Kenya Part 4: The Conference, New Friends, and Another Cool Ceiling

(If you want to catch up, here’s part 1, part 2, and part 3)

When I began this trip, I had only a vague idea of what Open Hands was and how I’d be contributing. By the time I’d spent that epic day visiting savings group and interviewing small business owners, I’d fully caught the vision. I began to envision what a completed video might look like. But to round things out, I wanted to interview some of the leaders and get some footage explaining the basics of the organization.

Monday was the beginning of a facilitator training conference. Facilitators from all over Kenya, and even a few from Tanzania, all gathered together at the Cool Rivers Hotel. (Turns out, this was actually why we came to Kenya at this specific time.)

I guess some of the higher-up people in the organization arrived early for meetings, because when I arrived at the Propel Training office to conduct some interviews early Monday afternoon, I walked in on the tail end of a meeting.

The man in the yellow/orange shirt is Amada, the program coordinator for East Africa. He’s actually from Kisumu, the town where Steven is from. The plan was to interview Joe first, then Ken, then Amada.

We couldn’t just set a camera up in the office, because it was full of people and meetings. So we wandered around the complex for a while trying to find a suitable place. I never did quite understand the Cool Rivers hotel. In the Kenyan way, all the hallways were half outdoors, and it seemed to ramble on and be full of strange random rooms. (Once, on my way to the bathroom, I looked out the window and saw something like an abandoned amusement park or fairgrounds.)

After wandering around the premises a bit, we came to a courtyard-like area with some tables and chairs. I set up all my equipment there. (“Equipment” being a camera, a tripod, and a little clip-on microphone–nothing fancy). Joe’s interview went well, but halfway through Ken’s interview it started raining. So we scooped everything up and ran into a random little room that had more than four walls. I don’t remember if it was a pentagon or a hexagon, but the walls were pink, and it was just big enough for one table and a few chairs. It still baffles me. What was the point of that room and why were we allowed to be in there? But it worked very well and kept the rain off. I interviewed Amada in there too.

After the interviews we went back to the guest house for a bit because the guys needed to freshen up, and we also needed to collect the rest of the ladies. Then it was back to the hotel for the opening session of the conference.

This ceiling also fascinated me.

If the speaking was in English it was usually translated into Swahili, and vice versa.

After this opening session, we all went downstairs to the restaurant for supper. Amazing food as usual, but I can’t remember specifically what we ate. I did snap one blurry pic on my phone I guess…looks like rice, ugali, some greens, and some meat?

I noticed that every Kenyan restaurant I went to had a sink, not in the bathroom, just in the general eating area. I wasn’t sure if this was a COVID-era thing or if it had always been like this, but I loved it. It grosses me out when people gobble up finger foods without washing their hands first. But here, everyone lined up to wash their hands, and only after hand washing did they line up to get their food.

Dad wanted to interview some facilitators, particularly those who had led people in their savings groups to faith in Christ. At first we were going to do this after supper, but the hour grew late and there was no time. So then the plan was to conduct the interviews during the 10-minute breaks between sessions the next day.

We went home, went to bed, and got up early to make it to the 8 am opening session on Tuesday. Plans shifted around. Instead of interviewing during the 10-min-breaks, I’d interview during the “Overview of Family Finance” session. Also, in typical Kenyan fashion, people didn’t worry too much about keeping a super-strict schedule, so I’m not sure if the 10-min-break thing would even have worked.

The savings groups all have savings cycles, and during the cycle no one can join or leave the group. This man’s session was about how to wrap up a cycle. I tuned a lot of it out, but there was one really interesting part I took note of. Someone in the audience asked a question–I think it was about what you do if you get to the end of a cycle and someone has borrowed more than they’ve saved. Then other facilitators in the audience spoke up with solutions. The one I particularly remember is a gentleman explaining how to set ground rules at the beginning of the cycle so that stuff like that doesn’t happen at the end of a cycle.

What was interesting was that no white people spoke in this interaction. I saw this as a sign that Open Hands is working, at least in Kenya, because the problem solving and solutions are coming from each other rather than from the outside.

The sessions were interesting enough, but my favorite part was the tea break.

Everyone lined up to get tea
I chatted a bit with Sheila. Sheila is the facilitator of Flower Women’s group which I talked about in my last post. (Also note Bruce in the background, still contemplating something deep.)

