headed back to africa

Tomorrow I leave for Africa again. After a quick overnight in Johannesburg, I am on to Zambia for a week, Western Kenya for a week, and finally Nairobi for a week. Even though I have been back in America for just over three weeks, it seems like it was just yesterday that I was unpacking my bags. I honestly wish I had a few more nights to sleep in my wonderfully comfortable bed with my perfect down pillow, a couple more evenings to cook food from scratch in my kitchen, and more time to finish the (thick, hardback) book that I am in the middle of right now that will not fit into my suitcase.

At the same time, I cannot wait to lock my little house up tomorrow and begin to live my life out of a suitcase again. Because, while I do, I spend time with some amazing people doing amazing things; I am constantly blessed by being in their presence. While I travel, I will be telling stories through twitter and blogs, words and photos – stories of water, AIDS, hope, resilience, and of African heroes. I invite you to join join the journey as I share it online in the coming weeks. I hope you too will be blessed by our African neighbors by sharing in this journey.

a taste of khartoum

Three days is not long at all for any place, much less a first visit to a country – a taste test really. I did not have a license to take photos, so except for what you will see in the next post on Tuti Island, I only have words to share with you. I hope this provides a glimpse of what I saw and experienced in Khartoum.

Arriving. On the plane I was surrounded by Arabic for the first time in nearly a decade. When the doors of the plane opened it was like being hit with the air from a hot, dry oven. Then the air-conditioned bus from the plane to terminal took us past a row of white planes with “UN” painted on their sides. Every bag is x-rayed upon entry to the country – the search is for alcohol. For the first time in my parent’s life, they have drivers – who drive fully armored Land Cruisers and Suburbans. Whenever they can, they walk places.

Ancient roots. In ancient times, Northern Sudan was Upper Egypt… upper because it is the up the Nile, which flows from South to North. Anyway you think about it, ancient Egypt counts as ancient. We went to the museum and saw pottery, jewelry, fresnos, and temples that were 1,000- 4,500 years old. I fully admit to telling dad, “I’ll take one of those.” I was referring to several of the beaded 4,000 plus year-old necklaces on display. They were simple, unique, and elegant. There were three ‘small’ temples on display (size of a house – very small in comparison to what is found in Egypt). They would have been flooded by the building of the Aswan dam, and so they were just up and moved. I have to say I appreciate that they are accessible in Khartoum and not buried under water. I still have not decided if the the graffiti from people carving their names (mostly dated in the 1800‘s – relatively recently travelers) into the stone temples next to hieroglyphs adds to the history or is just sad.

Christianity. My parents are part of a truly international church. In my experience, this is an incredibly rare and awesome thing. Where are you from? Tanzania. Southern Sudan.  Uganda. Philippines. North Sudan. America. Kenya. I know there were others too… but my memory fails me.  Beautiful people and beautiful souls worshipping and growing together. In Khartoum, Islam is the dominant religion. But this was not always so – there was an entire section of the museum dedicated to Christian frescos from 1,000 years ago. We could say that that Islam came in and took over. But, the pastor of this church had a profound statement about this – Christianity failed the Christians as it became increasingly ‘religious’ and filled with tradition. A thought truly worth pondering from this Sudanese pastor.

Dress. The temperatures this season are typically 110-120F during the day and a cool mid-90’s during the night. As I stretched out in bed the first night, I could feel the cement wall was radiating heat into my room. And the women are covered. But, mostly not the full black veils that only show they eyes, simply fully covered. Tight long-sleeved shirts go under blouses and sleeveless shirts to provide modesty and a 4.5 meter piece of fabric is often wrapped around the body and then loosely draped as a scarf over the head and arms to provide modesty. But there is a flare of Africa in these scarves – they are full of rich colors and designs making the women look elegant. But the men look cooler in flowing white dresses and turbans.

