26 December 2015

Tears on Christmas Day

This was our third Christmas in Africa as a family.  The first year it was just me and Fred and a 7-month baby bump.  We had no gifts for each other, no special dinner, Fred was traveling and just reached home on Christmas morning.  God blessed us by opening a hotel in our town that day, so we had a nice dinner out.

Two years ago we took the boys (and an 8-month baby bump) to the beach in Mwanza.  We had a great time playing at the beach on Christmas and Boxing Day, and ate hotel food for Christmas dinner.

This year we had planned to go back to Mwanza to play on the beach and in a swimming pool, but Fred and I have been traveling so much lately that staying in yet another ubiquitous hotel room didn't sound all that appealing, so we decided to save money and stay home.  Then God moved us to spend that money on food for some of the families we've been interacting with this past year.  We bought 50 kilos of rice, 25 kilos of sugar, and 10 1-liter bottles of oil.  I baked a bunch of Christmas cookies and made little cards and wrapped up a bag of cookies for each family.  Our friend Stephen and our house helper, Adera, split up the food into eight portions, and on Christmas Day Stephen, Fred and Wesley delivered the packages.

First they visited Grace and Pita and Pita's kids, who received a water system at their home from the Ryding family earlier this year.  They found the family walking back from church.  Fred asked Pita, the blind daughter, what she was hoping to eat for Christmas.  "Rice, but we don't have any," she replied. They got the joy of making her modest Christmas wish come true.

Some of the homes they were going to were off-road, to say the least!  Wesley told Fred "This isn't a safe place to drive!"  The next home was of a family which had received a new house from Shantz Mennonite Church.  The HIV+ single mother who was the intended beneficiary of the house died the day before the Shantz team was to build the house, so instead they gave money to build a new home for the orphaned children later on.

When Fred, Stephen and Wesley arrived on Christmas morning, they found that the two young children are now being cared for by their teenage sister-in-law, who also brought her young sister to live there.  Milka, that child bride, probably an orphan herself, was so ill that she was lying on a mat in the compound. All the kids were gathered around watching her suffer. There was literally no food in the house.  None of them had eaten the day before and there was not even a match to light the fire. The children's faces when they saw the cookies and food brought tears to my eyes.

The next home was of a man Fred has been interacting with for several years.  Ramadhan has been paralyzed from the neck down since adolescence.  Through the palliative care he receives medicine to manage the chronic pain he lives with, and he has used the gifts from that program to start a small business selling bars of soap and matches to people in the neighborhood.  Prior to the visit from the Shantz Mennonite team, he would spend all day lying on his mat in front of his home in the glaring sunshine or pouring rain. The team built him a shade so that he can be more comfortable while doing his business. His elderly mother who cares for him was given the food to prepare for their meal.

The next stop was to a family we've never met before, but Stephen knows their situation well.  Saidi was a palliative care client of Stephen's who died in the past year from AIDS. His widow and children received a new roof on their house from a Canadian woman who visits each year to do projects like this.  When they reached the house yesterday, they found the door closed, so they started walking to find Mrs. Saidi and encountered her returning from a neighbor's house where she had gone to beg food for her toddler.  All that boy was going to eat for Christmas was a piece of chapati that the neighbor had flung in his direction.  As you can see in the photo,  he couldn't take his eyes off those cookies!  The baby girl has no clothes, but we have a bunch of baby clothes donated for Mama Maisha, so Stephen will return with some clothes for that little one.

Last February Fred worked with that same Canadian lady and gift from our friends, the Rickeys, to build a house and water system for this widow and her two grandchildren, who had been living in a tiny, dilapidated house.  They met the ladies coming from church.  The grandmother, Lucia, said she had to go to church to worship because God has done so much for them this year.  Asking some questions, Stephen found out that they really had very little food in the house, and nothing special to eat for Christmas day, but still they were giving thanks. How many of us could find that faith?

