Thursday, July 24, 2008

Post Tuum blues...pre Romania excitement!

This week has been hard because i have felt pretty tired. I usually wake up feeling ok but by lunchtime I'm wrecked again! To make matters worse i had booked my minibus driving test for yesterday! I spent the whole morning from 8am having lessons with an instructor (which were vital!) and then completed the test at 12.30pm. I passed which was a huge relief but felt totally drained afterwards! Today is the first day that i have felt energetic all day! Just as well as i am off to Romania for in the morning on a team of 19 young people from the church. We will be away for 2 weeks doing a mixture of children's and youth camps and some practical work. Please pray for us all and especially Richard & Kate as they lead the team. They have done an excellent job in leading and organising things so far so pray that they will have wisdom to make the right decisions whilst away and strength to keep going when they are feeling weary. The team is made up of a fantastic group of young people who have a range of unique gifts and abilities. They are a group who would not all naturally gel with each other and yet it has been great to see new friendships develop as the group has spent time together. I'm excited to see how they all get on in Romania!

My heart still yearns for Tuum. Each morning when i wake there is a part of me that wishes i was there! Don't get me wrong, i love home and don't think i would want to live anywhere else right now but i could easily have spent some more time in Tuum. I like that i didn't need to wear a watch there. I like that the people there were so accepting and welcoming and they smile a lot more than people in N.Ireland! I miss spending time with Stephen and Angelina and hearing their wealth of stories and wisdom gleaned from 20+ years of serving God in Tuum. I missed church 'Tuum-style' on Sunday as the worshipers there sang like they really knew Jesus. I miss being there and seeing our team of young guys start to come alive as they joined in Kingdom building work.

Stephen has a fantastic strap-line he used several times to describe the ministry in Tuum:
'less church, more Jesus.'
I saw reality of that in practice in Tuum. It was messy at times but it was working and it was beautiful.

I will try to update this whilst in Romania. Thanks for your prayers.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Tuum Builders Part 5...the finale!

Just arrived home, a day later than planned - it's a long story but if you read on you will find out! Let me pick up where i left off. Day 12 started a little later than expected due to essential maintenance required on one of the Land Rovers which did not arrive back until midnight the previous evening. As such, Stephen was up from 4.30am working on it and his team of garage workers all weighed in at 6am to get it ready for our departure. When we finally left at 9.15am, many of our new friends from the town had come to bid us farewell which was very nice for us all. The planned 10 hour journey started well and we made very good time until the universal joint broke in one of the vehicles. By the grace of God we had a spare and so started the 2 hour process of fixing the vehicle at the side of the road under torchlight. Nothing ever seems to phase Stephen - he just gets on with it! We got on the road again and when we were only a few miles away from the safari lodge the clutch of the same vehicle gave up after giving trouble all day. We ended up having to tow it to the lodge and arrived at 12.30am - 15 hours of travelling! The staff were expecting our late arrival and couldn't have been more helpful with our bags. We didn't expect a meal at that time but they had woken up the chef to prepare a meal for us that was gratefully received. The rooms were fantastic and i don't think it took anyone too long to fall asleep with exhaustion.

Our morning safari on day 13 was postponed as we needed to get the vehicle fixed first. Stephen, Mundia (the other driver), Colin and Watsy set about stripping the clutch and gearbox down to its component parts in the car park of the lodge! The problem amounted to a broken washer and Mundia was sent off to source a replacement from a nearby town. Let's not forget this is Africa and so it was a 2 hour drive each way! In the meantime the rest of us chilled out around the swimming pool enjoying some well earned rest. The spare part did not arrive until 6pm which meant we did not get any safari on day 13. The plan was to get the vehicle fixed that evening and go on an early morning safari drive before departing for Nairobi. Stephen, Mundia and Colin worked tirelessly putting the gearbox back together and did not finish until 1am!

