Redefining Joy

I hear them before I see them: the women singing Chichewa worship songs.  When we walk into the small, dimly lit room, they link arms with us to bring us into their dance.  I don’t know the song or dance, and I don’t understand the words of the song, but I understand the message of their hearts: overflowing joy.  They wrap a new chitenje (fabric wrap) around me so that mine matches theirs, and I have a sense of being unworthy.  I’m not one of their group; I just came to visit.  But I know that they consider our visit, my presence, an honor.  My wearing the chitenje gives them joy.

That joy defines their lives in so many ways, from the singing and dancing to the way they welcome us to the way they give God glory for every good thing He has done in their lives.  I’ve learned that joy is a choice, and I want to be like these women, choosing joy in everything because there is always a reason to praise God.


They could find many reasons not to choose joy.  These are women who lost everything – literally.  They have lost their husbands, and the culture’s tradition is that when a man dies, his family can take over the property and meager possessions of the deceased man, leaving his wife with no hope to provide for her children.


Worship is a defining characteristic of this group of women.

Yet as I join this circle of dancing women , I don’t see looks of hopelessness.  I see gratitude and joy.  These women have chosen to bond together in their choice to move forward and thank God.  Each week when they meet, this room is a place where they are encouraged by the truth of God’s Word and the companionship of one another.  And this small, dark room is filled with the presence of God.


They see hope.  As they learn how to sew and make jewelry, they see the hope that they are gaining the skills to provide for their children.  When they put on their caps and gowns to graduate from the training program, they see the hope of a new future.  When they open their bank accounts, they see the hope of rebuilding what was once taken from them.  And when I tell them that I want to buy some of their beautiful bags to share with friends in America, they erupt in cheers of their unmistakable joy.

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These ladies are so proud of their work! These baskets are the project that my mom and sister were able to teach the women.

When I head back from the village, several of the ladies catch a ride with me.  I’m bouncing along the dusty road with no less than five additional women and three babies in the car, listening to the joyful chatter.  Since I’m getting ready to go to the US for the holidays, they have told me how much they will miss me.  Wezzi had jokingly asked me to take her with me, and when I invited her to get in my bag, she pretended to crawl in.  A beautiful, not-so-petite lady, Wezzi barely fit her head in my bag, making us all laugh.  In the car, Ms. Grace asks me to give my mom and sister their greetings when I’m in America, and to thank them for teaching the widows group how to make painted baskets.  Gratitude. Joy. Hope.  I have so much to learn from these women.  One day, when I raise children of my own, I hope that I embody this beauty.


Because of this bank card, Wezzi has secure access to her own account and is able to make savings from her income.

Friends, during my time in the US, I have realized the importance of sharing the story of these incredible women who make up some of the mothers of my students.  The women I wrote about here are part of COTN’s Mtsiliza Widows Ministry.  Because of partnerships with Opportunity International and Market Colors, these women are now able to have secure bank accounts and a global market for some of their products. Please check out these great organizations. During this Christmas season, I will be selling some of the beautiful chitenje fabric bags made by these ladies.  You can purchase one by making a tax-deductible donation to Children of the Nations on my ministry page here, or by making a check out to Children of the Nations with my ministry code, MA_CMM812, on the memo line. Email me at, and we will make an arrangement to get you the bag!

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Giving Thanks

If you’ve heard the rumors or seen the Facebook photos, it’s true: I’ve come “home” for the holidays; but to be honest, I still can’t figure out what home is.  While embracing the treasure of spending time with people who have known me my whole life and love me even in the crazy life I have now chosen, I’m painfully aware of the people I’m not with right now.  As I sit at the big family table surrounded by Thanksgiving preparations and gaze out the window to see a snow-covered deck that overlooks the Great Smokey Mountains, my legs are wrapped in a Malawian chitenje (fabric wrap), partly because my body is still trying to realize that it’s no longer in Malawian summer but partly because it feels good to have a piece of Malawi “home.”  Mom and I just had a good chat, and I always love sharing hearts with her.  A Malawian basket in the living room is scattered in colorful cards that some of my students spontaneously made for my family, and a letter to Mom from one of my African mother figures, an incredible lady with whom I get the privilege of working at the primary and preschools.  Today is Thursday, so she and I should be visiting one of the preschools together.  More student-made cards – ones made especially for me – cover my bathroom mirror, and my phone alerted me yesterday that I was supposed to be at art club and then go visit our girls’ home.  I find myself getting on Facebook to see what my friends are up to in Malawi, all the while knowing that if I was in Malawi I would have checked Dad’s Facebook photos to get a glimpse of my brother’s awesome game, which I actually had the chance to see in person this year.  It’s not easy to have your heart invested in awesome people in two places across the globe.  I’ve had to ask for a lot of grace from my sweet family this trip as I navigate the emotions of having a heart with two homes.  Yet in this season of Thanksgiving I am reminded of a lesson I continually learn from my friends and role models in Malawi: Praise God in everything.  Truly, there is so much to thank Him for:

