Eighteen days till Christmas, and the sum of my outdoors is dirt lined with nettle and pokeweed baking brittle under a fat Kenyan sun. I miss December’s trappings, the reds and golds and glittery whites. The nutmeg and cranberries and cocoa. Caroling. Mistletoe. Portly snowmen and the resinous scent of balsam.
None of this adds up to Actual Christmas, I know, but it turns out I’m a creature of nostalgia and twinkle lights.
The choir sang this morning, a humble tune I don’t remember much of, save for small bits: Jina la Mwokozi. Furaha ya mbinguni. Tumaini ya watu.
The Savior’s name. Joy of heaven. Hope of people.
When I blink slowly enough to get my eyes off of me, God hands me a glimpse of Him again: the High King come as a peasant child, all that glory stuffed in sinew and skin. I have to think Christ was nostalgic for home, but He lived and moved and died for the pleasure of the Father and a wild, irrational love for His people.
And I find myself praying He’ll quicken my spirit, awaken it to the ongoing miracle of God Come Near. And His stars dust glitter on my shoulders, and the wind sings of holy, silent nights, and it’s Actual Christmas, the one where Christ comes for my heart.
This past week has been a cacophony of exams and late projects and grading and scrubbing the dorm till the cleanliness squeaked. I have these romantic notions of Africa in my head, all slow heat and savannah, but our Actual Life is a fevered scramble in thirty-odd directions, just trying to lasso this engine back on its tracks.
Sometimes there are hard things here, tricksy sorts of things. Saturday I jogged to the highway with a friend, on this snake of a backroad riddled with rocks and goats and cows and suicidal piki drivers. My co-runner wasn’t feeling well, and on the way back she brushed close to passing out several times.
And both of us were bright enough to have left our phones at home.
Usually I rock this homemade running belt, pockets bulging with toilet paper, phone, bandaids, dried dates, acetaminophen. I am pretty much the Mary Poppins of running. But Saturday we started out with a large bunch of joggers, which somehow made me think I didn’t need my carpet bag. And that’s how somewhere past mile seven I found myself vowing to my pal, as she persevered on elastic knees, that from now until eternity I shall always bring dried fruit for our blood sugar needs. And also a cell phone.
As soon as I said this, these teenage girls crossed the road just in front of us and started their list of demands in English: Give me something good. Give me candy. I want your water.
And I said, Sina. I don’t have anything, which they could see anyway–just drained water bottles and ratty clothes glued to our bodies with sweat.
And this one gal went off in Swahili, about how we are bad people, completely bad, and she is going to hit us with these rocks. She picked up a stone and pitched it in a half-hearted way, and we just kept going, me acting unruffled but coming undone on the inside.
Because here’s the thing: all of us are fragile and dependent, and we take turns being the one in need. And sometimes we interact with our neighbors in a vibrant, healthy communion of give-and-take, but then there are the other times. The other times we’re cast as The Givers, just deep pockets with no hearts to crush or fears to still or humanness. And some hours we’re on the very last dregs of our strength, and the world feels blind to our desperation.
But it’s so much good, too. There’s this Kenyan fellow I work with, Stephen, and he tells me that he wants my family to come down to his house to meet his wife and see his garden. “You are welcome at my home,” he says. And the degree to which folks will splay their hearts wide and take us right in is enough to bring me to my knees.
I’m in a weird place right now. I miss turkey, which is unanticipated, and also early snowfalls and old friends who just know. I miss logical driving and singing ‘Nothing But the Blood’ with our church family. But we’re right where we’re meant to be, and God makes each day wild with the wonder of Him.
And I’d say yes to this life a million times over, the good and the hard and all that’s to come, because these are the dreams He gives me, and in them I come alive.
We’re tying up the loose ends of our break between school years, and time has been slippery-quick again. If I keep in mind that these weeks are just a soft blink, an exhale, then it feels okay that we’re calling it a wrap.
Since late July, we’ve had extra time to visit students and schools in the valley. Talk slow hours with our Kijabe neighbors. Chip away at a hill of work/dorm/school projects. Write.
