Below is a copy of my daughter’s account of the service trip she took last summer to teach in the Christian Science Sunrise of Africa School in Nairobi, Kenya. She wrote this at Thanksgiving time in deep appreciation for her myriad church sponsors who donated in varying amounts to make this experience possible. She has given me permission to share it with you here:
Thank you so much for sponsoring me to teach in the Sunrise of Africa School last summer in Kenya. Between all of you, the need was exactly met within five dollars or so- what a wonderful demonstration! As I went to Kenya, I could feel your prayerful support behind me and your unconditional love uplifting me. Throughout the whole process God was guiding me, and your prayers were supporting me.
Africa needs Christian Science, and Kenya is more than ripe for it. Christian Science is at work in Kenya in a very beautiful way. There are still problems to be overcome, but there is definite hope. If Science and Health can be translated into Kiswahili, Christian Science will take off like wildfire.
A lot of what I did in Kenya was to quietly watch, work, and pray. I went about my daily business as a school teacher and among my host family and did my best to lead by example: to learn more about Christian Science, put it into practice, and let them see the results. Everything was completely harmonious while I was there and in every situation I turned to prayer (which interestingly enough, ended up bringing the people who saw me in those situations into Christian Science). I also brought a bunch of Christian Science literature with me for them to enjoy and they were very grateful.
Below is an account of my time in Kenya: a snippet of my experience I wanted to share with you all. It includes descriptions of how Kenyans live (and how I lived), what teaching involved, more about the church services, and my spiritual growth and testimonies. I hope you enjoy it. At the bottom, are several links to my mother’s blog where you can see pictures from my trip. Thank you again for your generosity in making this possible!
I walked off the plane into a completely different place. The air smelled heavier, and the colors of advertisements in the airport were no longer following a modern cool color scheme. Instead, everything was yellow, red, and blue with sans serif font that was very basic. The baggage claim was open-aired and under a roof. I filled out the customs sheets and progressed very fast through the line to the customs agent. He greeted me with a smile and a thick Kenyan accent. When he asked me what my purpose of travel in Kenya was and I told him, he was shocked I was traveling by myself. I had to agree: what kind of person would travel to Kenya by themselves to stay with people she barely knew so she could teach in a school with students she had never met? Early Castor, apparently, which is what the Kenyan agent mistook my name for on my passport, and which he put on my visa for my whole stay.
After customs, I got my luggage and loaded it on the equivalent of the ‘smartecarte’, which was free to everyone in Kenya and I steered it towards where Thomas, the director of the Sunrise Schools, who I’d met briefly in New York City a year before, would be waiting. I recognized him and felt immediately welcomed. He took my luggage for me and we made our way outside.
It was dark except for the football field floodlights around the airport parking lot. The airport was fairly small compared to JFK or Boston Logan. For all I knew, this one parking lot serviced the entire airport. Past the boundary where lights shone on the lot, it was dark. Unlike America, where light pollution runs riot, there were no lights in the distance and as we drove off Thomas gestured to the right where Nairobi National Park was and I pictured the lions prowling in the night, somewhere beneath the beautiful star-strewn sky. As we drove more below the equator, constellations I had seen in pictures began to appear: the southern cross, the southern triangle, etc, while old and familiar ones hovered at the horizon before going out of sight.
It was strange being in the car that night: I was awake from my 12 hour nap on the plane but still tired from my 23 hour flight. There was a boy in the backseat Thomas said was about nine. His name was Immanuel, and I figured out later on that he was one of Thomas’ eight children. He wanted to come to see the airplanes and Thomas had lovingly obliged him. They taught me my first Kiswahili words: “boda boda” was a motorcycle which I could pay 50 shillings to take me anywhere I wanted, and “matatu” was a 14 seater van which was the form of public transportation which I could take anywhere I wanted. Matatu, drivers, Thomas told me as one cut us on the road, drove crazily.
The roads were poor and not all paved. There were hundreds of detours, some of them taking us down very rough roads where we had to creep along at 2 or 3 kilometers an hour and aim the wheels just perfectly to get through the caked mud mountains. We saw people sitting by the road, clothed in rags and holding sticks, probably to defend themselves from highwaymen. Every now and then we would see a roadblock: a wooden bar with very dangerous spikes sticking up and we passed through several “security checkpoints” (which didn’t look very secure, though the men in them looked terrifying) where we had to wait for a bar (much like those at tollbooths on bridges and major highways) to be raised and lowered manually.
We finally made it to the house which was in a relatively nice neighborhood in the new town of Kitengela. Thomas and his family had only moved there a month before from Waithaka which is a more rural area and the location of the original Sunrise School. In their new house, they were about a ten minute walk from the other Sunrise of Africa school.
Pulling up to their shared compound, we had to pass through two sets of heavy, solid, turquoise, cast iron gates. I was half expecting Thomas to pull a remote out of the glove compartment and open the gates that way, then realized I was in Kenya, and things were different here. We passed through the compound to their house, where all the lights in the house were on in expectation of my arrival. I stood stock still for a moment as it hit me: I was in Africa now.
