Calling takes them to Africa

Laguna Beach native Gary Cowman and his wife, Lori, have lived in Kenya the last 24 years, where they work for SIL International, a faith-based language development company that partners closely with Wycliffe Bible Translators, Inc. As the name implies, Wycliffe translates the Bible into different languages.
(Don Leach, Coastline Pilot)

Little did Gary Cowman know that a place he had no intention of visiting would become his home.

The Laguna Beach native moved to Kenya 24 years ago with his wife, Lori, to work for an organization dedicated to translating the Bible into different languages.

First, he had to rid his mind of stereotypes.

“I had no interest in Africa when I was in college [at Cal State Fullerton],” Cowman, 50, said Thursday afternoon, just four days before he and Lori would fly back to Kenya after spending seven months in Orange County.

“I always thought Africa was hot with a lot of mosquitoes, but there are a lot of interesting places to visit,” he said. "[Lori] fell in love with the Kenyan people.”

Lori, 48, actually played a key role in swaying Gary, who attended Top of the World Elementary, Thurston Middle and Laguna Beach High (class of 1981), to consider the move overseas.

Lori and Gary met in college — both studied business at Cal State Fullerton — via InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, an evangelical campus missions organization.

Through Bible studies, Gary strengthened his relationship with God.

“We talked about Scripture openly,” he said. “That was groundbreaking with me, that the Bible was so much more meaningful than what I valued.”

Gary seemingly had a path. He thought that his business courses would lead to a career as an accountant.

But then he felt God tug on his heart.

During his junior year at Cal State Fullerton, Gary attended an InterVarsity conference that altered his outlook.

“It really challenged me to ask, ‘Where is God in my thinking?’” he said. “I was at the heart of all of my decisions.”

Gary and Lori married in 1988, and both worked toward administrative roles with Wycliffe Bible Translators Inc. — he in management, she in accounting. Wycliffe has translated the Scriptures into more than 700 languages since its founding in 1942, according to the nonprofit’s website.

When the couple took their new jobs, they didn’t know where they would end up living.

During college, Lori had spent a couple of months in Kenya, home-schooling a 6-year-old girl.

“It was perfect for me to see firsthand how I might contribute,” Lori said. “It was a phenomenal experience.”

When Wycliffe offered the Cowmans a two-year stint in Kenya beginning in 1990, they embraced the opportunity.

Two years morphed into 24, and the Cowmans, who raised two daughters, both of whom attend USC, still call Nairobi home.

“The thing we missed about leaving [Laguna] was the people — family and friends,” Gary said. “But the Lord gave us amazing friends in Kenya.”

Kenyans focus on building deep relationships and value community, Gary said.

“They always have to greet people,” Gary said. “They really want to know, ‘How are you?’ They take more time to get to know people. It took me awhile to realize how important that was [to them].”

For five years, Gary played semi-pro volleyball with the Cooperative Bank of Kenya team, traveling throughout the county. Players received a minimal stipend — Cowman estimated he earned $10 in five years, though the team paid for after-match dinners.

The Cowmans have lived in four houses in Nairobi. Their current home of eight months is about 700 square feet with wooden floors, running water, electricity and a wireless modem. Land lines are unreliable, so the Cowmans use cell phones. They have to filter their water for contaminants, but have adjusted.

Lori remembers the early days, when they had neither a car nor a phone.

“Coming from social Southern California, it was more challenging,” Lori said. “It was much more restricted movement than we were used to. But we loved the work and loved our colleagues.”

Lori and Gary now work for SIL International (originally called the Summer Institute of Linguistics Inc.), a faith-based language development company that partners closely with Wycliffe.

Lori is an accountant while Gary speaks with various government leaders to foster literacy, so their people are able to read books, including the Bible.

The Cowmans rely entirely on outside support for their livelihood.

At first, asking people for money was weird for Gary, who worked his way through college with jobs such as waiting tables.

“‘I don’t know how this is going to happen,’” Gary said he asked himself at the start. “There were times of lean for sure, but we always had what we needed. God has provided in so many ways.”