The jeeps rumbled up the mountain, winding on bumpy dirt roads. Out the windows were fields of green interrupted by rectangular dung huts baked hard in the African sun, several of them with brightly colored cloth drying on a fence.
Everything was so new to us. Life is slower there, taken at the same pace as the plants growing in the fields. As always in Suswa, every time we passed someone, they would smile and wave.
It was the Mau. We were on our way to church.
The church stands atop a green hill, surrounded by farms. The building itself is made of wood and corrugated metal. As we entered, we were met by hugs leaning to the left, then to the right, and greetings of “Supa oleng.” We were invited to sit in pastel plastic chairs, and services began in song. Immediately we are invited to take part in dancing with the congregation. Music is a universal language and soon we are a part of a writhing mass of worshipers. We learn the steps quickly and wind around the church.
When the song was over, we sat in our chairs again, a part of something new and different, but ancient. We were introduced one by one and sang for the congregation.
After services, Pastor Ben invited us to walk to the home of a woman with three children. “She has been ill,” he tells us. “She wasn’t at church today.”
We met Emily and her three children outside her dung hut, surrounded by fields of corn. The roof of her home was a sheet of clear plastic held in place by stones and logs. Her children’s faces were surrounded by flies. The children without shoes. Emily with a slight limp.
The depth of what we are trying to do struck us. After the upbeat, faith filled church service, this was a crash back to reality. I think the whole team had the same question, “What are we going to do for this family? How can we teach self-reliance in the face of such poverty?”
We asked Emily if we could enter her home. Three of us stepped into the shadows and had to turn on the flashlights of our phones to see. Smoke hung in the air from the cooking fire in the tiny kitchen. It nearly choked us. Everything was a deep black color from the soot. There was no ventilation.
Heidi turned to me, “Living like this is as bad as smoking.”
Through interpretation from Pastor Ben and Moses, we learned that Emily has access to water. She has experience growing corn, and can use that experience to grow other vegetables. Our decision was that a garden box would be a good start for her.
The weight of this work seems too much to bear sometimes. Self-reliance and success seems so far away for some of the families. So much needs to be done and all we can do is a small part. Our efforts are a drop in the bucket of the need we see as we travel up and down the rough roads of Kenya.
The walk back to the jeeps was far quieter than it had been on the way to Emily’s. All of us lost in the vastness of need.
In my two trips to Kenya, I have learned much about the power of “the start.” I’ve learned to have faith in the waiting and watching of these families. Emily will get a garden box. And like the planting of a seed, through the garden box, we will watch her begin to grow what she can.
After finishing up the garden at Joyce’s house she invited us to learn how to make chapati, something sort of like naan bread. This was just one of the experiences of cultural immersion on the November Trip.
She pulled a table out into her yard and gathered all the ingredients flour, water, salt and oil. Then, started a fire in a small stove to heat a pan.
She showed us how to make the dough, stirring it with her hands. Muneria came to help as well.
Like mothers all over the world, she reminded her child to wash his hands before preparing food, which he did in a large blue bowl sitting next to the table. A special plate served as a platform to roll the chapati into perfect circles. He worked quickly, handing the rolled out flat bread to his mother who cooked them. She turned them with her bare hands, using no instrument to protect them from the heat.
Muneria then offered us a chance to roll out the chapati. We took turns, none of ours turning out as round as his. We laughed, feeling the warmth of home with this family who lives a different culture half a world away.
Sarah’s turn came up. She rolled the dough one way getting it stuck to the plate and stretching the dough as she freed it. She used more flour and rolled it some more. “That’s too big.” Joyce laughed, handing her more dough. “Try again.”
She started again, this time paying careful attention to the size, but not the shape. When she finished, it looked like a map of the United States. She handed it to Joyce with a shrug. Joyce shook her head and it was put onto the pan with a little oil to cook.
When David was finished with the water storage system, he came around the house to join us. We invited him to take his turn rolling chapati.