Thomas had told me on the car ride to the house that he was my king and father now. I wasn’t quite sure how to take this comment, seeing as I’ve always been extremely independent, and especially after a year of living away from home, I wasn’t used to having to answer to anyone but myself and God.
I had a new family, a Kenyan one, he said with a smile, and I would be safe while I was here. Great, I thought. Family and safety. Not exactly what I was going for when I decided to come to Kenya. But if it was part of the experience, I was in for it. He offered to take me wherever I wanted and had plans to get me a cell phone, take me out for American food, see me feed the giraffes, and take me to see the elephant orphanage. When I borrowed his cell phone (which, incidentally had Mary Baker Eddy’s portrait as his wallpaper) to call my mother, he greeted her with great affection. I got the sense that he now considered her family as well, and he told me that when his children are in America, she is their mother.
My new family consisted of Thomas, his wife Janet, and his eight children. Thomas used to be in the Kenyan Air Force until he got sick, found Christian Science, and was immediately healed. He is now a Christian Science Practitioner and founded the Sunrise School of Africa Christian Science School in 2004.
Thomas’ wife, Janet, is a teacher in a technical school for the deaf and dumb in Karen (the town in Out of Africa). She teaches 6 or 7 business classes a day in sign language.
The two of them had eight children: Beryl, Beverly, Babra, Brian, Bishoppe, Gift, Immanuel, and Angel. Beryl and Beverly were no longer at home, and Brian and Bishoppe were at school in the United States. Babra is currently a junior in college at Principia College in Elsah, Illinois and is a Christian Science Nurse. She had taken the last quarter off so she could come back to Kenya for an extended period of time. She was enjoying eating Kenyan food and was able to empathize with me over cultural differences. She was always loving and insightful. We spent a lot of time together in matatus traveling all over the Nairobi area between the two Sunrise Schools and decided on the first day that we were actually twins, despite our five year age difference and our opposite complexions. In the absence of her older siblings, Babra had taken on the role of the “firstborn”, which means that she takes the foremost role in making sure her younger siblings do the cooking and cleaning properly. If her parents aren’t around, she would punish them on the spot for their wrongdoing so as to not let the infraction occur again.
Immanuel and Gift were both in class six, which corresponds to sixth grade. Gift was 11 or 12 and did much of the cooking and cleaning around the house. The idea here was that all her older sisters had done it before her and it was her turn to be put to work and learn essential household skills. Immanuel didn’t ever do any cooking or cleaning as a boy. Instead, he played around, surprising his younger sister Angel who was easily startled, fed his parrot, tooled around on the recorder. He was a total sweetheart and a good student.
When the youngest child, Angel was older, she would be expected to take over the household duties from Gift, but during my visit Angel was still considered by the family to be a baby. She was five and very energetic and playful. She still had her pacifier (which was called a dummy in Kenya) in her mouth constantly and it could not be taken from her. She ran crazily about the house and picked me flowers from the garden. Thomas called her the Margaret Thatcher of the house.
Also staying in the house was Valentine, a cousin about Immanuel and Gift’s age but three years behind them in school. She was given to the family by her father as someone to help with Angel, but Thomas was outraged that she had never been to school, and he sent her to school instead. Then there was Selah, who was the daughter of a man Janet worked with. Janet was helping her out, and in return, Selah helped out around the house with the cooking and the cleaning.
While I was there, a young woman named Sharleen was staying at the house also as a volunteer at Sunrise. She was Kenyan and had gone through college in Kenya before teaching at a high school for several years. She had decided to go to graduate school in America and was volunteering at Sunrise for several months before her departure. She had found Christian Science through a friend who brought her to church. Upon reading a copy of Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures by Mary Baker Eddy, she was instantaneously healed of a childhood disease that had perpetually plagued her.
The entire household while I was in Kenya consisted of 10 people. We slept on double beds which were bunked on top of each other. For mattresses, giant foam pads were used. This meant that every night we had to change our sleeping orientation to keep the mattress useable. When the foam pad failed, paper would be stuffed into the mattress case to make it a little firmer. When I was at home, I would often sit out with the wet laundry flapping in my face while I wrote in my journal. The sun and the wind felt good and it was away from the TV and bright electric lights of indoors.
The toilets in the house had bowls and seats like any normal American toilet, but the tank was high up on the wall, and you pulled a chain to make it flush. There was no such thing as a toilet paper dispenser that I saw anywhere in Kenya: the toilet paper was kept bare on the top of the toilet tank, so while you were going to the bathroom you had to reach up behind you and grab it without looking. Public toilets were not anywhere near as nice: Kenyans in general were much more willing to give up the seat of a toilet than the flushability of a toilet. Most of the time, the toilet bowl would be embedded in cement and you would have to squat over the hole before you could use the luxury of the flush. In some more rural parts of Kenya, it was just a hole and no flush.
Like most Kenyan houses I visited, the house had a TV that was almost always turned on, even when there was no one in the room. The TV content consisted of a bunch of Nigerian Movies (Kenyans always said that the Nigerians were the best actors, but these seemed to me like really bad soap operas) and Kenyan Music Videos. Valentine, Selah, or Gift served meals in the living room and would bring around a bowl and pitcher of warm water for us to wash our hands before we ate.
