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.

Beautiful

Beautiful

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.

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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.

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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…

Africa changed nothing–and everything

Backs on the grass, faces to the sky, we counted stars as the music from an Irish band on the stage a couple dozen yards away filled our ears.

“There’s one!” “And another!”

We so seldom look at the night sky. By the time the sun sets, we’re usually inside, ready for bed, at least the little ones, and we live close enough to the city that stars are sometimes a luxury.

The half moon shone brightly, illuminating a plane in a way I’d never seen before.

And my thoughts drifted to Africa.

We saw the stars in Kenya, close enough to touch. We looked up one night on our way from one place to another and paused because we couldn’t number them and they seemed so near. We looked for familiar constellations in a different spot in the sky. “Look for the southern cross,” we were told because it’s not something you can see in our part of the world. I think we might have seen the Milky Way, too.

As I lay in the grass in Pennsylvania looking at the same sky from a different perspective, I marveled at how a person could see things so differently but still be on the same planet.

We say that sometimes, when people are disagreeing with us or can’t seem to see what we see.

“Are you from another planet?” “What planet are you on?”

It’s the wrong question because we’re all walking this same earth, but what we see from where we are is just so very different.

The same week we returned from Africa, I yelled at my kids over something that wasn’t important. I was tired, probably, and still trying to process all that happened, and we were adjusting to each other again.

But none of those are excuses. I beat myself up for freaking out at them.

Didn’t Africa change me at all?

It’s been almost three weeks since we’ve been back and I know the answer to that now.

It did. And it didn’t.

I didn’t go to Africa and come back a different person. I’m still the same body, mind and spirit.

But I did come back with a different perspective. Like seeing the stars from a different spot on the earth, I’m seeing my life and God and faith from a different angle.

Fundamentally, though, I’m still the same. Africa wasn’t like a magic potion that automatically made me more patient or compassionate and head-over-heels in love with my kids every minute of the day. There are still roots of sin and selfishness, things that didn’t die just because I left the continent.

Expecting Africa to change everything about me in one trip is an unrealistic expectation. I know that now.

But shouldn’t something have changed?

And what about Africa? Did we change anything by being there?

Two days into our Kenya trip, but we didn’t know about it until afterward, our pastor, who was on the trip with us, received an e-mail from someone who didn’t identify themselves criticizing our decision to raise $30,000 for a mission trip to a boarding school for missionary kids in Africa. Weren’t we wasting our money? the person asked.

It’s a valid question (although I have to question the timing, and my years in journalism have made me unsympathetic to anonymous opinions and criticisms). You can read our pastor’s full response here. Here’s the heart of it, though:

We have concluded, however, that it is vital for first world citizens to get out of their comfort zones and see the world with their own eyes. The impact is much greater than simply watching video or seeing pictures. Are there other local, less expensive means to achieve the same result? Possibly. Perhaps I was totally wrong for facilitating this trip. But I also watched God provide for this trip in miraculous ways. He has the ability to fund this trip as well as the needs of the people in Kenya. Sometimes he uses a trip like this to open our eyes, rend our hearts, so that we can be the means to raise the money for the needs in a place like Kenya.

I think most of us on the trip would agree that we didn’t change Kenya, but Kenya changed us.

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 And I don’t know about the rest of the team, but I’m still discovering how Kenya changed me.

I wrote about how my lungs are different after hiking a volcano, and that holds. I took a lap at the park with the kids this week and I’ve never been able to walk the entire loop without gasping for breath. I wasn’t even winded after two laps.

But it’s more than that.

I find myself talking to strangers more. In Kenya, life is more relational than transactional. I’m a task-oriented person by nature, but just before we left for Kenya, I was convicted about this. How I elevate convenience over people. (That’s another blog post, maybe, for another day.) In Kenya, it’s rude to not ask about people’s families or make conversation before getting to the point. Even while shopping at the local shops, negotiating a price is seen as a relational act, not something to be offended by.

In the weeks since we’ve been home, I hear myself making small talk with people I would have passed by, like the people offering food samples at Costco. Usually I just want to get in and get out, especially if a crowd is gathering, but I’ve made tiny bits of conversation. At the concert in the park the other day, I addressed a couple behind us when we moved our blanket back so the kids could dance in front of us instead of behind us.

“It’s for your safety,” I said. “They get a little wild.”

“They look pretty harmless,” the woman said. “We have two grandkids, so we know.”

It was not an important exchange, but it was human connection. I need more of that, and Kenya helped spark that change.

Whatever happened in Kenya, it’s far more important that I was changed than that we left a mark on Kenya. That sounds selfish, but if I’m changed because of my experience in Kenya, then I can effect more change. If all I did was paint a dorm and hand out some T-shirts to some kids who need clothes, then the impact will only last until the paint peels and the shirts wear out.

The view while painting

The view while painting

Maybe going to Africa looks like it changed nothing, but maybe over time, it will have changed everything.

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.

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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.

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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.

5 on Friday: best fiction I’ve read this year

We’re nearly halfway through the year, and I’ve done a lot of reading already. And with summer on the horizon, maybe you’re looking for some good books to pick up for your free-er time in the next few months.

Here are five (in no particular order) I’ve read and would recommend without hesitation.sleeping in eden

1. Sleeping in Eden by Nicole Baart. I read this book early in the year and still can’t get it out of my head. Nicole’s literary writing style will grab you and not let go. It’s not a happily-ever-after escapist read, but it is a realistic picture of life and hope.

NobleGroom_mck.indd2. A Noble Groom by Jody Hedlund. For the historical romance reader, this book is swoon-worthy. So encouraging and uplifting. Jody is one of my favorite authors and she’s outdone herself on this one!invisible cover

3. Invisible by Ginny Yttrup. This is the antidote to the false messages about body image in the media. This story of three women discovering who they really are despite what they appear to be is challenging and encouraging. Ginny writes from experience with compassion and grace.

congo dawn cover USE4. Congo Dawn by Jeanette Windle. This one takes you into Africa to expose the effects of greed and corruption on a nation rich in natural resources. Jeanette’s books are well-researched and action-packed. forsaken dreams cover

5. I couldn’t choose between So Shines the Night by Tracy Higley and Forsaken Dreams by MaryLu Tyndall, so I’ll let you decide! Tracy’s is set in Ephesus during the time of the apostle Paul. The Bible stories we read and pass over come to life with her fictional touch. MaryLu’s book is also based in history, just after the Civil War, when Southerners fled to Brazil. A fascinating story, with two more books in the series to come.

so shines the night

This isn’t an exhaustive list of the great fiction out there, but it’s a place to start!

What are your recommended reads for the summer?