The day I thought I might never read another book

Two months now, we’ve been back from Kenya. It’s October, and late July/early August seem so far in the past. I can hardly remember what was happening B.K. (Before Kenya) and life after Kenya has certainly been a shock. Life has changed in some ways and in other ways not at all. I’m over the initial feelings of not knowing what to say, though I still find it hard to express all the experiences and feelings into words that make sense if you’ve never been to Africa. If you have been to Africa, I find it easier to talk to you. (Or if you ask really good questions beyond, “So how was Africa?”)

Short of selling everything we own and moving to Kenya (that’s not our path; not yet), I’m trying to find a way to hold on to something that is slipping away. And maybe the truth is that it’s not slipping away, not exactly, but burrowing deeper into my soul. You can hold a seed in your hand and admire its unique beauty, but unless you put it in the ground and cover it with dirt, you’ll never see its fruit or flower.

This is how it is with Kenya.

Our experience is like a seed that is buried now, but I’m watering it and giving it light. The only way I know to do this is with books and television.

In the weeks that followed our return from Kenya, Phil and I watched the documentary “Long Way Down,” the journey Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman took from the top of Scotland to the tip of South Africa on their motorcycles.  They spent two entire episodes in Kenya, and we watched the whole series. We fell in love with Africa all over again, and not just the pretty parts. The series showed Ewan and Charley visiting humanitarian aid projects and war memorials. It was not a vacation, though they stayed in some beautiful areas.

We also watched an animated movie about zebras, called “Khumba,” with the kids. It was a little bit scary for our sensitive child, but it’s fun to see them take an interest in Kenya now, too. When we go to the library or a book sale, they will often pick out books that have an Africa theme. (And I checked out three books about Kenya and Swahili from the kids’ section of the library on our first visit after we got home.)

I tried to read books during this time. In fact, I had packed my suitcase full of books for all the travel and “down time” (har har–we had almost none). I’m not sure I finished more than one book. And when we returned, I couldn’t bring myself to read. I often read for distraction and I was either a) too tired or b) unwilling to be distracted, and I worried that maybe I would never read another book again.

Even now, fiction has been difficult for me. I’ve read six novels in the past two months, and three of them were set in Kenya. I’ve been more choosy than normal about the stories I read, which is a bit of a curse when you have a stack of books to review on your desk. I’m suspecting that when the new year hits, I’m going to have to scale back on the books I say “yes” to.

If you’re interested in the three novels I read that were set in Kenya, they were:

  • A Change in Altitude by Anita Shreve. (It was okay. Mostly about a newlywed couple who decide to climb Mt. Kenya and whose relationship changes after a tragedy. I’ve never read Shreve, and I’m not sure I will again.)
  • Angel of Mercy by Lurlene McDaniel. (Horrible. A young adult pick when I was in a pinch at a library and needed something to read in the waiting room at the doctor’s office. No offense to any McDaniel fans out there, but I found this totally unrealistic.) circling the sun
  • Circling the Sun by Paula McLain. (Excellent. A fictional look at the life of Beryl Markham, whose name I would not even have known if I hadn’t taken an obsessive interest in Kenya. I will read anything McLain writes.)

I love novels, but lately I’m finding that I need to read non-fiction. The first book I picked at the library after we returned was Out of Africa by Karen Blixen. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the movie, but I was moved by her descriptions of Africa and the surrounding land. It dragged on a bit toward the end.out of africa

And I finished reading Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn. I started this book months ago but didn’t think I could finish it. Hard stories of what life is like for women in some of the poorest areas of the world, but when we got back from Kenya, I needed to read it and discover how women are finding opportunities to change their circumstances and the lives of women around them. It was more inspiring than depressing.

I also read Kisses from Katie by Katie Davis. I’m late to this party, but I loved reading about she was called to Uganda as a young woman and began adopting girls who needed a home. Her story was a picture of what amazing things God can do when someone says “yes” wholeheartedly.

And I’ve barely scratched the surface of the list of Africa/poverty-related reading I want to do. Maybe I’ll post some updates like this one occasionally. I never knew there was so much to read and watch about Africa.

What books would you recommend? You can leave them in the comments or meet me over on Goodreads and send your thoughts my way.

What happened when I left my phone behind

God tricked me into taking a break from technology.