Todd spent the past week in Central African Republic. The kids and I did sleepovers with every stray blanket pulled to the living room, partly because I am no doubt a Super Fun Mom, and also I don’t sleep well when Todd’s gone. Put me in a room with people I need to protect and I’m somehow braver by necessity.
A few weeks back, our Kenyan friend Joseph asked Todd if we were headed anywhere fun over break. Mombasa, maybe, or the Mara—those two are common rest spots. When Todd laughed and said he was going to CAR, Joseph put a hand on Todd’s shoulder. “CAR? Are you sure you want to go there?” It was just a few words, a parcel of honest syllables, but the translation was clear: My brother, you are losing your mind.
CAR is a landslide of pain these days, bombings and executions and rogue militias exacting their own versions of justice. The capital city is a heap of burnt rubble patrolled by peacekeeping troops, blood on everyone’s hands. It’s hard to draw clear lines between victim and hero and terrorizer—everyone stands neck-deep in grief and starvation, life crumbling to dust around them.
Some of the attackers claim to be Christians, others Muslims. It makes my insides ache, but still I have to think there’s a place for the grace and redemption of Jesus here.
Todd was in Zemio, a sleepy village bordering DRC. A large group of Mbororo live there, semi-nomadic cattle herders slowly working their way east. They value family and children and everything beautiful. They are our neighbors, and I hope someday our friends.
It’s true that the violence needs to settle if we ever stand a hope of living in CAR, but more than this, people are suffering in huge, impossible ways. Please pray for the Central African Republic, for the Seleka and the Anti-Balaka and the LRA. For President Samba-Panza and the UN peacekeeping force and every unnamed refugee slipping scared between the fault lines.
It seems like too much from where I stand, but God is bigger still. Come move among us. Heal this land. Your love and peace and life and kingdom come.
Last Thursday we finally wrapped up the school year here at RVA. It’s plain bizarre to live in a world where some of y’all are loading up school supplies in the same breath where we’re falling over, relieved to have found the finish line.
So Thursday: I wish you could’ve stood right up next to me in the back of our chapel as our graduates walked in, euphoric. I wish you could’ve heard Mark Kinzer quote Jesus and Solomon, remind us all that the whole of our lives is meant for loving God and heaping up that love on the folks around us.
I wish you could’ve been there as Joseph recounted his years in this place, wrinkling this mother’s heart with worry for the late evening he sprinted the length of an abandoned airstrip while hyenas cackled in the dark. I wish you’d have heard him admonish his classmates to grip these memories tight, because God’s grace threads brightly through them.
I know your heart would’ve quickened with mine as Chris prayed for his class, that they’ll live in light of Christ’s sacrifice. And our throats would’ve swelled thick as the kids streamed out, leaping to smack the congratulatory sign at the back of the chapel, until it was Brenda’s turn.
Brenda has a smile that could teach the sun a thing or two, and she’s battled a host of health issues for so long, and has little use of her legs. At the close of the ceremony she skimmed the aisle on her crutches, and when she neared the back of the chapel two of the guys lifted her within reach. And though I’m sure it was just a few feet, for a moment there she hit that sign and floated higher than hope itself.
At this very second, our graduates are flung out across the globe–South Africa, Sweden, Tanzania, the States, South Korea, Uganda, Madagascar–and I want so much for the words they sang last week to be their souls’ unflinching anthem.
Give me one pure and holy passion
Give me one magnificent obsession
Give me one glorious ambition for my life:
To know and follow hard after You.
Will you pray with us, please? That they will die for Him and live for Him, that they’ll work and study and play and sing and type and garden and marry and breathe for a singular, undiluted purpose: to know Christ and to make His name famous wherever they go.
We’re barreling toward midterm and I’m bone-weary and falling over, but mostly in a good way. My Amy-friend and I have been jogging, and let me just say: sweaty solitude does wonders for an introvert living with twenty-seven people. :) Saturday morning was ten miles of red dirt and juniper, the sky coming alive like a prayer in blue.
My dorm guys are my favorite. So are my art students. I just like them all so much, and it’s a joy to be waist-deep in their jokey, high-pitched, awkward, honest everydayness. I let my eighth graders play music while they sketch and paint, and lately they’ve been kicking off class with Tony Bird’s ‘Mango Time.’ Cracks me straight up.
