyatta will win but take less than 50%, which would lead to a run off with Odinga in April. This looks somewhat unlikely, but we will see by Monday. Imagine though- 99% of your neighbors voted the same way you did and yet your candidate loses. There is at the least a false expectation in our region that Odinga will win. I will try to keep you informed.

Our Safety Precautions
In the meantime, I also want you to know the precautions we have taken as an organization. As a precaution we have evacuated our American staff member Kathy Kemp and our Vanderbilt Nurse Practitioner Kayla Thielk. They have been staying in Mwanza Tanzania and the plan is for them to remain there until results are known. Both are safe, in a pleasant lodge on Lake Victoria, and I have spoken to them several times.

The hospital still continues to provide services, though at a low volume. Some of the Kenyan staff who are not Luo are delaying their return to work until results are out. Local staff are at work now, though schools and local business have mostly been closed this week, which means our education and economic development programs are on pause. We have also had extra security on the Lwala premises since 2 days before the election. We are trying to be prepared for even village level unrest. I am proud of the forethought our team has shown.

Migori County and Basic Commodities
Robert Kasambala our Kenya Program Director reported today: “I travelled this evening to my home in Migori. All the shopping centers and big towns I passed seem to have opened for business. Unlike Tuesday, there were matatus and some buses on the road, hawkers have returned to the streets, and shops/stores were opened. The big surprise/shock is that there are no basic commodities like bread, milk, maize/wheat flour, anything. Food was not on the shelves at the supermarket I visited in Migori. There is no fuel anywhere.”

After a 5 day hold up on our monthly wire transfer, the Kenya side of the organization has money in the bank right now and drugs and some commodities on site but we will be watching this situation closely to make sure we are not surprised by shortages.

The Big Picture
The big blessing so far is that the process has been more fair and democratic than the process was 5 years ago. Our long term worry for the country as a whole is that the election was almost entirely on tribal lines and the new switch to decentralized power at the county level may exasperate this in the future. The likely winners, Uhuru Kenyatta and his running mate William Ruto, are both charged by the International Criminal Court for crimes related to the post election violence in early 2008. A ruling against them by the ICC while they are the sitting leaders of Kenya could be very bad for international aid and to the reputation of Kenya. Even the suspicion they are under now is delegitimizing at best. Overall we pray for continued peace and a smooth transition of power. Carrying out the full implementation of the new constitution in the upcoming months and years will be complicated no matter who is president. It is likely more critical than ever that strong civil society organizations like the Lwala Community Alliance exist at the local level in counties like Migori, Kisii, and Homabay. We will be needed in the days to come. You will be needed in the days to come.

In mission together,

May We


For the hungry and the overfed
May we have enough.

For the mourners and the mockers
May we laugh together.

For the victims and the oppressors
May we share power wisely.

For the peacemakers and the warmongers
May clear truth and stern love lead us into harmony.

For the silenced and the propagandists
May we speak our own words in truth.

For the unemployed and the overworked
May our impress on the earth be kindly and creative.

For the troubled and the sleek
May we live together as wounded healers.

For the homeless and the cosseted
May our homes be simple, warm and welcoming.

For the vibrant and the dying
May we all die to live.

(New Zealand Prayer Book)

A Big Day for Kenya

From left: Presidential candidates Uhuru Kenyatta, James Kiyiapi, Peter Kenneth, Raila Odinga, Mohamed Dida and Martha Karua hold hands while facing the crowd during the National Fasting and Peace prayers at Uhuru Park Nairobi. (via The Daily Nation)

From left: Presidential candidates Uhuru Kenyatta, James Kiyiapi, Peter Kenneth, Raila Odinga, Mohamed Dida and Martha Karua hold hands while facing the crowd during the National Fasting and Peace prayers at Uhuru Park Nairobi. (via The Daily Nation)

This coming Monday is significant for Kenya. They will be hosting their first national election since the tragic post-election violence of 2008. It will also be the first elections held under the new constitution and regional representation structure. The country is confidently optimistic that 2008 will not repeat itself. I don’t know what to believe, but I know Kenya needs our prayers.

As you know from our own country, politics is messy. It makes public all of our individual world views and collides (sometimes awkwardly, sometimes violently) together as we look first, with self-interest, and with whatever is left, with public interest. Politics is dramatic, especially in Africa where checks and balances are sub-par and ethnic tribes drive party affiliation. Oh, and two presidential candidates are wanted from the International Criminal Court with charges of crimes against humanity.

On a rainy night in Lwala, James and I watched the first ever televised presidential debate on NTV with our Kenyan friends. Most of them have been impressed with a young, articulate candidate named Peter Kenneth. They say that he is not from the political families that have dominated Kenya, but has a fresh voice of perspective and leadership. When we asked if they were going to vote for him, they replied, No, we must vote for Raila.

Raila Odinga is Kenya’s current prime minister and is a Luo from the western part of the country – the same region as our friends here in Lwala. Odinga had technically won the 2008 presidential debate, but due to a corrupt system, was not given power (this is what led to the violence). Here, people are convinced that Raila will finally, justly win this time around, and it is their duty to stay loyal to tribe more than ideology. They are already celebrating Raila’s victory.

