It is virtually impossible to not be greatly affected by your surroundings and culture in your worldview. It’s also virtually impossible to understand other cultures without a frame of reference. It’s hard to obtain a frame of reference without actually going, but the next best thing is pictures and video. So consider this blog to be my best attempt to provide a frame of reference. I’ve been back from Ethiopia for about three weeks now. Frequently after a trip, I pause my pontificating for a bit and just post pictures. There are unfortunately a lot of pictures I can’t show. However, here are a number of pictures from places we went and the people we met on the street. More later. Enjoy.
I am now back from Ethiopia. My plan was to write at least a post or two from in the field. Unfortunately, a few days before I left, electronic devices in carry-on bags were restricted on flights from a number of middle-east airports including one I would be traveling through. This meant that I was going to have to check my iPad in my luggage. Due to experiences some of my fellow travelers have had with airport workers with sticky fingers, I opted not to bring any more expensive gear than was absolutely necessary.
Though I would have liked to have been able to write from the field, by best thoughts on the things I’ve seen and experienced when I travel often come not during, but weeks or even months afterward. I need time to process and ruminate on things. I took a couple thousand pictures and hours of video on this trip, and looking at those will also help me to put things together.
If my writing seems a bit off, it’s because I’m still jet lagged. I was up for almost 48 hours straight this time coming home, due to the schedule and some very uncomfortable flights. (I truly hate middle seats). I traveled a different airline this time than I have before, Turkish Air to be specific. I had some initial trepidation about flying this airline, but after the experience I can honestly say I would do it again. The food, by airline food standards, was actually pretty good. Furthermore, I had an eight hour layover in Istanbul on the way home. Turkish Air, though they don’t seem to advertise it, will give you a free tour of the city with a guide on a nice bus if you have a long layover. We opted to do this, and I’ve got to say that Istanbul is a fantastic city to visit. At least the parts that I visited were modern and clean, but full of ancient historic sights everywhere.
So the long and the short of it is this. I had lunch in Eastern Ethiopia, dinner in Addis Ababa, Turkish coffee in Istanbul, then I flew to New York where I had pizza in Brooklyn with a very old friend. In Istanbul I was able to see Asia across the water as I drank my coffee. All told it took about thirty six hours, but from leaving Africa to landing in New York was about 24 hours. It was not the most relaxing way to travel, but it was an adventure, and I was able to add Turkey to the list of countries I’ve been to.
Soon I will start writing about Ethiopia, but I need to get some rest first so I can put two words together and have them make sense.
Each year, I try to publish some of my favorite photos of the year. This year, as I went through my files for the various things I took pictures of this year, it became apparent to my the vast diversity of things I shot this year. Up until this point, I hadn’t realized this year was different from any other. Sure, I take pictures in Africa every year, but this year there was so much more than that. From Eastern Ethiopia to shooting a wedding in the Bahamas to documenting life on a fishing boat, I truly have a lot that I’m happy to have captured this year. I’m posting quite a few photos in this blog, and there are many more I could have posted. Some made it in for the technical quality of the photo, some for the backstory or the story the picture tells. Hopefully the latter two will represent well. Please enjoy. I look forward to the adventures that 2016 brings. All photos can be clicked on for a larger view.
Less than forty eight hours ago, we got back from Kibera. All in all, I’d say the trip was a success. We were able to build good relationships with the people in the church and help out in the daycare. We were also able to help in some financial ways, but I see these as secondary to the job we came to do, which was build understanding of the issues and the people so we can partner for the long term. None of that can be done if we go with blinders on and a singular goal to build something or feed somebody. We are broken in certain ways, some of us financially, some of us spiritually, some of us in other ways. The goal of missions is to help each other overcome these various forms of brokenness. As I think over the issues I saw and more is revealed to me over time, I will write about these more in depth.
The trip home was an ordeal. My wife got sick to her stomach half way through the first flight, and is still a bit uneasy two days later. It was to the point where she came that close (you can’t see me thumb and forefingers about half an inch apart) to not getting on the plane from Zurich back to the United States. A couple missionaries saw what was going on and came to pray for Lynn. She met someone in the last five minutes before boarding who had some prescription nausea medication, and she was able to settle her stomach enough to board. God truly puts the right people in the right place. My friends wife also got sick to her stomach on the plane, but not to that extent. Then we had to get through the nightmare that is customs in Dulles (very close to dullard), where everything is done in the least efficient manner possible. Our plane was boarding by the time we got through that, but we still needed to get to a different section of the airport entirely. As I rounded the corner I saw the sign that said the next train would be coming in 23 seconds. I shouted back the information to everybody else, and we managed to get onto that train. After getting off, I ran ahead to the gate and found they were about to close it. I told them my group was right behind me, and they let us on. I can feel my blood pressure rising even as I write about it. Nonetheless, we made it on our last plane and back home.
