Thursday, May 10, 2007

Happy Birthday, dear Harriet

Ever wish you had the money, ability and power to do something that would really make a difference in someone’s life? Ever think, “I hate that I can’t make it happen -- If only I knew someone who could help”? Me, too. Or, as they say in Kenya, “Even me.”

Today is my friend Harriet’s birthday. She and her family live in Kenya, just up the hill and across the road from Rift Valley Academy. In my first year of teaching at RVA, Harriet came to my house several times a week to wash dishes, bake bread, clean the house, take my clothes to and from the school laundry and build a fire in the fireplace. During the rainy season, she kept a fire going all the chilly day long, but the rest of the year she’d build the fire and leave it unlit. In the evenings I’d light the fire to ward off the cold while grading papers and working on lesson plans. Harriet could build a fire that would burn and burn, falling in on itself until, hours later, nothing was left but one or two little glowing embers. I’m not kidding, it was like a work of art.

Man, did I love having Harriet’s help! All the work she did freed me to focus my time and energy on teaching those loveable but rambunctious 6th graders I keep yapping on and on about. And the wages she earned helped provide for the needs of her family: Samuel, her husband who worked as a night guard at a clinic in another town, and their three growing boys -- John, Abraham and James. But in addition to all this, Harriet became a lifelong friend and an inspiring role model of what it means to trust in God and walk by faith.

Practically as soon as I met her, Harriet started praying for me a husband, a life partner, a man of God's choosing. Every day. For six years! Until I became engaged to Matt. Then her prayers changed for us to be blessed with children. In that first year of our friendship, she would often tell me, “God is never late.” Wryly, I would answer, “Yes, but I’ve noticed that He is never early, either.” (O spoiled me of little faith.)

Harriet suffered from degenerating hip joints, and walking became more and more painful, labored and slow. During the following year while I was back in the States in Bible college, she had to stop working altogether because she could no longer walk up and down the hill between RVA and home. Just below RVA is Kijabe Medical Center where doctors from America often volunteer their services for weeks and months at a time. Rumor had it that a specialist was coming who would do hip and knee replacement surgeries for those who needed it. Unfortunately, no one knew when he was coming, and hospital staff wouldn’t compile the list of patients until they had a set date for his arrival.

The next year I returned to Kenya and was living in Nairobi. When I could get to Kijabe, I’d dash up to Harriet’s place. She was always at home. Waiting. Physically, she was in so much pain that she couldn’t even walk to church, which was within sight of her front door. One of the things I witnessed about Kenyans in general, and the Kikuyu tribe in particular, is that they are very social people. A job provides money, but it also provides interaction with others, which is vital to a sense of well-being. So not only was Harriet missing out on the pleasure of being with people through work, she was missing out on the joy of fellowship at church. Of course, people came to visit her at home, and the elders of the church brought the elements of the Lord’s Supper to her once a month. But the daily isolation was rough on her.

After two years in Nairobi, I moved back to RVA. Harriet was still home. Waiting. The specialist came to KMC, but the hip and knee replacement parts were held up somewhere in customs. I’m sure he helped a lot of people who desperately needed treatment, as all patients who go through the trouble of getting to a hospital in Africa do, but then he went back to America. Harriet continued to wait.

All this time, do you know what she said to me, over and over, with conviction in her voice and sincerity in her eyes? “God is never late, so we do not grow tired of waiting for Him.” There I was, 30 years old, and I felt like a spiritual infant in her presence. I’d only ever had to trust God for a fraction of the things Harriet had, and as a result my faith was a fraction of the strength and depth of hers.

Over the next two years, I’d often go to Harriet’s house for a few hours on Sunday afternoons to visit and drink chai and pray together. We often prayed that God would somehow provide healing for her hips. Once I remember saying something like, “Well, that would take a miracle.” And Harriet chuckled, looked at me and said simply, “But that’s what God does. Miracles.”

Once I ran up there after school, unannounced. As I came up the path, what I saw was so shocking that I nearly stopped and ran away. I probably would have if Harriet hadn’t turned right then and seen me. She was sitting on the ground, talking to Samuel while he stood washing their clothes in a plastic tub and hanging them up to dry. I can’t tell you how bizarre, how beautiful it was to see this man humbly serving his wife in such a culturally inappropriate way. They were both a bit embarrassed that I’d “caught” them in that moment, so Samuel helped Harriet to her feet as quickly as was possible in her situation, and they ushered me inside.

