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Heidi Jones reflects on mission trip to Kenya

Debbie Keller of White Bear Lake accompanied Heidi Jones on a two week mission trip to Kenya. Keller is pictured with students from a school in Mathunzini. Photos by Heidi Jones

Editor’s note: This June, Heidi Jones of Red Wing traveled to Kenya for a two week mission trip with the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Jones has served on the Red Wing School Board since 2009 and is also the Minnesota School Board Association District 1 Director.

I was looking for a new challenge last fall when a chance conversation with Julie Woodruff, a local nurse and fellow Church of St. Joseph parishioner, piqued my interest. She told me about Kitui, Kenya, a place she had visited twice as part of a delegation from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the Diocese of Kitui Partnership. I was accepted for the June 2017 delegation. For 12 years the archdiocese has sent people to Kitui County for two weeks at a time to listen, observe and learn about the life and the challenges in Kenya. Next year Kenyans will be hosted here in Minnesota. Together we work on goals mutually established through the partnership. I spent 16 hours in the air to cross two continents to finally arrive in Kenya's capital, Nairobi.

Day 2

After a morning briefing from Catholic Relief Services for Kenya and Somalia Director Lane Bunkers (a Minnesotan), our group toured the Kenyatta International Convention Centre. It is named after Kenya's first president, Jomo Kenyatta. The current president, Uhuru Kenyatta, is Jomo's son. The August presidential election has been declared invalid due to irregularities. Violence around elections is a great concern for Kenyans. Accusations of vote tampering are common. The panoramic view from the tower includes a soccer stadium, the site of the 1998 bombing of the American embassy, and the Ngong Hills where it is said that God rested his knuckles after creating the world.

Day 3

The American delegation are honored guests at the ordination of one priest and two deacons, presided over by Bishop Muheria (now an archbishop). A troop of young girls lead the procession by dancing in two lines to the altar. Dancing and beautiful singing are part of the culture and always included in the celebration of the Mass. Speeches and gift-giving are also part of the ceremony. Faith is a strong component of life in Kenya.

Day 4

This is my first day of five in the bush village of Migwani. My fellow delegate Debbie and I speak at two church services about our activism within secular and religious organizations in our American communities as women in leadership. The Kenyans would tell us many times that they were very happy to have us as visitors. The children are fascinated by the first white people (they call us "Muzungus") they may have ever seen. They love having their photo taken and then seeing it on our smart phones!

On the drive to Migwani the night before, one of our hosts was incredibly blunt about how frustrated he is with the Kenyan government. "Our government is no good. Politicians disappear (once they are elected). The only reason they need the people is for their vote."

In the afternoon Debbie and I meet with the Catholic Women's Association (CWA). We are greeted by the women with dancing and singing in their CWA kangas (traditional, often brightly colored cloth wrapped as a skirt over your clothing). The women give us kangas to put on. They also give us "African baskets" — beautifully beaded handbags. For a country that has a poverty rate of over 50 percent, they are very generous.

An important activity of the CWA groups is table banking and Savings and Credit programs. These systems of personal investments, loans with interest, and dividend payments support group members with short and long term business goals, public school fees, funeral costs and even mortgages. Each group sets their own rules. There are few defaults on these loans. This micro-financing mechanism gets them access to possibilities where most formal banking does not reach.

Day 6

After a morning trip to a grocery market in Mwingi, we enjoy an afternoon party with the eleven girls who attend the small parish school in Migwani. Most of the girls are boarders. Some are day students. We shared warm, bottled soda pop — a real treat for them! — and a home-baked cake made by Sister Mary. She is in charge of the school. The girls put on a skit for us.

Debbie and I speak to them about believing in themselves and recognizing different leadership skills in themselves. The girls ask us for a sewing machine. They are learning sewing skills as a way to earn income on their own. Kenya follows the British education model where, at the age of 14, students take a high-stakes exam. This will determine whether they go on to high school or instead pursue a vocational path. Sometimes young girls feel discouraged at their prospects and become pregnant in their early teens with little means to support themselves or a baby.

Day 7

In the morning Debbie and I with another one of our hosts, Sister Lucy, visit Kyome, one of the twelve outstations in Migwani parish. The CWA women are proud of the new church recently built here. It is made of sapling poles with a tin roof and walls that are wrapped with black plastic.

Here I help the women with their income-generating crafts. They show me how to weave a five-strand braided sisal rope that will be used to tether goats while they graze. Goats are a form of currency that are raised and then sold to meet family needs.

Our first school tour is to Anna Mwanza's school in Mathunzini. Anna is a primary school teacher who has previously stayed in Minnesota through the partnership. All the students are very excited to meet us. They are well-mannered, too.