Most of the cooking was done outside on the back porch where there was a cast iron charcoal brazier. Come nighttime, the entire family would hang out on this back porch, helping to make dinner, or would be in the living room watching TV.
Kenyan food consisted of a lot of maize (a type of corn), rice, beans, and African vegetables, of which there were about 30 or 40, the most common of which were kale and pumpkin leaves. The staple of the Kenyan life is called ugali. Ugali is made by pouring maize flour into boiling water and then stirring it until it arrives at a thick, dough-like, porridge/mashed potatoes/cornbread consistency. It has a very distinctive odor and is white. Ugali is served with almost any side-vegetable, and you take it in your hand, knead it into a little ball, make a dent, and then use it as a spoon to scoop up your African vegetables.
Rice and beans were also a common meal, and boiled cabbage was often served as well. We had a little bit of meat most nights: often it was chicken (kuku in Kiswahili), or beef, but sometimes rabbit was served. I typically stayed away from the meat because I found it disturbing to gnaw on the bones and suck them clean as other Kenyans did, and when I did eat meat, they teased me about my methods.
Tea was taken almost religiously, every single day. I honestly would not be surprised if some Kenyans had 15 cups a day. It was always offered to me in the morning before I went to school, then there was a break for tea at about 11:30 during the school day (lunch was at 1:30 or 2, depending). Because I was teaching, they would often bring me bread and BlueBand along with my tea. (Blueband is the Kenyan brand of margarine.) Sometimes, they would even fry me an egg.
The tea was black, and served with milk and sugar already added. At first I refused to drink the tea at all since I don’t normally drink caffeine, but everywhere I turned, people were offering me tea out of hospitality and love. And when I refused it, they had a hard time understanding. For them, tea was the most important thing in the world. Finally, I compromised and had “strong tea” which was just black tea with sugar, because I would rather they didn’t worry endlessly about my not drinking tea.
Most Kenyans I met thought I was much older than I was because I was so tall. To them, I looked like I must at least be 23 if not older. Eighteen year olds, in their experience, were less mature, and much smaller. From my standpoint as an American, it seemed as if lack of nutrition caused them to grow slower. Everywhere I went, they commented on how big I was, once they discovered my age. But the Kenyans I met also loved to brag about how far they could walk and how Americans couldn’t walk three feet without needing a car. Americans, from their perspective, weren’t strong like Kenyans. Everywhere I went, they would heap ugali, kale, and, when bread was served, blueband, on my plate and tell me to “eat up and become strong”. This stark contrast in approaches towards me (I was tall and strong but I was weak because I didn’t eat Kenyan food) was especially humorous in one conversation where a woman I was talking to contradicted herself three or four times in a row without noticing.
FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL
Upon arrival, I spent a day getting used to the house, and the food, and the family. It would take a week or two until I figured out everyone’s place in the household, and who was part of the blood family and who wasn’t. For my first day of teaching school, I went with Thomas, Janet, and Babra at four in the morning to Nairobi. We had breakfast about six o’ clock at a fast food place, where I discovered that I could buy straight mango juice for 40 shillings (I was very happy with this discovery and made full use of it). The only problem with the mango juice (and many of the sodas in Kenya) is that they were in glass bottles which the store selling the drink had to give back to the bottling company in order to get more of whatever drink. So the mango juice bottle I was drinking from had probably been used 100 times before and had just been put through hot gas to clean it. The sausages were delicious and had probably been made right down the street.
After our breakfast, we went to the Sunrise School Waithaka campus. Waithaka is in West Nairobi. Up until a month before my arrival, Thomas and his family had lived there. Everything was lush and green- there were banana trees and avacado trees and guava trees everywhere. The ‘driveway’ to the school was impassable by car. It had rained recently and it was so muddy that after we got to the school we had to sponge down our pants and feet.
The school buildings were made of tin and were grouped together in a circle around a courtyard of mud, branches, fist-sized rocks which had probably been placed down to make the mud more manageable. We were directed into the office where we met Cyrus, the headmaster of the school; Gabriel, the deputy headmaster, and Nicholas, the accountant. Gabriel almost immediately asked me what I wanted to teach and I told him English.
In the meantime, while I was waiting for my English class, I went to the market with Babra’s cousin Jackson to get tomatoes for lunch. On our way, we explored through a field of maize and found a wooden bridge built with sticks. The land was lush and beautiful. When we came back with the food, and it still wasn’t time for me to teach, I went with Jackson and the school van driver, Tosh to a swamp where we washed the van and I was handed six guavas straight off a tree. An elderly African woman saw I didn’t have boots and threw her hatchet into the grass, went into her house, and brought me a pair of hers. I was able to borrow them and clean the van- it was completely caked with mud.
After I got back from cleaning the van, it was time for me to teach. As I was led into the classroom I paused for a moment and thought to myself that God was already in the classroom. Reassured, I walked into the room, the children all stood up. “Good afternoon,” I said.
“Good afternoon…” they said, trailing off, having already forgotten my name from when I was introduced to them all earlier.
