Sunday, December 25, 2011

Remembering




This morning, I was washing up some pots and pans that the dishwasher couldn't handle and as I stood at the sink, with hot water running, I was thinking of my dear friend, Sukai. I was wondering this morning how she and James and their children were celebrating. Across the globe, my friends are at the close of Christmas day, just as we begin ours. I can only come up with gratitude for the lessons that the Tembo family have taught me. Start with what you have. Give to others. Love deeply. We take so very much for granted on our side of the ocean. Like running water. That's hot. I've so much to learn.

I'm thankful for every reminder. Even when it hurts.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w5cX_ncZLls


There won't be snow in Africa this Christmas time.
The greatest gift they'll get this year is life.
Where nothing ever grows.
No rain or rivers flow.
Do they know it's Christmas time at all?



This song just pinches my heart...because the statistics have become faces and the faces are those of ones we love...like Dorothea, Joshua and Eva.

One of the biggest realizations I had while in Africa and upon my return was how we give out of our excess, and we evaluate our ability to give based on those parameters. In Africa, many give out of their incredibly limited resources and the only evaluation they base it on is need...whose is greater, whose survival depends on it. Even in our attempts to pare down the gift giving and re-prioritize Christmas...we still are excessive. I just keep reminding myself that the greatest gift we're giving our kids this year was not under the tree...it's across the ocean, a long bus ride and a muddy dirt road into a shanty town filled with familiar faces and open arms, singing and tears, children and old women...and I can not wait.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Dear Friends


Hey Friends,

Merry Christmas to you...and before you pass out from the shock of getting your first Christmas letter from us...let us say, we waited until we had something very newsworthy to share before sending them out. Actually, we want to let you in on what some of you may have already heard - our family is heading to Africa. There've been so many questions: Where are you going? Why are you going? Why would you take your kids? What about school? What about HOCKEY! When are you going? How long are you going for? Is it safe? So many more...so, with those in mind, here's the way we see it...

We're planning to be in South Africa at the beginning of February. We'll be staying at the Hands at Work base near White River, SA for the first six weeks. Hands at Work is an organization that has become very integrated into our family's life. Jason and I have both volunteered on separate trips, leading teams into Zambia with Hands, we've done advocacy and fundraising work here in Canada and we have some great relationships with volunteers and care workers through Hands at Work. As a result, our hearts have certainly become engaged in the work in Africa and it has infiltrated our daily lives here in Canada. Hands at Work works in eight different countries throughout sub-Saharan Africa, finding villages where there are the greatest needs and then going through the local church in that village to find volunteers to care for those that are dying and orphaned. Hands at Work then trains, supports and empowers them to care for those around them who society has rejected. Our role as international volunteers is to be scaffolding to the work that these community based care workers are doing...we'll be working alongside the workers and the service centres that support them to build capacity into them and enable them to grow in the care that they are providing.

Aidan is 13 and Easton is 10 - we feel that this is our window of opportunity to go as a family and serve together. The boys are excited (most days...) and willing to forgo half a season of hockey for this adventure so we're thankful for that. Hopefully, their NHL careers will withstand this little interruption. Their teachers are putting together project based curriculum for them so that they can finish out their school year with no problems. They are excited about keeping the boys connected to their school via Skype and email so that's been a huge support. As for Jason and I, we've come to this point in our lives where we realize that our time with the boys is fleeting. We want them to reflect on their growing up years as having been carefree and fun, filled with love and laughter, but we also want them to grow in compassion and instill in them the value of caring for others. These are difficult things to teach in a world where we are inundated with messages of self sufficiency, self preservation and accumulating as much as we can. To get ourselves to Africa, we've had to come to a point where we're willing to let go of much of what we see as security...house, car, jobs...all these things we've had to unclasp our tight grip on in order to fully embrace Africa. So, we're down to the last pinky hold and we're letting go. Everything is up for grabs at this point...I'm thankful for a great workplace that is supportive of the time off needed to go and for the hope of a job to return to. I love where I work...it's one of the hardest things to let go of. House...four walls and a lot of "security" but again, if we need to sell it to go, then we'll sell it to go. The only "thing" we're holding on to is our dog, Charlie, who has a place waiting for her until we return. So...that's the gist of it. Here's a link to our website: www.thevanbinsbergens.blogspot.com. We'll do our best to update it regularly as we go and while we're away. For now, there is a collection of stories and reflections from earlier trips to Africa. If you're wanting to be more involved, there are links to make donations to support us on our trip also to donate to the work that Hands at Work is doing. For our American friends, there is an address for the US office of Hands at Work for your donations.
Most of all, thank you for being here for us. We really don't take for granted the number of amazing people we have in our lives. Whether near or far, at some point this year, you've been thought of, missed and loved by us. We wish you all the very best in 2012...can't wait to be part of it with you. Love, Shelly, Jason, Aidan and Easton

November 2009 - Minimal Reflections




I don't have much reflection today, I'm just trying to deal with a sense of urgency and responsibility after what I've seen and who I've met. I heard this week that in the village we were in, there are 1,000 orphaned and vulnerable children who are in desperate need of care. It's the word desperate that is causing me to run around in circles today, trying to figure out what my role is, how do I help, how can we save these children? This is just one village. In Zambia alone, there are 1.2 million orphans. I hate writing numbers. They don't mean anything. All I know is that all day, I've been taken over by this sense of urgency that I can't find an outlet for at the moment.

To me, the fact that I heard from our friend in Zambia who is working so hard to care for these children that there are 1,000 in desperate need, means that things are DIRE. Desperate doesn't include children who have a caregiver of some sort to watch over them. These numbers are children that if they don't get into a feeding program, will either slowly starve or be forced to do unbelievable things to earn something to eat. Sheer numbers that are overwhelming to me, and must be excruciating to the volunteers who walk among them and care for those they are able to reach out to.

And so, some of these 1000 children in this one village are the children I've held. The boys chasing each other in the village. The girls carrying their baby brothers on their backs although they themselves are ridiculously tiny for such a task. These are the children that sculpt clay into people and animals when they have time to play. They are the children that filled the alleys and chased us as we walked, who came from every corner of a yard to see the mazungus and who held out their hands and gave us their smiles and practiced their English on us. And these thousand include the tiny baby boy, barely old enough to sit up on his own, who was crying in the puddle of diarrhea in the middle of his yard, scarcely old enough to crawl away from his own waste that was the distinct color that marks the excrement of those who are malnourished. I think of him so often - asleep or awake, his small face and his cry are with me. These children are the boys whose mother asked us to pray for blankets for her boys who slept each night on the concrete floor, boys who were literally eating any piece of paper or dirt or straw they could find on the floor to assuage their hunger while we visited with them.
I want to apologize for these images as you sit where you are reading...but I can't. They are ours to tell and ours to act upon. All I know is right now, I feel like in many ways, tonight, I'm coming out of my skin...wracking my brain for a solution, for money, for a way back to them and a way to bring comfort.
I don't know what the solution is. I do know that God loves these children as much as He loves mine. As much as He loves me. So,God and I, well, we're talking about it. And I have a feeling we're going to be deep in conversation about this for a long, long time. When I first returned, I was hoping that He would heal my heart but now, now I am just hoping that He tells me what I'm supposed to do next with all who broke it.





These little ones came from a home near the farm where we were staying...every day, several times a day...to get water from the well on the farm. The littlest fellow could only say "Howareyouuuuuuu?" and would repeat it over and over and louder and louder...he just loved talking to us in Bembe and his one sentence of English. His oldest sister was perhaps 8 and she gave them all water containers according to their size and they all carried their share back to their home. I never saw a parent in the home although they did tell me they lived with their mother although she was sick. She probably still had to go seek work or food to care for these ones.I <3 this girl. I can hardly look at this photo without crying. This little one barely spoke a word. I learned from the teachers that she comes everyday for school and to the feeding program but doesn't speak. They told me they thought her name was Virginia and that she was 5. She clung to me all afternoon, which was fine with me...and before I put her back in the arms of one of the teachers,both of us tearfully, she whispered "Eva" to me and I asked her if that was her name and she gave me the first smile of our day together.Some of the faces of the children who are enrolled in the community school and feeding program. Most are orphans or are very vulnerable because of poverty or living situations...you'd never know it by their smiles and their laughter...but their skin and hair and tummies give them away, showing the telltale signs of malnutrition.More statistics...beautiful, aren't they? It's hard to believe when we say numbers that these are the little faces we're talking about...Melissa with a small girl who just wanted to be held for a while. Even in the midst of such dire circumstances, there are volunteer care workers giving themselves sacrificially to care for as many as they can humanly reach out to.Kristal holding the girl whose story I am not sure I can ever tell - it gives me some comfort to see photos of us holding her and loving her but it also breaks my heart to think of her today and what she may be living without.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Catching You Up on My Latest - June 11, 2009

