Thursday, December 22, 2011

to smell of fish and poo

Advent is a tricky thing. On one side of Advent there are the Christmas gifts to wrap and merriment to prepare. There’s a familiar old set of songs to sing and gatherings to attend. But on the other hand there’s the fact that all of these festivities are only made possible through the oppression, depravity and brokenness of humanity and the earth. If there was no underlying struggle, there wouldn’t be a need for Jesus to be born, no birthday to celebrate and therefore need to put gaudy twinkle lights on every outdoor surface of our homes.

I’ve recognized this tension as my busy December has been filled with emotionally exhausting work, extensive road travel and some serious relaxation. From American Thanksgiving through the first week of December, I worked in Beira to help make my MCC boss’ life a little more organized. While in Beira, I visited an orphanage where my afore-blogged friend Ruth works. Then on our way driving down to Maputo, a crew of fellow-MCCers and I made a quick stop in Vilanculos, a town on the Indian Ocean. It was amazingly beautiful, and Jon and I were able to dive and snorkel, swim with dolphins and sea turtles and gaze out at ridiculously turquoise water. We hurried to Maputo in time to wait in consecutive days of nine to twelve hour meetings with our CCM-ASA colleagues. We also learned that the epic grant whose decision we have been waiting for in the past nine months will in fact not come through for at least another six months, if at all. This means drastic changes in the scope of our program, personnel and budgets. To drown some sorrows, I then headed further south to the lovely Swaziland with lovely friends for a far too short vacation. And to top it all off, I’m heading back up to Beira to spend Christmas there with friends.

In all of these comings and goings, I’ve been reminded of this season’s thin line between joy and pain. It’s uncomfortable to sing oh come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant when visiting a country with the highest adult HIV/AIDS prevalence rate in the world. It’s difficult to envision the desire of nations coming to bind all peoples in one heart and mind when you realize your culture has fundamental differences with someone else’s. It’s crazy to think of walking in a winter wonderland as dust sticks to sweaty skin when walking down a sweltering street. It’s challenging to wait for the government to be upon Jesus’ shoulders and his name to be called wonderful counselor when elections are scammed and lifelong presidents are once again sworn into office. And it’s hard to imagine fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains repeating the sounding joy when nothing but diplomatic rhetoric was repeated at the climate conference in Durban, and throwing money around was concluded to be the only solution to protecting the environment in developing countries.

But there is something oddly comforting in knowing that little Lord Jesus knows what it’s like to not have a crib for his bed as I’m holding an infant who was abandoned by his mother. It’s easier to hear heaven and nature singing when you’re hovering just under the surface of gently rolling ocean waves to watch an incredible coral reef burst with color and life. There’s some sort of tiding of comfort and joy when every Swazi we asked for directions gave them to us with a smile and without judgment for being tourists.

After leaving the orphanage in Beira a few weeks ago, I walked back to where I was staying on a sand road alongside of the ocean. It was such a delightfully bright and sunny day, and I felt so blessed for having such a free and lavish blessing as the ocean to view. But then I started to smell something fishy. Really fishy. I realized that the dirty diaper of the child I had been holding had accidentally left some residue on my arm. While considering this revelation, a strong sea gust hit me with an overwhelming stench of dead fish. So there I was again with all that yucky in the midst of all that beauty.

For me, the compelling and bittersweet thing about Advent is that it celebrates Jesus being born into a world of juxtaposition. The reason that the weary world is rejoicing is because of all of the pining over sin and error in which we lay. The celebration of Christ’s birth is highlighted by how much we need to be born into something new. Our spirits are cheered by they dayspring’s advent with us. We rejoice that the Emmanuel is God actually with us, born into our helplessness and with us from the heights of the Drakensburg foothills to the depths of coral reefs. We sing and smile and wrap and glow because we have the hope that a new and glorious morn will break somewhere yonder in the future. But for the time being, as we sort through the beautiful and the heartbreaking and the injustice and the rejoicing, we know that God is with us, no matter what we smell like.

Monday, November 21, 2011

malhangalene and me

A lot can happen in a month. In this month I was without Internet access, but I used most of the time setting up my new apartment, sorting out documents and fighting off a heinous cold/flu/death warmed up thing. In this month I finally fully and cathartically unpacked my suitcases for the first time in 15 months. And in this month I’ve transformed a dusty two bedroom apartment with a hole in the wall in the Maputo ghetto into a home.