On day 14 everyone was up for safari at 6am! The early morning cool of the day is the best time to see animals and we were not disappointed! We seen many giraffes and elephants and at one point a lion walked directly towards us on the road. We were on the roof of the vehicle at the time and it was only about 40 feet away so we had a great (if a little unsafe) view! Another highlight was seeing five cheetahs walk right past our vehicle. They were only 15-20ft away and were amazing! We also saw 2 gazelles locking antlers and having a bit of a battle at the side of the road! Seeing animals in their natural habitat, roaming wild, is an experience that i will never forget. I think it was definitely a highlight for everyone! Following breakfast at the lodge, we hit the road for our final 8 hour journey to Nairobi. Both jeeps suffered no further problems and we made good time. We made a short stop at the equator for lunch and got the opportunity to pick up a few souvenirs and gifts for friends and families - the bartering was good craic! We arrived in Nairobi and had a quick change before heading to the Carnivore restaurant for our final meal together. This place is a major tourist attraction in the city as you get to sample all sorts of exotic meats cooked on a spit! You pay a set price and the waiters will keep bringing all types of meat to your table until you give up eating! As well as chicken, beef pork and lamb we sampled ostrich meatballs and crocodile! A funny highlight was when we set Colin up by informing one of the waiters it was his birthday (which it wasn't). About 8 of the staff appeared with a cake decorated with a sparkler and sang and danced around the table - it was hilarious!

Day 15 was an early start as the bus departed for the airport at 5.30am with everyone looking forward to getting home to see family and friends. A delay in our flight by 90mins meant that we would probably miss our connection in Amsterdam and so we were unsure what would be the outcome. 30mins before touchdown in Amsterdam we were informed that passengers with an onward connection to Dublin should make their way as quickly as possible to gate E2 where their flight would be waiting. This was great news for us all and we ran through the airport as quickly as we could. When we arrived at the gate, the plane was still there but the gate had closed and we were informed that we were too late to get onboard. Devastated and exhausted we made our way to the desk to find that the best we could be offered was a flight the following lunchtime. So, at the expense of the airline we faced the reality of a night in a hotel in Amsterdam with 7 teenage lads! I'm sure you can imagine the obvious concerns and stresses we were feeling at this prospect but the good news was that the hotel was not in the city centre but close to the airport. The reality was that there was very little dissapointment in the group when we informed them we wouldn't be leaving the hotel! Tiredness played a major factor and everyone was tucked up in their rooms by 10.30pm!

Today started slowly with a later breakfast than we have been used to. We made our way back to the airport around 11am and the flight home to Dublin was only delayed a little. With spirits high as we arrived in familiar territory we once again faced the reality of lost luggage - not one of our bags appeared! They never made it onto the flight in Amsterdam and so we can only assume they are still there somewhere! Hopefully they will turn up in Dublin tomorrow and get delivered. It isn't as big a concern as it was on the outward journey but many of us have gifts in our bags that we wouldn't want to lose so please pray for their safe return.

So there you have it. The Kenya team that has monopolised my working life now for the past 6 months is over. I'm sitting in the comfort of my own home as i write this and i know that in the days and weeks ahead i have much to reflect upon and ponder of this life changing experience. It has been amazing for every single person on the team as well as relationships within the team - socially, physically, emotionally and spiritually. It has been the biggest leadership challenge of my life with highs and lows, celebrations and mistakes. Would i do it again? Absolutely!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Tuum Builders part 4...