I have been going through the pictures from the trip. I have far fewer this time. As I mentioned in a previous blog, my role was very different for this trip, and I was watching out for three other people rather than focusing all my attention on taking pictures. Nevertheless I have some that give what I feel is a good representation of our trip, and I will post more later as I have something to write about. Enjoy.
In a week I leave for Kenya. My role has changed in many ways. I’m now not only a gatherer of media, but one of several trail blazers with a new mission in Africa’s largest slum. It makes me think back now on the times when I have been completely out of my element, and especially to the times when an incident caused me to become aware of my own shortcomings.
It was February 2013, and I was in Bor, South Sudan. I was laying in my hammock in a tin building, sweating down my neck and just trying not to let any part of my body touch another. Even at night it was almost 40 degrees. Earlier we had been sitting outside under the stars, but trying to avoid the wind and the dust by sitting in the shelter of the wall. When you stood up, you could hear distant machine-gun fire. None of us knew what was going on, and the man we were staying with hoped we hadn’t noticed. When someone asked, he tried to play it down. This was apparently not out of the ordinary.
As I lay there trying to fall asleep, a gunshot rang out. It was close this time, very close. A second shot rang out, and this time it ricocheted off the roof of the tin building. I quickly rolled out of my hammock and crouched in what little shelter there was behind the unmilled log that formed a support post for the building. It wasn’t much.
Fortunately, there was never a third shot, and I never really found out what happened, but that night taught me a lot about myself. I can honestly say I was not scared by that incident, but what went on in my head that night was far more telling. The thoughts that occupied my mind that night were not of gunfire or violence or whatever was hiding out there in the night. My thought were occupied with my finances when I got home. I have a very cyclical job, and there are times when I simply don’t have a lot, depending on the time of year. My thoughts were about how I was going to pay for my everyday expenses when I got home.
You might think this is very strange, and it probably is. But the fact was that I had given my life both figuratively and literally to God. Please see this previous blog on the subject. https://southsudantraveler.wordpress.com/2014/11/11/im-twelve-years-old-and-im-going-to-die/
But giving my life to God did not mean I had given all areas to him, and frankly, my finances were one of those areas I had not given. I like to maintain control over certain things, especially my finances. Maybe it’s something to do with being self-employed. While it’s strange to not worry about your own life but worry about your finances, I suspect we all do something along this line, just not to this extreme.
The fact is that there is nothing that I can lose that Jesus has not already won. You can’t lose a life you’ve already given up. You also can’t be poor when God is with you, even if you have nothing. It’s only now that I’m learning this. Romans 8 sums it up very well.
“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written:
“For Your sake we are killed all day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.”
Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
We seek in vain to be free of trouble and danger and poverty, when all along we should be seeking to be within the heart of God. If we are there, then none of the other things matter. We are poured out as an offering before the throne of God, because that is the reason we were placed here. It is not for self-preservation, because there is no such thing. We are not here for self-glorification, because nothing temporal can achieve such a thing. We are here to do the will of God; that good and perfect will. To look after widows and orphans in their distress and to keep ones’s self from being polluted by the world. This is a hard calling, but when everything is put in this perspective, suddenly my finances are not really a worry anymore. If God has called me to do what I’m doing, then the finances will take care of themselves. God does not send his workers without tools, whatever they may be. I just need to be reminded of that sometimes.
In one week I leave for Kenya. I am going with a little apprehension. But no matter what it is, God has it covered.
I had a lot of thoughts on my mind lately; a lot of heavy thoughts. I decided to throw them all out and write about my upcoming trip to Kenya instead. After all, this blog doesn’t always have to heavy.
In just a few weeks, I leave for Kenya. This will be my eighth trip to Africa since 2010, and the frequency of the trips has only increased. It’s now at least twice a year. Nevertheless, this trip will be full of firsts. This will be the first time I am going to Kenya when I’m not either just stopping through on the way to somewhere else or taking a partial vacation. I will be doing ministry in Kibera, Africa’s largest slum. Though I’ve been to Africa several times, this is the first time I will be leading a team. There will be three people traveling with me, and two of them have never been to Africa before. My wife has only been once. To be honest, it makes me a little nervous, because I have more responsibility on my shoulders. I am fine with nervousness though. Everything that is worth doing comes with some risk, and the rewards are eternal. I know also that my nervousness will be nothing compared to that of my fellow travelers. I am looking forward to seeing that look on their faces the first time they step off the plane in Nairobi to the sights and sounds, and ah yes, the smells of Africa. I am looking forward to this because I remember the first time for me; for the awestruck wonder usually reserved for children but nonetheless granted to me one more time. I’m excited for them because I have some idea of what’s in store for them even if they don’t. I’m excited for the life changing epiphany that awaits them if their eyes are open even a little.
