Tuesday, January 9, 2018


After living in Kenya (and Tanzania) for a year, I have accrued an endless stream of funny/ sweet stories. The people I met and the friends I made there are still present in my thoughts and heart. So for your entertainment, here is a list of stories that still bring a smile to my face :)

Speed Fingers
With my bodyguard :)
While I was re-arranging the bulletin board in Embu Girls Secondary school, I could easily hear one of the teachers speaking to the four 4 class. He was very animated (as usual) and his voice carried to where I was working. I hadn't really been paying attention to what he was saying until I heard "there's someone who can type faster than I can write"...and i felt my ears burning. I knew he was talking about me. He kept saying how typing is a skill that needs to be practiced etc. I couldn't get over how weird it was to be hearing him talk about me, so I popped my head in and said, "You know, I can hear you." The whole class burst out in laughter. The teacher looked taken aback. I returned to my work, but about 10 minutes later, the class dismissed and the teacher said, "You don't know I was talking about you."

'She's not a Dog'
At the school dance before exams, I discovered I had a passionate body guard: Winnie, a sweet and sassy freshman. A couple days earlier, I had gotten annoyed with a group of freshman for treating me like a dog and petting me all the time. So now, she had shown up to tell them to "stop acting like she's a dog." haha It was so endearing! This tiny little girl was making sure I was treated with respect!

Going to Embu was always
 interesting with Immaculate
Who's Staring Now?
Another day in Embu town, my friend and I noticed a crowd gathered at the front of Maguna's. There was a man standing on stilts, dressed like a big-bottomed, pregnant, dreadlocked Mrs. Claus. Once I spotted him, my mind skipped the confusion/wonder stage and went straight to appreciation. As people took out their phones to record his performance, no one was staring at me! For the first time in Embu, there was someone more interesting to stare at! Thank you totally random man for just doing your thing!

Basketball Star
My first day in Dar es Salaam, I just watched the guys play basketball. But the next day, I felt more adventurous & decided to join them. I taught 'HORSE' to four guys. It's not really a difficult game to play, so I wasn't at an advantage for knowing how to play it before...I just happened to be the best shot in the group! I was amazed when one-by-one, each guy spelled HORSE. For probably the only time in my life, I beat 4 grown men in a basketball game. Dreams DO come true!!

So Fresh and So Clean
To these cuties, I'm Amani..
One afternoon in Dar es Salaam, I was playing in the sand with some nursery kids. Since I used my hand to make a nice smooth surface to draw on, my hand was pretty dirty. An adorable boy named Jackson came over to hold my hand, but realized it was dirty. He immediately took my hand in his tiny little ones & tried brushing off the dirt. When it didn't come off, he brought out his handkerchief & rubbed and rubbed. He was so determined; I couldn't stop laughing at his passion in this matter.

Say My Name
I love the little children in Dagoretti. If they had not met me before, they all gasped when they saw me and would shout ‘mzungu!’ and come running to greet me. If one of their little friends was too shy, they would practically drag them to me. The other day, I met with 5 little ones on the way to church. When they greeted me, I told them I was called Amani. On the way back from mass, I saw them again. I had to remind them of my name. One girl asked, ‘Amani nani?’ I took a second to decide which second name to give (Megan, Elizabeth or Swanson) when another tiny girl said, ‘Amani Mzungu!!’ Which was just too cute and innocent.
Photo shoot with the family and Fr. David

Good to be Home
My ultimate favorite experience in Kenya happened just days before I returned to the U.S. On my holiday, I went with Dan and his priest friend, Fr. David, to a Mass in a family home. About 20 of us gathered in their living room, circling around the table that acted as the altar. This was the first Mass I heard in Kikuyu and it was beautiful. I was moved to tears by the reverence of this family- every age was represented from toddler to grandparents. After the Eucharist, we enjoyed a feast with them: mokimo, rice, peas, nyama and greens. Then, we had a photo shoot with the family. There was so much joy and love there that I felt right at home. Later, I learned that the grandmother had been praying for me during the prayers of the faithful, saying she was grateful to have a visitor come by plane and that I was now a part of the family. This was my favorite memory from Kenya because it summarizes all the reasons why I love Kenyans: hospitality, generosity, thankfulness and love <3

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

There and Back Again...