I asked for black tea, and was given this adorable little teapot full of hot water.

The snack consisted of a mandazi and a samosa. A mandazi is kind-of like a donut except only mildly sweet. As far as I can make out, samosas, like chai and chapatis, became a part of Kenyan cuisine due to Indian influence. A number of Indians came to Kenya while they were both British colonies. Of course the Kenyan versions are different–not really spicy at all.

After the tea break and another session, I went over to the Propel Training office to set up my camera. This set of interviews was a little different. When I’d interviewed the Open Hands leaders, I knew what information I needed for the video I wanted to make. But with interviewing facilitators, I was getting information that Dad specifically wanted to know as he gave his PR presentations. Because of this, Dad conducted the interviews. He mostly wanted to know stories about people who started following Jesus as a result of being in a savings group.

The most interesting story came from a man who actually started a whole church as a result of his savings group.

For some reason I kept having technical difficulties. As soon as I entered the room I plugged in my spare battery, and it’s a good thing I did because halfway through one of the interviews my battery died. I quickly swapped it out, only to have my memory card fill up a few minutes later. I didn’t have a backup memory card and had to transfer the files to my computer, so for the rest of that particular interview I just recorded audio.

For some reason Lyndon and Joe decided to just stand in the room and watch the process. Which was fine until Lyndon knocked a giant picture off the wall, and it went crashing to the floor. Joe and I died in silent laughter. Dad and the man we were interviewing kept on like nothing had happened, haha.

After we wrapped up the interviews, it was lunch time. I ended up at a table with a man named Moses and his wife Rose, both of whom are facilitators.

I had a bit of a hard time communicating, especially with Rose. I asked if they had any children, and when they said they had a 23-year-old daughter, I asked if she was married. They said “yes,” but then when I asked if they had any grandchildren they realized they’d misunderstood me. “No, she’s not married,” they said.

I was afraid I was coming across like marriage is the only important thing, so I said that I’m 31 and unmarried. First they wondered if I was still in school, and then they said that in Kenya, most people marry young.

They said this as though they were trying to explain a cultural difference to me, like I came from a place where everyone stays single into their 30s. For some reason I felt a need to correct that assumption. “In my community people usually marry very young as well,” I said. “But I’ve just never married because…”

How the bunnyslipper do you explain in one simple sentence why you haven’t married even though all your peers have?

“…I’ve never fallen in love. I’ve never met a man I wanted to marry,” I said. (This isn’t strictly true, but it’s true enough. I’ve never met a man I wanted to marry who also wanted to marry me.)

Rose looked me in the eyes and said, “God’s timing is perfect.” As trite as that phrase usually sounds, from Rose’s lips it was full of warmth and understanding. She was affirming that I was at the place in life God wanted me to be. That I was in a good place, even if it was a different place than my peers.

They told me that they are both pastors, and they pastor different churches, even though they’re married to each other. I thought that was odd and interesting. They said that I should come visit them.

“My trip here is very short,” I said.

“Come back again,” they said.

“Open Hands is paying for me to be here, but if I come again it will be very expensive for me,” I said.

“God will provide,” said Rose. Another simple phrase that sounded profound when she said it. Of course, if I’m supposed to come to Kenya again, God will provide.

We finished our food and the room began to clear out. Dad, Jason, Gloria, and I all needed to go back to the house and pack because we were leaving shortly. Jason and Gloria were flying home and Dad and I were taking a taxi to Kisumu, where Steven had been all week.

I have vivid memories of being a child and wanting to go home after church, but feeling like I was going to be stuck there forever. Everyone would be out in the car except for your brother. Then your sister would go in to get your brother, and she’d disappear. Your brother would come back, but then Andy Miller would walk by and start talking to your dad. Your other sister would remember that she forgot something, dash inside, and then the first sister would re-appear.

Well, suddenly things were very much like this. What vehicle were we going back to the house in? Where did Jason and Gloria run off to? Who are we waiting on? Wait, did Ken call a taxi to pick us up here? But we haven’t packed up our things yet!

It was all very confusing and we ended up hanging about the premises for a while. “Who are we waiting on?” I asked, finally.

“Jason and Gloria and Joe are having some sort of meeting,” someone informed me.

“Wait, the media meeting?” I said. “I’m supposed to be in on that!” We’d talked about having a media meeting, but had never nailed down a time. I suddenly realized that now was the last chance, and Dad and I dashed upstairs.