Day 10 got off to a leisurely start with a late breakfast at 9am. It is difficult to sleep in here though because the roosters start cock-a-doodle-dooing from 6am. This chorus is added to by the local dogs and donkeys to diffuse the need for any alarm clock! The far guesthouse awoke to a crisis with the whole kitchen flooded as they had left their water tap to their tank turned on the previous evening when there had been no water. Sometime in the early morning the water began to flow again and when it filled the tank it started to fill the kitchen floor! Ah well, at least it got them out of their beds in good time for church! We made it to the church around 10.20am. There were already over 100 people there as the singers were practicing songs. I could sense the Spirit of God in the room as people sang words of praise to Jesus - i knew we were in for a treat! The service began at 10.30 with a time of worship and then we were formally welcomed to the service. I had to get up and introduce the team and took the opportunity to say a few words of thanks to the community for making us feel so welcome. More worship followed and then Stephen preached from Psalm 91 about the safety of God in the shadow of his wings - very relevant for a community feeling much insecurity in recent times. Yet more singing and dancing followed, some of which was led by the choir of the local girls secondary school where we had been building. The only instrument present was a drum and voices and yet the volume was amazing! The songs were very simple and repetitive songs that were sung by even the youngest worshippers there. I didn't understand one word of the songs and yet i came away 2 1/2 hours later, sure that i had worshipped the King of Kings. What a privilege it was to be there.
In the afternoon we had been challenged to a football match by the local team! We had 7 willing players that was made up to 11 by 4 locals. We made our way down to the local stadium (!) that was nothing more than a clearing of dirt with football posts at either end. It was far from level with pot holes and bumps abounding! Thankfully the sun was not shining and with a 60 minute match ahead we did not have a great deal of confidence! We got off to a great start with Stoddart making a break and scoring the first goal for the Tuum Builders after 3 minutes! There must have been at least a couple of hundred locals from the village down to watch the Big Match Live which i think gave us the motivation to go on and win 2-1! We were all in need of a lung transplant by the end of the game but delighted none the less! We had lined up a traditional Kenyan 'goat roast' for the evening which meant that 3 goats were on borrowed time. Some of our team were very keen to be involved in the killing process - needless to say i was not up for it! Indeed i wasn't too sure if, when it came to the crunch, any of the boys could go through with it - but i was wrong! Watsy, Gareth and Jamie did not chicken out on what was a very nauseous act to witness. It made me very grateful for Tescos just around the corner at home! The fire for the roast was started in the traditional way with too sticks and before long the meat was cooking on a metal grill placed over an open fire. My conclusion on roast goat is that it is very tasty when cooked well. The first taste i had was a little on the rare side for me! A fantastic experience for everyone though and a community occasion that was attended by over one hundred of the locals!
Some great conversations with the guys have developed following the evening spent hearing the stories of Stephen and Angelina. The guys have been challenged about eternity and faith but seem to struggle with accepting that God's grace is sufficient to cover all the mistakes we make - past, present and future. Please keep on praying.
Today was day 11 and Stephen and Angelina had arranged a guide to take us up the nearby Mt Nero. Tuum lies 4500ft above sea level and the summit of Nero is 9000ft. Not all of the team felt able for the challenge but there were 6 of us who made it to the top! It was a bleary eyed 7am start in the cool of the day on a climb that we were told would take us 2 hours to the top! 4 hours later (!) we finally reached the top on what was the most challenging climb of any of our lives! We were all exhausted but the views over the valley were spectacular! We eat a pack lunch and then took a walk along the ridge of the mountain for another hour before starting the hairy descent via another path. This was extremely steep with loose footing and so it took us another 3 hours to reach Tuum again - an 8 hour expedition in all. Surely that must be at least a Silver Duke of Edinburgh! I am currently in a lot of pain but it was definitely worth it and despite much moaning along the way i believe the guys all felt they had achieved something today!
Tonight is our last night in Tuum. We will depart at 5am to make an 10 hour journey to a National Park where we will take a safari trip on Wednesday. My hope is that i will see elephants and lions - that would make me happy! Pray for us as we travel as the roads can be treacherous!
By the way, i am posting by e-mail at present and so will be unable to publish any comments until i get home on Friday evening!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Tuum Builders part 3...

