Water and gravity

The night before I arrived at RVA, it poured. Five and a half inches (almost 14 cm) in the span of a few hours. Because the campus is sitting on the side of one big hill, and this rainy season has been exceptionally rainy, the circumstances were ripe for the series of landslides that followed. One landslide happened a few miles away, and crushed at least one home, killing three girls from the same family. One landslide blocked the main road leading to Kijabe. And one landslide hit the very edge of the RVA campus, knocking down a corner of the perimeter fence and turning what was once a steep tarmac road into a river of mud and debris. I walked over to see this last landslide and was awe-struck by its power to make a place completely unrecognizable.







Directly above RVA is the main railroad track connecting Kenya and Uganda. It was completely blocked by the landslide, but also probably helped to curb what could have been worse damage below.

Note the railroad tracks in the foreground.

If you look carefully on the hill in the background, you can see the brown trail where the avalanche of mud tore through the forest before it reached the tracks.

You can be sure the family in this house was extremely grateful that the mud changed its course instead of destroying their home!

A few curious RVA students came to check out the aftermath.

What a powerful reminder of our frailty in the face of the unrelenting force of nature. The speaker at RVA’s service that Sunday referenced one of my favorite psalms from the Old Testament as he grappled with the recent events:

God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.

Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
he lifts his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Psalm 46:1-3, 6-7

RVA, old and new

When it began, RVA consisted of one building, Kiambogo.

In fact, in 1909, Teddy Roosevelt laid its cornerstone while he was in Kenya during a hunting trip.


This building is still in use, for all the administrative offices, and apart from a few additions, really hasn’t changed much!

My first dorm at RVA was Stevenson, where I spent my fifth and sixth grade years. It has been renovated fairly extensively since I lived there.

All of the other original elementary school dorms have been torn down and rebuilt. Davis was my older brother’s first dorm. It is a completely new (and much larger) building now.

In eighth grade I lived in a completely new dorm that was built where the old infirmary building used to be.
It took on the name Ndege (meaning ‘bird’ in kiswahili). Ndege was the name of the old eighth grade girls’ dorm, which, interestingly, was the original infirmary before it was converted into a dorm! That old building is still standing, and is now used as the art building. Recycling takes on a whole new meaning…

In high school I lived in the Kedong building. First on the ground floor, then on the top floor.

There have been quite a few additional changes to the campus in the 10 years since I graduated. The cafeteria I remember eating in has been completely rebuilt, and is a much larger building now.



During the school day there is a mid-morning break. It is fondly known as Chai Time, because an endless supply of chai (Kenyan tea with milk) is served, and any leftover desserts from a preceding meal. I laughed when I saw this newest addition to the Chai Time tradition. A tree for students to hang their chai mugs on.


RVA provides a laundry service for all its students, which is really quite incredible, actually, seeing as most other secondary students in Kenya have to wash their own clothes. By hand. The laundry building has been rebuilt and improved.

Every year the senior class contributes some money towards their ‘senior gift’ to the school. This clock tower behind the cafeteria, which shows the time in different places around the world, was built with the help of a senior gift.

One of the high school boy’s dorms, Westervelt, has been added on to and is now the maintenance and grounds building.

And there used to be a lot of tall trees surrounding the edge of what we call ‘lower field.’ Since they’ve been cut down, the view from the top of this field has expanded dramatically.

Although it’s still not quite as striking as the view of Mt. Longonot from the top of ‘upper field’.

Even with all the changes, though, there are parts of the campus that are still as familiar as ever. The library and science buildings, for example (as well as that big old tree).

And what we call the ‘guard’s trail’ – a path that allows campus security to monitor the perimeter of the campus. It was always one of my favorite places to walk when I needed some alone time. It’s also an excellent exercise circuit, since it boasts at least a couple hundred foot incline from top to bottom. The perimeter fence has certainly increased in strength over the years, though! (As have the jokes about RVA being a prison, no doubt.)

There are even still a group of colubus monkeys living in the forest just outside of the lower half of campus! A particularly curious monkey came close enough for me to catch some shots of him.

The very lowest point of the guard’s trail offers, I think, one of the best views of Mt. Longonot and that part of the valley.



And the prayer chapel is also exactly the same. It probably hasn’t changed since it was built.


It’s always interesting going back to visit this campus. It’s like visiting your old house after having sold it and moved away. The things that really make it your home aren’t there anymore, like your furniture and dishes, your curtains, paintings, and knickknacks. But you have so many memories built into its walls and rubbed into its floors that you still feel connected to it in a way that keeps you wanting to come back.


