Thursday, July 06, 2006

Unpacking Africa (Charlie)

Hello again friends,

As the freshness of my recent Africa trip rubs off a little (sadly), certain things stand out in my mind. One thing I never blogged about was a meeting we had with a new friend in Nairobi. We met an American named Brad, who started an organization called the Persecution Project. Brad works in the Sudan, and lives in Nairobi with his wife and 4 or 5 children. He's just a guy that grew up really caring about Africa, and has decided to relocate his family temporarily, in order to serve those suffering in Sudan. We had JUST flown back to Kenya from 3 days in Rwanda, and the Genocide was on our minds. We actually bought these purple bracelets at the Genocide
Memorial that say: Genocide- Never Again! And Brad reminded us that, well, quite frankly, there is currently a genocide in Sudan, and it's been happening since the 1970's. Over 2 million people have died at the hands of rebels, and the situation is extremely bleak. There was a peace-treaty signed recently (you may have heard this in the news, and been relieved, like myself), but no one is abiding by it, and the killing goes on and on. I wear my purple bracelet slightly more sobered now, and it reminds me that it is happening again. Blood:Water Mission has funded two wells in Sudan (through Brad and Persecution Project) at a couple internally displaced persons camps (IDP camps). We are hoping to provide more wells in the Sudan region.

When President Bush became president 6 years ago, he mentioned the Rwandan Genocide and remarked, "Not on my watch!". I visited a website recently, and sent a digital post card to the White House reminding them of this, and encouraging them to do what they can to bring an end to the merciless killing of innocents in Sudan. It literally only takes half a minute, and I believe, is a great way to use our voice. Please check out this site, and consider sending an e-card. There's not always a lot we can do in these situations, but we have the information, and this is something simple that shows we care, and encourages our leaders to do the same. After all, they represent us. Thanks for considering this, my friends!

Lastly, if you are not tired of our blogs and thoughts about Africa, I decided to post my own blog. It's really long and detailed, has a bunch of pictures, and contains some graphic content from our time in Rwanda, but I've gotten some very encouraging feedback, so I thought I would open it up to you that may be interested.

May God's grace cover you as we join together in caring about His world!

Friday, June 23, 2006

In Kenya with Benjamin (Matt)

June 20-22

Our last 3 days in Kenya were spent in an continuous cycle of celebration, ceremony and mastication. We were guests of Benjamin,the leader of Gwako ministries, one of our primary Kenyan contacts for building wells. Gwako encourages community solidarity and mobilization through the vehicle of women's groups that are the driving force in preparing a community to first receive and then maintain a properly installed water point.

We spent the majority of our days in a "mutatu" chopping along red clay kenyan prairie through unmarked rutted out dirt roads passing sometimes right through the middle of small thatched hut communities, each one looking more and more like the last. We blindly trusted our driver and Benjamin's sense of direction amidst what seemed to us to be a wandering and infinite sameness, and they never failed to bring us more or less in one piece to our destination which was always signaled by the same things... a congregation of women dancing and clapping to meet us as if they had been that way all day waiting for us to round the bend and somewhere in the periphery a circle of cushioned chairs and couches brought out underneath a shade tree and arranged in a circle complete with clean linens on the cushions. We knew by this time that this was where we (the visitors) were expected to sit and enjoy their hospitality. These visits were filled with warm joyful receptions, long gracious speeches and impossible amounts of food. It was not unusual for us on these days to have 3-4 fully prepared several course meals between the hours of 11 and 5 pm. In the words of Benjamin there is no stopping these villages from making "big food" for visitors.

Some of the highlghts of these days were the singing children of Nyamonge and their song sung to Jena while they stroked her hair and skin, The women of St. Catherine singing "Some of the whites come around here but they won't associate with us but you people are free!", The generous gifts of the Kokwaro women's group including a live chicken for Benjamin and handmade rope for the men (to tie up our animals with), and meeting a baby named Jena Lee in the village of Atemo.