Perspective. I consider a sunny day to be great weather – the sun makes me smile and lifts my spirit. But, at this time of year, a sand-filled sky in Khartoum means cooler weather. I watched a haboob, or sand storm, roll in one evening. We were standing on one side of the Nile and there was a white mosque on the other side that stood out perfectly against the brown and red backdrop of the sand. Less than a minute later, it disappeared as the wall of sand swallowed it up. Walking in the haboob later – wind filled with sand – was not fun. But who was I to complain about the rain that came later and the temperatures that lowered by about 15 degrees? ‘Good weather’ is definitely determined by one’s perspective.

To me, Khartoum had a Middle Eastern, or Egyptian flavor, with a bit of East Africa tossed into the mix. It was familiar and new all in one. This was probably facilitated by being with my parents – waffles in the morning, chicken on the grill at night, and conversations on comfy couches. Not a place where I would be excited to live, but not a place where I would refuse to live. I remain intrigued by the culture and curious about recent and ongoing histories that I cannot pretend to understand. Maybe someday I will get another taste of this land and people. But for right now, I remain curled up in my favorite reading chair at home. And it feels good.

dreaming of my kitchen

For the last hour I have been flipping through recipes on The New York Times. Recipes that I can do absolutely nothing with except let them fill my dreams. Not the green been & red pepper salad, not the rhubarb crisp, not the fettucini with sausage & sage leaves, and definitely not the asparagus pesto. I don’t do much baking and am lactose intolerant, but was reading what looks to be a good cheesecake recipe.

Yep, it is that time on these trips where I dream of my little kitchen. It is a little kitchen with a half-sized stove and a not-full sized fridge. But it is my little kitchen. The pots and pans are familiar, the knives sharp, and the spices abundant. Most of all, it is a kitchen to which I have full access should I be in the right city.

Let’s be honest. Variety and options here are sorely lacking. But, given a kitchen, I could whip up some foods with different flavors and textures than my daily fare. Same ingredients, different combinations and spices. And I could make pancakes and (non-greasy) eggs on a Sunday morning. Maybe even real coffee.

Please do not get me wrong – I get more than my fair share of food here and have plenty of variety given the location. Tomorrow I will be back to sharing photos and stories of my travels. But tonight I am going to enjoy the luxury of dreaming of my kitchen and foods that are a few weeks away.

goodbye pjs

Awesome (said in a sarcastic tone). I kid you not. My first night in Lira, I was tired, so took a nap after dinner. Then I got up somewhat refreshed and did a bit of computer work – on my bed of course. (It might not seem so, but location and object here are critical to the story.) A while later, I convinced myself to find out if there really was hot water in the shower as it looked like there should be. I say this because I have long since learned that a hot water faucet is not a guaranteed correlation to there actually being hot water. Half way through washing my hair hot water appeared and I nearly did a happy dance in the shower. Flossed my teeth, brushed my teeth, and put my pjs on. This last part is critical. Pjs on. The same thin cotton pajama pants that I taken on these trips and worn in the summer for quite a while… ok… probably a good 4 years. The mosquito net here had to be maneuvered a bit – at first look, I thought it was a great design. But then I was kneeling on my double bed in an attempt to arrange the net above me. Mid-air, about to put that knee down in a new spot, I realized I was about to kneel on my laptop, and so do some sort of awkward movement of the leg in order to avoid the most precious laptop: riiiip. A nice long, unrepairable rip is now down the left leg of my pj pants. Not only do I love these, until now, faithful pants, but they are the only ones I brought with me. Yes, that image in your head of me standing in my hotel room looking down at my tattered pants is exactly as funny as you think it is. And as I broke out in laughter I thought, “I saved the computer.” Awesome.

review: the chains of heaven

Title: The Chains of Heaven: An Ethiopian Romance

Author: Philip Marsden

Genre: creative nonfiction, travel 

Form: paperback

Recommended: Yes

Thoughts:  At age 21 Marsden tried to travel Ethiopia, but was quickly shut out as the nation was collapsing in conflict. Two decades later he was able to fulfill his dream and walks through northern Ethiopia visiting churches and remote monasteries along the way. Marsden winds his story of walking with the history of the region in such a way that past becomes present as history lives through the people he meets. At times there is more history filled with hard to pronounce (much less remember) names than there is story, but as a whole, The Chains of Heaven leaves you with a vivid image of Ethiopia that entices you to put on your walking shoes. 


