January 3, 2014

Wise Men meet Homeland Security

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Wise Men lately. Like them, I will be traveling to the East in just a few days – East Africa. I, too, am looking forward to meeting a poor teenage mother – and six others like her – and their babies. God willing, I will arrive at my destination in time for Epiphany.

Imara, which means “strong” in Swahili, is the name of the house where these teenage girls live. It sits in the shadow of Mt. Kenya near a town called Nanyuki, three hours north of Nairobi. A 38-year-old Episcopalian named Carol Erickson launched this fledgling ministry 18 months ago after learning about the desperation of teenage girls who have been raped or forced into early “marriage.”

The youngest of her charges was “given” to a man when she was 9. Instead of playing with dolls, Anna soon became pregnant with her first child. After her third pregnancy she escaped through the deep bush, was treed by a hyena and eventually found her way to Carol, and to safety.

These stories haunt me. Can’t get them out of my mind.

I’m nervous about traveling alone to Africa. My husband is a Type 1 diabetic and periodically suffers from low sugar reactions, usually in the middle of the night. I am the one who calls 911. What happens if he has a reaction when I’m gone?

Nairobi has been in the news a lot, and not for reasons that would attract tourists. Sometimes I worry about this, too. Somali terrorists already showed their strength at the Westgate Mall in September. Kenya’s celebrations of the country’s 50th anniversary of independence have been marred by violence. Even getting inoculated against such diseases as yellow fever and typhoid was a bit unnerving.

In spite of these fears, I recognize the tug that’s pulling me there. I imagine it’s the same one the Wise Men felt when they dismissed all logic and chose to follow a star to an unknown destination.

The nonprofit that supports Carol, Imara International: www.imarainternational.org recently launched a campaign to raise money for a pre-school, a school for the girls and additional living space, enabling more mothers and babies to seek refuge there. To help share their mission with a wider audience, I will be interviewing the teens about their lives, what brought them to Imara. As an independent audio producer (think “radio”), I can create audio stories that do not compromise the girls’ dignity or safety. And, besides, audio is the perfect medium for conveying emotion.

My carry-on bag will hold a microphone, headphones and digital audio recorder. I will be stuffing my suitcase with a jumbo box of Crayola crayons, plastic beads of every shape and color, embroidery thread, elastic cord in hues of sparkling neon, watercolor paints, brushes, sketch pad, yarn and knitting needles – gifts I imagine would please a teenage girl -- plus Sesame Street band aids, to cover nicks and scrapes on their toddlers’ bodies. Also packed in my suitcase will be ten hand-knit prayer shawls blessed by the priest at my church’s Christmas Eve service. If I don’t exceed the weight limit, it will be a miracle.

Oh, and speaking of miracles, I hope the TSA staff at the airport clear my passport and visa for travel. I’m headed for that star.