“I Pray the Lord My Soul to Take”

It’s Christmas Eve here in Tanzania, and it’s officially been the oddest holiday season in my life to date. I spent a few hours gutting passion fruit this morning to juice for our Christmas Eve party tonight, my family is nowhere to be found and this day a week ago I was somewhere in the bush eating more beans than I care to talk about by lamplight.

I’m not even going to give my normal disclaimer about my pictures and blog not being sufficient for the real thing. You all have heard it enough and I need to learn to stop excusing myself whenever I express myself. It’s okay. I’m okay. Breathe, Stephanie.

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After spending about 18 hours overnight the M.V. Liemba, the oldest functioning passenger ferry in the world, (http://www.dailynews.co.tz/feature/?n=20782) we docked at Ksibwesi and began our two plus hour walk to Kalya, where we stopped for the coldest, best tasting sodas I’ve ever had and then continued on a half hour to Kashaguru, the village we were to live for a few days while we conducted a seminar for the church. Walking between the two villages we were accosted by children dying of curiosity to see us, but mostly children with memories of previous visits by “Talli”, as they call Tori. R’s automatically become Ls for Tanzanians and it’s the cutest thing in the world to watch these kids run out calling for Talli. They fought amongst themselves to be able to carry our water bottles, which was generally the case in each village.

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Children are the workforce of Africa. You need bags carried from place to place? Get the children to do it. You need someone to take care of your newborn infant? Get the children to do it. Need help preparing dinner? Get the children to do it. You need more people to lift and swing 20 kg hoes in the fields? Have your 8 year old do it. It’s unbelievable how strong the children are from all they’ve experienced. They’re little adults already, tempered with the perfect blend of curiosity and passion for life that each child naturally has. It’s as if a child (especially a girl) knows everything they need in life by the time they’re nine or ten. They’re ready to run a home, have babies and take care of them, work hard. We don’t do anything in America until we’re encouraged to get a part time job at 15 or 16, the age most of the girls here are married off or at least expecting babies from men who acted on less than dishonorable intentions.

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You get used to seeing the simple, humble houses, mud and brick alike and you actually get to a point where you say to yourself, “Wow, this house is really nice! It has wooden windows and everything!” Our host home was basically five star: brick walls, a real wooden door that locked with a nail, four rooms and windows. There was no electricity whatsoever in Kashaguru, so by the time 6 pm rolls around the house is completely dark. Literal lamplight is provided around 7 or 8 pm after bathing (wait until I tackle THAT one) and once the light goes out for the night, any movement is absolutely useless… you can’t see your hand in front of your face.

Sleeping arrangements are always a bit nicer for girls than boys in Africa (one of the few times I haven’t inwardly lamented about wishing I had the freedoms that the boys have). If there is a room available, the girls are given it for privacy. Kashaguru boasted one free room and it was given to us while the boys slept on the floor in the living room area that also doubled as a dining room each mealtime when our hosts moved in a table and chairs. And so we slept in that 10 by 10 room on an interesting smelling mattress that was procured on top of a dirt floor with cobwebs in the bricks and on the rafters. We hung our mosquito nets and curled up underneath them as best we could, laughing and joking about how far we’d gone from our Kigoma home, but the reality is that we knew our hosts had sacrificed this room so we’d have their best and slept outside for several nights so we could be comfortable. I dared not even allow my subconscious to breathe a word of my discomfort to me. You can’t afford such things when you live in the village.

Food was rice, rice, and more rice.  Tomato and onion sauce is poured liberally on the rice and sometimes there’s chapatti offered. Chai is always present, bless the Lamb and is probably the most exciting part of the meal for me. Chicken is expensive in the village, so it’s rare to be provided with it as the meat of your meal. Most of the time, especially in the villages that border Tanganyika the main proteins (besides baked beans) are these troublesome little fish called dagaa.

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They’re gathered by the kilos and dried in the sun, and speaking as someone who doesn’t like the smell of fish… it’s ghastly, especially at midday. When you’re sitting by lamplight at the end of a long day and pull the top off the dinner dish to reveal these little monsters in all their glory, shiny eyes staring up at you as if anticipating their fate, you re-evaluate your life a bit and think perhaps you can stomach working a pointless retail job forever to survive and provide atleast ramen noodles for yourself. But knowing that it is the absolute best these generous people could offer, even making their children wait for dinner as they prepared everything for you hours prior, boiling water, sifting rice in the dark in baskets….you eat every scrap of it. That little monster entitlement that I’m so quick to listen to got weaker and weaker with each self-sacrificing action the Tanzanians cheerfully offered and now doesn’t protest as much.

