two weeks in the congo

Reflections from my recent trip to the DRC to start a new Lifewater project. 

My time in the Democratic Republic of the Congo reminded me of Benin, of a time in life when I spent my summers in a small village in the bush doing water research and living a rather simple life. The places themselves were quite different, as was my work, and my companions. But, at its core, there was something so oddly and wonderfully familiar, something that made me smile over and over again.

congo flower

congo soccer

Maybe it had something to do with pulling my very rough, very ‘bush’ French out of the drawer it had been stored in. Or maybe it was the sounds of the bush at night that were louder than any sound maker you would put in your room. Or maybe it was food that was new, but the spices familiar. Or maybe it was the people, a character about them that brought to mind old conversations. Or maybe it was the red dirt roads lacking motorized vehicle traffic. Or maybe it was the cloth that was full of colors. Or maybe it was bathing out of a bucket (though, sadly, not under the stars). Whatever it was, it was familiar.

congo sunset

congo fabric

This was a wonderful trip of beginning new and exciting work in a new place that had a little taste of home. Stay tuned in the months to come to hear more about this program. We are designing rain tanks and latrines for primary schools that have neither, and we will have to build a classroom for the rain tanks because the wood and mud rooms with thatch roofs that currently exist will not work. It is so exciting to be working in a new place, one where people are eager to join hands to solve their own problems. A place that is remote enough that you do not see other NGOs. It demands imagination and persistence, and those are available to us. One step at a time, we will work together and change the WASH situation and change the health of the children in this place that is new but feels so familiar to me.

congo school

congo toilet

A little bonus for me: traveling in fun, little planes.

congo plane

remembering life in a village



I am working on putting together some of my favorite photos from the last decade of traveling and living in Africa, which is bringing back a flood of beautiful memories. Some of these take me back to when I was living in a village in Benin doing research every summer. This is a favorite of mine: all of the basins lined up outside of a home – carefully placed in a row and standing at attention. These basins were used to carry water, cook food, do laundry, and to store water or food. In so many ways, they were a central part of life, each one’s shape useful for its task. To me they are reminders of learning how to use each one – how to carry water on my head, to cook over a stove, to pour water into a water jar and shower under the stars. For me these basins hold beautiful memories.

street children: part of my life traveling the globe

I have now been back in the US for four weeks, and I cannot shake the thoughts of the people on the street in Addis Ababa – mostly women and children. In the streets of Addis, particularly near the large churches or mosques as well as the shopping areas, women are on the street with the children begging. These are some of the thoughts bouncing around in my head, this is part of my story as I travel the globe.

I love to walk when I travel – it lets me get to know a city, affords me a small measure of independence, and lets me stretch my legs after inevitably long days of meetings in cross-cultural settings. It gives my body a chance to become tired and my mind a chance to be rejuvenated. But when those walks are filled with women and children on the streets begging, I often find myself rethinking whether or not I should walk that day or how I can re-route (easier said than done as I typically try and stay to main streets). This makes me cringe inside. Each one of these people is known by God and so many stories from the Bible come flooding back to me. Stories about helping those in need, of seeing the children, of loving those ignored by society. I want to say that my mission is elsewhere, but as I walk, these women and children enter into my space, or I into theirs, and I cannot ignore them and pretend that I am called elsewhere.

None of this is new to me. But as I get older, I find that it gets harder, not easier. What brings each person to the street and keeps them there is a complicated story. I cannot pretend to know an individual’s story, but I do know that there is more to every story than ever meets the eyes. I know that there are systems that promote the problem and do not provide alternatives. I know that people come to the city hoping to find work, and I wonder how deep their disappointment runs. I know that sometimes there are people who collect the money from beggars (in a way employing them to beg) and I wonder if there is any hope. I know that each person has a story and I wonder when they last got to share it with someone who wanted to hear it, to someone who showed them love rather than pity.

