Future Reflections         Summer 2010

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HAVE CANE, WILL TRAVEL? HALFWAY AROUND THE WORLD!

by Amy Mason

Amy MasonReprinted from The Student Slate, the quarterly newsletter of the National Association of Blind Students, Fall, 2009

From the Editor: Amy Mason has been an active member of the National Federation of the Blind of Nebraska for several years, as well as a dedicated member of Nebraska's student division. In the following article she describes her experiences on a missions trip to Kenya in May 2003.

"You know, Amy, you should look at doing a missions trip this summer." I only half heard my friend Dawn through my focused concentration.

"I will think about it," I said distractedly. I was involved in a video game and I really wasn't interested in conversation.

"I'm serious, Amy. Since you've signed up as a bivocational missions major, it only seems right that you get some experience."

It sounded as though Dawn would insist on an answer. "All right," I said halfheartedly, "I'll pick up some brochures during Missions Week and see what comes of them." I had no way of knowing that my absent-minded promise would change my life and my outlook forever.

Four months later I lay in my bed at Lake Aurora Christian Camp in Lake Wales, Florida. The dark, cool room was anything but quiet. I could hear people moving about in their sleeping bags, tossing and turning on their plastic camp-issue mattresses, and talking in the shower room. Several people were talking on their cell phones outside in the sticky Florida night. I had been out there myself not long before. I had called most of my friends and family, not knowing when I would get my next chance to speak with them.

Lying awake, I thought about what lay ahead. I was excited beyond belief. I was terrified, too. Tomorrow evening I would board a plane for England on my way to Kenya in East Africa. What would it be like? Would the people be friendly? Would I like the food? Could I manage to remain independent? Could I give my team and the Kenyan nationals a positive view of blindness? Could I be a positive example of Christianity? Would our work make a difference? Could I handle wearing skirts all summer long?

This was the last night of pre-field orientation before each one of us, the fifty missionary interns, left for our various learning and ministry experiences. Our teams would scatter all over the globe--to North Africa, Kenya, Malawi, Australia, Honduras, Bulgaria, and Russia. We would spend two months in our respective host countries.

The Kenya team was by far the largest. There were fifteen interns, three full-time missionaries from the States who had already spent a year in Kenya, and two nationals who worked with the program as missionaries to their own people. We were to help kick off a new program called Africa Hope. Its primary objective was to assist local churches in areas of growth, ministry, and teaching. The program was especially focused on educating people about the AIDS virus, which has devastated the African continent. We would be teaching the Maasai people in villages throughout the Narok region. The Maasai are semi-nomadic herders of goats, sheep, and cattle. That was all I really knew.

I had little time to ponder. The next morning we boarded the planes with a surprising lack of fanfare. We had already been away from home for a week and our parents were not there to see us depart. I could fill several articles with stories about international flying, but it is enough to say that Team Kenya arrived, cross and tired but safe, at its destination, twenty-four hours after taking off from the US.

My experiences in Kenya are too numerous to fit into one article. I will simply share three highlights that can give you an idea of the world I entered in May of 2003.

Climb Every Mountain

Welcome to Maji Moto! This village and those surrounding it are situated on the plains of the Great Rift Valley. A lone mountain rises from the plains, which are covered with short grasses and several types of thorny bush. Thorny trees and cacti as tall as trees are also visible in this area. The name Maji Moto means "hot water." It refers to the hot spring that flows constantly here. Zebras and gazelles are plentiful. Most of the people live in traditional Maasai homes made of mud and cow dung. The houses are low to the ground and rectangular in shape. However, several houses resemble one-room mud cabins with tin roofs, and there are even a few multi-room homes made of stone.

We arrived in Maji Moto as half a team. Our group was far too large for everyone to go to one village area, so we were split. My half got the cushy side of the coin. Wazungu, or white people, were not regular visitors, but frequent enough to be curiosities rather than complete anomalies. The hot spring was wonderful for bathing and for washing clothes. We stayed in a visitors' house that was very much like a rustic cabin in the woods. Halfway through our stay we had to move due to a misunderstanding. We spent the remainder of our time in the cement home of one of our national coworkers while he went and stayed with a bachelor friend. Both homes were quite comfortable. We had solar-powered electric lights, though we had to carry our water from the spring each day.

