Category Archives: Travel

The Reality TV Show Experience

The Drive

The fall leaves were at their best stage of orange as I drove north through the misty sunrise. I knew I was supposed to eat a hearty breakfast before I came, so I tried to nibble a muffin, my stomach in knots.

Today was the day. I was going to be on America’s Next Great Author (ANGA), a new reality TV show about writers.

Well, sort of. Right now we were just filming the pilot. (I explained the format in my previous blog posts here and here, if you need to do a quick skim to refresh your memory.)

But I’d never done anything like this before, and as much as I tried to convince myself to calm down, my stomach didn’t listen.

I was wearing a new dress I’d made myself. Shoes I’d mutilated to remove the Adidas label because they’d told us not to wear brand names. A new headcovering I’d clipped from the corner of a thrift store scarf and carefully hemmed. A face cream that was supposed to reduce my rosacea.

I was ready.

Ready, yet inexplicably nervous. I’d been trying not to take the whole thing too seriously because I don’t do the best with stress. But getting up at 6 am for the long drive to Newark didn’t help matters.

Still, Sunday morning may be the only time it’s easy to drive to Newark, NJ. I navigated through the deserted streets until I found the nearly-empty parking lot, and then, with a bit of time to spare, I brushed my teeth and spat in the bushes.

Then, gathering my yellow coat, a very small purse, and the papers I needed, I walked down the street to the library where the filming was taking place.

And there they were—a long line of authors in their Best and Brightest outfits, excitedly chatting in the morning sunshine.

The Wait

I registered at the little table, handing over my appearance release and showing a photo of the negative Covid test I’d taken that morning. They handed me a name tag in a plastic sleeve. Then I walked to the back of the line and waited.

We really waited for quite a while. An hour, I think. Maybe they were still setting up inside, I don’t know.

But we were all writers, easily entertained by other human beings, so we gabbed contentedly. Sam told me about a book she was reading that explained how to understand and pursue your true desires. Jeremy told stories about people puking in his Uber.

“Do you know most of the people here already?” I asked Sam.

“Yeah, I met most of them at the meet-and-greet yesterday,” she said. All the people who flew in Saturday had a chance to hang out and meet each other, but I’d missed it. One of the drawbacks of driving up.

There were a lot of people involved with this operation, and I tried to figure out where everyone belonged. The people in line with me were all writers. Someone said there were 75 of us—apparently, out of the 100 semi-finalists, 25 were unable to make it, which makes sense considering we were responsible for our own transportation and lodging.

I think the other well-dressed people wandering about were all producers, though it was difficult to tell because their name tags looked exactly like contestant name tags. I recognized David and Arielle. They were our mentors leading up to the show, filming helpful YouTube videos and doing a live Q and A. David also did a one-on-one mentoring session with each of us to help us polish our pitches.

Actually, as I was registering, David greeted me and we took a selfie. The producers, especially David and Arielle, were just like that the whole time—acting like they knew us because they’d watched our submissions so many times they felt like they did. Which was really nice because it lent a bit of familiarity and comfort to a brand-new situation.

There was also an ASL interpreter, immaculately dressed in a chic black outfit. One of the writers was deaf.

And finally, there was a whole group in well-worn black t-shirts who held cameras and microphones and whom I assumed to be the film crew. It was so funny how you could easily tell who expected to be on camera and who didn’t. The latter, of course, was dressed far more comfortably.

Some filming happened that first hour, though the camera was barely on me. David went along the line asking people questions and hyping us up, and that part was filmed.

And then finally, things got moving, and we all gathered in front of the library like we were posing for a giant group picture. Kwame Alexander crossed the street and we all cheered.

Kwame, a Newbery-Medal-winning author, was the host of the show. He hyped us up too. “Repeat after me,” he yelled. “I am the greatest!”

“I am the greatest!” the crowd shouted back.

“Not because I am better than anyone else”

“Not because I am better than anyone else”

“But because no one else is better than me!”

“But because no one else is better than me!”

Well, it’s probably a good thing I was in the back of the crowd because my Mennonite modesty would never allow me to shout a phrase like “I am the greatest.” So I just stood there silently and slightly awkwardly like I do when people recite the pledge of allegiance or sing that song that goes “his blood atones for all our race.”

After that, properly hyped and ready to go, we trooped into the library.

The Library

Old libraries are so interesting; a mix of timeless beauty and utilitarian practicality.

The Newark Public Library is such a place. Worn marble steps and stone arches right next to a folding table and stackable chairs. Rows and rows of beautiful hardback books with call numbers taped to their spines. Gorgeous murals. Paper posters advertising current library events.

We went inside, up the stairs to the second floor, through a small-ish room, and into an area full of computers where the film crew hung out.

Then, turning left and walking past the film crew area, we found ourselves in a long room full of chairs. All the writers found seats, while the producers and film crew rushed about. I plonked myself down near the water cooler and watched a crew member hang an “America’s Next Great Author” banner over the fireplace.

“Hey,” said the writer next to me. “I’m Maz.”


“Like Jazz, with an M.”

We talked about our backgrounds and writing projects. Maz told me that his book is a memoir about being a Muslim child in Chicago during the Iranian hostage crisis.

We were indoors instead of outdoors, yet still we waited and waited for things to begin. It was wonderful. I drank water and met writers. Inman, behind me, was a sci-fi writer. Nadia sat at the end of my row. Fascinatingly enough, she’d also attended Oregon State University.

My purse was full of beef jerky and crackers. I should have eaten them, because I was no longer nervous.

But I didn’t.

And Then It Began

Out of the 75 semi-finalists that showed up, only 20 of us were going to be able to pitch our book to the judges.

“Do you really think they’re going to pick the 20 finalists randomly?” Sam had asked me as we’d stood in line.

“I don’t know,” I’d said. “That’s what they said at the live Q and A, but if you’re trying to make this into a TV show, wouldn’t you hand-pick the most interesting people?”

And sure enough, once things got going, David and Arielle told us that they weren’t choosing the finalists randomly after all. They’d hand-picked 20 people to pitch.

I wasn’t upset about this at the time. But later when I told family and friends about it they were confused and indignant. You mean they made everyone else fly out there knowing full well they weren’t going to let them pitch?

I assumed there was an explanation but I didn’t know what it was, so last week I had an email exchange with the producers and they kindly explained the process to me.

Turns out that at the time of the live Q and A, they were planning to choose the finalists randomly. David and Arielle have held many Pitchapaloozas over the years at bookstores and writer’s conferences, and the process has always been the same: Out of a group of writers, 20 people are randomly selected to pitch.

Of course, this is the first time they’ve ever done a Pitchapalooza as part of a TV show.

Other contest-type TV shows, like American Idol, hold open auditions in cities—auditions which are so massive that most people don’t even get to meet producers or judges. Also, some people are selected just so they’ll humiliate themselves on camera.

Wanting to go a different, more wholesome and supportive route, the ANGA production team decided to choose 100 semi-finalists from online submissions. That way there’d be few enough people so they could meet them all, but enough people to ensure that at least 20 would be able to make it.

They assumed that most of the people who ended up coming would be within driving distance of Newark. But when they started getting RSVPs from all over the country, they decided to add things to the event to make it more like a writer’s conference, so that everyone would get help on their book-publishing journey even if they didn’t get to pitch.

So they arranged a number of networking events, added a writer’s conference component for after the Pitchapalooza was over, and gave us free copies of their books on how to write and publish.

But then, between the live Q and A and the filming, they started thinking about the limitations of randomly drawing people to pitch. What if they only drew romance novel writers? Then only romance novel writers would hear useful feedback from the judges, and sci-fi writers wouldn’t get as much out of the experience.

So they hand-picked 20 people to pitch, making sure a wide variety of genres were represented so that everyone could take away something useful even if they didn’t get to pitch. But since the list of who was coming and who wasn’t kept fluctuating, they didn’t finalize the list until everyone was checked in.

The Pitchapalooza

The panel of judges sat up front. Some of them were bestselling authors and in general they seemed like Very Important People but since I couldn’t see or hear super well from my position near the back of the room, the only judge I can identify, besides David, was author Jason Reynolds.

Kwame Alexander hosted the show. He would come to the front of the room and say something like, “she’s a small-town mayor who loves to knit and wrestle alligators in her spare time. Give it up for Jessica Whitlock! And we’d all cheer as Jessica Whitlock came forward.

(This is just an example. There was no Jessica Whitlock. I remember very few details about the people he called up, except that he made them all sound like they had Main Character Energy.)

Then “Jessica Whitlock” would stand at the podium and, in one minute, pitch her book.

And when she was done, the judges would offer feedback on what was working and what could be improved.

Then she’d go into a different room to get personally interviewed, and Kwame would call up the next finalist.

I wanted to pitch. I’ve always wanted to pitch, although I’ve tried to be realistic about my chances. You all know how theatrical I can be. I love public speaking. I didn’t expect to win, but I wanted to stand up there and say things.

But one by one, they called people up, and it was never me.

It’s hard to describe how horrible I felt.

Part of this was just Emily Disease. I’d gotten up too early, I hadn’t eaten enough, and I was peopled out. There were crackers and beef jerky in my purse but I didn’t want to start merrily munching on camera. I had to pee, but I didn’t want to be in the bathroom if they called my name. I was thirsty, but there was a camera between me and the water cooler, and I felt weird walking in front of it.

This makes it sound like I was stuck in the Pitchapalooza for ages, but it really wasn’t that long. Maybe an hour and a half or two hours.

But during those two hours I slowly descended into deeper and deeper misery.

There was something really horrible about not getting chosen. Like being a kid when the athletic kids are picking teams, and every time thinking “maybe I’ll get picked next” but you never are.

I thought about Sam’s book. The one about understanding your true desires. At the time it had seemed a bit silly, yet here I was, getting in touch with my true desires after all.

I’d tried not to take it too seriously, but right now, it mattered so much to me. I didn’t want to pitch for the fun of it, I wanted to be chosen. I wanted non-Mennonite people to care about Mennonite stories. I wanted recognition outside the Mennonite world.

But they called number 18, number 19, number 20…and then it was all over.

And I was not picked.

Reflections on Rejection

It took me a while to process all of this. Why I cared so much. Why it hurt so much.

I drove down to Texas in the days after the show, and when I stopped at my cousin Jason’s house in Tennessee, we talked for hours about our lives and our writing projects. Jason is also a writer but, unlike me, he’s been to writer’s conferences.

“It’s the same way at writer’s conferences,” he said. “At home you can be realistic, and tell yourself it doesn’t matter that much…no matter what happens you’ll gain feedback that will make you a better writer. But then you get to the conference and it feels like the only thing that matters is being accepted by an agent. I’ve heard grown men crying in the bathroom.”

