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Jack of all trades, in Africa

At age 75 most people probably wouldn’t consider hopping on a plane for Africa to do construction work or whatever else needs doing in various remote villages, but Jack Myers of rural New London did just that. And it isn’t the first time. He’s been to Kenya once, and Costa Rica and the Ivory Coast twice, because he enjoys being with the natives there, the people he travels with, and doing work the natives can’t do themselves. At times the tasks can be rather simple but since the natives don’t have the tools they need or the know how to do the work, the work doesn’t get done. During the 1984 trip to Costa Rica he helped build second floor classrooms. In 1999 in Jamaica he repaired a house for a missionary retreat. He went to Kenya in 2000 where he helped build a kitchen and dining room for the school. In 2004 he went to the Ivory Coast where he helped build walls and a roof for the sanctuary. In 2006 he volunteered for Katrina-Waveland MS where he cleaned out a house and painted another house. And during the trip he just came back from he did miscellaneous jobs for the missionaries and lined up future building projects. “This last time they didn’t have any big projects, they just had some odds and ends, things they wanted us to help with.” Myers said the only people traveling there this time were himself and one other fellow from Grand Rapids who puts these trips together. “He’s interesting, fun to work with and just a great guy all the way around.” Usually, he said there are 10 to 13 people in a group that goes down to work. Basically all they did this trip, Myers said, was to fix a couple of motors and a cement mixer and look at some buildings that needed repairs. “We drove up to Korhogo, a couple hundred miles north in the bush, where we looked at a couple of buildings that need a lot of work.” One of them they use for a church and a community center. “It’s just a big open building; it looked like a quonset hut almost.” They’ll work on those buildings the next trip there, he said, and Lord willing he’ll be taking that trip as well. If there is cement work to be done there, Myers said, it’s all done by hand. You take a pile of dirt, pour water in the dirt, pour the cement in and mix it with a shovel. “We did that in Costa Rica too. They didn’t have cement mixers, we just mixed it on the ground.” Korhogo is in the northern part of the country, quite a ways in and there were terrible roads going up there. “It took us almost all day to go there because the roads were so bad. You go and you stop and you go and you stop. There are holes in the road, trucks broken down right on the road. They don’t use a wrecker, they just leave them, and they fix them right on the road.” He said they had to drive kind of off the edge of the road to get around some of the things. The fellow that puts these work trips together has made the trip to Africa 21 times. “The first time we went and I got hooked on it was in 1984 when we went to Costa Rica. At that time, he said, they mixed cement, lifted block and did all kinds of manual labor. “It was fun. We worked way up in the mountain. We drove out there every day quite a ways up the mountain. It was pretty cool up there but down where we stayed it was hot.” He said they worked with missionaries, and those missionaries provided all the food and had everything set up ahead of time. “A lot of these trips you plan a whole year in advance.” The people in these villages are wonderful people, he said, and they appreciate everything you do, which makes it fun. He said they mingle with the natives as much as possible. They all speak a little different language so you can’t understand much of what they’re saying. “When I was in Kenya they spoke some Spanish and I could understand some of the words, but not this French. It was different.” They work as teams on the different projects, he said, and when he was in Kenya, one of the natives that worked with him wanted him to come and see where he lived, so one day they did go to his home. “We had to walk way up the mountain to where he lived. He has a little bitty hut up there and he was proud as if it was a mansion. It was only two rooms and they put cots on the floor to sleep on. And in the daytime they just hang them up.” They had a garden where they raised all types of food, and little bushes they called medication bushes where they take things off to use for various ailments from headaches to stomachaches to one that makes them sleepy. Myers didn’t try any of them. Everything they eat is grown, said Mrs. Myers, who accompanied her husband on one trip to the Ivory Coast. “They don’t have money, they have to make everything off that land. They take care of themselves. There’s no job anywhere in Kenya.” That particular mission didn’t have any outside employment at all so there was no way to make money to buy things, everything they needed to survive was off that little plot. Myers said some of them sell their produce and they get a little bit of money to buy something, and they’re out selling all over the place. They sell in an open market, and there will be little stands alongside the road out of which they sell food. Their kids also sell whatever they have, be it a bunch of eggs or a root plant that looks like a potato. “Little kids sit with a five gallon bucket trying to sell them, and the big ones are walking around trying to sell anything they can sell.” These people are very family oriented, they said, their wealth is in their kids so if they have large families they’re wealthy. “They don’t have wealth in anything else. They really feel prosperous if they have a lot of kids because all the kids can work and help take care of them,” said his wife. Myers said they feel when they get too old to work, their kids are going to take care of them. They live in little huts, he said, and some of them are pretty small and some just have straw roofs with sides that also look like straw or grass. The biggest project Myers has worked on while there was when they built rafters and put them on top of a building that was 103 feet long and 40 feet across. “It was huge and is used now for a church and for the community. We had to make the rafters out of their wood. We cut down a tree and they cut it up in pieces and then they bring it to you.” There’s no real lumber, he said, you don’t have nice, straight wood. It’s whatever they have. “We had to nail it together; the wood