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My Experience

I present the following as a summary of nine years (1998 - 2006) mission work in Kenya.

The author is a single Christian lady from a non-denominational Christian fellowship. It is by no means a 'success story', but an attempt to truthfully set forth the struggles, challenges and lessons learnt, all the hard way! (Names are fictitious and events not necessarily in chronological order.)

I went to Kenya at the invitation of a Christian couple from a local church in conjunction with their leaders and the leaders of my home church. I had visited twice before as part of a small team engaged mainly in evangelistic work.

So in January 1998 I found myself in a small town in Western Province and being part of a growing Pentecostal church.

The initial purpose was to help set up a mobile health clinic based at a pharmacy run by folk from the church. I started helping there whilst I applied to the Kenyan nursing council and began to learn Swahili as I initially settled and contended with culture shock. I soon realized that living there was very different to visiting!

I guess, due to my previous church background and teaching, and reading numerous missionary biographies (Mary Slessor and CT Studd being amongst my heroes!) I believed we should live as the locals, alongside them and try as much as possible to try and identify with their way of life, knowing that the life we live as Christians speaks more than the words we say! I was soon to learn that it was not that simple and so many issues began to face me that I tried to grapple with alone!

I lived with a lovely family from the church, had my own room and was made very welcome. I tried my best to fit in with the daily routine of the home. The husband was so kind, he would make special 'chai' (tea) for me ready before I went off to the clinic. I enjoyed learning such domestic skills as lighting and using a coal stove ('jiko'), how to make 'ugali', (the staple maize based food) and even attempting a few steps with a small jerry can of water on my head - much to the amusement of everyone. I soon gave that up - much too difficult.

The house where I lived was in a small compound, next door was where the 'Bishop' lived, so I found my self very much on top of things. He was not slow in expressing to me his financial needs, some thing I found quite shocking and offensive! After about a year I moved into another little house also in the same compound where I had my own space. By that time it was becoming quite clear that my application to join the Kenyan nursing council was a closing door, so I began to wonder what to do. I was also proceeding with a permit application, something which I was to learn was a mine field of corruption requiring an infinite measure of patience and many trips to Nairobi!

I was encouraged to keep up Western standards in my house; buy a fridge, etc. A bicycle I purchased (instead of a four wheel drive - though I did acquire that later) was frowned upon.

I began helping in the newly opened church nursery school, teaching very simple health lessons to the children, how they endured my very broken, faltering Swahili!

It was there from whence a ministry with children started in that I decided to take into my care a very needy and extremely neglected four year old boy. This was done in conjunction with his elderly grandparents and a junior Pastor. For the first time in his life the boy had someone he could call 'Mama', I shall never forget the look of absolute delight on his face when he looked at the simple meal of meat stew and ugali that I presented to him!

I loved being a Mama and wondered where it might lead to ... At this time also I was feeling increasingly claustrophobic living in this small compound right on top of the church leaders. I would be woken up sometimes at five in the morning with the sound of a loud speaker (very loud!) blasting the announcement of church meetings! My complaint was met with, "people should be waking up anyway!"

I think as a reaction to this, I decided to move to a nearby village where we had a branch church, I seemed to get on well with the Pastor there, and he agreed to build me a house, mud but with concrete floors. I trusted him too much, it was quite a big house but I learnt later that he was pocketing a percentage of funds for building materials, and labour. I never got a statement of expenses.

I moved in with 'John', (the four year old boy) during the rainy season, what fun! One side of the house was quite dry so we were severally flooded in the living room. I also developed a very nasty foot infection, so life became suddenly difficult. I had a house help for the first time - to fetch water, wash clothes etc. When I realized that some items of my clothing seem to be diminishing and found them on the washing line of my next door neighbour (where my house help lived), on claiming them as mine, I was accused of stealing from her! I survived in my mud house for six months, I moved back to the town and to the little house that I moved out of, the Lord graciously kept it for me!

By that time I had taken another baby girl, I knew her mother just before she died of Aids, the baby went to live with her Grandmother, but I feared for her life when she got malaria and lost more weight, she was already much too small for her ten months.

So now we were a little family of three and life became more manageable and good. I thoroughly enjoyed the role of Mama and delighted to see how the children developed and grew.

About this time God spoke a Word to my heart from John 12:24, "gather up the fragments that remain that nothing be lost." I took it as meaning that I should gather up the orphaned children that were so numerous everywhere. I pondered it and left it at that. I was also encouraged to receive a prophetic Word from a minister when I visited the UK at around this time, "take this child away and nurse him for me and I will give you your wages," (Exodus 2:9). I happened to share this with a brother from the church who also expressed a similar desire. After consideration I felt it right at the time to join up with this brother and his wife and begin some kind of orphanage work. In retrospect I wish I had heeded that still small voice that was saying, "no!" But I didn't and went ahead. Here began a series of disasters. At this point I will add that hearing the voice of God on the mission field is vitally important, and which very regrettably I failed to do on more than one occasion!

So, we bought a plot (I say "we" but with my money) and began preparations to build a house. In the meanwhile (the space of three years) we moved to the next door compound where I rented one house with two then three,... up to seven children and "Richard" with his wife, two of his own children plus two orphans then gradually up to eight.

Richard was a fairly new Christian and had not lived with his wife for about three years which immediately presented problems; they were just not used to living together plus having me in the middle. I soon realized she was quite suspicious and jealous of me. Friendship with her was hard work especially when I soon discovered she had a habit of not telling the truth!

