Orthodox Christian Mission Center’s Blog

November 28, 2011

Pax Turkana: An Update from Missionary Michael Pagedas

Shortly before I left for Kilimanjaro, I was contacted by Alex Goodwin, Communications Director for the OCMC. He and OCMC Executive Director Fr. Martin Ritsi had planned an extended visit to Kenya and Tanzania in order to film a new video for the OCMC and further assess future mission prospects for that field, and they wanted to know if Maria and I would be interested in traveling with them to Kenya and being part of this! The experience would take me to a part of Kenya that I had wanted to visit anyway–Turkana, in the northwest part of the country. The OCMC began sending short-term mission teams to this region only a few years ago, and Orthodoxy has already gained a strong foothold there. I knew I wouldn’t have a lot of time to rest after climbing Kilimanjaro, but I also knew that I couldn’t pass up this opportunity.

Maria and I were greeted at the Lodwar airport (a dusty landing strip in the desert with a small covered waiting area serving as the main gate) by Fr. Martin, Alex, and Rob Orr, the cameraman who would be documenting our visit. We strapped our bags on top of the Land Rover (there wasn’t enough room for them inside) and started our 3+ hour journey into the desert. Fr. Martin mentioned that the last time he made this journey, the vehicle he was in got stuck in the sand three times. Fortunately, with the combination of our amazing driver and rugged Land Rover, we didn’t get stuck once.

Our first destination was the village of Loupwala. Loupwala has been visited before by OCMC teams, but it was my first time there or anywhere like it. It was the Africa that I had seen before in National Geographic magazines and on Public Television when I was growing up.


The Turkana are nomadic pastoralists and rely mostly on their goats, camels, and donkeys not just as a source of milk and meat but also as currency for things such as bride-price negotiations and dowries. Not many crops are grown, but they do eat maize, beans, and ugali (maize porridge). During our brief stay, we had nothing but boiled cabbage and ugali–all of which we had brought with us from Lodwar. The Turkana also make use of a fruit that I had never heard of or seen anywhere else. It is called yangole in Turkana, and it is pretty much a fibrous pulp on the outside of a large inedible pit. The pulp can be ground off with stones and mixed in with flour or it can be chewed right off the pit [I tried the latter and can understand how the Turkana can easily wear down their teeth].

The Turkana dress very traditionally in the villages but not quite as much in the larger cities like Lodwar. Girls and women wear sarongs that range in color from purple to red to orange, and even bright green. Many of the women and girls wear their hair in a way that looks like a mohawk of small braids. The men also wear wraps, some covering the whole body, some just from the waist down, and less traditional shirts. Additionally, some of the older men or distinguished members of the tribe, such as shamans, wear hats decorated with ostrich feathers. One night, we all watched a movie about the life of Jesus that had been translated into the Turkana language. I was sitting toward the back, and one of the tribal elders was sitting right in the middle toward the front. Throughout the movie, I enjoyed watching the silhouette of a lone ostrich quill waving back and forth, brushing the faces of the actors on the screen. Both men and women wear beaded necklaces and bracelets. Many of the women wear a high-collared, brightly-colored beaded necklace that I can imagine takes a long time to make.


The video shoot began almost immediately after we arrived. Fr. Martin, Alex, and Rob started interviewing individuals who had become or were in the process of becoming baptized. Maria and I interviewed some of the women and children about medical issues with the help of one of the Turkana priests, Fr. Moses, who speaks English, Turkana, and Swahili fluently. We spent the night sleeping in a boma (thorn enclosure) of another priest, Fr. Zachariah, who himself was originally from Loupwala. A few of the people in our group had tents, but I braved the elements, sleeping only on a mat and having a loose mosquito net resting on top of me. It was the first time I had ever gone hard core camping, and I enjoyed looking up at a clear night sky illuminated by stars, knowing that I was about as far away from the nearest city as I could be.