I’ve long admired people who can walk away from social media for an extended period of time and embrace the solitude. It sounds like a refreshing way to live.

And yet I can’t make myself do it. Which is why I think God had to trick me.

Earlier this summer, my husband and I went to Kenya with a team from our church. Two weeks before the trip, I learned for the first time that we wouldn’t be allowed to bring our cell phones with us. Maybe not a big deal. We were going to Africa, after all.

But we were leaving our kids, ages 7 and 5, behind with grandparents and in the year 2015, it never occurred to me that a cell phone ban would even be a thing.

I did not take the news well. I cried for days. I snubbed my pastor, who was leading the trip, when he tried to talk to me. It almost made me physically ill. I proposed a compromise. I sought commiseration. I basically behaved like a toddler throwing a tantrum.

No! You can’t make me!

There were deeper issues than just feeling like I needed to be connected to social media. I wanted a direct line to my kids, even if I couldn’t be physically present. I wanted to be in control of how I checked in on them. I had serious trust issues, even though I knew they were in good hands.

“If I’d have known about this at the beginning,”  I told Phil, “I’m not sure I would have signed up for the trip.”

“Maybe that’s why you didn’t know about it then,” he said.

For almost a year, God had made it clear that we were to go on this trip. He provided money when we didn’t expect it and He kept moving our hearts in ways we couldn’t ignore.

Maybe He wanted me on this trip whether I could take my phone with me or not.

I sat with that for a day or two, considering the possibility that God—not my pastor or my church—might be asking me to do this.

Our group settled on a compromise. We could take our phones but we would have limited access to them while we traveled. And my husband and I did have a chat with our pastor to clear the air before we left.

The way forward was settled even if I was still unsettled. It had only been two years since I’d had a smart phone and already I was so attached to it that I couldn’t imagine being without it for 10 days. That was a problem I could acknowledge, but I still didn’t see how it could possibly turn out well.

The phone went on airplane mode as soon as we loaded up the vans. I tucked it away, reluctantly and with a bit of anxiety, because I use my phone for lots of things: weather, clock, calculator, flashlight, to name a few.

Waiting to board our plane in New York

Waiting to board our plane in New York


Even as I write about it and think about it now, more than a month after, my heart starts to race. I’ve believed the lie that I’m useless without my phone.

As we flew from New York to Belgium and then from Belgium to Rwanda to Kenya, not having access to a clock was a benefit. I had no idea what time it was locally or what time my body thought it should be, so I just went with it. I slept when I was tired, and I ate when they fed us on the plane.

We were tired enough we got to our destination in Kenya that the phone didn’t beckon me at all.

The first morning was a different story, though. (You can read more about that over at Shawn Smucker’s blog, where I have a guest post on the subject today.) I felt like part of me was missing. I kept reaching for it, thinking I’d take a picture or check the weather or the time. I had to re-train myself to look for the clock in a room. Eventually, I could guess the time by where the sun was. We were so close to the equator that sunrise and sunset were near 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., respectively.

And the weather was virtually the same every day, so I didn’t have to check for the possibility of rain or whether I should wear jeans or shorts. We dressed in layers for the cool mornings and evenings, and changed our clothes when appropriate to the dress codes of the villages or the activities in which were participating.

I still wonder if it was easier to be without my phone on our trip because our days were planned out for us and because of our location.

Most days, we were so busy I didn’t worry about what time it was. On one of our painting days, four or five hours passed before I even thought, “What time are we eating dinner?” It was freeing, in a sense, to be so involved in life that I didn’t have to keep track of the time. Here, I feel like I have to fill my hours according to a certain schedule.

When we were given access to the WiFi password and agreed to limit our use to an hour in the evenings in our rooms, I will admit to being tempted to push past those limits. If I was in my room, who would know if I checked my e-mail in the morning? Because of the time difference, I didn’t always get the most current updates on our kids and how they were doing. I craved information about them, and the phone was the only way to get it. As hard as it was, I did stick to the agreement as I understood it. And most nights, I was too tired to even bother logging on to the network and checking e-mail.

In the evenings or at meal times, when I might have been surfing my phone for whatever, I was engaging with the world around me. We played Apples to Apples or sat around talking. We looked at the stars or smelled the flowers or took a walk.