I have spent (nearly) a year in Kenya as a volunteer with the Salesian sisters. I have returned to the cold, festive time of December in Illinois. It feels just like yesterday that I was here in my home..just yesterday that I was with my family.

Reverse culture shock is like looking down on the Earth from a plane:
it changes your perspective significantly.
In many ways, being back home makes the past year feel like a dream. Since no one on this continent was able to journey with me, it seems unreal somehow. But despite these strange feelings, it most certainly happened and I am forever changed by the experience.

Now, many 'normal' American habits* are seeming very 'un-normal.' This process is called reverse culture shock.  If you have ever lived in another culture for an extensive amount of time, I'm sure you've undergone this process. It is bizarre to return to a life that no longer makes as much sense as it used to.

The fact is this: a year really trying to integrate myself into Kenyan and community living has changed me. I am still the same person in many ways, but my outlook on life has drastically altered. A lifestyle that used to seem the only way has become just one lifestyle. A culture that used to be hidden from me because of its close proximity has begun to show holes and idiosyncrasies. 

After having Mass and lunch in this family's home,
they said I was part of the family.
I learned more about American Midwest culture in one year abroad than I did living in it for 24 years. The people I met in Kenya were very curious about our life here--their endless questions made me realize some things can't be explained, but are just a reality. But this unending 'interview' process opened my eyes to understanding many things (like the English language is weird haha). 

Here are some aspects of American living that are currently shocking me. This isn't necessarily a negative list, but something that my eyes are open to now:

  • Life of excess
I was immediately shocked by the amount of stuff people have when I first returned. I had become very accustomed to living out of 2 suitcases and having the bare minimum. In the US, we behave like squirrels preparing for winter. Items usually serve one purpose here, so we have an abundance of specialized products (for the kitchen, tools, body products etc.) We have larger homes, so it makes sense that storing things is more practical, but just FYI: hoarding is an American issue.

Standing on the Equator is also makes you
look at life different.
  • Value of Money                                                                                                                              
 I can better appreciate the value of $1 now. In Kenya, the equivalent to 1 USD is about 103 ksh. With that many shillings, you can buy some sakuma (kale) and a kilo of ugali flour. This meal could feed at least 2 people. So buying a chai tea at Dunkin' for $4 made me feel guilty because I know the value of money now. Obviously, the cost of living in Kenya is relational to their wages, as it is in the US. But now, I feel a greater responsibility to tithe my money to foreign missions because our money goes farther in places like Kenya. I can easily sacrifice a chai tea over and over in order to help those struggling to survive.
  • Machines rule our lives
Dishwashers, washing machines/ dryers, microwaves, refrigerators and electric stoves are necessary to American living. They are intended to be time-saving devices, but somehow Americans are always running out of time, busy at all times. It amazed me to live without all these devices and somehow I still had free time.What I learned: machines aren't completely necessary and they don't always save you time. 
  • Cost of independence
Living in Kenya, the thing i missed the most (even surpassing cheese and wifi) was independence. The ability to get into my car and drive wherever, whenever was difficult to adjust to. But that is American life--getting everything yourself. I realized there is little cooperation between neighbors because mobility is so high. The average Kenyan doesn't own a car, but relies on public transportation (aka matatus), so neighbors and family and friends work together and share what they have. Although my limited independence annoyed me, it allowed me to live in community with the people around me. 
  • Happiness is a state of mind
The children I met were joyful,
despite enduring a hard life
Unhappiness is found everywhere and there is no magic formula to find peace and contentment in life. But..I personally found happiness in simple living in Kenya. On the whole, I would say that I met more genuinely happy people in Kenya that I have met in the US. I was most struck by the children of Dagoretti--many of them lived in extreme poverty and had difficult home lives, yet they would smile with authentic joy. They have very little in the world, but they still have a reason to smile. Their joy even shined out upon those around them. They were Jesus to me in their innocence and simplicity. 

