Can you have Christmas without Candy Canes?

In another week, most people around the world will be celebrating Christmas. Some will be with friends, others with family and way too many people will spend the day alone. Probably for most it will be about Santa and gifts, for some it’s the time to remember the birth of Jesus Christ.

There’s always competition on who can have the best lighting show on their house and the most impressive gift given.

house

We have some traditions for Christmas. The tree goes up on the 1st December, followed by the lights. Each year we each go out and choose a decoration for the tree. Sometimes we’re in different countries so it’s nice as a memory of our travels.

This year we will be in Kenya for Christmas. We were here last year too but we were actually meant to be in South Africa. That all fell through at the last minute and so we felt a little lost being in Nairobi. All of our friends had gone away, both local and expat. Nairobi pretty much empties out as this is one of the few times people will travel to go and see their families. We knew we would be here this year so planned for it well.

However, the other day I was looking at the tree that Lizzie put up and really missed seeing the candy canes. I’ve never seen them in Kenya and although there is a lot more Christmassy stuff this year, not a candy cane in sight. We went to church on Sunday and there wasn’t even a Christmas tree up. The only decorations was a small wreath and a couple of red baubles. While there was a lot of people saying ‘Merry Christmas’ it didn’t quite have that feel.

Last weekend we took some friends to Thika Road Mall. TRM has the best decorations in the whole of the city. It’s quite marvelous and has such a Christmassy feel about it. There’s nothing like glitz and glamour to walk through. tree

When we lived in Australia it was often around 30 degrees and our days were spent at the beach having fish and chips. Now we live in Kenya with similar weather conditions but the beach for us is a 9 hour drive away. We brought all of our tree decorations with us from Australia and in 2012 we purchased a fake tree which has kept us going.

We have had to purposely make Christmas a great thing here. This year we decided that it would be no presents, but we would go camping instead. We made up 5 food parcels for people who needed them. We bought some Christmas crackers to take away with us. Every now and then Chrissy music plays through our house.

What we have is limited compared to how we would do things when we have greater family around. While it would be really cool to have candy canes, I think we can do without them. We’ve made a decision to make the most of it even if we don’t have much.

The one thing I have learned from living in Africa is that it’s not about the trimmings or gifts, it’s about getting together with family and giving kids what they so desperately want and need – TIME.

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Ruining Christmas

I couldn’t believe it when at the beginning of November, the malls around Nairobi started putting up Christmas decorations. Normally at this time of year you see the lights go up for the Diwali festival. You also see fire crackers and sparklers for sale.

But Christmas decorations?

tree

By Week Two in November the Christmas music started playing. It’s all a bit too much really.

In the West it’s a normal occurrence a few months before Christmas to have it all out there, but this is Kenya. Overpriced Christmas trees arrived this week. Tinsel and shiny balls are available year round here. Tinsel is often used as necklaces for when children and adults graduate school. When a small fake tree costs $100, there’s only a limited group of people who can invest in that.

Yesterday I saw a small decoration that cost $20. It was the outline of a Christmas tree with a couple of beads on it. It was no bigger than 10cm in size. No wonder people don’t buy decorations like this.

I remember Christmas back when we lived in Australia and before that, New Zealand. There was so much pressure to get everyone a gift, and not something small either. Doesn’t look like much has changed in that aspect. There’s the buying of gifts for workmates, friends, family members, church leaders, school teachers. And of course, there’s all the Christmas breakup parties to go to.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with celebrating, I’m all for it. But why spend all that money for one day, buying pricey gifts for people who probably don’t need anything more to collect dust. Why do we put ourselves under so much pressure to ‘have it all together’ for one day in the year?

gifts

I love the way Christmas is celebrated here in Kenya – generally. It’s not about gifts, it’s about getting together as a family. For many people they only see their family once or twice a year so coming together is really important. We have some friends who are rather wealthy and even they are not into gift giving.

Since coming to Kenya, the whole gift giving thing has taken a back burner. To be honest, if we really wanted to buy ourselves something, we probably would. Mind you, things here are pretty expensive and our budget is small so gifts aren’t a high priority.  Mind you, we did buy our grand daughter some clothes when we were in Dubai. We had a friend who was visiting from New Zealand send them to here. Which was just as well, as she would’ve grown out of them by now, and they were so cute.

