Just before 2 a.m. Saturday morning this past Thanksgiving weekend, our slumbering children’s home suddenly sprang to life. Lights flickered on, squeals of delight filled the air, and 112 small feet rumbled about on the cool laminate flooring of all four children’s dorms. A great and eager departure was underway. Clothes were thrown on, faces washed, toilets flushed repeatedly, and soon the central courtyard began to fill with chattering kids and staff. From a birds-eye view, the scene must have resembled the instantaneous appearance of hundreds of purposeful fire ants defending a disturbed mound, but with their exit marked by joyful expectation rather than menace.
Within minutes, 3 Toyota Coaster school buses roared to life, warming diesel engines in preparation for the trip. Packing had been a team effort, already completed by the older kids and a few key leaders over the prior days. As children settled in beside their seatmates, prayers of thanksgiving and for safety in travel filtered back from the front of the buses.
By 2 a.m., the Naomi’s Village convoy turned left onto the 2-lane Trans African Highway, beginning what would become a 15-hour journey to the Indian Ocean for our annual family beach trip. 56 children ages 5-16 and 17 Kenyan staff joined 15 American field workers as we descended on Baobab Resort in Diani Beach, just south of Mombasa.
Despite the preparation of all meals in advance to be eaten on the bus, the drive this year took longer than most. Passage through 2 major cities (Nairobi, Mombasa), numerous bathroom breaks, a traffic jam at the coast ferry, and a minor accident all played a part. Yet the children never complained, even though they arrived at the resort too late to enjoy any swimming on the first day.
JoJo, orphaned at age 3 months in September 2011, saw me at dinner the first evening. He ran up and hugged my legs, chortling, “Uncle Bob, I am here in Mombasa!” He repeated that same exclamation to numerous adults in the first 24 hours, apparently unable to grasp the notion that it was finally his time to come.
At times men and women return to the sea of the vacations of their youth, to find their bearings, to rest, and to gain perspective. Others are unable to say why they are drawn there, except to enjoy its incomparable size and beauty. Dominic, Lloyd, Archibella, Christine, Anastasia, Naomi, Hannah, Mercy, and Chris all saw and heard the vastness and power of the ocean for the first time. None had ever seen an ocean, nor truly imagined what it could be like, having grown up in rural Kenya. Looking out over the endless body of swaying waters, a mix of bold blues trimmed by white foamy surf on its leading edge, their faces lit up with wonder.
If I had to distill the essence of the next 4 days down into one word, it would be wholesome. The children ate buffet food in a beautiful restaurant 3 times daily, swam until their muscles were tired and eyes bloodshot, and slept in air-conditioned rooms with big comfy beds. Every child felt anew what family means, through the giving and receiving of hundreds of congratulatory hugs and high fives during swim lessons, the individual conversations with aunts and uncles over a meal, or the playful games and pranks going on throughout every day. Devotional times focused on the seven days of God’s creation, a subject easier to emphasize every morning while in direct view of the gorgeous sea, with vervet monkeys curiously watching nearby, and after the sound of bush babies screeching from the trees in the dark of night.
Perhaps my favorite memories of this coast trip, the ones I hope will never fade, are these:
- Christine’s ebullient grin, as I watched her enjoy every milestone in learning to swim, give out happy morning greetings, and walk across the restaurant with full plates of colorful food
- A spontaneous poolside dance-off put on by the Itty-Bitties (Chris, Naomi, Nancy, Mary G, Hannah, Mercy, Evans, Francis, and JoJo) – video below (The full version can be seen at https://vimeo.com/245341686)
- Seeing so many of our first-time kids learn to swim, and especially the confidence boost this brought to each of them
Sadly, they all departed early this morning, the buses rolling out for Maai Mahiu before dawn. Julie and I decided to stay here for 3 more nights to rest, feeling exhausted from our recent travels in the US. I love all of them so much, and miss the high-pitched sound and bustle of dozens of excited children now.
The bittersweet hollowness of our recently empty nest hung in my mind for a bit, that ache for things I cannot hold onto, the childhoods of my own Emily and Will.
I looked out over the ocean again today and wondered again at how big His love for me, for us is. I thought of endless waves, grains of sand, the fading voices of 56 children now traveling down the highway.
He cannot be contained or fully understood. The ocean reminds me of Him and what He has done, is doing, and will do again. I may try to look beyond the edge of all that water, or imagine its depths beneath my own small hands. But that is folly.
The best I can do is to breathe in and out, letting my tempo assume its even and unhurried pace, and try to remember these things until I stand here again.
By Bob Mendonsa