 a family who loves me, prays for me, and even traveled across the world to be a part of my crazy life

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family on the other side of the globe, and opportunities to share hearts

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students learning to think and act in creativity, freedom, and truth Malawi_November2013 011 Malawi_November2013 004

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 teachers trying new methods

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new school facilities, which are an answer to prayer

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uninhibited smiles

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healing and hope

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friends like you who are a part of my journey in various ways –

know that I don’t take this for granted

a God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever

Happy Thanksgiving!

I hope to see lots more of you soon!

Joy, Grief, and Gratitude

Friends, I’m so sorry for being MIA from blog world!

So many great things have happened here.  Some really hard stuff has happened too, and sometimes I just couldn’t figure out how to put my heart thoughts into words.

I can’t tell you everything, but I want to give you a glimpse into what my heart has felt over the past few months:

Awe as we celebrated our school’s first graduation


Coming from the humble beginnings of twenty-nine uncertain ninth graders learning under a tree four years ago, we could not have been more proud to watch these students, plus a few more COTN children who joined the school along the way, receive their diplomas.  Honestly, I really didn’t grasp how far the school has come until I listened to stories from a former education consultant who helped start the school and taught its very first students.  She returned to Malawi to deliver a moving graduation speech to the graduates.  In day-to-day life, I think it’s easy for me to forget how far these students have come and the challenging backgrounds from which they have risen.  Several years ago, these children couldn’t imagine that one day they would graduate from secondary school.  Even the education consultant who helped start the school and relentlessly believed in the students admitted that she never thought she would witness the school succeed to graduation day.  Graduation was more than a celebration of diplomas; it was a celebration of a miracle many never dreamed would become a reality.

Excitement in hosting a successful teacher workshop


Thanks to an awesome team of teachers from the US, this year we hosted a teacher seminar with specific workshops for all three school levels (preschool, primary, and secondary)!  The team of teachers from the US brought great ideas and resources upon which I can now build by following up with teacher development trainings this year.  This year my work extends beyond the secondary school as I am assisting one of our Malawian education staff in overseeing COTN’s preschools and primary schools; so I loved seeing specific ideas for all three school levels!  As I prepared to begin the new school year and worked with fabulous teachers who brought fresh ideas to our schools, I found myself feeling renewed excitement for my work.  More importantly, teachers from our COTN-run schools, as well government schools in the community, which many of the children in our Village Partnership Program attend, were able to gain new ideas and left the workshop excited to implement what they had gleaned.  Even one of our COTN university students majoring in education attended the workshop!  Perhaps most exciting, I have already seen some of the teachers using the teaching methods and resources in their classrooms this year – the true measure of success!

Sadness, confusion, and frustration as I grieved the death of a student

Some things just don’t make sense.  It doesn’t make sense when a healthy boy who graduated just a couple months before and had a life of great potential ahead of him suddenly dies, and no one can explain why.  It makes me frustrated that there isn’t better medical care here, and death is so commonplace.  I’m still not fully over it.  It’s just not right.  I know God is still God, and that He brings good out of situations where I can’t see the light.  I learn to cling to Him in times like this.  At the same time, I’m honest with Him that I don’t understand.