Day 8 started with a team meeting to try to resolve yesterdays crisis for good.  I wanted the guys to know that our forgiveness was not dependent on someone owning up and taking responsibility.  I shared the parable of the unmerciful servant from Matthew 18 and made the point that because i have been forgiven much by God i will forgive others.  Conflict, whilst never pleasant at the time, is always a great learning experience and was inevitable at some stage on this trip.  Through several discussions to resolve this one issue we have had the opportunity to talk about team-work, loving each other, the value of honesty and trust in relationships and the consequences of actions.  It is unlikely now that anyone will come forward and own up for damaging the chair and so we have fined everyone 500 Kenyan Shillings (£4).  As leaders, we have agreed to also pay the fine to reinforce the value of 'team' - if one hurts then we all hurt.  This penalty has been accepted by everyone and the money will go directly to Stephen and Angelina as a gift!  We have told all the guys that we want that to be the end of the issue and we do not want this to fester and effect the unity of the team.  The rest of the day was spent working hard down at the school.  The building work is progressing very well and we are on schedule to complete our target by tomorrow.  I got to spend most of the afternoon building a gable wall by myself which was very rewarding.  I think because manual work is so different from my norm i am enjoying it all the more!  The temperature has been very warm the last couple of days, at one stage reaching 35oC.  There is a Kenyan builder called Zach who overheard Mapper singing 'I wanna dance with somebody' by Whitney Houston the other day and has now been singing that song regularly ever since!  After dinner we invited Stephen and Angelina to share their story with us of how they have ended up in Tuum and managed to live here now for 23 years.  This was a fascinating time together with many of the guys interested in asking questions and probing them further.  The conversation explored issues of God's will, love, grace, forgiveness, acceptance, death, heaven, spiritual warfare and church.  I have had much time to sit and talk and listen to Stephen and Angelina and have found them to be among the most godly, wise and humble people i have ever met.  I have been abundantly blessed in my own faith through these conversations.
Day 9 got off to a slow start as we arose to heavy rainfall - first time it has rained here in over 3 months!  Within an hour it had eased off and so we headed down to the building site to finish off the work.  I finished my wall with the help of some other team members and within 2 hours we had completed our goal of ring-beam level.  This was a great encouragement for all the team and morale was very high!  The local builders were delighted with the rapid progress we made with the brickwork only taking 4 days!  I can't wait to get a few pictures stuck up here when i get home.  Not one of us left the site with our t-shirts as we gave them away to our new friends!  In the afternoon we got to have a short camel ride!  This was hilarious but very uncomfortable!  Evenings are great here as we sit around outside and drink Milo (hot chocolate) and chat - no Coach or Banville or TV or music and the boys are all happy!  I'm looking forward to church Kenyan style tomorrow!  I'm not sure if the boys really know what they are in for but they are intrigued enough to want to be there for at least an hour - sometime it can last up to 3 hours!  Please keep up with the prayers!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Kenya part 2...