I don’t even know how to begin this note other than to say that what I am about to tell you, I have hope that it stirs something in you the way that it has in me. In fact, the things I’ve learned this year have motivated me to travel to Mulenga, Zambia in August for three weeks with a team of six others who are willing to go with me. I have never wanted to be away from Jason, Aidan and Easton for three weeks and yet, I have purchased a ticket and am travelling around the world to spend three weeks in a village where 55% of the population is under the age of fifteen. Most of the homes I’ll be working in are child headed households, meaning there are no parents, only an elder sibling to try and provide for the needs of younger brothers and sisters. I know that three weeks will be difficult in many ways, none the least, being away from my family, but in light of the fact that these children have lost their parents and are living alone, I feel compelled to go.This past year, I became aware of an organization called Hands At Work that serves the most vulnerable villages in Africa. It works in villages where the incidence of HIV/Aids, orphans and poverty are the highest and the support structure, such as hospitals or orphanages are at their lowest or non-existent. In these areas, institutional models of care are overwhelmed and unable to cope with the sheer volume of needed care. Hands At Work helps villages find community-based solutions to the crisis. In this model, orphans are kept within family unit groups headed by a local caregiver, an aunty, a granny or even an elder sibling, within that community, where they receive the psycho-social care that family and community provide. The community based organizations then supports these families through community care points and teams of trained local care volunteers who visit the children in their homes.The statistics are staggering and quite honestly, they begin to become unimaginable when not attached to a face or a name. Hands At Work is striving to care for 100,000 children by 2010. These are 100,000 children that would not be reached by the many organizations working in Africa in an effort to alleviate so much of the suffering. Hands At Work will not say it “cares” for a child until the child receives the three essential services of basic health care, food security and education. I think we all know organizations large and small that are undertaking work in Africa to respond to the enormous needs of the sick and dying and the orphaned. Hands At Work is mobilizing community based care workers in areas where larger more established organizations have not yet reached, nor will they any time soon. By recruiting and training local volunteers to care for their neighbours, villages are being mobilized to care for and support the orphans and widows, the sick and the dying. In essence, it’s neighbour caring for a neighbour.I will be working with a local pastor in the village of Mulenga, Zambia and the team of home based care workers that he has recruited and trained. To be honest, I don’t know exactly what will be asked of me during our time in the community. I know that we will be working with the volunteers, doing home based care visits and meeting with many in the community who are living in the midst of some of their worst days, some even their last days. I can’t pretend to be enthusiastic about it, I am anticipating heartbreaking conditions as we are witness to so much of what we can’t really imagine here in North America. Parents dying. Children being left on their own.Tangible grief. Lack of resources. I am also anticipating hope and encouragement. Volunteers who give of their own meager resources. Neighbours who love unconditionally. Showing the people of Mulenga that they are not alone, that we are together.I know that we can’t all go to Zambia. I know that there are many different ways to care for others in our world, some in our own homes, and some across the globe. I would not presume that this is going to move all of you to action, but it may move some. If you would like to participate with me in this trip, here are a few suggestions:My ticket and travel visas are paid for but it would be great to have some extra funds along for transportation and accommodations costs. The total costs for transportation and accommodations while in Zambia are $555 per person.You can designate a dollar amount for project costs, these are things that we will purchase in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia and bring with us to Mulenga. These are items like umbrellas for care workers who often walk kilometers a day to reach their community in the blistering heat as well as in the rainy season; first aid supplies such as latex gloves, syringes, topical antibiotics and bandages; and other items such as blankets, pots, pans and matches that will be distributed by the home based care volunteers to those they serve that often have little or no means to provide for themselves. One of the most necessary items right now are school supplies – Mulenga just built its first school with money that we raised through December’s Advent Conspiracy campaign…a campaign here in North America that challenged us at Christmas time to give more and spend less.One of the areas I would love your help with is donating blood. I know it seems a bit odd in this list but as a result of the vaccinations and travel to high risk areas, I am unable to give blood for a year after my return date. If there are twelve of you who would commit to it that haven’t given blood before, I would love it if you would commit to donating blood at least once during the next year to compensate for my inability to do so. It’s something I value and would mean a lot to me.Finally, I just ask that if you are the praying sort that you would pray for me. I am a reluctant adventurer…I’m not fearless or confident or even convinced of my ability to alleviate any suffering in this world. I do know that I feel compelled as I’ve never before felt compelled, to put my words into action. Most of you know I have faith in God, and when I look at things in this world that don’t make sense in light of who I believe Him to be, well, I tend to read and think to try and work it out. This one can’t be worked out by reading and thinking, at least not from where I’m at right now, other than reading words like Proverbs 31:“Speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves,for the rights of all who are destitute.Speak up and judge fairly;Defend the rights of the poor and needy.”The Bible’s book of James says that “true religion is to care for widows and orphans in their distress”. I have never embraced that word religion but maybe this definition I can. If that defines “religious” then let it define me.Sermon over. You can wake up now.

Sifting Through Souvenirs -September 15, 2009

Souvenir. A token. A keepsake. A memento. A recollection. These definitions bring to mind the tacky tourist offerings of airport gift shops. Inadequate definitions to describe the memories presenting themselves one before the other in rapid succession when I’m awake and when I’m asleep. The memories that keep me from feeling fully at home although I am so thankful to be reunited with the family I love. These memories have become mantras in my mind not to forget the lessons that I’ve witnessed and been part of. A country rich in resource and yet economically devastated. A people group that is both physically and spiritually beautiful in a way I’ve never experienced. A poverty that surpasses anything I have imagined or experienced anywhere else in the world. A wealth that surpasses physical and material wellness that I would never have expected in such large measure. A village of children filling its dirt pathways with their smiles, their voices, their hunger and their loneliness. A handful of volunteer care givers that give so sacrificially that their gratitude and love for me at times grated in my conscience like fingernails on a chalkboard, knowing I have never given so sacrificially even to my own most beloved friends and family the way they give to the sick and the dying and the orphaned.Almost hopeless to find an adequate definition, I stumble upon it in the French translation. Souvenir: noun. An heirloom. And so the memories begin to line up. The cacophony of stories begging to be told begin to file into a resemblance of order as they filter through the definition. An heirloom. A treasure to be passed down through the generations. I have stumbled on something valuable that will be handled with great care. In time, to be passed along to family and friends and even acquaintances. A mind full of jewels to be distributed with great responsibility and love to those in my life who will be given the responsibility and honor of caring for those jewels until it is their turn to pass them on. Never have I felt such relief at definition. So prepare to inherit these stories. There are many variations of heirlooms, some are so filled with hope and joy that it will buoy you through a dismal afternoon in a way you’ve never experienced. Some are so heartbreakingly beautiful that the face of a small girl will move you to tears once you learn her name and the value of her embrace in the wake of what her days involve. These heirlooms come with accountability. I have never felt so responsible for words or stories. There is nothing material that I would acquire that would compare to the value of the heirlooms I’ve been entrusted to pass on. You have an inheritance coming in the words and stories I will share with you. It comes with responsibility and the caution that they will likely cause you heartache and joy that will result in a changed perspective and the added caution that you may have to check your value system if they don’t. It will take time to sift through these heirlooms. I don’t want to miss any that may have been hidden in the drawers or safe deposit boxes of my mind. I want you to have full access to the inheritance that I have received from Zambia. Be patient as you anticipate the inheritance. Be prepared to react and then act… these are jewels to be weighed and worn…not to be hidden away in security and obscurity. Right now I am weighed down by their beauty and their heaviness. I am looking forward to sharing this weight amongst my friends and family so we can all wear their beauty and bear their weight together.

Beginning at Z...

