A mission to Africa
EAST AFRICA Territorial headquarters in Nairobi
STORY AND PHOTOS BY TIM SCHAAL –
On November 1999, I had the privilege of attending an International Technology Exchange conference. At this conference, held in the U.S. Western Territory, Salvation Army computer staff from throughout the world met to discuss issues relating to use of technology by The Salvation Army.
Even though I have been a Salvation Army employee since 1978, this was really my first true exposure to the international aspects of the organization. I quickly learned about FITs (Financially Independent Territories) and GATs (Grant Assisted Territories) and the vast differences between the two.
The United States Western Territory is a FIT, which means we do not rely on funding from other territories to provide our services. Most Salvation Army territories in developing countries fall under the GAT designation, meaning they need and require assistance from the FITs so that they can provide their services.
Even though many people work under the flag of The Salvation Army, the chasm between a FIT and a GAT is as wide as the Atlantic Ocean. They are one in name and one in service to the Lord, but are truly as different as night is to day in resources available, comforts afforded, and services provided.
This conference and these differences moved me to the point that I felt that if there was ever a chance for me to use my skills to assist a GAT, I should heed the call.
Opportunity to serve
So, one day in February an e-mail arrived from Clarence White, my supervisor and the territorial IT Secretary. The territorial commander, Commissioner David Edwards, had requested a person to travel to Kenya to provide IT assistance to the East Africa Territory for a month. Clarence was asking if anyone was interested, and knowing this was my chance to make good on the promise I made to myself back in 1999, I volunteered.
Through the help of Captain Mariam Rudd I obtained the proper documentation for travel to Kenya. I had to get seven vaccinations to protect me from various diseases native to the African region to which I would be traveling. Once all the arrangements were made I was on my way, commencing my travel on Mother’s Day on a flight bound for London out of Los Angeles.
“You can’t get there from here” goes the old saying, and that is pretty much the case of going from Los Angeles to Kenya. You have to first take an 11-hour flight to either London or Amsterdam, followed by a 9-hour flight to Nairobi. Rather than do all that travel in one day, I took the chance to stay in London for a day and visit IHQ.
At IHQ I met with Mark Calleran, the IT Manager for International Headquarters, to discuss the IT needs of the East African Territory from IHQ’s point of view. General John Gowans was also kind enough to take time out of his busy day to meet with me for a few moments, and he offered a prayer on my behalf for the work I was about to undertake.
The East Africa Territory is the largest territory in the world in terms of soldiership. Nearly 20% of all the soldiers in the world belong to this territory. It is comprised of the countries of Kenya and Uganda, with their THQ being located in Kenya’s capital city of Nairobi. It is located in Central Africa on the east coast, bordering the Indian Ocean, and the Equator runs right through the middle.
Commissioner Verna Skinner, an outstanding Australian officer with many years of missionary duty in her resume, serves as the territorial commander. A gracious lady with a deep love for the Kenyan people, she provides leadership in the most difficult of situations, having to deal with minimal resources and yet still providing so many essential services.
I would like to say that my so-called “missionary work” involved something along the lines of providing humane relief to those less fortunate. You know, the typical stuff like building houses for the poor, working in famine relief, providing medical assistance in relation to the AIDS epidemic, or teaching the natives how to farm. But the truth is, I’m a computer guy by trade, and my job was to do nothing more than help them at their territorial headquarters with their Information Technology needs. However, I brought with me skills that they do not have, badly need, and cannot afford. So the money and time spent on this endeavor was well worth the resources expended.
THE FAMOUS TUSKS in downtown Mombasa, Kenya.
My work basically involved going to THQ each day, where I busied myself
installing computers and printers for people, trying to keep e-mail flowing back and forth to IHQ, training end users on the use of the computer, automating manual methods, etc. I was successful in my tasks, and feel the East Africa Territory is better off now than they were before I arrived.
The lack of available resources and the condition and age of the equipment made my job a bit more daunting than it is back home. There were days when I would have given anything for a decent set of tools, a few screws, and a reliable phone line.
The communications infrastructure of the country of Kenya is in terrible disrepair. THQ can only access the Internet and send vital e-mail to IHQ on a slow and unreliable dial up connection. They pay 10 times as much as I pay for this service to receive a connection that is but 1/10th the speed that I receive for Internet access from my home in the United States. Phones calls to IHQ are far too expensive (about $2 a minute) for their limited resources, so e-mail is really their only means of communication.
Since I was pretty much just another THQ employee working a 9 to 5 (actually, 6:45 AM to 5:30 PM) Monday through Friday job, I had my weekends free. This gave me a chance to see the frontline work of the Army in East Africa.
One Sunday I attended church at the biggest corps in the Salvation Army world, Nairobi Central. This corps has a soldiership of 3,000, and the day I attended there were over 2,000 people in attendance. The meeting was in Swahili, a language I do not understand, but Lt. Colonel Daniel Musasia provided translation for me.
The joyous singing and dancing and praising of the Lord left no doubt in my mind about the love of Christ that dwells in these Kenyans’ hearts. No translation was really needed, as the universal language of God’s love was evident in every man, woman and child in attendance. Upon completion of the sermon, the mercy seat was packed with over 120 individuals, all humbly kneeling before the Lord.
