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Week 13-2: Obama’s Grandma’s House – Kogelo

Wednesday morning Cosmas and I woke up very early at his sister’s house on the other side of Mfangano Island. We went around and said our goodbyes which take longer than your usual US goodbyes and even longer than your average Kenyan goodbyes. We hopped on a boat and were off…for a 3 hour boat ride to the mainland. Then we walked about 50 ft across the mainland and hopped on another boat to take us to the main-mainland. Apparently our first mainland was a peninsula so it was quicker to take a boat to the main-mainland. It took Cosmas a while to explain that one to me. Once on the main-mainland there was a matatu waiting to take all of the people from the boat. I hid so that Cosmas could find out what the price was without my whiteness making it 3-4 times higher than it usually is. When I did pop up from behind where I was hiding the driver yelled, “Mzungu, come here, come sit in front,” so I did. Cosmas had to sit in the back which made me sad because I was being treated differently because of my skin color, but they assumed they were going to charge me 3-4 times the normal price so the least they could do is give me a front seat. The matatu kept picking up people until the small van was bulging out. At one point we had 5 people standing with the sliding door open outside the van as we went down the road. We had around 20 people in a van made for 9.  Eventually, the driver asked Cosmas for his money. Cosmas paid the man for 2 and pointed at me. Then they started talking in Luo and I hadn’t a clue what they were saying, but I knew it was about me and how I should pay more. I asked Cosmas after we got out what all had been said.  He said that he told the driver that everyone should pay the same price, but the driver said that wazungu should pay more. I felt bad for Cosmas sticking up for me, but was very happy to have a Luo friend who did. After an hour and a half ride we got to a small town and I hid while Cosmas found us motorcycle drivers. After a few minutes he came around the corner with 2 motorcycles and we were driven down back roads to Grandma Sarah Obama’s house.

Note: Sarah Obama is Barack Obama’s paternal step-grandmother.  In Obama’s first book, Dreams from My Father, the last section of the book is about his first trip to Kenya where he visits Kogelo, meets his grandmother, and sees where his father and grandfather are buried.

It was about 10 km (4.5 miles) outside the city. It was fun and interesting riding on the back of the motorcycle because when kids would see me I would hear, “Mzungu! Mzungu!” as they frantically waved their arms at me. I waved back when I could see where they were yelling from. We finally turned off the main road (if you could call it that) and went down the drive until we came upon a large gate and fencing. As we pulled up there was a van that had just pulled up before us that contained a couple from India, an old man from Switzerland, and a man from England. They were in Kenya for a farming conference and wanted to meet Grandma Obama and give her letters. However, we were told that Grandma Obama was not home, but one of her grandkids was coming out to meet us. Her grandkid was extremely polite and graceful. He met with the others and received their letters. The old Swiss gentleman very genuinely asked the grandkid to apologize to his grandma for everything that the Europeans had done to Africa and I could tell he meant it and it had been haunting him. As I was waiting by the gate one of our motorcycle drivers came over and started talking to the grandkid in Swahili. My Swahili is not great yet, but I understood him say that Sarah was home, but didn’t want to come out which made sense. If she came out every time someone stopped by she would spend all day every day greeting people. So, we sat there outside the gate for half an hour and talked amongst ourselves. Sarah’s grandkid came over right before we left and thanked me for coming to visit. I apologized for being annoying and for all the visitors that they are receiving now and he again said, “no, we appreciate you coming and I want to thank you again.”  And with that we were off. The motorcycles took us another 10 km in the same direction to a new town where we caught a bus to Busia, a border town in Kenya.