Then he pulled out the best analogy: it’s like asking someone out.

You can tell yourself that it’s okay if they say no…the world won’t end. Other romantic prospects exist. But when you’re rejected, in that moment it feels like the only thing that matters.

Crowning a Winner

The one bright spot in my misery was hearing some of my new friends get called up to pitch. Especially when Maz got chosen. I cheered like crazy.

Also, the people who did pitch had amazing, fascinating stories. It was fun to imagine reading their books in the future, and very interesting to hear the professional judges offer feedback.

But when all 20 finalists had pitched, the atmosphere in the room was heavy, somber, sad. 55 of us were utterly dejected. Kwame and the judges started telling stories about how many times they’d been rejected before they’d found success, trying to cheer us up and encourage us to keep on with our writing.

“I didn’t even realize I cared about pitching that much,” Inman told me later.

“Me neither,” I confessed.

The judges bipped off through the stacks to confer with each other and choose a winner, and the film crew started filming some audience shots. Then there was a bit more waiting and chatting time, before the judges came back and Kwame announced that the winner was…Joi Miner!

I hadn’t met Joi yet but I rooted for her anyway. She was exuberant and kind and she radiated, well, pure joy. I went and talked to her after everything was over, and she was lovely.

The Aftermath

It was now about 1 pm. The Pitchapalooza was over. “There’s lunch across the hall, and then come back in here for a special surprise!” the producers told us.

“Actually, we’ll just tell you the surprise now. We’re holding a mini writer’s conference.”

Then we were dismissed. I didn’t know what to do first. Eat? Use the bathroom? I sat down at a lunch table with a bunch of finalists and a producer, and they had interesting things to say about the interviews and such but I was mostly focused on my own misery.

I mean, physical misery. I was so hungry it hurt, and the pain didn’t immediately dissipate as I stuffed my face and tried to talk to Autumn through an exhausted brain fog.

9 times out of 10 I can eat a small breakfast and be perfectly fine until mid-afternoon, although I don’t normally do it. But every once in a while I get inexplicably ravenous, and today was one of those days.

I needed some air and space. After eating and using the bathroom I took a walk to my car. And I tried to sort things out in my brain.

I could just leave, except I wasn’t fit to drive. Should I take a nap in my car? Maybe I just needed some tea.

Yes, that was it. I had food in my system and a bit of alone time, now. I’d be fine if I could only get some tea.

So I stuck a tea bag in my purse and went back to the library.

And then, something odd and beautiful happened.

As I walked back into the main room, a woman said to me, “I really liked your pitch.”

I looked at her with the most what the bunnyslipper expression. “But…I didn’t get to pitch,” I said…although I don’t remember if I said it out loud or just with the confused wrinkle between my eyebrows.

“Oh, sorry, I’m one of the producers,” she said. She explained that she and the other producers had watched our submission videos so many times they felt like they knew us. She said that she’d spent a lot of time on a farm growing up, and she really thought I should do something with my story.

A Quick Explanetory Interjection

I’m realizing, as I’m writing this, that I ought to include my pitch in this blog post. Because you guys have no idea what I’m talking about when I mention my pitch/book/project.

But I did something embarrassing and maybe unethical that’s keeping me from sharing it.

See, on the combine last summer I got a random book idea: What if there was a teenage Mennonite combine driver who had to figure out how to bring the harvest in alone when her uncle/boss had an accident similar my dad’s that puts him out of commission?

This was around the time I heard about America’s Next Great Author, so I decided to pitch this book idea.

Unfortunately, I only had a few days to write the pitch, because I wanted to film it in front of my combine and I was about to fly east. I needed a main character name. It had to be Mennonite. It had to be memorable.

So I stole a real person’s name.

I intended to ask her for permission, and I’m going to as soon as I can psyche myself up. If she doesn’t want me to use it I’ll pick something else. But I barely know her and it just feels weird and awkward.

But in the meantime, I don’t want to post my pitch here because I’m sure some of you will recognize the name.

Tea Desperation

By the time I made my way into the room for the writer’s conference portion, I was so tired the world seemed vague and hazy.

I needed tea.

There was a coffee cart in the little in-between room, but no hot water. So I took a cup and my own tea bag over to the water cooler, but the tab for hot water was broken off.

I tried to fix it with a bobby pin, but it didn’t work.

Welp, so much for that. I sat down. I tried to focus on the speaker’s advice. I began to doze.

This is crazy. I need tea. I will acquire tea by any means necessary.

Thus, I went wandering around the library in search of hot water. And for a while, I found only disappointment. One water cooler was empty. There was a room in the library labeled “cafe,” but it was just vending machines. One of them was a coffee-dispensing machine, and I thought it might give me hot water, but I couldn’t get it to turn on.

But finally, I found a water cooler with functional hot water in a back room in a dark corner where I’m not sure I was supposed to be but there were no “keep out” signs and I promise I just got water and left.

Anyway. I suppose I could have choked down some coffee and acquired caffeine that way. But tea has a psychological effect on me as well as a caffeination effect. When I have tea, I feel like everything is going to be okay now.

And things were much better after that. Revived by tea, I fully enjoyed listening to the Q and A with some of the producers who had lots of writing and publishing experience to dispense.

The End Is Near

That was the end of the planned events at the library, but the producers arranged another networking meetup where everyone who didn’t get to pitch could get together that evening and pitch to each other.

But like the networking events on Saturday, I wasn’t able to go as I had a long drive ahead of me.

So I made the most of the library time. I talked to Inman for a while, and then I introduced myself to Joi and we talked for a bit. But people were leaving, and I saw Kwame coming toward us, looking like he was trying to clear the room.

Now I hadn’t talked to Kwame yet, partly because I always thought he’d be too busy, and partly because I was a little star-struck. Growing up I didn’t know what an Oscar or a Grammy was, but I knew exactly what the Newbery metal was because we always bought books with the gold Newbery winning or silver Newbery honor stickers on the front. That’s how I found all my favorite authors. That’s the award I wanted to win someday.

In some ways, it’s the only award that really impresses me.

So when I saw Kwame coming towards me, and I knew I was going to leave soon, my better sense took over and I decided to talk to him.

I introduced myself and said that it was awesome to meet a Newbery award winner. That it had always been my dream to win that award. And he said it was never his dream, but it changed his life.

And then he started saying nice things about my writing, which completely took me off guard. I did not expect him to know who I was.

I don’t know why…I mean he was a producer as well as the host and had looked over the materials quite a bit in order to choose semi-finalists and finalists. So I guess it makes sense.

But in my head, Newbery Winner=Important Person, and Important Person=Not Knowing Who I Am. This math always adds up to Kwame not knowing me from Adam, and so I was quite startled to realize this was not the case.

So ultimately, while I left the event with the heaviness of not being chosen, I also felt the surreal joy of my work being recognized and appreciated by someone I percive as Very Important.

At the beginning of the day Kwame had told us to yell that “no one else is better than me,” but I don’t think that’s true. The ones who were finalists over me were better than me. But after talking to Kwame I felt like I was close…like I could achieve something if I just kept at it, tried a little harder, put in more effort. Really went for it.

Going Home

The drive back from Newark took over 4 hours along narrow roads through random small towns. Nothing like the easy breezy drive up. But I didn’t mind so much. I wanted time to think.

Well, I had plenty of time to think. Because after resting on Monday, I spent the next three days driving to Texas to move in with my brother Matt and SIL Phoebe.

That’ of course, is another story for another day.

But after spending so much time thinking, and now writing, about my day, I am left deeply grateful for it, as well as rejuvenated and motivated to keep writing. And that maybe I have a chance to be successful at fiction.

Thank you all for following along on my journey. When I posted on Instagram about not being able to pitch, so many of you sent me messages and reactions of disappointment. And it just made me realize how many people I have supporting me and cheering for me, and I don’t want to take that for granted.

Thank you so much.


Order my book:
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Follow me on:
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Twitter: @emilysmucker
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Surprising Our Mom for Her 60th Birthday

Last week my five siblings, one sister-in-law, and I flew to Oregon to surprise our mom for her 60th birthday.

But before I get to that story, one quick announcement: On Friday, March 25 I’m doing a book signing, along with my mom and Shari Zook, at Piccadilly Coffee and Tea House in Lancaster PA, from 11 am to 1 pm. So if you’re in the area already or coming for REACH, feel free to drop by!


Matt and Phoebe live in Houston, Jenny and I live in Virginia, and Amy lives in Thailand, but Dad got the bright idea to fly us all home for Mom’s 60th birthday.

Now, Mom’s birthday isn’t until June. But Amy teaches school in Thailand and Jenny attends grad school in Virginia, so this week in March, over Jenny’s spring break, was pretty much the only time it worked for all of us to come home.

Matt and Phoebe came out Friday and stayed with Phoebe’s parents. Mom and Dad took a trip to the coast on Sunday, but Dad pretended it was just going to be the two of them. Meanwhile, Amy was heading to the Eugene Airport where Steven would pick her up, and Jenny and I were heading to the Portland Airport where Ben would pick us up.

I joked once that it takes 20 hours to get to Oregon but only if you fly, and to be honest that wasn’t so far from the truth. We flew Southwest because Dad had a bunch of free tickets from credit card usage, getting bumped, and such. But we couldn’t find Southwest flights into or out of the smaller, closer airports, so with 3.5 hours of driving on one end, 2 hours of driving on the other, a 3-hour layover in Denver, and a 30-minute flight delay, we traveled a total of 18.5 hours from our Virginia house to our Oregon house.

We spent Sunday night at my parent’s house. The next morning Steven picked Amy up and the five of us packed up everything in the house that we’d need on the coast trip.

We headed out that afternoon and met Matt and Phoebe at our house in Depoe Bay.

Now remember, Dad and Mom were already out at the coast. They’d spent Sunday night at a hotel so that Jenny and I could spend Sunday night at home.

The plan was for us all to meet at a scenic viewpoint called Boiler Bay. Matt and Phoebe drove a car that belonged to Phoebe’s parents, and the rest of us just hopped in Steven’s car and hoped Mom wouldn’t notice. We parked, hunkered down in the car, and then after Mom and Dad were looking at the view we got out and sneaked behind mom.

We had a mild panic attack when Dad parked right next to Matt and Phoebe, but Mom didn’t notice, and we were able to surprise her!

Watch the tiktok video I made of it below:


My siblings flew to Oregon from Virginia, Texas, and Thailand to surprise my mom for her 60th birthday.

♬ original sound – Emily Smucker

After that surprise we all went back to the big house we’d rented, Amy made Thai food, and we all prepared for a wonderful three-day vacation.

And then Covid hit.

The funny thing is, our trip was exactly two years into Covid. And in those two years, none of us have gotten it. None.

And then it struck when we happened to be all together again.