As time goes on, I know more things about this lifestyle will feel strange, but I will also reintegrate into Midwest culture bit by bit. This blog has been my attempt at translating my experience into coherent thoughts. I have not written these things to accuse Americans living, but to offer a new perspective. Culture is complex and deeply entrenched into our environment, our history and the individuals that live there. It is difficult to understand how we are a product of culture and it is a byproduct of who we are, but this experience has opened my eyes to see the world more clearly. I'm very thankful for the (sometimes) brutal honesty of Kenyans because it helped me attempt to describe my culture. 

Friday, November 10, 2017

Simply Joyful

As my time in Kenya begins to come to a close (about 30 days left!), I’ve been reflecting a lot on my lifestyle here. When I take a step back and examine how I’m living here, I am amazed at myself! Simplicity is the rule, not an option, but it is beautiful.

Some simple aspects of my life:
Asked my students to smile...haha
-- breakfast is always toast and tea, but on Thursdays & Sundays we also have eggs
-- there is no wifi in the sisters house, so I check the Internet for about 45 minutes every other day which means: no videochats, no Netflix, no YouTube, no FB creeping (a serious sacrifice)
-- for the most part, my time is spent in our small compound and the parish next door
-- I spend my evenings alone, re-watching the same movies over and over again on my laptop
-- every meal is planned and prepared for me--we eat a lot of rice, cabbage and greens
-- I go to the supermarket about every 3 weeks (and yes, I always buy chocolate)
-- in order to communicate on my phone, I buy credit in 50 cent increments (it costs about 30 cents for 1 week of texting and 4 cents for every minute of talking)
-- I have no idea what is popular or trending back home
-- my wardrobe is about 1/8 of what I own

Now, I don’t want you to think that this is a laundry list of complaints. It is quite the opposite. This is a list of ways I have been stretched! These are some of the ways I’ve been challenged to live in solidarity with the people around me. In this relative poverty of mine, I have come face to face with my own materialism, dependence on technology, wanderlust, retail therapy, need for independence and an intense craving for food.
Our community (and volunteer Simone)

At first, I was shocked by these discoveries: I had no idea all these issues lingered underneath the surface.  The reality of living in Kenya and living in community with sisters has effectively revealed the effects of living a highly privileged life. I have never been left wanting for the basics of life, but even the luxuries of life have always been within my reach. Sometimes, I find it difficult to acknowledge my own giftedness in the face of the poverty around me. Not only am I materially blessed, but I am rich in relationships, opportunities and life experiences.

All of these gifts are a blessing from God, but how many times have I been ungrateful and asked: Why not me??

1. I’ve learned to be grateful. As I’ve mentioned, being stripped of so much makes me realize just how wonderful my life is! (George Bailey would definitely agree…)
2. I’ve learned to be generous. One of my favorite things about Kenyan culture is their hospitality and generosity. They welcome guests readily into their homes, sharing what they have. The children in Dago especially have taught me this lesson. Even the littlest ones will accept a sweet, then bite it in half to share with their tiny friend. Although many children in this area know real hunger, they have such a spirit of generosity.
Performing with some of my girls
3. I’ve learned that God provides. At first, my time in Kenya was very difficult, mainly due to the cut off from people back home. Limited internet left me feeling lonely and stranded in an unknown world, but God readily blessed me for my sacrifice. In every place I’ve lived in Kenya (about four different communities), He has provided new friends to laugh with and be myself around. Despite cultural differences, He has sent me friends who just get me!
4. I’ve learned to celebrate the little things.  When you eat fruit for dessert every day, imagine how exciting it is when we get to have sodas because visitors come! Back home, whenever I craved something, I could just go to buy it, at any moment. Instant satisfaction is the status quo of life in the US, but when you live in simplicity, each little gift is like a feast.
5. I’ve learned that I can adapt.  My situation seems very difficult from the outside looking in, but when you live day to day, you find the motivation necessary to thrive. I discovered an inner strength in me that I never knew existed. When something new came to challenge me (like water shortages), I realized life was still good. The source of my strength isn’t truly mine, but a grace from God. Evening prayer, the rosary and Mass has been the daily spring of goodness that fuels me for another day. 
Enjoying my time with the junior youth group