This is also the first time I will be going to Africa when photography will not be my main function. Yes, I will still be doing that, but I will have to put the camera down a lot more and do tasks which I may not be accustomed to. A year ago, when I was in Ethiopia, an African pastor prophesied over me as he prayed, saying I would be given new skills that would be used all over East Africa. Now is that time, and I will keep that in mind when I feel I am being stretched past my limits. New abilities don’t normally just drop into your lap. They form when we are pushed past what we have already become comfortable with into the realm of what might be possible. There are no participation trophies. I am looking forward to what is hard, knowing that what is hard now will not be as hard later. I’m looking forward to becoming more capable, even if it involves making mistakes. As I read in a book recently, “God cares more about the worker than the work.” I think this is a true statement.
I intend to be giving updates on our upcoming trip while in Kenya, including pictures. Thankfully I will have good internet access in the evenings. I also hope to be able to write about my team members’ first impressions while they are still fresh. I’m looking forward to that. One last note, I wanted to congratulate my friend Peter in South Sudan, who’s wife brought a joyous new life into the world last week.
For those wishing to follow my travels, and see the parts of Africa the tourists never see, you can follow this blog, and you’ll receive an email each time there’s a new post. Until next time.
In my last post I wrote a bit about agreements. It’s been a while since I’ve written, but the subject is still on my mind. Now that I’ve become aware of it, I have become more able to see what kind of agreements people make (including me) that we shouldn’t enter into.
In the movie “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” Tommy is telling the others about how he met with the devil at a crossroads and agreed to give up his soul in exchange for being able to play the guitar. Delmar responds with, “You sold your ever loving soul to the devil for that?” To which Tommy responds, “Well, I wasn’t using it.”
The agreements we make are frequently not made so explicitly, but they are made nonetheless. I’m finding that most of the agreements we make are made not because we met with the devil at a crossroads, but because bad things enter our lives, and rather than fight them, we become comfortable with them over time, until we finally fail to see them at all. Then, even when we are given an opportunity to be free of what plagues us, we’re so comfortable with our affliction that we choose not to give it up.
This blog is mostly about Africa and missions, so let me give you an example from that vein. I will shortly be going back to Kibera, Kenya. I’ve been to a lot of places in Africa that seem hopeless, but Kibera is possibly the worst. The filth alone is enough to completely overwhelm. People live (and I use that word loosely) on less than two dollars a day. Disease is rampant. Sewage runs between all the shacks. Children are abandoned during the day as mothers go out looking for work. There are constant fires because of electrical shorts from spliced wiring as people steal electricity from neighbors. Garbage has literally formed layers like a geological feature that you can see from the past hundred years. When you ask people what they have hope for, they literally come up with nothing because hope is a distant relative that died a long time ago. For some people poverty is a temporary thing; a temporary setback until they are able to get back on their feet. Kibera’s poverty is something much worse. It’s poverty that is over 100 years old. It’s no longer simply a lack of resources, it’s now a pervading state of mind. It’s old, generational poverty.
Many people living in Kibera do not have what it takes to extricate themselves from the slum, but some do. These are probably the saddest cases, because they have made an agreement that Kibera, as bad as it is, is ok. The first time I was in Kibera, after about forty five minutes, I literally felt like I needed to get out. From that point to being so comfortable with it that you decide not to leave even if you can is almost unfathomable to me.
Now, I’m going to preface my next statements by saying that I have a real problem with prosperity doctrine, which is unfortunately popular both in the United States and Kenya. It teaches basically that if you have enough faith, God will bless you and make you rich. I could go on for an entire blog about how this is wrong both scripturally and in the real world, but I won’t. While I don’t believe it is God’s intention to make us rich, I do believe he cares for us as his own children, which we are. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11. ““Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead?Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” Luke 11: 11-13
The bible frequently talks about how we will suffer along with Christ if we follow him, but if we realize that we are beloved children of God, when he sends the opportunity to be freed from bondage and suffering, it hardly makes sense to then say, “No, that’s ok. I’m good”. While we are called to suffer with Christ, we are not called to make agreements with the devil simply for the sake of taking on suffering. “My marriage is bad, but it’s ok.” “I live in filth, but it’s ok.” “My children are starving, but that’s just life.” These are all agreements from the pit of hell. Something I have been learning is that I don’t pray big enough. I pray for something but cut short the full extent of what I need, or the needs of someone I’m praying for. When you realize you’re praying to an infinite God, it suddenly seem stupid to put limitations on your prayers. I met an Ethiopian pastor recently who said “I always pray for something, then double it.” He’s not praying for riches, he’s praying for the lost to be saved, for the captives to be set free, and for a bit of God’s kingdom to show up here on Earth. The first step in that process is to stop accepting the physical, spiritual, and mental squalor that we have agreed to live in.