I sometimes convince myself that I’m too tired at the end of a day to really engage with my kids for one more minute, but in Kenya, I was just as tired or more so at night and I still found some reserve energy for human connection. I’m ashamed of myself for all the times I zone out with my kids.

In the first week after our trip, I practiced leaving my phone in another room, or in the car if we were playing at the park. It was freeing when we didn’t need to be anywhere, and it was out-of-sight, out-of-mind. I didn’t think about checking it because I couldn’t. It wasn’t with me.

Old habits die hard, though, and I’m back to my former ways. Some of them anyway. The lure of social media, especially for someone who creates content, is hard to escape. I feel pressure to be interesting and post regularly so that people remember who I am and know what I’ve been up to. Because we all know that out-of-sight, out-of-mind also applies online. If I don’t see your updates regularly, it’s easy to forget you. (And that is not an easy confession to make.)

Even though I’m struggling to put my technology experience in Kenya into practice back home, I know that it was a good exercise for me, one I wouldn’t have chosen for myself. And I know I need to impose limits on myself for the good of my family and my soul. I don’t want to have to be tricked into doing it again.

I’m curious how you’ve accomplished this, or if you’ve ever thought about it. Do you feel the pull of social media on your life? Have you ever taken an extended break from it? How do you limit your online time in daily life?


What to do when you don’t know what to do

I’m feeling a lot of emotions these days. Some of them generated from the life in front of me–kids who won’t listen, worries about the future, fear about the past–and some from situations that are beyond my control and beyond my geography. I went to Africa this summer. It’s been a month since we came home. And the feelings I’m feeling now are tied to the things I saw there and then.

When I read about the refugee crisis affecting Syria and see the pictures of people longing for a home without violence and fear, I want to turn away. I want to get on with my life. Yet I also want to step in and do something. But even as I sit and read the article, there are people in my own home who are fighting over a toy or asking for food. There are needs out there and there are needs in here and I don’t know how to reconcile the two. Maybe that’s the problem. I’m trying to compartmentalize them. I want the time to take care of my family to be separate from the time I need to care about world issues. Maybe what I need is not reconciliation but some kind of intersection. A way to incorporate my cares for the world with the cares of my family.

Fifteen of us went to Africa and almost all of us, I think, want to fix something about what we saw and experienced. We want to do something. We want to change something. We were changed and that’s significant, but there are so many things to do. How do we choose?

The same day I read about Syria, I read this post, too, and it was an encouraging push to do something, whether it’s for Africa or Syria or my neighborhood. Even if it looks like the wrong thing to others, I can still do something. It’s the first part of that statement that scares me because I don’t like to be wrong. But would I rather be wrong and do something or do nothing because I’m afraid of being wrong?

I’m ready to do something.

I’ve written before that my writing is one way of doing something, and I’m still going to do that. But I want to take it another step forward.

In Kenya, we met people whose lives were disrupted by violence, whose homes and livelihoods were destroyed in a bid for power. They were refugees in their own country.

mud home

Their struggle is real. I looked at their faces and into their eyes. I walked into their dark one-room houses. For one part of one day, I entered the life of someone on the other side of the world, and though I offered prayer and encouragement, the words practically stuck in my throat because they sounded so hollow. Who was I to stand in that woman’s house and pray for provision? What she needed for a more secure house is what I pay monthly in rent. Let that sink in for a minute.

I know I can’t save the world. I’m not going to try. That sounds big and overwhelming.

But I can look at my life and consider what I have and what I can give. And I can do the next right thing.

In Kenya we also met a man who heard about the need in the valley, who knew that there were people living in tents in an unfamiliar place. He went there to see what he could do. They asked him to preach, and even though he wasn’t a preacher, he started preaching on Sundays for them. They met under an acacia tree. They became known as the tree church.

That was years ago. We worshipped with the people of the tree church in a building in the refugee camp when we were in Kenya. Because this man wanted to do something and then actually did it, there is a church building where people come for miles to give thanks to God for their very lives. Because this man went where he felt led, the children can count on one good meal every week. And he dreams of more things he can do, with God’s help, for the people.

So, I will take my one step forward. And I will let God take it from there.

It is a small step. Tiny really. But it’s something.

And I’d rather do something than nothing.