Johanes was the very first client I ever met in Shirati.  He is a paraplegic who is in the palliative care program as well.  This year a friend of ours in Newberg paid for Johanes to get a new house and a new bed and mattress.  Johanes is so proud of his new home, and eager for his new water tank, courtesy of a British friend.  They found two neighbor boys there chasing a snake out of the house. We are concerned about his security, since he has no phone and can't move to find help, so Fred is looking for a special low-power cell phone and flashlight to help increase his comfort still more.

Obadia is another client of Stephen's who lives in a village on the lake front.  He is also paralyzed and sits in the market area, where people might bring him a fish from their catch for him to eat or to sell.  Often those with physical or mental disabilities are neglected by their families, and they rely on whatever support the community can provide.

This was the end of Wesley's rope, although he did a really great job spending three hours on the back of a motorbike (hence the helmet) with an empty stomach himself, handing out Christmas cookies to other kids.  Inno has a bad cough or he would have gone as well, because we think it is so important for our kids to have exposure to poverty and difficult circumstances, and to be part of serving the vulnerable.  It is one of the major blessings of living in rural Africa as a family.

Stephen and Fred dropped Wesley off at home and went to one last house.  Lucy and her teenage son were living in a very poor house, practically homeless in fact, until last July when the Shantz Mennonite team came and built her a new house.  Their hand prints are in the mud walls of her house, and she is very proud of this home. She is making small improvements, even though she is lame and walks with a cane.  Fred and Stephen arrived at lunch time and found no food or cooking fire, so she was very appreciative of the food they brought.  She wished they could stay so that she could cook for them and share a meal, but both men had their families waiting at home, so they excused themselves.

We love working with Stephen because of his great heart, and he told Fred that for him, this is the very best way of celebrating Christmas.  Although we couldn't go as a family, these stories really impacted us all.  Having Wesley to represent us made the clients feel like this was really a gift from our hearts to them, not a project, and bringing our young son into the homes of clients communicates that we are not afraid of their illness, a stigma that keeps many people away.

We want to take this chance to thank the many donors who have contributed to these families or to our personal support.  These financial gifts enable us to live here and engage with the most vulnerable people in our society, meeting physical needs and offering love and fellowship to many who sit in dark corners.  If you have been part of our support team, you are part of this work!

If you would like to help us continue caring for the widows, orphans, and other vulnerable people, please click on the button below to give a one-time or recurring monthly gift to our support.  If you'd like it to go to one of these clients in particular, just email me to let me know how you'd like your gift to be used.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

12 December 2015

Inno Learns About Living with Disabilities

 This past week we were invited as a family to participate in Mennonite Central Committee's camp for Tanzanian children with albinism.  These kids were invited by all over the region to come meet at a primary school in Musoma.  In order to have camp at that location, which is host to about 40 children with visual impairments.  So there were about 90 children with either albinism or visual difficulties, plus Innocent.  The theme of the camp was "I am Valuable" and the kids took classes on Character Building and Health and played games and did crafts.  Fred was helping to teach a class on Peace Making (he took the photo below of Inno with a couple of his group members), in which the kids learned about the differences between "green communities" where peace and justice are present and "red communities" where chaos prevails, among many other things.

Children with albinism face many obstacles in Africa, particularly in Tanzania.  They are hugely misunderstood, especially when born in remote villages, where people call them derogatory names and sometimes believe that they are not really human.  People with albinism are sometimes hunted and killed or maimed; their body parts are used by witch doctors in charms which are said to offer business or political success.  An albino's body can sell for hundred's of thousands of US dollars, an enormous fortune in the developing world.  In Tanzania it is more likely for a child to have an arm cut off, sometimes by a neighbor or a relative.  These kids live under nearly constant threat, so the Peace Making and Character Building classes' lessons on forgiveness carry a heavy weight for them.