One young girl lives so clearly in my mind. She was four or five years old, and she got up from sitting with her mom and baby sibling to follow me, to almost dance around me, with her arms outstretched. She followed me for close to a block, her eyes also searching those around me in case there was someone else, a better candidate, to ask for money. As I prepared to cross a busy street I turned and pointed to her mother, telling her to go back. Our shared language was that of the hands and the body, and words of asking for money. What I wanted to do was bend down and tell this little girl, “Sweetheart, you are beautiful and loved. I wish I could give you a childhood filled with play, but I do know my Father and yours is watching after you and He loves you. Do everything you can to learn, to find an education, and to get off the streets. You have value little one.” Instead, I sighed with gratitude when she chose to not cross the street with me as I could not bear the idea of her crossing it later by herself.


When I travel, I do not know what to do with these women and children. It is a mystery to me. In the countryside, it is so different. There I am the odd white woman walking. Sometimes people talk to me or children follow, but it is because it is something to do and I am an enigma. There I know my place and what I am there to do. I am there to work with water and sanitation and hygiene. I am there to see communities transformed and to work with local partners who make that possible. On a bad day it is frustrating and disappointing work, but on a good day there is little that could be better as it is work filled with hope, health and transformation. When I walk in the city, I have none of this.


This is one one of those things where I don’t believe there is an easy answer, but I do wonder if sitting in the complexity of the situation and admitting that I don’t know is part of the answer. That, and praying for grace and wisdom in each situation.

a lake gateway in uganda

This weekend as I curled up at home, I kept thinking about my trip to Uganda earlier this year. A good friend and I visited Lake Bunyonyi just north of the border with Rwanda. A mountain lake, the evenings were cool and we huddled under our blankets, but the days were warm. At an ecolodge on a small island, we had some of the joys of camping without any of the stress. Home was a straw geodome with an open front looking onto the lake. Our balcony made for a perfect view of the night sky so clear that the Milky Way was like a cloud across the sky. The outdoor shower had a picture perfect view. Taking the local dugout canoes on the lake was an exercise of patience and laughter as we discovered our abilities in western canoes and kayaks did not apply here. And the food was good, simple, and cheap. What more could you ask for on a weekend getaway? Here are some photos and at the end some ‘how to’ details for those of you enticed to make a trip of your own!

Taking a pause from paddling… also a pause from going in circles.

Sunset over the lake.

The outdoor shower with a view of the lake. I love showering outdoors, so this was pure happy.

Looking into the geodome from the balcony. Those are just regular old candles on the table. Above the bed in the middle there is a little skylight.

This is the view from the bed towards the balcony… where we played many games of cards, sunned ourselves, red books, and watched the stars at night.

The night sky. Do you see the Milky Way. This is what happens when there is no light pollution and no moon.

How to: 

  • Visit the Byoona Amagara and make a reservation using their email addresses. When I went, it was about $17 per person.
  • Take a bus from Kampala or Kigali to Kabale. From Kapmala you can take the Post Bus or Jaguar. Best to get tickets ahead of time to make sure you have a seat. There are cheaper options, but the mini-bus routes will take much more time and you will be much less comfortable – I suggest paying the price (less than $20). Kabale is about 6 hrs from Kampala and about 1 hr from the Rwanda border.
  • From Kabale, find a taxi to take you out to Lake Bunyonyi and to the dock for Byoona Amagara. From there you can either get the powered boat (a few dollars and about 15 minutes) or take a canoe (free and about an hour).
  • All electricity on the island is powered by solar power, so it is likely that you will not have much power if it has been cloudy/rainy, so be prepared with a flashlight (although they do provide candles). Also, the water is heated by solar, but if it has not warmed up, the staff will heat water for a bucket bath if you want.
  • This is an ideal location to relax, read, do some canoeing, play games, and watch the stars. If you want to do lots of hiking, this is probably not for you. If you need to rest and recharge, this is your spot.

