As I boarded a plane to fly to Nairobi, I knew my home conference, Franklin, was close to voting whether to stay with or leave Mennonite Church USA. Most anticipated the conference would leave and join Lancaster and North Central conferences. Yet the Sister Care seminar I and Carolyn Holderread Heggen, a psychotherapist specializing in trauma healing, were prepared to teach in Kenya and Tanzania had been birthed in Franklin Conference.
While the church at home was in danger of fracturing, these two three-day seminars in early April for 90 women in Kisumu, Kenya, and Dodoma, Tanzania, embodied the Sister Care teaching “We Need to Work Together.” Many organizations and individuals made these seminars possible. Eastern Mennonite Missions worker Debbi DiGennero helped host; EMM and Mennonite Central Committee East Africa funded hotel costs for participants in Kenya. Esther Muhagachi translated the manual into Swahili and hosted in Tanzania, and Eliver Omondi in Kenya. Mennonite Mission Network sent four women from Congo and Burkina Faso with MMN worker Nancy Frey, who coordinated the French translation of the manual, then translated throughout the seminar. United Service Foundation provided the initial grant for Mennonite Women USA’s expenses; Mennonite Church USA’s Care and Prevention Fund and individual donors assisted. The Schowalter Foundation funded hotel costs for participants in Tanzania and Swahili translation.
Teaching Sister Care concepts in East Africa, as in many international settings, brought unique challenges. In each cross-cultural seminar, Heggen and I ask women to work together to identify the problems women face in their community. As in many international settings, the list they compiled included poverty, domestic violence and sexual abuse, the disgrace and rejection of infertility or not having a son, lack of education and related lack of power and options, and the heavy burden of working long and hard. However, this was the first time women named female genital mutilation and the fear of witch doctor spells as problems they face.
Another exercise talks about the importance of setting limits and having clear boundaries as an important component of self-care. At first, the women were confused by the idea. Then it became clear that these women work so hard and have so many responsibilities that the concept of saying “No” or, “I’m sorry, but I won’t be able to help at this time” was unimaginable to them. After conferring with several of the mission workers, Keener revised the question and asked, “How can women in your community find rest?” It was sobering to realize that none of their suggestions for how they might find rest included directly asking for a break from their heavy workloads and responsibilities or saying they are unable to do any more. Their ideas included the following: “If someone asks me to do something I could say that I am sick.” Or, “If I see a family member or a neighbor coming to ask me for something, I could hide in my garden.”
In spite of the heat and the need to use four different languages in Kenya (English, Luo, Swahili and French) to communicate, the women in both countries responded enthusiastically and positively to the teaching and the materials. Pamela Obonde, a vegetable gardener, particularly connected with Heggen’s teaching about God “the Divine Composter,” who takes the scraps and pain of our lives and makes rich fertile soil. Obonde shared how the wounds of her life have been used by God to help others.
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