“Do any of you remember my name?” I asked. Most of them shook their heads but one brave girl at the back remembered. “Tcha Viarjeanea!” (Tcha is how they say teacher, and all teachers are called Teacher –insert name here-, rather than Mr. or Ms.)
“Yes,” I replied with a smile. “How are you?”
“Fine, thank you, Teacher Virginia,” they replied in unison.
Teacher Virginia. The immensity of what I was doing struck me but I calmly collected a piece of chalk from the box I had been given and started peppering them with questions about the English names for family members. From that moment on, I was always teaching when I was at school.
The teacher’s ritual upon entering the classroom mentioned above turned out to be very important for the students. It was one of their chances to interact using the very basics of the English language. Many of the students at Sunrise were coming to the school for the first time and had never been exposed to English before. Saying good morning and good afternoon and inquiring into the state of their being was very important and all the English some children on the streets knew. It was also a respect thing: it showed them that I respected them and showed me that they were ready to learn.
The first day at Waithaka was one of four times I taught English while I was in Kenya, which is strange, because I thought that would be what I was best at teaching. Instead, I ended up teaching mostly math and science to Class 4, 5, and 6 (fourth, fifth, and sixth grade). I gained a greater appreciation of math as a universal language and something that could be explained using clear logic. Math, it seemed to me, was a fundamental human concept that transcended tribal languages, Kiswahili, and English. It crossed all borders. Two plus two will always equal four, and if you explain this concept to children in enough different ways, they will see it for themselves. I didn’t need to be a Kenyan to teach this subject. Science was the same way for me, but that didn’t stop me from using examples from their culture in my teaching.
I spent most of my time teaching at the school at Kitengela since that was nearer the house and I found it difficult to get up at four in the morning to go to Nairobi with Thomas. The sunrise school at Kitengela was much newer and built out of cinderblock instead of tin sheets. It was growing daily by leaps and bounds. There was a different air at Kitengela: Christian Science was new in the area and people were just getting into it. Students were new to school and were just getting used to that. Administration was new and was just getting its feet wet. Because of all of this, I had a lot to offer. I taught two or three classes with class 4, 5, and 6 each day and helped in the baby class, nursery, and pre-unit (kindergarten) when I wasn’t teaching, working with students individually, or grading homework. Desperate for some form of musical expression, and having lost my flute on my way to Kenya, I taught myself the recorder. I would sit in the office during meals and play hymns. Once I got good enough and taught myself four or five key signatures, I decided to help teach the children music.
Though there is a lot of it, music isn’t very favorably looked on in Kenya- musicians are considered poor people and as an industry it doesn’t come even partway near the popularity and hype that is present in America. Even if a Kenyan were to learn music, it would probably be the drums or the guitar or something of that sort. For my students, learning the recorder was hard. They had a very difficult time even thinking about learning the instrument, but we gradually overcame their fear, and every week, more and more people joined the class, so much so that we had to share recorders and split up the class; I would take half of it and the original music teacher would take half of it. Seeing the joy on their faces as they conquered their fears and played hot cross buns right for the first time was uplifting and exciting.
Assignments were given in very small, stapled together notebooks. The students shared the textbooks and copied down their homework into their notebooks which were then turned in on my desk in the office the next morning. When they had different teachers teaching them Math with one teacher covering time and another teaching them decimals, they would put the homework from one teacher at the front of the notebook and the homework from the other at the back of the book. Sometimes this got very confusing when I couldn’t find where they had chosen to squeeze in their homework. In the younger classes, the teachers had to write exercises in the exercise books because the children were too young. The baby class got hand drawn and custom-tailored exercises like counting dots, tracing numbers, and coloring letters drawn in their books by us. The nursery class was given alphabet and addition exercises, while the pre-unit class was given copying and addition and subtraction. Giving out worksheets in this manner was very different for me than copying off reams of coloring pages and worksheets which I had done as a kindergarten teacher’s assistant in America. The assignments we gave were tailored to the individual child. You could see the progress of the children who had been there longer.
STUDENTS AND FELLOW TEACHERS
All of my students were very inquisitive and eager to learn. Some hid it well, but I did my best to overcome that by using many examples they could relate to. When teaching comparatives and superlatives, for example, I asked who the tallest person in the class was. Her name was Joan. I then told the class that the shortest person in the class was not as tall as Joan. Continuing on, I used examples like the hair of the person not paying attention, the color of the floor, or the height of a giraffe. The more examples I gave and the clearer I spoke, the more they understood.
The Masai tribe traditionally owned the land around Nairobi, and they were notorious for their obsession with their cattle. According to those from other tribes, the Masai aren’t very bright because they don’t realize that they should sell their cattle in the dry season for meat, save the money the government would pay them, and buy even more cows in the wet season. Instead, they hang onto their cows and their cows die. The children are raised to be brave so much so that the young boys are expected to be able to kill a lion if one threatens the cattle. Most of Masai children are not in school. While I was at Sunrise, the head teacher visited Masai territory and saw children milling around with nothing to do. Even though the parents had no money to pay for their children’s education, he told them to bring the children to school the next day and Thomas awarded them a full scholarship. When the children came, their older sister Elizabeth came also as a teacher to help fill the gap in the pre-unit class (kindergarten).