One of the highlights of our time at Maji Moto was the day that we decided to climb the mountain. It was the sort of mountain that is easy to hike, and we had a lovely day. We had a picnic at the top and ate chapatti, a flat bread like a moist pita, with peanut butter and jelly, oranges, and cookies somewhat like Graham crackers.

To be honest, I was feeling what Dr. Jernigan called "rebellious independence" that day. I was making my way up the mountain with the team but without assistance, even though most of my teammates were helping each other over the more difficult parts of the trail. I proved absolutely nothing but that I could be a big fool if I felt like it. I fell a bit behind on the way up the mountain, but not enough to cause a problem. I was pretty proud of my accomplishment.

The situation was rather different as we made our way back down the mountain. I was careful of my footing because most of the path was loose dirt, rocks, and dust. I was afraid of tripping on my skirts or getting in the team's way, so I moved more and more slowly. It got so bad that at one point I was most definitely holding up the entire group. Something had to be done. Stephen, a Christian national and the man who so generously lent us his house, decided he knew the answer. He would help me get down the mountain.

I dreaded the typically overprotective situation that I have so often encountered in the United States when people decide to be helpful. I gritted my teeth and prepared for the inevitable mollycoddling and manhandling. I figured that if Americans were overprotective toward blind people, in spite of all their education, this Kenyan man would be far worse. If I had been climbing a mountain in the States with only my fellow countrymen, I might very well have declined the offer of help and made my own way. But I knew that Stephen was trying to help. My refusal would only hurt his feelings and possibly damage my Christian witness. Dealing with people from different cultures requires diplomacy and a sensitivity to diverse points of view that must sometimes transcend our normal philosophical perceptions as blind Americans.

As it turned out, my worries about custodial tendencies from Stephen were completely unfounded. He grabbed my hand and we were off. The next thing I knew we were flying down the mountain at full running speed. We seemed to leap over the bushes, twist around trees, and eat up the distance. I never felt so alive! Suddenly we were at the bottom of the mountain with my teammates, skidding to a stop inches from a stream that snaked along in front of us. As we caught our breath, all I could do was laugh. It was an amazing feeling, and I had learned a valuable lesson. Americans have not cornered the market on positive philosophy about blindness, and neither have blind people. Stephen seemed to know instinctively that I was capable of far more than I believed I could do myself, and he proved it to me in the most expressive way possible. He pushed me to fly when I only believed I could crawl.

Home Management Class, African Style

Maasai men and women stand and talk beside their homes, guarded by their village’s thorn fence. The top of their heads is at the level of the flat roofs. (Photo by Steve Pastor from Wikimedia Commons.)"Lorna has invited you to come and learn how to make Maasai food today," Deanna announced to the team as we prepared for devotions in the airy house we shared in Narok between trips to the bush. "Let me know how many of you will be interested so we can set up a schedule."

As I picked up my BrailleNote and coffee on my way to read in the garden, I told her that I wanted to go. After I settled on the grass I took a moment to marvel at the wonders of technology. I was struck by the fact that I, a blind person, could carry an entire Braille Bible with me to the heart of Africa with no more difficulty or wasted space than a sighted person carrying a Bible in print.

Courtney and I were the only team members planning to work with Lorna that morning, so we headed out and walked together. We had been shown how to make chapattis once before, but I hadn't figured out the proper alternative technique for flipping it. I wanted to see if it might be easier in the modern kitchen that I expected Lorna to have. Expectations were almost always a mistake on that trip! Although she had a modern stove, Lorna was not going to use it to teach us about cooking chapattis. Instead, she used it to make ugali, a thick, pasty cornmeal cake that one shapes into a spoon-sized bowl for picking up stew or other wet foods. The chapatti, the rice, and the greens were to be cooked over the fire in the fireplace. The greens and rice were in pans on a metal rack, and the chapatti dough was on an iron griddle on legs. Lorna wanted to give us the full cooking experience.

I must admit that I have always had a fear of open flames. I never managed to learn to use a grill during my time at the Colorado Center for the Blind. I was stumped when Lorna handed me a spoon and a towel for lifting the lid of the pan and told me to keep an eye on the rice. After staring hesitantly for a few minutes I decided a better plan was to lift the lid with the spoon, which I thought was less likely to burn than the towel. After a while I became very proficient at this method, and I realized it would be effective in transferring the chapattis.

Once we had finished the rice and ugali, Lorna had me cut vegetables for a fresh salsa. While I was cutting veggies she taught Courtney to cook the greens and make the dough for the chapattis. After this she taught us the art of cooking them and gave us control of the griddle.