Now please, don’t think I’m ‘cured’ of materialism or that I will become a hermit after this experience. I’m still me and so I still want to eat my weight at a Chinese buffet or buy a cute dress for no reason or veg out on a rainy day watching Netflix till I’m tired of doing nothing…but I know these things ultimately don’t bring joy. They are fleeting moments of happiness; they don’t satisfy.  Meaningful work, genuine relationships, self betterment, growing in understanding of human nature…these are some of the things that enrich our time on Earth. I know that being stripped of many luxuries has allowed me to see more clearly and I’m eternally grateful for this lesson.

“Don’t collect of yourselves treasures on earth where moths and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. But collect for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves don’t break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Matthew 6:19-21

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Karibuni Ndunyu

Dagoretti--crossroads between city and country
Let me introduce you to my new(ish) community: Dagoretti!!! From the end of August to the remainder of my time in Kenya, I will be living/working here in Dagoretti Market.

Most of my time is spent in our literacy program, which helps children who have dropped out of primary school catch up to re-enter traditional school the next year. In the older class, we have students who are around class 2 and class 4, but their understanding of different subjects varies greatly. I try to work together with the teacher to appropriately challenge each pupil; I usually teach class 4 because they speak more English and I find inspiration to create games and exercises to help in their studies. I spend my free time creating crossword puzzles for Math and English, which they really enjoy.

Class 2 in our little university
Also, part of my time is spent with the vocational school girls, especially in the beadwork department. I am learning to make many things (rosaries, bracelets, necklaces etc.) and it’s fun to join them as they work too.  On Wednesday afternoons, I usually join them for games, which mainly involves getting very dusty in the church compound.

My weekends are spent with the senior and junior youth groups of the parish. Besides their weekly meetings, I have also attended a Youth Mass at a nearby church, a music fest in the city and went to the market with them. Both groups are welcoming, lively and love to sing. I really enjoy my time with these groups--it’s my time to joke around, share stories and be a normal 25 year old.

*Funny Story: The other day I was writing on the blackboard with a tiny piece of chalk. Mid-word it jumped out of my hand and it startled me. The whole class started laughing although a couple of the girls were trying to say ‘sorry!’ in the middle of laughing.

Getting my hair plaited in our technical school.
What a lively community! The spirit of joy is alive among the six sisters in the Dago community. Suppers are full of stories and laughs and jokes. There is a great feeling of teamwork among the sisters in this community, which is wonderful to witness.
Three of them are at Tangaza University most of the day, but the remaining sisters help the mission run smoothly. Sr. Roselynn, Sr. Annah and Sr. Purity work with the literacy program, technical school and Mama Margaret project in our little compound. Also, although I have repeated many times that I am not called to religious life, they like to tease me and say I'm the seventh sister in their community.

*Funny Story: So, turns out I do a little happy dance whenever I am about to eat something I love (like yogurt, chapati or ugali). And, of course, Sr. Annah catches me every time, which causes us both to laugh out loud.

Technically, Dago is on the outskirts of Nairobi, but it is so far away from the city that it feels like the country. Ndunyu (Kikuyu for market) is considered a slum. Many of the homes are close together and very cramped, wifi is impossible, plumbing isn’t really figured out and the primary schools are overcrowded and dilapidated. But on the other hand, some of the roads are transitioning to tarmac, many homes have electricity and there is a general feeling of hope among the young people of the area. I immediately loved the young people here for their joyful spirit in the face of challenges!