Even though the Masai children were 7 to 10 years of age, they were stuck in the baby class with 2 and 3 year olds because they didn’t know English or Kiswahili. In Kenya, it is the grandparent’s job to speak Mother Tongue (the tribal language, whatever it is) to the young child, the parent’s job to speak Kiswahili to the young child, and the teacher’s job to speak English to the young child. Then there is the Sheng language they speak with their peers which is a mixture of all three elements. Imagine having to know four languages, just to go to school!
When I commented to Marilyn, the baby class teacher about the Masai children, she waved off my concern. “They’ll know English and Kiswahili within three months, just from interacting with the other children,” she told me.
During meals, I would often sit with the other teachers outside. We would usually sit under a scrawny tree, by the slide. There would always be seven or eight (sometimes more) children climbing up the ladder to the slide at once, and even more trying to climb up from the bottom. The Masai children had never been down a slide before and didn’t realize they needed to bend their legs at the bottom of the slide. Instead, they went flying through the air, only to plop on the ground. Grinning, they would get up and push their way back through the line to the top of the slide, only to plop once more. It took them five or six tries before they realized why they were getting much farther past the slide than everyone else.
The other teachers were very kind but usually spoke in Kiswahili to each other, even when I was around. While this was a little annoying at first, I soon grew to appreciate it as a complete immersion experience. I learned some basic words: how are you (habari), fine (mzuri), come here (kuja happa), go (enda), ok (sawa), and how to formulate very basic sentences. Often I would pick out words from their discussion and be able to figure out what they were talking about.
On the weekends I usually wasn’t teaching school so would go visiting, often with Babra or Sharleen in tow. Visiting other homes was a key part of my stay, for other people’s houses were very different from Thomas’. I visited Sharleen’s mother in Eastleigh (pronounced EEsely) on the other side of Nairobi. Her name was Jacqueline. Jacqueline was very poor but she greeted me with open arms. As she put it to me, she views greeting guests into her home as greeting the Christ. She trusts fully that God will provide for her in return. She was delighted to know me and to have an American connection. She told me that she was my Kenyan mother while I was in Kenya and that when Sharleen was in America my mother was her mother.
Jacqueline lived in a very small, two room apartment with a washroom. One room was the bedroom and it had a bunk bed, and the other room was a sitting room with a propane tank and burner, as well as a small sink on the side. In typical African fashion, she had beautiful white embroidered cloths over all the furniture and on the walls. They kept all the dishes in a standard Kenyan dish cabinet/TV cabinet. It was made out of nice wood, and the dishes all went in cabinets around where the TV sat. The apartment was on the fourth floor of a building that was solid cement and very dark inside. The stairs going up were not lit at night, and we had to use the built in flashlight on Sharleen’s phone to safely navigate them. While Jacqueline was cooking dinner, she refused to let me help. The first time a guest came over, she told me, they were not put to work at all. The second time they came over, traditionally they would be sent to work on the shamba (family vegetable garden). After that, they might as well be part of the family. But she didn’t have a shamba since she was living in the city, so when I came again I would help her cook.
So instead of cooking, Sharleen and I wandered up to the roof of the apartment building where we looked at the vibrant stars and we met one of her friends. He was a well-educated Muslim who worked as a teacher. When he heard that I was American, he asked, “How is our son, Barack Obama?” This was not unusual: Kenyans are obsessed with Obama, and rightly so. It isn’t just any country you can immigrate to and have your son become the president.
Sharleen’s friend was surprised I was in Kenya to teach and that I knew Kiswahili words like mrembo (beautiful). He teased me about my looks: apparently the reason the baby class at Waithaka was terrified of me was because my very blonde hair looked like a lion’s hair. They thought I might be some sort of shape changing lion-girl! To them, it also looked like my skin looked like it had been very badly burned with hot water and I had been left with no color.
Eventually the topic turned around to religion. He told me that he was a Muslim but not a strict one and he asked me if I was “so much into church” like Sharleen. I said yes, and he looked wistfully at us. He told us that he had read the whole Bible but had never found anything strong enough to motivate him to get out of his rut. He sounded like he wanted to become a Christian but didn’t know why. He wanted me to give him my pat argument, but I refused. I didn’t think the true Christian thing was to force one’s religion on others, I said, but rather to be loving, supportive, and tolerant. He positively beamed when I said that and became even more interested in Christian Science and started peppering me with questions. I explained how we effectively rely on prayer for healing and he was hooked. I offered to get him a Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures by Mary Baker Eddy and he rapidly agreed. Sharleen said she would bring it to him next time she came.
Dinner that night was an interesting affair. I realized that I had never been taught properly how to eat at Thomas’ house. They had been too tolerant of my American ways that they never informed me that I was doing it all wrong. That night, I learned how to eat using my fingers and ugali. I learned how to eat “traditional chicken” which was chicken that was allowed to walk around wherever it wanted while it was alive. As a result, it was very tough. Some bites I had to chew for ten minutes! Regardless, it was tasty. Though the fare was simpler than Thomas’ house, Jacqueline explained to me how she thoroughly washed each different type of vegetable, according to its type.