Today, I sent off a volunteer application to work with a local organization that helps resettle refugees in our area. This is not even a humble brag because it feels like nothing, but it’s something I was thinking about before Kenya and it has only grown stronger in my heart and mind.

That’s my “yes” today. Yours might look different.

And click here for an excellent resource if you want to do something to help Syrian refugees but don’t know what to do.

In search of the lion (part two)

To read the part one of this story, click here.

2015-08-04 15.09.55

I think that’s an impala in the picture, but I can’t be sure.

It shouldn’t surprise me that even big cats don’t really want to be found. I’ve been the companion of domestic cats for much of my life and they, too, are good at hiding.

As we drove through groves of acacia and past acres of flat land covered in tall grass, our missionary friend remarked, “I mean, there could be a lion RIGHT OVER THERE,” pointing to the tall grass.

It was a bit chilling to think we could be that close and not know it.

I will break it to you now, we never did see a lion or a leopard or anything cat-like. (Also, there were no elephants in this park. We’ll have to save that for another trip to Africa.)

But this is not a disappointment. Not really. Because I didn’t go to Kenya to see a lion. It would have been icing on an already delicious cake. A bonus. Not the end goal.

It did, however, teach me something about God and that’s never a waste.

Before we left for Kenya, we started listening to The Chronicles of Narnia with our kids. We checked out the audio CDs from the library and started with The Magician’s Nephew. We finished that story on our way back from picking them after our trip to Kenya, with me reading the remaining chapters out loud.

Aslan being a lion has never seemed more appropriate. He is terrifying up close yet surprisingly gentle. (I would never test this with a real lion, of course.) There’s a  bit of mystery surrounding him. In later books, he’s on the move and his movements are whispered among the Narnians, passed along like a secret message. There is evidence of his presence, even if he isn’t seen.

Like the lions in the game park.

Like God and his kingdom.

I don’t know if I have ever searched for God like I searched for lions and leopards in the park. I could spend an entire day with my eyes alert to His presence, searching for signs of Him. But I can’t say that’s the norm for me.

I could ask others if they’ve seen sign of him. I could tell them what I have seen and where.

Could I treat the most ordinary of days like a safari? I wonder what I would see here in this part of the world if I did.

2015-08-04 15.03.50

I think this was called Lion Hill. Where are the lions???

Though our search for lions and other cats came up empty, a search for God never does. He tells his people to look for him with all of their hearts and they will find him.

It did feel a little bit like we had given up looking for the lions too early. A part of me always thinks, well, maybe if we just look a little bit longer. Maybe if we’d have come back the next day, we could have seen one.

But if we keep looking for God, if we ask others if they’ve seen Him, our search will not be empty. As we walk through this world, we can tell others not only that He exists but this is how we know: we’ve seen the evidence in our lives  and in others’ lives.

A safari might be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, although I hope that’s not the case. But seeking God is an every-day-for-a-lifetime experience, and it comes with the same sense of adventure that a safari does. You never know what might be around the next bend. Just when you’re about to fall asleep from exhaustion, you’ll see giraffe up close. Just when you’re discouraged, you’ll be awestruck with something beautiful.

And just like on a safari, you  might need a guide, someone more experienced to help you see in unfamiliar territory. (I forgot to tell you about the safari guide who was zipping through the park at top speed and told his passengers they only had two minutes at Baboon Hill, overlooking the lake. He passed us in a cloud of dust later, and I thought how sad it would be to have to try to see the park at that speed.)

A trustworthy guide through life will not speed you through it but will take your time on your time. They will point you in directions you might not have known to go. And they will ensure that you don’t get lost in the wilderness. They will know the best places to stop and take a break. And they will know when it’s time to give up searching for the day.

This is how I will remember our safari.

In search of the lion (part one)

We rose before the sun, our mission for the day–wildlife. The early bird might catch the worm, but the early risers on safari day might catch sight of a big cat, an iconic image of Africa.

Our hands put together sandwiches and other lunch fixings for the day, even if our eyes weren’t totally open or our minds fully awake. We boarded two vans that would drive us the nearly two hours to Lake Nakuru National Park. It was Tuesday, the second to last day of our trip. Our hearts were full of feelings, our minds full of memories and our bodies full of aches and pains from painting and hiking.

By the time we left, darkness was not far from lifting. Still, some of us slept on the way there. The time for seeing would come later. Sleep was necessary now.

