Celebrating 37 Years – of Kenya: Feb. 17th, 1984 – 2021

Jon Stern
Today marks the 37th anniversary of the day we first arrived in Kenya to begin our journey of a lifetime. Molly will also add some thoughts from the trip that started on Valentines Day when we flew out of Chicago O’hare to begin our mission to Kenya.
Jon: As for me, I will start with Thursday night, the 16th. We boarded our Amsterdam to Nairobi flight (I was especially excited for the chance to sit in the upper deck of the KLM Boeing 747). As we rumbled down the runway, I sensed that something wasn’t quite right. Growing up on the mission field, I was not new to the rush of jet airline take off’s and something was different. It seemed to take forever to get off the runway. We finally got airborne and all seemed well, except for the fact that we didn’t seem to settle into the normal flight routines of gaining altitude and leveling off, turning the fasten seatbelts signs off…   Instead, we started a pattern of circling… I told Molly, “There is something wrong with the plane.” After about 20 minutes of silence from the cockpit, the pilot finally addressed us and confirmed that there was in fact a problem. We had lost power in one of the four engines on take-off and were now circling out over the North Sea to jettison enough fuel so that landing would not become anemergency because of the weight of full fuel tanks. I’m thinking, “No wonder it took so much runway to get airborne.” and “Amazing designed plane that is able to take off fully loaded on three engines.” After about 45 minutes we landed safely again at Amsterdam’s airport where we we”re all ushered off the plane and into a small passenger lounge. It was almost 1AM and we had to wait another three hours while they brought another plane around and transferred  cargo and food supplies for the journey. One thing that I will never forget was the terrible pall of cigarette smoke in that waiting lounge. This was the day before smoke free airports and flights… All the smokers were in the same small space as us non-smokers. It did nothing for the flu symptoms Molly and I had been suffering for the past two days… Finally, at about 4:30AM, we took off for Nairobi. 
So, instead of an original touch down at 6am, we landed in Nairobi at about 12:30pm, just past noon. Coming out of 30 degree temps in Amsterdam, we immediately were greeted by Nairobi’s high elevation equatorial climate. Even though Kenya was experiencing a huge heat wave and drought, the temperature was still around 80 with very little humidity.  The next thing that greeted me was the fact that all the immigration and customs officers were not wearing military uniforms. My last memories of the Africa I grew up in was a military led government accompanied by much oppression at the airports. I immediately felt welcomed into Kenya, not knowing a Kenyan soul… We were later to discover why this was so… A huge value in the Kenyan society is that visitors are a blessing… I felt that from moment one…
We were met at the airport by Irv Schwandt. He and his wife, Ruth, serve as missionaries to the present with the same organization we would serve with our first 12 years in Kenya… We were also met  by Bud Sickler, who my parents had worked with in Kenya in the 1950’s and who had invited us to work with him and his wife, Fay, in Mombasa. Bud was a living legend in the mission community of East Africa. He had come over to Kenya in 1944 as a 20 year old and had been there for 40 years by then. He had other business to attend to in Nairobi, so he flew up to Nairobi to pick us up and then accompany us back to our final destination of Mombasa later that evening.  As he stuffed our bags into his vw beetle, he announced to us he was taking us out to lunch at this new meat restaurant. We were sicker than dogs, but weren’t about to complain about it, so we went… It was terrible… He seemed to enjoy it, though… (We later realized that it seemed so bad, because we were so sick. It is actually the highest rated restaurant in the Safari industry by tourists… and has become one of our favorite restaurants). We then went to a fellow missionary’s house in Nairobi and took a little nap before heading back to the airport again to catch our flight to Mombasa.
We boarded the Kenya Airways flight to Mombasa and it took off like a rocket. I later learned that it was a souped-up version of the old model Boeing 707 called the 720. We landed less than forty minutes later and I thought I had landed back in Lagos, Nigeria. It was so hot and humid that the windows on the plane fogged up as we landed. As the door of the airplane opened, we descended into an oven of 90 plus degrees and high humidity … at 7pm.
We, then, were greeted by our family friend and my childhood baby sitter, Sharon Higgins, who we would be working with and also temporarily living with. One other thing still sticks out in my memory about that day. We stopped by Bud and Fay’s house for a minute to greet Fay. As we approached the locked iron gate entrance, we were greeted by Edward, their night watchman and the sight I will never forget was the fact that he was wearing a Russian Style heavy wool overcoat. Apparently, he was preparing for the drop in temperature to about 85 degrees…
Exhausted, sick and yet so grateful to have arrived safe and sound, we took a bath and slept like babies… Jon Stern
Molly: I remember some other details. That 14th day of February (the day we departed from the US) found me six months pregnant with our first child, my heart and mind full of mixed emotions.  First of all, the sadness of leaving family, friends and familiarity behind for the first time. This, becoming a first time parent, is “normally” a time when one seeks to be close to home.  That uncertainty was precariously intertwined with the excitement of adventure with my new husband, following the Lord to serve in Africa. “Here am I, Send me!” I had shouted so often.  Now, the rubber meets the road; the reality is playing out like a movie on a screen. This was a familiar process to Jon, but brand new to me.   I had not been used to flight travel, and had never been off of the North American continent.  He had been raised in Africa, and had a great anticipation for “returning” to a land that he loved.  For me, it was a time of following; holding his hand, trusting the man I love and the Lord that I love.   That scene in the Chicago airport, which became so familiar over the years, was one of me crying through the “good byes”.  This is the birthing place of our theme in life “Thank God for Heaven,” the place where there will be NO goodbyes, NO tears, and all the “catching up on what we’ve missed” in each others lives.
The next day, taking a tour through Amsterdam, brought more newness and learning for me.  My first time in Europe brought with it my first cross cultural experiences. Besides the jet-lag phenomenon,  I recall being taken back by the fact that people “look” like me,  but don’t “talk” like me! Of course, it was fascinating seeing buildings that were hundreds of years older than my country!  We trudged through even though we were sick, cold and miserable because we were determined to make the most of this special time.  Had we known we were going to have flight troubles the next day, we might have had the wisdom to rest in the warm hotel room. Ha!
Jon, above, covers the flight to Nairobi well.  My pregnant body was not dealing with exhaustion and cigarette smoke well at all!
Our arrival in Kenya was sort of a blur for me.   But one detail was, besides the ones Jon mentions, that the day we arrived there had been a lion at the airport!   The wildlife authorities had to come remove it.    They said it had wandered out of the National Park looking for water, during that terrible drought of ’84.     For this little Illinois girl, that was pretty big news!
As Jon had said, we were taken to rest at a missionary friends place.   Another first for me…..a new life of “staying with fellow missionaries.”  This was my first taste of the very real missionary family community – helping each other through hard times, hosting and feeding each other as needed.  This particular missionary had a parrot, an African Gray, that loved to talk.   Again, this was something that was fun and familiar to Jon, but brand new to me.
Our final steps in that first journey led us to Sharon’s house.   She hosted us for almost two months, helping us get our apartment ready for receiving the things we had shipped, including a reconditioned car  from Japan.  She also took great delight in helping get set up for baby arrival!   Auntie Sharon (there is that “family” community life-style again!) helped us learn how to drive, shop, cook, speak, bank, find the best places to relax and eat out, and most of all, how to love these people that we had come to serve.   I honestly don’t know what we would have done without “Auntie Sharon” and the many others that received us so lovingly in this delicate season in my life.
February 1984 – you were an amazing, unforgettable month in our lives.

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