There were a few great quotes in this book, and I can’t resist including to excerpts here. I hope you enjoy: 

“Ethiopia taught me many things. As a naive twenty-one-year-old, with years of flunked schooling behind me, I was ready for the simplest of lessons. Instead I was presented with paradoxes. I learnt of the cruelty that could be perpetrated in the name of a good idea. I saw how a people hurtling towards catastrophe, hungry, with population growth out of control, could go on living day to day with such astonishing grace. I saw how those apparently ignored by divine goodness could still apply their greatest energy to worship. I learnt that the human spirit is more robust than life itself.

Ethiopia opened my eyes to the earth’s limitless range. I pictured the country’s startling scenes and stories multiplied across the globe, then factored up by the past. It made the notion of ‘a small world’, ‘a shrinking world’, look absurd, and it made me restless. 

Ethiopia instilled in me the habit of a lifetime, the habit of travel. It revealed the rewards that can be had simply from being footloose among strangers, from taking remote and narrow paths with bare-legged farmers. It bred in me the conviction that if there is any purpose to our time on this earth, it is to understand it, to seek out its diversity, to celebrate its heroes and its wonders — in short, to witness it.” pg 21


“Outside the church gates, two hundred men had gathered for their monthly council. They sat in the dust, on bare banks and knuckle-like boulders. They were clustered beneath the cooling foliage of eucalyptus. I stood in the shad with Hiluf and we watched. 

One among them rose to his feet. 

‘I bought fertilizer. The kebelle [administrative district] gave me the money and said, You can pay us after harvest. But the size of the harvest was too small. Now they want much more money.’

A debtara [non-ordained church official, responsible for the music and danching, often expert in herbal lore] answered. ‘You must be careful to pay back as early as you can. Even if your maize is not growing, the amount to pay still grows.’

Another stood. ‘They told us we must dig a hole for a pond. They said they will give us a sheet. Well I have dug my hole and they say there is no sheet.’

‘I have dug a hole too. My cattle fell in and couldn’t get out.’

‘Put brush around it. At kermet [the season of ‘big’ rains, typically late June to early September] God will provide water.’

‘Last kermet the water did not fill the pond even half — now it is all gone…’

For some time the complexities of rural life were aired, a life in which development schemes arrived like the weather, God-given: sometimes they brought salvation and sometimes they brought disaster.” pg 248-250

upcoming travels

On Wednesday I leave for just shy of four weeks in Africa. This trip is a wonderful combination of work and play. I start in Ethiopia for work where I will get to a explore a new land – both in the capital as well as the rural countryside. Then I have a week with my parents in Tanzania during which I will get to reconnect with friends made last year, spend time on the beach and in the water, as well as wander Zanzibar for a day or two. The trip ends with two days in Kenya and four days in Rwanda; both for work. I will update as I can from the road (always remember that in my world, no news is good news.) 

I have promised several people a few statistics for this upcoming trip, so here they are: 

  • I will add one country to my list: Ethiopia. Although one plane I am on will stop in Khartoum, I will resist the urge to step on Sudanese soil.
  • I will fly on 15 planes and pass through 10 airports.
  • I will spend around 43 hours on planes and 33 hours in airports (rough rounding on both counts). 
  • I somehow managed to have a few early departures including: 4am, 5:30am, 7:30am, and 7:45am. I guess I will not have to worry about traffic on the way to the airport those days.

Answers to questions I am frequently asked:

  • No, I did not need to get any vaccinations for this trip. My shot record is long and is up to date. 
  • Yes, I consider my passport a good friend.
  • Yes, traveling alone is ok. Even if I am a woman. 
  • Yes, I sleep well on planes.