We pulled into the game park, eyes open wide now, alert and expectant because this was not a zoo and animals could be anywhere.

First, we encountered ostriches.

I forget how big animals are in the wild

I forget how big animals are in the wild

And then baboons. Monkeys ran rampant at the park. It’s a bit terrifying at times.

Honk if you love monkeys

Honk if you love monkeys

And fascinating. They’re not exactly scared of vehicles, so they’re just going about their business. We would see large groups of baboons  sitting or traveling along the roads. We all fell a little in love with the mamas and babies, but baboons are a nuisance, generally, so best not to coo too much.

I’m not sure I can forget the sight of zebra on the side of the road, both in the park and on the way there. Like we would see horses or cows grazing in fields, Kenya’s fields are full of zebra.

Why did the zebra cross the road?

Why did the zebra cross the road?

A safari like this is not a passive experience, even though someone else is driving. We traveled in pop-top vans so that we could stand up and see out without ever leaving the vehicle. I can’t lie. This was my favorite part of the trip. Outside. Nature. Wildlife. A cool breeze in my face. I soaked up every minute of it and didn’t want it to end.

I promise you, I'm having a good time. I'm just terrible at selfies.

I promise you, I’m having a good time. I’m just terrible at selfies.

Our missionary friends told us where to look to spot a cat in a tree. Low, horizontal branches are ideal for leopards, they said, so our eyes searched the trees on either side of us, desperate for a beautiful and terrifying glimpse of a cat in a tree.

It’s hard work, your eyes ever searching the land around you for a chance to see something that doesn’t necessarily want to be seen. My eyes grew tired of squinting. I didn’t have a pair of sunglasses on me during the entire trip to Kenya. The gentle hum and lull of the van nearly put me to sleep. My eyes were inches from closing when we happened upon a tower of giraffes. (I looked that up–that’s really what a group of giraffes are called!)

No words

No words

They were so close to the vans.



Magnificent. Graceful. Amazing. Whatever word you come up with to describe them, it’s not enough.

We stayed in the giraffe grove for a while, sighing and taking pictures and pinching ourselves. Were we really seeing this? Gorgeous.

It was a turning point in the safari, I think. We had been seeing some amazing sights along the way, but there was an undercurrent of anticipation. We wanted to see some of the good stuff. (As if it all wasn’t good. I personally need a lesson in gratitude and appreciation.)

I’m a big fan of water, looking at it, at least, and I was not expecting Kenya to have so much of it. Africa, in general, brings to mind heat and sand and desert. But central Africa is lush and rich in natural beauty, water included. In fact, the lake for which this park is named, Lake Nakuru, is currently flooded, which has affected the migration of flamingoes and has diverted the roads throughout the park. Flooding. In Africa. Who’d have thought?

Our missionary friends had never seen this waterfall flowing

Our missionary friends had never seen this waterfall flowing

We lunched with the flamingoes as if this was an ordinary day in the park by the lake.

2015-08-04 13.27.03

It’s not as though we found animals around every bend, but every turn, every dirt road led us somewhere that was brimming with possibility. Would it be around the next turn that we saw a lion? What about a rhinoceros? My eyes roamed the fields and the trees, unwilling to miss any possibility, even if the chances were slim.

Each time we passed another touring van, the drivers would stop and exchange a few words, pointing each other in the right direction because no grouping of animals stays in the same place all the time.

This was how we found the rhinos.

2015-08-04 14.10.58

We received a tip from another tour group who told our drivers where a group had been spotted. (Google tells me a group of rhinos is called a “crash.” Seriously? Oh, my word.)

As the day wore on, our chances of seeing a big cat dwindled. No cats had been seen by any group in the park that day. Early mornings are often when the big cats feast on a kill, and while we saw vultures hovering, there was no way for us to get to that spot to see if perhaps a lion was eating a carcass.

We stopped at the lodge in the park, an expensive resort-like place, to use bathrooms and take a break. Our drivers, remember, had been driving constantly all day. Bless them. They were doing a paid job, but still, it was a demanding job. And they both did it well.

At the lodge, they told us they had heard the roar of a lion they day before. I cannot even imagine what that sounds like. The vultures were almost certainly circling over a kill, but it was inaccessible to us.

