Monday, May 19, 2014

Expectations and "Twangs" in Kenya!

I felt like a child as I met my teachers and classmates. I didn't understand anything being said. I watched what my classmates did and I did the same.  I was shown to my classroom and I learned the words for stand up, sit down, let's pray, let's sing and basic greetings....and that was the easy part on my first morning of Swahili school!  

At my culture training in January one of the first things we learned about was the “Twang” that we would likely be experiencing when our expectations were so far away from the reality of our new lives. They illustrated this by having kids hold stretchy cords around an adult and “Twang” said adult by pulling the cord out and letting it go. The further apart the kids stood, the larger the “Twang”. 

Here is the picture from our book. Sorry I don’t have a picture of the kids and adults, my pictures are stuck in iphoto, which has been trying to update, relentlessly, for hours, but due to the slow and poor connection here, that's just another example of my expectations being rather far from reality.

Anyway, one kid represented our “expectations” and the other “reality”. The key here is that the reality doesn’t change, but if the “expectations” kid moved closer to the adult and in turn closer to the kid representing “reality” the cord was much looser and the “Twang” hitting the adult didn't feel as bad. I hope this makes sense to everyone. Just know that during my second week of class here I was feeling a lot of hard "Twangs" and I was not very happy about it!

Let me share a few of my expectations and how things were different than reality.

SWAHILI: I honestly expected to pick up Swahili much quicker than I am.  The reality that has also become apparent is that I knew a lot more Portuguese than I thought I did, because that is what my brain goes to when I know I shouldn’t say something in English, but the Swahili isn’t there. Portuguese starts coming out and it kind of confuses the teachers, but has been good for a laugh now and then.

They need to make a Kiswahili bananagrams version with no Q or X and more K, J, V, etc.

I am at the Kenyan Southern Baptist Seminary in Tigoni, Kenya. There is also a retreat/conference center and the language school that I am attending. I have been very blessed with other students taking me to town for shopping at various times and other events, but I have chosen to go to church up here at the Baptist Church so I can learn more Swahili and get to know people from here a little better.

I don’t know if I mentioned it, but in Turkana it was strange to be only one of  3 white people in church and the only vehicle in the “parking lot”. Well, now I am walking to church with the Kenyans and for 2 weeks I was THE ONLY white person there. Praise God for an American team visiting this week. I was now one of about 25 white people there.

The Baptist Church in Tigoni
However, that first week, odds were not in my favor that they would not notice me or skip me when it was time for the visitors to introduce themselves. It also didn’t help that one of my teachers goes to that church and she was staring me down. I tried to give a greeting in Swahili and say my name and where I was from, but I choked and it was a pretty big disaster. I am pretty sure the pastor was praying for the crazy visitor to sit down soon! However, it made for lots of laughs that just kept going when my teacher relived it for everyone in class on Monday morning.  She did assure me that they were not laughing at me, they were laughing with me. Thanks!

Only part of the hill up to the church 
So, the next Sunday I traipsed back up the hill. Oh, did I mention the size of that hill? I can’t even speak to anyone in English when I get in the church due to that hill and the altitude here? So I sat and hide by the wall again and actually picked up a few more words that day. At the end of the service a lady started talking to me and asked if I was from Indiana. Wow they had understood what I said in Swahili the week before. Turns out this was the pastors wife and they had lived in Indiana for 3 years while he went to Baptist seminary there. I believe she said it was in Elkhart. What a great connection. She introduced me to some other people and they were all very happy to have me visiting again. This was looking up.

Outside the Baptist Church.
As I mentioned before, I was nice to have fellow Americans here at church this week. They are here on a short term trip. They sang some songs in English and their leaders gave 2 short messages that were translated to Swahili for the Kenyans. It helped me to hear it in English first and then think about what words would be used. Once again I was picking up more and more of the Swahili. What a blessing they had experiencing the Swahili parts of the service and what a blessing to me to have them here. It was also nice to not be the total minority, but I realize that will usually be the case for the next 3 years. I also realize that while Swahili is the “easy language” I get to learn, that doesn’t mean I will know it all in one month. So I will just keep studying and picking up a little more each day.  Ninajifunza Kiswahili polepole! I am learning Swahili slowly!