 Joy to begin the new school year


Despite challenges leading into the new school year like the student’s death, the school year started off even better than last year at all three school levels!  I love being able to visit the preschools and primary schools in addition to working at the secondary school.  It is a joy to partner with our incredible headmistress, Esther, who oversees the preschools and primary schools.  I love working with Esther to improve the quality of teaching, help to make sure each school has basic resources and knows how to use them, and encourage the teachers.  Esther is a get-it-done woman, so we had our first preschool-primary staff development training in the second week of school, and now we’re making follow-ups in the different classrooms.  I love how eager many of these teachers are to learn.  When Esther asked one of the teachers if she had any questions, she asked me how we help young children learn to follow procedures (the topic I had presented at the staff development training).  I couldn’t have been more excited to witness a transfer from doing what she was told to a desire to know how to make it work in the classroom!  When we visited the preschool in the most rural village with which COTN partners, the teacher, working hard and doing her best with her limited English, told Esther in Chichewa, “I haven’t been trained as a teacher, but I love teaching and want to learn.  Please keep coming and teaching me how to be a better teacher.”  Last year, the preschools didn’t have anyone coming to visit them and help them improve.  It is beautiful to see the teachers so eager to glean new ideas!


At the secondary school, we have added a couple new teachers to increase the quality of our math/science department and allow the teacher who finished last school year as acting headmaster to step into the role as full-time headmaster.  Thanks to some generous gifts toward our science lab, we are able to take our next steps in completing the science lab, which will help our school meet the requirements for becoming a certified school.  Many of you gave toward the new girls’ hostel, and it is moving right along – we are almost ready for the roof!  Because of the construction of a new double classroom, our ninth and tenth graders were able to move out of the temporary classrooms this year.  In equipping our school with these facilities and qualified teaching staff, this year we are able to serve not only our COTN children in providing a quality education, but also tuition-paying students from outside COTN.  This allows our school to become more self-sustaining, gives our COTN students exposure to other students and positive competition that is increasing the academic level of our school, and opens opportunities for other ministries serving vulnerable children to send their students to a school where they will receive a quality education in a nurturing environment.  This year we have students from at least two other ministries serving orphaned and vulnerable children, as well as many students whose families are able to provide for them and wanted their children to have the quality education that International Christian Academy offers.  It’s a very exciting time in our school!

We have many goals to continue improving the quality of education we are able to offer at all of our schools.  In addition to working toward completing the science lab and girls’ hostel at the secondary school, our primary schools have expanded to each include one additional grade level.  At “Big John’s” COTN Primary School, our wonderful headmistress partnered with the village chiefs to acquire classroom space for a fourth grade class.  Thanks to the work of another education consultant last year, the current fourth graders received an excellent foundation of reading instruction in third grade.  As a result of the additional classroom, our little readers are now able to continue receiving the quality education that COTN provides at this school.  Please join me in praying for (or giving toward) the funds to hire two new teachers at this school.  With the addition of fourth grade and the change of Esther’s role from school headmistress/classroom teacher to headmistress overseeing all COTN primary and preschools, the school is currently making do with one of our preschool teachers and two of our girls who just graduated from the secondary school and are waiting for the government to release exam results to enter university.  The school would like to hire two experienced, qualified teachers to meet our standards for providing a quality education to the children at this school.

Gratitude for YOU and so many others who are continually supporting the work that is going on here.  It means more than I can ever express to know that I am never walking the dusty feet journey alone.  Zikomo kwambiri! (Thank you so much!)


I was at a funeral, of all places.  Two students from our school had lost the guardian who cared for them after their parents died.  Their classmates and several teachers went to the funeral in the village to show our support.  I was sitting sandwiched in a long row of women lining the dust road leading up to the home and funeral tent.  Since I understood none of the Chichewa songs or speeches, it was a whole lot of sitting, observing, and following along.  I don’t remember exactly when the thought came.  Maybe it was when some of our students stood up to offer encouragement by singing a song about pressing on through obstacles.  Maybe it was as I sat there surrounded by mothers and babies trying to figure me out.  Maybe it was when some little children who I didn’t know started calling for me by any names they remembered for white girls who had been in their village.  Maybe it was just because I was sitting there in silence, taking everything in and better able to hear a still, small Voice speaking to my heart.  Regardless, at some point a very distinct thought came into my mind out of nowhere: “I’m staying.”  Immediately I responded to this thought, “Wait, what? Where did that come from?”

In the following weeks, that scenario replayed itself a couple more times at seemingly random moments.  I knew that thoughts which take me by surprise don’t come from me, and I had a feeling of confirmation in my heart.  But it took me awhile to admit, even to myself, that I knew I was staying longer.  Eventually, I shared my feelings with my roommate, Tiana, but I decided that I wouldn’t talk to anyone else until I had told my parents what I was thinking when I was home for Christmas.