In eastern Ethiopia is a small and ancient walled city called Harar. It was founded sometime between the 7th and 11th centuries, depending on whom you talk to, and it is Islam’s fourth holiest site. One of the things Harar is known for is the nightly feeding of the hyenas. The people of Harar and the hyenas have an “arrangement” if you will, where the hyenas come in at night and clean up the trash. There is actually a small gate in the city wall for the hyenas, known appropriately enough as the hyena gate. Though the hyenas will eat out of a person’s hand, they are by no means tame, but it makes for a great show for the tourists every night. Hyenas are known as scavengers, but I think a more accurate description of them would be that they are opportunists. If hunting is easier, they’ll do that. If intimidating a lion out of its kill is more convenient, or if taking food from a willing Ethiopian works best, then that’s what they’ll do. But the fact is that they are wild animals with no loyalties, and if ripping your face off works for them, so be it.
A couple days ago, I read a simple phrase that said, “The devil is an opportunist”. My thoughts were immediately brought back to the hyena gate. What is the purpose of a wall, but to keep things out that are dangerous to life and limb? Every walled city has weak points, but the people of Harar have made an “agreement” and purposely allowed something unsavory into the city. Yes, attacks are rare, but it remains that at any time that arrangement might no longer be considered convenient for the hyenas, and at that point, it’s too late.
This works for people as well. After considering this, I had to ask myself, “are there things in my life that I have made agreements with that have the potential to destroy me?” Have I told myself that having the hyenas inside my city wall is ok because they clean up for me? Have I learned to trust them? How many of us have gone so far as to install a hole in the city wall? The devil is an opportunist. I’ve heard lots of people say in one way or another, “the devil made me do it”. This is nonsense. He doesn’t need to. “But each one is enticed by his own evil desire. When desire is full grown it gives birth to sin. And sin, when it has reached completion, gives birth to death.” The devil has only to wait and see where our weak points are and exploit them, which is why it is so important to be vigilant and to daily put on the full armor of God. What are the gates we have installed? They’re different for everybody. “I have to drink after work or I can’t wind down.” ” “I know I shouldn’t look at that, but I’m not hurting anyone.” The list is almost endless, and if you think you have no gates, I can almost guarantee that pride is your gate.
The news recently has been full of people who had everything going for them, but had made agreements in their life they thought they could control. They were wrong. Their agreements were found out, and their lives were destroyed. It’s time to take inventory of the gates we’ve installed, and ask God where the weak spots are in the city wall. It’s time to get a pile of stones and some mortar and fix those spots, before the hyenas grow tired of our arrangement.
As I was thinking about all the posts I’ve done about Africa, photography, and missions. I’ve done posts on the people I’ve met and the broader concepts of all things related to Africa, but I’ve never published a post about the landscape of Africa. When people think of Africa, they usually think of herds of animals on the grasslands with the occasional Acacia tree breaking up the horizon. Sure, there’s that aspect of Africa, but there is so much more to it than that. There are jungles, scrublands, deserts, big cities, mountains, even glaciers. Today I decided to feature some of the landscapes I’ve seen on my travels in East Africa. These are all from South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Kenya, so you can imaging all there is to see in the other fifty or so counties. I’ve specifically tried to exclude people from these shots to focus on the landscapes, but there are some. Let these give you a sense of place, and please enjoy them. All can be clicked on for a larger view.
When I was a small child, I remember my grandfather, who was born in 1910, telling me stories he’s heard over the course of his life. They were always riveting for me to listen to, because they were like nothing I heard elsewhere. I always assumed as a child that they were stories he’d made up, until as an adult I was able to find them on the internet. Many times they were old folk tales going back centuries. One of these was the story of the old woman and her little pig. This is how it goes.
ONCE there was an old woman found a sixpence while she was sweeping, and she took it to the village and bought a little pig with it.
She got part way home, and she came to a stile, and the pig wouldn’t go over the stile.