It was likely our search for the lion would turn up empty.

To be continued…

These are the shoes that remind me what I can do

I woke up sad this morning because I feel like I’m losing Africa already, and we haven’t been home two weeks yet. I opened the bag of Kenyan coffee and inhaled, as if breathing in the coffee aroma could somehow take me back.

I’ve told you how reluctant I am to start talking about Africa. But talk about it I must. In just a few weeks our team will share with our church and other friends about our trip, so keeping it to ourselves won’t be an option. And maybe talking about it will help me not to feel so sad.

The week before we left for Kenya, I bought these shoes for $8 at a thrift store.


My only other pair of sneakers are gleaming white (from disuse, not because they’re new) and we were told to be prepared for the things we brought to get dirty and possibly ruined. The dirt we walked on was brownish red and everything eventually turns that color over time. These shoes were unrecognizable the day we hiked the volcano.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

A couple of good pairs of walking shoes are what I needed. I got these because they fit and were in relatively good shape, and I thought maybe I could leave them behind when we were done. I almost did, but I’m glad I didn’t.

We started painting the boys’ dorm on Thursday of our trip. (If you look close enough, you can see a spot of ginger brown paint on the toe of one shoe. This was my color all week long. Ask me about the adventures of Ginger Brown sometime.) Long hours of sanding, taping and painting were ours for three solid days. On the second work day, we decided to start the morning, after breakfast, with a walk to clear our lungs of the fumes and clear our minds for the work ahead.

One group took the second half of the campus tour; another group took on Killer Hill, the steepest hill on campus. That morning I was struggling emotionally and my lungs were heaving with even the smallest trips up the stairs. We were at 7,000 or so feet above sea level and I’m not in the best of shape physically. I opted for the Killer Hill group, even though it meant I was the only female. And the least fit. (Our group included teenage boys who apparently have super-human strength all the time.)

About halfway up Killer Hill (I wish I had a picture to show you what I’m talking about here), I was sure I’d made a mistake in coming. I was lagging behind on an unfamiliar campus, and though we were all headed in the same direction, I was afraid of being left to myself. (Phil and I were at odds with each other as well that morning, so there was not a lot of compassionate care between us.) Our leader and missionary friend Lamar stopped us to catch our breath. I felt like the only one heaving and gasping for breath, and I nearly turned around. But where would I have gone? No one was back at the dorm and I’m not sure I could have found my way.

I took deep breaths and let myself rest and then we continued onward and upward. I could see the top of the hill, and I put one foot in front of the other. I was determined to make it. Sometimes, I am stubborn. And I needed to cure my emotional state with a physical challenge. Sometimes, this is the only way.

We made it to the top. Me, gasping and heaving. I lowered myself onto a retaining wall to rest up. The view over campus was–well, I was about to say “breath-taking” but it was the walk up the hill that took my breath away, not the view. Already on the side of a mountain, we could see the valley below from wherever we were. It wasn’t the view, really, that struck me, but the physical challenge.

The path leveled out and we finished our walk, and my mood improved enough to carry on with the work I had started the previous day. Later, as I climbed the stairs to our room, I noticed that I wasn’t out of breath anymore. Even taking the stairs at a quick pace, I could breathe normally.

Was I acclimating? Or had I pushed my lungs past their limits and somehow increased their capacity for air? (Tell me if there’s science to back this up. I want to know.)

Three days later, I found myself at the base of a dormant volcano, about to start an hours-long climb to the top. As I huffed my way up Killer Hill, I told myself it was practice for the volcano. But as I looked at the challenge ahead of me, I wondered if I’d made a mistake not going to the tea farm with a few members of our group.

The view of Mt. Longonot before we began our hike

The view of Mt. Longonot before we began our hike

I was confident, sort of, because we had done this before. Phil and I hiked a mountain in the Smokies on our honeymoon. But that was nearly a decade and at least 20 pounds ago, pre-children. What in the world was I thinking?

As we ascended, I would ask that question a lot. We took our time, and watched large groups of Kenyan schoolchildren scamper up the mountain ahead of us. Partway up we would have the opportunity to stop, rest and decide if we were continuing on. My goal was to make it at least to that banta–a shelter-like pavilion. I could see it the whole time we hiked.