So another one of our computer centers was robbed last month, and I just don’t know. What degree of rapacity or desperation does it take to steal laptops from primary students? And it’s the whole of the village that suffers in the end, because these kids, they’re deft and certain and they’re inching their families out of poverty one hour of school at a time.
I’m at a loss for answers here—better locks, more watchmen, replacement funding? Mostly I’m just praying for these guys to return the laptops, and I know that’s all kinds of unlikely and impossible, but it’s what I’m holding out for.
So I am the type of person who is prone to culinary, um, adventures, what with my tendency to believe every recipe will turn out JUST FINE even though I’m missing 40% of the ingredients and don’t seem to have it in me to measure anything. The problem, of course, is that this method mostly works out, which only encourages me. But when it crashes and burns, that’s actually even better, because that’s where all the fun happens.
Sunday I was determined to make the sort of cafe con leche I fell madly for in Guaranda, and I vaguely remember—in a way that may or may not be made up—my South Americanish amigos mentioning that it was made with instant coffee concentrate. So I stirred up a sludge of concentrate, scalded a bunch of milk, spooned in brown sugar and: GREAT SCOTT. It was a thing.
It tasted, um, concentrated, by which I mean terrible, and I kept on drinking a bit, adding milk, drinking more, adding more milk, and it never really got better. The main thing that happened was heart palpitations, which is how you know you have some serious coffee going on.
Anyhow, if you stop by my place DO NOT let me serve you “Ecuadorian” coffee. I cannot be trusted.
One last story. A couple weeks back in Mai Mahiu, my cheeky little friends decided I needed them to braid my hair. They persuaded me down and then no less than sixteen hands descended upon my scalp, twisting and weaving and pulling—so much with the pulling—until finally it was time to pray and go and they reluctantly let me up again. When I recount these things I know it’s cute, but please balance that with the reality of grimy palms that smell unmistakably of urine.
But I got home and worked out the last few tangles and just couldn’t bring myself to wash out the tight, electrocuted ripples left behind by their braiding. My hair, mothered within an inch of its life, looked strangely beautiful for the very first time in ever.
And just like that, I’m undone.
Once upon six months ago, dear pastor-friends of ours emailed with a crazy proposal: Our church is sponsoring a child survival program in Ecuador and we’re fixing to go meet the families. We need a photographer-writer along, so um, Nicki? What do you think?
What did I think? I thought it was the most far-fetched and wonderful idea, and that the odds of me going were zero to never. But somewhere between then and April God aligned all those impossible cogs until I found myself on a Nairobi to Amsterdam to Atlanta to Quito tilt-a-whirl of flights.
The face of the fellow checking tickets at Jomo Kenyatta creased deep with concern. “You are flying by yourself, Miss?” (PS I do not know when I will get to graduate to a Ma’am. Someone slapped ‘Miss’ on me eons ago and I can’t seem to peel it off.)
“Yep,” I told him. “Just me.”
“By yourself?” he repeated, like maybe this time I’d answer more appropriately. Even his eyebrows worried at me.
I smiled at him. “I’ll be fine.”
I thought about explaining that actually I’m not the tiniest bit by myself. I’m traveling with the God who fashioned and reigns over each cubic inch of airport and city and airspace between here and infinity, and also? He owns every one of my days.
Even if that plane goes down flaming, I’ll be fine.
Our planes turned out flame-free, and Ecuador was a beautiful experience. Those kiddos and moms and dads and grandmas and aunties–it was the best kind of everything to begin to know them, to stand in the dusk of their homes and listen to the lilt of Spanish unfurling their stories like open palms.
I loved the mountain roads spooling from Guaranda to Chillanes, the trickle-down towns, the clouds twisting over nooks and fields like fairytaled mist.
Also: our gutsy, funny bus driver. Community bowls of perfectly limey ceviche. The rush of damp and chill through the window, the drive-by photography and the nearly falling out. Gas station swing dancing. Boys spinning tops in the churchyard with lengths of string and luck. My hysterical, gifted, earthy, Jesus-scented teammates, and all those Compassion folks working daily with excellence.