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And now we come to possibly the most unflinchingly real portion of village life. The good old porcelain throne referred to as the choo, which is just as undignified as it sounds. You enter a fenced in area of straw for extra privacy, and there is the hole in the dirt under the straw roof. Tori says that after a while, the Tanzanians fill in the hole and make a new choo somewhere else. I’ll spare you the details but just think about flies and roaches for a moment and you can get a small idea of what it’s like.

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Bathing time was always mere feet away from this chasm, using bowls and buckets. I can’t explain how it becomes normal, but it does. Crouching as naked as the day you were born, except for sandals because you dare not go barefoot, pouring freezing, slightly browned water over your back from a bucket while chickens look on and goats nibble on the straw enclosure beside you, holding your breath because the choo is deadly. At first you try not to turn around, because there your teammates are there, but it quickly becomes too complicated to be shy so there we all were, doing our thing like we were in the privacy of our own home. The boys bathed in the lake (when they bathed, ha), but us girls became bucket bath queens.

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The last and most important thing to mention is what church is like since we spent most of our time there during the day. The buildings are just as humble as the houses, with dirty floors and rickety benches, but man can they worship. You aren’t trying if you aren’t dancing and the women will get up and wave their headwraps around, shout and blow whistles.

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Even the youngest children know how to keep rhythm by offbeat claps and big, goatskin drums guide the beat. I love it and I ache to dance like them, but I’m still too shy to attempt any sort of rhythm without being as good as they are (die lingering perfectionist within, die.) Cries of “Amen-a” meet the typical “Bwana Asifiwe” (Praise the Lord) at every opportunity. I can’t say much on the preaching, because I still don’t understand it all yet, but people shout amen alot. Church can often be a never-ending activity; Africans are never in a rush and so a service that would typically take us an hour and a half in the States, will cheerfully and enthusiastically stretch on to three or four or five! hours. It takes a bit of getting used to.

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We spent the few days in Kashaguru teaching our seminar, mostly basic concepts like salvation, baptism of the Holy Spirit, what it means to pray, etc. I was scheduled to teach deliverance (no pressure), but wasn’t able to do so due to leaving early to catch the Liemba back up to Mgambo. (Tori opted to take us there rather than have us hike for the 80k and I can’t pretend I wasn’t slightly disappointed. I wanted to see how much I could handle and if I was tough enough, but my chance for testing came much sooner than I could have expected.)

Getting back on the ship proved to be trying enough; it doesn’t dock, but rather stays out on the lake and small boats from shore go meet it out on the open water. A huge door is swung open to the inside and all the people trying to get off at that village and onto the boat converge with all of us on the boat trying to get back on the ship. It is absolute chaos. Throw in the mix that I got so UNBELIEVABLY sea sick going up and down and up and down in the boat for a half hour in the hot sun, with dagaa and sweaty African b.o. wafting up my nostrils… throwing myself up into that madness was like Cobb running through the crowd in Inception.

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I curled up against the wall while people shoved all around me and honestly sang ‘Jesus Loves Me’ to myself because I thought I was about to be violently ill or trampled. Smelling the fresh air once we escaped the third class and looking at the Mahale mountains for the following few hours in solitude revived my spirit.

We arrived in Mgambo just as the sun set and trekked 20 minutes to the far side Buhingu, where we’d be staying using our flashlights. Demanding children followed us the whole way, shouting the only phrase that seems to matter in English, “Give me money!” I felt very tired, and taken a bit aback as I heard a series of four letter words also shouted at me, while they laughed and jeered at the mzungu. (To be fair, it’s probably the only English they knew). When we finally reached our house, most of the rough children had disappeared and were replaced by the children of Esther and her husband, Kisubi, who graciously hosted us a few nights.

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As we waited for bathwater and dinner, we sat admiring the stars which were brighter than I’ve ever seen only dimmed by the colossal shooting star we saw. One of the youngest babies curled up in my lap and slept and I marveled at the trust this little one had for a stranger. Tina, who was five and the prettiest little girl I’ve seen, stood by holding my hand in silence.

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Esther wowed us by heating our bathwater and we nearly wept as we bathed next to the cleanest choo we’d ever seen. Our rice and goat (which is really unnerving to eat as you hear the goat with rabies ceaselessly bleating outside) was delicious. And the mattress provided to us girls didn’t smell as much as our other one. We happily fell asleep with thankful hearts and full stomaches. The next day we had an open air church meeting where Hillary spoke on prayer and Tori translated.