Very Short Video of Sarah Obama’s Home:

Outside Home

From Mfangano

With Sarah Obama’s Grandkid

From Mfangano

Week 13-1: Ringiti Island, Preaching on Mfangano Island, and Open-Air Meetin’s

On Saturday, Cosmas took me around the rest of Mfangano Island. We first took a boat to the Wazungu camp (white people camp) as it is lovingly called here. We were shown around an extremely nice resort that cost $500 a night which made me feel sick to my stomach and I was glad when we were able to leave. (hard to explain in words unless you’ve been living in my shoes the past 3 months/25 years) We then continued walking along the beach through beautiful tropical forest paths. It was breathtaking and I kept trying to comprehend where I was and that it was December. We finally caught a boat which took us to another very small, very crowded island called Ringiti Island (it is part of Mfangano Island, but a separate island, I never fully grasped how this worked). As we pulled up it looked like a bald man’s head popping out of the water (because of lack of trees) that was covered in sheet metal houses. We walked all the way around the island. The problem with this wee island is that it is so small and so populated without plumbing, so people bathe and washe their dishes in the same water from which they drink. Cosmas told me that one of his hopes is to start an awareness program here so that people can understand the advantages of being more structured with where they bathe, drink from, and so on. It was an interesting experience I am glad that I had.

Ringiti Island
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On Ringiti Island
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Preachin’ and Teachin’

The morning after arriving on Mfangano Island I was told that we were having devotion so I grabbed my bible and when I sat down the pastor said “welcome, Robert, would you lead devotion today?” So, I did a on the fly rendition of a devotion I had done previously. I then realized/learned that I would be preaching and teaching much more than I had anticipated (none had been the anticipation). I was asked to lead a few Bible Studies, speak to a few different groups, and preach on Sunday morning. Welp, no electricity so no old sermons or typing out a manuscript. So, I just went the good old fashion bullet point way and it turned out very good. I preached the lectionary text because I found great strength and comfort knowing that the same text would be read back in Broken Arrow, Sherman, Allen, and Austin. The sermon lasted for 35 minutes! Don’t worry, everything I said was translated into Luo so you can cut that in half which is still 17.5 minutes of preaching! The best part for me was that I went through 3 translators. I started out with Bill and then Samuel came up and finally Silas. I think if I would have gone 30 seconds longer I could have gotten 4 translators which would have been awesome!  Translating is tiresome, especially when the person you are translating from has an accent and speaks with a different word structure than they’re used to.  I was still proud of my 3 translator record thus far.  Furthermore, during sermons here, preachers will say “Bwana Asifiwe” which means “Praise the Lord!” and everyone responds “Amen!”  My sermons are not usually interactive, but since it is very hot here and I wanted to make sure they understood what I was saying I through it in every now and again.  The only problem is a I would chuckle after saying it…  So, all in all, it was a good day!

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Bwana Asifiwe
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We left the church we had stayed at for 10 days and went to the other side of the mountain to stay with Cosmas’ sister Tuesday morning. Cosmas had been invited to an open-air meeting. I didn’t know this until we were walking to it. It was very organized and impressive. Cosmas and I were the oldest, while the others were all highschoolers. They had a generator, speakers, and an amp which they set up right in the middle of this little town’s center.  They sang some songs and then Cosmas preached. I was asked to introduce myself and give a sermonette so I did that as well.  Cosmas said that when he had taken another person from the states to an open-air meeting they had said if you were to do this in the states people would think you’re crazy.  I looked at him and said, “Yep.”

Cosmas Preaching

From Mfangano

Random Arnold Poster in a Diner on Mfangano Island
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Week 12: Thanksgiving, Henry’s Back, and Mfangano Island

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving family and friends!  I was blessed to spend mine with the Kenya YAVs and we had an amazing dinner that our site coordinator made for us!  Mac and Cheese, Lots of Meat, and Apple Pie, praise Jesus!  It is very interesting how what I am thankful for has changed since I arrived in Kenya and completed my hospital chaplaincy this summer.
Henry’s Back
One of the YAVs Henry is back with us so we are all very excited!  Shelvis and I went to the airport Saturday night to pick him up.  When he came out where everyone was waiting, Shelvis and I busted into Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror chorus” very loudly and surprised Henry.  It was fantastic to see him and an added bonus that our reuniting included 100 Africans (mainly) staring at us as we sang MJ and rubbed each other’s beards from beardvember.
Shelvis, Henry, and Robert’s song:

The Journey to the Island

Sunday morning, Cosmas, Bill, and I woke up and left AEE by 6 AM.  We hopped on a charter bus in downtown Nairobi which drove us west at stomach curdling speeds.  I felt left out because everybody had a kid on their lap, but I did not. It was a 5 hour bus ride (usually 8) and on it I learned that to Kenyan children I am more interesting to stare at than 7 Zebra, but not 10.  After the bus ride, we took a taxi for 2 hours which was made for 5 people, but contained 10.  The taxi dropped us off at Cosmas’ uncle’s house and we visited with him.  The tradition in Kenya is that it is rude to have someone visit you and not offer them something to eat.  However, the last boat to Mfanano Island was about to leave and people kept calling Cosmas and telling him so, but his Uncle kept telling him we had to eat.  Thus, Cosmas and I ate very hot food with his Uncle before a motorcycle appeared at the front door which whisked us off to catch the boat.  When we arrived at the shore, the boat was already in the middle of the bay so I thought “our ship has sailed,” but apparently not in Lake Victoria.  It turned around and came back for us, Cosmas and I took off our shoes, waded out to the boat, and climbed in.  Once in the boat, we traveled for an hour and a half arriving at Mfanano Island at 6 PM.
Mfangano Island – Cosmas’ Island
As I got off the boat and walked up the shore of the island I felt like I was in an episode of LOST, or at least on that island.  We walked for 20 minutes and I didn’t see any homes or people, just the path we were following.  The island is beautiful and has 2 great hills in the middle which are covered in trees.  There is no power on the island which consists of  around 30,000-40,000 people.  This led to plenty of questions about how everything works.  My favorite answer was to recharge their cell phones they take them to a kiosk where they pay 20 Shillings (a quarter) to have their phone recharged.  The island is expected to receive power sometime in the next year.  The power lines are already up, but there is still a lot of work to be done.  The community is made up of mainly fisherpeople and I have found them to be extremely welcoming.

The Island

The Boat Ride to the Island
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Cosmas and I are staying with his pastor, Pastor Felix, and sleeping in a new school that the church has built.  Monday morning, I awoke to Pastor Felix telling me that there was warm water ready for me to bathe with.  So, I practiced the art of bathing from a basin again.  This style is not made for the 6’5 I have determined, but I am getting better at it as time goes on.  Cosmas called a motorcycle which took us to the other end of the island so he could show me the shopping center and the other islands.  I tried to explain to him how he had grown up on a tropical paradise and he just laughed at me and said, “no, no, no.”
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I had kept telling everyone that I hadn’t seen a snake yet and I thought that was weird.  Welp, I found one.  So, the most interesting part of my day was when I went to the bathroom and found a snake in the toilet.  I thought it might be dead so I spat on it and it moved so I went and got Cosmas.  I didn’t tell him what was in there just that he needed to come and see something.  When he saw it he jumped back and started screaming.  This resulted in them pouring boiling water in the toilet and sending the 6 ft. snake to heaven.  Cosmas couldn’t believe that I had taken a picture of it in the toilet, I just said, “I am my father’s child.”


The day ended with a stroll on the beach where there were several people pulling in fishing nets.  Cosmas wanted to help out and I wanted to give it a shot too so we jumped in.  When we jumped in there were 2 groups of people pulling nets in and the groups were about about 150 ft apart.  I kept telling our team to go faster so that we could beat the other team.  They laughed at me and we kept pulling.  It took about 30 minutes before we actually got to the net and then the net was another 15 minutes.  When the end of the net was finally close the 2 groups came together (this is when I learned we were pulling the same net (thanks for telling me…)) and we pulled in about 20 Nile Perch.  I clapped with glee and they all laughed at me.  They gave us a few smaller fish because we helped and Cosmas bought another very large fish for dinner.  This was the first time that I had ever caught (helped caught) anything I was going to eat for dinner.  So, Cosmas and I strolled back home with fish hanging from our hands as the sun set behind the hill.