What happened was this:

Just before Amy left Thailand she met up with some friends. Then, en route to Oregon, she discovered that these friends had come down with Covid.

Amy took a rapid test on Monday and another Tuesday morning, and both came up negative. But by Tuesday night she was starting to feel sick so she slept in a room by herself, and Wednesday morning she took another test which came up positive.

We’re all vaxxed and most of us were boosted, so we weren’t in danger of being extremely sick, but there’s still a number of guidelines in place that would make getting Covid a major headache. For instance, you’re not supposed to fly if you have Covid, and Jenny and I were scheduled to fly back Friday. Also, Jenny would have to skip classes and get someone to cover her teaching job for her.

Finally, Amy decided to just go home early and live in our barn loft. I know that sounds cold and 7-Brides-For-Seven-Brothers-ish, but I promise it’s warm and has a bathroom and kitchenette, haha.

The rest of us spent the day on a hidden beach searching for agates, and then we went on a hike in the afternoon.

That was basically the end of the vacation, because Thursday I spent most of my time packing up, leaving the coast, unpacking, and doing my taxes, and Friday I spent all day traveling. (Jen and I took rapid tests before we left, and they were negative.)

Meanwhile, Matt and Phoebe are staying with my parents so that they don’t get her parents sick, and Amy is still in the barn loft.

So far our precautions have proven fruitful. Besides Amy, none of us have gotten sick. But we’re not out of the woods yet.

At least we had two days all together as a family though, and I’ll see Amy again at least once before she goes back to Thailand. So all is not lost.

I hope you can tell, from the video, how much fun we all have together.


Remember, book signing in Lancaster on March 25!


Order my book:
Print Version
Kindle Version

Follow me on:
Instagram: @emilytheduchess
Twitter: @emilysmucker
TikTok: @emilytheduchess
Patreon: (This is where I post bonus blog posts, about more personal/controversial subjects, for a subscription fee of $1 a month [or more if you’re feeling generous]. I try to post twice a month.)

Kenya Part 6: Mombasa, and the Journey Home

Hey friends! Are you ready for the final installment of my Kenya trip?

Since returning I started a new job, celebrated the holidays, and came down with a sore-throat-and-headache virus that I’ve had for a week now and can’t seem to kick (I’m currently awaiting COVID test results). Needless to say, blogging got shoved to the back burner of my life. But I’m here today to deliver the last post of my Kenya trip–the tale of our time in Mombasa.

(And if you want to catch up, here’s Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.)

I saw the Indian Ocean for the first time in my life as the plane descended into Mombasa that December evening. The warm humid air crashed into us as we stepped outside. For the first time on this trip it felt like we were on vacation, and I settled into the back of the taxi with Steven as we squeezed through traffic. Steven stuck his hand out the window. “Hey, I touched the car beside us!”

Later, as I researched details for this blog series, I realized that we visited every single city in Kenya. Nairobi, the capital we flew in and out of, is the biggest city in Kenya, followed by Mombasa and then Kisumu. Nakuru officially became a city on December 1, the day before we arrived there, so everyone was talking about it. “We’re a city now!” I gathered that in Kenya, there’s an official difference between a city and a town.

Mombasa, besides being heavily populated, is also undergoing a lot of road construction right now, so it took us nearly an hour to get from the airport to our hotel. We didn’t really know what to expect from our hotel. Dad had just gone on Priceline and found something. I think he picked this particular place because it was a suite–one room had two single beds for him and Steven, and the other room was for me.

It was oppressively hot. Steven and I stood on the balcony to get some air. “Where do you think we can go to get some food?” I asked, looking out over the deserted road we’d driven in on.

“I don’t know, but I’m starving,” said Steven.

“Me too. And thirsty.” It was bottled water only for me now, but where was I to purchase it? I wondered what would happen if I just boiled faucet water in the electric kettle and drank that. I was scared to risk it. Besides, the electric kettle was kinda gross and dirty.

Not gonna lie, the suite had its quirks. Like, there was a propane tank in the middle of the kitchen floor because it was too large to fit in the cupboard under the stove. And the place used real keys, half of which were old-fashioned skeleton keys. We were given a whole ring of them–one for the main door, one for the balcony door, one for each of the bedrooms. That was kind-of charming, actually.

When we discovered the air conditioning units in our bedrooms we breathed a huge sigh of relief. We turned them on and then went to try and find some food.

Steven asked the security guard where we could find a restaurant, and he told us to go next door. Well, next door was another hotel. Unlike ours, this one had a restaurant attached. It was a lovely little place that sold basic Kenyan food, a little bit of Indian food, and some American food, all at a reasonable price. (Dad ordered a hamburger and Steven and I rolled our eyes, haha.)

We ended up eating most of our meals there while in Mombasa. The lady behind the front desk at our hotel got a little annoyed at us, because the place we were eating was their direct competition. But we were just like, um…if you had a restaurant we’d eat here, but you don’t.

Also, yell at your security guard, not us. He’s the one who told us where to eat.

The next morning Steven and I woke up relatively early, and Dad was still asleep. We went wandering down the street to see what we could see. I later learned that we’d wandered in the wrong direction. If we’d turned right we would have ended up in a part of town full of shops and restaurants. But instead we turned left, where there were just a bunch of resorts one after another.

We did cut through a vacant lot and get a good look at the Indian Ocean, however.

Even though it was fairly early in the morning, it was already incredibly hot. I think the temperature in Kenya is mostly based on elevation. Nairobi and Nakuru were quite cool, relatively speaking. I often wore a jacket, especially in the mornings. Kisumu was a much lower elevation, down by Lake Victoria, and was properly hot. Mombasa, on the coast, was oppressively hot.

The main reason we’d come to Mombasa was to hang out with Peter, Steven’s friend/Into Africa brother. But Peter lived in a different part of town and it was going to take him a while to get to where we were. So before contacting Peter, Steven wanted to make sure we had the whole COVID test situation figured out.

Ah, the COVID test.

Traveling internationally is complicated these days, especially because the rules keep changing. When we came to Kenya, the rule was that if you were fully vaccinated, you had several days to get your COVID test before traveling. (If you weren’t vaccinated you had a shorter time frame–I think 24 hours.) But while we were there, the rule changed so that vaccinated or not, you had to have a PCR COVID test dated within 24 hours of when you were leaving the country.

We were leaving Kenya Sunday morning at 1 am.

Someone told us that instead of waiting until Saturday morning to get tested, we could potentially get tested on Friday and they’d change the date on the test for us if they knew we were traveling. I know this sounds dishonest, but we were kind-of baffled as to how else we were supposed to get our results in time.

The thing is, we didn’t even know where to go to get tested. We were in an unfamiliar city after all. Dad and Steven started looking things up and calling different places.

Meanwhile, our hotel decided that today was the day to re-paint the building. So all morning there were just people outside, looking in our windows.

Eventually Dad and Steven figured out what hospital we needed to go to for our test. We were about to leave when we ran into another conundrum. Our balcony door was unlocked, and there were strangers on our balcony painting the building. But how awkward to lock the balcony door right in front of them, like, “hello there, by the way we don’t trust you.”

We solved this problem by putting our laptops and such in our bedrooms, and locking them with the skeleton keys. Then, just before we left, Dad had to dash to the bathroom. I shook my head in an I-told-you-so way, because I’d warned him against eating the raw veggies on his hamburger the night before.

Oh well. I went to get my activated charcoal, but my door was locked. Right. I took that skeleton key and could not for the life of me get it open. Keys and I don’t get along well. Steven had to help me.

Anyway, I made dad take charcoal and then we took a tuktuk to the hospital, only to discover that the receptionist lady was so not jazzed about the whole take-the-test-Friday-and-date-it-for-Saturday business. She convinced us that if we came in Saturday morning, we could have the results by 6 or 7 pm.

Okey dokey.

We had several other errands to run that morning, including getting some more shillings, going to a grocery store to buy a bunch of tea for mom, and buying bottled water. Basically we’d just tell the tuktuk driver what we wanted, and he’d take us there.

A tuktuk, by the way, is a little three-wheeled taxi. They drive all over the city and usually it’s super easy to flag one down and go wherever you want to go.

This whole time, Steven was trying to get ahold of Peter but was not able to. So he and I decided to go spend some time at the beach while we waited. (Dad, meanwhile, just wanted to rest back at the hotel.)

Under normal circumstances, if I’m going to go swim in the wild somewhere, I just wear my swimming clothes under my regular clothes. But it was way too hot for me to attempt this. So I just decided to wear a t-shirt and swim trunks, and that’s what I’d swim in too.

Unfortunately, my swim trunks were still stained by the activated charcoal I’d dumped on myself in the middle of the night.

But I mean, what can you do? I just wore the stained swim trunks and went on my way.

Of course when we got there, someone was immediately like, “hey, if you come into this hut and pay me a dollar you can put your things in this locker and change in this curtained area.” Then I felt a little silly. Look, where I come from no one swims in the freezing-cold ocean so no one creates handy-dandy changing rooms on the beachfront. But whatever.

Then I swam in the Indian Ocean. It was amazing. Gloriously warm.

Look, I match the boat.

The only issue was that there was a ton of seaweed on the ocean floor, and it felt kinda creepy to walk through it. I wished I had a nice flotation device. Later, too late, I realized you could rent them.

At one point, Steven felt something funny on his foot, reached down, and came up with a starfish. It was tan with red spikes, and honestly we couldn’t figure out if it was real or not at first because it didn’t move at all. Maybe it was dead? Maybe starfish just straight-up don’t move? Who knows.

Anyway, after swimming and splashing around a good deal we walked along the beach for a bit. Of course I was dripping wet but it felt rather nice, on such a hot day. Much nicer than our morning walk.

“Wow, I’m the only white person on this beach,” I told Steven. “This must be what you feel like all the time.”

“If you see another white person it’s gonna be like–instant connection!” said Steven.

Oh, also there were camels on the beach. I’m not sure why. Someone who used to live in Kenya DM’d me on Instagram and said you could get camel rides, but certainly no one offered Steven and me rides.

After swimming and strolling we decided to go get something to eat. “Can you take us to a restaurant?” we asked our tuktuk driver. And he took us someplace. It was great. The table legs were made out of bare tree trunks.

Steven ordered wet fry fish like we’d had at the lakeside restaurant in Kisumu. I was gonna try something new, but the bean and veggie mixture I ordered, while fine, was not nearly as delicious as Steven’s fish (which I sneaked a few bites of).

The chapatis were fantastic though, as was the tea.

This whole time I was just in my wet clothes, although Steven said they didn’t look wet. The charcoal smudge was still there–the ocean swim minimized it but didn’t make it disappear–and in general I was a mess. But honestly I didn’t really care, because I was cool as a cucumber. Temperature wise, I mean.

