Blog: Highland Highlights
About a decade ago, when I was on the MCC BC Board, an elderly former MCC service worker approached me during an Annual General Meeting gathering. He said, with some indignation, that when he and his wife had been international MCC service workers in the 1960s, there were many more service workers stationed all over the world than there were now, and what was wrong with MCC was that we weren’t sending more workers into the field to “do the job.” This attitude was certainly in keeping with how most international NGOs (non-governmental organizations) used to work.
The beginning of MCC’s work in Kenya was in 1962, just when Kenya was about to gain its long-sought independence from British colonial rule. MCC implemented the Teachers Abroad Program (TAP), sending 120 Western university graduates to teach in Kenyan schools. Well-meaning though this was, it was not a partnership model; rather, it was Western teachers delivering a Western model of education to newly liberated Kenyans struggling to rediscover the African culture they had brutally lost over several centuries. The pain and hurt of colonial rule in Kenya still run very deep. Since those days, most worldwide NGOs have transitioned to a much more sensitive and progressive model of bringing relief and development to developing countries, as has MCC.
In my recent work as the MCC Kenya Education Coordinator, my task was to come alongside five national education partners and one national maternal health organization which have a carefully formulated vision for bringing relief and development to the poorest of the poor. We invite local partners who share the values and vision of MCC to allow us to work alongside them with donor funds, technical support, reporting assistance, and capacity building. The Coordinator doesn’t deliver programs, but assists our Kenyan colleagues to deliver their own relief, development and peacebuilding programs. For example, the Kenyan government abolished corporal punishment in the schools in 2010. Although this is now entrenched in the Kenyan constitution, we know that “paper to practice” takes a long time, often a generation, or 25 years. Offering strategies for positive classroom management was part of my work. Also, over the last three years, I’ve been focused on developing our partner teachers’ skill set for delivering a more child-centred, competency-based curriculum which the Ministry of Education has introduced. I also assisted our partners in developing and implementing Safeguarding Minors policies. The partners then go on to train their own communities.
These local partners have a deep love and care for their own people. They don’t need Westerners to “do the job” for them, but they do need and value our plentiful resources and assistance. It’s been my great honour and pleasure to come alongside our Kenyan partners in bringing more hopeful futures to many Kenyans over the last three years.
The two following photos illustrate MCC-assisted work in Kenya:
I facilitated a day long workshop on February 18, 2020, with Maternal Health Care Group Mothers, focused on Safeguarding Minors. This MCC project is located in Mukuru Kwa Ruben Slum, one of the oldest and biggest slums in Nairobi. These eighteen local volunteer leaders take their responsibilities very seriously. The men in the photo are project facilitators. We have two local men and one woman who train eighteen groups of pregnant and lactating women every week in better health care, nutrition, and pre- and post-natal care. They work together as a team. The women appreciate the respectful modelling that our two male facilitators demonstrate in their gender relationships, and sometimes ask their husbands and boyfriends to sit in and listen.
This is Sylvia Odula, an 18-year-old single mother and Maternal Health Care Group volunteer, practising the concepts she learned in the Safeguarding Minors Workshop on February 18, 2020, so that she can then teach her own Care Group of ten pregnant and lactating mothers. In the group photo above, she’s sitting with her baby on the far left.
About the author: Mary-Esther Gerbrandt-Wiebe, known as Meg, has deep roots in both the Canadian Prairies and the Pacific Northwest. Meg grew up in Southern Manitoba Mennonite communities. After a happy and rewarding public school teaching career in Winnipeg and Abbotsford, she accepted a three-year international assignment with MCC in Kenya, where she focused on supporting education projects and training partners in Child Protection Policies and Safeguarding Minors. Meg has two adult married children living on opposite sides of the continent
This article was originally published in Roots and Branches (Journal of the Mennonite Historical Society of BC), May 2020. You can see the issue of Roots and Branches and find out more information about the Mennonite Historical Society of BC at http://www.mhsbc.com/index.php
For more information on the work of MCC (Mennonite Central Committee) you can go to https://mcccanada.ca/
When Don and I got home from California in mid-March of 2020, we found ourselves drafted onto Team Canada. We had never signed up and as our new coaches introduced themselves, they read to us from their newly-scripted playbook. Dr. Theresa Tam and Dr. Bonny Henry were the head coaches who called the plays and needed only doctors, nurses, essential workers, and select others to fill necessary slots. The rest of us were to stay home and wait for a call. At first, we sat in shock, wearing red maple leaf t-shirts, and cheering on our fearless team. Between waves of confusion, grief, and loss, all we could do was light a candle in solidarity with others around the world.
Prayer soon became a natural way to name and support those carrying on the work and a way to connect with those outside our own walls other than by phone or virtual visits. Soon I had a growing list for prayer time, along with appropriate candles, inspirational readings, and music. This practice became a daily ritual while I waited for the BC or Canadian coaching team to let me play. However, the coaches wanted just one thing from me, to stay calm, safe, and kind. Like so many others, I began to experiment with planting vegetables and baking yeast dough. It was probably not the best way to prepare for the time when I hoped to be called to action, but it seemed appropriate during that time of chaos and filled the house with some life.
