January 24, 2010

god - 1 me - 0

Yesterday was a rough day.

I spent the majority of it in my house, washing clothes and attempting to work on my lesson plans, but yesterday was the day the neighborhood kids discovered I had returned. In the late morning, a couple of them showed up on my doorstep. I made the mistake of letting them in when there were three huge open boxes on the floor, filled with American foodstuffs and candy. I already knew what they wanted, but they acted coy, roaming around the boxes and stealing glances at the things inside. Eventually, one of them started picking through them, just one thing at a time, and asking "hii ni nini?" ("what is this?"). Depending on my response, he'd either look at it some more and put it back, or take some of it and put it in his pockets. He ended up with quite a bit of chocolate, maybe 3 lollipops, and a pen before I ushered them out of the house.

Don't get me wrong, I want to give these kids candy, but to me, this felt more like looting. After hanging out with them outside for a bit, I returned to my house to work on my lesson plans. Within two hours, the kids returned to my door. I told them I had to work, but they continued to knock. After a while, I started to ignore their knocking until they left. That didn't feel very good, but I wanted to get some of my lesson plans done. About 45 minutes later, they showed up again with other kids, again knocking on my door incessantly, this time attempting to open the door themselves. I knew what they wanted, and now it was clear to me that I wasn't going to give it to them. I ignored the knocking again for the first few minutes until I finally lost my patience and walked to the window near the door.

"Unaweza kupata pipi kesho, sasa nahitaji kufanya kazi." ("You can get candy tomorrow, right now I need to do some work.")

"Fungua mlango!" ("Open the door!")

"Nahitaji kufanya kazi sasa!" ("I need to do work right now!")

At one point, one of the children held up a 50 schilling piece, saying "ninanunua pipi," which you can guess meant he was willing to buy candy from me. It was at this point I knew I had to get out of the house. By this time it was nearly 5 in the evening, but I couldn't stand the torture of denying kids candy and having them continuously knocking on my door. It felt like I was running from the problem, but I just didn't want to deal with it anymore.

I walked down to my favorite duka for no other purpose but to get away from my house. I felt a little better after I arrived when I found out there was a Manchester United game on (English football, as you might imagine, is quite popular here). One by one, familiar faces started to show up, the first being Moshi, an old stroke victim I met in the first weeks at site, and then Luka, the second master at my school. I had nearly forgotten about everything else when Moshi invited me to his house for dinner. "Here," I thought, "is a sign of God's providence." I hadn't eaten dinner yet, so I gladly accepted, not even remotely concerned about how intoxicated he was at the moment.

When he finished his drink, we left the duka and I immediately realized what was happening. If you think walking after a stroke is hard, imagine doing it while drunk on the worst roads in the world. I held his hand while he attempted to walk, though most of the time he was bent over at the waist, stumbling to keep his balance. All the while I was thinking, "why does he live so far away?", and "he's been drunk like this a lot, how in the world does he get home if he's alone?" A 5 or 6 minute walk at my normal pace turned into close to 40 minutes. By this time I was thinking "well, at least I did something good today." It was at about that moment that Moshi, among his slurred words of Swahinglish, told me in clear English "you are doing a good thing for me." Normally, a comment like this would make a person feel good. But it wounded me. It hurt.

Earlier that day, I had read Psalm 139, one in which David talks about the far-reaching hand of God. "If I ascend into heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there. If I take wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there Your Hand shall lead me, and Your Right Hand shall hold me." He also talks about His far-reaching knowledge: "You know my sitting down and my rising up; You understand my thought afar off. You comprehend my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways." And in verse 16, it says "Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed. And in Your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them."

God knew.