As it turned out, I didn’t have to bring up the topic while I was in Florida.  People kept saying, “Wow, I can tell you really love it…so, are you going to stay longer?”  I had to be honest and answer, “I’m definitely thinking about it.”  My incredible parents have an ability to trust and support their children in following God’s call on our lives, even when it means choosing a life that some would label risky, uncertain, unsuccessful, or even foolish.  I have the invaluable gift of parents who want their children to be in the center of God’s will.  Needless to say, they supported me making the decision I felt was right (so long as there was no boyfriend, Mom mentioned…).

With that, I started having conversations about preparing to extend another year.  We worked through the tedious process of extending my visa to a long-term permit, and we were able to get the application packet approved literally on the last possible day.  Time and again, I’ve had confirmation that this is where I’m supposed to be.  Even when I went through a period of exhaustion and questioning so many things, there was never any doubt that this is home and I need to stay longer.  I can’t tell you how much I love these kids.  I don’t even know from where this love is emerging, but I find myself just smiling while watching them, desiring so deeply for them to make choices toward God’s best for their lives, and grieving when I’ve tried to pursue one and he makes other choices.  I guess I’ve become a mom in some sense.  So I’m staying with my kids another year.  There’s so much I want to do to help our students and school, although I’m not sure which ideas I will be able to make a reality.  I don’t know what the future holds after this next year, and I don’t even know where the rest of the funds will come from so that I can stay.  But if there’s one giant lesson Malawians have taught me by their example, it’s to trust God rather than my own ability, planning, or understanding; so that’s what I’m doing.  Would you join me in praying and trusting God to accomplish exactly what He has in mind?  Thanks, friends!

Oh, and if you want to be a part of God’s answer to our prayers by contributing toward my fundraising goal for living and serving in Malawi another year, you can make a tax-deductible donation here.

Zikomo! (Thank you!)

Things I never thought I’d say

I mentioned in my last post that sometimes it’s hard for me to know how to write about what has become normal, everyday life for me.  So…here are a few things I’ve said as part of my normal life teaching in Malawi, which weren’t a part of my normal life as a teacher in the US:

  •  “You are not allowed to drink out of the water hose during my class.”
  • “I know there are bees in the staff room, but I need to get some chalk.”
  • Me: “Put that [grasshopper] outside.  If this was biology class, you could show it to your teacher, but this is not biology class.” [Student starts to put the grasshopper in his pocket.]  “No, put it outside.”

Student: “In Malawi, this is relish.” [Relish = vegetables, meat, or anything else someone eats with nsima, which is the boiled cornflower staple of Malawi]

Me: “It’s not lunch time.  Put it outside and come back.”

  • “Don’t be afraid of my dog.  Have courage!” (I say this often when students bring me the keys to the staff room in the evening.)
  • “Mphatso [my dog], go home!” (Among other times, this occurred while I was trying to do a vocabulary relay activity outside, and the students stopped dead in their tracks when they saw my dog next to me.  Most of my students are afraid of dogs.)
  • “How can all four of you boys need to answer the call of nature at the same time?” (discussion with students who I found slowly walking down the path to the toilet)
  • “Go back to the hostel and change your pants…I mean your trousers!”  (Malawi uses British English: “trousers” are American “pants,” while “pants” are American “underwear.”)
  •  “Put your shoes back on.”  (I think I said this a few times while teaching in the US, but I say it all the time here!)

If you haven’t read my last post about all the incredible things you’ve been able to help accomplish here, please do when you have some time!  Stay tuned for the story of how I decided to stay in Malawi another year. 🙂

