When the Truth is Black & White

Somehow every time I sit down to actually write, God blesses me with a lovely overcast day, interspersed with rain from our mountains. Today is even better because I found a package of Earl Grey; I sit sipping my second cup and missing Johnny. Earl Grey his favorite and although I never drank it much with him, it’s a precious familiarity now and I can’t get enough of it.

It’s Monday, but Tori is currently in Kigoma bringing our remaining supplies (i.e. motorcycles), so we won’t be going into town for Internet today. Third world problems when you’re a First World person: no Internet connection for two weeks.  Travesty is happening to me in real time, I tell you what.

By seriously, it’s amazing how quickly you forget what was and just adapt to what is. It’s like I can barely remember a time where I could get on Facebook on my iPhone at Publix, as I picked up a rotisserie chicken for Mom, passing Blockbuster, Starbucks and Walgreens on my way out and smelling the fries deep frying across the parking lot at McDonalds. It used to be that convenient?

Now I find myself measuring out beans for dinner, and the snack that can make my day that much more exciting is mehindi  (starchy corn) that Kiza put his hands all over as he roasted it over the fire for close to thirty minutes, turning it diligently until it’s nice and browned. I see my mattress under my mosquito net after a long day of visiting neighbors and playing with the throngs of children that still flock to the house each day, and I feel as luxurious and comfortable as a queen as I fall asleep.

I scrub my clothes in the river with Mama Winnie and hang them up to dry, running to rescue them when rain threatens again. I am almost ashamed of our one showerhead with running water, because our neighbors don’t have such a commodity; I look forward to the cold water now because it’s refreshing after the intensity of the African sun, though my feet haven’t been clean since I came here. I try to call Mom once a week from the one rock on our property with reception and it’s the best thing in the world. I made ugali with my friend Rufina for the first time this week and ate it rolling it in my hand like everyone does here. I’ve read almost 5 books in the last week alone—when it’s dark by seven, there isn’t much else to do but read and I love it. I still journal fervently every morning, all my prayers and thoughts and ideas out to our God who values what I have to say and talks back to me.

Another, another normal.

And still no sacrifices.

The highlight of my past two weeks has been, no surprise to probably anyone, being with the children. School goes in shifts here, but each day without fail at about 2 pm all my little babies emerge to see what the wazungu are doing. Sometimes they simply follow us home from our visits around the village; it will be so lonely to come home without being followed everywhere. There are anywhere between ten and thirty children at our house until bathing time (around 6 pm) when I reluctantly send them home. I’m completely and totally wiped at that point in the day because I’m speaking and trying to understand them for several hours without stopping.

These children are all I can think about. I looked at my journal today and the past few days all I’ve written about is what I’ve learned about the children, their names, their personalities, how I can reach them, games to play, tasks I can give to reward them with their favorite biskoots (biscuits) or beke (pens). There are new children everyday and it feels nearly impossible to get to know each of them, but I have grown to know some of them quite well. With a few minor adjustments to my name, (Stephanie to Stefania (Steh-fah-knee-a) they are actually able to remember it and call for me now and I answer with the customary “Bae?” just like all women here do when they’re called. (The men say “Naum?”). There are a few mischievous boys who still call me mzungu and I just chide them back: “Sio mznugu tu! Nina Jina! Unajua?” (I’m not a white person only, I have a name! Do you know it?”) They immediately correct themselves: “Stefania?” and I smile sweetly, “Bae?” and we all just laugh together. It’s gotten to the point where I just raise my eyebrow at them and they correct themselves without my asking, and if they don’t, Kelly, who’s five, with say it for me, “Sio Mzungu tu! Stefania!”

Aeroboti returns to the house every day with Cassian ambling shyly behind him and my soft spot for him ever grows. An idea came over me when I was at Mama Winnie’s for dinner a few days ago and I saw that he was still wearing his completely torn shirt playing with the children by the river. The next day, I took the pitiful little shirt and spent several hours sewing (shona) with the sewing kit that Auntie Paula sent me (I’m using it to it’s fullest and I can’t thank you enough, Auntie!) I also added a few buttons while Missionary Yoketon asked me if there were pagans in America and what men do for work there. Patient as always, Aeroboti stayed well past the time when all the children went home and when I presented him with his shirt, he quietly thanked me, put it on and took Cassian by the hand and they began the walk home. When he felt like he was far enough away to not be shy, I saw him looking at his buttons and smiling. I cried like a baby as I watched them go, his thin legs taking big strides that made chubby little Cassian waddle double time, and I don’t even know why I was crying. I just felt everything at once. 

With the revelation that Stefania “ana weza shona” (can sew), I haven’t stopped sewing. Missionary Yoketon’s wife gave me one of Laida’s dresses, torn on both sides and on the sleeve.