*Funny Story: Whenever I go to the market, I am called many names, like: Wanjiku, Wanjiru, Wangechi, sister from another mother…and once ‘white man.’ haha

Senior Youth killing their Choral Verse
Nairobi county has higher elevation, so it doesn’t get as hot as Embu did. That being said, the first month of my time here was rather chilly. Every morning as I sat in the drafty church, I had to laugh at my expectation of weather in Africa...I was so na├»ve. October is supposed to be hot and rainy; the temperatures are slowly climbing and there are beginning to be daily thunderstorms! (which i absolutely love)

*Funny Story: It may be chilly sometimes, but I swear people wear heavy marshmallow coats that are reserved for freezing temperatures back home.  When I see people in them in 60 degree weather, I can literally feel my temperature rising.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

The Power of Play

Children during oratory
My twenty days in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania was a time of waiting & watching. Back in Kenya the general elections were being held & the whole country was holding its breath. I had traveled to Tanzania in case of any unrest after the elections (update: there is a re-vote for president in October). I stayed with the Salesian Sisters in Temeke, one of the slums of Dar. The sisters run a nursery school, primary school, technical school, Sunday oratory & young people come to play sports all the time. The mission is very much alive! It is common to see 20 yr olds walking around, holding the hands of 4 yr olds (which is such an adorable sight).
Gratitude Day with some of my friends

Since my duration there was unpredictable, I didn’t have an official role. So, I tried to help out where I could. This included: marking homework and exams, helping the technical students with their English, assisting the other volunteers with their crafts and playing games. Honestly, I would say the majority of my time in Temeke was just hanging out and having fun. And I loved it J

Jackson--my favorite little guy  
Some of the ways I played:
- Skipping with the tiny kids all over the compound
- Quizzing the 7th graders on their math & science
- Discussing the educational/ political system of TZ with the technical school students 
- Playing basketball & winning in 'Horse' (pretty proud of myself) 
- Drawing in the sand
- Joining the dressmaking students in a dance competition
- Singing & playing guitar
- Going to the beach
- Laughing & telling stories
- and much more

So glad I got to hang out at the beach with these guys
It turns out that I could have stayed in Kenya during the elections; it would have been safe. But, in God’s Divine wisdom, I was given a chance to go to Tanzania.  Although my time there was short, the young people of Temeke left a tangible mark on my heart. During this time, I grew to love Tanzania & its welcoming, friendly people & I look forward to a time I can return.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

The Secret to Joy

Just the sweetest girls <3
Although my adventure has moved on from Embu, my heart in some ways is still at Don Bosco Girls Secondary School. The friendships I made there warm my heart with love & gratitude. It was a tough decision to change communities, but I desired more fulfilling work that wasn't available in my role in Embu. I am hopeful that my year of service will continue to be more stretching & wonderful.

Last pile of ironing!!
However, during my time in Embu, I learned a lot. The majority of my work was spent in administrative tasks, library monitoring, sewing on buttons and ironing uniforms. My time was largely spent in these repetitive and boring activities. Since it is a boarding school, the students have very little free time in their timetables, but I made the most of each opportunity by attending Mass, rosary, recreation, cleaning & clubs time.

BUT despite the monotony, there was a distinct reason I was there. It's difficult to understand, even more difficult to explain, but work was NOT the reason moved to Kenya. If I wasn't here, someone would still sew buttons on the school uniforms and someone else would re-organize the school library. It's hard to admit this, but my move half-way across the world to be a missionary isn't about work. My work is the means to my true purpose: love.

This class had a surprise good-bye song & speech for me.
So, instead of feeling disappointed and thinking about what I could be doing, I began to focus on what I could do. Being a volunteer in Kenya is the opportunity to share the Gospel message of love and mercy with so many new people! With this change in perspective, I found much more joy in my work. Instead of doing the work because I was told, I did it gladly because it allowed me to be in this wonderful country.  As I grew in friendship with the teachers, students, workers and sisters, I was able to share more of my life, which  I pray points back to Christ.

My last day in Embu the girls mobbed around me,
trying to show how much love they have to give :)

Beyond what I did, I was given an opportunity to be loved...almost unconditionally by the students. They showered me with love, hugs, letters & even little gifts as I prepared to leave. If there is anything I was able to show them, it was nothing compared to what they gave me: a chance to experience the love of Christ.

