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Wayland partnership with Kenya college continues to flourish

Christa Smith is sitting at her desk, flipping casually through a binder where photos and captions from her first trip to Kenya are preserved under protective plastic pages. Though she's in her office at Wayland Baptist University - which is tucked into the modern languages department on the second floor of Gates Hall - Smith seems to be at least mentally back in Africa.

"This is Alfred. He asked us to call him Safari, because he was born on a journey," she said, pointing to the smiling face of a young Kenyan. Her face reflects the same smile as she flips the next page. "This one, Thomas, pastors the Banana Hill Baptist Church. I just love that name."

Page after page, she calls each student by name, remembering their life stories and the sacrifices they made to attend the Kenya Baptist Theological College. That sacrifice, and the appreciation these adult students hold for their educational opportunities, are some of Smith's favorite memories from her visit to East Africa in the summer of 2000. Those have only served to whet her appetite for her next visit this coming July.

Smith and several other Wayland professors have made the journey to Africa over the past three years to teach basic classes at the Kenya college through a partnership with the Kenya Baptist Convention. The instructors make the trip in pairs during the summer and winter breaks, committing to an intense three- or four-week teaching session.

Dr. Phil Almes, professor of mathematics, has made the trip three times, most recently in January. He can vouch for the tiring effort.

"I started off each day teaching algebra for about an hour and a half, then we'd break for tea and chapel. Then Dr. (Peter) Bowen (associate professor of psychology) would teach for an hour, and we'd break for lunch," he said. "After lunch he'd teach for an hour and a half and then I'd teach for an hour.

"We kidded each other that we were like a tag team: one would come in and slap the other's hand," he laughed.

Almes has been involved with the Kenya project from the beginning, making the initial fact-finding trip with project coordinator Dr. Vaughn Ross, a former missionary to the area and now professor of biological sciences at WBU. He said the teaching experiences in Kenya, though using the same materials and lessons as his classes in Plainview, have been a different world.

"Every teacher that goes comes back amazed by the determination and the energy of the students. I've never had a class so eager to master the materials as those classes," he said. "They realize every opportunity they have and are trying to make the best of it."

Smith, who taught freshman English courses, felt the same.

"They were so eager and willing to go the extra mile. They have so little but are grateful," she said. "The one thing I realized is that I pray more for my students than I used to. They asked for prayer there and you pray really wondering if they are OK."

Both Almes and Smith said the Kenyan students are very different from their American counterparts. For one, they are typically older - some are in their forties and are nearing the life expectancy of 45 for the country. Perhaps the biggest difference, though, is the extreme sacrifice the students have made to attend the classes.

"Most of these people are on leave from teaching jobs and many have traveled long distances away from their families to attend classes," Almes said.

As with most students in developing countries, the cost of education is a high expense. But the rewards for these bivocational pastors are being well-equipped for ministry and gaining academic qualifications to receive better teaching assignments by the Kenyan government.

Because of limited resources, Almes said he approached his Wayland algebra classes before his first visit about donating their textbooks to be used in Kenya. The response was overwhelming, he said, and they ended up with more than enough books.

Smith said the classroom experience itself was different too. Because of occasional limited electricity, she said she also had to teach by lantern light. More than once they waited until the middle of the night when the electricity came on to do laundry or other tasks. The Wayland group stayed in a missionary home near Brackenhurst, the Baptist retreat facility outside Nairobi. The college sits near the grounds of the facility.

In what little spare time the groups have had, they have done some sightseeing and have worshipped in various churches in Kenya. Almes recounted one experience with the local missionary, who offered to take him and his wife to a "preaching point." The trio traveled a distance and soon came to a large tree where six or seven people were waiting. In no time, nearly 50 people were gathered under the tree, which became a church for the missionary to preach the Gospel to the people.

That experience and others are indelibly etched in Almes' mind, much like the names in Smith's photo album. The effect it had on their lives is the main reason both are so eager to return.

"I came back spiritually humbled after being around them. It strengthened my faith, because their strong faith is so apparent," Almes said. "It's opened up a world to me that I never dreamed of. Just the mission opportunity has meant the world to me."

"I honestly think this is the Lord's work, and I'm glad to be part of it."