This year we’ve decided to go camping at one of the national parks we have in Kenya. Staying in Nairobi is quite depressing, there’s pretty much no one here. Most people will go to their families home in the country. Last year we were stuck in Nairobi and it was the worst.

One thing we wanted to do was to make sure our security guards and caretaker get looked after. They earn around $120 a month, that’s barely enough to survive on. One of our guards works 7 days a week. What we are doing for them is to make up a food parcel to see them through a couple of weeks over Christmas. We can’t buy them any meat as they don’t have a fridge or freezer, so it has to be dried food. It works out at around $35 each but that’s a big deal to them.

I’m not writing this to make people feel bad about spending money on Christmas, but I am writing it to make us think what it’s all about. I know lots of organisations like Churches have a large Christmas tree with tags on it and people can buy a gift for a needy person.

I think that is great. However, writing a cheque is the easy part.

Why not take your kids to visit some people at a nursing home? Sit with a homeless person on the street and talk to them. On Christmas Day itself, stop for a few minutes and chat with someone who has to work that day. You could also drop into your local police station with some homemade baked goodies that your kids have made. Invite someone over to share lunch with you. Call someone you haven’t spoken to all year.

police

My message is to DO SOMETHING, not just to go and buy something. Suicide rates are very high at this time of year. It can be super lonely for people, especially those who are estranged from their families. You can be the real difference to someone, you can change their lives.

Don’t ruin your Christmas by letting it all become about who can give the flashiest gift. That simply makes it a shallow competition. Instead enjoy the being together, the playing of board games, celebrating with food. Turn off the phones, get off the laptop, go and enjoy playing with the kids.

Life is short, make the most of every day.

elderly

 

 

 

 

Grandparenting from Afar

When we moved to Kenya we never even had it in our minds that within a few short years we would have a grandchild on the scene. Why you always look forward to it, you’re never quite ready for it. When our daughter Hannah and her husband Luke told us that they were expecting their first baby, we didn’t actually believe them. It’s the type of prank our family would play on each other. So even when we got off the Skype call, we didn’t quite believe it.

But it was true, and in March this year Isabella Rose was born.

I felt very privileged to be there a couple of weeks before she arrived, was there for the birth and for a month afterwards. But then we had to leave to return back to Kenya. We saw Han and Izzy one more time when we were in Australia but after that we weren’t sure when we would see them face to face again.

It could be years.

baby-hand

We are now on a journey of being grandparents from a distance.

It’s a common occurrence in the world we live in for grandparents to be on one side of the world so how do we manage it and still build a relationship with the most precious gifts in the world?

 

  1. Don’t feel guilty

It’s hard not to be there for every moment of their lives. You feel bad for not being there for birthdays or Christmas and if you were there they wouldn’t have to go into daycare because you ‘could have’ helped out.

At the end of the day, you’ve got to realize that even if you moved back to the same country as them, they might up and leave to go somewhere else. So are you just going to jetset around the globe following them? You have chosen to live where you are and they where they are.

 

  1. Use the internet to your advantage

For us, Skype is one of the best inventions ever. We might only get to use it once a week, but the fact that we can, is the fantastic. I’ve asked Han for a photo or video every day of Izzy, and she’s pretty good at sending it on Facebook. Sometimes it’s a report on how she’s been sleeping, other times on how she’s going with feeding. Even the smallest message makes us feel involved with Izzy. At times I just get on my phone and video myself or put some toys in from of the phone and make up stories for her. This morning I got back from a run and put a 30 second video of me filling in Izzy on what was happening today. It’s no big deal, but it helps with me missing her so much.

 

  1. It’s not a competition

It’s hard when your daughter and grand daughter are surrounding by their in-laws who get to enjoy ‘your family’ on a daily basis. When you find out that your grand child has been spoilt with lots and lots of gifts and you can’t do that because you’re a missionary and don’t have money for such luxuries. It’s very easy to get jealous.