A trip up to RVA

I’ve been in Nairobi for a little over a week now, while Steve is in a conference in the US, and this past weekend I was able to catch a ride up to Kijabe, home of the boarding school I attended from fifth grade onward. Founded in 1906 by Africa Inland Mission, Rift Valley Academy sits at about 7,200 feet (2,200 meters) and overlooks the Great Rift Valley. There are between 450 and 500 students who attend RVA, most of whose parents are missionaries, both in Kenya and other surrounding countries. And although its curriculum is US American, the student body is very international, so the school ends up maintaining its own unique culture.

The road people usually take to RVA was closed due to a mudslide (stay tuned for a post on that later this week), so we took what is known as the ‘lower road’, since it comes up from below Kijabe. It’s still pretty high above the valley, as you can see.




There are a number of ‘viewpoints’ along the road, where you can stop to take photos of the valley and also purchase souvenirs at shops with names like ‘Liberty Curio Shop,’ ‘White Masai Curio Shop,’ and ‘World Trade Centre Curio Shop.’



The lower road actually does lead down to the valley floor, at which point there is a turn-off for a steep, rocky road leading all the way back up to Kijabe. (There is a reason people usually drive the other way to get to RVA!)






This post ended up having quite a few photos, so I’ll make another post with pictures of the RVA campus. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a photo of the Kijabe Airstrip, which we passed right before we reached Kijabe town and the RVA campus.
Yes, this would be one of the more challenging airstrips in Kenya…

Preacher on the bus

(Jan 1, 2013)

We bought tickets for the 7:30 am bus to Kapiri Mposhi, but it’s the kind of bus that doesn’t leave until it’s full. So while it was sitting in the station, waiting to fill the last of its seats, a young man walked on board and started to preach. Tall, thin, wearing black satin trousers and a white sports coat, and of course, carrying a large bible with a black leather zip cover.

I was twice surprised by this. First, I wondered if he was supposed to be there, and was half expecting the bus driver to appear at any moment to ask him to please leave. But when nothing happened, I realized this must be an accepted practice, on this bus at least.

Second, I assumed, based on experiences in the US, that he was the Zambian equivalent of a street evangelist, and I prepared myself to hear the usual gospel message of repentance and salvation. But instead, he turned out to be more of a traveling preacher – he told the passengers he would just take a few minutes of their time to share a message with them for the new year. He was obviously assuming that most of his listeners were already Christian and didn’t need to hear the basics.

Walking up and down the aisle, he challenged the passengers to commit their lives to the Lord in this new year of 2013. And he kept to his word – after about 10 minutes (that’s short for a sermon in Africa), he wrapped up his message with a prayer. Apparently he had some listeners, because at the conclusion of his prayer, I heard more than a few ‘amens,’ some of which were quite loud and responsive.

After this, he walked down the aisle one last time, holding out a large white envelope, apparently for donations. I was again surprised to see that almost everyone in front of me dropped something into the envelope.

This blending of religion and public identity, I think, is far more common in the African way of life than it is in the West. People are much more comfortable operating out of a religious context, regardless of the religion. They are generally unapolagetic about their beliefs, and though they may challenge expressions of faith other than their own, they aren’t usually offended by them. In fact, I have found it is much easier, in this part of the world, to have a lively discourse about religion without causing offense, than it would be to have a similar discussion in the US.

According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 97.5% of Zambians call themselves Christian. With numbers like that, one could almost say that Christianity has grown to become a national identity – to be Zambian is to be Christian. And that’s exactly how it felt on the bus that morning. Christianity was a given, the accepted norm out of which the passengers were operating. So it didn’t come as a shock then, when we finally pulled out of the station, to hear Zambian praise and worship music piping out of the bus speakers. It accompanied our entire journey, and no one objected.

Christmas carols in Livingstone

A few days after Christmas, Steve and I joined Sheri and her family at a musical get-together being hosted by a missionary family in Livingstone. We sang Christmas hymns and enjoyed some informal performances, including a spoken word piece by a young Zambian man, and some beautiful songs written and performed by the daughter of our hosts and her husband.

To finish off the evening, we all stood in a circle and learned a Zambian Christmas carol – the kind where the lead singer sings a couple of lines, and the group responds with a short phrase. It was hilarious, since most of us were not from Zambia, and basically mumbled some gibberish when it was our turn to pipe in.

I didn’t bring my camera to the event, a choice that I really started to regret about halfway through. But Liana and Jason handed out CDs at the end on which were recorded a couple of the songs they had performed, so I will leave you with one of their songs.

Liana wrote this song after realizing she had never noticed the depth of meaning expressed in the familiar hymn, O Little Town of Bethlehem.

O Little Town of Bethlehem

New Year’s in Lusaka

[note: the next few posts will be jumping back a bit]

Who needs a city fireworks display when you can experience a city-wide fireworks extravaganza? That’s pretty much what happened in Lusaka at 12:00 on Jan 1, 2013.