I also had the chance to visit several of the teachers in their homes. One of them, Victoria, had offered to cornrow my hair. I went to her house on a motorbike and met her mother and her young daughter. Her mother greeted me with a “Karibu” (welcome), to which I responded “asante sana” (thank you very much). From that moment, she thought I knew Kiswahili and, while I understood many words, when she switched between Kiswahili to her daughter and her particular Mother Tongue to her granddaughter she was difficult to understand. My hair took six hours to cornrow, even with Victoria and her mother both working on it at the same time. I took tea, bread, eggs, lunch, and almost dinner in the house while they strategized with my hair. They had never seen muzungu (white person) hair, and even then, my hair is very thick. To them, my hair didn’t feel like hair, for their texture was so different!
Christian Science is still very new in Kenya. Because Science and Health isn’t in Kiswahili, many of them have a hard time understanding it. But the faithful persistence of the members of the societies I attended was beautiful and encouraging.
There was a Christian Science Society in each of the Sunrise schools which all the teachers and many of the students attended. We held our services in the class 5 classroom. The reader sat at the teacher’s desk and the society members sat in rows of chairs on Sundays and behind a semicircle of desks on Wednesdays. First readers were not solid but changed every week, based on who was free to mark the books. One Sunday, I walked into the society only to be handed the books and be asked to be the first reader for the day! I also ended up reading for two Wednesday Night Testimony meetings. Thinking back to what Jacqueline had said about all Kenyans being poor, I decided to address that in my readings and selected the story of Elijah and the widow woman, the story of the loaves and the fishes, and several other verses. Afterwards they told me that they were all very helpful and that they found it easier to understand the King James Version of the Bible when I read it like a story.
Often, for the testimony meetings, people would say how grateful they were for God and Christian Science. After they were done sharing their gratitude, they would select a hymn to express their gratitude and we would sing it during the testimony part of the meetings. They loved hymns like “I’m a pilgrim” but were excited to learn new ones. There was no piano or any method of accompaniment. So when I was reading and had selected hymns that they didn’t know, I would sing the first verse instead of reading it and then we would sing it through all together. They always caught on very fast. Hearing them sing the hymns they knew was one of the most beautiful and inspiring experiences. They all naturally found lovely harmonies and sang them with great joy and relish.
Every Monday, all the children came together in one classroom and were taught “Monday School”, that is, Sunday School on a Monday. Here, they learned the Ten Commandments, Beatitudes, stories from the Christian Science Bible Lesson that week, hymns and important things like the difference between gods and God.
While the students and teachers were not necessarily Christian Scientists when they first came to Sunrise, the school was run on Christian Science values and the teachers were expected to become students of Christian Science. Because of the Christian Science underpinnings of the school, it was hugely successful and well known in the community. Everybody wanted to know what Christian Science was and to be part of such a freeing lifestyle. The Kenyan’s determination to understand God was inspiring and deeply moving. I had a lot, I realized, to learn from the Kenyan Christian Scientists because they had to work so hard for what they understood.
KENYA INTO THE FUTURE
As I wrote in my journal at the time, what Kenya needs most is the expression of Divine Mind at work. In my daily work at Sunrise of Africa, I considered expressing intelligence, love, and appreciation for the unique identity of all those I came across to be paramount. Often, people are willing to complain about Africa; they remark upon the lack of work ethic, the corruption in the government, and the dearth of education.
But Kenya has many things in its favor; its lack of a materialistic mindset is refreshing, as is the love and charity with which they welcome others into their homes and families. Their potential for deep and lasting positive change in the world is overwhelming. I was fortunate enough to see this at World Environment Day, which took place in an area which was torn apart by recent post-election intertribal warfare. Where once people were pitted against one another in brutal clashes, now the community banded together to plant 1000 trees and to remove trash deposits in the Nairobi river.
It was an inspirational day: you could feel the presence of Christ dancing joyfully about the loving throng. The youth were ready for a difference; they wanted me to teach them how to plant trees, to rake out trash with them, and to meet all their friends. Tribal barriers were completely broken down as people mingled in love and brotherhood, all centered around making a positive difference to their environment.
Their zeal for their work was extraordinary, but they had no idea how to plant trees. Some of them would have completely buried their trees underground if I hadn’t patiently taught them how to do it properly. I worked with hundreds of families that day as well as Miss Kenya and Miss Ruaraka, riding about the town in the back of a run down pick-up truck with 30 other people. At any moment, I had five children on each arm, latching on to my every word, playing with my hair, helping me shovel, begging me to join their games, and helping me plant a tree.
Towards the end of the day, as a group of us were making our way home, a woman and her young child approached us. The child was deformed from birth and had just had an unsuccessful operation. The woman was begging Miss Kenya and Miss Ruaraka to get them media attention so that the child might get financial assistance for a second operation. People were crowding around the child and the mother was exposing the malady for all to see and take pictures of. My camera was seized out of my hands, and someone began to take pictures with it. I was incensed at the error that was presenting itself to me; I knew that the Christ-atmosphere which was so pervasive throughout the day was the truth about the situation and that anything else was a ludicrous, unfounded lie. How dare error come in and pretend to be something! I immediately deleted the pictures of the child’s malady off of my camera before stepping forward and asking the mother if she had tried Christian Science. She had never heard of it before. I maintained the child as perfect and whole in my thought, and put her on the phone with Thomas, who is a Christian Science practitioner. She talked to him briefly and noticeably calmed down. Meanwhile, I wrote down the title of Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures by Mary Baker Eddy for her, and recommended that she and all those standing around get a copy.
