The Norman Transcript

December 29, 2008

A life changer

Man's time in Kenya gave new perspective

By Doris Wedge

Growing up in Norman, living his whole life here except for three years when his work took him to Wichita, Kelly Henderson wasn't prepared for what he saw and experienced when his work again took him out of town, this time to Kenya. It was an experience that changed his view on life, not to mention his own health.

He has had interesting experiences during his 25 years in the land surveying business, from working on highway planning to laying out the yard lines on Owen Field. He was anxious for a new experience when a client of his firm, Lemke Land Surveying, was planning a trip to Kenya to help establish a rice farm.

"He needed a surveyor," Henderson said, so in just a few weeks, he loaded his equipment and was on his way to Kenya with a team headed by Edmond resident Calvin Burgess. The mission was to survey land in preparation for developing rice fields so that local workers could have a livelihood. The land was owned by the Kenyan government and had once been used for growing rice, but had not been used in several years due to government boondoggle.

Henderson's first impression of Kenya, stepping from the plane, was the smell, "that I can only describe as the smell of burning flesh and trash." That's not to denigrate the country, he said, but to point out that their standards of dealing with waste differs vastly from what he knows here.

"I was overwhelmed with the magnitude of the poverty," he recalled of his visit in 2001.

There were 2,000 acres to be surveyed in the project, and he soon became aware that he was the object of curiosity among the children. At first watching from afar, they grew nearer and nearer, and finally one reached out and touched him.

"I realized that I was the first white person they had ever seen," he said.

They spoke English and he got to know them, especially his assistant, Eric, who introduced him to his family. Henderson has a photo of Eric and his family hanging on his office wall.

"Poverty is so great there, that you hire people to do any job that you can," he said. Eric's job was to carry the equipment, and the normal rate of pay was $2 a day. "I wanted to pay him more, but was told that I shouldn't as word would spread and so many would come to try to find work."

By all reports, the Kenyan project is doing well and residents of that area near Lake Victoria are producing and selling rice.

What Henderson saw in Kenya left a mark on his heart.

"Cherish what you've got," he said. "There are so many who are worse off."

But his experience there also left a mark on his health which tormented him for three years. When it finally went away, the terrible constant headache, it was surmised that he had suffered a reaction to the medication he had taken to ward off malaria.

"We saw every kind of specialist, had every test" and no doctor could give him an answer nor stop the headache. But in the third year, it began to wane and then was gone.

"They were sure that the medicine was finally out of my system and that was why the headache stopped."

Henderson and his wife of 25 years, Palla, are involved in their daughters many activities. Kelsey is 16 and a Norman High student and Krista is 10. He has coached their ball teams and coordinates the concession stand operation for Kelsey's Norman High volleyball team.

The family is active at First Baptist Church where he chairs the community ministry committee. The committee oversees several programs for the community, including providing lunch for 80 to 100 people each Sunday, the one day of the week when Food for Friends isn't in operation. The ministry operates a clothes closet and food pantry, and refurbishes bicycles to give low income folks transportation.

Coordinating these projects including many volunteers from the church is a way of serving, he said "because I think it is what Jesus wanted us to do." He is most comfortable working behind the scenes, he says. Talking about it is "way outside my box."

His community work centers around his church. He is comfortable with a paint brush or other tools in hand, helping at the church as needed. Henderson would like to take another trip to Kenya, "if she will let me," he jokes with his wife, but instead this year will bid her and Kelsey farewell as they go on a spring break mission trip to Matamoros, Mexico.

There is plenty of mission work for him here in Norman. "You don't have to look far," he said, to see people in need.

Know an interesting neighbor? Call the city desk at 366-3530.