Age put me on the vulnerable list, and I realized it was time to take personal initiative to refocus my thoughts and questions. With new clarity regarding my place in society, I began to think creatively about what I might do, how I might be. If an invisible virus could cause a global pandemic, then perhaps invisible prayers could play a key role as well. While the one caused heartache, the other could ease that heartache and be a serum for hope. I began envisioning those supporting others as “Agents of Mercy”.
James Hollis, PhD, in his book Living an Examined Life, calls us to live a “life of enlargement not diminishment.” He is not encouraging grandiose behavior or striving for fame but rather calling us to query, “what is my soul asking of me?” We should be able to stand tall and shout back at the world: “You feel big and we can handle it, you are powerful, and we can face it.” Faith fills us with a capacity to act even when we need help ourselves. J, our pastoral elder, reminds us that even when we are scattered, we are a people. I am an elder on Highland’s team and although scattered and vulnerable like the rest of you, I know we are being summoned to a place we have never been before. In all that lies ahead, may we be agents of mercy.
--Musings by Lorraine Isaak
--Edited by Maryann Jantzen
I vacillated. To drive or not to drive, that is the question. I don’t like to drive to take a walk, but my regular walk in the nearby park can be crowded on a sunny afternoon. In the end, the river called my name and I joined Art, who was heading for the Vedder where life is better. He parked the car and we each took our own path for a while before meeting up for a walk. Taking J’s Sabbath questions seriously (What would feed my soul? What would fill me with delight?), Art went to sit at a bench to perfect a previous photo, while I wandered aimlessly through paths I had never frequented, enjoying the lush foliage and the ripe red salmon berries.
Taking a side path I came upon a little pond with several turtles of the Western Painted Turtle variety, the only remaining pond turtle in B.C. I stopped. The afternoon had turned bright and sunny and one turtle basked in a warm spot on a nearby log. I guess my arrival was an intrusion on his or her reverie, so she slipped off the log and swam to an adjacent one, hoping to procure a spot of sun and regain her privacy. Struggling valiantly, she made it to the top of the new log, but due to the lighter weight of this particular log along with her cumbersome shell, she spent quite some time rolling back and forth with the log, while still clinging on with her toes. With each roll, she would drag herself back up to the top and advance an inch before reeling back into the water. I could see she was determined to reach the end of the log from where she could access the stable log.
I was already feeling sorry that my arrival had been such a disruption for the turtle, but I was laughing too. When she was several minutes into her workout I took out my camera and videoed a further seventy-five seconds of her (very) slow but steady progress, hoping that I was joining God in laughter, not just delighting in the suffering of God’s creature. I hoped that God could both feel with the unlucky turtle’s plight and also see the humour in her pluck.
Her resolve was exemplary but eventually she slid into the water and went for a quick swim before heading straight for the prime log. To her dismay (maybe it was MY dismay), by the time she got there, another turtle had taken over her spot. Not one to be deterred, however, she mustered everything to defend her right to the warm spot at the top resort. She made several attempts to push the newcomer off the deck, but was met with hostility and a declaration of new tenant occupation rights, so she released her grip and slipped into the water to regroup. Making her next approach a little further along the prime log, she pulled herself to the top, but by this time her opponent had repositioned himself closer to her. Eyeing him, she seemed to perceive in him a ruthless determination to maintain possession of every inch of log. He was now firmly established on the top, while she, slightly lower down, hind feet lacking a solid grip, was at a disadvantage. Hopes dashed, she settled again for a swim in the slough.
At that juncture I took my leave and headed for the river, savouring the sound of the flowing water and the turtle scene. Pondering what I might take from these moments into the week ahead. I was reminded of Aesop’s fable, “The Tortoise and the Hare,” where the reader is advised, “slow and steady wins the race.“ This proverb brought up a slew of questions for me: “Am I in a race, and if I am in a race, which race am I in? Why am I racing? Does slow and steady really win the race? Is ‘slow and steady’ an appropriate maxim for my particular race? Right now I’m heading towards 70, but I’m not exactly racing to get there. I’m not hoping for a sluggish slide towards seventy, but “race” doesn’t adequately describe my journey. Race implies competition, contest, rivalry, but my desire is to be detached from all that.
Perhaps Aesop (620-564 BCE) borrowed his words from Solomon (an early document fits the dates), the presumed author of Ecclesiastes, who wrote, “I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favour to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.” Indeed, time and chance can expand but also limit our living, but how I live with time and chance affects the quality of my inner and outer life. In Covid or whatever season, I want my heart and mind to be held in the Peace that passes understanding (Philippians 4:6-8); I want my whole being to be rooted in the Love that surpasses knowledge (Ephesians 3:16-18). A slower, turtle pace certainly lends itself to those desires.
I like to imagine my intrepid turtle, in the late afternoon of her failed prospect of a languorous lie-down, yawning and musing, “Someday, when everything becomes new, we will each have a warm spot under the sun.”