A month ago, my friend William, our MCC Mozambique mechanic, and I made the 18 hour trek from Beira to Maputo in a pickup chocked full of furniture echoing with the ghosts of service workers past. We arrived to find that the previous tenants, who were supposed to vacate the premises two weeks early so the landlord could make improvements, didn’t leave until six hours before. So not only were the lease-dictated repairs not finished (such as the aforementioned hole in the bathroom wall), we showed up to discover that the previous tenants were a quite bitter upon exiting. They purposefully clogged the kitchen sink with nearly-overflowing grossness, they slashed some mosquito screening in the windows, they carved away the front door lock so it opened with a slight breeze, they tore apart the one and only outlet in the second bedroom, they ripped out a main floorboard and they ran off with the light bulbs, just for good measure. It took two good-natured men, three shipments of furniture from Beira, four visits from a carpenter, six visits from a plumber and his sidekick apprentice, two solid weeks of hard core deep cleaning, three visits from the landlord and a whole lot more patience than I was willing to give, but the apartment is finally liveable.

But there still remains one essential piece of the puzzle yet to be filled: the roommate. Using my networks, I sent out prayers and texts saying that I was looking for a friendly girl to join me in this newly renovated place. In return I received ladies from South Korea, France, the United States, Spain, Holland, Mozambique and Kenya to chat about or tour the apartment. Each person was lovely, but the conversation eventually ended with “it’s not exactly for me” in one way or another.

One girl who visited bluntly asked: “why did you choose to live in an unsafe neighborhood?” I was floored, since she had been in Malhangalene for approximately two and a half minutes, but in that time must have derived that unpaved roads plus broken down cars must equate a lack of safety. But I mustered the response of, “well, a Mozambican family lived here for six years before me, and if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me.” I was quite upset by this expatriate’s assessment of her host country’s barrios, but I think it highlighted a very profound wall that I ran into.

I’ve made a commitment to live simply. A big part of this due to me joining the ranks of MCC, but the essence is that I have concluded that simple living is the best way to live as a Christian and as a person conscious of the way my actions affect my global neighbors. But in this capital city with its embassies, boutiques and posh street-side cafés, the majority of foreigners do not agree with me. Now, I do not wish to put myself on a pedestal, but rather I want to state that there is a dichotomy in standards of living. From my experience of living in Maputo, there is a tendency of expats living in Mozambique from the hours of 8-5 Monday through Friday, but returning mentally and nearly environmentally to their countries of origin the rest of the time. They tend to set up walls between where the work and where they live—both figuratively and literally—and I realized that even I cannot traverse that wall. It is much easier to talk about poverty in Mozambique than to live about it. I’m still keeping my mind open to the possibility that I will find a young lady in this city who doesn’t mind the dust, noise and occasional cockroach if it means living on the same level playing field as those who we flew thousands of miles to come serve.

My apartment has its flaws, to be sure. The electrician is still yet to grace me with his illuminated presence. The neighborhood children screaming and playing in the middle of the sweltering summer street still have yet to drive me to insanity (although they have come close). The whitewashed walls will forever hold dirt and smudges, and my parquet wooden floors will forever refuse to properly hold its wax. But it has its charms as well. I get lots of exercise and adrenaline rushes while tearing from room to room with a Chaco held high in hot pursuit of stinky cockroach invaders. I’ll never have to buy a radio since the neighborhood bars share their music quite loudly and generously each weekend. I have a space that’s uniquely mine in Mozambique, without having to share or interfere with the home of someone else. I have electricity and running water and even a wobbly ceiling fan, which the majority of Mozambicans have yet to attain. And I have two wonderful verandas where I can watch the first thunderstorms of the season unroll like an electric blanket over downtown from the ocean to the west. This past month has reminded me that in all things, no matter what, I am richly blessed.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


I am in a state of mourning.

I am mourning the loss of a beloved book that is strewn somewhere on the Marginal hillside. I am mourning my missing residency visa that was both ridiculously expensive and brand new. I am mourning having one less long-sleeved shirt come winter. I am mourning not having my purse or wallet which were both made by local artisans and having to live out of my pockets and makeshift bag. I am mourning my personal belongings that were cast aside because they are of no value to anyone but me. I am mourning not having my simple and ideal phone that saw me through a year of conversations in Mozambique. I am mourning the corruption of the Maputo police force whose purpose is to make money instead of serving the people. I am mourning my lack of peaceful inner calm when in shock and my quick turn to anger over forgiveness. Mostly, I am mourning the fact that I have control over nothing.

When I arrived back in Maputo a week and a half ago, everything was wonderful. Getting back to friends, work, church and the streets I’ve come to know so well was great. Even last week’s chilly storms and this week’s warm sunshine have been delightful. But sometimes things change very quickly.