When Steven finally made contact with Peter, it was already late in the day and we agreed that Peter would just meet us the next morning. I’m trying to remember what we did the rest of Friday. I think I took a nap. Our lunch was so late that we didn’t need supper, but after it got dark we decided to walk to the same grocery store where we’d bought tea earlier and buy a few snacks. Which was all great except for the last few intersections. I never quite got the traffic rhythms, so crossing streets felt kind-of hazardous, and Dad nearly gave me a heart attack once when he just went wandering merrily across the street.

Anyway. I had Steven’s name for Christmas so I was trying to buy him Kenyan things that he wouldn’t think to buy himself, while also not letting on that I was buying him gifts. That was a challenge. At one point I borrowed money from him to buy a present for him, lol.

The next morning we went to get our COVID tests for real.

Everything went well, and they promised they’d give us our results by that afternoon or evening.

After that we went back to our hotel, where we finally met up with Peter.

It really was unfortunate that we only had such a short amount of time to hang out with Peter. He and Steven were so close, and had so many memories together, that in some ways it felt like hanging out with a long-lost family member. As they reminisced I learned a lot of stuff about Steven’s life before he came into our family that I didn’t know before. According to Peter, there were six boys who all stuck together through multiple children’s homes and the streets. Today, all of them have passed away except for Peter and Steven.

Peter also told us all about the life he’d built for himself in Mombasa–his church, his career, his music, etc. He told me that he writes and sings music, but I didn’t get a chance to listen to any of it while I was there.

We were getting hungry, but weren’t sure where to go for lunch. Steven and I thought we’d like to go back to the tree-trunks-for-table-legs restaurant, but weren’t sure where it was located. Peter said he was pretty sure he knew which restaurant we were talking about, and it was within walking distance. But when we walked over there, it was a different restaurant.

I think the restaurant we went to was designed to cater to tourists, because there wasn’t any Kenyan food on the menu and the wait staff were all very comfortable speaking English. In fact, one of the really interesting things about Mombasa was that a lot of things seemed set up for tourists, but there were hardly any tourists at all, presumably due to COVID.

Anyway, Peter seemed fine with eating American food, so we stayed and ate hamburgers for our last meal in Kenya.

While we were eating, Steven got a phone call. Our COVID results were in! It had only taken, like, six hours.

Anyway, we were off again. Walked back to the motel, packed up our things, got in the taxi, headed to the hospital to pick up hard copies of our test results, and then on to the airport.

This is not that important, but I realized that the standard paper size in Kenya is different than the standard paper size in the USA, and the sheet of paper with my results was just a hair too tall for my Folder of Important Papers.

It really was a bummer that we didn’t get more time to hang out with Peter. He rode part of the way to the airport with us, and then got out to take public transportation home. Very cool guy. I hope to hear his music sometime, and hopefully we’ll all spend more time together in the future.

Grabbed my new favorite soda.

The trip home was…eventful. I have never, ever, ever encountered an airport as crazy as the Nairobi airport. I’m pretty sure they were updating their COVID system and hadn’t gotten the kinks worked out yet. Thankfully we had a four hour layover between our flight from Mombasa and our flight to Amsterdam. We had to exit the domestic terminal and re-check our bags at the international terminal, and it took literally two hours to re-check our bags.

First we had to stand outside for ages because we had to show a negative COVID test to get in the door. Then we had to send our bags through security as we entered, because Kenyan airports all have two security checkpoints instead of just one.

It was getting late, and I was very groggy. The wheel of my terrible suitcase wasn’t working, so I was dragging it all over, and in general it was a very inconvenient time to get flagged by security. But they were pulling my bag aside and looking around for its owner.

“Um…that’s my bag…” I said.

“You have screwdrivers in here?” they asked.

“Just drill bits,” I tried to explain. “Tiny things.” Please please please don’t make me dig for those tiny stupid drill bits. I got a drill for my birthday last year but had no bits, so on this trip I’d pilfered from my family’s supply. Then I stuck them in my checked luggage and prepared to take them to Virginia with me by way of Kenya. I never expected that I’d have to put my checked luggage through security.

The man was gesturing for me to open my suitcase, so with a sigh I complied. Well, tried to. The zipper was completely stuck. I could not get that thing open.

Look, I’d just randomly grabbed an adequately-sized suitcase from my parents’ attic. As the trip progressed, it slowly disintegrated. The airlines made me sign forms attesting that I’d brought it in this condition, and its disrepair was not their fault.

I was starting to panic. What would happen if I legit could not open this suitcase? And then, with a lurch, it opened. All the stuff I’d crammed in there on full display. And somehow I had to find those tiny screwdriver bits.

Well, somehow I found them in the little plastic bag where I’d dumped them with some hot glue sticks. I held them up for inspection. “It’s okay,” the man declared, and on we went to show our negative COVID test to 5 more people and our passport to 6 more people.

I was so tired and out of sorts by the time I got on that plane, and all I could think was, I still have over 24 hours of travel. How will I survive?

But by the grace of God, that flight was sparse and there was an empty seat next to me. I lay down and slept for a full 8 hours and was fine.

In Amsterdam I said goodbye to Dad and Steven and flew on to Atlanta, and then Roanoke where Jenny picked me up.

That was the end of my amazing journey to Kenya. Overall, except for a couple hiccups, I had amazing health and didn’t even crash when I got home. (Although the one morning when I woke up at 3 am and started frying zucchini, Jenny got a little annoyed at me.)

Now, I did get sick the day after Christmas and I’ve been sick ever since, but someone told me that pretty much the whole state of Virginia has the Omicron variant right now, so I guess I’m in good company. (I still don’t know if I actually have COVID or not. I got tested Friday and my results are still not back, presumably because everyone and their mom is getting tested right now.)

Anyway, take care and I hope you have a marvelous 2022!


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Kenya Part 5: Kisumu, and Steven’s Brothers

Some of you have been wondering where Steven disappeared in the narrative. Although I talked about him in my first post, he was mostly absent from part 2, part 3, and part 4. That’s because when we arrived in Nakuru, where the East African headquarters of Open Hands is located, Steven went on to Kisumu. He sent an occasional text about what he was up to, but we didn’t communicate a great deal.

On Tuesday December 7, Dad and I finished up our Open Hands work and took a taxi over to Kisumu to be with Steven. We walked into the AMA compound and there he was! Over a late supper at my old friend Abigail’s house, we talked about our plans for the following day.

I have an internet friend named Mactilda, the “Mother of Many.” Mactilda is a Kenyan woman who cares for many children who need a home. When she heard that I was coming to Kenya, she wondered if I would come visit her and her children. She lives a few hours north of Kisumu, but Steven had agreed to make the journey with me, so I’d told her we’d come.

Now, however, Steven had a different plan for our one full day in Kisumu. Even though he’d been in Kisumu for five days, he’d had enough SIM card issues and such that he’d only just now made contact with his old friend Christopher. Christopher wanted to meet up the next morning for an hour. Meanwhile, Dad had connected with our old friend Vincent, who wanted to have us over to his home. So we formed a tentative plan: Steven and I would go see Christopher in the morning for an hour, then go up to see Mactilda, spend the early afternoon there, come back, and go see Vincent in the evening.

I was pretty worried though. I could feel that I was over-exhausted, but I didn’t want to cancel plans with anyone.

Well, when I woke up the next morning I felt terrible. I was sick on my stomach and my body was so tired. I knew there was no way I could make a four hour journey and visit multiple people. No way. So I had to cancel on Mactilda, and she and her children were very disappointed. I was going to cancel on Christopher too, but Steven said, “come on, it’s only an hour,” and I agreed that I could probably survive for an hour.

In the end, I was very glad I went, even though I didn’t feel well.

For context, here’s a bit of Steven’s story: As a very small boy, he got lost and was never able to find his family again. He ended up bouncing around multiple children’s homes in the Kisumu area and spending some time on the streets. Eventually he ended up at a home for street boys called “Into Africa.” This home was run by an American couple named Rick and Audrey, and my family volunteered there for several months in 2003/2004. We met Steven there and ended up adopting him later in 2004, when he was about ten years old. At the time we tried pretty hard to find his birth family, but were unsuccessful.

In early 2011, when Steven was 16, we made a short trip back to Kenya to visit. None of us have returned since, until this trip.

Christopher was one of the other Into Africa boys, and now he owns a piece of land where he cares for I think six street boys.

I thought this was the most darling house ever. Christopher is in the process of building it so that Audrey will have a place to stay if she comes back. She had planned a trip, but it got canceled due to COVID, and now he doesn’t know if she’s coming or not. However, if she doesn’t end up using it, he plans to turn it into a school. The living room area will be the main classroom. There are two very small rooms in the house; one of them will be a library, and the other will be a room where the boys can learn tailoring. The master bedroom will be used as a computer room.

It was quite the place. Christopher and the boys really took advantage of all their space, raising dogs to sell, chickens, goats, planting fruit trees, and growing a garden.

Steven and Christopher had so much catching up to do. They talked about all the other Into Africa boys, and Christopher brought Steven up to speed on how they were doing. Some of the stories were really sad, and an alarming number of Steven’s buddies had died in some sort of accident or another. But there were some wonderful, hopeful stories. A lot of the boys had stuck together and helped each other get educated and trained in various careers.

Christopher was so disappointed that we were leaving the next day. He wanted to organize a proper reunion, and he wanted Steven to meet the boys he was caring for, who were currently at school. So Steven and Dad agreed to come back that evening, and see if they could visit Vincent in the afternoon instead. I said I might come too if I felt better. As it was, the bright hot sun was making my nausea even worse, and Steven, noticing my discomfort, said we’d better go.

I spent the rest of the afternoon resting in bed, sleeping off and on, and sipping tea when I was awake.

I didn’t feel well enough to go visit Vincent with Dad and Steven, but by the time evening rolled around I felt well enough to go back to Christopher’s house. This time, we went into the unfinished house and sat in what would become the living room/school room. Christopher had rounded up an impressive number of people, including some other former Into Africa boys and the boys he was currently caring for. We sipped sodas and everyone talked about what they were doing in life.

I discovered something then. Something that felt like a miracle.

To tell this story properly, I have to back up a little. When we flew from Amsterdam to Nairobi, Steven sat in front of me, next to a young woman and her mother who were ethnically Kenyan but hadn’t been back to Kenya in a long time. This young woman asked Steven, “how long has it been since you’ve been home?”

And I wondered, how long has it been since someone referred to Kenya as your “home?”

As a child, having an adopted sibling didn’t feel any different than having a biological sibling. As an adult, I started to realize that there was a difference. My other siblings had one home, but Steven had two. He would never fully belong to me because he also belongs there. And I began to wish so desperately that Steven could have family in Kenya too. Maybe, by some miracle, we could find his birth family.

