Wednesday, December 14, 2011

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.

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