As we pulled away in the pickup truck, Miss Kenya’s brother turned to me and asked me what “the man” would do. “Pray,” I answered quietly and succinctly, “because that child is innocent, and God loves him. That child can never get outside the care of God and there is no way he can ever be hurt.” Miss Kenya’s brother nodded and agreed. I spent the rest of the way home affirming in my mind that there was nothing other than the perfect child of God, stainless and pure. Nothing could affect this child’s pure identity. I looked over next to me in the public transit, and there was another child, whole and healthy, sitting on his father’s lap. I reveled in this child’s purity. It was almost as if God was telling me that He was on the case. Later, I learned that the mother had called Thomas back and that the child was currently undergoing Christian Science treatment.
At the end of the day, I turned to the Kenyan who had been accompanying me and told him how wonderful the entire experience was. He was new in Christian Science, he said, but he knew one thing: the harmony present in Ruaraka and the peace-filled atmosphere was entirely dependent upon the work of Christian Scientists. Kenya needs Christian Science, he told me, and the peace and unity I saw displayed everywhere was a natural outpouring of Truth.
SPIRITUAL GROWTH AND ACTIVITY
While I was in Kenya, I had the wonderful opportunity to talk to Thomas, the director of the Sunrise Schools and my host, about Christian Science. I learned so much from his humility and quiet leadership, from his unflagging devotion to his wife and eight children, and from his hospitality and understanding of where I was coming from. As if getting up at four in the morning to drive his wife to Karen (just outside of Nairobi) where she taught at a college for the deaf and dumb wasn’t enough along with his busy Christian Science practice and running two schools, he still found time to take me out for French fries and long drives into the country after I was done with teaching at the school for the day.
We would talk about anything and everything. He shared with me his busy life and we bonded over our mutual dislike of endless Kenyan TV. We were kindred spirits.
“Tell me, Virginia,” he told me one day, “what are your questions about Christian Science?”
I replied that I wasn’t quite sure about the relationship between man and man. This was a topic that had so troubled me that I had written my freshman essay on it at St. John’s… and had come out with no more clarity than I had started with but only more questions. I had wondered that if a relationship to God was so important, why waste time trying to relate to each individual while also perpetually seeming to need human interaction. These two components of my behavior didn’t seem to match up in any way.
Thomas explained quietly and succinctly that it is necessary to understand man as the infinite expression of God and nothing else. Because God is infinite, he needs an infinite expression of Himself (the Christ), and we all express the infinitude of Christ in different ways. Suddenly, it all made sense to me. As I wrote in my journal later, There is one man. The Christ, or the expression of God. We all express the Christ consciousness which makes us one with each other as a drop of water is one with the ocean. There is only harmony and unity (a whole can’t do anything but agree with itself, otherwise it is not a whole). There is no lack of communication between God’s thoughts—they are all created by the same one Divine Thinker. What a relief to know that when I interact with a person, I’m interacting with an expression of God that is integral to creation!
Another thing we talked a lot about was how to see things spiritually. Just like you see people spiritually, everything should be seen spiritually. This topic came up because Thomas showed me a book in which was collected many of the letters and things Mrs. Eddy gave to her students. One sentence in there struck me: “Do not see things”. I was puzzled. What was I supposed to see when I opened my eyes?
“Qualities and ideas,” he told me, in response to my unvoiced question. “See the light of Truth and inspiration”. Even though I knew in Christian Science that matter isn’t real, I had never turned things into thoughts in my daily experience.
“I do a lot of watching,” Thomas told me in his gentle way. Watching, I thought. I had never understood what it meant to watch but Mrs. Eddy includes that among working and praying as the three most important things in the world to do. I realized that turning things into thoughts was part of that watching and that it was something that needed to be done all the time.
PUTTING IT INTO PRACTICE
I soon had the chance to put this newfound sense of harmony into practice. On my way to Kenya, I had ended up helping a single Muslim mother of four through the airport. We had a frenzied layover in Amsterdam; not only did we have to trek across the entire airport, but we also had to get the family’s boarding passes for the next flight. The mother was clearly not used to doing anything for herself, and her children had no respect for her because she had no respect for herself. I ended up playing the role of male guardian and ensured we all got onto our flight, but in the process of getting the family boarding passes, I accidentally left my flute which I was carrying in the airport. By the time I realized I didn’t have it, we were landing in Nairobi
The flight attendants suggested I contact the airport’s lost and found department, and, upon arrival in Kenya, I tried to do so for several weeks. The phone number didn’t work and neither did the email. Finally, it came to me to look on the website again. I ended up filling out a form, and when it asked me where I had left the flute, I put down the gate number God told me too. I knew that my flute was in God’s hands, and I could not be harmed for wanting to help the Muslim family. A week later, I received an email from the Amsterdam airport. They had my flute, and I could pick it up on my way through Amsterdam coming home.