But it’s not a competition between them and you. Your grandchildren are not objects. You can’t buy love and the best thing you can do is give them time. Things break, the best investment you can make is time. Let them show you their homework, art, favourite toy and just chatting. Even taking the time for them to sing their favourite song or preparing for a presentation. The fact that you’re making time for them is the most important thing.

october-foot

  1. Make the most of holidays

If you can’t get to your grandkids, invest into them and fly them to you. When Izzy was born, I made the decision that I wanted to be back for her first birthday. I have no idea how I will find the money for the ticket, but it’s important to be there. Izzy won’t remember it, but for Hannah, she needs to know that she matters to us. It’s been a difficult journey for her because she hasn’t had her parents around. I’ve got expat friends whose grandkids come at least twice a year to visit them in Kenya. Others fly to their other home each year or meet up with their kids and grandkids in a mutual country for a few weeks.

One of the dangers of volunteering overseas is that when you return to your home country, you need to spend a lot of time fundraising and you don’t spend time with family. On our last trip we said we would take April off and have a break. But, because of school holidays, we actually had to do many presentations during April. However, we still made time for family, which was a first. For Hannah’s birthday and Mothers Day, we made sure we spent it with the kids.

You can’t get time back. Go and make some good memories.

 

  1. Learn to celebrate

Look at what you do have and not what you don’t. Make the most of birthdays and Christmas, not just with a card or gift, but with the phone calls and messages on social networks. I’m keeping every video and photo that Han is sending through for a project for Izzy’s first birthday. I’ve also got some creative ideas for gifts for Christmas. We’ve sent clothes through but judging sizes is always a hard thing. Sometimes we’ve ordered books online that our kids grew up with and sent them through. Because we live far from them, when I’ve returned, I’ve taken the toys that Han had when she was little. That way if anything untoward happened to us, at least she has memories of us. My grandmother gave me a porcelain love heart when I was small, so when Izzy was born, I gave that to her. It might not seem much right now, but I have nothing left from my mother, so it’s nice to leave something small with Izzy.

 

What have been some of your experiences of grand parenting from a distance?

october-disney

 

We’re Not In Kansas Any More Toto

The enormity of what we are undertaking this year is really sinking in now. Who in their right mind would spend 6 months away from Kenya and try and raise $50,000 for projects as well as double their own personal income? The itinerary is always evolving and there are lots of variables to work with that complicate it. It’s an insane plan and I sure hope it pays off.

So here we are, in our country of birth (New Zealand), total strangers to the system, language, food and culture. Google maps confuses me as it says the names of the roads in an odd accent and isn’t helping me pronounce Maori words.

You would think that after 6 weeks I would’ve become accustomed to things here. Actually, I’m better than Pete and Liz who’ve only just arrived. I feel sorry for them because I understand what a head spin it is being here.  nz

The Driving

People indicate! Wow, what an experience. Everyone here complains about how bad the traffic is. Ha, if they only knew what it could really be like. I have to admit that it gets frustrating having to wait for the traffic lights to change, it seems like forever. I don’t like driving at night but here I’ve done it a few times and because of the overhead lights and reflector lights on the roads, it is no effort.

 

Food

The variety of food here is AMAZING! I can even get gluten free food wherever I go. However, there is lots of food we shouldn’t be eating because of the sugar levels. Fruit is fairly expensive and when you pay 10 times the amount for a smaller avocado, it does your head in. For the first time in about 6 years we’ve had fejoas, which is phenomenal. The problem is that we are here for a few months and because of the good food, we’ve all put on weight already.

 

Language

I’ve never heard so many ‘sweet as’ and ‘sure bro’ in one conversation. Even coming from people serving at a counter, the answer always seems to be ‘sweet as’. I suppose it’s better than saying ‘cool’ after every conversation. Kiwis say a lot of ‘aye’ at the end of their sentences. Pete’s picked it up so that just about every sentence finishes with ‘aye’ and it drives me up the wall. I hope it’s something he can wean off when we leave.

 

Shopping

The sales here are phenomenal. Whenever we come out of Kenya, we always have a shopping list ready to go. Things in Kenya are very expensive and we know that places like NZ and Aussie have great sales. In Kenya it’s a sale if there is 1 or 2 percent discount. I picked up a frying pan that had 50% off, now that’s a sale. Unfortunately we couldn’t find many summer clothes to take home because it’s all about winter here now. However, after a few weeks I’m a bit tired of trailing the malls for a good deal. All we seem to have done is see the inside of the car, the inside of a meeting room and the inside of a mall.

 

The Reverse Culture Shock will pass, but it might take some time. How did you cope when moving to another country?