Our God is a God of miracles, and maybe someday Steven will find his biological family in Kenya. But as I sat in that room, sipping soda and watching Steven chat with the other Into Africa boys, it dawned on me that Steven does have family in Kenya.

“You are our brother,” they told him, and I felt so stupid that I’d never realized this before. The Into Africa boys were not boys who had no family, they were boys who formed their own family, with each other. And Steven was, and always would be, their brother.

I knew, then, that they have a claim on him too, and I have to share him. I don’t know what God has in mind for Steven’s life, but I know he will visit Kenya again, maybe even move there. And I couldn’t be happier for him. I can’t describe how it feels as a sister to see your brother belong and have family, even if it’s not with you. It is wonderful. Maybe this is silly and sentimental, but to me, it felt like a miracle.


The next morning I was sick to my stomach again, although I’d rested enough that I was a little more functional than I’d been the day before. Abigail and I went shopping for some gifts for Mactilda and her children, since I wasn’t able to visit her. We took motorcycle taxis, which cost about 50 cents a ride. That was wonderful. Honestly, the breeze in my face made me feel a lot better.

By 10 am, we’d bought everything I wanted to send. Mactilda had a son who went to university just across the street from the place we’d bought the gifts, and he was going to get out of class at 11, at which point we’d meet up. But we had an hour to kill before then. Abigail wanted to go back to the AMA compound and then come back.

“Maybe I’ll just wait here,” I said. “Did you say there’s a Java House in this building?”

“Yes,” said Abigail, and we went upstairs to the Java House.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “Is that a Mennonite girl over there?” I wasn’t 100% sure at first, because many Kenyan women wear head coverings and skirts, but this one looked distinctly Beachy.

“Oh, it’s Hadassah!” said Abigail.

I ended up hanging out with Hadassah for an hour while Abigail went back to the compound, which was awesome because I wanted to know more about her and how her story parallels Steven’s.

Really, the parallels are astounding. Hadassah is ten years younger than Steven, but they were both adopted from the Kisumu area, in 2004, by Mennonite families. Hadassah was an infant whose birth mother died in childbirth and whose father, since he couldn’t take care of her, asked the local Mennonites to adopt her. Steven and Hadassah were adopted within four months of each other.

Both of them felt an urge to go back to Kenya and re-connect with their families (her with her birth family, Steven with his Into Africa family,) but ran into a lot of issues along the way. Even when it came down to this particular trip, they both ran into visa issues that forced them to delay their trip by several days. Then they both arrived in Kisumu at the same time, seventeen years after their adoptions.

Steven had hung out with Hadassah some during his time in Kisumu, but with my health issues and the short nature of my time in Kisumu, I didn’t think I’d be able to. But here was an hour with Hadassah, dropped into my lap like a gift. We discussed writing, her story, her family, all kinds of stuff.

After a while Mactilda’s son showed up, I handed over the gifts, and Hadassah and I took motorcycle taxis back to the AMA compound.

At this point Dad, Steven and I packed up all our things and then went to a lakeside fish restaurant with Abigail and her husband and children. The plan was to eat lunch, head to the airport, and fly to Mombasa. Yes, I know, we were all over the place on this trip. But one of Steven’s closest Into Africa brothers lived in Mombasa. Besides, Steven had always dreamed of visiting the Kenyan coast.

At the restaurant, I didn’t know how I could possibly eat with my stomach so queasy. But I ordered my favorite Kenyan Soda, bitter lemon Krest, and that settled my stomach somewhat. So thankfully I felt well enough to eat most of the fish because I’m pretty sure it was the most delicious thing I’d eaten yet in Kenya. It was so good.

I just loved the creative engineering of these handwashing stations. One foot petal dispensed soap, and the other dispensed water. A napkin holder was mounted on the wall, so after you washed you could dry your hands on a napkin and throw it in the bucket/trash can.

I eventually figured out that my stomach issues were due to the water. In Nakuru, I drank exclusively bottled water, and I did fine. In Kisumu I was drinking filtered water instead of bottled water, and apparently my delicate stomach can tell a difference. I actually had this same problem when I visited Thailand. I hate drinking bottled water all the time because it feels wasteful–I feel guilty every time I throw out a plastic bottle. But what can you do?

Anticipating stomach issues, I brought activated charcoal along on this trip. But I still struggled, especially in the heat of the Kisumu airport that afternoon. I did better on the flights, because the cabin air was cool, but Mombasa was the hottest town yet and I woke up in the middle of the night feeling horrible. Just horrible.

Now this may sound weird, but I can’t stand taking pills that are in those little plastic capsules. I can feel them sitting in my esophagus, and they hurt. It doesn’t matter how much water I drink nor how much bread I eat, it doesn’t help. So I avoid them whenever I can. I usually open up activated charcoal pills, dump the black powder into a cup of water, and guzzle it down. The texture is weird but it’s tasteless.

But in my midnight nausea, I didn’t have a cup to dump the powder into. All I had was a water bottle about 1/4th full, and I didn’t want to waste the rest of my water by dumping charcoal into it. So I tried opening the capsules directly into my mouth.

You should try this sometimes. It’s harder than it looks, especially when you’re disoriented by fatigue and nausea. I aimed correctly on the first pill, but with the second pill, I dumped charcoal all over my pajamas.

By “pajamas” I mean my swim trunks and a t-shirt, because I like to pack light. I brushed at my clothing, but the charcoal just smeared. Welp. I didn’t want to smear the sheets with charcoal, because that seemed weird. So I changed into my above-the-knee leggings and a different t-shirt. “I’ll deal with the mess tomorrow,” I thought.

The mess ended up being a bit more complicated than I’d anticipated. My stomach, however, filled as it was with charcoal and exclusively bottled water, was fine from then on.

As to the rest of our adventures in Mombasa and our journey home, that will be in the sixth and final installment of this Kenya series, coming soon.


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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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Kenya Part 3: Tea, Rest, and Inside Jokes

That time we all took a nice photo in front of the guest house

(You can find Part 1 here, and Part 2 here)

There I was, locked in the house. I was too exhausted to spend another day traveling around meeting with small business owners, so I needed to talk to the other Open Hands people and hopefully figure out a new plan. But time was running out and I had no way to get to the guest house where the others were staying.

For some reason the houses in Kenya are extremely secure. We’re talking bars on the windows, heavy bolts, and multiple layers of gates and high walls. Although Luke and Jamila’s house was just up the street from their guest house, getting from one to the other required passing through three bolted doors and three heavy gates.

(I was actually really confused by this, because Kenyans in general seemed way less violent than people in the USA. Of course I was only there for a couple weeks, but I never heard anyone so much as yell at another person. I couldn’t figure out if people were just paranoid, if crime had been far worse back when all the houses were built, or if Kenya is secretly more dangerous than it seems.)

Anyway, I wandered around the house trying to find another exit, but every exit was securely locked with a padlock. And even if I could have found a key, would the gates be unlocked?

The house was silent. Should I venture upstairs and try to wake someone up? That seemed like a sketchy thing to do.

Then Dad sent me a text. Since I was connected to Wi-Fi I was able to receive it. Can you handle another day today about like yesterday? If it gets too much for you I think I could figure out how to lessen it for you…. You are doing very well but I don’t want you to crash.

How sweet and considerate! I wrote back that no, I didn’t think I could handle another long day. But I couldn’t come over and discuss other options because I was locked in the house.

For a while I just sat there helplessly. Minutes ticked by. Then, finally, I heard a voice in the kitchen. Investigating, I saw Tirza, Jamila’s daughter. Once I’d told her the problem she went upstairs to fetch her father’s huge ring of keys, and let me through doors and gates one by one. In the fog of jet lag and time changes I’d completely forgotten that today was Saturday, the day when people typically sleep in.

I got to the guest house with about ten minutes to spare before our scheduled 8 am departure. But there was no need to panic. In my absence, everyone else had figured out a new plan. Gloria would take my place today, borrow my camera, and take photos and videos. I would go to one savings group and then after that, rest.

The group called themselves “Flower Women’s Group,” but ironically they were the first group I’d observed that had men in attendance. Apparently the group had done so well that the women’s husbands became interested in joining too.

Flower Women’s Group actually formed without the help of Open Hands. However, the group leader was a snake who would lie to the other group members and say that the bank was charging huge fees. Because of this dishonesty, the group was not doing well. That’s when they asked Open Hands for help. Sheila, the facilitator, came on board and began teaching about integrity and honesty, and I guess this made the previous group leader so uncomfortable that they left. The group elected new leadership and has been doing quite well.

It is not uncommon for Open Hands to partner with already-existing savings groups in this way, but they try to focus on starting new groups, as it can take a lot of energy and resources to untangle and fix the problems in an already-existing group.

Flower Women’s group was also interesting because there were a number of Muslims in the group. The savings’ group teaching is very Christian, and also Kenya is a very Christian country, so group members tend to be Christians. However, the Muslims in the group didn’t seem to mind the Christian teaching, seeing it as similar-enough to their own faith to be fine…belief in one God and all that.

After this the group split up. Jason, Gloria, Dad, and Ken took off in the rattly white van, while Bruce, Lyndon, Verlin, Bethany, Joe, and I piled into Bruce’s vehicle. They were going to drop me off back at the house, but then they asked me if I wanted to go to lunch first. “Sure,” I said. But then we had some time to fill before lunch, so we went to the souvenir shops.

Joe said that the souvenir shops might be a little intense, because tourism had gone way down during the pandemic. Overall it wasn’t too bad. It got a little overwhelming with a lot of people begging me to come look at their little shop, but most people were respectful. One man, though, would not stop harassing me–literally following me around begging me to buy a map of Kenya or an English-to-Swahili language book. I didn’t want either. I did feel bad for him…he probably was desperate for money. But I didn’t want to reward his behavior, especially since all the respectful people in the market probably needed the money just as badly.

I bought a few gifts and a pair of shoes. The shoes were kind-of an impulse–I saw this pair and thought they looked much more my style than anything you can buy in the USA. Later I was really glad for them, though, because the Kenyans like to dress nicely and I hadn’t really brought appropriate footwear.

Then we went to lunch. Lunch was amazing. We ordered meat for the whole table, and then we all ordered our own sides. I had chapatis and spinach.

Here’s the thing about Kenyan food. In general, it really agreed with me…more than most food, in fact. It was a lot of refined carbs, fried greens, various types of beans and lentils, and minimal meat. Everything was only mildly seasoned. My digestion loved it and my taste buds enjoyed it. But the one thing I could not enjoy was the meat, particularly the beef. It was very tough and full of gristle. I didn’t really get it. Maybe Kenyans enjoy the challenge like we enjoy beef jerky?