This past Sunday, my church had a fabulous guest pastor from Kenya come and preach for us. He was funny and poignant, and touched on how God has plans for each of us, and how when we cling to the hope of that knowledge in dark times, it will get us through. On the way home from church, I spoke with my new Dutch friend who recently moved to Mozambique with his wife, but without any job. They both felt a calling to come here, and they have totally surrendered to God’s will for placing them where He will in the country. I commended him for what a cool, brave and slightly crazy testimony that is for living a life in God’s plans instead of our own. Then that night, a missionary working in South Africa spoke at the Sunday night fellowship I attend. He described how God has plans to use each of us, even if that means a lot of shaping and sloughing off of unhelpful parts of us.

I went into Monday so encouraged from all of the encounters I just had in various forms of church. But I suppose that all of that enthusiasm for God’s control and plans was put to the test on Monday night when my purse and all of its internal treasures were snatched away as a friend and I simply sat talking on a park bench. While my passport, work notebook and baggie of medicine came back to me, many other belongings will never be mine again. I was overcome with senses of shock, rage, despair and grief. I was so angry with non-committing police officers who demanded payment in order to be encouraged to work. I was so upset at the thought of having to go through the arduous process of getting my residency visa all over again. And I was so appalled by the injustice of having my things as casualties in a thief’s pursuit of money.

All of my worldly possessions in Mozambique fit in three suitcases. The capacity of my things could stretch across the surface of my twin sized bed and no further. Yet I lost a few beloved treasures from my simple and sparse trove without any warning or explanation. But then slowly, I began to acknowledge these they are just things. Just stuff. And maybe I somehow felt entitled to that stuff. Like it was mine or I deserved it. Somehow I must have felt justified in having domain over the few items in my room. And I think I must have stuffed myself with thinking that they were important. My purse was stolen by a hand and not a knife or gun. My friend and I were not injured in the event. And despite my major inconveniences now, I will be fine. I do not know why I fell into the plans of a bag-napper. But I do know that I always fall into God’s bigger plans. And now I will keep falling, but with a few pieces of stuff sloughed off.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011


You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
Psalm 139: 1-10

I love to travel. This fact is quite obvious to anyone observing this blog, but it is nonetheless true. I love seeing places, meeting people, eating food, using maps and wearing my Chacos. I have been tremendously blessed with opportunities over the past few years to not only discover different cultures and countries that are very new to me, but to also learn and grow from these experiences.

In the last few weeks I’ve been traveling quite a bit. I’ve skipped up to Beira for meetings, hiked over to Gorongosa National Park for relaxation, jumped over to Tete to visit the communities my organization is working in, gallivanted through Zambia to hang out with fellow SALTers and flew down to Maputo to carry on with my life. Some photographic evidence of said travels is as follows:

This last year of living in Mozambique has been one filled with every emotion under the sun. Anger, boredom, joy, frustration, wonder, love and sadness have all worked to morph me into a new person with every new day. I have faced extreme challenges, but have also earned extreme perseverance. I have been cut down over and over again, but have also been shown the kindness of people who have built me back up. And I have taken a broken and imperfect city and turned it into my home.

As much as I’m anxious to being back in the eyes and arms of my family and friends, I’m also feeling torn in leaving beloved friends that have become my family behind. I’m looking forward to the beach, the coffee, the food, the warmth and the conversations that await me, but it will be a whole new set of challenges to adjust back to living and working in the United States, and then adjust back to living and working in Mozambique three months later. I wish that I could be everywhere at every time.

I was dwelling on this desire last weekend when I was struck by Psalm 139 in church on Sunday. I realized that I am not able to be everywhere. And that’s okay. Because God is. He has been with me everywhere I’ve gone in and around Mozambique in this last year. He’s the one who completely knows the stumbling Portuguese words on my tongue and perceives the scattered English thoughts in my head. He’s the one who hemmed up my foot when it was nearly broken and he’s the one who put his hand on me to bring healing back to my life. And he’s the one who has settled me on one side of the ocean and will settle me on another side of a great lake. Just as I found God in Cape Town and Capinga and Choma, I’ll find him back home as well. And as I travel back and forth from one home to another, I take comfort in knowing that God is everywhere, taking care of everything and everyone, even when I’m not.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

cultural conundrums

During our SALT orientation last August, we had many lectures and discussions about all of the different cultural experiences upon which we were about to embark. We were warned of the different stages and the normal stress that overseas living would entail. And sure, I’ve experienced many similar ups and downs that anyone who has had cross-cultural exchanges would face. But more often than not, my interaction with new food, clothing or languages has looked more like a colorful SALT informational brochure where everything is new and diverse and exciting and everything on the surface is great because there is harmony in diversity.

But what about when a new cultural experience leaves me with a lot more confusion than it does warm fuzzies?

