A Singapore family who spent three weeks with a Catholic mission in a poor, remote Kenyan region shares the highs and lows of the eye-opening trip with Tee Hun Ching
After Adrian Tee visited a Catholic mission in Kenya with his wife Jennifer in 2010, they promised to return with their three daughters. But life got in the way. The couple were busy running their media production company, while school and other activities soaked up their girls’ time.
Due to financial constraints, the family decided early this year that the trip had to be postponed yet again. The three girls – Leah, 17, Christiane, 15, and Trina, 13 – were disappointed but understanding. Then God intervened.
Jennifer recalls how Christiane announced one day that she would skip a school trip to Japan scheduled for June, as she was convinced the family would be travelling to Kenya then.
Stunned by her faith, her parents began praying in earnest, trusting in the Lord to fulfil their wish. A few days later, they received an e-mail promotion that would enable them to fly to Kenya using the air miles chalked up on their credit cards. Soon after, they won a few thousand dollars in the 4-D lottery.
We took these as a clear sign from God that He was making this trip possible for us, says Jennifer, 44.
Pushed to the limit
In early June, the family headed to Turkana, Kenya’s second largest county and also one of its hottest and poorest regions. About 100 times the size of Singapore, Turkana grapples with perennial drought, which leaves its population of nearly 1 million on the constant brink of starvation.
This is where Missionary Community of St Paul the Apostle (MCSPA), the group Adrian and Jennifer stayed with in 2010, is based. MCSPA is made up of priests and lay volunteers who devote their lives to helping marginalised communities in remote places. They preach the love of God through their actions: digging dams, building schools, providing health-care and training the locals in desert agriculture.
MCSPA’s headquarters is in a village called Nariokotome, about four hours by car from the airport in Lodwar, Turkana’s capital. The Nariokotome base is the mother house of MCSPA’s 10 missions in Africa, of which four are in Turkana. It is not just self-sufficient in water and power supplies, but also grows its own crops, cattle and chickens. Over the years, the community has also built a wing for visitors from around the world, who have responded to its invitation to “come and experience”. The guest rooms, though basic, come with more than adequate amenities, including attached bathrooms.
While pleasantly surprised that they did not have to stay in straw huts or use squat toilets, the three teenagers found themselves pushed to their limits at the start of their three-week stay.
The blistering heat in the parched scrubland proved almost unbearable. “I remember the first two nights being the toughest to get through as it was so hot and stuffy,” Leah recounts. “I actually broke down on the second night because I missed home so much.”
Meanwhile, her sisters battled fears of the myriad insects and creepy crawlies that plagued them day and night. Christiane recalls being “on the verge of screaming most of the time” as they constantly dodged and swatted away flies, moths, wasps, mosquitoes and spiders.
After a week, however, they found ways to cope.
“I just pretended that the moths were butterflies,” says Trina. “I also decided not to pay attention to the insects but to other more important things.” The family soon settled into a routine. They usually started the day with a dip in a nearby dam or Lake Turkana, and went to bed at night after watching a movie under the stars with the MCSPA folks. The outdoor movie screening is the only form of entertainment at the Nariokotome mission, where WiFi coverage tends to be spotty and limited.
Doing their part
In between, the Tees would visit the schools, dispensaries, nutritional units and garden plots set up by MCSPA and observe the missionaries at work. During the hottest part of the day, they usually retreated to their guest house to rest or do their homework. Along the way, each also contributed in his or her own way.
Jennifer often helped out in the kitchen, whipping up dishes using the condiments she had bought in Singapore. The girls took on assorted chores and tasks with good cheer, from scrubbing the floors and weeding the gardens to distributing medicines and doing data entry work for MCSPA’s healthcare programme. They also entertained the locals and missionaries with musical performances. Christiane would play the violin while Leah accompanied her on an electronic keyboard, which they lugged from Singapore and donated to MCSPA before they left. Adrian was the trusty IT guy who helped to patch and expand Nariokotome’s wireless network. This was, in fact, his third trip to the mission base. He had visited MCSPA’s various missions in Kenya, Ethiopia, Malawi and South Sudan in 2014 with three colleagues. Over a month, the team shot a mini-documentary of each mission to promote the work of MCSPA.
Despite the work and time he put in, the 47-year-old says, “I would never dare consider our brief experience as mission work. At best, we were there to have an experience of mission life. We were the ones who were evangelised because we overcame our own misconceptions and prejudices, seeing how the people who have so little can remain so joyful and welcoming.”
The missionaries, too, ministered to them by listening to their stories and sharing stories about their work. “On one occasion, they invited me to give a 30-minute sharing about the Sacrament of the Eucharist which was attended by priests and members of their community,” Adrian adds. “I felt totally inadequate but deeply moved by their humility. It was occasions like these that the experience of faith became real to us.”
Everyone can do God’s work
The family has long been involved in various Catholic groups and ministries here. Adrian and Jennifer serve as a couple in the Worldwide Marriage Encounter Singapore movement, while the girls are members of the choir and youth symphony at Church of the Risen Christ.
But the trip in June was extra special. With virtually no Internet connection, the family spent more time chatting about their experiences and praying together each day.
“We became much closer. The heat, discomfort and basic amenities also compelled us to step up to help one another, and we took turns to do the laundry, dishes and cleaning,” says Adrian. “Encountering God and the work of His Church as a family was a unique experience for us.”
The girls, too, look back on their time in Turkana with much fondness. While they wanted to cut short the trip initially, they began to dread leaving as their departure date drew near.
Asked to name one lesson they drew from the trip, all three give variations of the same answer: learning to count their blessings.
It is this transformation that their parents are most proud of. Jennifer, who had hoped that her “city girls” would see beyond the harsh living conditions, is pleased that they bore the physical discomfort without complaint and strove to make themselves useful. “I am very proud that they overcame many of their fears and made the best out of the trip. The best thing is, they expressed the desire to do more if they could turn back time.”
The missionaries’ compassion and selflessness have inspired the girls to be of service to others. While few can leave everything behind to become missionaries, they believe everyone can do God’s work through simple good deeds, such as helping a friend with her schoolwork or providing a listening ear. Citing one of Mother Teresa’s mottos, “Do small things with great love”, Christiane says, “By doing these small acts of kindness, we, too, can do our part to help others in need.”
Want to play your part and spread God’s love? Visit www.caritas-singapore.org/volunteer-sign-up to see where God is calling you to serve!