Like most of our time in Africa our time with Benjamin was no exception to the rule that it is truly our privilege to be partners in this work. We all left with such a humble respect for the difficult yet good work that Benjamin is doing in these communities, and the small quiet place on the front lines of the kingdom of God's breaking edge that we get to share with him. Thanks be to God.
-matt odmark

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Village Life in Lwala, Kenya (Charlie)

We headed back from the big village football game just before dusk (amazing sky and sunset), and chilled out in the main room and waited for dinner. We never ate before 9:30pm here, and lunch is always around 3- 3:30. Dinner was a little touchy- talapia, which I heard was great, but you had to pick the meat away from the body, and by the time I was ready to try it, there wasn’t much left. The chicken didn’t look so great to me, so I just had chipote, which was like a pita/fried tortilla. I ate two, and called it a meal. I thought I would snack later, but never got around to it.

We had a big presentation/event outside in the common area (where we played volleyball). They hung up some light bulbs and I guess had a generator somewhere for power. Umundi (Fred’s brother) was the MC, and presented many choirs to sing for us. Again, the voices and gut-music was haunting, and it was a joy to see how music pervades their culture. They brought some couches out in the yard for us to sit on. The kids aren’t self-aware, but sing and dance voluntarily and with passion. We took turns playing songs all night, trading off and on between Jars and the church choirs… we probably played 7-10 songs in all. I won’t list them all here, but they requested “God Will Lift Up Your Heads” again, as the kids had heard it and sung along that morning at the school. Griff (Joel’s best friend) videotaped off and on. We felt honored and accepted, and Dan and Jena gave great speeches, translated by Umundi. Joel gave a challenging lesson/sermon about AIDS/judgement/immorality, brokenness before God, and tried to dispel some rumors and secrets; hopefully an important small step for the village in accepting reality. I was surprised at Joel’s boldness, and admired his method and grace, exercising tough love. We wrapped up around 12:30am (!!) after the pastor gave us some words and encouragement.

Again, nothing but open arms and welcome, and prayer for connection and mutual benefit. Slept good after the throw-down, and woke up this morning, ready to pack up and start making our way to Rwanda. We’ll have a meeting in a bit with the Clinic Committee to hear more about their plans and desires. Then drive back to Kisumu, and fly to Nairobi, where we will spend the night and fly to Kigali, Rwanda in the morning! It will be sad to leave Lwala, although I am ready for a hotel and a different bed/pillow.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Speechless (Jena)

I continually feel compelled to share with you what I see as I travel, to bring you along with me to the various places I wander, to let you in on my thoughts and feelings so that you may step into the experience with me. It’s therapeutic to write my questions, observations and struggles out on paper. I love writing and journaling. I love putting words together to express the things within me. It frees me. But today, I can’t seem to conjure up the words to describe what I have seen today. I simply don’t have words. So I will simply say, I spent the afternoon in the church where a mass slaughter occurred during the atrocious Rwandan genocide in 1994. Gary Haugen of IJM was the head of the UN investigation for Rwanda and had to sift through the thousands of corpses in this little church in the middle of a paradise of lush hills. He had not been back to this place since then. The inside of the church was fairly untouched besides the removal of most bodies.

What kind of response is available when I walk through the aisle of the church that is littered by bones, skulls, shoes, hairbrushes, and remains of thousands who were slaughtered by the blades of machetes? Oh my God. There are no words.

How do you say, "Hello," in Luo? How do you say "iPod Video?" (Dan)

We spent yesterday travelling from Nairobi to Lwala... basically, a one hour flight, a two hour van ride(matatu), and we were out in the middle of a wonderful village, being greeted by new friends.

The fear was gripping at first, not a scary fear, but more an awkward fear as all the phrases and Luo words I had practiced in the van and on the plane left my mind, and I was left to resort to monosyllabic grunts and some smiles and nods. It wasn't pretty.

