Reflections on Kenya & Uganda: Getting Our Feet Dirty

August 22, 2013

Over the years, one of our objectives for a vacation has been to “get our feet dirty.” This is our code phrase meaning, “Get out into the country, behind and beyond the tourist magnets, into the everyday world of our destination.” Like bird-watching, traveling through “the back door” (Rick Steves’ helpful image) enables us to sharpen our focus on a way of life different from our own. We have gained insight into the social, political, and economic realities of the places we visit by having heart to heart conversations with the locals in their natural habitat.

On this trip, the mechanism for entering Kenya and Uganda through the back door was visiting three ministry projects we have supported over the years. What they have in common is our personal relationships with either their founder or some of their missionaries. The first visit took us to hilly and lush rural areas west of Nairobi, near a town called Bomet, where we met Dr. Steve and the Rev. Alene Burgert.

My husband and I met at Stanford University in 1971 and were part of a close-knit fellowship of Christians. Among them were Andy’s freshman- and senior-year roommate Steve Burgert and my senior-year roommate Alene Kudela. They married each other one week before our own wedding in 1975, immediately following our graduation. Steve went to medical school at Mayo, Rochester, NY, and practiced for thirty years in Internal Medicine and Gastroenterology in Spokane, WA, and Loveland, CO. In the early 2000’s, Alene felt a call to get involved in prison ministryAlene & Steve Burgert in Colorado, and embarked upon theological and professional training to do so. Little did she know that this preparation was not for Colorado in the long run, but for a ministry idea in its infancy in Kenya. Meanwhile, a short-term medical mission trip to Tenwek Hospital outside of Bomet, Kenya, opened up possibilities and a call as permanent full-time missionaries.

Steve works at Tenwek Hospital as a gastroenterologist and trains residents in endoscopy. In an area where government sponsored hospitals are poorly staffed and equipped, Tenwek stands out as provider of quality care and spiritual encouragement. Its motto:  “We treat. Jesus heals.” The medical facility on a compact but multi-ward site is administered as a subsidiary of the African Gospel Church (AGC, a Kenyan denomination) and is a magnet facility for referrals and primary care. Particularly interesting to Steve and other global GI specialists is that this region of Kenya has a statistically higher per capita incidence of esophageal cancer. There are maybe five other regions around the world with a similar profile, the cause(s) of which remain mysterious. So aside from the day-to-day medical practice and ministry, Steve is participating in a global research effort to discover the root cause of these esophageal cancer concentrations. Meanwhile, the Tenwek staff diagnoses and treat the cancer as best they can and even install esophageal stents, for instance, to ease its effects in advanced cases. No such thing as an esophageal replacement in this part of the world, but they are making advances in early detection, good solid treatment, and palliative care, all offered in the name of Jesus.

Joseph, Alene & SteveAlene’s special interest in correctional ministry has opened doors through AGC to equip Kenyans for a sustainable and biblically grounded program directed at the imprisoned, the newly released, and their families. She teaches courses at the Tenwek pastor’s college for chaplains-in-training, and one recent graduate (pictured) is a former inmate grateful for Jesus’ transforming power in his life. The work is slow on two fronts: finding funding for the chaplains’ program remains a huge hurdle. Another challenge, from a spiritual standpoint, is urging villagers to overcome their traditional shunning of anyone who has ever been in prison, even if they have only been accused and not brought to trial. This is a real problem in Kenya, as it is possible to be charged with a crime and then wait months or years in jail for one’s case to be heard. Though legally the accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty, from a villager’s point-of-view the opposite is actually the practice. And if it is assumed you are guilty, you are never welcome back into your village again. This deep-seated bias stands in the way of both forgiveness (a spiritual issue) and re-entry (a social issue), so Alene is working carefully with chaplains and pastors to discover, understand, and apply what the Scriptures say about Christ’s corrective and restorative power.

I haven’t really gotten to the “dirty feet” part of the story yet, but I wanted to give you this background so that you can appreciate the context of my next vignette.

Tomorrow: our day with Pastor W and his family



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