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Cosmas and I went fishing again.  I spent most of the day reading because Cosmas had errands to run.  Once the sun goes down and there is no power I spend my time talking with people and reading Catch-22 or The Brother’s Karamazov with the flashlight on the Nokia 1200.  Most amazing phone in the world.
We hiked up the island’s hill which had absolutely breathtaking views.  Cosmas’ grandfather lives at the top of the hill and there were many other homes along the path.  Here, it is important to stop and say hello to everyone you see.  So, we spent a majority of our climb stopping and talking to people.  The only problem for me was that it was all in Luo, so I would just stand and study my Swahili book.  Cosmas kept saying that they wasted 5 hours a day catching up and talking with each other and I told him that it is very important for community and I wished we did that, but maybe they can cut it down to 2 and a half hours a day.  On the hike down I fell on some thorn bushes so I was in a hurry to get back and wash my arm and bandage it.  Once we got back though, I konked my head really hard on the door frame.  First time I’ve really hit my head here.  I was dizzy for a while and spent the rest of the day lying down.

Half Way Up the Hill

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Thursday – Rise and Shine and get on the Boatie, Boatie
Cosmas and I are on the mainland today visiting his Uncle again.  We will return tonight and be there for a while longer.  I am hoping to swing by Uganda on the way back and then by Obama’s grandmother’s home, where Obama’s father and grandfather are buried.  Thanks for reading!  Have a great day!

The End of Baerdvember
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Week 11: Mombasa Round II, Foxies Graduate, and Moving to an Island on Lake Victoria

We returned to Nairobi from Mombasa this past Monday and our time in Mombasa was excellent. Here are some highlights from the rest of our Mombasa trip.

One of the people who came to lead a session with the Foxfires was a local Mombasa pastor whose church has a retreat every year that the Foxfires attend. We went over to his house one night for dinner. It started out with all the Foxies and I sitting there in silence as one of our leaders and the pastor talked, but as the night went on the conversation livened up. We talked about the States a lot and some issues that I am passionate about so I was very talkative. The pastor’s wife is amazing and kept laughing with me and nicknamed me “to be continued” because of my height. Yep. On Sunday, we went to the pastor’s church for 3 good ole Pentecostal services. The last one lasted 3 hours or so. The pastor and a AEE leader who preached kept mentioning me in their sermon, “don’t worry Robert, I’m wrapping it up,” “Robert, you look tired,” and “it doesn’t matter where you’re from, Kenyan or OklaHOMEa.” There were around 250 people there. Afterwards I told them I wasn’t tired and I was sorry if I looked like I was. They said the reason they kept mentioning me was because when you look out into the audience from the stage you see a sea of black and then this white man sticking out with his head a foot above everybody else. So, I need to keep this in mind when in other churches as well.

Fort Jesus – We went to Fort Jesus which was a Portuguese fort and is in the shape of person lying down. I got a bit frustrated because it cost the Kenyans 100 Shillings to get in and it cost me 800 Shillings because I am a “foreigner.” I have my Visa for a year so it is supposed to cost less, but they weren’t fond of that idea. I was quite mad for a few minutes afterwards because I am overcharged quite often and it gets under my skin. One of the Foxies finally said, “come on, you didn’t pay for it, enjoy yourself” which was good advice and brought me back to reality. Fort Jesus was used to keep slaves during the slave trade and other not so good things throughout history so I was a bit concerned about the name Fort Jesus. The guide said it is named Fort Jesus because the Portuguese were Roman Catholic, I suggested they think of a new name…

Ferry – On our way to Fort Jesus we had to cross from the island to the mainland on the ferry. However, when we attempted to start the van to drive off the ferry…it didn’t start because the battery was dead. What happened next was not expected. Right after the van made the dead battery noise, we were surrounded by 20 or so Kenyans who ride the ferry back and forth all day waiting for cars to die so that they can help push them off the ferry and receive some amount of money. They approached and were all talking in Swahili and I could catch some of it (numbers, yes, no, please), but the girl Foxies all looked scared to death which I found entertaining. We told them we didn’t need any help and Cosmos and I got out and pushed the van off the ferry. People were staring at me (more than usual), Cosmos said that it was unusual for a white person to be seen pushing a car, sweating, and getting dirty. We got the car off the ferry, but then there was a hill…so we had to have the girls get out…which wasn’t enough so we had to hire some of our Kenyan friends. Once parked safely we sat under the jumbo-tron I spoke of in my last post and watched Punk’d for an hour or so…or I did at least…the girl Foxies still all looked scared. Then we found someone to jump the van and spent the rest of the day traveling around without turning the van off. I must thank my beautiful car, Cecile, who has taught me many different times that things will be okay when a vehicle decides to “fail to proceed” as Cecile enjoys to do often to keep me on my toes.