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We prayed for the people to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit, as well as visited the wife of one of the church leaders who’d had complications with her pregnancy and surrounding her with our prayers. I wept, because her little baby, Beatrice, looked so small and helpless on her lap and I feared what would happen to her if her mother passed away. The hospital we visited earlier that day couldn’t help her, and from what Tori grimly told me, “is more of a place where you go to die than to get better”.

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They don’t have enough medication or resources to take care of the people, so unless they can make it by ship back to Kigoma (16 plus hours), there isn’t much hope. Malaria cures are scarce and between those three days we were there in Buhingu and the few days prior, 10 children alone died from the dreaded disease. Even Esther and her husband got sick with it while hosting us.

I’d heard about how real death was here. I didn’t even come face to face with it, but I heard it snatch away life in the darkness and it stole away my courage… or perhaps my naivety. I woke from a dead sleep at 2 am to hear the most unearthly wails and sobs coming from just outside out room. Instantly my stomach was churning and I was afraid in a way I cannot describe. My dreams for the next fews hours were filled with the hollow moans of grief as they continued through the night. Tori explained in the morning that a child at the hospital had died and they had sent word in the night by motorcycle that they needed to collect the body. Tori is very used to seeing death, even closer than that, but it made me feel very stretched and quiet on the inside. I was let into the inner moments of soul-gripping sadness that come with losing a child, against my will, and I can’t pretend that it didn’t unnerve me to the core.

We awoke to rain pouring down on our tin roof on Wednesday to hike to Enteme.

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Bless the Lord for raincoats and for the men who volunteered to carry our backpacks an hour into the hike. We finally reached our destination at the church that Tori had planted a few years back with the Tongwe. We were there to celebrate with them and their daughter church they’d planted. Waiting for lunch in the church building, I laid on a tarp on the dirt and feverishly slept for close to two hours, waking to find a particularly lively chicken a foot from my head. Good morning, indeed.

Once lunch came, I instantly realized something was not right with me. My stomach hurt in a way it hasn’t in years and so began the endless, mad dash up and down the hill to the choo. I have absolutely no motivation or dignity when I’m sick and I found myself tearing up a bit by the side of the church. It’s not being sick that’s as scary as you realizing that you’re in a village, with no clean water, on your way to dehydration from you don’t even know what, miles and miles from your mommy. Every disease that you’ve heard of pops into your head and you don’t know enough to excuse yourself from it. You can’t pin possible ways you contracted it down at all. Was it the baby with the runny nose who sat on my lap? Was it the soap I washed my hands with that they were keeping on the ground? Was it the bowls that we ate out of? We used them while we were bathing too…. Good luck figuring the root of THAT one out.

The night wore on and I become increasingly sick. By the time we were bathing I was shaking so hard I could barely pour my water. Making it down the hill with the help of my saintly teammates, I collapsed against the shaky slab of wood that was supposed to be a pew, thought better of it and crawled as fast as I could to the edge of the church where I vomited foul-smelling sulfur for a few minutes. Instantly Pam was by my side with a tissue and Hillary held back my hair. Tori and Hillary prayed for me while I pathetically sniffled on the tarp spread on the ground for our bed. I went immediately to my sleeping bag, resting while Hillary babied me and rubbed my head, as the others ate by lamplight.

There is a comedy sketch by Tim Hawkins where he makes fun of how scary the children’s bedtime prayer is.

Our team has been laughing about it for days and as Hillary and Pam crawled next to me under our mosquito net which barely cleared our faces, I dramatically growled out just like he does, “If I…should DIE…before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” We laughed, but it was a serious declaration from my ill perspective. I heard somewhere that missionaries are supposed to consider themselves dead when they leave their homes, and that they’re only alive to serve the Lord, which means if they die, they die and they’re resigned to that. Stumbling out of your straw bed where mosquitos buzz around your head (I finally got my first two bites since coming to Africa that night) to barely make it outside the church to be sick alone under the stars every forty minutes for an entire night in the middle of nowhere with no cell service makes you ask yourself if you really know what you’re doing with your life and if this is what you want and if God would really ask you to suffer like this.

In the morning, praise God, Tori gave me some biscuits and anti-amoeba medicine before he disappeared to run errands and I continued to lay well into lunchtime. Each time I woke, I remembered that we needed to trek four hours back to Buhingu and then sit on a boat (not the ship) for 16 hours back to Kigoma. The idea of continuing this sickness on the boat (that had already made me SO seasick) with no privacy or dignity whatsoever discouraged me so I kept sleeping. Suddenly Tori burst in with news that he’d chartered a speedboat to take us from Katumbi (a 20 minute walk from Enteme) an hour to Helembe, where Eirik and Christian (his brothers) would be waiting to drive us 3 and a half hours back to Kigoma. There are no words for how grateful and relieved I was in that moment and I could barely squeak out a ‘thank you’ through my tears.