This has been one of my favorite trips in the region – I hope you love it too!

a weekend in lalibela: churches carved into hills

Lalibela has been on my ‘to visit’ place for years – ever since I first learned about it.  Lalibela is a town in northern Ethiopia that is the location of 11 “rock-hewn” churches. I think it is difficult to grasp what rock-hewn really means: they are carved from / into the hillside. I have been to Petra many times, where the facades of burial rooms were carved – the grand images you see are the carved fronts of the sandstone hills. The Lalibela churches are not just facades but, for most of them, their full structure is carved out of the stone. The most grand churches look as if they were built of small stones put together – the hill has been chiseled far away from the church structure and there are wonderful pillars inside and out. You can read more about the history of the churches at the UNESCO World Heritage Site or Wikipedia. Here is a brief photo journal.

Some of the churches are still connected to their hillside – you can see the hillside above the church.

And in others, you can see the hill connected at the back of the church.

Several of the churches are completely freestanding – everything, pillars included, has been carved from the same stone. (This church has started to fall apart so is protected by a roof above what is visible in this photo and some of the pillars have had to be replaced with bricks, which you can see in this photo.)

This was my favorite church: completely freestanding with just one entrance to the hole in the hill that contains the church (black part on right of photo).

This is a side view of the same church. Isn’t that awesome?!

But not all of the churches were quite as grand. However, just take a moment and think about how much rock had to be chiseled away to make this simple church. And that chiseling was done through volcanic rock, not sandstone.

Then there is the church that might have been the palace of King Lalibela. I took this photo from the other side of what I would call a moat. To me, this looks like a castle, although the inside has been modified to be a church. What do you think?

In order to go inside any of the churches, you had to take off your shoes. At one church, you exit from a different place than you enter. The watchman was kind and moved our shoes to where we would exit.

At some churches old, magnificent wood doors remained.

The interior of some churches were plain, but others were wonderfully carved. In this church, the beveled wall goes around the entire inside wall.

This is the interior of the cross church, which appropriate has crosses on the ceilings of each part of the church.


This was probably the most impressive interior because it looked so much like a basilica – a center with two aisles, all lined with columns. Grand. But pause for a second and notice the floor: it is as bumpy and uneven as it looks under the carpets. Apparently the precision of the workmen extended to the walls and ceilings was not necessary where mere man would walk.

In a couple churches, there were paintings on the walls or on canvases. Here, you can see some of the old paintings on the ceiling and a newer canvas painting popped up on the floor. The styles are Ethiopian and all tell Bible stories and the stories of martyrs in distinctly Ethiopian colors and styles.

I was shown this book, 600 years old, when I hiked to another church about 4 miles away. In most countries, this would be behind glass or taken out of storage only for special visitors. I am thankful for the honor of seeing this book and several others. Again, notice the style of the painting.

Here we take a step outside to something I normally think of as belonging inside a church: the baptismal. Each baptismal is carved into the stone outside the church – many of them meters deep. Although I cannot imagine getting into this water. I love the contrasting colors it creates.

While there is so much more to be seen, you need to go in person to explore these churches. It will be well worth the time. Today, I leave you with a Lalibela sunset.



her cuteness

At the end of a day of asking questions, taking photos and being inspired by the great work of our partner in Northern Uganda, I was about to get in the car when this young one was smiling from here eyes straight into my heart. In the background you can see part of a family compound. To me, she shall be known as ‘her cuteness’.

there is an orchestra in the congo?!

There are all sorts of spectacular ways I thought of starting this entry, but really what is much more spectacular than saying: There is an orchestra in the Congo and it is good. Take a few minutes to watch this video – it gives a bit of the background and I believe you will be truly inspired, even if you do not like classical music. It is a story about people defying the odds and persevering. It is about beauty. It brought tears to my eyes. And it made me want to fly to the Congo.

I am dreaming of when I will next hear classical music performed live, preferably a full orchestra. May it be sooner than I imagine.

good development – are the stats real?

When I went to college, my dad told me to learn statistics. I laughed at him. Then I learned statistics. Now I understand numbers and give others his advice. I say this as I am always surprised by how people create statics that make their programs look great. I like to believe that they do this because they believe in what they are doing and simply do not know any better; these options are better than the alternatives.