Here is the itinerary (overlapping days are due to travel):

  • April 8: leave Nashville
  • April 9 – 11: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
  • April 11 – 15: Konson region, Ethiopia
  • April 15 – 17: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
  • April 17 – 27: Dar es Salam, Tanzania (and a few days in Zanzibar)
  • April 27 – 29: Nairobi, Kenya
  • April 29 – May 2: Kigali, Rwanda
  • May 3: arrive in Nashville

More to come from the road… now for some cleaning and packing.

how was africa?

Africa is a continent, not one country or one people, but I find this to be something hard for many to truly grasp as they sit across an ocean from this grand continent. Although I understand where this misconception comes from, it makes me want to ask a Boston native about soul cooking and an LA resident why they don’t have a Jersey accent. Most of the time I refrain as I remind myself that they have not had the same privileges of travel with which I have been blessed. And, when they ask how Africa was, I tell them a word or two about the specific country from which I have just returned.

My new job puts the question, “How was Africa?” in a new context. On this trip I have visited South Africa, Zambia, Mozambique, and Kenya. Within several of these countries I have visited locations that are as diverse as Chicago and Chattanooga and Charlotte. In October I will return to visit Uganda, Rwanda, and likely Ghana.

“How was Africa?”

On this trip, the diversity and differences found within Africa seem particularly vivid. This being my first trip to Mozambique, it was fun to find the Portuguese and Brazilian influence on the country everywhere I turned. Homes are painted bright colors, music is tinted with Latin flavors, driving is relaxed, and conversation is filled with the smooth tones of Portuguese. Each country, each region is unique, but this was a new flavor for me. Kind of like traveling across America and suddenly landing oneself in Texas.

Completely distinct from the rest of this trip was Marsabit, a town and region in Northern Kenya. This is the desert region just south of Ethiopia that is largely forgotten by Kenya. The landscape is filled with igneous rocks, and desert trees and scrubs which provide little protection from the harsh sun. The main road to Ethiopia is a bumpy, dusty dirt road; it is by far the best around. Here herds of animals are life, water trips take days, women wear bright scarves, and homes are moved on camels’ back. Sort of like being time warped to a 100 years ago to visit ranchers in Montana.

When I say ‘kind of’ or ‘sort of’ like such and such, I am trying to make the differences and the vitality of life in Africa a bit more real, but I often wonder if it works. How does one take a National Geographic special that is what I have just experienced and make it anything but the two dimensional image of my photographs? Maybe if I told you stories as I unpacked my suitcase so that you could experience the mingling smells of the fresh coffee beans I bring back and laundry dirtied in the villages or if we talked as we bounced along in a four wheeler or if we sat in the hot autumn sun with music taped at villages and schools serenading us in the background, these images, these rich and vibrant cultures, would become real. Yet it is so much more complex to try and communicate an image, an understanding, stuck in my head that is constantly changing and growing. How can I blame someone for seeing Africa as one place when I, who have traveled much, struggle to make even the most simple of stories real to friends I love?

I feel as if each place I visit in Africa adds a color or a layer to an oil painting. With each visit my painting of Africa becomes more detailed, increasingly complex, and ever richer. Somehow the diversity that I experience and try to share with others fits onto one wild canvas. Yet, as I continue to add to this painting, I doubt it will ever be complete. One canvas, one painting, so many parts, sections, colors, and textures.

Maybe as my painting of Africa continues to grow in my head and in my heart, my response to the question, “How was Africa?” will change. Maybe I will simply say, “She is good.”

sometimes i am just a kid

19 June 2008

For example, last weekend I was at a festival in a little town in the Midwest. The one thing that I simply HAD to do while I was there was get a blue ‘Hawaiian Shaved Ice’ (aka snow cone). You have to understand that it is critical to ask for blue, not ‘blue raspberry’ because that somehow ‘blue raspberry’ makes it seem more grown-up and takes a little bit of magic out of the event. I love the whole experience. I love the anticipation of all the blue goodness, the sweetness of the flavored ice, the brain freeze, the slurred speech complements of a very cold tongue, and, best of all, a wonderfully blue mouth, tongue, and lips. I hope the glory of a blue snow cone is never lost on me.