Zambia. Flying into Zambia in the early morning light, it felt strangely familiar. As the patchwork landscape rose up to meet the plane, it was reminiscent of fall in the prairies or the scrubland of the Australian outback. I felt I’d seen this land before. As we dipped lower, the landscape changed and the corrugated tin roofs of small clusters of homes and the flat tops of acacia trees revealed themselves and Zambia differentiated herself from any other land I’ve experienced. We arrived on the tarmac and disembarked and began the long walk to the airport buildings. It was warm already although still very early. We made our way through customs and out to the front of the arrivals area where we were met by Kristal, James and Dickson. Kristal, my beautiful friend, was such a welcome sight and it was wonderful to stand together for those first few moments realizing that we were in Africa together, a place we’d often talked about. It became very real in that moment. And James! I couldn’t believe he made the five hour drive just to greet us at the airport. Meeting James was an amazing moment for me, for all I’d heard of this man, his strength of character and determination to alleviate the suffering of widows and orphans in his land, he could have been very overwhelming. Yet, he was warm with a gorgeous smile to match his reputation and he was instantly a friend. And Dickson, our driver, we’d heard of Dickson from the team that preceded us and knew that although he was reserved, in no time he would be a friend to each of us.We began our journey to the Copperbelt region. Driving through Lusaka, like most of the team, I was wide eyed and trying to fathom that I was in Africa. It was reality that we were finally where we’d planned and dreamt of being for so long. The jacaranda were in vibrant purple bloom and beautiful. The bougainvillea in their full red and purple glory lined cement walls and provided startling contrast to the red dirt along the roadside. Already, before barely getting through Lusaka, Zambia revealed herself as a country of contrasts. We skirted the city and caught glimpses of modern infrastructures, streetlights and traffic circles as well as aging cement buildings and walls, littered streets and people walking, walking, walking. The sheer number of people walking along the roadsides was one of the first indicators that we were in a foreign land.As we moved out of the city and onto the road leading north, we began to see the land stretch out. The landscape in the dry season is an orange and red canvas dotted with scrub brush and trees wearing a dusty coating of dirt. The only smattering of colors come from the people who are walking along the roadside. Children in tattered clothing, men on bicycles loaded down with charcoal or thatch, women with brightly colored fabric wraps carrying babies on their backs and water containers on their heads. Small wooden stands dot the roadside set out with a few tomatoes or oranges for sale. Charcoal bundles line the roadside, offered up as a means to make a living by whoever lives down the dirt path leading to the proffered goods. Charcoal would become a symbol to me of Zambia. As we travel further north, we are met with the smell of smoke in the air and there are fires burning everywhere. Tiny communities of several thatch huts begin to dot the landscape, cleared of any surrounding bush or trees. The native forest is being stripped bare to make charcoal for sale to buy food. These are not bush people, these are educated men and women eking out an existence after losing their livelihoods and modern survival skills in the midst of the broken modern history of Zambia’s independence.Zambia was handed over to independence in the 1960’s and the remnants of that modern time are evident in tattered detail throughout our journey. As we enter Kabwe and Luyansha, we see simple small mine housing neighbourhoods that look like an early 60’s housing subdivision you would find in Britain or in Canada. There are hedges around the homes and narrow streets lined with trees and yet, in these home, nothing functions - testimony to the broken aftermath of the industrial colonization of Zambia. When Zambia was given independence in the 1960’s, the infrastructure worked for a while but unattended, and with little experience for preservation and maintenance, the decay has taken over. The infrastructure is now decades past its prime and stands as a reminder that for all the modern ingenuity mankind can put forth, time and neglect are waiting to prove its futility.The people of Zambia are quiet and so gracious. They are struggling with the poverty ridden history that has been passed on to them. Many who had skills and employment found themselves without means of survival. After living a modern societal existence, there was no exit strategy for these workers and their families as the copper industry that once thrived and supported their country began to be superseded by the new era of IT and computer chips in other industrialized nations. Many of these urban working families found themselves destitute with no means of supporting themselves and in many cases, these families moved to the bush where they could build a shelter of sorts and eke out an existence making charcoal or selling fruit along the road. On the road to Luyansha, I am reminded that this could be Canada or Britain or any other industrialized country’s fate. It’s a sobering thought.For those who are fortunate enough to remain in the towns, there have been adjustments as well. Flush toilets don’t function properly, nor do sinks. Water comes once a day in most cases and perhaps not from your tap. Power is shared with other towns and villages so more often than not, the power is out and sporadic at best when on. Few can afford electricity for cooking so they use charcoal and grates in the yard to cook their meals. The cost of living is high as we discover en route to Kitwe. Stopping for a meal or drinks costs approximately the same as a meal or drink would cost at home in Canada.We travel farther north and the roads become very rough. Dickson slows the bus and dodges potholes that would render an axle useless in short order. Small boys run out from the roadside with rough hewn tools and fill in potholes and then ask for a toll to pass. Dickson waves them off and James explains that regardless of how often you travel this road, the same boys are working on the same potholes. He tells us to look behind the bus, and we see the boys heading back to their roadside vantage points to wait for the next vehicle in hopes of a payment. They lean on their tools and when they see a vehicle coming, become very industrious looking as they seemingly labor to improve the road. I admire their entrepreneurial skills and James laughingly agrees when I tell him that is a useful skill set for boys so young if only we could harness that energy and ingenuity!We drive past parked fuel trucks lining the road and then farther on drive through fires burning so close to the roadside on either side that the bus heats up so quickly it wakes those on the team who have been sleeping off their jet lag. The fuel trucks can’t pass safely through these roads when the land is burning and so they are delayed en route to delivering the fuel to the northern towns ahead.All these factors assault me before even stepping off the bus at Kachele farm where we will be staying while working in Mulenga. In itself it is a reminder of better days in Zambia’s history. It is a beautiful property bought by Hands At Work to house teams. It was owned by a family who farmed it and there stand outbuildings and fruit trees and an empty swimming pool to attest to the previous beauty of life in Zambia. The farmhouse is in good repair thanks to Oswald and Matthew who live on site and are caretakers of the property. We are privileged to stay here. The well is deep and the water is good. We can drink from a tap and have a shower at the house. We are enjoying these things as the luxuries that they are. Only one day did we go without electricity and we sleep well at night behind a locked door and glass windows. It was a long first day, my mind is tired from the excitement and observations and anticipation of what the coming days will bring and as I crawl into bed under the mosquito net, I lay listening to the sounds of night in Zambia, it is loud with animals and birds and wind and vegetation. Night comes early and by 7 pm it is absolutely dark with a gorgeous display of stars that only the southern hemisphere can lay out before us. The noise provides the backdrop to a very good night of sleep, my first night in Zambia.

Coming to Life in Mulenga - September 16th, 2009

The morning we drove into Mulenga, I literally felt the world as I recognized it shift on its axis. We drove north from the farm towards the city of Kitwe. On our way to Mulenga, we pass the copper mine standing as a monument to changes over the decades that have led to the demise of an economy. Driving past it, it looms large and there is little visible activity on the surface. Even in the mornings, we don’t see signs of workers entering or commuting although the roadsides are filled with people walking. Taxi vans drive up and down the road and fill literally every square inch of their capacity and then fill some more with those needing to get into the city. Our van is relatively empty with just the eight members of our team and our driver, setting us apart as white people and furthering the thought that we not only can afford to live in luxury, we can afford to travel this way as well.Our driver, Dickson, veers off the road to the right into the oncoming traffic and then makes a sharp left turn off the roadway onto the dirt about two feet below. We are now in Mulenga. Mulenga is close enough to Kitwe to perhaps have been considered a suburb although it what Zambians refer to as a shanty town. Although we used the term “village” to describe it, it is more accurately a collection of dirt paths lined with a variety of dirt brick housing with corrugated tin roofs. There are pit latrines built sporadically along the lanes, spilling their contents into the dirt creating a red sludge. The shanties and laneways are haphazardly spread out from the main roadway we just left down to where the river runs approximately a kilometer or more below. As soon as we enter the dirt pathways, we are spotted by children milling around in the upper yards of the village. We begin to hear shouts of “Mazungu! Mazungu!” “White person! White person!” The bus windows are open and children run out to greet us – full smiles, hands outstretched. I’ve never been welcomed in such a beautiful manner. The children begin to run behind the bus and follow our slow, bumpy progress towards the school where we will meet up with the home based care volunteers. Women walking up the lanes with their day’s worth of vegetables or fish to sell stand to the side and shyly smile as we drive by. The van winds its way down the narrow lanes, our windows offering us a front row view of life in each of the yards we pass by. Each small courtyard is a vignette of the daily life that the people of Mulenga face – children too numerous to mention stand in doorways or sit in the dirt, young girls are sweeping the dirt yards or drying small articles of clothing over the hedges that surround every structure. We are arriving early in the morning although these households have been active since first light. The yards are immaculately kept while the outside of the hedge is littered with every type of garbage imaginable, even that which is not imaginable litters the roads. We turn onto a wide roadway which we learn is the work of James and the volunteers in anticipation of our teams’ arrivals. Not only did they manually dig and fill the roadway, negotiating with each household along the way to infringe a few feet into already tiny yards, they did it in less than three weeks. At this point, it feels like an informal parade and we are riding the only float. James is walking along the road with his wife, Sukai, and they join us in the van. I’m hit by a wave of emotion when I meet Sukai – I have felt an affinity for this beautiful person since I first heard of her. I have prayed for her and wondered about her and now she is here, in front of me, and though it would embarrass her to death to hear me say it, I cannot take my eyes off of her and want to inch closer. I felt I was meeting a kindred spirit and a lifelong friend and I could hardly wait to get past the initial introductions to begin this friendship. The van parks in front of a small garden plot and the remains or the beginnings of a brick home. Our team arrives and is instantly mobbed by children who are eager to shake our hand and greet us in English. Their phonetic pronunciations of “how are you” and “I am fine” are lyrical and I find myself laughing every time a new child greets me. Surrounded by children, seemingly more every minute, we make our way to the school that James and the volunteers have built with the funds from our churches’ Advent Conspiracy campaign.* I have seen photos of this simple building but as I walk toward the actual structure, I feel all my inadequacies and frustrations of presenting and promoting this community’s need to others a world away. Almost physically, these things drop off me and are replaced by tears of joy as I feel that I am being shown the results of the small role I played. Even as I write this, the tears come again, there was something so tangible about the presence of God in that moment about seeing the school that I can hardly articulate it, other than to say that I believe He was showing me what I knew all along, that if I just play my small role, He will do the rest and many will reap the rewards. It is embarrassing that I need those reminders but I do.
The home based care volunteers begin to arrive and we meet in the school. Introductions are made and although James invites us to speak freely to one another, the common experience of awkward silence fills the room, broken only by the sounds of children clambering at the windows for a glimpse inside. Looking around the circle of volunteers, I tell them how we have heard of the selfless work that they are doing and we have come to learn and support them. I share with them how a church across the globe is praying for them and how their photos hang outside my office with their names attached. I try to communicate how amazing it is to be in this very spot, experiencing these photos and names coming to life in front of my very eyes…stories of Loveness’ dedication in feeding as many children as possible daily are wrapped up in the beautiful woman standing next to me. Nkosi, who is 84 and nearly blind can hardly contain his enthusiasm and is standing with a huge smile on his face and clapping his hands with joy intermittently. Sheila and Anita, two of the gorgeous young teachers in the school, are shy although from what I know of them, they will soon be two of the most gregarious and outgoing young women in the town, leading us in spontaneous dancing and singing with any group of children around at the moment. Everything about these few moments erases sadness or disappointments that have buried themselves within me…there is just no room for these in me here. I have no idea why or how but I am absolutely filled with joy in this place, as if it had already been imprinted for me to be standing here and I am just filling in with my physical self where my soul and heart had been for some time.