The path was dry and a bit barren but reminded me of the Bible. I could almost see Jesus and his followers walking paths like these, telling stories along the way, as much to teach as to take their minds off the climb.

A glance over our shoulders showed us beautiful views of the surrounding land. One of our team was certain we’d found the place where Mufasa died in The Lion King. When we looked hard enough, we could see the profile of giraffes near the river bed.


I can’t get over the trees in Africa.

We’d been hiking for an hour or more when we reached the place of rest. We had scrambled over some rocks to reach this point, and our guide and missionary friend Lamar assured us that this was the hardest part of the climb, harder even than summitting.

I believed him, and decided that I would regret it if I didn’t try to make it to the top. When might I get another chance to say I’d been on the rim of a volcano? My breathing was labored, but not in the same way as it had been when I was adjusting to the altitude. I felt like I would if we were on a vigorous hike in Pennsylvania–challenged and winded and maybe a little bit affected by the altitude. I did yawn a lot on the hike to the top, not because I was tired or bored but in need of oxygen.

The journey to the top was a different kind of challenging. Steeper, although the path was clearer. And by this time, the school children were on their way down, so we had to stop sometimes and move to the side, lest we get run into. This was also entertaining, though, because a group of white people climbing a mountain in Kenya is as much a sight as the mountain itself. We often shook hands with a dozen children or high-fived them on the way down. One even declared as he walked past, “I am from Washington. I am a black American.” (President Obama’s visit to Kenya was just a week past at this time.)

I was the straggler again, only this time, there were four of us in the final group that ascended the mountain. We stopped often. Every few steps, it seemed at times. A couple of times I thought I might pass out right there on the mountainside. Phil wouldn’t let me sit down. He pushed me mentally to keep going. Lamar said I could do it and it didn’t matter how long it took. Victoria said she needed to rest, too, and I shouldn’t feel bad about needing to catch my breath.

The closer we got to the top, the harder the climb. Earlier in the week, we had talked about mountaintop experiences and how this trip to Kenya might be one, the kind you don’t want to come down from. And I thought of this as we climbed, how much we crave the mountaintop experience, the high of accomplishment, but easily forget how hard it is to get there in the first place.

We set small goals. “Just to the next curve and then we’ll stop.” “We’ll make it to that tree right there. Ready?” Until finally there was just one more stretch to the top. I gave it everything I had. All I could see ahead of me was sky and then suddenly, I was there. At the top. On the rim of a volcano. I raised my arms in victory and exhaustion. (I also may have peed myself a little. Sweat, pee, it’s hard to tell at that point.)

How many feet is that?

How many feet is that?

Inside the crater was a lush forest of green. I wasn’t sure what to expect but it was beautiful and worth every labored breath and calf strain.


We don’t even look happy here, but trust me, on the inside, I’m elated.

We rested on the rim for what felt like hours, and there are more stories for others to tell of climbing into the crater and reaching the crater floor. We walked a little ways around the rim, but I was content to have made it to the top.

Comparatively, the trip to the base was a breeze. It was easier to run/jog and let gravity carry you, and I felt all kinds of free as I careened down the mountainside.

I just hiked to the top of a volcano. I kept telling myself in case later I wouldn’t believe it. I was amazed at what my body–my almost middle-aged, out-of-shape body–could do. It could do far more than I give it credit for.

When we packed up the next night for our trip home, I decided to bring the shoes with me, as a reminder of what I could do. Earlier this year, I set myself a goal to lose some weight and as of leaving for Kenya, I’m fairly certain I had gained weight. Hiking the volcano and walking up Killer Hill reminded me that my body is strong and capable of more than I allow it and that it is possible to push past my endurance and survive.

Now that we’re back, I find that the work my body did in Kenya hasn’t disappeared. The kids and I have taken several walks–the same ones we took earlier in the summer–and I can breathe normally for the duration, even if I am walking at a faster pace or up a hill. I am by no means a star athlete now because I climbed a volcano. But I feel like a warrior. Or at least, a warrior in training.

I can’t wait to get into a rhythm of physical activity and see what my body can do. (After school starts next week, I aim to be active daily.) And it’s not just for the physical benefit but the mental and spiritual as well. Maybe I’ll save those applications for another post.