What about the things that I’ve had to suppress about my “culture” in order to be here (such my former vegetarianism or frequent wear of pants)?

What about when I profoundly disagree with the culture of my host country?

What about when I tend to make friends with English-speaking Mozambicans? Is that a cop-out because they’re just a little more relatable for me?

Do these things make me a bad person? Have I extended the table just a little less? Is one side getting the cheap end of the bargain in this transaction of cultural exchange?

I have no easy or compelling answers to these or any other cultural questions. But I do have two anecdotes that recently got me thinking about these questions. First, I was talking with a male Mozambican acquaintance a while back (in English, of course, because I’m a cheater at language submersion). During the course of our conversation, he explained that he was married but was looking for a girlfriend on the side and would be delighted and honored if I would consider the position. Charming, but…no.I then explained that I would be opposed to the whole arrangement because of the whole, you know, wife on the side thing. I politely gave my reasons for why this would be an awful idea, mostly because I view his marriage as an incredibly important relationship in which I have no business in interfering. He was quite taken aback, stating that this perfect trifecta is quite common in Mozambique and that if I expect to have acceptance into the culture or have Mozambican friends, I shouldn’t be so prudish or think that my culture is better than his. After we parted and I made a mental note not to continue our acquaintanceship, I found myself pondering his point. I have plenty of Mozambican friends to nullify his argument on that account, but is there some underlying truth that I’m being too critical on the culture? Who makes the rules when it comes to morality?

Another, more lighthearted time, I was speaking with a gregarious South African lady over breakfast at the guest house. We discovered that the conference she was just returning from in the United States was held in Grand Rapids, literally right down the road from where I went to college. While we were enjoying what a crazy small world we are living in, she was explaining her impressions of being in the United States, especially as this was her first time in Western Michigan. “You see,” she told me, “Africans don’t wear watches, but we have lots of time. Americans wear watches, but you have no time.” She had marveled at how one could spend an entire day’s errands without getting out of the car. She explained that eating, washing, banking, shopping can all be done from behind the steering wheel, yet despite all of the efficiency, no one seemed to save enough time to welcome her into their home, answer her questions or get to know her background. We laughed about the silliness of it all, but I vowed to not be one of those high-strung, Energizer bunny Americans drumming around Maputo without actually interacting with people. So a few weeks later when I was heading out the door to go to work, I intentionally was late so that I could stop and talk with my friend who was really discouraged and needed someone to listen to her. I intentionally take a long walk to a market or grocery store, passing others along the way, so that I can continue building a relationship with the store owners and vendors. It’s not efficient at all, but I’m starting to like how I’ve adopted “African time.” But is that really fair to my boss and coworkers who wait for me to stroll in late because I’m yacking it up on the street corner? Have I lowered my standards of excellence because I no longer expect restaurants to be quick or church to start within 20 minutes of the set time? Am I using “African time” as an excuse to put some people before others, or am I abusing this fun little cultural nuance I’ve adopted?

As always, I have more questions than answers. I hope that in time I’ll learn more about myself, the invisible baggage I carry around with me and what I do with it once I travel into the world. I thought of this when I saw the mural below the other day on one of my long, meandering and time consuming walks around Maputo. But I guess that’s beauty in the complexity of it all.

Saturday, April 16, 2011


God has been extra busy answering prayer requests lately. Not like this is anything new, but while I’ve been extra busy balancing two jobs, language learning and life in general, it’s pretty great to know that he’s taking care of everything. When I moved back to Maputo a little over a month ago, I had a few concerns on my mind. Fret number one: I didn’t care where I lived the city, I just wanted to be safe. God answered my prayer by placing me in the Fort Knox of Maputo; naturally, a missionary guest house. Fret number two: I didn’t care where I lived in the city, but it would be super swell to be able to walk to work. The prayer was answered by my prime location of a 15 minute walk in different directions to work, downtown and the ocean. Fret number three: my friends and church in Beira were really wonderful, and it would be lovely to find the equivalent in Maputo. I realized how incredibly this was answered as at ladies’ Bible study this past week—made available through the great international church I’ve started attending—my newest Australian and Sierra Leonean friends were sharing their thanksgiving that I was brought into their group. Awesome.

My life has been filled with such lavish blessings lately that Maputo has taken on a whole other form. It actually feels like home, weirdly enough. It still is the quirky, dirty, frustrating and crowded place that it always was, but I’ve begun to see its underlying charm of diversity, community and opportunity for improvement. My Portuguese is lackluster, but it functions well enough to share jokes and learn Shangana vocabulary not from English, but from Portuguese. My social circle is small, but I’ve been blessed with the companionship and grace of a few great people. I’m finding comfort in the broken sidewalks, the erratic temperatures, the flourishing acacias and the soul-warming gelão lattes.