Praying for Friday

After introductions between our team and the home based care volunteers, James asked if we would sing a song. We had been told that we would be asked this by the team that came in June, a team I might add that included a number of talented singers that have travelled and sung in front of numerous audiences. Not so our team. After an abnormally long minute of exchanging glances and raised eyebrows towards one another, Melissa bravely started out in a song. Thankfully, it was one that most of us knew and we sang it a little bit sheepishly. Then James asked one of the volunteers to lead them in a song. And the second that her mouth opened, I was both embarrassed and relieved that we had gone first. What followed was some of the most beautiful music I have ever heard…made more beautiful by the unabashed volume at which these volunteers sung together and clapped and danced. I looked around at our team and we were all in varying states of shock, surprise and utter amazement. It was unbelievable what we were standing in the midst of. Song after song, they offered up in succession with their voices raised and their hands clapping and every part of their body moving to the music. The windows of the school filled with even more children clambering for a spot and a few of the bolder children filed in along the wall near the doorway. Apparently there is a gene that provides the ability to dance, sing and smile all at the same time and Zambians have been blessed with it. It was the first of many experiences in which there was nothing else to do but marvel at the gracefulness and beauty of these beautiful people dancing. Even Nkosi, 84, nearly blind, would move in and out of the circle so lightly on his feet that you would think he was a small boy. His smile wide and his hands clapping, this man could dance….and dance he did. He danced with such joy and optimism that you would think he had an easy life with everything he ever desired. He danced the lighthearted dance of someone unencumbered by their own humanity.Each of the volunteers danced and sang and invited us to join in and it was a perfect beginning to what was going to be an amazing couple of weeks together. Friendships began in that circle and our lives entwined in a way that still binds my heart to theirs from across the globe.
Gitness, Loveness and Blessings head out into the paths of Mulenga to do home care visits.After dancing and singing, we split into groups to go out and do some home care visits to patients who were sick. Kristal and I went with Crispin, Olantah and Sukai. I was happy to be with Kristal, knowing she had more experience than I in this setting and I was willing to go along and observe. Crispin wound his way through the alleys and pathways of the village and soon I realized that if I was to be separated from the group, I had no hope of retracing my steps. We came into a small yard with a very small clay brick home with a tin roof. Cutting through the hedge and ducking under the laundry line, we came around the front of the home to find a number of young boys digging clay and making bricks. There were also a few small children in the yard who were surprised to see Kristal and I in their midst. Crispin greeted a young woman with a small baby hanging onto her leg and an older woman washing out the morning cups. The small children came over to us one by one and shyly offered their hands to shake and greeted us with “mulishani” or “How are you”. Crispin asked the older woman where her son was and she walked up the road a short way to fetch him. The younger woman, who was the daughter in law of the older woman, led us around the side of the house to the shade where she invited us to sit on the cement ledge surrounding the home. We sat down and waited for her husband, Daniel, to make his way to us. He walked towards us down the hill and it was obvious he was very sick and in a weakened state. He walked like a man three times his age. He pulled up the only chair in the yard and sat facing us. Crispin introduced Kristal and I to the family and told them that we were there to support and encourage them as well. The young woman sat next to me with her smallest boy who was about a year old on the other side of her. While Crispin talked with Sukai and Daniel about how he was feeling, this little one and I engaged in a game of peek-a-boo behind his mother’s back. He would peer shyly around his back and watch me and when I would look at him, he would smile and bury his face in her side. He was dirty and small with the large belly that bore witness to the fact that he was malnourished and he was beautiful. Our game was interrupted by a coughing fit that caused his mother to draw him onto her lap and hit him on the back. I held out my hand to him once he was done coughing and he reached for it and held it for a moment before pulling his hand back and examining it to see if my color rubbed off on him. His mother and I both laughed and it was great to share that connection with someone despite the language barrier. In talking with the family, I discovered that the father had tuberculosis and was on treatments. They were living with his mother as he wasn’t able to work steadily and so they were struggling to feed their six children. In fact, three of the children were sent across the village to live with his sister. The youngest three were living with the parents and were also being tested for tuberculosis. Daniel was a very hard worker and was used to providing for his family. Tuberculosis medication is a long term medication and is very painful and hard on the body. It has to be taken with meals and consistently so that the side effects are minimized and the risks of resistance are held at bay. Daniel was taking his medication consistently but most often on an empty stomach because the family just did not have enough food to eat. This increases the painful side effects of the medication. I realized very quickly that Daniel was a tenacious man, making a decision to fight to get well although it must have been very painful for him. He was still trying to work and provide for his family but the brick work he did was dusty, hard labor – a combination that only complicated his condition. I learned the basics of home based care in that yard – that you cannot fix someone’s situation but you can stand with them in it and encourage them. As I watched Crispin pray for Daniel and just be his friend, I realized that what these volunteers are giving when they go out on these visits is friendship and encouragement. They do not have the means to alleviate any of the financial or sustenance needs but they are there to provide a voice and counsel and friendship and those things in that yard were very valuable. I was only there as an observer, I didn’t feel that there was anything I could contribute at that point but I did feel that having seen what I had seen, I took on some responsibility. I’m still trying to figure out what that entails from a world away.We went to several different homes that day –I met grandmothers and widows who were caring for their grandchildren because their children had passed away. I met young uncles and sisters who were shouldering the responsibility of caring for their nephews or younger siblings whose parents were dead or dying. These family structures are obviously important and children who have relatives in the village are often at least given some form of shelter and meals although they may not always be entirely welcome in the home. In many cases, children who are fathered by men other than the head of the household, whether he is a relative or not, are only given the minimum needed to survive – that may only be a roof over their head at night and a meal a day at the feeding point. Shoes or pants that fit may not be deemed a necessity by the head of the household and so often times, the children in these situations are lonely and feel like a burden to their relatives. It’s heartbreaking because so many of these children would flourish before our eyes with just a pat on the back or a smile and a question or two about themselves.We visited an older man in his eighties who was sitting on a stool in his yard under a tree, waiting to die. The man we came to visit told us that he was tired of being misdiagnosed at the hospital and repeatedly put on tuberculosis medication so he was not going to go to the doctor again. He was going to wait under the tree until he passed away. He had not had a bath in over a year because of some effects of his illness so he was content to shrivel up and blow away. Kristal asked him if he was bitter and he said that he was frustrated and tired. He had wanted to live out his days productively and felt that he had been cheated of that opportunity and that no one could help him. He told us that the home based care workers who visited him were the only people keeping him alive. His skin looked like leather and his eyes seemed to have no more tears to shed even though what he spoke of was obviously very distressing to him. He felt that he was a burden to his family and wore his shame and defeat visibly. Kristal took some lotion out of my bag and after asking his permission, began to massage his dry arms and hands. She spoke to him and Sukai translated and it was so beautiful to see her take care of him in this way. We spent time with him and read to him, watching him engage with us and begin to smile and nod as we spoke. I told him that I had great respect for him in his situation and that when I looked at him, I saw a man of great dignity who was worthy of much respect. He held my hand and was so grateful, it moved me to tears. Is this all it takes to relieve such suffering? Such small kindness and encouragement can alleviate the anguish of a man who is sitting under a tree waiting for the release of death? I had gone from being an observer to being a participant in this man’s care and began to understand how God has given us all the skills we need to care for one another.As we left this yard, we began to wind our way back towards the school where we would be meeting the others. There was a small crowd of children following us through these paths for quite a distance, and I caught myself wondering if their parents would approve of the distances they were travelling to follow strangers, but then I quickly realized that most did not have parents or anyone watching them so closely that this would even be a concern. We came to a small clearing where there was a young man, in his early twenties, leaning against his small house. It seemed that we had stumbled upon him by accident but in a few minutes, it was clear that Crispin knew him and had intended to check on him. This man’s name was Friday. He was very quiet and shy, never lifting his eyes and only speaking one word answers to Crispin’s inquiries. He was leaning against his home and so after introductions, Kristal and Olantah leaned against the house on one side of him, Sukai and I on the other side of him. He was obviously very sick and told Crispin quietly of the pain he was experiencing in his legs that made it nearly impossible to stand or walk. He was very anemic and when Sukai checked his eyelids, they were completely white. It was amazing he had the strength to even lean against his house. The crowd of children began to grow around us and Sukai dispersed them with the universal language of mothers – a flick of the hand and a “go!” and they were gone. She called back one young girl and handed her some kwacha (dollars) and gave her instructions and sent her off. Moments later, the girl returned with soap and a small packet of laundry detergent. Sukai thanked her and sent her off, placing the items next to Friday on the ledge of his house. As we talked with Friday, it was clear that he was very much alone and barely able to care for himself. The doorway to his home was covered only with a piece of fabric that blew over our heads in the breeze, revealing a nearly empty room inside save for a few dishes and a chair. During the entire visit, I was aware of how difficult his life was and that it wasn’t going to get easier. Like the older man we had just spent time with, the pain and exhaustion of being sick in a life that takes so much energy just to maintain shelter and provide a meal was taking a mental and emotional toll on this young man. I wake up now at night thinking about him, wishing that I had made a meal for him or swept his home or washed his blanket for him. I went back to my role as observer when we arrived at Friday’s home and I wish I had been more active in serving him. I’m trying to figure out if I wish I had been more active so he would have felt better or if I would feel better now when I remember him. I am certain it is both. Today is Friday. It’s no longer just a day of the week for me. It’s the name of a young man whose eyes I’ve looked into and whose sadness I shared. A man who, in different circumstances, would be starting life, not finishing it…a man who will eventually be part of the generation of young, able bodied men and women who are lost to Zambia and to all of us. Thank God it's Friday.

