After his newborn son died of Trisomy 13, an always-fatal chromosomal disorder, Steve Peifer walked away from his job managing and overseeing the work of 9,000 outside consultant/contractors for Oracle, the computer software giant. To escape their grief, Steve Peifer and his wife agreed to become dorm parents for the children of missionaries at a boarding school in Kenya. But that one-year experiment prompted a personal and family pilgrimage that transformed a seemingly ordinary middle-aged suburban American man, husband and father into the improbable winner of CNN's prestigious annual international Hero for Championing Children Award. Read the entire amazing story in "A Dream So Big: Our Unlikely Journey to End the Tears of Hunger" by Steve Peifer with Gregg Lewis (Zondervan), of which the following is an excerpt.
We had spent a year in the States feeling healthy. But Nancy and I and Katie and Ben each had health issues at one time or another our first few weeks back at RVA. Having lived in the developing world for 12 years, we understood that was just part of the readjustment process. Of course, knowing that didn't make us feel any less sick or frustrated, though it did give us reason to believe things would get better and a realistic hope it could happen sooner rather than later.
* * *
After 12 months away, I was eager to get back to our work in nearby national schools with our hot lunch and computer training programs.
But before that could happen, there were two things in Kenya I needed to stare down again. The first was driving. The leading cause of death among missionaries in Kenya is driving accidents. And being away from it a year caused my fears to grow; I nearly panicked the first day I had to drive in Nairobi again. Of the many challenges of driving in Kenya, I particularly dreaded roundabouts, which require driving in a circle in many poorly marked or unmarked lanes with many otherpeople, who all share different views of what is legal. I was scared to death to do it again. But I managed the first one with ease. I backed down a bus the next time. Just that suddenly, it all came back to me, and I knew I could do it.
Driving in Kenya still scared me, but it was a wise, caution-producing fear, not a paralyzing one.
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The other fear I needed to stare down was of greater concern to me, as my first email home explained:
It's so easy to become callous in Africa. There is staggering need all around and you hear so many heart-wrenching stories, you can grow hard. And that can happen very quickly when you're a genetically gifted cynic like me. But I don't want to be that way here.
I remember a headmaster who came to meet me after our first computer center went live. He had traveled several hours just to ask if we could please build his school a center. I told him my first commitment was to the 25 schools where we had already established lunch programs. I said, "I'm very sorry. But we don't have much money. And there will have to be a long time and many more centers built before we can consider your school."
The man put his head in his hands and wept.
If you harden your heart, you don't get hurt. But you grow callous to those around you. I'm slowly learning that pain can be a valuable gift. Especially when it lets you know your heart is still vulnerable to others.
I'm glad it still hurts.
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Two items from other emails sent to friends and family, once we got to feeling better several weeks into the term:
Nancy and I got to go to Kamuyu Primary School last week, the first such visit we'd been able to make since we've returned. Being back at a school reminded me of the Scripture where Jesus says, "My food is to do the will of him who sent me." Let me tell you, watching little kids who have absolutely nothing fully engaged on computers during an Excel class, and getting it, may just be the most nourishing, not to mention exhilarating, thing I can think of.
The headmaster reminded me that when I first came to his school, the students feared me. When we brought the computers to the school, they feared the computers.
There was no fear at Kamuyu last week.
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I also recently went down to the school in Munyu, a community that has been devastated by AIDS. Because of the food that you have provided, they have added more than 200 students to their ranks. The computer classes were lively, with our only Masai teacher adding something special to the lessons.
Before we started out work there, Munyu school had always ranked lowest on the national tests in their zone. They have topped the list for several years in a row now.
Everything seemed to be going well the day I observed class there. But with a raging inflation rate, I knew money had to be getting terribly tight for many families. So as I was making conversation with the kids, I asked a young boy how he was doing. He told me his father was dead, his mother had AIDS, and he lived in his older brother's back yard. There was no food for him except for what he ate at school for lunch. During the weekends, he went out and begged for food.
He later told me that he felt lucky because he had a brother. Since he could live in his brother's back yard, he didn't have to sleep on the streets. He also made it a point to tell me how grateful he was to be learning computers andthat he was so happy for the food at lunch.
I drove home and prayed. I wish I had a wise homily to end this with, but I just prayed.
* * *
Throughout much of Africa, ugali is a staple dish that consists of boiled cornmeal. If that sounds appetizing, you need to read that last sentence again.
We sponsored an end-of-the-school-year luncheon for all of the computer teachers, and a number of them remarked that I didn't eat any ugali. When I asked why they ate it, three different people gave me slightly different answers to the effect that if you ate ugali at night, you would not wake up with hunger pains, which is a real issue for most Kenyans.
I found an excuse to turn and look away. I thought it would embarrass them to see me cry.
Perhaps the greatest gift Africa has given me is the gift of tears. I'd been afflicted with cynicism most of my life. But Kenya has managed to pierce my hard heart again and again.