Day 5 began with our first trip down to the girls secondary school that we will be building at.  We are working on the building of a new dormitory for students.  Our task whilst here will be to try and get the building up to ring beam level - that means little or nothing to my non-manual labour CV but I'm sure some of you more educated folk with rougher hands will know what i mean!  I'm learning fast though from many of the other guys in the team who work in construction trades.  The brick we are using are produced in a machine so that they inter-lock which removes the need for cement.  This means that even guys like me can build a wall - its just like giant lego!  We are working alongside a team of apprximately 15 Kenyan labourers and 2 Kenyan builders.  Our work rate would appear to be a lot higher than the Kenyan and at times it was frustrating as everything was happening at a very slow pace but as the day progressed things improved.  Again the evening was spent chatting and playing this game called Mafia that has become an instant hit!  Team morale has been great!
Day 6 involved more building at the school - a hard days work but excellent progress made.  The team all worked very hard and the Kenyan builders have been very impressed with our work.  More excellent meals courtesy of Angelina who is starting to wonder if she can ever produce too much food for 10 hungry men!  After work, Nathan and i headed up the street to get a Coke from the local shop which was closed.  The owners live just behind the shop and it turned out to be one of the guys on Stephen's leadership team called Maldia.  He invited us into his small plot of land that housed 10 people.  We shared a Coke and were introduced to his 4 children who sang 'Mr Noah built an arc' for us!  Nothing can quite replace the experience of being invited into someones home and saring food or drink with their family.  A cultural experience that you just can't buy in a travel agents!  They welcomed us so warmly and answered many of my questions about their lives here in Tuum.  Yet more Mafia in the evening.
Day 7 started with crisis!  The guys had stayed up after we had went to bed.  No major disruptions took place but a seat did get damaged in the process.  Not a major crisis i guess but the fact that no-one would own up and take responsibility for it was incredibly dissapointing and frustrating for us as leaders.  We tried several tactics and created te opportunity for the person to confess confidentially - but this proved fruitless.  This has caused a tension in the team and frustrations have bubbled to the surface all day long,  We are reluctant to just let it slide as we see great opportunity for learning to take place and yet we don't want to sacrifice team realtions either.  Please pray for wisdom for us as leaders and pray for each of the guys - that they will understand why we are taking action.  This has been a difficult day for us all - thank-you for your prayers.
More updates will follow again soon... 

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

This is Africa...