On top of everything else, work has been stellar. I spend about 10 hours a week getting in touch with my geeky organizational side as I revamp the booking, filing and clutter-management systems of the guest house of my two elderly employers. Evangeline, the older of the two sisters, said during one of our planning meetings, “God is wonderful, but we have some room for improvement.” I’m helping them sort out all of the different ways the guest house can improve. In my real job, our water and food security program is making huge progress in the development of our budgeting, project management, monitoring and researching systems. Our Water and Food Security Program (called ASA, which stands for Água e Segurança Alimentar) is continuing the work of individual projects that have been running since 2007, but as of August 2010, are now unifying them all under one national program. In the past few months I’ve done a ton of work in helping solidify all of our meetings and conversations and brainstorming about the project into objectives, activities and plans that we can actually utilize. The word asa means wing in Portuguese, and a few months ago Jorge, the wonderful boss of my boss, said “If asa means wing, then with the ASA Program, we are going to fly.” He’s a source of never-ending inspiration.

The ASA Program is currently running water conservation and sustainable agriculture projects in two provinces, but we’re getting ready to expand into an additional four provinces by the end of 2014. My coworkers on the coordination team and I are realizing how much work goes into managing a national program, but it’s really exciting to see how far we’ve come in the time that I’ve been here. Because of the type of work that I’ve been doing lately and the ways that the ASA Program has progressed, my position has changed a bit. I am now the Donor Management and Communications Official, which is a really fancy title for report writing, brochure making and Internet researching. Finally after eight months, my coworkers and I are realizing that I may actually have skills to offer and contributions to make as the ASA Program grows. I’ve learned so much about development through the lenses of program management, multicultural teams, rural community involvement and technical approaches to meeting peoples’ needs. It has been so rewarding to be part of this program and to test and expand my textbook knowledge into practical, hands-on skills.

Back in February, I worked on a massive grant proposal to help propel the ASA Program into the next three years. MCC and CCM (Christian Council of Mozambique—the organization with which I work) learned a lot through this grant writing process, such as all the room that the ASA Program has to grow in terms of development, technical options, organizational partnerships and human resources. It was around this time that my job description changed, as CCM recognized that I have past experience working with donors and fundraising. It was also around this time that CCM offered me a position to stay on after my SALT term ends! I thought about it, prayed about it and talked about it, and then decided that the opportunity is too great to pass up. I deeply honored to have a chance to actually do something about food and water scarcity in places deeply affected by these needs. I love working submersed in a context different than home and building upon all that my education taught me. And I’m thrilled with the prospect of watching all of our hard work unfold as ASA expands.

The plan is that I’ll still come home at the end of July when my SALT term ends, but I’ll come back to Mozambique probably around October. The only catch in this whole prospective continuation is that everything depends on the funding from this grant which we applied for in February. If the grant is not awarded, then I am able to stay for six months, so I’ll return home around March 2012. But if the funding does come through, then my position is available for the next three years, until October 2014. Six months versus three years is a big difference, but I can do nothing but patiently wait until August when we find out the yay or nay about the grant. Regardless of what the outcome will be, I am so thankful for the ways that God has woven everything together in the last few months. I have been blessed with a new community and a fresh perspective that will make returning to Maputo come October more like a homecoming, regardless of how long I will stay. God has developed all of this development work in such a more excellent way than any of us organizations could have ever done it, and for that I have true gratefulness and peace about whatever the next batch of months will bring.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

short and sweet

In the past two weeks, my life has been filled with the incredible. First and foremost, I find it incredible that my mother, of all people, managed to not only decide to come visit me, but actually followed through and made it back and forth in one piece! My mom joined me for the final leg of my sabbatical/hiatus/migration in Beira. She was able to meet some MCCers, play with a bunny, eat some delicious meals and gaze lovingly at the ocean. I introduced her to the lovely and eclectic community of friends I have in Beira, and was delighted by their hospitality and welcoming of her. They’re pretty great people. A small collection of these friends joined us at Rio Savane, a beach “resort” north of Beira, where we witnessed the incredible beauty of crabs, stars, sunsets and tides. Daily, my mom distributed gifts from family and friends from home. I was blown away by the love from so many dear people so far away. Thank you for your incredible thoughtfulness for such gifts such as trashy magazines, candy, faux snow, coffee and cards!