He knew this was going to happen. He knew what I was thinking, where I was going, what I was doing. He knew everything. Worst of all, He knew my failures. He knew I was going to fail before I did. He knew I was going to lose my temper with those kids. He knew I was going to try to escape. That's what wounded me most of all. Tears are falling as I type this because it still hurts. I guess it was something that I hadn't really thought about before, that God knows my failures as well as He knows my victories, or at least it hadn't hit home until now. It was ordained before I was born. The other thing that hurts is that He knows me better than I know myself. It's so hard to understand how deeply personal that is until moments like these. It's logical to think that you are the self-taught expert on your own life, but all you have to go on is your past, your thoughts, and your feelings (which, in many cases, distorts your perspective). But God sees everything; the past, the present, the future. The thoughts you deny you ever thought, the feelings you suppress and ignore, the actions you try to forget. This is one of those suffering moments I talked about, when reality hits. I had one idea, and God had another. Guess who came out the victor.

Back to the dusty road I was on with Moshi, lit only with a first quarter moon shrouded by clouds, we had reached a point where it appeared that he could no longer lift his right leg enough to continue. As luck would have it, a few neighbors were out walking and saw us. One of them fetched a wheel cart (normally used for carrying large jugs of water) and we lifted him into it. Here I was met with one of the disparities between our cultures. Even drunk and being wheeled around in a cart like a victim of the plague, he was still receiving "shikamoo"s (greeting of respect shown to someone who is your elder) from passerbys. We arrived at Moshi's house after about 2 more minutes of walking and wheeling, and I respectfully turned down the offer for dinner, seeing the family had their hands full with their babu.

I stumbled back to the duka, holding back tears like a kid who didn't get his way. There, I humbly ate with my second master, who gladly paid for dinner while I told him about the 45 minute pilgrimage to Moshi's house. And there, with corrected perspective, God revealed His providence.

No one likes to suffer, but as long as God is winning in the tally...

small thoughts: "grory to god"

Any volunteer here in Tanzania will tell you one of the more amusing parts of living here is seeing the multitude of slogans plastered across seemingly every commercial bus and transport truck on the road. Surprisingly, many of them are in English. I'm not sure if this is because Tanzanians are looking for a reason to practice their English, but the majority of these English slogans have spelling and grammatical errors. I wouldn't be shocked if I was one of the only volunteers who dies of laughter every time I spot one of these, I can barely understand why myself. One of the slogans I saw on the way to the YMCA from the airport I have put in the post title. I had to contain my laughter somewhat since I was in the car with someone I didn't know, but I definitely let out a chuckle.

It's good to be back in Tanzania.

a week down south

Many of you already know I went down to South Africa on medevac. Some of you may not know, however, that I flew back to Dar on the 16th. Yes, the medevac is over, and I clocked in at just over a week (10 days if you count the travel days).

I won't lie; in all actuality it was a vacation. While I do understand the serious nature of foot drop (nerve damage can have pretty awful consequences), I couldn't help but feel like I was flown down to Pretoria for a week in a shopping mall, with the occasional appointment with a specialist or a physician, which it basically was. I spent a lot of time in that Brooklyn Mall. I didn't buy much, given that my per diem was the equivalent of $17/day in South African Rand. I could spend $17 worth of Rand on one meal pretty easily down there, and I did on occasion (I just about ate my weight in cheese during my stay). Another easy way to spend money was to go to the cinema in the mall, which I did three times (Invictus, Sherlock Holmes, and Old Dogs). Unfortunately, tickets are just as expensive there as they are in America (R48, which at ~R7 per $1 USD means a ticket costs ~$7). What was cool about the cinema experience was the assigned seating. I had heard about this before, and that America is practically the only country that doesn't do this in their movie theaters. I enjoyed it tremendously, especially because there really wasn't a bad seat in any of those theaters.

The guest house I stayed at throughout the week wasn't really a house, but more of a compound. Like all of the houses in the neighborhood that surrounded it, the compound was guarded with a gate, but unlike the others, it did not have an electric fence to stave off intruders. Yes, the surrounding neighborhood was a ritzy one, consisting of endless rows of walls and metal gates...and big homes, of course. But most of what you saw from the outside were the walls. The gate at the guest house is controlled with an RF remote, which each guest receives on their keyring at check-in. It made me feel cool to hide the remote in my pocket and make it look like the gate was magically opening and closing for me.