I should have known as much when I saw the dozens of street vendors walking by our vehicle selling fireworks in the New Year’s Eve afternoon traffic. Most memorable were the long tubes boasting a dozen or more rockets in one convenient container. But instead I was slightly incredulous, since I have never seen a firework sold in such a casual manner. Especially in Africa. In fact, I assumed large-scale fireworks were illegal everywhere but in those off-the-highway warehouses in South Carolina, and that the ‘rockets’ being sold along the street in Lusaka were nothing more than fancy firecrackers.

Apparently not.

We didn’t make any plans to herald in the new year, since Steve and I had a bus to catch the next morning for Kapiri Mposhi. So we went to bed early. But it seems that when you are in Lusaka, sleeping through the new year is not an option. At midnight I was woken up by the sound of an all-out military assault on the city. Artillery exploding, missiles whistling through the air… it took a moment for me to register that these were all the fireworks I had seen just a few hours before, now joyfully exploding all over the city. I was too tired to get up and try to view the fireworks, so I contented myself with imagining what they must have looked like.

I’m not sure if it was the rain that started up, or if everyone began to run out of their fireworks, but the noise finally began to subside and I drifted back to sleep with visions of a thousand fireworks sparkling over the city.

ok, this is not lusaka, but it’s pretty much how the fireworks looked in my imagination.

It’s times like this that I am reminded of one of the things I love about Africa (at least, the part of Africa I am familiar with, which is small). It’s that all-encompassing and unplanned, yet somehow ordered chaos, so creative and expressive. Maybe I’m used to it, but it doesn’t feel overwhelming to me, only alive and grandly uncontainable.

I think back to my experiences with fireworks in the US. Fifteen minutes sitting on a lawn watching a well-planned and neatly-executed fireworks display is nice. It begins on time and ends with a bang. But imagine the splendid chaos of a thousand families lighting up the city with their own personal display. Starting a few minutes before midnight, of course. Completely uncoordinated and unpredictable, but magnificent, nonetheless.

Of course, there is a downside to this kind of chaos – in the case of fireworks, there are valid public health reasons to restrict and control their usage (take the club fire in Brazil, as a tragic example). But for the areas that aren’t such a big deal, in the daily-life kinds of things, I prefer dirt to concrete, and an overgrown plot of wildflowers and vines to a city park. More room for surprise, improvisation, imagination. This part of Africa is full of that, and I miss it every time I leave.

[photo compliments of my dad]

[photo compliments of my dad]

Kapiri Mposhi to Dar Es Salaam

Sorry, there are a lot of photos from our trip. But the idea was to give you a sense of the change of landscape as we travelled north.

Day 1 : Jan 1, 2013

I only got some photos of an awesome thunderstorm we saw while waiting at a station at around 9 pm.


Day 2 : Jan 2, 2013

Half the day in Zambia, the other half in Tanzania, with an extended 2 hour stop in Mbeya (Tanzania) to do some maintenance on our engine.


Day 3 : Jan 3, 2013


For our return to Tanzania, we decided to take the train. This first necessitated a 3 hour bus ride north of Lusaka, to the small town of Kapiri Mposhi, since there is no direct train from the capital of Zambia to the capital of Tanzania. Don’t ask me why.

As soon as we stepped off the bus in Kapiri Mposhi, we were literally mobbed by taxi drivers offering their service to take us to the train station, which is a kilometer or two from the bus station. Thankfully we had read the blogs about this particular trip, so we knew what to expect. The trick is to not let them carry any of your stuff. Otherwise you have no choice but to go with that taxi driver and hope he offers you a good price. So we staggered through the mob with our 1 suitcase, 2 backpacks, 2 boxes, and my purse, and managed to find a reasonable taxi to take us to the station.

The Tazara train station is a relic of the 70s, and probably hasn’t been touched since it was built. The entire project – stations and railway line – was completed in 1975, and was completely financed and executed by China. I love old buildings, so I wish I had been bolder with my camera. But sometimes one can get in trouble for taking photos of official buildings in Africa, so I didn’t pull my huge DSLR out. However, Steve did manage to get some photos with our point and shoot.







When we bought our tickets, we had to purchase a second class sleeper compartment because the first class compartments were already full. This meant paying for 6 beds instead of 4. I had tried to set my expectations relatively low about this train ride, but was still surprised by the cramped dimensions of our compartment. This feeling was compounded by our luggage, which was starting to feel excessive at this point.