Another interesting thing about Kenya is the architecture and interior design. Check out that ceiling. Every ceiling in the USA seems boring by comparison. I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to look like the sky, but the shape of it baffled me. But Amy said that she’s seen similarly-shaped ceilings in Thailand, and she’s pretty sure it somehow keeps the room cooler.

When I agreed to go out to eat, I didn’t realize that it was actually a lunch meeting with a guy from Amish Mennonite Aid (AMA). So it did run a little long, and I was starting to get really tired. But presently we left, they dropped me off, and they went off to…not sure what.

Instead of resting at Luke and Jamila’s I went down to the completely empty guest house. Ah, perfect peace! Perfect silence! I had a glorious nap on the couch in Dad’s room.

After that, life slowed down for a bit. We mostly spent time as a group, eating, chatting, and forming all sorts of inside jokes. Lyndon and Joe were roommates and began bickering like an old married couple because Lyndon had a habit of giggling and giggling while Joe was trying to sleep. But this only seemed to happen when Lyndon took melatonin. The upside to the whole situation was that it was very entertaining for the rest of us, and it made Joe appreciate his wife even more, because apparently she’s not a midnight giggler.

Sunday morning we went to a Kenyan Beachy church, which is always an interesting experience. The church is not technically affiliated with Open Hands, but they have a working relationship. Basically, the idea of Open Hands began when Merle Burkholder was thinking about Anabaptist Financial. Through Anabaptist Financial, Mennonites in the USA were pooling their resources and providing business mentoring. He thought, why are these resources limited to Anabaptists in the USA, when we have so many Anabaptist churches overseas?

So when Open Hands was formed, they started by partnering with Anabaptist churches. Nakuru had several Beachy churches because AMA had been in that area for a while. Lyndon, who co-founded Open Hands with Merle, recruited some of the church members and began training them to be facilitators. One of those church members was Ken.

Although it began in the Anabaptist churches, it has expanded and now many of the facilitators have no Anabaptist affiliation. They are all Christians, however, as it is a faith-based organization. But as I noted before, group members are not required to be Christians, so long as they’re willing to put up with Christian teaching.

Church was a fairly basic Beachy Amish men-sit-on-one-side-women-on-the-other affair. Sunday School. A cappella singing. All that. Dad preached a really good (I thought) sermon about his accident, and trying to reconcile why God allows bad things to happen. His story really seemed to move people. There’s something about pain, suffering, and the emotions and questions that go along with pain and suffering that’s relatable across cultures.

Speaking of which, this was Dad’s first time traveling internationally since his accident. Several people have asked me how it went.

At this point, Dad has two disabilities. The first is his left arm. I don’t know how to describe the state of his arm, but in my head I call it a “withered arm.” You know how in the gospels, Jesus healed the man with the “withered hand?” Well, Dad’s arm looks like how I always imagined a withered hand to look, except it’s his whole arm. Looking at him, you can tell that something is wrong. The shape of his shoulder is off, and his arm dangles in an unnatural fashion. His movements with that arm are jerky and odd, like he’s using completely different muscles than one would typically use for the same movements.

Dad is still gaining skills in his left arm. Once he re-gained the ability to lift his arm chest-high, and the ability to pinch with his fingers, he was able to resume most activities. But he still fumbles quite a bit while doing certain fiddly tasks.

Dad’s other disability is his hearing. He has been deaf in his right ear since childhood, but his left ear has slowly deteriorated as well. Somehow the accident made his hearing significantly worse. He recently upgraded his hearing aids which has helped tremendously. However, he really struggles in places such as airports where there is a lot of background chatter. It was also difficult for him to understand the Kenyans, since their accent and speech patterns differ a fair amount from American accents and speech patterns.

Dad can get by, but part of the reason I came on this trip was to take on a sort-of helper role. Certain tasks require a lot of fumbling, like opening little plastic packages or getting files out of a briefcase, so it works better if I’m there to help out. I also did a lot of yelling into his ear. But if I ever do a trip like this again I’d like to see if I can find a little microphone that can connect directly to his Bluetooth hearing aids, so I can talk to him in crowded airports by just talking into the microphone.

I wonder how the lady at the check-in counter would react if I was just like, “hey, talk into this tiny microphone please.” Haha

The highlight of my Sunday was in the late afternoon when we all went to Ken’s house for a snack. This was the only time on the trip when I was inside a Kenyan’s home as a guest. Of course some of the savings groups were held in homes, but I wasn’t quite a “guest” in the traditional sense.

Ken smiling at his phone
We were served chai, those vaguely-sweet rolls, and yams.
Except for me and my delicious black tea.
This blurry photo was my attempt to get the worst-possible picture of Joe, who kept complaining that all the pics of him I posted on Instagram were terrible. (Meanwhile, Bruce always looks like he’s contemplating something Very Deep.)

Monday morning was also very laid back…at least for me. Other people in our group had a lot of stuff to do, including Covid tests for their upcoming journeys back to the states, and a shopping trip, but I had nothing scheduled until mid-afternoon. I spent the morning hanging out with Jamila and her daughters and some other local missionary ladies who came over for brunch. That was nice actually, because I’d spent so much time running around with the rest of my travel companions that I hadn’t had much time to get to know my hosts. I especially had a really good talk with Jamila’s oldest daughter, Tirza. Wait and see, Tirza is going to do amazing things in this world.

It’s really good that I got this time of rest, because the last half of Monday and all of Tuesday were go-go-go. But I’ll tell you all about that in my next post.


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Kenya Part 2: The Most Epic Day

The whole gang at Java House

(To read Part 1, click here)

I guess Joe wanted to ease us in to Kenyan food and culture, because he arranged for our first culinary experience of the trip to be a rather American-style breakfast at Java House in Nairobi. It was a chilly rainy day and the seating was outdoors, so I was kinda cold without my jacket. I’d remembered Kenya as being extremely hot, but that was in Kisumu, which has a lower elevation.

Since Kenya was a British colony until 1962, they are a tea culture rather than a coffee culture, even though both are grown in the country. So Java House is one of the few places to actually drink good Kenyan coffee. But this was of little interest to me as I, of course, ordered tea and sipped it reverently.

Then we piled back in the van and drove off to Nakuru.

Joe and Dad pack up our luggage while Lyndon contemplates life

Driving through the Kenyan countryside is wonderful. We made one stop to use the bathroom, get some shillings, and buy some mangos to munch on the journey, but mostly we just booked it for three and a half hours. I thought everything we saw along the way was fascinating, and I tried to figure out how to take pictures without them all turning out blurry.

Gloria sat next to me. We’d claimed the front bench seat because we both suffer from car sickness, and she helped me out with my camera settings. Yes, I’m one of those people who has a fancier camera than they know how to use properly. I really bought it to make YouTube videos, but after my experiences on this trip I really want to learn more photography skills. So if you know of any good photography resources let me know!

Anyway, as I was grabbing photos out the right-hand window, she was directing her husband on what to photograph out the left-hand window. Her husband Jason and my dad are the PR people for Open Hands, and already Gloria and I were inadvertently starting a media team.

We arrived in Nakuru that afternoon.

There are several Mennonite missions in Nakuru, and I guess they help each other out when an influx of visitors arrive. Luke and Jamila Kurtz work with CAM, but they have a guest house that they put us up in. Only I guess the guest house wasn’t quite big enough, because I ended up staying just up the street at Luke and Jamila’s house, in their guest room.

I spent the remainder of that afternoon resting. I drifted in and out of sleep and somehow missed the most dramatic event of the day: one of the guard dogs bit Joe. It was pretty nasty actually…the dog sank his teeth into Joe’s arm, and then Joe jerked his arm away instinctively which made it worse. But by the time I woke up, Gloria had bandaged him up.

In the evening we met the local Open Hands team: Bruce Wagler, who with lives in Kenya with his wife Shelia and adorable sons and is the reginal director, and Ken Goli, the local field coordinator. Bruce and Shelia had us over for a meal. They live in a house that Joe built and designed back when he lived in Kenya, so Joe spent some time explaining to us how sturdy the gates were compared to other gates and such.

It was at this point that I learned that I was supposed to leave the house at 8:00 am the next morning. To be honest I had only a faint idea of what my role here was. All I knew was that Dad wanted photos and videos for his PR presentations, and I was supposed to take them. I was rather nervous since I’m by no means a professional, but I mean, it wasn’t like Dad could take his own pictures.

So I went to bed, woke up at 4 am like you always do when you’re jet lagging, went back to sleep, woke up at 7 am, got ready, and walked over to the guest house.

It was the beginning of the Most Epic Day.

First, all the men (and me) piled into the van and drove to a nearby place called “Cool Rivers Hotel.” Apparently they rent out office space, because the local Open Hands office was located in a room on the second floor. Not a hotel room, just a room room. Only the sign above the door said “Propel Training,” which confused me until I learned that in East Africa, Open Hands is registered under the name “Propel Training.” Apparently the name “Open Hands” gave the wrong idea, as it seemed to imply that the organization was handing out free stuff. “Propel Training” more accurately described their work of training and empowering local people to pool their resources and help each other out of poverty.

Bruce and Ken were already at the office when we arrived. I learned that the plan for the day was for Ken to take me, Dad, and Jason to some local businesses and savings groups so that they would have a better idea of how the Open Hands system worked when they gave their PR presentations. I was supposed to take pictures and videos. The other men were staying behind, I guess to have meetings all day? Not sure, I wasn’t there.

So we set off, and I was feeling a bit apprehensive and unsure of what I was doing.

The first place we stopped was Jomba Autospares.

Right next door was a little snack shop, and as it turns out, you cannot do an interview without having your tea first. So we all crowded into the tiny room and drank tea.

Now I should note that because of my IBS I try to avoid dairy if at all possible. But the traditional Kenyan way to drink tea is to brew it in milk. (It’s called “chai,” but it’s different than Indian chai. Kenya and India were both British colonies, and there’s a lot of Indian influence in Kenyan foods, but from what I can tell the Kenyans just removed the spices from whatever foods the Indians brought over.)

I desperately wanted some tea, but was not about to drink that much dairy. So I said that the milk hurts my stomach, and asked if I could have some tea without milk. So Ken told the snack shop ladies to get me some “black tea.” After that, in every chai-serving situation, I would just ask for “black tea” and get a wonderful steaming cup of bliss.

Oh–another thing I should explain about Kenya. Since Kenya was a British colony, English is one of the official languages. The other official language is Swahili, and most people also speak a tribal language or two. The Jomba Autospares guy spoke English well, but some of the shop owners were much more comfortable in Swahili, in which case Ken would just translate. Still, as far as foreign countries go, it was easier-than-average to communicate.

