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Missionary brings light into bombing survivors’ darkness

NAIROBI, Kenya (BP)–Her white cane rattles as she swishes it side-to-side in front of her, searching for dips and rocks in the dirt road. Children run from her, frightened, while adults turn to stare.
Peninah Wandia doesn’t notice their reactions, though. She’s just happy to be out in the sunshine.
In fact, Wandia, 60, knows she’s lucky to be alive. She lost her sight last August in a terrorist bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. The blast killed more than 200 people and injured another 5,000.
Wandia’s decision to switch buses that day put her in the wrong place at the wrong time. That choice changed her life forever — but not her optimism.
Her upbeat attitude shows as she walks through her neighborhood with Rhonda Adams, a mobility and orientation specialist for the visually handicapped. Adams, an International Service Corps worker with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board, taught her how to get around with a cane.
Adams works with the 10 people blinded and 160 others who sustained eye injuries in the explosion. Her first job is showing them that being visually impaired doesn’t mean they can’t function. Her goal is to let God’s love touch the lives of people suffering because of the bomb blast.
In Kenya, “Blind people aren’t expected to do anything. They sit in their houses and are waited on by family,” explained Adams, from Dallas.
Because of that, Adams often draws a crowd when she’s teaching her clients in public. When she began working with Wandia, “At first I was the attraction, being the only white woman in the area. Then people would notice a blind person doing something, and they’d stare at her instead,” Adams said.
Not all of Adams’ clients have been as easy to help as Wandia. “She’s lucky. She grew up here, knows the roads like the back of her hand. Most of the other people blinded in the bombing lost their jobs and had to change neighborhoods,” Adams said. “Not only am I having to teach them how to get around, but also where they are. I’m creating a new map in their minds.”
Adams also helps them re-learn how to do household chores. “It’s giving them back a measure of the independence they once knew,” she said.
But Adams’ main goal is to share the gospel.
“Our primary purpose is to build a witnessing platform,” said Jim Keene, a Southern Baptist physician who spearheaded Adams’ involvement.
Keene and his wife, Darlene, two-year International Service Corps workers in Kenya, had been in Nairobi all of three weeks before the bombing.
“We knew God had been preparing us for this day,” Keene, from Rochester, Minn., said of the tragedy and the ministry that followed.
After the explosion, one of Keene’s first tasks was to coordinate the International Mission Board’s missionary efforts with the work of various non-governmental organizations. Out of the ashes rose what came to be known as “The Vision Project.” The program provides spiritual care and presents a gospel witness to people visually impaired and blinded in the blast.
To get the project off the ground, Keene visited the Kenyan president’s office twice to get Adams an official invitation to work with the blind. After that was granted, she and volunteers from the Kenya Red Cross began working with clients referred by Kenya Society for the Blind.
Adams’ work is only one part of the project, though. Several non-governmental organizations provide reconstructive surgery for blast victims. Local groups also cooperate to facilitate cornea transplants.
Besides that aid, the project includes psychological counseling for survivors and their families. The official death toll is 218, but the number of people affected by the trauma reaches into the thousands. Darlene Keene, who is trained in counseling, is available to work with them.
Baptists are trying “to meet their varied needs while providing a loving Christian witness,” her husband said.
Some of this outreach is still in the planning stages. “We’ve talked about finding Kenyans to witness to the crowd following as Rhonda does the therapy,” Keene said. “There are lots of opportunities out there. As we get to work with more clients, we’ll be able to expand our witness.”
Plans also are in the works to better mobilize families in churches to reach out to non-Christian families touched by the tragedy.
“The emergency part of this is over,” Keene noted. “Now it’s time to get serious and involve the church people, because when they start witnessing to victims and their families, churches will grow.”
But as the work of rebuilding lives trudges on slowly, some Kenyans are walking a little faster now.
Some like Wandia, strolling through her neighborhood like she used to, greeting friends and enjoying life.
As she nears her gate, neighbors come out to tease her good-naturedly, telling her she’s going into the wrong courtyard. Wandia laughs.
“You’re doing a good job with ‘Mama’ Peninah,” one woman tells Adams. “She looks better every day.”
Adams thanks her. She knows it’s God’s work, not her own.

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  • Heidi Soderstrom