Halfway through her trip, my mom and I made our way down to Maputo so she could see where I live and work, and so I could get settled back into where I live and work. The month and a half in Beira was great, but it has been nice transitioning back into the life of the capitol. My mom stayed with me the guest house where I’ll be living for the remainder of my time in Mozambique. I will be helping the two short and sweet ladies who run this missionary guest house with simple yet revolutionary tasks such as answering the door late at night, planning guest bookings and replying to text messages on their cell phones. In return for my few hours a week I’ll work for them, they will provide me with a place to stay and three meals a day all within walking distance of my CCM office. I feel so incredibly blessed to have a housing situation actually work out well within the city. So many prayers have been answered, and it’s quite incredible to see everything unfolding so seamlessly. I’m actually starting to feel like I have a home in the city in which I live, and it’s a great thing.

I also received a new perspective on Maputo through my mom’s visit. We decided to spend my mom’s last Saturday at another incredible beach: Inhaca Island. On the other side of Maputo Bay, Inhaca Island was a touristy three hour boat ride away from the city. Our stay was short and fairly sweet, despite my bout of a boat-induced migraine. The island was extremely pretty, and it was delightful to see the water of Maputo Bay with a shimmering turquoise gleam instead of the dismal and polluted grey I’m used to on the city side. Plus, seeing Maputo from the outside looking in made the city so appear so impressive and sterile!

My mother lady’s short and sweet trip ended with a trip to a short and sweet lady. Whenever I travel, one of my favorite places to go is a local market. I love the smells and the makeshift, low-hanging ceilings and the bartering and the noise and the produce. And at my favorite market in Maputo, I love my friend Ilena. Throughout the past few months, she has been a welcoming presence in the city as someone who is always excited to see me and someone who won’t make fun of my horrible Portuguese. Her kindness always spills over as she slips me a few extra bananas or throws in an extra orange for free. I wanted to introduce my mom to her first market and first Ilena experience. We went earlier in the week, but Ilena insisted that my mom come back to see her one last time before she left. So we did just that. On our way to the airport, our taxi made a quick stop at the market for a final farewell, but the sweet lady did not want to cut things too short. She sent my mom on her way with two incredibly large mangos and an apple and orange, as well as a wooden spoon and two purses she grabbed from a neighboring stall. She presented these parting gifts to my projectile weeping mother who was overcome by Ilena’s generosity as a woman who gives tremendously more than she herself has. I was struck with the profound simplicity of loving a virtual stranger in such a lavish way, and wondered why it would be so hard for me to do what Ilena did so freely. It was pretty incredible.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

what hope means

Beira is in a constant state of death. I’ve been living here in the second-largest city in Mozambique for over a month now, and there’s constant death all around us. In the last month, I’ve been staying with my country representative, Melanie, and her daughters in order to work more hours than I’d like to count and on more projects than I’d like to remember. In some ways, it’s been a death to our social lives. We read in the paper about how many people throughout the country have been swept away in flooding from the super heavy rains of the last month. Our colleagues tell us of how they need to take more time off work for the tenth funeral we’ve heard of this month. The salty sea air and swampy marsh ground nibble away at all of Beira’s buildings so that every other structure looks as dilapidated and mournful as some of those who dwell within them. Trash rolling in the ocean waves never ceases to disgust me as the pollution keeps killing little pieces of the environment and of me. Rumor has it (since data is often faulty) that the HIV/AIDS prevalence rate in the Beira corridor—the transport vein that runs from Harare, Zimbabwe to the Indian Ocean—has jumped to 38 percent, dwarfing the national average of 14 percent that already was unacceptably high. Childhood and education die for the girls of one of our partner organizations as their parents view 14 years old to be a sufficient age for marriage and classroom discontinuation. Food prices continue to increase, thereby continually diminishing some Mozambicans’ dreams of diversified diets. I’ve had to put to death the paralyzing notion within myself that Mozambique’s issues are too overwhelming to even developmentally dent, so that I can still get out of bed in the morning and go about my small life praying that somehow someone benefit from my effort in some small way.

But this death doesn’t mean that people stop living. In fact, it’s quite the opposite in these parts. I have found more community, more love, more beauty and more friendships represented by Beira than in any other part of the country I’ve visited. I never stop feeling grateful for the cool evening breezes, enamored by the incredible clouds that sweep in from the sea to land and humbled by the generosity of friends from various countries. One night, a few weeks ago, I was dwelling on this agape kind of love I was feeling God draping over Beira while sitting outside admiring the stars, conversations and food of the evening. We were attending a braai (a South African barbeque) at Melanie’s daughters’ school which began with the intention of allowing space for parents and teachers to socially mingle and ended with South Africans bickering over whose steak was grilled better. I realized that I felt completely at peace and entirely filled with joy. Previous Mozambican moments had given me happiness, but this was a sense of pure joy of not wishing to be any other place or worried about anything.