After we’d finished our tea, the shop owner took us over to his shop and started explaining to us how the savings group had helped him. He talked about taking out loans to buy stock for his shop or to expand if need be. He also talked about the business skills he’d learned. For instance, he said that he’d learned to sell things for just slightly lower of a price than the other people who sold the same thing, and then people would come buy from him, knowing that he had the lowest prices.

I mean, this is just basic supply and demand, right? I didn’t think much of it until later, when I discovered something fascinating about Kenyan economics.

When I came to Kenya in 2003, I’d go to the souvenir shops and haggle prices. As embarrassing as it is to admit, I thought this was great fun, and I loved getting a “good deal.” I thought this was just how it is in foreign places like Kenya. After all, everywhere you went there were tiny shops selling things, and they never had prices listed. So surely the Kenyans just haggled everything.

Well…no. Turns out, Kenyans don’t haggle prices with each other. They haggle prices with tourists at the souvenir shops, but this seems to be a combination of knowing that tourists are willing to spend more, and the tourists themselves being convinced that haggling prices is just “what you do” in other countries.

In reality, Kenyans don’t need price tags because everything pretty much costs the same no matter what shop you go to. If you walk down the street and ask every shop how much they’d charge for a clump of four bananas, they’d all give you the same price. At least, that’s what I was told. I only experienced it with transportation. The motorcycle taxis charged 50 shillings anywhere in town you wanted to go. The little 3-wheeled cars charged 200 shillings. The taxi rides in Nairobi and Mombasa were both about an hour long, and they both charged 2,500 shillings. (A shilling is worth about as much as a penny.)

So with all that, the idea of charging a lower price than your competition was a new thing. But to be honest, as happy as I am for him that he’s doing better in business, I kinda would hate to see the Kenyan system go away. Because it’s so handy to feel like you can just grab the most convenient thing and know for sure you’re getting the best price.

For the rest of the morning and into the afternoon we drove around on the dirt roads surrounding Nakuru, visiting tiny businesses whose owners were helped by the savings groups. Many of them were widows. One woman told us that her savings group was entirely made up of widows, and they had formed the group specifically to help each other out.

I got better and better at the interview process. When we drank tea with the first business owner, and I’d explained my role here, he’d jokingly called me “CNN”. But then, when I was filming him later, he said, “no questions from CNN?”

“I guess not,” I said, because truthfully I wasn’t sure what to ask. It was fine, though–Dad and Jason just asked the questions. But by the time we were off to the next business, I had a better idea of what to ask, and I was fully conducting the interviews by the end.

At the Faith, Miracle, and Glory shop, Ken told Jason to buy some bananas. Then, back in the car, Ken said, “we can eat them as we drive.” Dad and Ken started happily munching, but Jason and I just looked at each other and smirked, because neither of us like bananas.

However, it then occurred to me that I had no idea if and when I’d be eating lunch. And due to some foods I’m trying to avoid, who knows if an offered lunch would be something I could eat? I might as well eat what was set before me with a thankful heart. So I choked down a banana, which was not as terrible as American bananas I must say. Jason, however, did not.

This small child was obsessed with the microphone I’d clipped to her mother’s collar, and kept grabbing at it while I was trying to get the interview. Finally I handed her a pink pen which seemed to appease her. Unfortunately she kept sticking it in her mother’s ear, but at least she was no longer grabbing the mic.

We went to six businesses in total, and when we arrived at the Kibe W. Blessing Shop, Ken said, “it’s about lunch time, why don’t you buy us a snack and some soda?” Well, I wasn’t sure what he meant by a “snack,” but apparently the woman inside did. She brought out a bag of these slightly sweet rolls, and we sat around for a while, relaxing, eating our rolls, and sipping our soda.

This was the end of the “business-visiting” part of the day. Now it was time for the “savings-group-visiting” part of the day.

We got in the van again, and as we drove, Ken periodically stopped to pick up women who were walking along the road. He recognized them as members of the savings group we were going to visit, and was giving them a lift. At one point they asked him to stop, and they ran inside some little shop and bought some basic food supplies in a big box.

We drove and drove and drove, way back into the bush. Then finally we arrived at a little house, and after we’d crowded inside, a woman in a green coat had some sort of devotional in Swahili.

A woman named Ruth had joined us in visiting the last few businesses and it turned out that she was the facilitator of this particular savings groups. Facilitators are local people employed by Open Hands to give training and guidance to the savings groups. After devotions, Ruth taught a lesson from the Bible-based savings curriculum that Open Hands uses, and then everyone brought out their money.

There are several systems of savings groups. In this one, everyone brings the same amount of money each time they meet, and one person gets all the money. Then they draw names to see who will get the money next time. In this particular group they have a system where if your name is drawn, that also means you will host the next meeting.

This group also has a system which, as far as I could tell, is called “food stuffs.” I never heard of any of the other groups doing this, so maybe it’s just something this particular group invented. Whoever was hosting the group and receiving the money that week would prepare a meal for everyone, and everyone else would pitch in to buy her some food. That’s why they stopped on the way to pick up that big box of food supplies.

The meal was this really delicious mixture of vegetables, beans, and lentils, eaten with chapatis. I was still somewhat full from our snack and couldn’t eat a whole lot, but when the host asked if I wanted to take a chapati with me, of course I said yes. I love chapatis. She then gave me three, wrapped in newspaper and then placed in a bag–not a plastic bag, as those are banned in Kenya, but these biodegradable alternatives they now have that are sort-of like a thin cross between paper and plastic cloth.

I put it in my backpack, and we went on to the next savings group of the day.

We were so far back in the bush by this point that it took nearly an hour to get to the next savings group. There, the rest of the Open Hands group joined us. Ken was the facilitator of this group. His lesson was on Nehemiah, and how just like the people all joined together to build the wall, Kenyans can join together to lift themselves out of poverty.

The whole savings group, when asked to do a “crazy” pose.

This group operated a bit differently than the first group. Instead of giving one person a payout each week, they operated like a miniature credit union, saving together and then giving each other loans from the savings pool.

Ken then told me that the women in the center, Martha, had a shop close by that I should come see. By this time I had no room left on my memory card, but Gloria said I could take a video on her phone, which was much better quality than my phone.

First Martha showed us her rabbits. She’d taken out a loan to buy one rabbit, and then she’d built up her herd by breeding them. She built her own rabbit hutches out of random pieces of wood and tin.

Then, with her rabbit earnings and another loan, Martha built a snack shop. “Here, you have to try these peanuts,” said Ken. I forget who he asked to buy this time. Maybe Jason again.

So we all just sat around munching peanuts and chatting. Another woman joined the group. I forget her name, I just remember that she said, “any for me?” And we laughed and bought her a little pack of peanuts too. I thought it was really interesting how people just straight-up asked for what they wanted, as long as it was something small and cheap. This system suited me a lot better than hinting. I’m terrible at picking up on hints.

After this we finally went home. We were going to eat supper at the guest house, but when we got back I started hearing rumors that the cook had run off to Saudi Arabia and there was no food. What the bunnyslipper! Literally it was the strangest thing, and I was so exhausted I felt like I wasn’t even living real life, like this was a book or a weird dream.

Well, the cook had run off to Saudi Arabia. But thankfully Jamila and her daughters and maybe someone else’s maid too had come together and made food without her help. So we had a delicious meal, and then all these strangers started walking in the door singing “Happy Birthday,” because I guess it was Joe Kuepfer’s birthday and now we were going to have a party.

If this sounds like I’m describing a bad dream, I’m sorry. That’s how it felt as I was living it. I’d just had an epic day, and there wasn’t a single inch of me left over for parties. I had to get out of here. Now.

Jamila took me back to her house and I went to bed. Well, first I ate some of the chapatis that the women at the first saving’s group had given me. Then I went to sleep, only to wake up at 5 am with…digestive issues. I think the chapatis, bouncing around in my backpack in that paper/cloth-like bag, must have collected some unfamiliar bacteria.

Maybe this whole trip was a terrible idea, I thought.

I was exhausted beyond measure, and I knew that I was supposed to spend the next day doing the same things I’d done this day. I’d had the most epic time, interviewing the most interesting people and getting a good taste of Kenyan culture both literally and figuratively. But there was no way I could do it another day. My health was slipping.

I decided to go over to the guest house at 7 am. We were supposed to leave at 8, so that would give me an hour to talk to Dad, Joe, whoever I needed to talk to, and see if there was another way. Because I couldn’t, I just couldn’t do it.

So I dressed, packed my backpack, and went to the door. The house was silent. The door was bolted, and locked with a giant padlock.

I was locked inside the house and I didn’t know how to get out.

To find out what happened next, well, you’ll just have to come back for part 3 I guess! Hopefully I’ll get that written in the next few days.


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Kenya Part 1: We Made It!

Kenya never ceases to make me catch my breath. Beauty overwhelms my senses. The cool morning air and lush greenery. The tea. This is where I first fell in love with tea, 18 years ago.

As you know, we had a bit of a rough time getting here. Dad was able to get his passport Friday and get all the tickets switched, but I was on pins and needles all weekend waiting for them to get their visas. Monday morning Dad’s came through, but Steven’s came back with an error message because he’d put a date in wrong. Cue panic.

Because of time zone differences, the Kenyan office was already closed. I was very stressed for about an hour, and then Steven checked it again, and it had miraculously gone through! We were good to go!

And so the next morning, on Tuesday, November 30, Mom drove Dad, Steven, and I to the airport. We checked our bags and showed the check-in lady our paperwork, and it was all good. Hallelujah!

(Thanks, by the way, to everyone who was praying.)

I managed to dash off a Patreon Post in the Portland airport before our flight left, and then we had a short flight to Salt Lake City, a short layover, and then a massive 10-hour flight to Amsterdam. By some stroke of luck the airplane was not that full, and there was an empty seat next to me where I curled up and got a nap. Also I was right near the back, with easy access to the bathrooms, and sometimes I snitched snacks off the flight attendant’s cart that was just sitting back there.

During our 4 hour layover in Amsterdam we met up with most of the rest of the Open Hands team we were traveling with. This included Jason and Gloria Croutch who do the east coast PR for Open Hands (Dad is going to be doing the west coast PR), Verlin and Bethany Torkelson who are planning to move to Kenya shortly as reginal directors for east Africa, and Lyndon Swarey who came to evaluate the program. The only missing person was Joe Kuepfer, who is in the process of becoming the new executive director. He flew through Paris instead of Amsterdam and, though he managed to arrive a few hours ahead of us, unfortunately lost his luggage along the way.

Joe scolded me for linking to the Open Hands website in my last post because he was embarrassed about how bad and outdated it is. But basically, Open Hands is an organization that facilitates savings groups around the world. A lot of missions throughout history have given aid to people in need, and unintentionally created systems of poverty where people feel hopeless without foreign aid. This creates a host of problems, including giving foreigners too much influence and power.

