To Africa with Love

Column by Peggy Dover from the Rogue Valley Times

Lynn Leissler was the subject of a former column a few years back. She’s the wonder woman and close friend who has gladly accepted the challenges with the joys of raising her teenage granddaughter, Renee. Yes, Lynn possesses an impressive list of grandmotherly requisites; she knits, she sews, she quilts, she bakes—and all skillfully. She also reads voraciously.

Let’s just say at nearly 78 years old, Lynn might be considered beyond the stage of dealing with teen angst, prom dress shopping, and boyfriend troubles. The affection return Renee gives is well worth the investment.

Because she neither looks nor acts her age (however that’s supposed to look these days) this grandmother recently surpassed expectation by taking Renee on a mission trip to Kenya, Africa. I’m a witness as to just how many and prolonged were the challenges in preparation to leaving—everything seemed to work against them. Obtaining visas online was an exercise in humility; forget about patience. Taking the required shots and typhoid medicine made them ill, especially Renee. Despite navigating the potholes to get there and the ridiculous flight schedule with long layovers, they’re eager to return. I spoke with them about their incredible experience.

The program coordinating the effort is called Hope’s Promise. Various churches work with Hope’s Promise on behalf of bringing hope to children in the Kuza Project of Kenya—Kuza means light. They’re a faith-based organization who send teams of individuals to some of the most impoverished areas to work with neglected children and help them understand they matter. I asked Renee what she loved most about her experience.

“Meeting the kids,” was her quick reply. One thirteen-year-old boy in particular touched her soul. “He doesn’t have a lot. I asked him what his favorite thing to ever do was, and he said ‘praise the Lord.’ I said ‘what’s your second favorite thing to do?’ He answered, ‘help people who need things that I have.’”

Lynn explained the purpose. “It was a school break program, so, like a vacation Bible school type deal. The church there is facilitating a program that helps kids stay with their bio families, if possible. And if not, to be with non-relative caregivers to help them attend school—to care for them physically, emotionally, and spiritually and help these kids develop a sense of worth on their own, because they’ve had a lot of trauma in their lives.

They are westernized there and also proudly aware of being Kenyan. The children of Mathare watch movies that they believe represent the typical American family. It was quite an eye-opener for them to learn that our country shares the same issues, with dysfunctional homes, and less than ideal living conditions not uncommon. “We were careful to not go there as “White saviors,” Lynn said, ‘just to go there and walk alongside what they are doing.”

The small group visited the Mathare Valley Slum of Nairobi, where half a million people dwell within six square miles. They weren’t there to gawk and shake their heads. Renee explained. “We hung out with the kids. We sang, danced, and did art classes. There were singing and ukulele classes. Then we walked through the slum. We went into a couple peoples’ houses, which were small.”

 “It’s a slum and it’s harsh, but there’s resiliency, determination, and joy,” Lynn said.

Those who escape the slum, though glad to be out, miss the community they shared. They no longer know and relate to their neighbors, but stay to themselves behind gated communities. Eight-foot cornflower blue iron gates surround neighborhoods.

The life-changing trip had a powerful impact on both of them and altered their perspectives. Renee’s least favorite part was saying goodbye. “I was a whole wreck.” She’s considering missions as a worthwhile investment for her future and that of the kids.

It was autumn there. The weather was cool and pleasant for the Oregonians, while Kenyans wore puff coats. Lynn added, “Kenyans are warm, friendly, welcoming people, and they smile a lot.”

Nana (sho-sho in Kenyan) and granddaughter made friendships and memories that will stand the test of time.

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