When the braai began I was talking with our friend Ruth and her husband and son. Ruth is a sweet English woman who boosts my awareness of friendship and love in Beira. But she’s been struggling a lot these last few weeks. She has fiber myalgia that she says makes her “legs feel like they don’t belong” to her and chronic back pain that makes each movement excruciating as her medication wears off. But the worst pain of all of her is her inability to do her nursing work to her full potential. One of her projects is distributing powdered milk to infants whose mothers either are HIV+ or lack the nutrition to breastfeed. She told us of how her previous week had been just awful as the bridge to one of her milk recipient communities washed away, leaving no way to access the mothers and giving Ruth guilt that some babies would now die. Another of her endeavors is an orphanage of HIV+ children to whom she gives medicine and check-ups. Ruth began to break down as she explained the story of one girl with stage four AIDS who still had not received ARV treatment. When Ruth called the local government to demand distribution of the free medication to the orphanage, the officials on the other end of the line lackadaisically said they would be there by the end of the month. She knows these kids don’t have that long.

So there we sat. The joy, the tears, the heartbrokenness and the love all hovered there in the air around us, mixing together and getting hazy. But the weirdest thing was that it was totally okay. Pain held hands with beauty, and joy pulled up a chair next to sorrow. And there we all dwelled. I didn’t feel guilty for the laughter we had a few moments before her story, and the breaking of Ruth’s heart in no way diminished the love it still contained. I still knew that I was exactly where I should be, and despite all of the death around me, I didn’t want to be anywhere else. Around this same time, a dear friend from home shared with me a quote from a pastor of the church we used to attend:
“Ultimately our gift to the world around us is hope. Not blind hope that pretends everything is fine and refuses to acknowledge how things are. But the kind of hope that comes from staring pain and suffering right in the eyes and refusing to believe that this is all there is. It is what we need—hope that comes not from going around suffering but from going through it...It is in the flow of real life, in the places we live and move with the people we're on the journey with, that we are reminded it is God’s world and we’re going to be okay.”
And I think this is what hope means to me. Sure, babies still cry, funerals still occur and the water still inexplicably goes out in the middle of a dinner party. But the sun still rises every morning and joy is still available in the presence of utter destruction. And I think God stands in the messy middle between suffering and bliss and says “it’s alright. I got this.”

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

dirty stories

Some time ago, there was a guest speaker who came to the church that I used to attend back at home. I can't remember his name, home town or ethnic affiliation, but he was a Rwandan man who was interviewed by the pastor so that he might share his memories and observations from his life at home in 1994. All of us listeners were deeply struck by how patiently and quietly he told his gruesome and horrifying story of watching his loved ones be tortured to death and the place he grew up burned to the ground. The point of his tale wasn't to evoke pity or indignation, but to demonstrate how one man was able to find forgiveness and life lessons from this awful period of his life. His voice was sad and calm as he spoke of his past anger and his present peace, while all of us in the audience sat with gaping mouths and moist eyes. He explained that while we was (understandably) upset to say the least, he realized that as a survivor, he must not only honor the dead but also respect the living. Through his experience, he slowly began to forgive his enemies for what they did to his family, to forgive his kin for their hand in the violence, to forgive himself for not doing more to stop what happened, and most importantly to forgive God for letting it all unfold.

His profound story put me to shame. I thought of all of the insignificant ways I get easily angered, such as when my hurried time in a hectic schedule isn't acknowledged by others. And I remembered each of the times that I've struggled to forgive people, such as when I'm cut off in traffic or in front of in a long line at the supermarket. Needless to say, the burdens of my life pale in comparison to those of this Rwandan man. But I tucked this man's story into a little pocket of my heart and carried it with me to Mozambique. Upon my arrival here a few months ago, I was thinking of how this continent is filled with other stories like the guest speaker's that portray violence, marginalization, suffering and epic catastrophes. Mozambique alone has held its share of heartache with reoccurring droughts and famines, widespread extreme poverty and the decades-long civil war. Now, given the facts that I'm not 146 years old and have grown up in middle class America, I cannot share these manifestations of pain in the forms of civil war and hunger.

However, my life lessons here have given me my own crosses to bear. I have gotten livid when forced to pay more for bananas than the woman next to me because of my accent and skin color. I have been offended when my former host mother told me that I'm not a real woman because I'm American and don't have to work for anything. And I have had my little world turned upside down by a few wrong turns and a misunderstanding turned violent. I thought, oh no, I can't forgive because I'm too angry and far too offended and much too hurt.