was all wet and really heavy. We had these huge rafters and we had to nail stuff together and it was a lot of work to get them up.” Myers kept asking how in the world they were going to get the rafters up on the building because it was quite high and there were no cranes, no ladders, no nothing. “The only ladder you had is what you made. We had to make some out of boards to get up there. The guy I was with kept saying ‘the Lord will figure out a way for us to get it up there. don’t worry about it, they’ll get up.'” Myers said they worked many days on making those rafters, which they had to treat them with some black tar-like stuff so the termites wouldn’t eat them up. “The day we were going to put them up, somehow everybody in the country knew about it and we had hundreds of people there to put them up. With all the helping hands they went up like nothing, we just hoisted them right up there. They had so many people there was nothing to it.” It was interesting how that all worked. The people came from everywhere to help, he said, and they had so many people you hardly had room. “If you had a hammer and laid it down, pretty soon somebody’s using it. They don’t have equipment so when you bring stuff along they just grab a hold and use it.” They both said you eat the native food when it gets to the point where you’re expected to, like when they went to a bush village a few years ago and they were invited to the pastor’s home to eat. “It was imperative that they eat. They would be so insulted if you didn’t. They probably saved for months to make this food for you.” The meal was a fish broth made from the heads and tails and served over rice. They can make money on the middle so that’s why the soup was made with the heads and tails. “We could see the heads and the tails but we ate because if we hadn’t we would have insulted them to no end.” The fellow that goes down all the time told Myers there are times he’s prayed and asked God to protect him because they had worked so hard to prepare him a meal and they would be so insulted if he didn’t eat it. Myers said he was in one of the churches way out in the bush. It was real small. The walls were made of bamboo sticks with a bush over the top. “There were no seats. We were the only ones with seats, everyone else stood. It was plumb full of people, and they don’t have windows, just doors they open, and if people stand outside by the door they can hear what’s going on.” He said the most memorable thing with this trip was the bad roads. “There were big holes in the road, horrible roads, they have so much government trouble and government fights and arguments and nobody seems to fix the roads.” The main roads are blacktopped, he said, but anywhere else it’s a path because most people don’t have cars, they walk. “But you’re bouncing as you’re driving.” When going to the church they followed the walking path and bounced through the weeds because everything grows pretty high. They follow the path and it goes past huts, inbetween their huts, and it’s like there is hardly room for this little pickup to get through. It wasn’t all work while there. They toured the Catholic basilica. “All the windows tell the Bible stories. It blows you away.” There’s a huge area they can worship in but only about 150 people come to Sunday mass there. It holds thousands of people, but the natives don’t use it because people from the outside were brought in to build it. “The village people got real upset, so they don’t go there. They got upset with the way it was done. When they built it they had intentions for the Pope to come but he didn’t come.” They also went to an animal sanctuary to see the wild animals. This last time there were no animals where they were at, it was pretty much a desert area. “We were at one little bitty church, they were talking about adding onto the pastor’s house because it’s pretty small and they were out looking through the weeds and the grass for something to use.” He continued, saying, “they told me if I came out in the grass to walk really slow and be careful because they have this two-step mambo snake in the grass and if it bites you, you only take two steps (and you’re dead). They were walking through quite high grass and they use sticks and swing the sticks back and forth to scare any snakes away.” Needless to say Myers sdidn’t go out there. They heard a lot of stories while there, one about a woman with malaria who was pregnant, went to see the doctor who wanted to airlift her to a hospital but the missionary said no, there was no way to get her airlifted out of there. “She got a whole bunch of people from that area to pray and they prayed all day and all night and the next day the lady that was having all the problems walked home. It just blows you away.” Another memorable story about the medical service in Kenya was about a man who walked a long way to see the doctor. He had been stabbed in the head with a machete. He had packed cow manure on his head to keep the infection away and when they opened the wound up it was miraculously good. Anytime the doctor was around there’d be about 300 people lined up, many of them waiting all night long because it was too far to walk home and come back the next day. “They don’t think nothing of walking five miles. They walk to church that far. And church isn’t a one or two hour service, it’s most of the day and then they walk home.” The cost to go on a trip is about $2,400 and that includes the transportation, all your food, building materials, everything. “They have nothing to build with, so if you’re going there you need to bring all your tools, all your building materials.” Whatever can be purchased they purchase there and sometimes they leave their tools behind. “They love tape measures, the great big colored ones.” Myers said one thing you have to think about when you go on one of these working trips is what’s going to happen to you if you get sick because it’s tough work and tough conditions. And if he should die while he’s there he won’t be coming home, he’ll be buried there because of the expense, red tape and paperwork that would be involved. “That’s a concept to think about,” said his wife. ‘The chances are greater as you get older.” Age 50 is old in Kenya, Myers said. “Nobody has white hair there so when us guys come with our white hair….” They just about bow to them, he said, they respect their seniors.” It’s such a hard life they don’t live to be very old.”

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