Harriet, Samuel and their three boys lived in three rooms that they rented from the local church. One room was the boys’ bedroom, one served as the sitting room (meals were eaten here as well) and one was the kitchen. The kitchen had a jiko (charcoal-burning stove) and a small table for preparing food, and Harriet and Samuel shared a bed behind a curtain at the back. Their rooms adjoined six or eight others inhabited by as many families, all of whom shared a nearby long-drop latrine. A year or two before I first arrived in Kenya (1992), the floors had been cemented. Before that, they were dirt. Harriet had “papered” the walls of their sitting room with pages from old magazines she’d been given by other Americans she had worked for, but my roommate and some friends came one day and put up sheets of the cardboard that milk cartons were made out of. I don’t remember how they came upon that stuff, but it did a much better job of keeping out the wind, rain and insects than the magazine pages had. After that, instead of looking up at smiling ads for Maybelline, Cover Girl and Clairol, we were greeted by alternating blue and green rows of Maziwa Maziwa Maziwa.

Finally, in 1998, everything came together for Harriet’s surgery: the specialist, the hip replacement parts and the finances, graciously sent from numerous people who had known and loved Harriet over the years. She had one hip replaced and then, several weeks later, the other one. She was determined to do the therapeutic exercises and was gradually able to walk all the way to the road and back. Pain free!

In the months leading up to the surgery, two other things happened: 1) There was a severe drought in Kenya; and 2) I met and fell in love with Matt. One Sunday afternoon in March 1999, Harriet and I were sitting together drinking chai and marveling at the miraculous power and faithfulness of our great God. I had just told her that Matt had asked me to marry him. And she was still aglow with the joy of two new, strong hips. We sat there praising God for answered prayer and for all the ways our faith in Him had grown during the years of praying and waiting.

And. Right. Then. It started. Raining! For the first time in nearly a year! Harriet and I burst into a glorious combination of crying and laughing and shouting, all at once. In Africa, rain is a sign of God’s blessing. In the right amounts and at the right time, it literally means the difference between life and death. Kenya had seen death that year, and as we listened to the music of the rain falling on the tin roof, Harriet and I felt full to overflowing with gratitude for God’s goodness and grace in bringing Matt to me, in healing her hips and in finally, finally sending the much-needed, long-awaited, desperately prayed-for rain. (Yes, I realize I was just complaining about rain in the last post. Forgive me.)

Of all the sweet memories I treasure of times spent with Harriet and her family, this one will always be my favorite.

I no longer live down the hill and across the road, but we still keep in touch through hand-written letters. Her sons are grown up now, trying to find work to help provide for the family (in spite of completing high school and college/technical training, jobs are scarce). Samuel is working for some folks at RVA now. Harriet is not working, but she writes: The amazing news is that I am walking comfortably, and I just wish you were here to see the amazing grace of the almighty God. My healing brought joy to the family and it strengthened my faith that, despite the hardships and traumas that we do face or come across, God is still our refuge and our help… I have now tasted the fruit of trusting and depending upon the Lord.

Recently the church gave away plots of land to some of its members, and Harriet and Samuel were among them! After renting rooms for over 20 years, they dream of living in their own home. In my last letter, I asked if there had been any progress. Harriet’s response broke my heart: Not only do they not have the financies to build a house (she wouldn’t have told me this if I hadn’t asked), the church has stipulated that any house built on these plots must be a modernized house. I’m assuming this means being equipped with electricity and plumbing. Samuel and the boys don’t know how to build a house like that, so even if they did have the money they’d still need outside help with the plans, materials, labor, furnishings, etc.

I wish I was there now, but I’m not. I wish I had experience and knowledge about building houses, but I don’t. I wish I could somehow make this dream come true for Harriet and her family, but I can’t. All I can do is pray. And trust that God, in His perfect timing and faithfulness, will provide. Maybe He’ll even direct someone (or several someones) out there to read this post, decide to get involved and somehow find a way to make it happen.

Of course, that would take a miracle.

* * * * * * *
I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember Your miracles of long ago. I will meditate on all Your works and consider all Your mighty deeds. Your ways, O God, are holy. What god is so great as our God? You are the God who performs miracles; You display your power among the peoples. (Psalm 77:11-14 NIV)

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” (Mark 10:27 NIV)

“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me.’” (Matthew 25:40 NIV)

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