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Field trips more than an education

   
 


Each year, students from the international Christian day school, Rosslyn Academy, in Nairobi, Kenya, go on Cultural Field Studies trips. Students divide into groups, staying with communities all over Kenya, and participate in service and community development projects. Here, a group makes final adjustments to the cables of a newly erected suspension bridge.

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March 3, 2006
-by Dan Dyck

Winnipeg, Man. — In late January, teachers at Rosslyn Academy in Nairobi, Kenya were robbed by armed invaders while most of the students slept through the ordeal. Although one shot was fired, no one was injured.

This is not a typical experience, explains teacher Adelia Neufeld Wiens (Bethel MC, Winnipeg), Mennonite Church Canada Witness mission associate. But, she says, it is a possibility when the school’s teachers and students divide into groups and disperse over the countryside for an annual Cultural Field Studies (CFS) trip.

CFS is a yearly life-changing event for students, said Neufeld Wiens. The groups build Habitat for Humanity homes, visit schools, orphanages and communities, construct a bridge, participate in community education, and share lives, food and stories across cultures. Each group has a different experience.

Though people in Kenya live with the threat of robbery and violence on a daily basis, this was the first time a CFS group has been targeted by thugs.

"Our daughter Ellen was on that CFS trip," commented Neufeld Wiens, "but when she came home, she wanted to talk about all the other great stuff that happened during their time in Kinangop. The robbery was simply a bad way to end the trip!"

Mike Neufeld, a teacher who was held at gunpoint, reflected, "This experience proved to me that my pacifist theology can stand the test. I never once felt as though we should fight these guys. We just gave them all our money (about $600 Cdn) and stayed calm." The Kenyan hosts, who were also robbed of their savings and valuables, begged the robbers to leave the children alone, and showed them how to escape once they had taken all the money. Thankfully, the guard who was shot at was unharmed, though shaken.

At the end of their four day experience, students and teachers return to a conference center near Nairobi for a 24-hour debriefing time. This is where stories are told and memories are cemented.

A 9th grader observed, “Sometimes I complain about leftovers, my clothes, our blankets… On CFS, I learned I need to be more content.”

After seeing a school without any textbooks, a Kenyan ninth-grader said, “We don’t appreciate our books and homework. But now, I thank God for them.”

Rosslyn Academy was started by Mennonites as Hilltop School in Tanzania, and is now owned by Eastern Mennonite Mission, the Southern Baptists, and the Assemblies of God. The school has over 450 students from Kindergarten through Grade 12, with just over two hundred students in high school. Teachers to Rosslyn are hired directly by the school, and are considered missionary teachers.

Neufeld Wiens describes Rosslyn Academy as a “Christian International Day School.” The CFS experience is one way the school infuses its vision to “Help each student develop God-given gifts for Christ-like service in the world community”

Twelfth-grader Student Council President Dae Han Kong visited a Maasai community in Narosura during his CFS experience, and observed, “Materially, I have more. But they have God’s love; their hearts are full. They taught me the purpose of my life – to live for God’s love.”

Another 12th grader observed, “CFS is a cultural experience, but this year I realized that CFS is a spiritual experience, if you allow it to be.”

For the last two years, one of the CFS groups has worked with Bridging the Gap Africa, a mission effort that builds footbridges over riverbeds. Each bridge makes the primary form of local transportation – foot traffic – safer during the rainy season.

One student who worked on the bridge building crew offered an analogy: “CFS is a bridge, building relationships with communities and each other. Bridges are beautiful things!”

Each year, the CFS trip is anticipated and prayed over for months. Students and teachers travel thousands of kilometres with few difficulties. While the place where the robbery took place will not be a CFS site next year, there has been no discussion of suspending the program.

"CFS is what makes our school special," says Neufeld Wiens, "and we really sense that God has protected our students and hosts for a reason." Meanwhile, security is being reviewed for next years, with plans for teachers to carry less cash.

Neufeld Wiens has accompanied students on five CFS trips. “The program is an incredible relationship-building event, with deep cultural and spiritual significance. It is a privilege to watch students grow in their ability to engage in cross-cultural dialogue and learning. It is an honor to be present in settings where faith and culture intersect in powerful ways.”

Werner and Adelia Wiens (Bethel Mennonite Church, Winnipeg), are two of ten Canadians teaching at Rosslyn Academy in Nairobi – a hub of mission activity in East Africa, with dozens of seminaries and mission headquarters . In 2007, the school will celebrate its 60th anniversary. The couple has been teaching at the school since 2001.

Photo cutline: Each year, students from the international Christian day school, Rosslyn Academy, in Nairobi, Kenya, go on Cultural Field Studies trips. Students divide into groups, staying with communities all over Kenya, and participate in service and community development projects. Here, a group makes final adjustments to the cables of a newly erected suspension bridge. – photo by Adelia Neufeld Wiens

Sidebar: Bridging the Gap

- by Adelia Neufeld Wiens

 


Together with local Maasai people, 12th graders Andrew Conway and Yurika Kobayashi help tighten the cables of a newly erected suspension bridge over the Entiaktiak River on the edge of the Maasai Mara game reserve. The 33 metre bridge will make local foot traffic safer when the river floods during the rainy season

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For students at Rosslyn Academy, the notion of “bridging the gap” is more than a clever turn of phrase. It’s an effort that can save lives and bring together communities when rivers rage during the African rainy season.

I was fortunate to participate in a bridge-building project with the non-governmental organization (NGO) Bridging the Gap Africa in January. Together with a group of students, we traveled to the edge of the Maasai Mara game reserve to build a 110-foot suspension footbridge over the Entiaktiak River.

Harmon Parker, founder and director of “Bridging the Gap Africa,” is a missionary who discovered in the early 1990’s that his building skills and interests were well suited to building footbridges over riverbeds that became dangerous during rainy season floods. He and his son Josh, a 12th grader at Rosslyn Academy, fulfilled a long-time dream of leading a group of his son’s friends on their CFS trip.

“I never, ever get tired of building bridges,” said Parker. Each bridge is a gift to a community, and is built with community initiative and effort. Funded by churches in the US and Europe, Bridging the Gap offers the opportunity for short-term mission groups to come to Africa and participate in a valuable, practical project.

Building a suspension footbridge is fairly simple, says Parker. He has designed a bridge that relies on anchors and steel cables, with locally made hangers that hold treated wood footboards. Community leaders apply for a bridge and assist in choosing an appropriate site. Parker’s local assistants use community aid to dig and pour the concrete anchor footings, and a crew arrives to build the bridge one month later.

Our bridge took only one day to build, with a few hours on a subsequent day to tighten the supporting cables. The event culminated in a community ceremony and goat-roast, when area residents crossed the bridge for the first time.

During the ceremony, community leaders pledged to guard the bridge against mischief and carelessness. Four men were given the responsibility to watch over the bridge day and night; elders determined that the bridge would be closed except for when it was needed, in order to save children from reckless play. Bridging a seemingly docile river, the structure served to remind the drought-stricken region that the rains will come one day.

It was inevitable that allusions to Jesus as the bridge between God and humanity were made. I was reminded of Psalm 1, and its reference to the tree planted beside streams of water. The water is not the enemy, but it is powerful.

The bridge will be used by school-children and merchants, sick people and caregivers. The water that flows beneath it will bring life and hope, while the fear of death from its raging torrent will be eased. The gap is bridged, through the cooperation of hearts and hands from different cultures.