Today it was the anticipation of an upgrade, free movies, and Biscoff cookies. Compliments of the air miles logged on transantlantic and cross-country flights, I sometimes get free upgrades to first class when traveling in the US of A. But, I pretty much never know until I am about to board a plane if I get that magical upgrade that provides larger, more comfortable seats and endless supplies of drink and snacks. So I hope and enjoy the anticipation. Today there was no such upgrade.

When I got on the 767, I pulled out the inflight magazine as it provides all critical information concerning what movie(s) I will get to enjoy on the flight. Maybe a movie I was hoping to see or maybe one I did not want to spend the money to rent but might just be decent (at least decent enough for a plane ride) or maybe an old favorite. Instead the magazine informed me that, unless I was on a transatlantic flight (somehow flying from Atlanta to LA does not qualify) or flying first class (see above described disappointment), I had to pay to watch a movie. Sure, the systems were ‘on demand’ so I could fast forward, rewind, etc., but it now costs $6 for this benefit. Disappointment.

Then there is the beverage service. Given the general trauma that the airlines are facing complements soaring gas prices, I should be thankful that there is any beverage service at all. Of course all of the alcohol costs, and now the food too. I pulled out the food brochure to see what there was to offer should I fancy spending some money on food that used to be free. All sorts of random things, but no Biscoff cookies, the signature Delta cookie. Trauma. I LOVE them. Then, I see the fine print at the bottom….Peanuts, crackers, and Biscoff cookies are FREE snacks. Needless to say I just finished my cookies. I wonder if Biscoff cookies would hold the same appeal on solid land. I honestly don’t know. But, should you happen to visit me, fly Delta on the way, and decide to save your cookies because you were stuffed from your airport meal, you might just be rewarded with a goofy, happy grin that would likely cover my entire face.


On my way from Tanzania to the US of A, I spent six days in Germany during which I explored three cities: Berlin, Leipzig, and Dresden. A friend lives in downtown Leipzig, so most of the time was spent in Leipzig where I could wander the city from his place. An absolutely brilliant location to live topped of by the bakery in the building being a source of delicious breakfasts. During my time in Germany I wandered old cities, learned some history, managed to stay warm, drank some good beer, and met some fun people. It was a perfect stop between Africa and America.

Berlin: A Holocaust monument 

Dresden: 4 photos in 1


Dresden: me & WDK 
Leipzig: Can you believe 5 minutes before this photo was taken it was almost a complete white out from falling snow?
Leipzig: One very traditional German meal.


I was born in Kenya while my parents where in the Peace Corps. While I only spent 7 months there out of the womb, I have always had a fascination, a connection of sorts, with the country and have wanted to return. 27 years after being one of two white babies in Nairobi Hospital, I returned. Five rip highlights:


1-Visiting the hospital where I was born. Though it has grown significantly, ‘my ward’ was still there, and mom and I snuck a quick photo while we walked down the hall.


2-A friend treated us to a wonderful day at a tea estate where we learned all about how tea is made, drunk our fair share of tea, ate some wonderful food, and enjoyed some magnificent gardens and tea fields.


3-We returned to Thika High School, the boys’ boarding school where my parents taught math. We visited our house, and walked all around the school.


4-One night was spent at Castle Forest Lodge, where Queen Elizabeth stayed at age 19. A beautiful location, Mount Kenya gave me a beautiful birthday present when she was fully visible in the morning.


5-We had birthday cake and coffee at the Norfolk Hotel. A waiter searched high and low for a way to keep a candle lit with the wind outside, and was, finally successful. So not only did I get a beautiful piece of cake, but a candle to blow out as well.

hand baggage

London has lifted its hand baggage restrictions for many of its airports, including Heathrow. This means that, when passing through Heathrow, you can carry the two pieces of luggage allowed at all other airports (if I there is another airport with this restriction, please correct me). It is a small thing, but will make upcoming travels a bit easier.