Coming Home

I once asked some friends who were returning to Australia after two years of volunteering in Tanzania “How long do you think it will take you to get used to being there?” Their answer was a couple of months.

After spending 6 weeks in the US, I can verify that answer. We were just getting used to the conveniences of life and how things worked in another world.

But now we’ve returned home.

Home is where the majority of my family is. Hannah is with her husband Luke in New Zealand, awaiting the birth of their first child next year. That leaves Pete, Liz and I.

home

We were all a bit anxious about returning because we knew what we were heading into. It will be home for a few more years. We were looking forward to a more familiar world and definitely not living out of a suitcase.

Home, a 4 letter word that means so much more than that.

Our first morning here was interesting. None of our showerheads were working, so I ended up having a bucket shower. One where you fill a bucket with boiled water and pretty much pour it over yourself a few times. I realized afterwards that I had forgotten to pull out the tap so water came out of the showerhead.

shower

We thought our internet had pretty good speed, until we went overseas. Now it feels painstakingly slow. It’s way better than dialup but also much slower than what we experienced in the US.

Coming home meant unpacking an entire houselot of furniture from a spare room. Because the floors had been sanded and repolished all of the cupboards were full of red dust. You could tell that the workers had thumbed through our clothes hanging up because their fingerprints were all over the place. We also discovered they had stolen our very good iron and used our TV stand as a ladder. We knew because there was paint all over it. To say we weren’t happy campers is an understatement. And this was just Monday.

Of course, you can’t live in their world any more without the internet, but guess what wasn’t working when we returned? This meant trips down to the mall to visit our friendly staff at Zuku who worked it all out for us.

Jetlag, unpacking, buying food, meetings on day 3, all were a bit much. Before Liz headed off to volunteer at her preschool I insisted that she put up the Christmas tree to keep her busy. Liz had absolutely no worries about jetlag. She slept like a baby, while Pete and I got about 2 hours sleep and stayed awake the remainder of the night. We’ve never had such jetlag in our entire lives, and we’ve done a lot of travelling. It took an entire week to get back to normal.

Coming home also meant that we were broke.

We stayed two weeks too long on our trip. While we had a couple of schools in that time, it really put the financial pressure on us. We didn’t realize how expensive the US was going to be for public transport and food. We stretched ourselves way further than ever before. We don’t have a credit card to fall back on, no savings that we could dig into. What we had is what we had and with the fall in the Aussie dollar there wasn’t much bang for your buck.

dollar

Coming home meant coming back to very little freedom. This has been my biggest challenge to date. No more walking around at night. Always having our bags and cars checked at church and shopping malls. Having to take off my jewellery before walking out in public. Locking the metal gate and door every time you step out, even to get rid of the garbage.

The loss of freedom is something I haven’t got used to. A friend who lives here but is in New Zealand over the Christmas break, couldn’t help but send me a post of Facebook post to say she had just walked home at 10pm at night. I miss freedom.

But – this is home.

 

 

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Why we chose to move to Africa

I’ve heard some real doozies about why people think we moved to Kenya, here are some samples:

  • To be a missionary
  • To go and drill wells
  • To live somewhere hot
  • You like Africa more than Australia
  • To get away from issues
  • To prove something
  • To go on a working holiday

 

These are just some of the weird things people have said to our faces.

globe

We stated from the start that we felt we had skills that could help people help themselves. We also could keep a closer eye on our projects as all the people we had dealt with in the past we had known, but herein it was new territory. Everyone we had contact with was told why we were moving but I guess some people just don’t get it. And to be honest,

Pete has a long history in the building/farming/construction/business area. If you need something practical done, Pete’s the man to get onto it. He has valuable practical knowledge that most people don’t. He’s able to take a problem and work it through to make sure it works.

Originally he volunteered with an organization that works with streetboys. After a few years though he couldn’t see himself as more than a fixer-upper. In his words, he might as well move back to Australia and make some money and at least have job satisfaction. So, he moved on.

kili 9

I was unsure where I would fit volunteering so joined the same organization as Pete. I ended up working in an office. I was looking forward to being part of a team. While it was good for a while I was trying to split myself between them and BeyondWater, which we had started in Australia.

So while we came here for one thing, we’ve ended up doing something quite different. Now, both Pete and I are developing a team here in Kenya. We’re on the ground living life as Kenyans do, learning every day about how we can be more effective and building networks.