I’ll be sharing more here in small chunks, one story each month for the next year or so. (My job is to connect folks at Epic Church in Indiana with families in Chillanes, but y’all are more than welcome to read along. Please do.)
Chillanes, you are my favorite. You’re treasure buried in clouds and moss, home to people so dear to God’s heart. It’s a wonder to see His love awakening in you.
So let it be.
It’s been Small Wildlife Month at Chez Owens, first with a tree frog in our bananas, then a mouse racing fat and terrified around the kitchen counter.
Now thousands of flying ants have descended upon campus, plague-like, fluttering out brief lives before doffing their oversized wings and seizing belly-up on the floor. Our guys left the dorm windows open last night to the tune of five hundred small visitors, which ended in a late-night snack of fried and buttered ants. Because, naturally.
(Discarded ant wings)
In other news, I have not been able to exercise for like three days now, as my knee is inflamed or annoyed or something-or-othered, but the highlight of this story is I managed to tell my coworker about it in Swahili. Monday, I was running down there on Barn’s trail, and I fell and now I have pain in my knee. You have no idea how delighted I was to find I have the vocabulary to say this unfortunate thing.
On the less-delighted side, not exercising makes me itchy and restless and I am more or less grumping around the house right now. It’s really too bad you’re all not here to enjoy it.
Friday Kenya Kids Can was invited to attend an academic celebration, and PEOPLE. That thing was so much fun.
They sat us front and center, guests of honor at this first-ever Longonot awards ceremony, and with all the stops pulled out: balloons, poetry, song calling, cascades of faux flowers. Hundreds of students packed the courtyard, whooping as their schools were announced and trophies bestowed. Highest performer. Best in the district.
It’s the kind of thing that makes you want to dance.
I’m guessing that not that many years back, when hunger numbed even our brightest minds and student performance lay frail and unmoving, it was hard to scrape up something to celebrate. But Friday the applause thrummed deep and those beautiful, capable kiddos bobbed and whirled and leapt like they’re made of so much light.
Mark was given the chance to speak, and he said it well, what he always says, what Steve always said before him: It’s not me. This is so much bigger than me; I’m standing here representing a whole bunch of people all over this earth who love God and love you and who find quiet joy in knowing you’re eating and learning. People who believe you have bright things to offer this world, and who’ll shoulder mountains aside to see that happen.
You should’ve seen these students dance, and this one gal in particular with her chin angled, eyes blazing, so proud to be Maasai and beautiful and strong and educated and ready. So absolutely ready.
I don’t know about everybody else, but the way I saw it, all that cheering and stomping aimed a straight shot to heaven. They were peals of glory thundered back to our Creator, rising hot from our dust to the One who is the Bread of Life, who meets our soul-hunger with nothing less than Himself.
I’ll be the first to tell you that not every day sings this bright. Some days feel flat and ordinary, or downright challenging, but in all the betweens God keeps our faith alive and trembling. He keeps us close. He keeps us.
And all the while He shows up true and infinitely sweet.
The road twisting down from campus to the valley floor cracks me up every time. We braved that bumpy guy again last Friday, a small crew of us riding out with Mark to visit a couple schools, and as our teeth rattled in place Mark joked, “You know, lots of people pay money for seats that shake.”
We arrived at the first school as the kids were washing up for lunch, scrubbing small hands under a ribbon of water poured from jerry cans. Kitchens here are wooden structures set apart from the bulk of the school, and this one featured a trio of pots boiling up heaps of githeri.
I am in love with how the smallest folk line up, pressed belly to back in a human chain that keeps inching closer to the food. Nearly every child wielded a bowl, though the few without asked a friend to grab a double portion to share.
It’s a graceful thing, the choreography of lunch: a step forward, two hands extending, a lifted bowl, a happy scuttle off to the shade to eat.
After lunch we rolled on out again into that dry sweep of grassland. It took us a while to find the second school, mostly because we spent a couple hours looping circles in the bush, pretending to not be lost. At one point we four-wheeled-it through a pond, and Mark and Rachel (one of our teachers) disembarked more than once to consult the directional expertise of several Maasai herdsmen.