Broken Hearts and Broken Bones

I woke up this morning at 4:30 by our puppy needing to go outside. I pulled on wool socks and a flannel shirt over my pyjamas and brought her out into the yard. I stood on the step and it was a crisp, clear darkness around me. The dog is content to wander around the frosty grass for a few moments so I sat down and wrapped my arms around my legs to wait. The nightly train rumbles past about a half kilometer away and startles the dog who stands quivering staring in the direction of the noise. She goes back to wandering about the yard and I think of the warm house that waits behind me to welcome me back to bed. My thoughts return to Mulenga, as they do so many times a day, and I am once again, aware of how fortunate I am to have a warm house to retreat to and I wonder how my friends are this day, coming into the rainy season in homes that can only loosely be called shelter.
I am thinking about Gitness. She is one of the women that we met in Mulenga who volunteers her time to care for others in her village. Gitness is a widow and lives alone in a small room that she rents in a small cement house. One morning, I went out with Gitness on home care visits in which we were visiting the sick and those who were dying. As we were walking through the lanes of Mulenga, I noticed that Gitness was favoring one foot and I asked her if she had hurt herself. She explained that eight months before, she had broken a bone in her foot and that it had not healed properly and was still very sore. As we waited in the yard of a home we were visiting, she showed me her foot and it was very swollen with the skin very tight across the top of her foot. She had no money to see a doctor and she knew that she had broken it but had no choice but to walk on it and hope it would heal. I wish I could convey how far these volunteers walk daily to visit the people who rely on them. The roads are rough and filled with garbage, split by water and sewage, and they wind back and forth between the haphazardly built shanties. It's not an easy walk on good days, never mind on a broken foot for eight months. I realized how important these visits were to Gitness and how she valued what she was doing, that she would set out daily to serve others when she herself could be one of those being attended to.The days since I returned from Zambia have been very busy ones. I'm trying to reenter a job that calls me to care for people in many different ways and I admit, I tire of it easily these days. I see a different side of poverty here in my city, a poverty that doesn't always mean lack of material goods or access to care. I'm in constant transition in my brain between the needs here and those I saw in Mulenga. I can't reconcile the two other than the common denominators that God cares for the poor and calls me to do the same. Poverty is defined differently here and I'm finding out that serving and giving are as well. Giving and caring in Mulenga is sacrificial, to care for someone else when you yourself have nothing to give is the purest form of caring. Most often here, I see my giving and caring comes from excess. I can donate clothing or food because I myself have more than enough for my own needs and the needs of my family. Time is our biggest sacrifice but only because we've entrenched our value in being busy...regardless of what we are busy doing. Money and material things, even when we are stretched for dollars, are still in a ready supply. I've been very fortunate, I've never had to make a decision for my children to eat though it meant giving up my own meal. I've taken that for granted and I sure hope I won't anymore. We worked alongside volunteers who spent time doing difficult hand labour to ensure that the community garden they planted was being cared for so that they were able to sell the produce to raise money to feed the orphaned and vulnerable children in their village. I saw volunteers come in to the morning meeting times when they themselves were feeling badly, fighting their own illnesses or lack of food, to go and care for others in the same circumstances.This night, with morning just a few hours away, I come back into my warm house and know that my family is sleeping upstairs, safe and well fed, each in their own beds and I am asking for the ability to care deeply for those in my city who are not in the same comfort that we are. I'm asking for a renewed compassion for those around me who may not be physically poor but have a spiritual or emotional poverty that needs attention just as urgently. I'm asking that I be able to give the way that Gitness gives to others. And I'm definitely continuing my conversation with God on how this all works when I am here and I know where she will sleep tonight, on a small couch in a cement room in a shantytown that I can't get out of my head or heart.
I had heard from others that going to Africa will wreck your life. I heard the voices cautioning me to be careful and not to go before considering what it would cost me emotionally and spiritually. I had read stories of those who had gone and their lives were irrevocably changed, some returning to the country in Africa that had stole their heart or ignited their passion. Some come back and tell stories of how they couldn’t deal with what they saw or felt and so have just relegated it to their memories and tend not to revisit it too deeply or too often.I’ve been home longer than I was away and yet, everyday is still filled with the faces of the children I met, the patients I visited and the volunteers we spent our time with. Zambia creeps into my dreams at night the way an old friend shows up out of context and yet seemingly at home in the places that our dreams take us. In my dreams, my boys play soccer with boys like Jackson and Kennedy as if it were a friendship forged long ago and developed over the years. In reality, I know that Jackson and Kennedy each have a photo of my boys and have memorized their names and how old they are. I know that they consider my boys their friends in Canada and when I look at photos from Mulenga, my boys can pick Jackson and Kennedy out of the many children crowding into a photograph. In my dreams, a young teacher named Anita shows up with her gorgeous smile and lovely voice and hugs me as she did when I left and whispers that she really loves me. When I wake up, I remember how hard it was to say goodbye to her and I pray for her, the only way I have to connect to her over the great distance between us. And in the dreams I find the hardest to wake from, my family lives next door to James and Sukai. My boys run back and forth between our yards and play with their boys and their youngest, their daughter Yamikani, comes and spends time in our kitchen singing Lion King songs and playing with whatever she finds interesting in the cupboard. When I wake up, I have to remember that I am here, in Canada, with a different day ahead. And yet, even in my waking hours, I can’t seem to shake the feeling that part of me has remained connected to those I met and learned to love in my short stay in Zambia.When I left Zambia, I was challenged to become an advocate for change in Africa. I am doing my best to remain focused on that challenge but I’m not sure that it’s all that I can do. My heart wants me to run back to Zambia, bring my family and as many friends as I can and walk through the streets of Mulenga, pulling children to me and saying, “See? This is Deborah…she’s so much more beautiful than her photo can portray.” I want people to hear her laugh first hand and I want my friends and family to feel how amazing it is when she shyly offers to take your hands and show you her favorite clapping game. I want people to know that she is so sweet and empathetic that when the children around laugh at my poor attempts at the simple game, that she shushes them and reassures me that it takes a little while to learn but once you do, it’s very easy and fun. I wish you could see her every day for two weeks in the same simple shirt patterned with kittens and I wish you could see the pride she takes in keeping herself neat and clean. I wish more than anything that I could explain to you and to her and maybe most importantly, to myself, how it is that this little girl who I only spent a few weeks with has worked her way into my heart and I wonder daily how she is and if she’s eating and if she is safe at night. This is the point where I can understand how people file these memories in the backs of their mind because it is painful to feel such love for someone who you are unable to be near and unable to help and care for on a daily basis.I wish that I could go back and see Kennedy and Jackson and make sure that they are keeping a promise that they made – a promise to take the best care of themselves that they could and make good decisions about their actions. These are 10 year old boys that are on the verge of the years where they can be pulled in directions and habits and decisions that will threaten their lives and perpetuate the cycles of disease and poverty that have enveloped their community. I wish I could tell them every day that they are important leaders in their community and that by taking care of themselves and making good decisions, they are influencing the children that flock around them wherever they go. I would show them how we could hardly take a photo of either of them alone, that children wanted to be where they were at all times. And I wish that I could show my friends and family, the tenacity of these boys, shown by Jackson who hurt his knee badly while playing and yet continued to play and lead games and dance and run, wincing all the while. In my dreams, Jackson’s tenacity brings him scholarships and opportunities. In reality, it only gets him through another day and sets him apart as a leader in his community at a very young age. I’m praying that being set apart doesn’t lead him to be singled out as a good prospect for abuse or exploitation.Zambia doesn’t just come to me in dreams; it infiltrates my waking hours as well. The smell of smoke in the air in Saskatoon brings me to the road to Kitwe and the thought of those who burn the landscape and sell the charcoal to sustain themselves. The school zones here remind me to slow down and as I do, I realize how privileged our children are to have access to such an education, even when they are reluctant to feel grateful for such a privilege. The very school buildings with their glass windows and sturdy roof and walls evoke a double edged reaction – how is it that we have been so blessed and how can the disparity remain so huge between us and them. The sight of sweet potatoes in the grocery store takes me back to the small roadside offerings that support whoever set them out there that morning. I wonder if the farmer that grows these sweet potatoes ever wonders whose table they wind up on or if they are the product of an incorporated farm operation, impersonal and efficient. I find myself wondering why when I enter a room full of children, I get down to eye level and ask them questions about who cares for them and consistently wonder how great it is that they all have a ready answer.And yes, I would answer those cautionary voices and those who predicted that my life would be wrecked, it's true. Zambia has pulled at every thread of emotional and spiritual health that I possess. Emotionally, it's distressing to love someone and feel helpless to care for their very basic needs on a consistent basis but that is not specific to Zambia. Friends have watched their children struggle with life threatening illness and have known that emotion first hand of how painful that helplessness can be. And spiritually, if anything, Zambia has emptied me of every notion I had that I understood how wide and how deep the love God has for me. It pushed out all the answers I felt I had about blessing and love and contentment and need and left me with a vacant space to be filled with real answers when I finally land on them through this process and also spaces that probably can not be filled at this point. I don't understand needs and wants anymore. I certainly don't understand blessing or joy when it is defined by volunteers who give so sacrificially and joyfully in the midst of their own pain and need. I've never experienced that in my own life, to give that way. I do know that Zambia cleared space and increased my desire to learn firsthand what those answers are, and to be content with not understanding them until it's time for me to understand them. I know too that I've never wanted to rely on God as much as I do now and I am understanding why the things I've put my security in just haven't filled that void the way I wanted them to. I'm such a slow learner.Awake or asleep, I’m realizing that the part of me that is so deeply connected to this community in Zambia is crying out for some form of reconciliation between the life I live here and the one I saw there. I’m still working on that one, in fact, I’ll probably be working on that for quite some time. I’m asking that if part of this is about advocating for those I saw myself, whose hands I held and whose homes I was in, if only that part were able to be fulfilled in a way that was pleasing to God and to others, then please stick with me on this journey. It will become part of your journey and you’ll begin to hear the warnings and the cautionary tales of Africa. I’m asking you to keep moving forward on that, despite the cautions and the heartaches. Stick with me and remember Kennedy and Jackson and Deborah and the many children whose stories have fixed themselves in my heart…allow them to fix themselves to yours. Remember these kids when you hear the statistics. Don’t be overwhelmed by the numbers, think in terms of names. Somehow, we know each other and most of you reading it have some level of trust in me, so trust this…we can make a difference in the lives of these kids. Some of you already have. My birthday wish this year was just for donations to be made to Hands At Work to help them care for these kids. One wish. One day. Nearly $600. These things make a difference in the lives of the children I am telling you about. Thanks for being part of that. It’s not just that you supported those kids, it’s that you reminded me that I am playing a role that I was challenged to play. I am their advocate. It really is the very least that I can do with what I saw and experienced but it is the beginning of what I hope will be a lifetime of working towards reconciling what I see in my dreams and what I’m living out in my life and in the lives of others.Speaking of dreaming, that's where I should be. I'm tired and have no business trying to form cohesive thoughts in this state but this is the space and time I have. Forgive me for rambling. I hope you get the overall gist of where my head and heart are at. Bear with me. Bear the very weight of this with me. I'm not sure this experience was ever meant only for me.