This is my frst oportunty to write a blog update since we departed from Waringstown on Friday morning.  We arrived at Aldergrove in good time and got checked in.  A combination of breakfast, smoke breaks, shopping, and baggage control delays meant that we ended up running to the gate with the words 'could passengers, watson, harrison, simmons and thompson please make their way to gate 27 - this is your final call'!  By the time i got on the plane i think i was about ready for a smoke myself!  The rest of the flights all went very smoothly and we touched down in Nairobi about 7.30pm local time (+2 GMT).  When i say everything went smoothly for us - our bags did not make it through the short transfer in Amsterdam and we had no guarantees of getting them before we were due to depart for Tuum!  This was a bit of a shock for all of us and probably not the best introduuction to Africa but we tried to keep the spirits up of the younger lads and prayed much!  People would keep telling us 'This is Africa'!  We met Stephen Cowan, our host at the airport and he transported us to our guesthouse for the night.  There we arrived to a nice meal and comfortable rooms.  End of Day 1!
The next morning i had to make my way back to the airport at 6.30am to see if our bags had arrived on the next flight.  Hopes were raised as i hunted through a pile of bags just sitting in the middle of the arrivals terminal (this is Africa after all!) - i found one, then two and so on until all 1 bags were located - praise God!  The team were delighted and after a bit of lunch and some shopping in Nairobi we departed on our first leg of the journey to Tuum which was due to take 4-5 hours.  Due to wet weather and difficult roads it ended up taking 6 hours.  We arrived at approx 8pm at another guesthouse for the evening.  End of Day 2.
Day 3 started early at 5am to complete the last 14 hours of driving to Tuum in 2 Landrovers.  It had been many miles since we last enjoyed the grace of tar-mac and had learned to cope with the dirt-track 'main' roads that head north from Nairobi.  Unfortunately this connection will not allow me to post any pictures so you will have to wait until i get home for those!  For this day of travelling we were accompanied by another 10 young African leadership students from Stephen's team.  Indeed for the final 8 hours of the journey we had 14 people in one Landrover and 11 in the other.  Both were loaded inside and on the roof with luggage and supplies and both were towing trailers filled with diesel and a water tank.  These are items that are unavailable in Tuum or more economically purchased in Nairobi.  It was a very tight squeeze and incredibly uncomfortable at times - a huge challenge for our team as you can imagine.  There were moments were tensions were high and tempers frayed but as they say 'this is Africa!'  On the journey we made a couple of stops to help other vehicles that were stuck in the muddy roads.  At other times we all had to get out and push our own vehicles over slippy terrain - these were all challenges that helped us all to realise just how different this country is.  The views at times were spectacular of valleys and plains and mountains that stretched for as far as you could see.  We seen Zebra, Girraffe, Babboons, a hyena, gazelles and many others at the side of the road - every hill or corner presented another WOW factor of God's creative glory.  All of the team were incredibly stretched and yet blown away on the journey.  It was 11pm and 4 punctures later that we finally drew into Tuum under the greatest display of stars any of us has ever seen!  We were greated incredibly warmly by Angelina who at the mention of food being ready, was instantly loved by us all!  If any of the team had any worries regarding catering on the trip they were quickly put to bed with a beautiful home made curry - and plenty of it!  We were shown to our rooms which were also more than adequate and could be likened to small thatched cottages.  Everyone was exhausted with the days travel and relieved to find rest in a comfortable bed.  It wasn't long before anyone dropped off to sleep to the noise of dogs howling in the distance.  Day 3 completed.
Day 4 had a lazy start with everyone sleeping in to around 9am and a leisurely breakfast that was more than adequate - yet more points for Angelina.  It was at this point that we finally got to meet Carragh (aged 10), Jason (8) and Annissa (4) - Stephen and Angelina's children who were delighted to have a few new people to meet and play with.  They took us on a tour of the village accompanied by a local African called Joseph.  We quickly were brought to a small nursery school with about 40 little black faces laughing and waving at us.  They came out and played with us for a little while and were very excited and playful - just hanging off our arms and shoulders and constantly smiling!  The village has a few little shops that are basically tin huts no bigger than 100sq ft.  The people were very warm and welcoming and all shook our hands and greeted us.  The village backdropped by a large mountain which dramatises the already beautiful scenery all around us.  The temerature in the middle of the day would be around 25oC - pleasant enough to get a bit of a sun tan!  We got to work in the afternoon with the task of raising the height of a water tower.  The local African workers were amazed at the speed and efficiency with which we were able to move and throw bricks around.  We were told later that what we completed in 30 minutes would have taken them a week!  It was great for all the team to get stuck in and feel like they were doing something - working together is great for team-work.  After another beautiful meal in the evening we spent some time on the veranda playing a few games of Mafia which was new to most of the guys but they loved it!
A large part of our hopes for this experience is the impact this could have on the 7 young men who are part of the team.  Already i have seen a great openess in conversation with them and we have had some great discussions about God and faith.  On the first night in Tuum one of the young guys asked me to pray for those in our room before we went to sleep - this was very encouraging for us and has now become a night-time tradition!  Please keep praying for us all!  I will try to update the blog again in a few days time - don't forget - 'this is Africa'!

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Let the adventure begin...

On Friday morning at 4.15am i will be embarking on a journey unlike anything i have ever experienced before. I will be involved (along with 2 other leaders) in leading a team of 7 young men aged 17-19 to Tuum in Kenya. We will fly to Nairobi (via Amsterdam) arriving at 7pm Friday evening. We will spend the following morning in Nairobi before departing for Tuum in 2 Landrovers. Tuum is 1000km north of Nairobi. The roads are very poor and so it will be an 18 hour drive. We will stop over at a guesthouse during this and arrive in Tuum on Sunday morning. Whilst there we will be involved in building the walls of a staff house at a local secondary school.

Please pray for us on this trip:
  • Traveling safety both there and back.
  • Leaders - wisdom for decision making, patience with the lads & strength when others feeling discouraged.
  • Lads - that they would make the most of the trip and learn more about themselves and others through it.
  • That everyone on the team would see God differently as we learn to rely on Him more than ever.

I will try to keep updating the blog during the trip but communications are not as reliable in Tuum so i will not know until i get there!

Below is a photo of the team:
Back row from left: Adam, Mark, Gareth, Kyle, Reuben
Front row from left: Jamie, Neil, Colin, Nathan, Matthew