I didn’t expect to come home from Kenya with a renewed sense of my physical capabilities. But it’s one of the clearest and most amazing takeaways I had from the whole trip.

And just to add to my own sense of warrior-ness, I looked up the altitude of the mountain we climbed in the Smokies and compared it to the one in Kenya. I was almost 2,000 feet higher in Kenya than in Tennessee. (That shouldn’t surprise me, but it does. And it makes me feel like I could take on another mountain. And another.)

2015-08-05 13.15.45Days before we hiked it, we could see Longonot in the distance, from our room. It was my first view of Kenya when I woke up Wednesday morning. It was impressive to gaze at from miles away.

After we hiked it, I took this picture to remember that we had seen it up close. We had, in a way, conquered it.

I’m grateful to have learned something about myself in a place I didn’t expect it.

I want to tell you about Africa

We’ve been back in the States for a week now, and I’ve yet to write more than a few words about our trip to Kenya. A week is not much time at all, really, what with the traveling to get our kids back and the recovery from jet lag and the overall re-entry into life. School starts in two weeks, so we are making the final end-of-summer push.

And  yet in this instant world of communication, a week seems like a terribly long time to have been silent about Africa. Especially because we did not get to Africa alone. So many of you supported us with prayers and money. I feel I owe you a return on that investment. At least a report so you know your money and time were well spent.

So, I want to tell you about Africa.

And I don’t.

Our eight days in Kenya was one of the most intense experiences of my life. So much to take in and process. I’ve been journaling multiple times a day for almost two weeks now, so I know there are a lot of words for me to write about Africa. But in my heart I’m a little bit afraid.

I’m afraid that if I start talking about Africa, I won’t be able to stop. (And to give fair warning, if Africa is something you’d rather not hear about, now might be a good time to unfriend or unfollow me and to stop reading this blog.) It’s only been a week and I’m trying to hold on to as much of Africa as I can. I’m drinking African coffee out of the mug made by a student at the boarding school where we stayed. I’ve looked at our group’s pictures multiple times. I close my eyes so I can “see” the people. I touch the things we brought home, including the bracelet I’m wearing around my wrist. I’m seeking out the people who have literally been there and understand. I’m rearranging my to-read pile so that the Africa books and the poverty books take first place. And we’ve made a to-watch list of movies and shows that will take us back.


The view from our dorm.

I’m also afraid that if I start talking about Africa, I will lose it. All this trying to hold on to Africa is like catching a butterfly with my hands. As long as they’re closed, it is mine. If I part my hands slightly, I can peek at it. But once I open them far enough, it will fly free. Once I release my experiences of Africa to you, I can’t get them back. And I don’t know what you will do with them. I don’t even know yet what I will do with them. So, it’s scary, a little, to hand over these in-process stories, these life-changing experiences. Be gentle with them (and me), would you?

What I can tell you right now about Kenya, and I suspect it applies to much of Africa, is that it is a country of “ands.” OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It is beautiful and heart-breaking.

It is full of faithful, God-fearing people and corruption.

It is rich and poor.

It is peaceful and dangerous.

It is arid and lush.

Our experience in Kenya was not strictly a tourist experience. Yes, we did a couple of touristy things but only after we had been exposed to some of the worst reality Kenya had to offer.

We met a woman who walked through a seasonal riverbed, miles–I don’t know how many–to get to church every week. She showed us her house, a mud hut to begin with, and it is in danger of falling into the river during the rainy season. She believes that God will provide. Another woman who has a three-room tin home, new to her, cannot believe that it is really hers. She asked us to pray for her to believe. I watched young children eat a hard-boiled egg in three bites or less, the best meal they’d have all week. And they smiled wide. The people danced their praise to God and called out with mighty voices during singing and prayer.

The morning sounds of birds chirping and the view of the valley were serene. But the campus was guarded, and at a mall in Nairobi, we had to be searched before we could enter, and police set up checkpoints on the highways for whatever reason they wanted.

We ate Kenyan food and home-cooked meals that reminded us of America. We drank chai in the homes of local people. We peed in holes in the ground. We hiked a volcano to the rim and beyond. We went on a safari and saw animals in their natural homes, not a zoo. Some of us kissed a giraffe.


There is more to all of these stories. This is just the beginning.

So, I’m telling you about Africa.

Hang on with me, would you? It might be a bumpy ride.