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So here’s my short answers to people’s perceptions:

To be a missionary – every person of faith is a missionary (one who is sent out) to make a difference wherever they are. Our intention here is not to ‘convert’ people but to befriend them.

To go and drill wells – I have not, nor probably never will drill a well. That’s why we employ people to do it.

To live somewhere hot – think about that one. It’s much hotter in Australia, here in Nairobi our temperature goes from around 13 and sometimes hits 30. That’s not hot.

You like Africa more than Australia – not sure why people think like this. I don’t love a country, I love my family and we could probably live anywhere. We happen to be in Kenya for a purpose.

To get away from issues – everybody has issues and they follow you wherever you go.

To prove something – people with ego’s don’t last long here. The romantic notion of living in a developing country wears off pretty fast – and we’re not young so there’s not a lot to prove.

To go on a working holiday – Pete’s dad always asks how our holiday is going. I don’t know many people who go on a holiday for 3+ years. This definition would mean you work for a few months then go on holiday. We work and are able to stay because we have friends and family who give us money each month. Our visa allows us to volunteer only – as in you work but don’t get paid.

So now you know. Why did you move to where you are living?

truck up hill

What I’ve learned about the US

We’ve spent 5 weeks in different parts of the US and a few more days in Canada. The main reason for coming was to get into the heads of people to see what they knew about Africa, water projects and how they felt about giving to projects there.

flag

What we learnt is that the majority of people know very little and only 40% of people there hold a passport. When we watched the news it was all slanted so that everything revolved around America. For example, when a hotel in Western Africa was attacked by terrorists, it was stated that it was an American hotel. It was a hotel owned by an American, that doesn’t make it American. Everything on TV is about the US.

I understand that it’s a huge country but when we were talking with students they know zero about the wider world. At one university a student mentioned that her father was Kenyan, she had been there twice – and that Kenya was an island. Hmm….

liz n tower

We’ve also learned that most of the people we talked abhorred Muslims. I’m sure this is fed by the biased media but we got the feeling that people fear in a huge way every Muslim. People were so shocked that we have many Muslim neighbours and are happy to live amongst them.

Before we went to the US, we ourselves were slightly biased against Americans. Many of the ones we’ve met in East Africa are loud, bossy and act as if they own the world. They drive around with the flashiest cars, have a lavish lifestyle and never get their hands dirty.

Now we’ve been here for a while, we’ve seen another side. People are more than happy to go out of their way to point you in the right direction. They are very hospitable and are even interested in finding out about Africa. Maybe because we were visitors we were treated extra nicely but we’ve been around long enough to know when someone is sucking up to you. Today we met a lady from Nigeria who was putting her story out there real thickly as soon as she knew we were from East Africa. Within the first minute she wanted to become Facebook buddies and then proceeded to tell us that she was missionary and a whole story to go with that.

Howard 6

The US is quite an expensive place to travel in. Well, when you’re on a super strict budget anyway. It probably cost us $100 a day to be here, and that’s on top of accommodation. It cost as much to eat out as Kenya, taxis are way more expensive but clothing is a much better price. Tipping is a total rip off. In Kenya we only tip if we get good service and maybe one or two dollars. Here it’s between ten and twenty percent. When you see a price for something, it doesn’t include tax, which is very easy to forget about. As much as possible we’ve tried to catch trains and buses, but it still adds up. To get to our friends house tonight cost us $10 one way. That’s pretty good but when you’ll be doing that trip twice a day for a week, you can see why we’ll be eating rice and beans when we return home.

We kept reminding ourselves that this is an investigative trip and not a holiday. Sure, we’ve fitted in a few fun things but this was all about the future for our organization, BeyondWater and trying to break into the US as a new market. Our next step is to build a team of interested people, then form a legal charity and return in a couple of years. One obvious thing is to build a US website, with American spelling and everything linking BeyondWater to have a US identity.

ive a dream

This trip has given us a small insight into what life is like here, some of the challenges and ways of life here. We hope we from this that we have a broader mindset of the American culture and will continue to build our friendships there.

To all of our old friends who we’ve reconnected with, it’s been a blast. For all of our new friends, what a pleasure it’s been to get to know you. Let’s do it all over again in a couple of years.

with trung and gloria