The next day, we visited a well that had been installed by the OCMC only a few years ago. The well was about a 10 minute walk from our campsite, but I learned that before the well was put in, people would have to walk up to 13 kilometers (each way) to get water that wasn’t necessarily very safe to drink. This well made getting cleaner water a lot easier for the people of Loupwala.

Later, we were honored with a celebration. The community members greeted us with traditional singing and dancing. As we arrived, a group of women, doing what I could only describe as a tightly-packed line dance, moved toward us while singing, blowing whistles, and waving around what I later found out were cow tails. Some younger people then sang and danced for us, and then we all joined in the fun. I especially enjoyed the high vertical jumping dance (if you’ve ever seen movies of Maasai dancing, it is exactly the same).

That afternoon, we walked for about an hour and a half to our next stop–a village called Nacabousan. To reach Nacabousan, we had to cross the Kerio River. The Kerio River, Fr. Martin explained, was usually bone dry in this area, but that every time he had visited, it was always flowing. This time was no different. Lightning flashes in the distance the previous night forewarned us that this would probably be the case. The river was only two or three feet deep at its deepest point, but the water was moving at a good clip. I had not anticipated this, and was concerned about 1) getting completely drenched and dirty, and 2) getting valuable possessions wet, namely my iPod. Before we crossed, I decided to give my valuables to Maria, who is much taller than me and who had a nicer backpack. That decision paid off. As I neared the opposite bank, I discovered (too late) that there was a sharp, slippery rise that wasn’t visible through the chocolate-colored water. As I went to my knees, I decided that I had nothing to lose and went all the way in. It was a decision that paid off because I felt much cooler against the mid-afternoon sun. Despite the fact that everything I was wearing was completely drenched and now a light brown color, I felt better and my iPod was safe.

On Sunday morning, we celebrated liturgy in the bush, just outside the village of Nacabousan. The altar table was built on the spot using sticks, palm leaves, and a small blackboard. The congregation sat in the shade of a large acacia–much needed because even at 9AM, the sun was already starting to beat down on us. I was surprised to see that there were matins and liturgy books translated into Turkana. The Turkana are a part of the same language group as the Maasai (different from the Bantu-based Swahili that I’m used to hearing), and I immediately noticed a similarity to the Maasai language when I first heard the Turkana speak. As with Swahili, it didn’t matter if I couldn’t understand every word that was being said during the liturgy. I still knew what was going on. Even with aggressive flies buzzing around, which are ever-present in the desert, I was lost in the experience. This was the first time an Orthodox liturgy had ever been held in Nacabousan. I began to wonder if St. Paul or the other early Apostles had similar experiences on their missionary journeys.

The liturgy was immediately followed by a mass baptism. 110 men, women, and children were baptized in the Kerio River. What was a curse for me on the way over had become a blessing. There was plenty of water for full-immersion baptisms! While several children splashed and swam nearby, a line of people from the river bank went into the water where Fr. Martin baptized them one at a time–again, like experiencing the early church but in the 21st century. The first one baptized was the head village elder from Nacabousan, named Salale. He and Fr. Martin had developed a strong relationship over the past few years, and I could tell that Salale’s conversion and baptism were monumental for himself, Fr. Martin, and the entire village of Nacabousan. There were at least 200-300 people watching from higher up on the river bank. Many of them went into hysterics at seeing their friends being immersed (some of them very reluctantly) in the river. We all went back to the “survival” altar that had been constructed for the liturgy and concluded the service. Watching dozens of people walk around the altar table together toward the end of the baptism was something I’ll probably never see again but won’t soon forget.