It Matters

It’s been too, too long since I caught you up on Dusty Feet Journeys.  I know you haven’t forgotten about me, and I thank you for all your thoughts, prayers, and encouraging words.  I haven’t forgotten about you or this little blog, either.  Often I have begun a blog post in my mind or on paper, but somehow it never seemed to get finished.  In part, I think this is because I find it difficult to write about what has become normal life to me.  It’s normal that as I sit on my couch beside the living room window, I hear and see my students chatting, laughing, singing, and walking to the school hall next to my house to study.  It’s normal that tonight I will hear the student choir practicing Chichewa choruses for church tomorrow, and as I get ready to go to my church I will hear the students conducting their own church service in the hall.  It’s normal that when I wake up at 5 a.m. Monday morning some of the students will be walking into the hall to sweep, mop, and set up the desks in the classroom – this is their daily routine before school.  Even in the new experience of harvesting my own garden, it feels normal to have rows of tomatoes, sweet potatoes, radishes, and onions growing behind my house, and it felt pretty normal the other day when a student gladly agreed to show me how to harvest the sweet potatoes and another student walked up and told me she wanted to help.  I know to expect the power to go out several times a week, and I know that when the power goes out each Tuesday evening I will hear squeals followed by songs from the girls’ dorm next to my house.  This is my life.  This is the life I picture for myself.  While I absolutely love each moment, each relationship God has given me as a gift in my life here, it feels so normal that sometimes I don’t know how to tell you about it in a way that feels monumental.  But really, it’s the little things that God uses to do something monumental, right?  So I would like to take some time to thank you for being a part of each step on the dusty feet journey.  Because of your partnership through prayer, gifts, and support, we have taken these steps together:

  • This year our school has its first form four (twelfth grade) class, so we will host our first secondary school graduation this coming June!  This was possible because of the construction of two new, permanent classrooms and a boys’ dormitory.
  • Thanks to some American schools who donated high school literature books, our form three and form four (11th-12th grade) students have almost enough copies of Romeo and Juliet for every student to have his or her own copy, and the books came with excellent teacher resources that I was able to explain how to use.  Malawian secondary school students must pass a national test that is based upon a specific curriculum and set of books, but it is typical for an entire class to share just a few copies of the books.  The great teacher resources we’re used to in American schools are nonexistent in Malawi.  One of our teachers listed as a major accomplishment this year, “Sourcing a Romeo and Juliet DVD.” (Thank you so much, Kristi, for sending that one and several other literature DVD’s with me after Christmas!)
  • Our form one (ninth grade) students, who oftentimes attended government primary schools with easily a hundred or more students per class, benefited from upper-elementary literature books donated by American schools as they adjusted to their classes being taught solely in English and studying literature for the first time.  These students have made tremendous growth in their English reading, writing, and speaking skills!
  • Our school now has a fully operating little library with student librarians from each class, and another small library in one of the classrooms is getting off the ground.  Students are borrowing and READING books!  The school library is one of the main requirements for our school to become accredited.
  • We are on our way to meeting another main requirement for school accreditation: having a science lab.  When our two new classrooms were built for the opening of school this year, one of the classrooms included a space for a science lab.  We now have science tables and some of our science lab equipment.  We are in the process of obtaining the rest of the equipment needed to furnish the science lab so that our school can be accredited and our science classes can conduct the experiments the students are expected to understand for the national exams.
  • After an excellent American art teacher visited our school to conduct her well-established history-based art program, one of our Malawian teachers partnered with me to teach an additional art-history lesson as part of her history class.  Hands-on learning is a new concept here.  Our students were so proud of their work, and they really understood and remembered the history lesson!  The teacher who taught the art-history lesson in her history class is a former COTN student who graduated from secondary school and passed the national exam, went to university and earned her degree, and came back to teach at COTN’s new secondary school.
  • The art program received such great responses that we started an after-school art club, followed by an English club, to add to the Christian leadership club and athletics that were already available to our students.  In addition, God provided an experienced American special education teacher to work with some of our students in math and English after school for the past several months.
  • A small clinic has been set up on our school’s campus, run by qualified nurses from one of our children’s homes.  This has saved us many trips to an off-campus clinic and helped students get back to school more quickly.  I’m told that this past rainy season we had far fewer cases of malaria than in the past.  I can now say as a firsthand witness that keeping students healthy is directly related to keeping them in school.  To anyone who helped us get mosquito nets or ProVector flowers in our children’s rooms to help protect them from malaria, THANK YOU – it made a difference!  In addition to benefiting our students, our new clinic also serves the surrounding community, including children from the village primary school that COTN took over this year.
  • A short-term missions team from Summit Church in Florida conducted a sports evangelism program with our students and the surrounding community.  The children had the opportunity to exchange life stories with the American team and talk about important life challenges that are often not discussed in Malawian culture.  Thank you, Summit!  Many more teams from various churches and groups are preparing to come and serve in June and July, including teams of teachers who will work with each level of education – preschool, elementary-middle, and high school.
  • COTN-Malawi hosted our first annual Center Celebration Day, showcasing many of our programs and the talents of children from each of our homes and villages.  It was a great success, with visitors from the Malawian government and several NGO’s.  Our village primary school showcased the phonics-based reading program that my education consultant colleague, Tiana, has helped to implement this school year.  A major Malawi TV network was so impressed that they interviewed Tiana and the school headmistress, recorded their third graders reading in English, and broadcast the interview several times in the following weeks!  Our goal is to build the village primary school and add a grade each year so that it can eventually become a strong feeder school into our secondary school.
  • Almost all of the students in our secondary school now have school uniforms!  For a student from a Malawian village, a school uniform is something to feel proud of.  It is likely the nicest outfit the child owns, it lets the student feel that he or she is officially a part of the school, and it is a part of the sense that school is a privilege.  Being able to attend school – especially secondary school – is indeed a great privilege here!
  • We are starting a system of procedures for teacher absences and use of substitute teachers.  In a typical Malawian secondary school, when a teacher is absent, the other teachers fill in for the absent teacher.  In theory, I love how this is a reflection of the Malawian culture of community (something I have really grown to love!).  In practice, the frequent schedule changes can result in lost learning time for the students.  Our school is working to establish procedures that maximize student learning time while respecting Malawian culture.
  • In the past few months, generous donations provided the funding to begin construction of a third permanent classroom and a girls’ dormitory.  Most Malawian secondary schools are boarding schools, in large part because of the challenges of getting to school and the scarcity of secondary schools.  Because our school’s temporary sleeping space for our girls is too small for all of the girls at the school, many girls walk up to an hour and a half each morning and afternoon between their homes in their villages and the school.  When they arrive home in the late afternoon, they are expected to help with the family chores, and many don’t have electricity by which to do their homework once it is dark.  During the rainy season when the corn fields grow tall, safety is a concern for girls walking home, and absences from school are more frequent as students experience the challenges of long, muddy walks in the rain.  I know that many of you have been burdened by this need and joined me in praying and giving toward the construction of a girls’ dormitory, and I want to thank you.  We now have the funds to begin construction on the girls’ dormitory and new classroom!  The new classroom will allow our school to open its doors to an additional form one (ninth grade) class next year, which will include students from outside COTN’s programs who will pay tuition and help fund the school from within Malawi.