Livin on Kenyan Time – My job Monday morning was to get everybody up and attempt to leave at 6 AM. Kenyans are on Kenyan time which means late. Some of them realize that they’re late and care, some realize they’re late and don’t care, and others don’t even realize they’re late. Reasons for this: there is a lot more emphasis on relationships here. People will have an important question or issue to talk with you about, so they’ll come over at noon and not get to the point until night time because it is important to spend time together first. Another relationship emphasis, when I get to the office I must go around to each person and say hello or I am being rude (I was being rude for a month without knowing it). Any who, so some of the time issue is cultural. Another element is transportation. Most people don’t have a car so use public transportation and those who do have a car could be stuck in a jam for quite some time. So, some of the time issue is transportation. In conclusion, Kenyans are late. Back to getting everybody up. I told them all I was going to wake them up and we were going to leave at 6 and they laughed at me. My favorite reaction was one of the AEE staff who looked at me and said “what about morning tea?” It reminded me of a scene in Lord of the Rings when Pippin or Merry ask Strider when they were going to stop for “second breakfast” as they are being chased. How could I consider leaving without first having tea? Silly me. So, I woke them all up very early and we left at…6:30. It was very unusual because they were proud of being late, “we’re Kenyan” they said. Or I guess they were proud of their culture and being Kenyan which I can understand. There was no reason to leave late this morning, no matatu rides, jams, or meeting new people, but part of being a Kenyan is a different understanding of time and that is what I am trying to figure out. However, when we leave on trips, I still arrive at the time that we are told we are leaving (nobody else is usually there) so I put my stuff in the van and tell somebody to call me once it looks like we are heading in the “leaving direction.” This has given me 1-2.5 hours of time to get things done which is helpful, but I must continue to attempt to adapt.

The Foxfires graduated on Wednesday. It was a very nice ceremony. Most of them are moving out tomorrow. Cosmos and I are heading to his home for 2 weeks which will be fun (he is from an island in Lake Victoria). He has been teaching me how to whistle like people from his island do. So far, I have “I’m excited,” “I’m surprised,” and “I just don’t know what I’m going to do with you.” I can only whistle sucking in so he is working on teaching me how to whistle while blowing out. That’s my next 2 weeks assignment.

My family is coming to visit me in December which will be very nice and I am excited to see them. Then in January I am going to meet up with a class from seminary which is traveling around Egypt and Israel to explore “Places of the Bible.” I am very excited about this because it is the main class I wanted to take at Austin Seminary. I thought I would not be able to go on it, but everything lined up so I am signed up and ready to go …yea! Well, that’s it for now. Not sure how often I’ll be able to update in the next few weeks, but I’ll update when I can. Have a great day!


Week 11: Barack Obama

I was sitting outside reading while the female Foxfires were doing their wash and a song came on the radio. It begins with a clip from an Obama speech talking about why he decided to run for President and he kept talking about “our nation” which was unusual because he is the US President-elect, not Kenya’s. I am still baffled by how much I hear about the US in Kenya. This lead me to think about why Obama was plastered on every matatu, t-shirt, and hat in Kenya. He is black and his father was a Kenyan is the answer. As I have felt proud of the changes that have occurred to where our President-elect is black, I have also felt a deep sense of shame and discouragement with the human race. Obama’s victory is such an amazing accomplishment because of the hundreds of years of racism and hate. I’m proud that we have begun to move in the right direction, but I believe it is imperative that we reflect on why this is a big deal and learn from our past. Let us rejoice in our movement in the right direction to make all people equal, but let us also further break the chains of oppression and inequality. The notion of mutual indebtedness, if my neighbor is not okay then I am not okay. Well, actions speak louder than words, so I am off to act out what I believe. Have a great day!

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