We had a short but productive meeting, figuring out what videos I should make, what Gloria should do with the website, the best way to share pictures and videos, etc. When the meeting was done I hugged Gloria and said, “Well, I guess this is goodbye.”

Joe laughed. “You’ll see each other again at the house,” he said. So I ignored Jason and went outside to tell Verlin and Bethany goodbye. But then I got dropped off at Jamila and Luke’s house to pack, and by the time I made it over to the guest house, Jason and Gloria had left for the airport already but Verlin and Bethany had showed up. So they got two goodbyes and poor Jason got none.

Then Dad and I got into the taxi and we began the three-and-a-half hour drive to Kisumu. The driver was apparently a huge Dolly Parton fan, and we listened to her songs the whole drive. (Or maybe that was just his best guess on what Americans like to listen to.)

The most beautiful part of the drive was when twilight struck just as we reached a hilly wilderness full of African umbrella trees, silhouetted against the purple-blue sky. I tried to get a picture on my phone but it was mostly blur.

It was late by the time we arrived in Kisumu. The Amish Mennonite Aid (AMA) compound looked just like I’d remembered it, though.

It’s strange how people from your past suddenly appear again. When I was thirteen and my family visited Kenya for four months, I went to school with the AMA kids. This was a very awkward age for me. I was logical but not sociable, and if I didn’t feel like doing something, I didn’t. I was also bad at sports. So when all the kids played “tree base,” like King’s base but with trees, I didn’t participate. Instead I wrote down in my notebook exactly why this game was illogical. You’d spend all your energy fighting for your team, but as soon as you got caught that energy worked against you, because that team was now your enemy. So stupid.

It’s been almost twenty years since those days, but I’ve secretly always dreaded meeting one of those kids again, because I knew I’d always be the awkward girl who refused to play tree base.

When I was on my living-in-a-new-place-every-month trip I ended up living in Florida with Ivan and Erma, who were the grandparents of Abigail, an AMA girl I’d gone to school with in Kenya. Then Titus Kuepfer, another AMA kid I’d gone to school with, asked me to be on his podcast multiple times. And now I found myself back in Kenya, and Abigail had apparently grown up and married and moved back to the Kenyan house she’d grown up in.

Abigail was always really nice to me back then though, and she was still nice all these years later. It was late, but she pulled out all kinds of food for us since we hadn’t eaten since lunch. I told her about staying with her grandparents in Florida.

“Did you hear about grandma?” she said.

“No, what?” I asked.

“She has COVID and she’s not doing well,” said Abigail.

Indeed, in the past few days I’ve learned that Erma has passed away. What a sad loss. I know she was ready to meet Jesus, and even when I was in Florida with her she had such trouble with her feet and her eyesight that she longed for Heaven. But she was a very kind, sweet lady, and she blessed me tremendously. I’m sorry to lose her.

After eating my fill I went to bed because I was exhausted. I’d over-extended myself again, and what was worse, I’d planned some intense and exhausting things for the following day. I didn’t know how I could possibly do the things I’d planned, but I didn’t want to let anyone down.

“Maybe I’ll be fine after a good night of sleep,” I said to myself.

But lo and behold, I was not fine.

I’ll tell you more about that in the next post.


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5 responses to “Kenya Part 4: The Conference, New Friends, and Another Cool Ceiling

  1. Hey! Just saying hi here…..don’t think I ever have before…..I’m really enjoying your Kenya adventures. From childhood I was certain I was going to be the unmarried lady who travels widely and does unusual cool things. Well, I’m laying in bed, on the farm my husband and four boys live/operate on and I read your stories and laugh at how life works. I also have a beloved family nearby that immigrated from Nigeria 4 years ago which makes me want to go to Africa SO BADLY.

    Anyways. Just had to tell you how your well written stories are making me happy 😃

    Sherri Shaum

    Sent from my iPhone



  2. This is so so interesting! Thank you for taking us along on your trip!!


  3. I loved the samosas in Bangladesh. All restaurants had sinks. I assumed it was because it was a Muslim country try, though I may be wrong.


  4. Pingback: Kenya Part 5: Kisumu, and Steven’s Brothers | The Girl in the Red Rubber Boots

  5. Pingback: Kenya Part 6: Mombasa and the Journey Home | The Girl in the Red Rubber Boots

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