Friday, 20 January 2017

Christ's Gift Academy

ESL Class
Christ’s Gift Academy sits high on a hill overlooking Lake Victoria. It recently celebrated its 20th year anniversary and is located in Mbita, Kenya. Over 200 students, from pre-primary through grade 8, attend. When I first saw the school about two weeks ago, I was pleasantly surprised to find beautiful brick buildings, lush foliage, solar power (sometimes), and water stored in large reservoirs. My teacher’s heart sang to find a library; class sets of textbooks; and educated, smiling teachers. I have spent nearly a week with the staff and students here, observing, conversing, grading assignments, and teaching. Just yesterday I was able to teach my first class of ESL students! Titus, Gideon, Susan, Jane and Pamela are all employed at CGA but were unable to finish their schooling. They want to improve their English and learn how to read and write. I enjoyed getting to know them and assess their English language skills (which are so much more advanced than I had anticipated!)

I have learned yet again how much I have taken for granted in my short life. The safety, comfort and opportunity so readily available in the West are not so easy to come by here. Just the necessities of daily survival- ensuring the water is safe; the lack of refrigeration, dishwashers, and washing machines; limited cooking capabilities; patchy power to charge devices; limited light once the sun goes down at 7 pm; dust and dirt permeating everything; and the heat- all seem to take up so much time and energy. Our days are full with the chores of living. 

Each morning I arrive at school for 7:30. Students and teachers begin with devotions and start their school day at 8:00. Teachers here teach on a rotational basis so, in 40 minutes blocks, they move through the various classes teaching their assigned subjects: KiSwahili, Social Studies, Science, Christian Religious Education, Math, Life Skills, Creative Arts, English, and P.E. This different method of teaching elementary school has taken some time to getting used to. And, with so much rotating of teachers, I’ve found students are left on their own for short periods of time throughout the day. And these days are busy! With a short break for morning porridge (their breakfast) and another for lunch, they are in class from 7:30-3:30 Monday - Friday. In those short breaks between classes they are expected to ensure classwork is finished and handed in and to also compete any homework assigned. Not only that, but students in grades 5-8 have even longer school days.!They are in class from 7:30-5:30! Since so much of the schooling system here is exam-based, much of the teaching practice is “teaching to the test.” This method is no longer used in the West, but is still very much in use here. No marks are written down during the year. Assignments are graded and students are conferenced with to make sure they understand, but there it is the final exam mark that decides how “intelligent” they are. 

I have learned that most of the students here have lost either one or both of their parents. CGA was established as a school for those who can’t afford education. The children usually live with their surviving parent or other family member in the surrounding community. As I have slowly been able to get to know some of the staff and students here, I have been overwhelmed at the stories they tell. Death strikes all too often. The more stories I listen to, the more incredibly grateful I am for my upbringing and family. I have been blessed. 

Christ's Gift Academy
On the flip side, though, I am learning that we are also at a disadvantage in the West. We live in such comfort that we often do not see or feel the pains of the rest of the world. Oftentimes, the struggles of a next-door neighbour can become buried under our busyness and distraction. I recognize that I’ve lived a distracted life, one spent more online than with the human sitting next to us. Here, life is in your face. Struggles are up front and personal. Parents and children get sick and die. Children are born HIV positive. People get malaria. This is reality. There are no distractions from these evil realities of our broken world. 

And so, this place is blessed with community. Neighbours know each other. Children actually play outside because there is no television or internet (or electricity!). My housemate -Kristen- and I cook dinner together each night and talk as we eat and clean up the dishes. We exercise together. We go to bed shortly after the sun sets and get up with the sun the next morning. Life is simple. Life is hard. Life is exhausting. But, God is good. So life is good! 

The struggle is real here. I’ve had a tough time adapting to the steep learning curve I’ve been placed on. It has been a tiring few weeks as reality has set in and new schedules and routines are being established. I am slowly finding a place for myself and attempting to figure out how I can best plug in to this school community. The situation in South Sudan is still very risky and most missionaries have been forced to leave the country. At this point, I am working to come to grips with the fact that I may not be able to get into the country this year. The few plans I did have for this coming year have had to be reworked and I have spent a lot of time praying for God’s guidance. God, how will you use me this year? What would you have me learn? What would you have me do? Open my eyes and ears so I can hear! 

God gave me Isaiah 43: 18-21 last week. It says, “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland. The wild animals honour me, the jackals and the owls, because I provide water in the desert and streams in the wasteland, to give drink to my people, my chosen, the people I formed for myself that they may proclaim my praise.” God provides and protects. He guides and restores. The struggle is learning to rest in His timing.