Imagine our dismay, then, when four more people (well, five, if you count the child that one of them had) filed into our compartment over the course of the boarding time, holding tickets for our same compartment! We learned later that Tazara had reserved the entire first compartment in our car for some of their employees (upper-level staff, no doubt), who were riding for free (read: no tickets). There had obviously been a miscommunication somewhere, and we were looking at sharing a 6 x 4 space with 5 other people for the next 42 hours.

Thankfully, since we had proof of our purchase, the conductor affirmed that yes, indeed, we had paid for the full compartment, and that he would find a place for the other passengers. So after about 4 hours of sitting awkwardly across from our unexpected cabin-mates, we had the compartment to ourselves.

I’m glad it worked out, but not before creating a super uncomfortable situation for everyone.

Everyone except the passengers in compartment 1. They looked pretty comfortable.

(photos of the trip in the next post)

A hike down to Rapid #10

Right after Victoria Falls, the Zambezi River runs through a deep and narrow gorge. Many people go white-water rafting down this gorge, where there are 23 rapids, many of which are class 4 and 5, and a few class 6. (The rafts portage around the class 6 rapids as they are too dangerous.)

On our last full day in Livingstone, we hiked down into the gorge where we were told there was a great swimming hole of sorts right after Rapid #10. Some people from Overland Missions had hiked there before, so they knew where to go and joined us. Rapid #10 is also where some of the rafting expeditions begin, so the path into the gorge has been improved with the construction of wooden ‘ladders’ at the steepest points.

At the top of the gorge
at the top of the gorge



the swimming hole (lower left) is only accessible during dry season - once the river reaches its maximum level, it covers that entire area

the swimming hole (lower left) is only accessible during dry season – once the river reaches its maximum level, it covers that entire area

Our descent
we begin our descent

Ladder? Stairs? Not really either, or maybe both.

ladder? stairs? not really either, or maybe both.

It was certainly easier than sliding down loose dirt and pebbles…

it was certainly easier than sliding down loose dirt and pebbles...

…but it still wasn’t easy.

... but still a challenge


Needless to say, our quads were SORE the next day

needless to say, our quads were SORE the next day


At the bottom.

if you look closely, you can see two from our group in the lower left corner

if you look closely, you can see two from our group in the lower left corner

looking towards rapid #10

looking towards rapid #10



The swimming hole was green from algae, but as it was surprisingly clear, the group decided it was still swimmable.



Steve and I found a spot along the river to swim in.




We startled a really interesting lizard, and Steve managed to get some great closeups of it.

we startled a really interesting lizard, and Steve managed to get some great closeups of it


Also, for you geology enthusiasts out there, the black rock surrounding the swimming hole held a wealth of geodes.

for you geology nerds out there, this black rock held a wealth of geodes.


i probably could have spent the entire day admiring their various shapes and sizes.

I probably could have spent the entire day admiring their various shapes and sizes. I was hoping to find one with amethyst crystals in it, since Zambia does mine some amethyst. But I didn’t. Just white quartz, I think.

We started back up not long after lunch, but I only snapped two photos of our ascent. It was too grueling to take more. It didn’t make me feel better that we were quickly passed by two Zambian fishermen, who I’m pretty sure didn’t stop to rest the entire climb. Amazing.

starting the climb back up. i didn't have any energy to take photos of our ascent.

Victoria Falls

On Thursday we went to Victoria Falls. We had originally planned to ride the elephants, so we woke up super early. But when we got to the pick-up point for this activity, we realized it would only be an hour-long ride instead of the anticipated 3-hour ride. So we decided it was too expensive for such a short time and went straight to the falls instead.

Because of this, we got to the falls much earlier than we would ever have done otherwise. But it worked out extremely well because I’m pretty sure right after sunrise is the perfect time to view the falls. I didn’t realize that the rainbow created by the mist moves with the sun, so the angle of the early morning light made for some incredible photos.

my first view of the falls. i will never forget it.

my first view of the falls. i will never forget it.


Looking down from the top of the Eastern Cataract:

at the top of the Eastern Cataract



Facing the falls and walking along the Zambian side (only one half of the falls – the other half is in Zimbabwe):

facing the falls




i loved the constant rain shower created by the mist

i loved the constant rain shower created by the mist


looking across to the zimbabwe side of victoria falls

looking across to the zimbabwe side of victoria falls

Victoria Falls is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the world and is three times as high as Niagara Falls. Its average volume is less than that of Niagara and IguaƧu Falls, but that is only because the Zambezi River, which feeds it, is a very seasonal river. At the end of the dry season, around October or November, there is hardly a trickle across the entire mile-wide face of the falls; at the end of the rainy season, around April or May, you can’t even see the face of the falls for the mist created by the huge volume of falling water. We came at a really good time – not too much water, but enough for an incredible experience and some beautiful photos.