The Hardest Question

Clark, Hannah, and I arrived in Zanzibar three weeks ago to study Swahili on the island considered to be “The Birthplace of Kiswahili.” We came prepared for fumbled greetings and haphazard conversation. For daily humiliation and (hopefully) growth.


Language learning is painful. Emotionally it takes you back to those peri-pubescent years–one day you’re invincible and the next you’re hopelessly questioning the purpose of it all.


Clark (successfully) bargaining for a bisibisi (screwdriver) in Swahili

Our days are spent studying with our teachers at the State University of Zanzibar and roaming Mji Mkongwe (Old Town) with Hannah in tow.


The coast just outside of Stone Town (Mji Mkongwe)

Conversations are easy to find. We are in a tourist hotspot, but the shop owners know Baba Hannah and Mama Hannah are worthless as customers. Instead, they sit and chat for as long as we like. We talk about their child who was sick last week, about Kenya’s love of ugali (boiled cornmeal), about snow.


A conversation that resulted in Naudiya sharing her birthday cake with us!

Somehow, many conversations seem to end with free snacks for Hannah…

The wazee (elders) sipping their coffee greet Hannah almost as enthusiastically as she greets them. They are delighted to hear her initiate conversation and respond appropriately in Swahili. The extended greeting is a ritual repeated a hundred times throughout the day, so it is no surprise that even small children do this!


Last week, my teacher took me on a field trip. The previous day, he had asked me to consider the importance of studying science as we would be discussing it the following day.

At least, that’s what I thought he said.

In actuality he had said, “Tomorrow we will be visiting a school. You will stand in front of 60 students ages 8-14 and give a speech about the importance of studying science. You will then answer any questions they have. You will, of course, be using only Swahili.”


I feel no need to linger on the “speech” part of this experience (see paragraph 2)…

After I had finished my hotuba (speech), the questions started.

“Why did you choose to study medicine?”

“What are schools like in the US?”

“Will your daughter marry an American or a Zanzibari?”

“You have said that you moved to Kenya to help the people there. Why didn’t you come to Zanzibar to help us?”


Clark with Dr. Rashid and my teacher Mohammed at Mnazi Mmoja (One Coconut Tree), the government hospital in town 

This last question was from an earnest, 10-year-old girl. The room was completely silent for the first time since we’d arrived. Every eye on me.

How to cross the barrier of language and culture and age to explain a decision that was made over the course of a decade?

Why help our Kenyan neighbors? Why not help our Zanzibari friends? Why not help our friends in Kentucky?

The answer: Because our lives have been transformed by God–by His love and forgiveness–we obey Him as best we can. His command: “Love me and love others.”

Clark and I both felt a call to work overseas in our mid-teens shortly after we became Christians. The decision to work at Tenwek Hospital in Kenya followed a decade of prayer, research, seemingly happenstance meetings with many others who had served at Tenwek, and advice from the wazee in our lives.

Some of our friends in Kenya

When we were in Kentucky, our mission was to love our patients and neighbors. In Zanzibar, our mission is to love and serve our host family and new friends. In Kenya, our mission is to love. And irrespective of location, we seek to love and serve our Lord.

Truly our hearts’ desire is that we would be able to communicate this—and all the Lord has done in our lives—clearly and in the language of our neighbors. Until that ability is ours, we trust the Lord can speak his Truth through us, however inadequate we may feel.

““Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.””

Mark 12:28-31

Daily life in Zanzibar

8 thoughts on “The Hardest Question

  1. Love your stories, Val, and all the photos! Thank you for sharing these reflections. They are always an inspiration for us to love God and our neighbors with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength, wherever God places us.

    Here’s an encouragement regarding feeling foolish as we try to learn new things, all to God’s glory:

    *God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. 1 Corinthians 1:27-28*

    May the Lord continue to bless you, Clark, and precious Hannah. May the Almighty keep you, and make his loving countenance to shine upon you, today and always!

    Love, Mom

    On Tue, Oct 2, 2018 at 7:16 AM For here we have no lasting city… wrote:

    > kenyasleeth posted: “Clark, Hannah, and I arrived in Zanzibar three weeks > ago to study Swahili on the island considered to be “The Birthplace of > Kiswahili.” We came prepared for fumbled greetings and haphazard > conversation. For daily humiliation and (hopefully) growth. Lan” >


  2. Hello Clark, Val and Hannah,

    Thank you so much for this wonderful update on your language learning and the great pictures. We just prayed yesterday for you and also for Val’s sister and family with the loss of Bruce and his recent birthday. Thank you for serving the Lord and being a wonderful example of his love and grace.

    May God grant you wisdom in your learning process and encouragement.
    Love and Prayers,
    Frank & Sharon Martin

    Delighted to Serve,

    Sharon Martin
    missionary pastor to retirees
    World Gospel Mission
    phone: 765.618.5194
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