BUGS: I expected there to be fewer bugs here than in Turkana. I was wrong.  I am getting used to the spiders and ants that are everywhere. I notice something on my jacket, leg, the counter, etc... I brush it off and think "Oh look another ant, spider, whatever." I have also been warned about not dragging my skirt through a trail of fire ants and so far have avoided them.  I am using my Mossi chips to help repel mosquitos and there is less risk of malaria up here. In general, I try to reason with the spiders that they shouldn’t build webs near my bed or across the doorways. That’s fair right? They don't always seem to agree. 

BUT, THESE TERMITES that invade every time it rains at night are getting on my nerves! The first time I saw them I thought it was a plague. It looked like thousands of the maple tree seed “helicopters” had blown onto my porch. Then I realized they were moving and had bodies. I quickly got in the house and shut the door so they wouldn’t get in. No worries. Hundreds of them were already in there!!! They were attracted to the porch light and another small light I had left on inside the house. I learned that they are harmless and I could just sweep them out, which was hard to do, since they kept coming in and I needed the light on to see to sweep them. It was a 30-minute process that resulted in about a 95% clean up rate. So I was happy. Then the next morning as I swept the remaining few out, I realized that I could barely get out because the birds were having a feast on the little termite bodies that covered the porch. Then I was just left with wings to clean up. 

Termites are a part of my new reality for the next 3 months. We are just at the beginning of the rainy season and winter. The termites are not leaving. So, I am adapting and have learned to fool those critters. If I study, wash dishes and read by flashlight on those rainy nights there are fewer trying to get into my house. Ha! (On a side note, I have been told that I should collect them; blow off their wings and sauté the bodies.  They are a good source of protein and taste like bacon. I will let you know when/if I get desperate enough to try that!)

NAIROBI FLIES:  This one is not as harmless. Their blood or lymph or whatever kind of bug juice they excrete, will cause chemical burns on skin. It is like the Podo bug we had experience with on some of our Amazon boat trips in Brazil. When I was shown one here and warned about it, I knew to take the warning seriously. I have seen the burns. So, I had been watching for them and had not seen any in my house until yesterday. Luckily, I looked at my cup before taking a drink of water, Here was my very own Nairobi Fly and I’m sure it would have been terrible to have this on my face or in my mouth. At least I was paying attention and not still dazed and sick feeling from the gas leak. Oh yeah, did I mention that I also had the expectation that the rubber tubing from my gas tank to my stove wouldn’t continually keep splitting and cause a gas leak for a few hours yesterday before I discovered it. Oh well, getting some new tubing soon and the Nairobi Fly is gone. 

FOOD: Now for the worst of my expectation twangs. I reached that point where all I was thinking about was food I was missing and craving. I am blessed to be close to Nairobi and to get to shop where there are processed foods and American type foods. However, they can be deceiving. Most of these are not actually made in America and so they can taste very different. You learn that if you see something you want you better buy it, because likely it won’t be there next week. (Or they may decide to remodel the store, take out many shelves and move items so you can’t find them. I have decided this is a universal plot by retailers to “Twang” customers and keep reminding us about this expectation and reality thing!)

The contrast to” if you see it buy it now” is “have you tried it yet or do you have a reputable source letting you know how close to the American version it really is?” For instance I was warned about the Snickers bars, made in another African country, different, but not bad. I experienced for myself the Frosted Flakes from England, really good and the Cheerios from England, a step below cardboard. Ok, you may argue that the American ones aren’t much above that, but for me it was just too far from my expectations. That was also the day the saran wrap almost caused me to have a melt down.

The state of my "Stat Wrap" after opening. 
Let me start by saying, I am happy there is a saran wrap type product here. However, it is deceptive also. It is called “Stat Wrap”, but there is nothing “Stat” about using it. I had experienced a little of this using some left behind in my Turkana house. If the wind blows it has sand stuck on it and it balls up and might get to the dish before I give up and start over, but I had never had a brand new roll that you have to get started before that fateful day.