I managed to sit up in the front with the team during the celebration (mostly speeches in Swahili I couldn’t understand) and I felt very proud and sappy for Tori, who was presented with gifts from the grateful Tongwe, a button up shirt, Tongwe ankle bells for dancing and a male goat. He’s been working with the Tongwe since back in 2006, the tribe regarded as completely unreachable by most Tanzanians and yet there they stood, worshipping God and serving Him with a passion. I couldn’t have been more thankful to be a part of this moment years in the making.

The rest of the day traveling home had it’s ups and downs and took much longer than originally planned (just blame it on African lack of concern for timeliness and miscommunication), but I’ve never been more thankful in my entire life for our house than when I finally say it at 1:30 Friday morning. God was merciful and kept my stomach at bay until I saw our beautiful porcelain toilet and realized I was still sick. I was able to scrub every inch of the village and my sickness off of myself and fall asleep in my comfortable bed with Pam just like always, and never in my life has anything felt softer or more like home.

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It’s hard to believe that we only returned on Friday, and it’s halfway through Christmas (Tuesday) now (these blogs are usually several days in the making, ha). I’m feeling much better now, although I realized the day after getting back to Kigoma that I’ve picked up worms at some point, so that’s been a bloated, pill popping experience that I’ve been enjoying this holiday season. (It’s the gift that keeps on giving).

I’d be lying if I said I’m in the Christmas spirit, but I will say that all the classic holiday hymns and songs seem to be leaping off the page as we sing them, sounding more tender and intimate than they ever have before. That aside, this year feels all too different than all the previous years for me to really feel it’s Christmas and I’m still mulling over thoughts in my head about what I experienced last week and how I’m going back to it for the next nine plus months.

Before getting sick, I actually really enjoyed the simplicity of village life. I probably grew up reading too much Little House on the Prairie or something, but it’s really hard for me not to feel like Laura Ingalls eating boring food by lamplight in a skirt and boots. My inner adventurer loves it, and I’ve been waiting my whole life to live out these minimalist ideals I’ve carried around like old friends from my childhood.

The most important thing I want to leave with everyone is probably the obvious, but I want to state it anyway: I’m not a hero and I’m not a saint. I know there are some of you who will read this and think that I’ve sacrificed so much and that you could never live like this, and not for an extended period of time, and God wouldn’t want you to etc, etc. I just want to point out what it is that I’ve done: I have left my usual conveniences for a week to gain tremendously amazing life experience, take pictures of babies and come back to tell you all about it because I love to document and tell stories. Most of my thoughts that I shared are more of my slightly comedic, but totally honest humanity, tempered with my previous experience and expectation, pressing up against a new culture rather than super spiritual accounts of the way I “felt the Lord moving” as I traversed around from village to village. I have sacrificed nothing. I have in actuality done nothing. The work hasn’t begun yet. I haven’t even begun to literally sacrifice my life and love to the people here, to the point of death as Christ did for us. I remain confident that those days will come and that I will learn what it means to actually live in a self-less, self-sacrificing way as He did, because let’s be honest: God didn’t pull me out of a pointless, self-absorbed pit to bring me all the way here TO AFRICA and stand back and watch me crash and burn. What glory would He receive in that? He is my only hope and all I can hold on to at this point, because frankly, I have no idea what I’m doing or how I’ll learn to do it. All I know is that my desperate need for the Spirit to move in me now leaves me wide open for God-Almighty to be who He is in actuality, here on earth as He is in heaven. Take heart, everyone, because God finishes what He starts every time.

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My final note is just one of immense gratitude to those of you who are slaving in prayer for me and the team’s safety, health and sanity, and to those of you going above and beyond by supporting me with finances and letters and care packages (especially from Mommy, Auntie Paula and Auntie Dawn!!).

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Coming home to all the love and support was so humbling and all I can say is a sincere thank you for making me feel like I’m home and that I’m loved, even miles and miles away on Christmas Day.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

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3 thoughts on ““I Pray the Lord My Soul to Take”

  1. So encouraging! I am one of the people who was born in Katumbi and God is always gracious to His people the work of spreading the news will not cease. thank you for sharing 90.9% of the real life. hope you will be able to come back and see the changes

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