Finding the Right Fit November 11, 2009

I love fall. I love the autumn colors and the crispness in the air. I love the anticipation of a warm sweater and the fulfillment of a cup of hot coffee on a cool morning. I love the warmth of the days and the clear night walks where stars that seem to have hung around all summer suddenly sharpen their edges and give off a clear and pristine light. The rustle of leaves and the sharp winds of fall bring a message of urgency...winter is coming and soon the world will turn indoors for comfort and only the most hearty will venture outside on a regular basis.The downside of autumn for me is fitting back into suitable shoes. They always feel too tight and restrictive the first few times you slip back into them in September. I hold off as long as I can but here in the prairies, toes pay the price for a stubborn streak that refuses to admit that the cold has arrived. I love the freedom of slipping on flip flops or backless shoes and being able to come and go as I like. Fall, for all it's crispness and freshness, brings tedious things too...like tying shoes and wearing socks and having to pause for more than a few seconds to transition from indoors to outdoors and back again.My life feels like that right now. Slipping back into my life post-Zambia feels like I'm wearing shoes after a summer of being barefoot and free. I kept telling myself that the shoes that are my life would begin to feel comfortable again, as they have every fall before, but for some reason, this season, they are not breaking back in the way I like. My life, if we could wear the shoe analogy just a little longer, is still in style and looks comfortable. These shoes are sensible shoes. In fact, you could say many people would love to be in these shoes. I get compliments on my shoes and people admire certain things about my shoes and for the most part, most days they are fairly comfortable shoes. And yet, it's like there is a small pebble or sand rolling around my shoes that makes them rub me the wrong way, leaving a blister that can not be ignored. I'm certain the sand was there before Zambia and yet I was able to ignore it for the sake of the other comforts and style and admiration that the shoes afforded me. But now, for all the taking off of the shoes and shaking them out, I can't seem to rid myself of the source of this pain. It's not debilitating or crippling, it's more like a nagging reminder that something doesn't fit right.I don't know what all the options are. I haven't even been thinking about shoe shopping lately but trying to squeeze my foot back into these shoes only makes me feel like an ugly stepsister trying to force my way to a ball. And some days, I do want to be invited to the ball, I want to be where things are shiny and pretty and the music is lovely and the food and wine are overflowing. On the other hand, going back to barefoot means that my feet will be dirty, there are thorns and I have to give up even being allowed the privileges of being served, the same way even a lowly diner reserves the right to refuse service if you aren't wearing shoes.I'm just not sure I can walk another mile in ill fitting shoes.

The Smile That Broke My Heart -December 6, 2009

n the midst of a beautiful South African dinner last weekend, surrounded by about 125 other Canadians with a passion for serving the poor and vulnerable in Africa, I saw a photo of my little friend, Eva, that both lifted and broke my heart in the space of just a moment.My sister in law, Kim, and I were in the midst of watching the photos from Hands At Work in eight different African countries. We could pick out friends that were volunteers or children we had met during our time in Zambia. A photo of my friend, Jayme Chotowetz, came up on the screen and immediately, I recognized the split wood walls of the school in Mulenga. Jayme is pictured with several little children in front of the school, and before I even registered it, Kim leaned over and asked if I recognized who was front and center in the photo. It was the little one who told me her name was Eva. I could hardly believe it was the same little girl because her face is joyful, a wide smile and happy eyes, her body language animated. At once, I just was so relieved to see her this way. She has one of the most beautiful little faces I've ever seen. My eyes were drawn to her eyes, so different than when I met her in August. And then it hit me...this smile and joy was recorded before I met her. I emailed Jayme and asked her about this little one and she said that she was joyful and goofy and followed Jayme around tugging on her skirt to play.It's been a week since I've seen the photo and it's the last thing I think about at night, it's there when I wake in the night or work in the day, and it's right there when I wake up in the morning. I'm not sure why it's so hard for me but maybe it's the fact that I imagined her little life had always been difficult and sad and perhaps somewhere my mind convinced my heart that perhaps she didn't know any different. These photos dispel the lies I told myself in order to reconcile the difference between the life I lead and the lives that these children are enduring. As beautiful as our time in Zambia was, there were many things that I'm not ready to share that I heard or saw that were anything but beautiful. I knew at the time that I was holding children that were hurting or hungry or alone but I felt that I was making a difference by showing them love. I still believe that love certainly does make a difference, much of what we brought to Zambia was a reminder that we are together. They are not alone, nor are we.I
And yet, in the span of six weeks, something took the bright, animated joy out of a little girl and left her quiet and clinging and lonely. It could be hunger, sickness, or grief. She may have been abused or abandoned. She may have lost someone close to her. She may have lost her only family members and be without a caregiver. There are too many things that could cause these little ones to go from childlike joy to the quiet despairing child I held. Something changed this little girl from one who engaged with visitors and was playful and animated to the little girl I had to have patience to meet. At first, I only glimpsed her little face and hands as she peeked around the side of the school at the children and teachers and all of us who had gathered there singing and playing. It took a long time and a trusted teacher's introduction for her to allow me to hold her hand and then it was only a short time before she was clinging to my neck and arms and I was unable to put her down. Each afternoon when it was time to leave, I had to get one of the teachers, Sheila or Olantah, to take her out of my arms so that I could leave. All I can hope is that when Jason arrives in another six weeks, she will have recovered some of that joy, knowing that there are those who love and remember and pray for her. I'm not sure what to do next with the tears and anxiety and love I have for this little girl other than to share her with you and ask you to pray with me for her. My greatest hope right now is that when Jason arrives in Mulenga, he'll recognize Eva from Jayme's photos easier than he would have from mine. And I sure hope she invites him to play.

Where Have I Been? January 23, 2010

I admit that I can be a news junkie. 24 hour access to news stories and images have become my vice. I think it started with the 9/11 attacks and it's basically continued since then. Somehow, watching the same images over and over in the wake of a disaster or human interest story seems to make me (dare I say "us") feel connected to the event. In times when we feel helpless to help, often it's our only way to be connected.This week I've been struggling with the images coming out of Haiti. I have wanted to leave the television on and yet, I have made a conscious effort to watch the news story once and then turn it off. It's difficult because there are people around me that are waiting for news of their children in Haiti and there are people around me with children from Haiti who I know have been struggling with the images and stories because for them, Haiti is in their family's genetic makeup. I realized that when I turn off the third run of the same story, I'm freeing up time to act. There is time for concentrated prayer for these families and time for focusing prayers on those who are affected on the ground in Haiti. I noticed this week that as lack of new angles unfold in the human interest stories that the focus of these news reports becomes the lack of response time and the administrative red tape that is hindering the relief efforts. Again, I'm caught up and have to refocus my energy on praying for the people affected and also assessing who is on the ground and getting things done so that donations can be utilized immediately. I've been sorting those things out this week and then Thursday morning, I was hit by the thought of "Where have I been?" It was one of those gut punch feelings of absolute regret - where have I BEEN?Haiti has been poor and struggling and destitute long before this earthquake. I have had connections to Haiti for years in the form of adoptive families and friends who have gone to serve amongst the poor in Haiti. Yet, where have I been? My efforts have been so limited and when I have given of time or money for Haiti, it's simply based on those relationships rather than a direct connection to the people of Haiti.I have begun to be overwhelmed with a responsibility - to serve the poor and care for those in distress. I know that I am human and have limitations but literally, I am called to serve the poor and care for those in distress. Haiti has been poor and distress long before this and yet, as a culture, we've accepted their poverty as their place in life. No celebrity telethons, no appeals in grocery stores or at the place where I get my oil changed for Haiti's poverty and pain before the earthquake literally shook us out of our stupor.I know that this week regret has turned to repentance for me...a call to turn away from the role of spectator with the luxury of turning off the images before me to the role of advocate and active participant. My heart is in Zambia and that's where I find myself engaged most days, hours, minutes...but Zambia has also given me a sense of what a mother in Haiti is feeling when she offers her child to an aid worker, pleading him to take her son to Canada because there is no hope for him in Haiti. Zambia is my filter...maybe Haiti is yours.I guess I'm just asking that we look around us and see who are the poor and destitute and reach out to them before the disaster. I know my heart has been fully engaged in Zambia. I know that my love for my friends and coworkers in Mulenga will compel me to continue to act in their best interests and share what I have with them. Find your Mulenga, my friends. Maybe now it's Haiti...remain engaged. Stay the course...let this be the moment that your heart becomes engaged with the world around you. Maybe it's Mexico or Guatemala...maybe it's Cambodia or India or East Vancouver or downtown Calgary.Maybe I'm just confessing to you that I haven't been as active as I believe I've been called to be. I hope you see the change in me and in yourself as well.