I am told that their school day begins at 7 a.m. They have a one hour break in the mid afternoon but don't begin the walk home until after additional class time from 4 to 6 p.m. (There are no public school buses in the rural areas.) Because of drought conditions some families have no food to send with their children for lunch. Neither can the families afford to buy the school lunches offered. The government does not provide any free or reduced-cost meals as we have in America.

Day 8

The bush village portion of our two week stay ends today with more visits to two more parishes. At busy Nguutani we tour the parish gardens (grown to share among the poor), look at the pigs they are raising for special feasts, stop in on some high school classes and visit the dispensary (clinic). The dispensary offers many services for the area. They are very proud to have a maternity ward complete with an incubator. Unfortunately the government no longer reimburses nongovernmental facilities for medical services so the parish must absorb the expense.

Father Robert Kalima offers us a large dinner before we head back to Kitui for a workshop. He has been to Minnesota, too, and saw Red Wing Shoe's "Big Boot" at the state fair on his visit here.

At the evening workshop in Kitui town one of our delegates, a 15-year-old girl, Krista, observes that the Africans are very present in the moment — focused and attentive — while we Americans are oriented toward the future — what will happen next.

Day 9

This is the day we climb aboard our little bus and drive three hours over bumpy, dusty roads to Nuu parish. This area has been especially hard hit by the years of drought. We visit the earthen dam which is discouragingly empty of any water as we stand on the cracked, dry earth at the bottom of the reservoir.

The local community, particularly the women, are extraordinarily proud of the work they have done to build this critical asset. The women demonstrated their work dance for us using sticks to mimic the shovels used to dig down 20 feet — by hand! Even though the water project was dry when we toured, it has worked very well in previous seasons when the rains came. Crops grew and were sold. People outside the immediate area came to the village. Indoor plumbing came to the village.

Then we drove to a nearby school where two cisterns have been installed through efforts of the Kitui Partnership. They are secured behind barbed wire fence to prevent theft. Now the schoolchildren have water for health and hygiene needs.

The children are again very happy to have visitors at their school. They have no playground equipment or toys to play with during recess. Various groups of children perform for us — some sing a song, others recite a poem and some teen girls dance. All of this takes place under a large tree on a warm afternoon. I am very moved by the simple beauty of these children.

Day 11

On our final day in Kitui we are participating in a Mass at the cathedral of Our Lady of Africa. Much of the service will be in English. (That is the official language of Kenya.) I volunteer to do one of the readings, not knowing that I am also expected to process in with the troop of young dancers.

The generosity of our Kenyan hosts is demonstrated once again when they present us with more gifts at the end of the service. The church is packed full of people singing, ululating and clapping.

Later on we take a short drive to a steep hilltop to the future site of the Museve Shrine. It has a wonderful vista of the surrounding landscape in all directions. The construction of the shrine is well underway with a 100 foot statue of Mary to follow.

Days 12 and 13

We are off to Amboseli National Park for a safari! We travel on the country's busiest highway, the road to Mombasa. We can see the newly built railroad paralleling the highway. This project replaces the old railway built by the British Empire in the 1880s. Kenya decided to upgrade the infrastructure to facilitate faster movement of freight and passengers.

We pass through large tracts of open land, even spotting little whirling sandstorms. Maasai tribesmen come into view herding cattle. They are dressed traditionally in red cloth with beaded sandals recycled from car tires. Outside the entrance gate to Amboseli, the Maasai sell beaded jewelry and woodcarvings.

We have a tremendous safari experience! On our evening and morning outings we see elephants, hippos, water buffalo, impalas, ostriches, baboons, zebras, wildebeests, warthogs, hyenas, gazelles, a group of lions and a rare sighting of a cheetah all at the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro. We are in awe of this wide vista where we can see several herds of animals grazing peacefully together on the land.

Day 14

Our final day is spent at Resurrection Gardens in Nairobi. It is a large, manicured garden with religious murals. No talking or photos are allowed. We have an opportunity to reflect on our enriching experience.

Before we can enjoy one last meal with some of our Kituian hosts at a downtown Nairobi hotel, we must pass through airport-style security before we can be seated, a reminder that, despite the great warmth and deep generosity of our new African friends, there are complex issues in Kenya — water scarcity, poverty, corruption, health needs.

I began this journey to learn more about my sisters and brothers half a world away. What I discovered was profoundly more than what I had expected — a very warm, joyous welcome to a stranger, an eagerness to share not only resources but hearts, and a strong faith that good will prevail above all the difficulties.