How did he make you feel?
By Tohru Inoue | Kenya in East Africa
SIM Kenya director Dr. Peter Okaalet sadly passed away on February 5, 2022 from cancer, having made a significant impact in the field of HIV/AIDS medicine as well as in the lives of the people around him
On joining SIM in 2019, Dr. Okaalet had served 15 years with Medical Assistance Program (MAP) International, including half a decade as Senior Director for Health and HIV/AIDS Policy and Advocacy. His team developed an HIV/AIDS Education curriculum which was eventually taught in 22 theological colleges in East and Southern Africa. He testified before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on “The role of faith-based organizations in the fight against HIV and AIDS” and was honoured by TIME Magazine as one of two faith-based heroes fighting disease through church engagement.
SIM stories writer Tohru Inoue remembers his personal experience of the man behind the medic.
Dr. Peter Okaalet was laid to rest in his home in Uganda early last year. He had come in as the new SIM Kenya director only two years prior.
I sat in an aisle seat at his memorial service in Nairobi and listened to eulogies from family and colleagues. I pay closer attention to words shared at funerals and memorial services now. In my youth, they were only sad occasions. Now, with age, the words shared have a newly gained weight. I listen more carefully to those on the other side of loss. Like treasure hidden in plain sight. Soon it will be me up there telling others what another person’s lifetime has taught me. And after that it will be others sharing about lessons my life has taught them… if any.
Nairobi is where Dr Okaalet served, and people gathered in large numbers to attend the service. It was held on a Friday afternoon when traffic is at its worst and the city grinds to a halt. And yet, people came and flooded the famous Anglican church. On a warm afternoon, men and women came well dressed to pay their last respects.
Maybe this piece is also my attempt at paying my respects.
I had different ideas of what I would write about. It could have been about leadership. Peter always stole a bit of time from meetings to pass on leadership nuggets. It could have been about humility. Peter’s internationally recognised work in the fight against the AIDS epidemic earned him a mention in TIME magazine. It seemed he could have had his pick of organisations to work for. But he joined SIM; an organisation that would still require him to raise his own salary. But I found myself writing about how he made me feel. Chances are if you knew him at all you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Our circles didn’t intersect much. He was the SIM Kenya director and I served on the South Sudan team. My first real interaction with him was an email. It’s not always easy to write someone with the title “director.” They’re busy people. I’ve emailed busy people before and have come to expect long waits. And who could blame them.
I’m a storyteller. How important is my email compared to one coming from a doctor at the mission hospital? How important is my email compared to urgent prayer requests coming from our people in the deserts of East Pokot? What are my questions compared to the East African Regional services’ questions on operating budgets? Who has time for a storyteller when overseeing country-wide ministries?
I wrote him an email. He wrote back within the hour:
“Dear brother Tohru,
"Greetings in Jesus’ wonderful name! Thank you for the note and update on your boys and family! May the Lord lead you to ‘new routines’ to keep the boys occupied and learning!
"Thank you, too, for following up with the matter that Sherri has shared with both of us… let me call you… either later on today… or tomorrow… Please let me know the slot that’s ideal for you.
"Blessings and kind regards!
"Peter Okaalet, Country Director SIM Kenya”
It would be representative of all my interactions with him.
His impact on me was not through his medical influence or his insights on leadership. I have a string of emails: reminders of how we saw each other.
He is gone but I feel like he’s still drafting a warm email for me.
“Greetings in Jesus’ wonderful name!”
•That we, too, might leave legacies of warmth extended to others in Jesus' wonderful name, as Dr. Okaalet did.
•For the continuing search for a new director for SIM Kenya.
•For the Spirit to continue his work in Kenya in the areas where He is least known.