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First Things First

August 14, 2017

by David Stevens, MD, MA (Ethics)

You could easily argue that my first six months on the mission field in Kenya were a waste of time and energy. Jody and I, along with our 3-year-old son Jason and 1-year-old daughter Jessica, weren't living at Tenwek Hospital, where God had called us to serve. Instead, we were stationed 35 miles south of the hospital at Kaboson, a two-hour mud-slogging drive in the rainy season if you didn't get stuck. The hospital had a small health center staffed by a missionary nurse who did deliveries and national staff who saw outpatients. The church also had a few school buildings to house short training courses for pastors and three houses on the same property.

Veteran missionaries Dean and Leta Strong were involved in pastor education, but to us, they were our language teachers and mentors. They were wonderful surrogate parents training us by word and example to be missionaries. Our primary focus for six months was to learn Kipsigis, the heart language of the vast majority of the patients we would serve.

Yeah, it isn't one of the major languages of the world. Learning it won't even let you order food in a restaurant in Nairobi. In fact, fewer than a million people speak different dialects of it among the Kalenjin tribes in the country. Our mission decided we should learn Kipisigis since at that time many of the older women and younger children in the hospital didn't speak Swahili, the trade language, nor did they speak English, Kenya's real national language.

There was no language school in the world that taught Kipsigis, so former missionaries had written a curriculum that we met each morning to study. In the afternoons, we met individually with David, our "language informant." He was a pastor and soon became our friend. He spoke fluent English as well, so we frequently used English even though we were supposed to be totally using Kipsigis.

Jody and I buckled down to learn, but we weren't immersed in the language. Even at remote Kaboson, anyone who had been to school spoke English and most of them would rather practice their English on us than have us practice our Kipsigis on them.
Kipsigis was not only difficult because it was tonal, but with prefixes and suffixes you could put seven to eight parts of speech in one word! We soon learned that it had sounds that our tongues and lips had never formed. We had to practice and practice trying to get the right intonation though it felt like we were doing facial contortions. All the same, we were determined to do well so we studied hard.

For me, learning the language was complicated by the small health center down the hill. The staff had been cautioned not to call me except in dire emergencies. They were reminded that, "Dr. Stevens is here to learn Kipsigis, not to practice medicine." But Kaboson was located at the border between the Kipsigis and the Masaai tribes on the edge of African veld. There were lots of wild animals, cattle raids, babies being born and disease. So often as I studied, I would catch movement out of the corner of my eye. It was a nurse running the quarter mile up from the clinic, out of breath and panting, "Daktari, come quickly. You are needed."

Unfortunately, the health center didn't have most of the equipment or supplies I needed for these emergencies to treat arrow wounds, machete cuts, anthrax, hippo bites or warthog gorings, much less to do a C-section. As often as not, I did what I could (Have you ever used a Bic pen to keep open an emergency tracheostomy done without anesthesia?) with what I had and then tried to keep a patient alive in the back of a Land Rover as the driver did a "fast and furious" two-hour trip to Tenwek. (If you want the details on some of those wild stories, get a copy of my book Jesus, MD.)

I still see in my mind three sisters all less than six years old who had turned over a beehive of "killer bees" while climbing a tree. The clinic didn't have epinephrine or pediatric cannulas. All three children were in hypotensive shock with massive swelling. I only had one vial of Benadryl in my personal emergency kit so I divided up its contents, injected them and then rushed them to the hospital. Two of the three died soon after we arrived at Tenwek, despite our full court press. Both of them had more than 300 stingers still in them.

Despite the frequent adrenal infused interruptions, we finished our course and "graduated" on time and I was off to practice full-time medicine. It was all consuming and the only opportunity to do language was giving basic greetings and taking medical histories. I became fluent at asking, "Bendi moeti lakwani?" (Does your child have diarrhea?"), "I ng'u ng'u? " (Are you vomiting?") and other medical questions. I wrote my notes in English, talked to our national staff in English and I had a national staff with me on rounds that jumped in to translate if the patient didn't understand or I didn't know the right word. My language skills quickly plateaued in getting medical histories and waned in conversational Kipsigis.

The same was true even for our children. Their playmates spoke to them in "African English." Our son to this day can instantly revert to speaking English like an African when he wants too.

Even Richard, our wonderful house helper, refused to speak Kipsigis when we asked him too. He wanted to learn English better so he only used it when he talked to us.

I regret I didn't master the heart language of the people we served because to really know people and share the gospel most effectively with them, you have to know their mother tongue. You can only connect to their deepest core when you do.
With my heavy workload of medicine, administration and development, I had more than enough to do, so language acquisition was always on the back burner. If you are not careful, the same will be true for you. I was a young missionary like I hope you will be soon. It is always easiest to do a lot of what you are trained to do-healthcare-and not build a strong foundation for ministry by mastering the language.

The reason I've been thinking about this the last few weeks is that Stacy, our third child who I delivered in Kenya, along with her husband Jon and our granddaughter Eva left for France on January 1 as new missionaries. Their first term is three years and is all devoted to language acquisition. First, they will study French for a year before heading to a North African country to learn Arabic. The first is the business language they will need and the second is the heart language of the people they will serve. Arabic will make Kipisigis look relatively easy!

I'm glad their mission is making sure they are laying a firm foundation for decades of missionary service. They will be glad they mastered not one but two languages that will let them communicate with the educated and the poor. It will give them opportunities to really know the local people and will open hardened hearts to hear the gospel.

That is important for you as well. Because after all, isn't that why you want to become a missionary?

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