Additionally, the unique health concerns of albinos are not well known by their caregivers, so they suffer very painful sunburns and lip blisters from sun exposure.  Their eyes are weak, so many people develop partial or total blindness.  These health concerns are not usually accommodated by primary school teachers, who may require the students to wear short sleeved shirts and shorts without a hat for school uniform.  Some teachers require the albino students to sit in the back of the classroom where they cannot see the board, or in a window or doorway where they are exposed to sun throughout the day.  Many African albinos don't live beyond age 30 because they develop skin cancer from sun exposure and die extremely painful deaths.

Like all African kids, the albino kids were very interested in Wesley and Gretchen.  It took the better part of the week for Wesley and Gretchen to get used to all the new kids, but by the last day they were playing with the kids and having a great time.  Innocent did such a great job of playing with all kids, regardless of their skin color or disability.  His best friend at the camp, Iddi (at Inno's left in the photo at left), has pretty bad chapped lips, such that his mouth is often bloody.  It looks a little gruesome, but I loved that Inno didn't judge his friend.  During the last night talent show, Iddi and Inno did acrobatic flips together.  Their other friend, Chacha (in the yellow camp shirt), volunteered to be the first kid to show a talent, and he sang a kind of hip hop beat song. Wesley, who loved Chacha, stood next to him watching intently through the whole song.  It was pretty adorable.  Their friend Gilbert, at the far right, did a hilarious range of crazy laughter...probably the favorite talent of the whole show.

One day of the camp they took the kids on safari into the nearby Serengeti Park, so Wesley, Gretchen and I went to the beach to play.  A couple of the American volunteers who didn't need to go on safari went with us, including a new friend, Wendy, who is a teacher living in Tanzania almost as long as I have been.  It was really great to talk with her about our common experiences.  We were really glad we decided not to go on safari, since they got stuck in the mud several times and didn't arrive back until 1:30am!  The photos we saw in the camp's closing ceremony showed albino kids helping blind kids jump across muddy ruts in the road, and we heard stories of trying to find non-snake-infested shade for the 50-some albino children to share while the buses were pried loose from the mud.

As our family contemplates getting involved with the MCC village level program to do education and peacemaking regarding albinism, it was really a privilege to spend time with the kids this week.  It took the issue of albinism out of a purely social justice realm for me and into a much more personal issue.  Just like Fred was teaching them in class, a sense of compassion should lead into kind acts, which reflect personal integrity and responsibility.  Now when stories about violence against albinos appear in the news, Gilbert and Iddi and 89 other children's faces will come to my mind, and I hope to yours as well.

03 December 2015

Not My Words - A Tribute to my Sisters Abroad

I've been reading some blog posts from the "a Life Overseas" blog that have encouraged, inspired and challenged me.  They make me think of so many of my friends out here in the world abroad.  If you are, have been, or would like to be a woman in the mission or development fields overseas, read some of these very real pictures of life as a woman, especially as a wife and/or mother, in a cross-cultural environment.

Good Will Come: Views on Suffering
I read this today and felt so encouraged.  I have come to many of the same "gray areas" myself.

Missionary Mommy Wars
I've been able to avoid a lot of these pressures, due in huge part to my gracious husband and his low expectations, but I've seen this in so many friends' lives.

If I'm Perfect
This nailed me.  There are many sentences in here that I could have written myself, about myself.

When Spouses Travel
Fred travels a lot, but lately I've also been doing some big trips.  This was a great read with good advice as we enter a season of more and more opportunities for travel.

I dedicate all these links to the women who, although spread around the world, are some of my dearest friends.  Although we don't get to speak often, due to terrible internet connections, major time zone differences, many small children, and the normal busy-ness of missional life abroad, they love and understand me at such a deep level. I have deep admiration for you who have chosen this crazy life.

Thank you, and I love you all...

Corrine H, Haley B, Liz S, Mandi S, Tiffanee W, Vangi T, Melinda K, and recent friends Sarah, Charity and Susan, along with others I may have forgotten