88 Degrees of Separation - Fahrenheit! Jan 26, 2010

It's a lovely -20 here in Saskatoon this morning...-4 F for all my American friends...and Jason is experiencing 29 degree heat in Zambia. A lovely 84 fahrenheit...it's evening in Zambia and I'm just starting out my day. I've already ferried one boy to school for early morning track practice, dug out a path to drag the garbage can to the curb although I think it's a bit optimistic to think that there will be garbage pickup in a our neighbourhood which has three to four foot drifts of new snow. But optimisic I am this morning.You hear of many couples who have separated lately. More and more in our circle of friends and it's so disheartening. Jason and I are separated at the moment...only by geographical distance. He's in Zambia and to be honest, I know that when he returns, we'll have even more that binds us together. He's spending time with some of the same people who have had the biggest influence on my life this past year. He's hanging out with James and Sukai, whom I love in a manner that I love my dearest, oldest friends here. James and Sukai are an incredibly selfless couple that continue to just give of themselves to others in the areas surrounding Kitwe in Zambia. They have 5 of their own children and raising them alone would be a great undertaking, but James and Sukai feed many children daily that just wouldn't eat otherwise. Sukai is a mother to the communities around her. She walks through the pathways of Mulenga and takes in all around her...pulling children towards her for a quick conversation and a quick examination to make sure that they are eating or that someone is caring for them and if not, making sure that one of her fellow care workers checks back with the child.Jason's also been hanging out with many of the same children that I was able to be with. Our only communications have been by text messages so I'm not sure the details of who he has met. I want so badly to know whether he's been able to meet Kennedy and Jackson, the boys who will begin to have the responsibilities of men in the next few years, even though they are only ten. They are born leaders and best buddies. They've been given the encouragement to develop their leadership and set good examples for the hundreds of children around them that look up to young boys like them to provide a model for how to live well in such dire circumstances. These boys would be esteemed in North America for their charm and good looks, their ability to dance and laugh and make friends...and they'd certainly be the stars of their soccer teams. I've seen them run barefoot through dry stubbled grasses and play with such enthusiasm and skill that it astounds me that they have no open area to play in their own village. I imagine them if they were born in North America, they'd be lacing up some expensive soccer cleats and playing on manicured fields and yet I don't think it would make them anymore talented or impressive.I hope that Jason and I have the opportunity to bring our boys to Zambia in the near future. I want to share these friendships with as many people as possible. I would love to watch Aidan and Easton and Kennedy and Jackson just get to know each other and learn from each other. I'd love to see my boys teach them to play some street hockey on the paths of Mulenga. And I'd love to watch Aidan and Easton's expressions as Kennedy and Jackson run through the paths and alleys with the soccer ball flying out in front of them wherever they direct it.So yes, this morning...I am optimistic. And I hear the garbage truck!

Facing Reality - March 16th, 2010

his week I have been thinking about Zambia, a lot. I spent last week with some very good friends and it reminded me how there are places in one's life that can't be filled with anything but deep relationships. I realized that although I was only in Zambia for a short time, some of those relationships have filled some pretty deep holes in my life. When I arrived in Zambia, it felt like a homecoming of sorts. I've mentioned before that I had no real reason to go other than to just go and experience something new. When I arrived in Zambia, I had a moment where it all came together and I was in the right place at the right time.As I think about returning to Zambia, whatever that looks like, I have wondered what it would be like. I know that even when Jason went, his experience was entirely different and yet had some common threads as well. I know that when I go back, it will be different and the reality of that hit home this week.One of the things about working in the village in Zambia that struck me every time we went, was how significant a role death played in the every day lives of those I met. I visited homes where children lived alone as a result of losing their parents. There were those I met, like a young mother with two small girls clinging to her skirts, who had just tested positive for HIV and was reeling from the news. Her eldest daughter was maybe seven and you could tell by the fear in her face that she knew what this could mean for her and her little sister. There was a home visit in which a young man was clearly in his last days and facing it with a quiet dignity and strength that amazes me still. The volunteer care workers who visit and care for those who are sick and dying are not immune to the very same fate that those they care for are facing. In fact, some days, I was literally moved to tears to see volunteers arrive at the schoolhouse to meet and disperse for the day while they themselves were in a lot of pain, physically and emotionally, from the toll that living with illness can take. There's no hope of hospice care to spend your last days and sometimes I am immobilized when I think of the very lack of comfortable surroundings that those who are facing their worst days must endure.I remember as we left Zambia and were in the airport waiting on the tarmac for our plane, a few of us were wondering out loud what we would find when we returned, if we ever were able. It was clearly on our minds that there would be deaths and some of those we met and worked with would be counted among those gone. This week, that became a reality with the news that Josephine, one of the volunteers with Breakthrough Home Based Care, passed away. Josephine worked when she was very ill, she continued to share the peace and love she had found with others who were in the same situation she was in - facing death and separation from loved ones, with no assurances of what it would mean to those they were leaving behind. There are photos of Josephine working in the community garden even in recent months and photos of her embracing team members and other volunteers. These photos give a glimpse of who this beautiful woman was - strong, steadfast and loving.Josephine brought a lot of comfort and peace to those around her as she served others in her community. She served when it cost her a great deal, physically, emotionally and spiritually. I hope that as I remember her in days to come, I can emulate her ability to serve through her discomfort, even in the midst of my comfortable life.
"Well done, good and faithful servant"