People in poor countries have the skills and resources to improve life for themselves and their community, although it is incredibly difficult in some circumstances. But there is a huge power in coming together as a group instead of waiting for foreign help.

Savings groups provide a way for local people to support each other and help each other out financially. Open Hands provides financial training materials, and also trains local facilitators who in turn train local savings groups. The goal is for the savings groups to be independent, electing their own leadership, etc.

Anyway, I’ll probably say more about the organization and savings groups later, but that’s the basic gist.

As a team, we were all a little out of it when we met, as we’d already been traveling basically an entire day. Now we had another 8-hour flight. Steven sat beside a lively young Kenyan woman and her mother who also had not been back to Kenya in about 10 years, and I enjoyed overhearing snippets of their conversation from my seat behind them.

Also, we flew over the alps, and they were breathtaking. I want to go visit the alps next.

Then we landed in Kenya! We stood in lines for what felt like ages, first getting our Covid tests checked, and then the regular Visa check line. Finally we burst outside into the cool evening air and ripped off our masks. I must say, I don’t particularly mind wearing a mask, but it got old after 30 hours, especially as I’d never really had time to brush my teeth. Nasty.

By this time it was late Wednesday evening, thanks to time zone shifts and such. We piled into taxis and went to a place called the Hampton House, which is a sort of guest house/hotel. I went straight to bed but, despite my fatigue, I still woke up at 6 am. Jet lag, you know.

Still, I took a long, luxurious shower and then made some tea and sat around enjoying the whole world.

It was just a little paper tea bag, but I could immediately taste the difference. Kenyan tea is next level.

It was now Thursday morning, December 2. At 8 am we got in a van and drove to Nakuru, where the Open Hands headquarters is located. That’s where I am now, and where I will remain until Tuesday December 7. That’s when I was originally scheduled to fly back to Oregon, but since we got started late, we decided to stay in Kenya a little longer, and will be returning the following Sunday instead.

So far I’ve had very little time to write updates, but I’m dashing this one off now so you know I made it safe and sound and am having a wonderful time. But don’t worry, there are still many updates to come!


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A Slight Change of Plans

Well, it has been an interesting couple of days.

The plan was to leave for Kenya early Friday morning. Now, both Dad and Steven have fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants personality types. (I do too, frankly, but compared to them I seem like I don’t.) So a few things were left until the last minute, which made me a little nervous.

Steven apparently lost his passport at some point. His only recourse was to drive up to Seattle, where they offer “Urgent Travel” passport service, and get a new one–but this had to be done within three days of travel. So he made an appointment for Wednesday.

Meanwhile, we all applied for our visas, but only mine went through. Dad and Steven both got error messages, which it took them a while to figure out. Ultimately, Steven’s error was due to the fact that he’d put in his old passport number and then gotten a new passport the next day. So he corrected his passport number and re-submitted. Dad’s error was that his passport was expiring in just under six months, which is not cool under Kenya’s visa rules.

Both these problems didn’t get discovered until Thursday night. And we were supposed to fly out Friday morning.

Not gonna lie, I was a bit miffed. There was no chance of Dad being able to come on the trip, but I thought if Steven’s visa came through by the next morning the two of us could just go. But if it didn’t, then what? Should I just…go by myself?

The trip, you must understand, was going to be a multi-purpose trip. Dad started working for Open Hands, and was taking this trip to see some of their savings groups in action. I was invited along, partly just as a travel companion because Mom was tired of traveling, and partly to take some photos and videos for upcoming PR trips Dad will take. Then Steven came on board because he’s always wanted to go back to Kenya. Dad then arranged for us to arrive several days before the rest of the Open Hands people, giving us time to visit some of Steven’s old friends and do some sightseeing.

When our plans were abruptly halted Thursday night, Dad focused his energy on getting to Kenya by Tuesday. Even though the Seattle Passport Agency insists that you need to make an appointment, Steven said that some people had just showed up. So Dad decided to leave at 4:30 am the next morning and drive to Seattle to try to get a passport before the weekend.

Meanwhile, Steven decided to see if his visa would come through by the next morning, when we’d planned to leave for the airport.

And I contemplated going to Kenya by myself. It would make a good story at least, right?

But as I lay in bed, trying to fall asleep, my stomach began hurting. An odd sort of stabbing gassy pain that I get every once in a while. A pain that makes sleep impossible, and cannot be eased by painkillers. The only thing that helps is heat, and that only makes a vague difference. Given enough time it eases on its own, but the path there is sleepless.

So I just lay there, hour after hour, wide awake.

Still, sometimes in these moments where everything goes wrong, I get what I call an “eye of the hurricane” feeling. Where I suddenly feel completely resigned to all the pain and disappointment, and a feeling of absolute peace overwhelms me. This only seems to happen in the middle of the night, and only when I’m in terrible pain. Actually, usually in the moment when the pain begins to ease up just slightly. In any case, this “eye of the hurricane” feeling swept over me. I felt like my life was somehow going to be wonderful. It was very strange.

By about 1:30 am, the pain had eased enough that I found myself sleeping for short stretches before the pain jolted me awake again. At 5 am, Steven sent me a text saying his visa had not come through.

Unfortunately, by this point my “eye of the hurricane” feeling had ended and I was sleepless, grumpy, and disappointed. As much as I wished I were the sort of person who would just hop on the plane and go anyway, I just did not have it in me at that moment. I was already in pain and sleep deprived, and did not need a long and lonely travel experience on top of that.

So I stayed home too.

Dad was busy all day making everything right again. He managed to get a new passport, and also switch our tickets so we’d fly out on Tuesday and come home several days later than we’d initially planned. After I went back to bed and actually got a few hours of decent sleep, Steven and I went and got another round of Covid tests. I made some inquiries and figured out that my visa would still be valid even if I arrived in the country later than planned, and I also made a Covid testing appointment for dad.

Right now, I have a negative Covid test and am all prepped to go on Tuesday. Both Dad and Steven had to re-apply for their visas, Dad because he got a new passport, and Steven because we suddenly remembered that while he’d updated the passport number on his application, he never updated the photo of his passport. As of now, their visas are still awaiting approval.

But you know what? If they don’t come through, this time I think I’ll just go without them, lol.

I really am not upset at them anymore. They both were extremely apologetic to me and covered the financial costs of the ticket switches. But if you are considering traveling overseas, let this be a lesson to you to plan WAY in advance. Apply for everything ahead of time, so that if you run into issues you have time to fix them. Look up all the requirements for entering the country. Double-check everything. Make sure you know exactly where your passport is, and when it expires. In fact, if you don’t have a passport right now you should immediately go apply for one, just in case you ever need it. I updated mine last November even though I had no travel plans at the time, and I’m so thankful I did.

Anyway. Hopefully we will all fly to Kenya on Tuesday, and meanwhile I’m just over here sipping my grape tea, trying to be chill.

A Month of Gratefulness: My Final Thoughts

I’m in Oregon right now, and so far this has been kind-of a weird trip. First we were over the mountains attending Alison’s wedding, and then we came home but didn’t quite do the traditional Thanksgiving because we’re prepping for Kenya. Heading out tomorrow. Woo-hoo! So this will be the last post in my gratefulness series.

Monday: Oregon…and Blacksburg

Turns out that leaving to go overseas the day after Thanksgiving is a bit of a mess. On Monday we were preoccupied with getting our Covid tests, since we needed our results back before Thanksgiving break. At 2:30 Dad found a drive-in place in Albany that offered free tests, but they closed at 3:30, so we jumped into his car and took off.

On the way he called his doctor. “I know I had a 3:00 appointment, but I’m gonna be 15 minutes late because I need to go get a Covid test first.”

This, of course, meant that I had to tag along to his doctor’s appointment afterwards. It wasn’t a big deal because it went quickly and I just sat out in the car and read The Blue Castle for about the 25’th time. Meanwhile, I saw multiple people I knew, because apparently every Mennonite in the area goes to the same doctor.

I felt a certain gratefulness for this. I’ve felt for a while that I don’t “belong” in Oregon long term, and I don’t really have a friend group here anymore. But I do know lots of people, and there is something nice about bumping into people you know. I am grateful to be from someplace that I can go home to.

However. I must admit that this brief trip back to Oregon has made me tremendously grateful for a few things in Blacksburg.

First, the weather. I love the Oregon summers, and I love that you can have nice days at the beach all winter, but I absolutely do not miss the dismal dingy skies that stretch from autumn through spring. In Blacksburg we’ve mostly gotten either cold crisp sunny days or satisfying rainy ones. None of these endless gray skies.

Second, while I enjoy living in the country during the summer, I really don’t miss it at all. I love the way you can walk to all sorts of places in Blacksburg, and spy on your neighbors out the window. I get way more exercise by default because it’s just so easy to walk to, say, the library. And if you need to drive somewhere it takes, like, ten minutes, whereas here it takes half an hour (unless you’re headed to Dollar General.) (I do actually miss Dollar General, though. The Dollar General is kind-of like the Doctor’s office because I often see people I know, while the Dollar Generals back east are just kinda gross.)

Tuesday: The Job Interview

I got up super early on Tuesday to have a zoom interview for a remote writing job. They were all on Eastern time, and they asked me if Oregon was in Central or Mountain time, which I thought was really funny. East Coasters don’t tend to have a great sense of how large the USA actually is. (Once a friend told me that it takes “like 20 hours” to get to Oregon from PA. I replied, “yes, but only if you fly,” and then giggled over my own cleverness.)

Overall though, the interview went really well and I was grateful for the opportunity. And of course if the job works out the time zone thing won’t be a big deal, as I’ll be back on the east coast.

Tuesday was actually a really blessed day. Besides the interview in the morning I was able to meet up with multiple friends, although that was much more complicated than I’d anticipated because I don’t have my car here. I’m used to just zipping off whenever I feel like it.

Wednesday: The Ocean

The Oregon Coast is still my favorite place in the universe. Jenny, Mom and I spent Wednesday there.

Thursday: The Kenya Trip

So far, today has been a fairly chill day. No big Thanksgiving meal for us, as we prep to go to Kenya and such. However, we’re all gonna hang out and eat fish tacos tonight, so fun times.

Today, I’m so grateful for the opportunity to go to Kenya. With the pandemic, I haven’t traveled in what seems like forever. I had to cancel a trip to India and a trip to Italy, so I’m just really grateful to get a chance to take this trip.

I don’t know how much I’ll have a chance to post when I’m in Kenya, but we’ll see.

Goodness though…I really had a spectacular November, all things considered. I’ve never liked November much. But blessings rained on me this month. I hope you all have a day full of gratefulness and a spectacular Christmas season. But goodbye for now, I’m off to Kenya!


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