So, in another grand expectation moment, I bought banana pudding and pasteurized milk and made it that afternoon. It smelled so good and looked so creamy I almost couldn’t wait to eat it, but I wanted it to set up and be cold. So I poured it into cups and went to cover them with the stat wrap to avoid the afore mentioned ants that end up everywhere. (I wasn't taking any chances, even in the refrigerator). Let me tell you that I was almost in tears 20 minutes later when I finally had my pudding secured and in the frig. Getting that darn wrap started was the hardest thing I have experienced since being in Kenya. It came off in small pieces.....and then I couldn’t get the next piece..... and then the next..... and then the first was stuck somewhere else.....none of the pieces coming off were big enough to cover my pudding cups..... and all this is after I finally got the box opened....and so much for those easy close tabs....they were destroyed in the process of opening there’s no easy closing to them now! Ah....Deep breath!

It seemed that everything about my life and my expectations were far from reality and I was being "Twanged" a lot that week. But I am thankful for all the prayers and for the sweet friends who emailed, messaged me and called to check on me. Life isn't that bad and I know I am still so blessed.

In the midst of all those "Twangs" I even got to have some new experiences here in Kenya. I watched my first rugby match. It is a rough game, but I really enjoyed learning about the game and think the kindest part is when they throw the ball in and teammates lift up certain players for them to try to catch the ball. I won’t tell you what that position is called. You will have to look it up yourself and then get a good laugh, just like I did!

Riding with a new friend. 
Waterfall, over the horses left ear.
Then I got to go horseback riding through the tea fields and past a waterfall. As we started and our guide was telling me how I should lean backward as we went down the hill, I realized I had never ridden on hills before. My horse liked going down and would get a little spunky as we got to the bottom, but going up was another story. Poor old thing was huffing and puffing just like me on my way up that hill to church.  She probably wished the skinny 16 year old were on her back not me! The weather was beautiful that day and it was such a fun experience.

Oh and I almost forgot about the pizza. Since my oven takes 2 people and an act of congress to light and where I am moving next only has 2 burners and no oven, I decided that I was going to make a stovetop skillet pizza. I was determined. Never mind that I have never bought yeast or made dough from scratch ever in my life (Chef Boyardee is my friend!). Nor have I ever talked to anyone who has actually made a pizza in a skillet on the stovetop. So, now you are thinking….”What was she thinking? We just read about the almost melt down over saran wrap.”

I adjusted my expectations from the beginning. I felt good that I was at least trying and that was ok, even if it didn’t work or tasted terrible.  I did a lot of research online and got the ingredients I needed. I want to thank Martha Stewart for the easy pizza dough recipe and the pizza sauce company for sauce in a jar. Yes, the sauce was store bought. It was too much to consider making the sauce also. That’s for next time, so send me your favorite “easy recipes” for pizza sauce!  I also prayed a little as I was waiting for the dough to rise. Well guess what, my expectations were rising as the dough did. It smelled good and it looked and felt like the Chef Boyardee dough I like so much.

More missionary flexibility!
This was all looking up. I kneaded the dough and got the skillet ready, realizing that there was so much dough, this crust was going to be over 1” thick, but I didn’t care. I stretched it out as much as I could and started with low heat, since my expectations for this pizza were sky rocketing now and from past experience I have been know to burn any bread products I try to “toast” in the skillet. So, I started slowly and when I was ready for the first flip of the dough the bottom was such a lovely crispy tan I almost cried. It smelled so good I also thought about just finishing the other side and eating only the dough, so I could end this on a good note.

But I kept going and after a good brown on that side I turned it again and took it off to add the toppings. It was at this point I found the main flaw in my plan. I had no lid for this skillet and the point was to put the toppings on and leave it on a low flame with the lid on until the toppings warmed and the cheese melted. I was not quitting now, this smelled too good. So I adapted and used my other skillet as a lid. It worked ok, but eventually I was afraid of burning the crust so I put the pizza on a plate and microwaved it for about 2 minutes to further melt the cheese and warm the toppings.