[Sidenote: The cows here are crazy cute. Forget the pony, I want this guy.]
The third herdsman we happened upon spoke with Rachel awhile, scrawling maps in the dirt with his stick. When that didn’t seem to un-lose us, he jetted off, inexplicably, into the scrub and acacia.
I’d picked out the words peleka and mbuzi and huko, so I asked Rachel: “Did he say something about delivering goats over there? Because this is what I’m getting out of the conversation.” She was kind enough to not answer.
We waited while our new herdsman-friend did some possible goat delivery, and a few minutes later he jogged back and hopped in the car to serve as our personal guide.
This time we found the school.
At Najile, Mark and Rachel checked supplies and handled the logistics of lunches and computer education while the rest of us trailed the students to an exercise field. The girls were up first, racing and skipping laps around the loose soccer pitch, then fanning out to play a match.
They have a distinctive style of play, these girls, jumping as they kick, the crowns of their heads nearly scraping blue from the sky.
It amazes me that these are the same kiddos who used to sit listless and drawn. Don’t ever doubt it, my friends: day after day of food can tip a world right again.
Do you have any idea how much fun it is to be your hands and feet and faces and solid shoulders and grins in this place?
My nine year old, she walks around the house humming Rend Collective, and there’s this bit that makes me think of all of you:
We seek Your kingdom first
we hunger and we thirst
refuse to waste our lives
for You’re our joy and prize
To see the captive hearts released
the hurt, the sick, the poor at peace,
we lay down our lives for Heaven’s cause
We are Your church
We pray revive
Oh, friends. Thanks for loving just like this, and for giving us the best Valentine’s Day yet.
The whole school has turned out to see us, kicking up dust as they dance and wave us in. We climb from the car into a river of children with smiles bleached white in the three o’clock sun.
It’s Wednesday, and Todd and I have tagged along with our friend Mark to open a solar-powered computer center at a school smack dab in what Kenyans call The Interior–undeveloped land, mile upon mile of scrub brush and dirt and sheep.
I’ve never known a warmer welcome, pressed in by kids half silly, half shy, all clamoring for a handshake. After several minutes of greetings and paperwork, we arrive at my favorite part–unboxing ten donated laptops and settling them into a steel classroom planted in a sun-parched square of the Great Rift Valley.
But let me back up a bit. This story began long before us with a fellow named Steve:
Once upon a time, in the wake of enormous personal loss, Steve moved his family to Africa to live and work at RVA for a year. As these stories often go, they fell in love with Kenya and her people, and one year swelled into fourteen. Early on he saw kids in a nearby school laid flat by hunger, so he started a simple lunch program: maize and beans boiled plump for every student, every day.
Kids started doing something new: they started showing up at school, armed with plastic bowls, not about to miss that sure-thing meal. And then they started learning.
Fast forward fourteen years and this lunch program feeds about twenty thousand students in our area’s poorest national schools. On top of that, Steve began a computer program with donated laptops and converted shipping container classrooms, because now that kids are eating and growing and graduating, we hope they just might need to type up a resume.
One might ask–in a setting too remote for power lines, why bother with computers? There are so many reasons, some lofty, some pragmatic, and they all whittle down to one thing: possibility. Many of these children hail from families fierce in their determination for them to grow beyond this dry boned existence, to someday secure employment in a town or city.
As one grade seven student told Mark, “I have never touched a computer before.” But now she will; she’ll master keyboarding and the basics of Word, Excel, Power Point. She’ll be able to construct a business proposal, chart sales, maybe draft a medical report. And I have so much hope for her, that she can show up capable and competitive in this increasingly digital world; that she’ll know she’s a force to be reckoned with.
The smallish students seem more energized by an up-close encounter with us pale folk than the computer center itself, but then there’s class seven and eight. And the teachers and parents–their faces light with the laptop screens, reflecting back everything bold they dream for these kids.