After the video shoot, we all returned to Lodwar where we met up with a short-term OCMC teaching team that had arrived the day before. Fr. Martin, Alex, and Rob stayed with the group for a couple of days before moving on to the shoot in Tanzania, but Maria and I stayed behind in Lodwar with the team for the duration of their teaching mission. They had each prepared different lessons to present Turkana faithful who had come from Lodwar and surrounding villages (including from over 3 hours away in Loupwala!). Fr. Moses, Fr. Zachariah, and Fr. Vladimir (who is a Turkana priest based in Lodwar) translated for the team and at the same time taught their people about church topics such as the Creed, death & resurrection, the Sacraments, and icons. I was even allowed to do a health education session. Based on a session I once gave back in 2008 during a short-term mission in Tanzania, I asked the group of about 70 “youth” to divide up into groups and come up with their own songs, dances, or sketches that highlighted major health concerns in East Africa, such as AIDS and malaria. The Turkana, like many other cultures in Africa, have a strong oral tradition that is passed along through songs and storytelling. Why not tap into that and use it for health promotion? I gave them 20 minutes to prepare, but they only needed 10. All of the groups did an amazing job, and I told them that I would put all of the videos I took of their presentations on the internet so that people all over the world could see how the Turkana use storytelling not only to pass along history but to teach others the importance of promoting good health behaviors.

Our visit happened to be in the middle of a paralyzing famine that affected the horn of Africa and spilled over into northern Kenya. Crops were failing and there was a severe food shortage. The Turkana, being pastoralists, were especially hard-hit when their livestock began to die off. People were literally starving to death. I had done a blog entry early on about African stereotypes, and I mentioned that a common misperception is that most Africans are starving and impoverished. I followed that up by mentioning that this was more of an exception to the rule–overall, they may eat much less food, but that doesn’t mean they are starving. Also, “poverty” is a relative term. If most of the people who live around you don’t have a lot of material possessions, that doesn’t necessarily make them poor. In fact, I regard most of my friends here as being richer on many levels. That said, whenever a disaster such as a famine happens, it throws what was once a delicate balance into complete disarray. Tribes like the Turkana, who can live comfortably on a basic diet and without a lot of possessions really feel the effect when the food or water supply is thrown out of whack.

I had no idea how bad the situation really was until after I got back to Bukoba. While waiting at the Lodwar “airport” for the plane back to Nairobi, I met a BBC journalist and cameraman who had just been to the same region we had. They told me that a piece they had just filmed would be airing a couple of days later and that I would be able to see it online.

Here is a link to that report: http://www.vimeo.com/27583238

Finding out about the severity of the famine after the fact made me appreciate my time with the Turkana all the more. I would have never guessed from the celebrations and fellowship we shared that they were in the middle of a major crisis. Please remember the Turkana, especially the newly-baptized, in your prayers.

Thank you to my support team!


[Video from my Turkana experiences can be found on the OCMC website or my YouTube channel, username: mpagedas]


November 11, 2011

OCMC Mission Teams- Welcome to Tanzania

October 28, 2011

OCMC Mission Teams- Welcome to Tanzania

October 27, 2011

Update from OCMC Missionary Maria Roeber

Farah na amani! Joy and Peace!

Hello from Tanzania! The two months since my last letter to you have been extremely busy, but very educational and beneficial to me.

First, I was blessed to find a wonderful language and culture teacher, a lady named Methodia who grew up here in Bukoba, and also lived in England and Germany for close to twenty years. I’d prayed to God for weeks prior to my arrival here that He would send me the “right” nurturer from the start, and so He has: Mama Methodia has adopted me as her fifth child, and proudly declares that I will be speaking Kiswahili by Christmas. We are using a method of language acquisition where the first 100 hours of study do not involve me speaking, but rather listening to her speak to me, just the way infants first listen to their parents speak to them before they attempt to imitate sounds. I’ve been surprised both at how much fun I am having, and also at how quickly I seem to recognize many words. While I am not required to speak Kiswahili in class, I am allowed to use it as I feel able in normal activities, so I am becoming more comfortable greeting people and holding very simple conversations. My greatest delight is walking around town and having children attempt to greet me in English and being able to respond to them in Kiswahili. Yesterday as I walked along the beach to get to class, three children playing nearby watched me very solemnly until I asked them, “Habari ya mchana?” (How is your afternoon?) Their eyes got big and round, and the littlest boy who was about two or three squeaked out, “Shikamoo! Nzuri!” (Shikamoo is a greeting of respect to an elder. Nzuri means fine, or good.) It’s fun when I start running into the same group of kids each day on my way to school. There’s one family with three small children whose home I pass each day, and without fail the kids start waving excitedly when they see me. I feel less anxious about being in a foreign place and more welcome with each passing day, for which I am extremely grateful.

