Sunday, December 25, 2011
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.