On my return journey, I had a very tight window in which I had to catch a connection and pick up my flute. Sitting at my gate, however, time passed far beyond the listed departure time, and no one had announced anything. Finally, a flight attendant came out and told the gate that the flight to Amsterdam would be delayed by two hours. This meant that I would not be able to pick up my flute (since the lost and found closed at a certain time), and additionally, I would miss my connection.
Upon this pronouncement, you could feel the fear go through the room. Immediately, I calmed my thought. It was inconceivable for there to be disharmony among God’s creation. I called Thomas to let him know what was going on, and he said he would think of me. The second I got off the phone, it came to me to go ask the flight attendant at the desk if anything could be done for my connection. As I approached the desk, the flight attendant told me to get on the plane for Amsterdam. Herds of people followed me in shock. They had never, they said, heard of anything like this happening. Whatever problem had been keeping the plane back had instantaneously disappeared, and with the disappearance of it, fear disappeared and people began praising God’s goodness. It was very beautiful to see.
Once on the flight, all worries about my flute disappeared. Things were completely in God’s hands, and I was confident in his power. As I sat down, the announcement came on the loudspeaker—despite our delay of an hour in departure, very good tailwinds had sprung up and we would actually arrive in Amsterdam before we were originally supposed to have left. Moreover, in my hurry to go up to the flight attendant’s desk, I had left the pen I had been writing with in my seat. I had realized that I left it as I approached the desk, but it came to me to move forward. What value did a certain pen have anyways in contrast to the power of God? The pen became a vehicle for continuing demonstration of God’s love: the South African family I had been sitting with was so caring that they searched the entire plane for me, just to give me back my pen.
When I arrived in Amsterdam, I immediately made my way to the baggage claim area where my flute was being kept, where I discovered that I would have to go through customs. Upon talking to a customs officer and mistaking the boarding time on my ticket for the departure time, I began to worry that half an hour wasn’t enough time to get all the way through customs, run to the other side of the airport, get my flute, and make it back in time to board my flight. Closing my eyes quickly in prayer, I asked myself what would be more loving to do; to throw all my cares to the wind and go after my flute or to go to my gate. I realized that my parents in America had no way of knowing if I didn’t get on my flight. They were coming to pick me up at the time that I had told them, so I needed to be there. For the second time that day, I let go of any personal sense of ownership, and headed to my gate.
The gate was deserted when I arrived at it, and, looking at the screen, I discovered that the flight had been switched to a different gate and that the time had changed. I now had an hour to get my flute, and the gate was closer to where I would pick it up. I took off at a run, blonde cornrows flapping behind me and African dress billowing. I was smiling so hard that it looked as if I had become a ray of sunshine and my every thought was praising God.
Once I got back to the customs line, everybody seemed so friendly; I saw Christ standing before me. Without a doubt, I knew that they would let me cut to the front, and they did, even allowing me to use the EU passports only line. The lady at the desk smiled at me and told me to run, and run I did to the other side of the airport where I found the lost in found. No one was there. Knowing that God wouldn’t bring me so far to not succeed, I pressed the intercom, and a man came out. He had my flute, he said, but he needed a fee of five Euros for its return. I asked him if he would take Kenyan Shillings, but he said no. He suggested I make my way upstairs again to an ATM. As I went upstairs, I wasn’t sure if my bank would freeze my card; they didn’t know I was in Amsterdam. As I prayed in front of the machine, the lady standing next to me turned to me and kindly told me that she’d been there too. I realized that she thought I was broke. Realizing the ridiculousness of the whole situation, and leaning completely on God, I was able to withdraw a small amount of cash, get my flute, and make it back to my gate with plenty of time to spare.
For me, my time in Kenya was all about spiritual growth; not only did I grow tremendously, but I was able to help nurture the growth in others. Teaching in the school by day and studying Christian Science with such depth led to me becoming a calmer, less self-centered individual. Living the Christian Science I was growing in uplifted everybody around me and helped me maintain a pure mental atmosphere, ready for treasuring the true identities of my students. By going about my day-to-day activity and acting in accordance with Love, I inspired others to follow in my footsteps.
My students grew by leaps and bounds as they learned new things. They conquered the pesky decimal, learned about water drainage, and even attempted some swing dancing with my guidance. But their learning of these facts was just a sign of the deeper reality; the root of their growth lay in their increased enthusiasm for learning and their willingness to work for it. I am so honored to have been part of this process. Since my return, I have gotten periodic phone calls from my Kenyan students and fellow teachers, telling me how much my presence meant to them and how much I helped them learn.
I am humbly grateful for this opportunity to bless the world and realize that you are equally important in this demonstration of God’s goodness. Together, you showed that one small contribution and constant prayerful thoughts, when compounded across the board, can make a huge impact on the lives of others. Thank you from the bottom of my heart, not only on my own behalf, but on the behalf of the hundreds of Kenyans who asked me to greet my family and friends for them.
Links to pictures of my trip:
Photos of Virginia in Kenya click here
Photos of Sunrise of Africa School click here
Photos of the Kenyan Lifestyle click here