This lesson is true for you too! Whether you are working in a big office or work from home or serve the Lord as a missionary, we all have the same mission of love. You don't have to move to Africa to love radically. That can be done by simply striving to see Jesus in the people that cross your path. No work is insignificant in the Kingdom of God--it is our attitude that diminishes work to a mere task. Our perspective on the work in front of us makes all the difference. It is the constant decision to put aside our self-imposed limitations to see the chance to love those around us.

"I slept and I dreamed that life is all joy. I woke and I saw that life is all service. I served and I saw that service is joy."
Kahlil Gibran

Friday, June 16, 2017

...With a Little Help From My Friends

Maureen & Immaculate-- hilarious, fun & caring
To me, authentic friendship is one of the greatest joys in life. I honestly believe I know some of the most hilarious, genuine, caring and wonderful people in the world! When I moved to Kenya four months ago, I didn't know a soul here. But, in God's great Providence, He quickly provided beautiful friends to enrich my life. In a short time, they have taught me so much about friendship.

So, in no particular order, here are some lessons they have taught me:

1.) Let people care for you
I am usually the mom in the friend group & I feel it is my duty to love my friends by helping/ advising them. Much to my surprise, my friends here have 'out-mommed' me! They frequently check to make sure I'm eating, try to make me wear sweaters when it's 'cold' & freak out with every little sniffle I make. At first, I felt like I was being treated like a child. 'I can take care of myself,' was my automatic mental response.
As time has passed, I've realized that they ask because they care. They know I can take care of myself, but they want to show concern for the essential things in life.  I become a better friend when I allow them to love me in the way they know best. Honestly, I still struggle to accept this, but knowing this is how they express their love means so much.

Dan & Emmelda--always there for me!
2.) Want friends? Be humble.
I have found that hilarious things happen to me, especially here. For instance, I have accidentally confused names of people with names for food more than once. Instead of feeling like a complete idiot, I share this story & join in the laughter.  I'm not perfect, so I can't take myself too seriously. Even if you're not a #mzunguinkenya, you can still grow in friendship by learning to laugh at your blunders.

3.) Sharing is Caring
Obviously, sharing material goods is a way of showing you care but, I've learned that so much of friendship is sharing what you can do. Teaching one another is so bonding & fun! Here, I have taught people how to: swim, play guitar & piano, how to type efficiently, speak a little Spanish, and more. In return, I've been taught how to: cook Kenya food, dance, speak Kiswahili/ sheng, etc. I've discovered here that so many friendships start with saying: "I'll teach you!" It's such an adventure to step out of your comfort zone with the accompaniment of a friend.

4.) It's okay to get a little messy
Philipo--helps me stay positive
A couple weeks ago, I was really sick. For some unknown reason, my midsection decided to wage war on me. I felt terrible (and probably looked even worse). I told 2 people I was sick...then the rest of the day I had a total of 9 visitors in my room. They came with advice, sympathy and lemon water. When they heard I was sick, each one took their turn to comfort me. I was shocked! In the US, when sickness is mentioned, people treat you like a leper (except my mom, who is ever faithful!). Here, my friends figuratively stepped into my mess to love me. They didn't leave me to 'get better soon' but they came to check in and take care of me. Their love for me transcended their desire to protect themselves & it meant so much to me.

Janet--my Kenyan big sister
5.) Celebrate Little Victories
I'm learning Kiswahili polepole (slowly). Honestly, I feel like I should know much more by now, but I can practically only speak greetings and how I'm feeling. But, you know, every time I throw out a 'nakuja' (I'm coming) or a 'nashisinjaa sana' (I'm really hungry), I am heartily congratulated. I know my proficiency in Kiswahili is very little, but my friends are proud of my efforts. They make me feel like I just recited an intricate poem with each baby phrases. It reminds me that life happens in little moments, not big events. Celebrate the ordinary, everyday joys with those you love.

Hope this list challenges the way you are a friend to others. I've been pushed in so many ways since being in Kenya & I'm so grateful for the chance to learn more about friendship too!