If you have read everything in this blog post up to this point, you’re awesome!  I usually try to keep my blog posts reasonably short, but this time I had so much to catch you up on, and I wanted you to know why it really does matter that you are a part of this journey.  Zikomo kwambiri (Thank you so much) for encouraging me, praying for me, praying for the school, sacrificially giving toward the school, and taking the time to follow what’s happening with Dusty Feet Journeys.  It really does matter.  You really are making a difference.  When our students pray for God to provide, they trust that He will.  When He provides through you, they see you as God’s way of answering their prayers.  Our Malawian staff often remind the students that our friends in the US make great sacrifices in order to give generously.  They remind the students, and the students remind one another, not to take anything for granted.  Our students are grateful for you, and they are praying for you.  I thought you should know that.

Now…what’s next?  As you can see, much has happened, but much still remains to be accomplished.  As you may have guessed (or I may have told you by now), I’m not ready to leave it all behind.  Right now, I’m in the process of applying for my visa extension and raising funds to stay another year.  I want to tell you how I came to this decision, so I promise to write again “soon-soon,” as my Malawian friends would say!  For now, just know that I am grateful for you.

Guest Post on Market Colors

It’s always a joy to talk about Africa, but what a special honor to do so through one of my favorite organizations, Market Colors!  An amazing young woman from my American church family envisioned this non-profit after spending time with the incredible women in Children of the Nations’ Widows Ministry. The participants in COTN’s Widows Ministry, who live in one of the villages where some of my students live, apprentice in sewing and jewelry making skills for two years and then open their own bank accounts through Opportunity International (a great micro-finance organization).  Market Colors has opened the door for these women, as well as others in Kenya, to have an international market through Market Colors’ online store! Regardless of whether you read my blog post on the Market Colors website, please check out their online store and other amazing things on their website.  And then buy some of their awesome products!