I greased the first chapatti with butter, flipped it, and did the same to the other side. Next I laid a second doughy circle on top of the first and greased it so that the two could be flipped together. This way the top would always be cool enough to be touched. I could remove the finished bread or flip it to cook the uncooked one beneath. This is actually how the Maasai, or at least Lorna, made the chapattis. I found that I only needed the utensil for greasing the dough and finding the edge of the griddle so I would not burn myself. Of course, like any novice cook, I burned my first couple of chapattis, as did Courtney, but the others came out well, and we all were satisfied. As the team sat to feast at the lunch table I realized that I was very grateful for my time at the Colorado Center for the Blind, where I learned to think on my feet and come up with creative solutions to new problems.

As the Shepherd Guides Them

In Olengata Entereat, the Place of Red Dust, I had a very different experience. Under a cool moonlit sky my team walked with Joshua, a Christian national and our interpreter for the night, to a large traditional village. When we arrived we climbed over the evening cattle-gate. About four feet high and five feet wide, it was built of thorny branches and logs. It was set in a fence of living and dead thorn trees.

We had visited this village before, during the day. We had spent a lot of time playing with the children, so we were not surprised to see a large crowd of them when we arrived. We were also greeted by many of the tall graceful women, and even by a few of the men of the tribe.

Foremost among our young friends was a boy we had nicknamed Batman, as he usually wore nothing but a cape and a smile. He began to play with my cane while we were singing. He was fascinated by the smooth fiberglass rod that was like and unlike the shepherd's staff he knew so well. Most of the children took their turns looking at and playing with my cane while we had tea and chapatti after the lesson, and the night seemed to go quite smoothly.

As we were leaving the village, Batman took the front end of my cane and tried to lead me by its tip. I gently but firmly removed it from his hand, as this is not the way it was meant to be used. Again we climbed over the gate. A couple of the women joined us as we left the village and began to walk toward the house where we were staying. Once again, someone picked up the end of my cane. It was getting to be a little frustrating, but I tried to explain through words and gestures how I used it. The woman seemed confused, but she let me sweep the cane in front of me as usual.

After the women left us Joshua pulled me aside. He told me that the women were not trying to cause problems. They were trying to help me use the cane in the way that they were accustomed to seeing it used. Here was a shocker! Apparently, in their culture, the blind person holds onto one end of a stick while a guide pulls the other end. In the United States, as we all know, to touch someone's cane is very offensive, and to lift it off the ground is enough to provoke serious wrath!

Joshua went on to tell me why blind people are led this way. Remember those thorny bushes? Remember your last visit to the park, where your cane jammed itself under the nearest bush or you managed to run headlong into a tree branch? This happens in Kenya too. The guide goes ahead to pick the path without branches and keeps the tip of the cane out of the deadly maw of the thorn bush while he is at it.

Once again I learned a couple of useful lessons. First, like so much else, blindness is dealt with in different ways by different cultures. Second, pulling my cane out of a thorn bush can be a lot more painful than pulling free of somebody's garden shrubs!

Homecoming

We were leaving. It was over. We had said goodbye to the missionaries we had worked with. Now we waited for our turn to board the plane. Each of us seemed to be in a contemplative mood. My mind turned to many different aspects of the trip. I thought of the friends we had made and how they most certainly had been good to us all. I remembered the skills I had learned. I thought of how I had grown as a person and as a Christian. I thought of the food and how much I enjoyed it--except for the sour milk that happened to be a staple of the Maasai diet. The thought made me laugh. Sour milk was offered as a sign of friendship and hospitality and could not politely be refused. I even thought fleetingly of how nice it was to wear pants again. Strangely, however, I didn't think about the impact my blindness had on the trip. In fact, I didn't think about it at all until much later.

I had begun the summer asking myself many questions. Two of those questions centered on blindness. Would my blindness be an issue? Could I be a good role model of blindness philosophy and practice? Those questions didn't even enter my mind as I left Kenya. I realized later that forgetting about those questions was a sign that all had gone well. I learned that in Kenya, as in the States, blindness was just one part of me. It was a characteristic that shaped my experience, but its influence was not as great as many others. This is the way that it should be. And so I remember the trip as nzuri sana-um--I mean, very good.

Author's Note: Olengata Entereat (Maasai for red dust) was the only Kenyan word for which I was unable to find proper spelling. All of the rest have been verified and are actual Swahili words.

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