To see these people so happy when they have so little compared to our plush Western lifestyle was truly moving. The things we complain about in our daily lives all seem so trivial in the face of that which they deal with on a day-to-day basis. Even though they had 2,000 in attendance, the Sunday offering usually only yields about $75.
A trip to Mombasa
Nothing quite prepared me for my trip to Mombasa on the last weekend of my visit. Mombasa is a town on the coast of Kenya and serves as the primary port of the country.
Nairobi does a pretty good job in hiding its poverty. It is also the primary city of Kenya, so the wealth that does exist in the country is concentrated in Nairobi. Thus it is easy to overlook the signs of poverty in the face of this wealth.
Mombasa has no such buffer, and there the poverty hits you right in the face. People live in shacks made of sticks from the local vegetation and a piecemeal collection of corrugated tin. Goats and chickens wander aimlessly untethered in what passes for a front yard, sharing space with barely clothed children.
Kiosks line the roads selling odd assortments of clothes, food, and household items. Giant potholes dot the paved thoroughfares. The side roads are not paved and have deep ruts that have turned into mud puddles from the morning rain.
Refuse is everywhere, piled and rotting in the humid sun. The stench is horrendous and turns your stomach sour when you catch a whiff of the acrid aroma. And still the people go on living, day-to-day, almost oblivious to their situation.
MAJOR SARAH WANYAMA and Emanuel, from the Mombasa Children’s Home.
In Mombasa, Major Sarah Wanyama picked me up at my hotel to give me a tour of the city. She runs the Mombasa Children’s Home, which is, for lack of a better term, an orphanage.
The Army vehicle she drives is a small truck with a small camper shell on back. There are two wooden benches in the back. There are no seat belts. She has brought two girls from the orphanage with her, Lillian and Nancy, who are juniors in high school. They are not in school though, because the Children’s Home doesn’t have any money to pay for their tuition this month.
Major Wanyama takes me to a couple of the tourist spots. She is in uniform. Everywhere we go the locals show her great respect because of the uniform. It is nothing like I have ever seen in the United States. The uniform of The Salvation Army seems to be recognized and revered by all, a true testimony to the work of the Army in this part of the world.
Then she takes me to the Children’s Home. As we enter the complex the children rush out to greet her, “Major, Major, Major!” they shout, overjoyed to see her. A little one clings to her legs and begs to be picked up by her. For these children, she is the closest thing to a mother they will ever have.
She gives me a tour. They are doing some remodeling, thanks to some project money being provided by another territory. Not much in the way of what we would call a remodel, just installing a little closet area with a door for each of the children in each room.
The children’s rooms are barely bigger than my office back home, no more than a 12 x 12 area. There are two sets of bunk beds, since four children live in each room. Yet, the children I meet are happy. They are fed, they are clothed, and they are loved. A far cry from the spoiled gun-toting youngsters of the United States we hear about in the news far too often, who have so much more than these children could even imagine.
One room only has space for three children, with one bunk bed and a single bed. Major tells me this is because the single bed is for a teenage girl named Bahati which in Swahili means luck.
Bahati has a heart problem and so she gets tired and needs extra rest. About four years ago Bahati had surgery and had a plastic valve installed to help her with her heart. But the plastic valve has stopped working and needs to be replaced. Unfortunately, there is no money for the surgery, and if the money can’t be raised there will be no surgery and Bahati will die.
I ask Major about the little boy she is holding, an adorable 2-year-old, the one who begged to be picked up. His name is Emanuel. One day the police came knocking on the front door of the orphanage. They had a little baby boy in their arms, about five months old, crying his lungs out.
They said he had been abandoned–just left on the front steps of the police station. They asked Major if she could take him. She said no, he was too young, and they can’t handle children that young. They asked again, and the child cried as he stared at Major. Finally she took him in her arms and he immediately stopped crying. She was hooked. She couldn’t turn him away, not now. Forget the rules, she would do what needed to be accomplished.
She had an AIDS test done. If he was positive, as most abandoned babies tend to be, she would have to send him away to a home that is set up to deal with HIV positive children. Miraculously the tests came back negative. He could stay.
He needed a name. She dubbed him Emanuel. He needed a birth date, she picked the day five months prior to his arrival. On his national ID card, it lists his mother as “The Salvation Army,” and his father, “The Salvation Army.”
The Mombasa Children’s home is where he will most likely live until he reaches 18. He won’t have much. But he will have a roof over his head, some clothes on his back, a warm bed to sleep in and three meals a day. And he will be loved. By the grace of God, he has a home.
I have now returned to the comforts of America, but the lessons I have learned will stay with me forever: To appreciate what I have more. To complain less. To be even more fiscally responsible with the money of The Salvation Army, and to convince others to do likewise as well. To urge others to do as I have done, and go help out a Salvation Army location somewhere that could really use the help.
But most importantly, I will remember what I learned on a rainy Friday afternoon at the Children’s Home in the coastal town of Mombasa, Kenya. To know that there is no greater love than when we love others as God loves us.