My purpose in life is to worship and praise God, however that may look. My goal each day here has been to strive to honour God and to do my best in everything. But, I am also learning the necessity of grace. To also accept the grace of God when (not if, but when) I am not strong enough and I fail. I pray that God would guide my steps as I haltingly try to serve Him. To God be the glory for He has done, and continues to do, great things!

Friday, 6 January 2017

Mbita, Kenya

The breeze wafts through the room. The birds chirp, sing, and warble in the trees. Dogs bark. Cows’ bells ring. The waves rhythmically roll onto shore in the distance. The sun hangs low over the horizon of Lake Victoria. The day is nearing it’s end. I am home after spending my first official day at Christ’s Gift Academy (CGA). The school is about a 15 minute walk up the hill from my house (and I can proudly say I have successfully been able to navigate my way there!) While I can hear Lake Victoria from home, I can see an even more stunning vista of trees, lake and sky from higher up the hill in front area of the school. At night the many lights from the village fishing boats make the lake look like it is it’s own city- amazing!

So, where to begin? Here I am. In Kenya. As I think over these past days of travel and settling in, I find that there is just not enough space to share everything! One thing that has become more than obvious to me is that I am in a new world. This is a world with geckos on the walls; with bright, hot sun and pounding rains; with beautiful, black faces and bright, welcoming smiles. It is a world full of handshakes and greetings and community; a world of new smells- not all of them pleasant; a world in which a walk to school takes one through a herd of goats butting heads and past the cows grazing alongside the roadside. This is a world in which one must always watch where you walk in order to avoid a twisted ankle or stepping in a fresh cowpie. It is a world of odd toilets and bucket showers and a world with little electricity so candles are lit around 7 pm. It is a world in which God is constantly praised and where the exclamations of, “Praise God!” and “Amen!” punctuate most conversations and testimonies and even begin most speeches.

Sunday evening was my first night in Mbita (pronounced em-bita). Steve and Judi, my team leaders, had myself and my roommate Kristen over for supper as we live just on the other side of the compound and haven’t had time to buy food supplies. Eating with us were two young people- Maurine and Caltex. As we prepared to sit down to a supper of spaghetti, bread, and greens, Steve first suggested that we pray. So, with the six of us taking turns, we welcomed in the New Year by praising God for His blessings and challenges in 2016 and asking for His guidance in 2017. What a blessing to be able to commune with God’s family this way! 

I have discovered that most people in the area speak at least a little English, if not quite a bit. They have different ways of phrasing things and strong accents, but I have thankfully found most people here relatively easy to understand- when they speak English, that is! The people here in Mbita are primarily from the Luo tribe and so the mother tongue is Luo. Swahili is also understood and spoken by many here and this is the language that Steve and Judi believe would be most helpful for me to learn. Many in Eastern Africa understand Swahili and so, when I am able to get into South Sudan, knowing some Swahili will be more beneficial than Luo. And so, along with teaching and tutoring at CGA, I will be sitting in on KiSwahili classes in an attempt to learn as much of the language as I can. It is also our hope that I would be able to teach English to some of the gardeners and mamas at the school who were unable to finish their own schooling and didn’t have the opportunity to learn English. 

Today we spent the day, as staff and teachers at CGA, discussing our theme for the term (which, in Kenya, is 14 weeks). The theme is “Good News.” The good news of the gospel is alive here in Mbita. It is our hope as educators to get the joy that the gospel brings to permeate the lives of our students and our fellow teachers. I understand that the concept of being a Christian witness in every area of our lives is still a difficult concept to grasp. Teachers, while claiming to be Christian, will misuse their authority. Students, while claiming to be Christian, will be dishonest on tests. All Christians sin, yes, but most of the teaching these past days has centered on the importance of knowing the good news of the gospel and living it out. Because, if we teachers do not know and understand the joy that the gospel can bring, how are we able to pass that joy on to our students?

As I begin the long and challenging process of settling in, I covet your prayers. I ask that you would pray for health- as new foods and new cooking methods are beginning to create havoc on my system. Second, I ask that you would ask God to increase my personal joy in Christ Jesus so that those I encounter and get to know will see Christ in me. I want to serve God wherever and however He desires. I ask that you would pray for perseverance and grace for when I feel lonely, homesick, beaten down, exhausted, or sick. I also ask that you would pray for humility in my tasks, an open mind to learn what God is teaching, and an open heart that learns to love these people God has brought into my life.

These next months, I will be striving to learn KiSwahili, learn how to cook, learn how to find electricity to charge various gadgets, learn how to ignore the rats in the ceiling and the flies in my water, learn how to truly listen across cultures, learn how to wash clothes and clean house, learn to make sure I am using clean water, learn how to shop for food at nearby village stands, learn how to teach in such a new cultural setting. These and so many other skills need to be learned and, by God’s grace I am learning!

Thank you for your love and support!