This article and others describe how the Millennium Villages Project is not making the great strides that it claims to have made. The project is based on a premise of dumping a lot of money directly into a small area across a number of sectors over ten years. Someday we can talk about how this is not my favorite development model and also why a few of the ideas are solid. Like so many things, development is not straightforward or simple. However, today we are talking about statistics, so take a moment to read the articles to appreciate why the details of statistics, the hows and the whys behind the numbers, matter.

If you understand numbers, you can sell almost anything to someone who does not. I promise to not do that to you. Instead, I will do my best to explain truth through stories and numbers when needed. And, I will tell you that if you get a chance, you should take a course or two in statistics.

nigerian moments

I find that I cannot really leave Africa behind. When I am far from red dirt roads and equatorial sun, she comes to me in new and different aways. This last week, I had three days of meetings in Michigan. This is one of those moments where Africa was alive.

We were sitting around in the evening following a day of meetings, debates, and much food. The room was grand – at least two stories tall, a wall of windows greeting the forest, and comfortable couches and chairs that swallow you whole. A dear Nigerian friend, flowing skirts of vibrant colors, was telling stories – telling us the facts of a Nigerian life. Her voice was as soft as her skin, magically drawing us into her beauty and her living history.

You see, that is the problem with Nigerians – they would never do that. They would hear the sound outside their home and they would never think to investigate. That is how we know that that Western movies cannot be true. A woman (or a man) would hear a sound or see something, and get up to investigate. They would say, “I will be back and let you know what it is.” But in Nigeria, we are all quite religious. The ones who are Muslim, will take out the Koran and start praying. The ones who are Christian will read their Bibles and pray. And the ones who practice traditional religions will do their thing. But we will never go to investigate. We will stay inside, away from that thing. We will never go to see, to learn. That is how we know Western movies are not true. 

It is the problem of our society. 

easter at lake kivu & genocide memorial week

Sometimes watching four episodes of The West Wing (tea cup in hand) is what it takes to free the mind and want to communicate with the world. This is just one of the many indicators that I am indeed an introvert. The much more fun thing is why an afternoon like that was needed – all the time spent with family and friends (whom I really love) in the past weeks at absolutely beautiful locations. And since Easter was just last week, I want to tell you about the Easter travels to Lake Kivu.

I have often said that nothing is simple in Africa, and this past week is a reminder of how true a statement that is. At last minute my parents ended up in Rwanda for Easter (just another story for my crazy family). This means that they were also here for Genocide Memorial Week. Part of their time was spent in Gisenyi, a town on Lake Kivu next to the DRC border. Here are some tidbits of what we did and what we learned.

Gisenyi, Lake Kivu & Paradis Malahide

I remember reading about Lake Kivu in some of my Environmental text books because it has methane and carbon dioxide gas at its bottom. It is a mountain lake that sits at around 4,800 feet and is 1,500 feet deep in parts and, in theory, could flip and kill those around the lake. There are only two other lakes with gases trapped at depth – both in Cameroon. Maybe this makes you bored or scared – it made me smile.

For my first trip to Lake Kivu, I went to Gisenyi. Really, I went to a hotel just outside of Gisenyi called Paradis Malahide because our little group never found a reason to leave the hotel. Paradis Malahide seems like it is plopped in amongst a wandering village, with a bit of beach and hillside carved out just for guests. It was a perfect escape – for us, an Easter escape. If you go, bring a swim suit, books, games, an appetite for some yummy fish in the evenings, and be prepared to enjoy the bonfire each evening at the restaurant. What I learned: Paradis Malahide is a perfect place for a quiet weekend, a place to be rejuvenated with relaxation. But, if you want to be active, probably not perfect. I shall definitely be back in the months to come!


The beach at Paradis Malahide, our rooms in the back.

Carcassonne, a favorite board game.

Bonfire fun – don’t forget to import your marshmellows.