Most people ask me what a typical day is like, so I will attempt to answer that question very briefly. Every day starts at about 7 am, when the bells for Matins ring next door at the church. We attend Matins every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday it’s Matins and Liturgy. After service we enjoy a hot breakfast made by Mama Christina, our cook and housekeeper. After that it’s usually time for some chores—either going to the market or to pay a water or electricity bill, stop by the bank, or stay home and do laundry or clean my room. Then I spend an hour or so listening to the language lessons from the previous day, which I record and can store on my iPod. I also spend a little time each day preparing for the next language session—we have a curriculum provided for us, but it requires some thoughtful planning to execute well. Then I spend some time answering emails or updating my Facebook account, which I know many of you follow. It’s such a blessing to be able to communicate with folks from home so easily! Usually Mama Christina has lunch ready for us by 12:30, and by 12:45 I am out the door to walk down to the lake for my class. In the afternoon when I return I make myself a cup of tea and a snack and start the process of transferring the language recordings from that day’s session onto my computer, and then listening to them for another couple of hours, as well as reviewing previous sessions. I also usually do some more emailing at that point. By six we are back at church for Vespers, and then I make my own dinner—usually something simple. The evening might include more study, doing some relaxing reading, writing to my support team by email or “snail mail,” or chatting with my roommates about the day. Sometimes I get to call my family or friends, too! I try to get ready for bed by about 10, and am generally asleep by 11. On any particular day we might have visitors drop by, which changes the schedule a bit, and I am learning to be flexible with how to organize activities here.

Many people have asked for updates about how the work at the Orthodox clinic is going. My primary responsibility during the first six months to a year of service here is to focus entirely on language and cultural acquisition. People here generally do not speak much English, and without studying Kiswahili, I will not be able to care for patients without a translator. As the clinic will be functioning with the help of us as volunteers to staff it, there’s not provision for the hiring of translators. It has been challenging for me to “stop” being a nurse and to feel like I am “not working,” but the truth is that by working hard at language study I am building the foundation upon which my later nursing practice will depend. The Orthodox clinic is currently awaiting registration through the Tanzanian government in order to reopen. It was closed because it had originally been registered as a “hospital,” but since we cannot meet the staffing requirements to function as such, a new application had to be submitted. Please keep the registration and government approval of the clinic in your prayers. My hope is that the clinic will be ready to open at the same time that I am ready to focus more on direct patient care and less on language study, but I am also open to God’s will and am trying to accept whatever He asks me to do.

As many of you are aware, I did have the opportunity to use my medical background to conduct a health care needs assessment for the Turkana in northern Kenya last month, which is one reason you haven’t heard from me in a while. My fellow missionaries and I are also busy preparing to welcome an OCMC medical mission team that will provide medical care to rural areas in Tanzania for two weeks in October. My next update will include more detailed information about the trip to Kenya and about our preparations for the October team, and I’ll be sending it out shortly after this letter.

Thank you to each and every one of you for your faithful prayerful and financial support that sustains me here! I pray for all of you every morning when I thank God for allowing me to be here, and I thank you, too! Glory to God for all things!

Yours in Christ,


October 14, 2011

Tanzania and James: St John the Theologian 2011 Update

Dear friends,

Let us love one another.
– 1 John 4:7

Greetings from Mwanza on this feast of the Holy Apostle John. It’s a sunny September, the trees on my hillside are in blossom, and the lake is very blue.

I recently had business in Kenya, and returned to Mwanza on the seventeenth of September- the very date that I first moved to this city, one year ago. Time does fly.