Now I was faced with a decision. It looked good. It looked really good. It was about 2 inches thick, with crust and too many toppings in such a small area. It smelled good. It smelled really good. The fresh baked bread smell infiltrated the house. At this moment my expectations were so high, I was actually afraid to eat it, but I was hungry. It had taken almost 2 hours to make, including the hour for the dough to rise, while sitting in a bowl in the one sunny/warm spot on my porch covered in “Stat wrap” again to keep the ants out!

But, I had to eat it! I had to know if it was all worth it. Guess what? It was wonderful. It was not the best pizza ever, but it met and exceeded my inflated expectations at that moment. I guess that I had began to adjust my expectations and now even my inflated expectations were still much closer to my Kenyan reality than they might have been a month or two ago.

The mozzarella cheese actually melted and the Italian sausage slices I had microwaved first to remove the grease almost tasted like pepperoni. The pepper, onion and tomato were all crisp and fresh. The runny, watery not so good sauce soaked into the dough, so I was glad the dough was so thick. The whole experience was totally worth it and I felt so accomplished that it wasn’t until the next day when I started to not feel good that I began to wonder, as I often do “Did I wash and rinse my vegetables enough, they didn’t get much real cooking in that skillet covered skillet?”

I was going to be so disappointed if I got sick from that wonderful pizza. So, as I started to feel queasier and my head began to hurt worse I went to the kitchen to get some water. That’s when I smelled the gas leak. Praise God, it was just a gas leak (remember that gas leak from my earlier expectations failure!).

See it’s all about where your expectations are in relation to your reality. I know I am not done being “Twanged”, but hopefully those "Twangs" will hurt less and less as I continue to adapt to my new reality of life here in Kenya.


  1. Ah....the tings we take for granted. Like delicious pizza delivered to your door. Hang in there, Shannon!

  2. Thanks so much for sharing these stories--I laughed with you and cried for you as I read. I continue to be amazed at just how strong you are, and know God is carrying you through all of these Twangy times! I remember the quasi Saran Wrap from my trips to England--horrid stuff which isn't at all like ours at home. Would the old fashioned, but still well used, plastic covers with elastic around the edges? Would they work and. if so, can I send you some in an envelope? I am so glad you got the gas leak fixed--nasty, nasty, experience. Also glad you are able to know good (?) from bad bugs around your new home. I recall living overseas and having to learn all of this too. Shannon, keep doing what God has called you to do--you are protected and your Twangy elastic will get less Twangy and your language skills will grow in leaps and bounds. Blessings and love to you friend.

  3. haha!!! I can relate to everything you wrote about. I laughed all the way through remembering my own experiences. :) I can completely sympathize with all of your twangs. I experienced several twangs myself on this trip to India. Praying for you friend as you continue to go to language school, learn the culture and make friends.

    Oh, and I learned that Spanish gets me no-where in India. The poor cook must have thought I was crazy when I kept rattling off to her in Spanish the first week. :)

  4. Thanks for sharing Shannon! I was laughing and teary at the same time hearing about your new reality. Praise God for the blessings He is giving you there, we are praying for you my friend.

  5. What a great account of your adventures! Really, really glad you discovered that gas leak before it made you any sicker. I'm incredibly impressed that you even tried pizza on the stove top. Sometimes it seems like the smallest things can be the ones that cause the most irritation, like a rock in the shoe, or Saran Wrap that isn't. You are doing a great job of keeping in mind the lessons we learned at training. I'm so very proud of you and am hoping we can learn from your experience as we adjust once we get to Bangladesh :-)

  6. Dear Shannon, thank you for sharing your experiences in Kenya! May the Lord keep giving you strenght for the everyday tasks in a developing country! In Brazil the Stats Wraps are still getting better... I was already faced with a Stat Wrap just like yours. I love you, God bless you! Hugs from Brazil!