I spent most of the day trying to remember how to say, “hello," and, "how are you," and, "I am good.” and the fact that the phrases that they used for these terms change as the day went on, made things even more difficult.

We played soccer(football) with the children, the World Cup is on everyones mind, even though Kenya was eliminated in the first round by the Czech republic, there was still many smiles and laughs as we kicked and chased a ball made of string and plastic bags all rolled
together around the yard. It was a good introduction for the children who had been led to believe at some point that whitepeople eat African children. I think it started as a joke, but became a strange kind of child's folklore. Football was a surprise to some of the children. And we were not very hungry after our long flight and van ride.

There are few people as welcoming as the people of Lwala village. I sometimes wish that our culture in America left room for more singing and dancing, not in a musical broadway sense, but in the way Kenyans embody their emotions and experiences in songs and in movement. Most of the day was spent getting our footing, and adjusting to the wandering goats, chickens, and the sounds and smells of the village.

Our first evening in Lwala was spent walking. We wound around narrow pathways and dirt roads, past school houses and thatched huts and across the river by way of a bridge constructed of three fallen tree branches. We travelled this distance because we wanted to talk to some people living with HIV/AIDS, and the village we are staying in although inhabited by a number of people with AIDS, was also filled with people who carried this burden in secret, so we had to travel to the next village to find people willing to share their stories. This is completely understandable, as discussing an illness like this is deeply personal and exposing in many ways.

We traveled a while and finally reached a small hut. The sun was beginning to set, and it cast wonderful shadows around the hilly landscape of winding pathways that divided the maize fields and rows of banana trees(roboco). Most of us wrestled to stay awake, even though our hearts were broken by the stories of the woman. It was nearly night time. We had one more house to visit. A woman who was struggling with HIV/AIDS, she had six children in her house... two of her own, 3 from her husbands other wife, and one that was her sister’s.

She told us that she was trying to learn how to say goodbye, and wanted us to help the other women after her to have hope. The big issue was nutrition, and this was a problem for anyone taking ARV’s. She had also missed a few doses, and so it was apparent to us, like
foreshadowing in a book, that she was not going to live for long. Her circumstances did not allow for a steady regiment of the drug treatment, but AIDS mutates, and if person with AIDS does not stay on the drugs consistently then the disease will build up an immunity to the treatment. This was the case for this woman. By the time we left her home, it was dark, and we began the journey back to the village. It was difficult to see, and the paths were spotted with jutting rocks and slippery mud, but we made it to the bridge. The only light we had was from two cell phones, and I happened to have my iPod Video with me in my camera bag.

I was surprised how much light it gave off, it was the only thing, besides my sense of balance, which is not something to rely on, that got me across the bridge. we all made it, and after a short time, we were back in the village sitting around a welcoming table for a late dinner and some music. I contemplated the way my letter to Apple would sound as I described another use for the iPod Video.

The first night sleeping was surprisingly comfortable with the help of Ambien. We slept under mosquito nets, and listened to the sound of bats flying overhead in the rafters, and the transistor tones of the World Cup that was playing on a television in another part of the
village. The next day would come quickly and we would be up with the sun, and the shockingly loud call of inconsiderate roosters.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

From Kenya to Rwanda (Charlie)

We arrived late at night in Nairobi and slept in the Mayfield Missionary House for about 5 hours. We were all jet lagged and exhausted, and in great need of rest. I woke up fairly rested and we flew out at 8am for Kisumu, Kenya. A short flight (45 min), and a LONG drive on bumpy roads to Lwala, crammed in a matatu (like a van in the US), 11 of us total. Probably a 3 hour drive- I sat up front with Fred (our new friend and liaison in the village- he grew up in Lwala and is attending Vanderbilt medical school this year), and we talked a little, although he’s soft spoken, so mostly I just looked out the window and soaked in the sights. There were people walking everywhere, standing by the road. I enjoyed the beautiful topography, and it struck me that everyone is very dressed up. Even leaving Kibera slum in Nairobi, they were all dressed up going to work. Dignity…

On the drive in to the village, we passed many kids that looked curiously at us (I remarked that they looked like they’d just seen a ghost, or eight ghosts rather) “Mozunga” is their word for white person. When we drove by the school, Lwala Primary, the kids were hanging out the windows watching us and waving. It was amazing, and the anticipation to arrive and meet people was pretty overwhelming.