It’s been a good year. The learning curve has been every bit as steep as expected, and of course it will take a lifetime to adjust fully. But I’m happy to be where I am.

In about ten days, we plan to receive a medical team from OCMC. The team will be conducting clinics in rural and urban areas around Mwanza Region. Logistics are every bit as complex as you might imagine, and I’m grateful to be working together with my missionary colleagues Maria Roeber, Felice Stewart and Michael Pagedas as we prepare to care for the visitors.

Time flies indeed. My first term of service as an OCMC missionary will conclude early next year, and so I am working on plans to visit North America- I’d likely be on the continent from the beginning of February until just after Pascha.

And I want to see you! Yes, each of you- or at least as many folks as I can in ten short weeks. My goal in visiting will of course be to spend a little time at home in Gainesville with family and friends, and also to touch base with as many people in my support network as is possible. I’d like to see you in person, catch up on your life, (meet your new babies!!) and talk with you face-to-face about the work that God is doing in Western Tanzania thanks to your prayers, encouragement, and generosity.

So, if you’d like me to visit, please be in touch. When I met many of you in the fall of 2009 and spring of 2010, I was inspired and instructed by the way that you and your communities are bearing witness to the Resurrection and proclaiming the glory of God in your local context. I look forward very much to coming back and getting another glimpse.

It is obvious to me that your prayers are with me, as God sustains me here. The challenges are good and healthy, but they are challenges indeed, and I am borne through them by strength that is not my own. Thank you.

Thank you also for your encouraging communication, and for your consistent generosity. I am here because of you.

By your prayers in Christ,

James Hargrave

September 28, 2011

A Video Song from Missionary Maria Roeber

September 26, 2011

Hear About the 2011 Tanzania Teaching Mission Team

Hear About the 2011 Tanzania Teaching Mission Team


50 Goddard Ave
Brookline, Massachusetts
United States

2011 Tanzania Teaching Team Member Jordan Zanetis will be speaking at the Holy Cross Missions Meeting at the Archbishop Iakovos Classroom Building, Room 110 in Brookline, Massachusetts on 09/27/2011. Please contact Jordan Zanetis by phone at 615-668-4054 or by e-mail at jm.zanetis@gmail.com for more information.

September 6, 2011

A Day in the Life (You Can’t Make this Stuff Up): An Update from Missionary James Hargrave

I have recently been at our yearly Archdiocesan youth seminar. This is a three-week event bringing together young people (aged roughly 15 – 65) from a particular vicarage (aka deanery) of the Holy Archdiocese of Mwanza for fellowship, shared liturgical life, participation in the sacramental life of the Church, education on a variety of topics including agriculture, health, etc. and two weeks of Christian education provided by teachers from the Finnish Orthodox Mission and from OCMC.

Caring for 100+ young people and ten foreigners, on a bare hillside in rural Africa, with minimal infrastructure (providing them with food and shelter, making sure that they are comfortable enough to keep going, looking after healthcare needs) is no joke. It’s serious business. It’s very tough. It’s exhausting, frustrating, difficult, terrifying… and exhilarating. Things are going very, very, very, very well.

Archdiocesan leadership is working very hard to plan and manage the seminar well. But as hard as we try to plan, plans fail. And some of the best things are totally unplanned. I’d like to tell you about something that happened yesterday.

Yesterday was the Team’s afternoon off. An excursion for the team was arranged through a local tour company and I had the privilege of joining them. Our first stop was a mountain on the Kamachuma Plateau, where we climbed to the top to visit some caves and see a spectacular view stretching to Rwanda.

On the way up the mountain, our guide took a wrong turn and asked directions from a local coffee farmer. The farmer guided us back to the path and, as we were departing, asked who we were. We told him.

This elderly farmer followed behind us, up a steep rocky slope, all the way to the top of the mountain. He caught up with us in the caves wearing clothes in tatters, barefoot with thickly calloused feet. I exchanged greetings with him, and told him a bit more about the Team and about the youth seminar over the hills in Ibale.