“Fine.” He said. “But mine is going to be round. Not corner, corner, corner, like Sarah’s.” This was met with kind hearted laughter from our group. Joyce pointed to the bowl of wash water. He obeyed.
Then, while rolling out the dough, David told us about how there are times in their culture when men and women separate and make their own food. He showed us how to roll it out to make it round. “See? Like this. You roll, and then turn it.” He pat the dough down. “Roll. And then turn again.”
He handed the dough to Joyce who watched us all with love, curiosity, and a little disbelief at how nutty this group of Americans is.
We dined together on our unifying chapati, rice, and carrots. It was the end of a full day of work, service, mentoring, and unconditional love.
When I say we experience cultural immersion, these are the types of things I am talking about. We get to be in the homes of the families. We learn from them and love them. We put our hands in their soil, climb onto their roof to put up rain gutters, collect water in rivers, dine with them, and hear their stories from their own lips.
By the time we leave, we have a new name, an expanded family, people who pray for us, and a home to come to when we return.
If you would like to join us for an expedition, learn more here.
When people ask me why I went to Kenya in the first place I smile and say, “Peer pressure.” Before I got on the plane in March of 2015, I had no desire to go to anywhere in Africa. In fact, there was a list of about 50 countries that I planned to visit BEFORE ever setting foot on the continent. However, I had a group of friends who had been to Kenya a couple of times and after listening to them ramble on about it for about two years, I decided it might make a fun girls trip.
I had absolutely no idea what I was in for.
I remember the first day in Western Kenya when we went to visit families after attending an Anglican church on the property of the guest house where we were staying. The music had pierced me to the core, so I was already in a reflective and contemplative mood. Walking down the road I said to my friend, “I just…I don’t even know how to explain what I am feeling about all of this.” She said, “I know. They don’t need us. We need them.”
That phrase has stuck with me ever since, and is often said in different variations by the people who have since gone to Kenya with me. When I returned from Kenya with my DNA completely rearranged, I made it a matter of intense prayer and reflection and kept asking, “What am I supposed to do now?”
Then one Sunday a few months later I was getting ready for church and literally a voice that I can still remember today said, “Go start a group on Facebook called 100 Humanitarians. I’ll let you know why later.” So I did. Right then, on my phone, with no clear picture of what it was supposed to be. I invited some friends who I thought might sort of be interested in it. Turns out that it wasn’t my friends who were interested, but strangers. By the end of 2016 I will have taken over 50 people to Kenya, and I only knew 6 of them prior to all of this starting.
The voice has never come back, but inspiration and direction and nudges have replaced it. When the ideas come, they come fast and furious, and are always bigger than I could possibly imagine. Each trip has a completely different feel, and it’s never like I am learning something for the first time, but more like I am remembering that it is what I am here to do. Many people who have come with me feel the same way. It’s like we are finding each other and combining efforts. Some people have come and gone. Some have taken on the projects that have called to them in Kenya and are running with them at the same rapid pace. The collaboration has brought unbelievable miracles.
Every. Single. Day.
Now, we have over 1300 people in the 100 Humanitarians Facebook group. We have a list of over 100 people who are already planning on going to Kenya with us, and more contact me daily. We have built out a core program that we call “Business Boxes for Families” that provide a cow, a goat, 5 chickens, 3 garden boxes, 10 trees, Days for Girls reusable hygiene kits, and mentoring and education on how to turn it all into a sustainable business.
We are in the process of building the Emparnat Cultural Center on the Maasai Mara with guest houses to provide opportunities for people around world to be a part of our Families Mentoring Families program, where we teach what we know, and learn what the Maasai know, to build a bridge between the cultures.
But most of all, we have built a culture around 100 Humanitarians that is rooted in Love, Trust, and Voluntary Cooperation. Everyone who is a part of what we are doing is there because they choose in and find what it is that calls to them, whether they are on the team in the U.S. or in Kenya.
As 100 Humanitarians expands, we focus as much as possible on two things: mentoring and sustainable economic development. It’s about people, not projects. It’s about connection, not coercion. And it’s working.
The Story of 100 Humanitarians International by Heidi Totten