Last week I was walking down the street on an exceptionally hot day, which made the odors from the dumpers I was passing particularly pungent. I started to wrinkle up my nose, my face involuntarily wore an expression of disdain and I sped up my stride to get past them quicker. But suddenly, the idea of honor the dead, respect the living popped into my head. Trash isn't exclusive to Mozambique. So therefore it shouldn't be defined by it. Sure, in this country death has come riding on the raindrops, as a result of feuding politics and through decaying diapers and mango rinds in garbage heaps. But while I acknowledge the death, there must be some drive to support the living. I realized that even if I hurried my walking to get past the uncomfortable situation faster, it doesn't fix the problem, or the fact that there might be something useful or teachable in all that smelly grossness. And if I really want my life to sing “This Is My Father's World” and believe that I'm spoken to everywhere, then God's domain needs to include these trash dump situations.

This leaves me in a tight tension of wanting to run through rustling grass and dwell on pretty things, while also recognizing that this world, this country, this street is laden with brokenness, pain and decay. It was somewhere in this tedious balance and the methane fumes from the littered sidewalk that I put down my sword and shield and forgave those who had done me wrong. The forgiveness process wasn't fun and it didn't feel good to be ripped apart in order to be built back up. But I can breathe a little bit easier, and now I don't take the smell of the fresh, nooma-living air for granted anymore. If true living means forgiveness, then I guess that's what it takes to bring some life to these dead, trashy situations of our world.

Friday, January 21, 2011


It started with the “rainbow nation” and ended with a rainbow. In the beginning of December, my head was a disheveled mess of thoughts and my heart cluttered with emotions. By by the end of January, I feel like I'm in a much healthier place. I think much of this has to do with my time in South Africa. I spent the last three weeks of December retreating, vacationing, Christmasing and relaxing with MCC friends and colleagues around South Africa, which is often nicknamed the “rainbow nation” due to stated embracing of multiculturalism and multicolored people. While there, I was talking with one of my new good friends about my past experiences in Mozambique, and how sometimes I felt as though words couldn't even contain or describe some of the complex emotions of pain, regret and brokenness that I was feeling. She suggested that in the moments when words fail, other mediums, such as color meditation, can pick up the slack.

As it turns out, she was right. I began seeking out colors to intake new experiences and define what was already there. Being in a gorgeous country certainly helped. As did being surrounded by dear friends and colorful characters throughout my travels. I was able to find solace in the endless blue of the ocean waves, comfort in the fresh blue that came from my meditations on what peace means in a violent world, and joy in the perfect blue hues in my nieces' eyes over a Christmas Skype video call home. The green of tree covered mountains was refreshing and the green of wildebeest covered hills on our safari was incredible, while the green of internal growth blossomed into forgiveness.

This new perspective for perceptions continued as I transitioned back into the culture and pace of Maputo. Although, this time the colors took on different meanings. I traded in green of deciduous forests for the green of fabulous acacias strutting their stuff in clusters along the city streets. Thanks to the color coded chapa system, blue has been labeled by my transportation of late: the blue Museu—Xipamanine bus line, where joy comes from the little things of the cobrador whistling a showtune tribute to Andrew Lloyd Weber, and from the cobrador who screams “MUSEU! MUSEU!” outside the apartment window (which makes me wish that English-speaking transportation agents would also yell “MUSEUM!” to lure people on board). Among other things, brown in this city for me connotes the disgusting bodies of cockroaches who think they have made the apartment their domain, until they are met with my Chaco or Nadia's hardcover “My Happy Book” and my war cry of “Die! Die! WHY WON'T YOU DIE FOREVER?!” laced with eloquent profanity.

Last week, I was again remembering all of the unanswered questions that still linger around my life here. Questions such as: “when am I going to find a new host family?”, “what does my job look like in the upcoming months?”,'”why does God have to use such heinous situations in order for us to grow?”, and “what is that God-awful, puke-inducing smell in the stairwell?” still remain. But as I was taking a walk outside and dwelling on the uncertainties, a rainbow appeared. Not only that, but it was an awesome, full-fledged, massive arching double rainbow that seemed to span the city while also exactly centering Joél and Jenny's apartment building where I've been staying. It was as if God needed to remind me of his promises to take care of me, but in a way that I could actually comprehend. I didn't have to color analyze a thing or over think the meaning because it was right there, painted with an exceptional palate. The reds were THE perfect red and transitioned gradually yet accurately into the vibrant oranges and coy yellows and down the line. He has all transitions under control, not just in my stupid little life, but all throughout this broken city. And I take great comfort in this. Next week, I'm moving up to Beira for a month. But despite the new batch of hazy questions that arise in the scenery change, I'm blessed by a total sense of peace that whatever God has in store for February, it's bound to be colorful.