“I am an Orthodox Christian,” the old peasant told me. “I am a catechist.”

This coffee farmer was brought to Christ in 1977 by Father Sosthenes Kiyonga, one of the early missionary priests in this area. His name is Apolinario, and he has been a catechist for seventeen years in the parish area led by Father Ignatios Simba, a compatriot of Father Kiyonga and another lion of the faith. Apolinario invited the Team to his house to meet his wife Maria, and some of their children and grandchildren. He led a short prayer service, and then the Team sang the “Lord have mercy” of the Holy Cross in Finnish, Greek, English and Kiswahili. Apolinario and Maria took all of our names, and promised to remember us in their daily prayers. We took their names and the names of their children and grandchildren, with the same commitment to prayer.

Father Kiyonga passed away several years ago. One of his sons, Anastasios Kiyonga, is the church musician for the Holy Archdiocese of Mwanza and is one of the leaders at our youth seminar. His work has been very helpful and valuable to the Team this year and in past years.

Some of you may have heard a certain missionary say, “You can’t make this stuff up!” You really can’t. The Team’s work has been very valuable. We have been working very hard to help them see our life here in ways that make sense to them, that are neither overly bewildering nor overly protective. One of the weaknesses of this sort of event is that it is indeed an event. The Team is not witnessing the ordinary life of the Church because the Team’s very presence among us is extraordinary. But then, there on the mountain, God sent our guide on the wrong path so that we could share in the everyday life, just for a moment, of a rural Orthodox Christian peasant family who have born witness to, and participated in, the historic missionary life of our Church.

August 23, 2011

Tanzania and James: St Jacob of Alaska 2011 Update

Dear friends,

Furaha na amani! Joy and peace!

And greetings from Tanzanian winter. It’s hovering around 18 degrees- 65 Fahrenheit- and although it’s the dry season we have had some small rainshowers. I’ve been reading about the extreme heat waves in North America. If you’re pitying me for having to endure Africa’s supposedly harsh and unforgiving climate, don’t!

Here in Mwanza we are making final preparations for receiving volunteers from the Finnish Orthodox Mission and OCMC who will participate in a rural youth seminar in Muleba District of Kagera Region. This is an annual event, taking place in a different deanery each year, and currently our major ministry with youth at an Archdiocesan level. Event planning in rural Tanzania is a little different from event planning in North America. It’s been fun.

In June, I was pleased to welcome two newcomers to the Archdiocese of Mwanza. OCMC Missionary Maria Roeber, a maternity nurse from Georgetown, arrived last month after more than two years of preparation. Maria hopes to help the Archdiocese of Mwanza develop its health care ministry, possibly by working at Resurrection Hospital in Bukoba or through other means. She is also helping OCMC to develop regional long-term health-care strategy elsewhere in East Africa. Maria is currently stationed in Bukoba town for her time of language and culture acquisition, and I have thoroughly enjoyed catching up with her in the past two weeks.

Meg Engelbach, an Intercultural Studies/ Linguistics student at Biola University in Southern California, is serving a summer internship here in the Archdiocese of Mwanza. She is living with a local family in Mwanza city, sharing in their life and learning from them. Meg is also learning Kiswahili and using her experience to help improve language-learning materials to better address East African linguaculture. God willing, Meg’s notes and suggestions will be of benefit to future OCMC missionaries as they learn language in this part of the world. I’ve enjoyed having Meg around, and am very impressed with her dedication and adaptability. It is my hope to continue to play a role in welcoming students and interns to share life with us here in Western Tanzania as they broaden their own experiences and make decisions about possible long-term missionary service in the future.

It’s been a good winter, and I’m looking forward to what lies ahead. I am grateful to each of you for your prayers, encouragement, and long-term commitment to financial support. I am here because of you. Stay in touch!

By your prayers in Christ,

James Hargrave

August 15, 2011

Missionary Maria Roeber’s First Sunday in Tanzania

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