I prodded a bit more:

But what if Raila loses?

He will not lose.

Okay, but what if someone else wins? Like, what if Kenyatta wins?

(pause) Kenyatta is a criminal. Raila will win.

Just imagine this with me: Kenyatta and Raila are neck to neck, but in the end Raila loses.

(long pause, never having considered it up until asked)
People will become very, very upset. They will likely protest.

And that is why we pray. Not for a specific candidate to win. But for a positive mark in history when a nation’s citizens are empowered with a vote and united in welcoming a necessary transition of power. For peace and for unity. Amen.

The Friday Five: Comfort Foods


I have to admit it. I’ve been needing a break from the basic Kenyan staples of ugali, fried greens, rice, chapati and soda. I will always have gratitude for the hospitality and kindness that comes in the form of these foods, but every now and then I need an escape. Luckily, our guesthouse kitchen is equipped with the equivalent of an easy-bake oven and a Coleman camping stove, which is sufficient for making some American comfort foods while still living in the village.

Here are five comfort foods I have enjoyed making and eating while in Lwala:

1. Pam’s Pancakes

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My colleague, Pamela Crane, made these for me in Rwanda last summer, and they are A-MAZING. Whole wheat flour, oats, bananas, sugar, vanilla, and eggs. They’ve been a guesthouse hit on Sunday mornings.

2. Breakfast Potatoes

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Potatoes and onions from the market. Green peppers from the community garden. Scramble some eggs on the side from the chicken coop outside our door. Yes please.

3. Mango Banana Oat Muffins


These muffins required extra patience due to the rainstorm that knocked the power out, but they were worth the wait. I mixed flour, oats, puréed mango, mashed bananas, baking powder, vanilla, sugar, eggs, oil and milk. And voila – sweet, fluffy muffins.

4. Carrot Cake

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Last week, the garden was producing more carrots than we knew what to do with, so I experimented with making carrot cake. It’s basically flour, sugar, eggs, sugar, some shredded carrots, and then, well, more sugar. And that’s why it tastes so good.

5. Popcorn


My reputation precedes me here, and everywhere I turn, someone has made sure that my popcorn stash is full. Thank goodness! This is Teresa, our head nurse by day and popcorn supplier by night. She made four bins of popcorn for my birthday. It took a couple of days to eat through it, but don’t worry – mission accomplished.

I’m curious, what are your favorite comfort foods?

What Helplessness Sounds Like


I couldn’t sleep last night. I lay awake in my bed on top of the covers with the windows open on a warm night in the village. Tucked beneath the mosquito net, I listened to the bloodcurdling screams of a child in pain. The ward is just a few hundred feet from us, and you don’t have to listen too closely to know what helplessness sounds like.

A two-year-old boy in desperate need of an IV had severe dehydration. It was nearly impossible to find intravenous access on his body. Baby Alfred wailed as multiple attempts were made on his tiny little hands. Eventually, the clinicians succeeded and breathed a sigh of relief, and they moved on to the next patient. Our over-worked and exhausted clinicians served through the night as the hours eked by. Every bed was full. Patients continued to come through the night, whether on the back of a motorcycle as it hastily passed along the dirt path to the hospital doors or on one of the multiple runs of the hospital ambulance.

Earlier in the day, a 25-year-old woman had been found unconscious in her cornfield and was carried nearly lifeless to the hospital. Upon seeing her lab results, one of our Vanderbilt medical students reflected that this woman’s condition was the kind of case that might have come by helicopter and immediately given attention by an entire medical team in the US. But here, there is no such resource, no such protocol, no such expert team.

On most days, the noises here in Lwala are the songs of small triumphs, murmurs of hope through the daily work of transforming this community toward health and healing. But last night, staring into the darkness, through the sounds of rushing vehicles, crying babies, and colleagues shuffling through the dorm to grab juice and bread for the overwhelmed nurses, I could only hear the deep, dark voices in my heart that spoke about defeat and injustice and inadequacy.

The infuriating reality is that there are angels here. In the form of more than a hundred committed Kenyans who are trying to tear away a corner of darkness through clinical care, community health outreach, economic empowerment, nutrition and education – but their limitations, our limitations, are severe. We do what we can with what we have. We often hear the voice that reminds us that it just isn’t enough. Nine children under 5 died here last month alone.

Baby Alfred’s father left the room, and the baby ripped that IV right out. So the nurses tried again and again and again, without success. More deafening screams.

And then the sound of weeping. My own. This is what helplessness sounds like.

For baby Alfred, for the unconscious woman, for the clinical officers, for the nurses, for the community health workers, for the patients on motorcycles, for the parents who worry about the fate of their children, for you, for me, for James, this is the voice that ultimately spoke to me last night:

Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. – Isaiah 43

The waters here are deep and murky. The fire, impassable. And yet, there is a promise given to us here. I yearn to believe it.