If I Hadn't Stayed the Night, I Would Have Missed the Morning

I was thinking the other night about connectivity and community. Sounds really profound, but I was really just mentally weaving together the threads of a story that my friends, my family and I have become involved in.Before I went to Zambia, I was afraid of so much about the trip. Particularly, I wasn't sure that I was going to be able overcome my fear of staying in an Zambian village. I was afraid about drinking water, rats, spiders, violence and probably my biggest worry - bathroom facilities! I like to think of myself as adventurous but I like adventure with clean toilets and safe drinking water.Our team was invited to stay in the village for a night and while I knew this was a possibility before I went on the trip, I feel a little embarrassed to say that I lost more than a little sleep in the nights leading up to it. In fact, I may have offered, very sacrificially, I might add, to forgo my stay in the village in order to prep for our teams' departure and travel the next day. Ahem.The day of the village stay arrived and we spent it at the farm with the volunteers, celebrating their hard work and amazing dedication. That afternoon, after we ate together, our team packed up some belongings for our overnight stay in the village. We were told to bring our mosquito nets and a change of clothing and some food for our host families. It was dusk when we left the farm which meant that it was dark upon our arrival in Mulenga. I was already very nervous but the darkness added a whole new component! As we arrived in Mulenga, James dispatched each of our team to a host family. My sister in law, Kim, and I were dropped in the middle of the village with a group of women that were going to share in hosting us at two homes. I joked with James that we were so high maintenance that he felt we needed backup hostesses! He laughed with me but I still secretly think that was his plan!The moon was full and as our team dispersed with their hosts, Kim and I were left to walk through the center of the village in the dark with the ladies who were bringing us home. It was very dark but the moon illuminated our white skin like a couple of ghosts weaving through the paths of Mulenga. It became quickly apparent that we were more than a little visible as face after face came out of the darkness to greet us or question us or just stare. The women quickly encircled us and we felt the familiar shove of our volunteers as they moved us forward, intervening when curious onlookers came to close. We were hustled through pathways that, difficult to navigate in broad daylight, felt like a blindfolded obstacle course in the dark. I was thankful that Olantah, one of the teachers, held my arm. Her tiny frame and stature in no way diminished the comfort I felt with her guiding me along. We came to a fork in the path behind one of the local bars, pumping out "Million Dollar Bill", and here my hosts ushered me into a small home while Kim and her hosts continued on.Once at their home, I was shown inside. It was a small two room cement home without windows. The living room had a couch and chair and coffee table and a small shelf housing the dishes and utensils of the home. There was a large basket of charcoal in the corner and two large pails of water. The other room was separated by a curtained doorway and held a double bed and a small table that acted as a nightstand. This was Cynthia's home that she shared with three nieces in her care. Cynthia is a strong and feisty woman with a sense of humour and quick smile. I had seen a photo of her before I ever arrived in Mulenga and knew that we would get along, she had a bit of sass to her that the camera couldn't disguise and when I met her, I knew her immediately. I was happy to be with her that evening too. She was raising her sister's children. Olantah, 19, is one of the volunteer teachers in the village school. She is a beautiful girl, small in stature and huge of heart. She had taken a year of schooling at teachers' college and then came back to volunteer in the school. Her younger sister, Bernadette, 16 also lived with them and her youngest sibling, Little Cynthia, who was 6 at the time. I was invited to sit on the couch and Cynthia, along with Esther, Febby, and Loveness, went outside to make some tea. I sat with the girls on the bed and they each in turn, showed me something they had done at school or at home. Olantah had a journal of songs that she practiced writing in English. The pages were filled and she asked me for a song to contribute. We took our time and she wrote out the words to "Blessed Be Your Name" in her book. We even sang it through a few times together, I stumbled to find the tune and she nailed it in two or three tries and made it more beautiful than I'd heard it sung. Bernadette busied herself around the home, although it was perfectly tidy, and as we talked, I began to realize that this was her role in the family. She was 16 and unable to continue in school as the community school, which was free, only provided education until grade 7. She had gone as far as she could educationally for free and without an income in the household, she was unable to continue her education. Bernadette became a living, breathing example to me of the dire circumstances of this little family unit. Unable to attend school, this beautiful girl stayed indoors most of the day and every evening after dusk, in order to protect her from the threats around her. She worked hard to keep the home and care for her family, but at the same time, she had to become somewhat invisible to the world outside her own door. She was vulnerable, particularly living adjacent to a bar where intoxicated men would gather at all hours. If she caught the attention of these men, there would be little that could be done to protect her when she was home alone during the day, or even as a family of women, during the night. The youngest in the family was Little Cynthia. She was 6 and just the sweetest girl. She wore a little pink pyjama top and smiled her crooked little smile and won me over immediately. She taught me a clapping game with infinite patience and was as excited as I was when I finally became competent at it! She sat beside me and snuck sideways glances that grew into giggles and funny faces being exchanged. She was definitely the heart of the household and brought a lot of joy to the others. Throughout the evening, the children we had met in the village and at the camp, came in and out of the home to see me and it was a lot of fun being surrounded by the kids and hearing their stories. Some of Cynthia's friends came by to meet me and I felt a bit of a celebrity as groups of two or three friends would come in and make their acquaintance and then take their leave just as quickly. As evening wore on, and tea was finished, the ladies began to prepare for bed. Cynthia lead me around the back of the home, shared by two other families, and showed me where the "facilities" were. I was thankful to see that it was a cement block outhouse and not the stick and plastic bag variety that we had commonly seen in the village. I assured her that I did not need to use the facilities tonight and we went inside and prepared for bed. The ladies had set up the mosquito net over the bed and I was to sleep with Febby. The other two, Cynthia and Esther, would sleep on the floor while Loveness went home to sleep with her family. The three girls made their beds in the living room with Little Cynthia on the coffee table, Bernadette on the couch and Olantah on the chair. The door was padlocked from the inside and a candle lit in the bedroom to keep the rats at bay. As I crawled in to bed, I convinced myself that the mosquito net was a force field that no rat nor spider could infiltrate. I could see and hear the rats along the top of the bricks that didn't quite reach the tin roof. On the other side of the wall, a young family was consoling a newborn baby that was crying and I could hear the mother talking in soothing tones to her littlest one. All the while, the door of the tavern would open and the volume of "Million Dollar Bill" would increase until once again, the door banged shut and the voices of those stumbling home would fade into the night.I woke early and laid still so as not to disturb Febby, who I knew had had a difficult day before. She had pulled a muscle in her neck and could not turn her head to the left more than a few degrees. She slept flat on her back all night and the few times I woke, I could see by the candlelight that she remained completely still. The sounds outside began to change from those of night to those of a village awakening. I could hear people beginning to rustle around on the other side of the wall and must have fallen back to sleep. When I woke again, Febby was awake and greeted me, while Cynthia and Esther were already out of the room. Febby told me to stay under the blankets as it was still very chilly in the morning. She reached for her Bible and she read to me for a while and we prayed together as she does every morning before she gets up at 5:30. We could hear the girls chatting outside and getting the fire going and water boiling. Bernadette came in with their blankets from the night before and folded them neatly back onto the end of the bed. I started to get up and get dressed with Febby laughing at my eagerness to get out of bed and start the day. We sat for awhile on the bed and she told me her story and of her daughter's upcoming marriage and how she missed her children when she was even away for a day. Febby didn't live in Mulenga but in a nearby community and yet, she faithfully took the bus to Mulenga several times a week to come and care for the poorest of the poor. We talked for a long while and then Cynthia came in and told us that breakfast was ready. We all sat down with tea and a large white bun and had breakfast together. The sun was out and the door was open and it was great to be with these women. Loveness arrived with her daughter, Sandra, and it was an amazing morning amongst friends. I felt completely at home and humbled by the friendship of these women. After breakfast, Cynthia told me my bath was ready. I had NO idea what this meant but I was about to find out!! She led me out to the facilities and placed a bucket of steaming water over the "hole" and then told me to enjoy my bath! I was completely humbled by the fact that the entire cement "outhouse" was completely bleached and rinsed spotlessly. I entered the outhouse and hung my fabric skirt over the door as added insurance against onlookers or invasions...and began to undress. I was bent in half because the rusted tin only covered half of the roof and the outhouse itself was only about four and a half feet tall. So, I proceeded to have a bucket bath while repeating to myself that there were no invasive parasites infiltrating my skin! I wasn't sure whether to dump the bucket at the end so I left it there and told Bernadette who said that each of them would bath after me. Oh....thank goodness I didn't dump it out or stand in it or something.After my "bath", clearly I was far more presentable...I sat on the cement block of the house with Little Cynthia as her friends came by and shyly met me. I spoke with the neighbours and met the little one I had heard the night before - a two week old addition to a family of 5 that shared one room on the back of the home. The ladies kept trying to shoo me back into the house so that I didn't have to cook or help or answer questions, but I was enjoying being outside and meeting so many people. At one point, I was sent back to the bedroom and left so long, I fell back asleep on the bed! Cynthia came in and sat with me and as we talked, she shared with me her story. She was married and divorced, which was a very shameful thing for her. Her husband left her because she was unable to have children. As she spoke, tears came and she wept at the details of her own life. She had come to Mulenga with her husband and then he abandoned and divorced her, leaving her alone in a town without friends or family to lean on. She spent the next few years working to survive in a fabric stall in the market for another woman. This woman trained Cynthia in buying and selling fabric as well as sewing. She taught her the ins and outs of the business and made arrangements with Cynthia to sell her the stall as she was going to be leaving Mulenga. Cynthia and her best friend, saved for years to invest in the business. She saved 2.3 million kwachaa or close to $300 and they decided they were ready to start their business. During this time, Cynthia's sister, sent Olantah to Cynthia to live with her. She already had several children and was unable to care for them. Over the years, Cynthia's sister would send every second child she bore, to live with Cynthia - that was how she came to have Olantah, Bernadette, and little Cynthia in her care. As Cynthia began to care for the first two girls, she and her friend decided that her friend would travel to the Congo to buy the fabric with their savings to begin their business together. This was such an exciting and hopeful time for Cynthia and her friend. Within a few days of her leaving, Cynthia received the news that her friend had been robbed and left dead in the Congo. Cynthia lost her best friend, her life savings and her dream. As we sat on the bed, she wept so openly, it seemed that these events had just taken place recently instead of ten years in the past. Cynthia talked of how she had felt abandoned by God because of her inability to bear children and her broken dreams. She said that she believed that God loved her but she just didn't know what His plan was for her. We talked for a long time about it and as we sat together, I opened my Bible to Isaiah. I had no idea what to say to her or where comfort would come and there it was on the page:"Sing, O childless woman! Break forth into loud and joyful song although you never gave birth to a child. For the woman who could bear no children now has more than all the other women, says the Lord. Enlarge your house, build an addition, spread out your home! For you will soon be bursting at the seams Your descendants will take over other nations and live in their cities.""Fear not, you will no longer live in shame. The shame of your youth and the sorrows of widowhood will be remembered no more for the Creator will be your husband....The Lord has called you back from your grief- as though you were a young wife abandoned by your husband, says your God. "For a brief moment, I abandoned you, but with great compassion, I will take you back. In a moment of anger, I turned my face away for a little while. But with everlasting love, I will have compassion on you", says the Lord.Can you imagine what those words meant in that moment? I saw it for myself and nine months later, it comes to me day and night, the picture of Cynthia's face when she felt restored. Whatever you believe about God or who He says is... He was who He said He would be that day in that dark room, for my friend, Cynthia.The fact that Cynthia now has a home filled with precious girls who love and respect her has not gone unnoticed. The idea that God would use the words "bursting at the seams" to illustrate a woman who thought her future lay in fabric, well that's just poetic. And the idea of God weaving us together in one story - you get the idea. God used Isaiah's words to mend Cynthia's broken heart. He used those same words to frame a loom on which he's weaving a story, to include me and all those whose story lines weave in and out and add to the beautiful tapestry that knits all of us together. That's the kind of connectivity and community that enriches all of our lives.