We arrived at Lwala village, and were welcomed so warmly and lovingly, it didn’t take long to feel surprisingly comfortable here. I had heard about the hospitality in Africa, but there’s nothing like receiving it- very humbling! The people were just amazing, so kind and joyful, lots of laughter as we tried to use some of their words and phrases. The women greeted us with a song and dancing (Welcome visitors, to Lwala village….) We went out back, toured the center of village, and met some kids. They all had their school uniforms on, and looked just beautiful. They were pretty bashful at first and stepped back when we approached, but when we kicked a homemade soccer ball with them (plastic bags balled up, and wrapped with twine) they warmed up quickly and we were all laughing and playing together. Really free and full of life. It was quite a special moment. Things settled down a little and I got out two of the Frisbees I brought. They had never played Frisbee, and loved it. I plan to leave a couple, and take the other two to Kisumu villages later in the week.

more later- much grace to you from Rwanda, Africa-

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Inter-mosquito-net (Steve)


We just got in to the overnight house in Nairobi. We'll be heading to some villages in Kisumu tomorrow. It's pretty exciting to arrive. There's a lot of unknowns still, but Jena and I had a conversation that helped articulate the mind-set in a way I can activate my heart.

We are here to celebrate. Celebrate the stories of these beautiful people, celebrate our relationships with them, and what God has done in our midst. There. That feels a lot less "here we come to save the day."

My ipod shuffle is nonstop with Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy." My favorite line, which I paraphrase:
"Oh, bless your think you're in control."

That's wisdom for this trip dropped to a hellafunky beat and guitar track.

We're officially on the ground!

And We're Off (Jena)

And we’re off...

Well, it’s normal for me to be going back to Africa around this time. But it is so exciting because I’m bringing my dear friends and partners in this mission. The Jars guys, two of the wives, our favorite photographer, and I are on the plane from Nashville to Chicago (and later, Chicago to London, London to Nairobi).

It’s going to be an incredible two weeks, and I am so thankful that logistics and schedules have made it possible for the band to finally come and meet the faces of those they have already served. Our first two days will be spent in Lwala village (you can scroll down this blog to see Lwala from my last trip in March). I’m excited to have everyone build relationships and really get a sense of walking in another person’s shoes. No clean water. No electricity. My prayer is that hearts will unite and relationships will grow.

After visiting Lwala, we have an amazing opportunity to travel with our hero and mentor, Gary Haugen, who is the founder and president of International Justice Mission. We will be in Rwanda together for three short days. Gary will walk us through his experiences as the US envoy for the Department of Justice during the investigations of the genocide that happened in 1994. We will be staying at the Milles Collines Hotel, which many of you will know by the movie that came out a couple of years ago, Hotel Rwanda. We will also be visiting Rwanda Victory Academy, an orphanage and school that has just received approval for a water project funded by Blood:Water Mission.

From there, we will return to Kisumu, Kenya to visit the communities that have clean water wells from Blood:Water. We will be with my dear friend and partner, Benjamin. The band has heard me speak of Benjamin for two years now, and they will finally have the opportunity to meet him, witness his influential, yet humble leadership, and spend time with those who have benefited from clean water. I know it will be a time of celebration; a time to rejoice in what God has done through the band, and through amazing leaders like Benjamin.

We covet your prayers and your thoughts as we go forward in these two weeks. Please pray for the families back home, as well.


Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Hello from Heathrow (Steve)

Hello from Heathrow.

Nothing takes one out of comfort and safety like the transient feeling you get at an international terminal. For 13 years it's meant a destination I've not been to, and a culture I've only read about.

I have that same feeling today, only it's not about the impending gig and PR that would precede it. We're going to see the difference engaging our audience has meant for people in these communities. I'm giddy about that. I'm also carrying a significant amount of fear.

The desire of my heart is to take this in fully, with deep breaths. I'm not bringing guilt and shame for where I'm from and what I have. It's a want for understanding how God has provoked us to this work, and what that has done to show love and meet the needs of others. In light of that, I want to learn from these brothers and sisters in Kenya.

Then as we head to Rwanda, I hope for a sense of Gospel justice. To know the mercy I work to extend to my loved ones at home has a weight that I barely understand in light of what these people have experienced in civil war. This is a little tip of the tongue, but I think this will start to make sense as the trip continues. Teachable, gracious, loving. That's what my goals are for this trip.


Monday, June 12, 2006

First thoughts (Steve)

Kenya and Rwanda

Please direct some thoughts and prayers for me as we leave today. We're off to visit some villages, and see some wells that have been drilled in communities as a result of our work in blood:water mission.

It's going to be demanding physically, and we'll be staying in villages for at least half of the 10 days we're over.

I want to remain teachable throughout, and ease those feelings of USA entitlement that I carry with me. Bono's "where you live should not decide whether you live or whether you die" from How To on the front of my brain. I'm not there to fix it - I'm there to learn from people who have had a radically different life experience than mine. To quote Dan on the new record,

"teach us how to learn, see the things you see,
walk the road you walk, feel the pain that you feel,
at your feet I kneel, I want to see you shine,
see your light not mine,
'cause light gives heat.

I want to see the character of God in them, and I know I will. But that's scary, too.

I'll try to post some pictures and let you in on what we've been up to.

Much love.


Sunday, June 11, 2006

Preparing for Africa (Charlie)

June 11, 2006
Charlie Lowell (preparing for Africa)

We're sitting on a tour bus in Kentucky, waiting for a storm to pass, so they can wheel a portable stage out onto a Minor League Ball Field and play a concert. It occurred to us about an hour ago, watching the baseball game, that in two days we will be in a village in Kenya, spending time with some new friends, with no electricity or running water, and not much common language.

It's with mixed feelings that I go to Africa - in one sense, I feel like we're about to finally experience the "real Africa", and it makes my soul jump with excitement. But part of me is hesitant and self-aware, as I know I can't possibly prepare for what I will experience in Kenya and Rwanda. I guess the point is not to prepare for it, as much as a willingness to jump in with wild abandon, and be willing to engage with a new culture, language, food, etc...

A few days of our trip will be spent in Rwanda with a mentor/hero of ours named Gary Haugen. Gary started IJM, International Justice Mission, some years ago, after investigating the slaughter of almost one million Tutsi's, the Rwandan Genocide. It will be amazing to walk through the streets and burial sites in this amazing little country, and be able to process some of this atrocity with Gary.

A friend recently gave me a book called We Are All The Same, and that title rings in my head - that regardless of culture, age, religion, color - we share a common humanity, a need for hope and truth and human connection. I suspect this will resonate with my heart more and more after this trip.

We've packed very light (Jena gave a great lesson on how to pack a small duffle for a 12 day trip!!) but I am bringing a few small frisbees, to hopefully have fun with some kids. We have a good friend traveling with us, Jeremy Cowart. He's a brilliant photographer, and many of the pictures you've seen associated with Blood:Water Mission are Jeremy's photos. It'll be a real gift to have his presence and talent to document the adventures and people that we experience these next couple weeks.

We will certainly be anxious to share photos and stories when we return, and possibly some updates from inside Africa, given the time and the internet availability. Thank you for your prayers and support!!