Anyway, life continued and I tried as much as possible to lower my standard to theirs and they sought to elevate themselves to mine. In retrospect for a time things went really well, on the surface. I was improving in Swahili as Richard was trying to speak English. They were thrilled to have a sofa set for the first time and live in a permanent house! I still had standards and ways that were too "English" - wanting a more variety in diet, a slight obsession with tidiness, wanting to be very "English" in my relating to the children, e.g. showing affection verbally or physically which I discovered was not very African. Simple things like a toddler on your knee, a cuddle, bed time kiss were frowned upon and began to cause tension.

At first Richard was, I believe, sincerely pleased and overjoyed to be able to help these orphaned children, after being so poor, he could hardly believe he was the one helping them! He also had a very gentle way with them and really loved them albeit in a very African way. I was desperate however for him to play with the children, (something that Fathers don't really do), so for my sake he brought himself to play football with the older boys It just so happened that whilst this was going on, the Bishop's wife walked in our compound and told him what bad manners it was! That was the end of that!

Unbeknown to me, after about six months, Richard found himself a second wife! It was obvious that things were very difficult between him and "Ruth." This went on for almost two and a half years until through various means and contacts God revealed the whole thing to us. By this time we had moved into our new orphanage home but the atmosphere in the home was not good. I remember having a clear warning from God that this was not the place of my abode. I moved out of the home and found a flat where I rented in the town. it was hard leaving all the children, but I had to for my own good.

By this time also Richard's heart had started to turned hard towards the children, he was obviously in it just for his own gain. On one of my visits home to the UK, my pastor got an e-mail from the Bishop of the church in Kenya to say that someone had reported to him that I was abusing the children and why was I coming back! (I did return but my relationship with Richard was very strained to say the least!). It was all a plot of Richard's to take over and have the house and compound to himself. What baffled me though was the fact that the Bishop believed these reports! He and Richard are of the same clan, some thing which has strong ties in terms of honour, loyalty, etc. Richard was also very shocked to be found out that his second wife existed! He denied all and even set up his first wife to deny it to the church elders. Maybe this was to honour her husband and partly out of fear!

The church leaders had the task of dismissing Richard and family (I had a sabbatical), they left and took half the contents of the house with them. A couple from the church took over who really are a God send, "Peter" has a real servant heart and really cares for the children, his wife struggles, but is doing a good job.

I hope I am not painting too bleak a picture, all these things were very stressful and I did end up living outside of the orphanage home again but on the whole I came to love the way of life, though lonely and always feeling conspicuous out and about!

I never lost the sense of joy and privilege of one rescuing these poor little souls from such depravity and malnutrition, and two, being there for God.

I enjoyed the simplicity of life, living closer to nature, being part of a community where you felt looked after, "Mzungu wetu" (our European) they used to call me. Getting into a matatu - the public transport, the local conducters used to proudly call out to the others, "Huyu ni Mzungu wetu, Huyu sio Mtali, anajua Kiswahili." (This is our European. She's not a tourist. She speaks Swahili). I enjoyed conversing with the women at the market, being warmly greeted by the Wazee (old people) of the village because I made an effort to learn a little of their mother tongue. I felt accepted. being told, "you're a real missionary, you live like us" was very encouraging and was probably the greatest compliment paid me.

I loved being able to call on folk in their homes and being made welcome without notice. Sitting down and chatting in a relaxed unhurried way in the village houses, sharing a simple meal of ugali and greens or chai and "green" maize. Yet all the time feeling there's a great barrier between you and them with this air of expectancy that at any moment they would breach the subject of their financial needs.

I continued on at the church though relationships were strained. I disagreed with a lot of the teaching, would not participate in fund raising for projects and it was taken for granted that I would personally meet extra expenses for the orphanage. I realized that respect for a woman in Africa is often only verbal. Though I was utterly depended on for the financial running of the home, decisions were sometimes made by the committee without my consultation or knowledge.

There was also disagreement with other issues concerning the education of the children, I felt it inappropriate that they should go to the church school, (in effect private, fee paying and English speaking,) but I was obliged to comply!

I did however value greatly knowing and fellowshipping with some very Godly folk whose zeal and joy of the Lord so challenged and encouraged me, I count it a privilege to have met such who have had a lasting affect on my life.

Strained relationships etc. served to teach me a very valuable lesson on a personal level, to forgive form the heart. The paradox is that although you can feel a million miles away in relating, yet there is an intrusion on one's privacy that we don't know in the West.

I have also learnt to stay clear of any financial dimension in relationships, as a safe way foreword and as the only way to try and teach the Africans the value of trust and true friendship, thus showing the love of God.

In retrospect also, I think the way I reacted to the plight of these children, their orphaned state, physical neglect, malnutrition was in a very western way. I've asked myself the question many times, was it right to take them away from their extended families, did I really have the right to take the responsibility of the care of these children from their grandparents? Was my attitude at being offended at their poverty a right one? Could I have helped more by supporting the relatives to care for them in their own environment?

I wonder if Western style institutions are the way forward to meet need in Africa. Though in our case we tried to make the home as much like a village home as possible, it is not a natural way of life and "family" life is compromised. Other issues present themselves in terms of organization etc.

The fact that I was ignorantly creating unhealthy dependency (by setting up a sponsorship scheme to support the orphanage) is very regrettable. I still have to live with the consequences, one being the sheer frustration of the fact that this dependency seems to blind the local church from seeing their responsibility.

I know I used English far too much in most relationships, and came to realize that Kenyan English has different meanings to ours. "You are part of me" meant, "I'm latching on to you as my donor, come what may"!

I think I also mixed my English side of life too much with the local, instead of keeping the two distinctly separate.

There were times when the feeling of being so vulnerable and alone overwhelmed me and I became increasingly drained. God brought me back home in 2006. The whole experience was hard, enriching and most valuable in all the lessons I learned. I'm so glad we serve a God of second chances, may He grant me a second chance in His will and time.

Julia Pring