So she told her little dog to bite the pig, and he wouldn’t.
Then she went along a little way, and she came to a stick that was lying by the side of the road. And she said, “Stick, stick, beat dog, dog won’t bite pig, piggy won’t jump over the stile; I see by the moonlight ’tis half-past midnight, time pig and I were home an hour and a half ago.”
But the stick wouldn’t.
Then she went along a little way, and she came to a fire that was burning by the side of the road. And she said, “Fire, fire, burn stick, stick won’t beat dog, dog won’t bite pig, piggy won’t jump over the stile; I see by the moonlight ’tis half-past midnight, time pig and I were home an hour and a half ago.”
But the fire wouldn’t.
Then she went along a little way, and she came to a puddle of water in the road. And she said, “Water, water, quench fire, fire won’t burn stick, stick won’t beat dog, dog won’t bite pig, piggy won’t jump over the stile; I see by the moonlight ’tis half-past midnight, time pig and I were home an hour and a half ago.”
But the water wouldn’t.
Then she went along a little way, and she saw an ox standing in a field. And she said, “Ox, ox, drink water, water won’t quench fire, fire won’t burn stick, stick won’t beat dog, dog won’t bite pig, piggy won’t jump over the stile; I see by the moonlight ’tis half-past midnight, time pig and I were home an hour and a half ago.”
But the ox wouldn’t.
Then she went along a little way, and she came to a butcher standing in the door of his shop. And she said, “Butcher, butcher, kill ox, ox won’t drink water, water won’t quench fire, fire won’t burn stick, stick won’t beat dog, dog won’t bite pig, piggy won’t jump over the stile; I see by the moonlight ’tis half-past midnight, time pig and I were home an hour and a half ago.”
But the butcher wouldn’t.
Then she went along a little way, and she saw a rope tied to the limb of a tree. And she said, “Rope, rope, hang butcher, butcher won’t kill ox, ox won’t drink water, water won’t quench fire, fire won’t burn stick, stick won’t beat dog, dog won’t bite pig, piggy won’t jump over the stile; I see by the moonlight ’tis half-past midnight, time pig and I were home an hour and a half ago.”
But the rope wouldn’t.
Then she went along a little way, and she saw a rat. And she said, “Rat, rat, gnaw rope, rope won’t hang butcher, butcher won’t kill ox, ox won’t drink water, water won’t quench fire, fire won’t burn stick, stick won’t beat dog, dog won’t bite pig, piggy won’t jump over the stile; I see by the moonlight, ’tis half-past midnight, time pig and I were home an hour and a half ago.”
The rat said, “I will if you give me a piece of cheese.”
And the little old woman gave the rat a piece of cheese.
So the rat began to gnaw the rope, and the rope began to hang the butcher, and the butcher began to kill the ox, and the ox began to drink the water, and the water began to quench the fire, and the fire began to burn the stick, and the stick began to beat the dog, and the dog began to bite the pig, and the pig began to jump over the stile, and the little old woman got home that night.
It’s a fun story, but what does it have to do with Africa or missions? Frankly, a lot. The preceding story is a lot like trying to get things done in Africa. You try to get something done, but there’s always someone waiting for someone else to do something first, who in turn is waiting for someone to do something else, and by the time you get to the end of the line, whatever it is you are trying to do never gets done. This finally gets to the rat, who had to be paid a bribe to do what rats normally do anyway, but that’s a subject for another blog post.
There are certain cultural things that need to be understood before we rush to judgement about why this is the way it is. Africans value family and time building relationships far more than cracking the whip and getting things done. There is nothing wrong with this, up to a point. We on the other hand, especially in New York where I’m from, value getting things done more than family or relationships, and many times are willing to sacrifice the latter for the former. This is not ok.
The other thing to understand is that many times the things we think are important to get done are not important to them. Just because westerners thought of it doesn’t make it better, and many times they see problems with what we’re trying to do that we don’t see. That’s why we go to Africa to learn as much as we go to teach. We help each other through our respective brokenness.
There are times, though, when we’re asked for help on a specific issue, and things just need to get done. Often there are volunteers who have donated their time and resources on this end of things who are waiting for something from the receiving end so they can do what they’ve been asked to do. Often these volunteers don’t understand the way things are done in the non-western world. Both those asking for help and the volunteer’s time needs to be valued. This way mutual respect can be shown to all parties, and the things that really need to get done can be finished.
The thing I’d like to see come out of the relationships we’ve built in Africa, and I say this with the utmost respect for all parties, is for many of the Africans to learn to be stewards with resources, and for the westerners to be better stewards with people and relationships. This way we can all grow.