Overall, the only unpleasant part of the trip was the Nerve Conduction Study that was performed the day after I arrived. The NCS consisted of attaching electrodes to certain parts of my left foot, sending pulses through the nerves in my leg, and then measuring the response at the nodes. Imagine static shock, only multiplied a couple hundred times. After about 15 minutes of electricuting the nerves in my leg, we moved on to what looked like acupuncture needles. The doctor measured my foot strength by inserting the needle into my calf muscle, and then having me resist him either pushing up or down on my foot (yes, resisting was painful). The needle was connected to a computer, which took readings on the calf muscle. It also made staticy noises, indicating how much muscle was being used. Pretty fascinating, but not something I'd like to repeat if possible. I wouldn't mind watching the procedure performed on someone else, though. Especially the first part (I made a lot of weird faces).

So, after 14 days, 10 spent in another country and 3 in a posh room at the Holiday Inn in Dar es Salaam (I'm considering the rewards membership), I am making my return to life in Tanzania. Namely, a return to poverty after being pampered by doctors and hotel staff. A return to the bats in my ceiling after sleeping in practically sound-proof rooms. But most important, it's a return to what I actually came here to do.


January 5, 2010


Written on January 1, 2010
This is the word I got from God this morning. It is myoneword for 2010.

(edit Jan 9: I think I may have left some people in the dark on this myoneword thing...check out myoneword.org, it's a New Years resolution-type deal started by the pastor at my church in North Carolina.)

I've been mulling over it since I woke up, thinking anxious thoughts of "what a great oneword!" and "this can't possibly be what God wants for me." But after seeing it in scripture this morning (Philippians 1:29), and realizing I've had 1 Corinthians 13:4 in the back of my mind for nearly a month, I can't get away from it. This is it. SUFFER.

On the surface, it's fairly unsurprising that this will be the theme of 2010 for me. The suffering has already started.

I am still looking back on the past three months, contemplating what God is trying to tell me through my physical health. I spent my first two months in Tanzania marveling and thanking God for keeping me healthy in times that, typically, travellers experience their worst sickness. I'd even hazard to say I was healthier those first two months in Africa than I was in a long time back in the US. Now, one month post-training, my defenses seemed to have been stripped from me. Granted, I could probably barely survive living alone in America, let alone a third-world country, but this has become my reality. In the five short weeks I've been at site, I've been physically healthy for maybe two, in total. And now I am facing a trip to South Africa for further medical treatment, and quite possibly a premature end to my Peace Corps service.

This has been a recent struggle. Not ten minutes ago, as I was walking back to my house, tired from the sun and spending time in town, I had conflicting thoughts. As my house came into view, I had a feeling of relief that my journey was coming to an end. But then I approached the front door and caught the smell of bat droppings pouring through the air. My mind immediately ran to Matthew 8:20, "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head." God was giving me a taste of that feeling. This doesn't feel like home at all. It is only serving as a reminder of my suffering.

I have no doubt that the spiritual realm is at war within me. That's something that hasn't changed since leaving the US. It only seems logical that as we suffer physically and mentally, spiritually we do the same. I see this in questions like "why is God letting this happen to me?" When our own expectations of what God wants and the reality of His own will come crashing together, we suffer spiritually. It is our shattered assumptions that produce doubt in our own abilities, and even in God's. While my physical health has been a cause for concern, I remain vigilant that God is the LORD of my days, every single one of them. There is purpose in my affliction, there is purpose in my trip to South Africa, and in the end if I am medically separated from the Peace Corps, there will be purpose in that as well.

My overall sense from getting this word this morning is that God wants to reduce me to nothing. He wants to take away all the things I'm still clinging to, the things I take foregranted, the things I think I need, until I become nothing. There is no room for "me" in this life. And as He does this, I will suffer. I will suffer physically, mentally, and spiritually. What it all comes down to is this: I must look to Jesus. He is the example. Without suffering, there is no redemption and no salvation.

I don't want to look too far ahead, but I think I might know what next year's oneword will be, because a beautiful thing happens after we suffer:
"But may the God of all grace, who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and SETTLE you."
~ 1 Peter 5:10