It’s quite an afternoon: singing and pictures and children patient with my limping Swahili. Then tea with the school board and teachers. A prayer spoken still and warm, and the head teacher scraping back his chair to speak. First he references the lunch program: “I am so glad for the food so the children do not have the feeling of hunger in their stomachs. So even when they go home and maybe they do not eat, they can persevere until the next day.”
And then the chairman adds his part, his arms circling wide as he heaps blessings over all of us and especially you who give with joy and openness and care. I make a close study of my tea, blinking hard until my vision clears.
By the time we pack up it’s skimming early evening and the school stands empty, save for dust clouds blooming in the hot wind. And all I can think is thank You, God. I have little to do with the good that happened here, but thank You for a chance to bear witness to one simple, sturdy way to share this sweet life together. For allowing me this afternoon, the lively company of these kids. For the chance to plug into something bright and wild with possibility.
The valley slips into a bath of buttery light and we head home, caked in sweat and dirt and so much unsinkable hope.
First thing in the morning, we flick on lamps and part curtains to catch the sun’s waking. And never mind if it lets in birds and the occasional wayward monkey, we swing those glass panes wide to the rush of mountain wind.
Morning is the best time here. I solemnly swear that if you visit me I will shake you alive at the crack of before-dawn, and you will briefly hate me (unless you are The Ununcle, who invented rising early), but then we’ll walk with the clouds at our feet and the earth soaking in color and I promise your insides will be liquid worship of the God who dreams up this life.
Our oldest boy turned sixteen this month, and I forced a birthday photo shoot on him because these are the things that cause me great joy. If he were in the states he’d be up to scary enterprises like driving an actual car, but here he has no license, no family vehicle to beg after, and nowhere to go. Living in Africa has its perks.
He’s a great kid, easy and half-shy and all about taking care of people. He’s the one who made us think, for a blessed two years, that we are mavens at this parenting thing. (And then our second child arrived on the scene, and we were all, Oh. Right. Carry on, then.)
When B was two we were wandering the aisles of a craft store and he was playing with a sponge cut into a starfish, which I made him return to the bin. He did it right away, though with profound sadness, and ten steps later I was like, Ohmyword, Nicki, it’s a quarter. Buy your kid the starfish sponge.
I’d give all the quarters I’ll ever own to see his face wash golden with delight like it did then.
Last week we signed out the school car and drove to Nairobi for the first time, and it was Fun Times Everywhere. First off, all sides of the road feel equally wrong to me right now, which is actually okay because in Kenya your designated lane is the path around potholes. If that happens to coincide with the left side of the road, more power to you.
I feel like I spent the whole drive awarding Certificates of Crazy: Mr. Let’s-pass-two-trucks-on-a-blind-curve—you are crazy; and you, Sir, with the couch strapped to your piki are crazy; and you running your wheelbarrow across the highway: certifiable.
Also, intersections. We do not believe in traffic lights and stop signs in these here parts. Pretty much every intersection in the city looks like six and a half angles of traffic in an eighteen-foot square. The trick is to nose your way in so that oncoming vehicles are forced to either stop or hit you, and then you pray vehemently for the former.
This Christmas we didn’t have a tree or anything sparkly or blinking, but a friend of ours wove a wreath of greens, and we cut snowflakes and paper stars. Plus you know you’re not in Kansas anymore when you rejoice over Twix bars and gum and your fifth grader puts ‘a bag of carrots’ on his wish list.
We read from Luke 2 (For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel) and played games and piled up in the living room to watch a movie. It was a good day.
The highlight of this December was getting packages of sweet things from our church family back in the freezingest parts of Indiana, and Christmas cards from so many of our favorite folks. We have your smiling faces and notes on our computer screens and strung along our fireplace mantel.
One of our teens wrote Todd a card that still makes me laugh: “I hope you have seen an elephant and a lion and a cheetah. If you haven’t you’re living in Africa wrong.”
Goodness, I miss you people. We had no snow and no tinsel and no peppermint creamer (alas), but we positively had a Savior to celebrate. Hopefully we did Christmas right.
Come, O long-expected Jesus,
Born to set your people free;
From our fears and sins release us
By your death on Calvary.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope to all the earth impart,
dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.
Love you all, so much. Merry Christmas.