Genocide Memorial Week

Each year Rwanda takes a week to remember the genocide of 1994. The government chooses a theme for the week, everything shuts down the first and last day of the week, and most afternoons as well. To some degree, this continues for 100 days – the length of the genocide. This is my second time to be here for this week, and the country takes on a somber, even depressed, mood. As an outsider, there is little to do but respect that which is everywhere you turn and pray that those mourning would find comfort and healing. If you visit during this time (or any other time) this what I have learned: If you want to know stories, read books because retelling is reliving, and who are we to ask such a thing? If you have advive for someone who lived through the genocide or has family here, keep it to yourself – this place and history is more complex and greater than we can understand. If you want to learn – listen, observe, and respect. Like all rules, sometimes these should be broken. But, they are a good starting point.

And now it is time for this introvert to turn from The West Wing to the book that is filling spare moments with smiles: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.


no room in the inn

On my last trip to Northern Kenya, I spent one night out in the desert and it changed my understanding of a story I have heard since I was a young child. We arrived at a small village not too far south of the Ethiopian border in the afternoon. In the local language, the town’s name means ‘windy’, and it could not have been more accurate. It was flat in all directions, volcanic rocks and thorny shrubs littered the landscape, and the wind was a constant presence.

After our meetings were done, we checked in at our hotel – one of two in this town on the main (though still dirt) road from the south to the north. The hotel was six simple rooms in a line, a latrine, and a shower room, all surrounded by a wire fence beyond the generous rock yard. Each room had two simple twin beds, each with a pillow, a towel, a bar of soap, and a portion of toilet paper. Simple, but clean and thoughtfully laid out. That night a feast of goat (100% free range and organic) was roasted over the open fire, which we shared from common plates with our hands. And then I turned in for the night, placing the stone behind my door to keep it closed since there was no latch.

Half of my hotel room. And this is with the wide-angle lens.

At 3:15 am, I suddenly awoke to the sound of voices and a rock scrapping on concrete. My door was being opened. Groggy but suddenly wide-eyed, I called out to the person pushing my door open.

“We heard there was a bed available in a room with a woman. There are two women who have just arrived and both hotels are full.”

Well, yes, there was a bed available. Not knowing quite what to do, I said as much and promptly cleared the bed of my things (I had been using as a make-shift dresser), and crawled back into my bed to await the arrival of my new roommates.

My groggy mind was filled with random thoughts. Did I not pay for this room? They must have come in on one of the cars that travels through the night – much cooler than during the day. Where had they come from and where were they going? Does the whole village know that there is exactly one mzungu (white person) woman and the exact room where she is staying?  If it was me, I would be so grateful to share a room with a stranger too. And, mostly, I was just stunned.

Twenty minutes later the two women arrived, closed the little window, curled up in the twin bed, and promptly fell asleep. The next morning I left before they woke, so I never actually met the women that were my roommates for four hours, but I doubt I will ever forget them.

Since I was a child, I have heard the stories of Mary, Joseph, and the birth of baby Jesus. When Mary was pregnant, they traveled to Bethlehem and there was no room in the inn. An innkeeper made room for them in the stables. By squeezing them in where there was a bit of space, he provided for a woman who labored and gave birth to a child. Although I have shared my home with many (beds and floors), I have never been woken by strangers in a hotel room. I cannot help but wonder if this was more like the story of Christmas than I had ever before imagined.

Strangers helping. Shared spaces. Confused thoughts. Unknown roommates. Midnight awakenings. Star-filled nights. 

This year, the Christmas story came alive for me, and as I await Epiphany, I keep wondering what it would have been like if I had stayed longer in that windy town in my shared room.

dancing grandma

Earlier this week I was out in a village where people living with  HIV/AIDS and orphan caregivers were gathered. They come together to encourage one another, to learn, and to stand together. There was one particular woman, a grandma, who just loved to sing and dance her heart out. When I asked to take her photo, she smiled and laughed and made merry. Later, I caught her as she stood inside. Two sides of a woman. I love the second photo, but I wish you could have seen her dance.