Laida is three and about the happiest, most tubs baby I’ve ever seen anywhere. She appeared on my doorstep holding only a wrap around the bottom of her little naked self the day after her Mama passed me the dress to fix to see if it was ready, smiling unashamedly the entire time. I’ve been sewing in every spare moment and it is never ending. Yesterday I cut hair, while Hillary (or Ahadi, which means promise and is her name here since l’s and r’s are impossible for Tanzanians to pronounce correctly) washed the children. I sewed more while Domi, who’s six and attached to my side, tried to braid my hair, pretending she wasn’t every time I turned my head to look at her. 

Jacqueline returned to have her ear bandaged again, but it was much better and didn’t need it. David sat at my feet making faces like he is prone to do.

MySue snuggled up protectively against my side and Oscar ambled over in his galoshes he’s so proud of after herding his mbuzi up out mountain to graze. And Gasper, ever the little man he is, made commentary on my sewing and managed the crowd.

Gasper is fourteen and the biggest character here. He’s the youngest of Mzee Everest (meaning elder, mzee is the term of respect here), and lives with his father, sister Rufina and her baby Peter and his older brother whose name escapes me. He’s the youngest of nine children, but the older ones are grown and live in other villages with their families. I noticed him because of his smile and the way he commands the children. He’s incredibly smart and has taken it upon himself to act as my “bouncer”; he emphasizes what I say, commands such as “back up”, “sit down”, “wait a minute”, etc. He has a good heart, but is also really rough with the naughty kids. I’ve had to stop him more than once for going after a wayward boy who didn’t listen to me with a tree branch. Everything and everyone in general here is just rougher, so it’s a cultural thing that I’m learning to work with.

Gasper, Oscar and Lucas are all about the same age and herd their mbuzi to the property almost daily. My heart breaks for them because their future, simply with the way Kansansas is, doesn’t hold more than picking up drinking in a few years and becoming the father of several children, potentially with different women. I was harassed just a few nights ago by some drunks not too much older than these sweet shepherd boys who’ve become my friends; the realization made me almost sick to my stomach. I pray, I pray so fervently for these boys, to the point of tears, for a better future than the one that is almost certainly looming in front of them without knowing Jesus. I can’t handle the thought of them turning into a threat to the little girls they play with now, like Domi, Serena, Jacqueline, Gilay, MySue, etc. The children here have heard of Jesus, but in the context of those awkward Catholic posters of Him that decorate many houses—guaranteed to be mixed with juju from the witch doctor. I long to have them know Jesus, who loves them so fervently, more than me and I feel like I’m exploding with love at every moment of the day. 

I had the privilege of sharing the story of the shepherd David and how God helped him triumph against the lion, the bear and the tribe of the Philistines, with the help of Issac the translator. The older boys loved a story about a character like them and listened intently, asking questions and when asked what they learned from the story, responded with “It means we need to worship God”. It’s a far cry from actually knowing Jesus Himself, but I was so grateful for the impromptu chance to share. I covet all the opportunities to be able to share more with them about Him as I love on them every day. Pray with me for more chances, because I’m nearly going crazy: these little ones are all, all, all I think about.

—————

We returned to Faustina several days in a row to take her to the hospital. The first day, they said they didn’t have the money. We came home and arranged that we’d each pitch in for the full amount and returned the next day. They insisted that the clinic wasn’t open—I thought it was odd, since it was a Thursday morning. The final day, Tori and I went again to see if we could bring her. Julia and Faustina both seemed reluctant still. I couldn’t understand why: we’d offered to pay and to take her—they had no more excuses. We can help you, I thought to myself in frustration, why won’t you just let us?

The unfortunate reality was painted all over Faustina’s forehead: juju paint from the witch doctor. Whether they feared what he told them or really believed it would help, it was convincing enough that they did not even want to go to the clinic. Satan’s hold is strong here and he’s misled so many and continues to, with his poisonous blend of meaningless religious traditions in the Catholic Church here and demonic powers from the witch doctors. Returning a few days later, Faustina seemed to be physically better, but I silently interceded for her spirit, as her mother, drunk and half naked, pleaded for free mosquito nets.

Reality.

And it just keeps coming.

Especially this past Friday:

I arrive home around 3 to cut hair for the children, and realize I need to wait for Hillary to come home to help me with the generator. I need a distraction for the growing flock of children. Maybe I can read to them, I do have my Alizeti book. I look up to see Faustina, looking much healthier, on her way up our driveway. Did I invite her? We’ve never had guests before. Everyone is so hospitable here…I should invite her in. I put on some hot water for tea. The children are curious about our kerosene stove. Faustina smiles shyly and I awkwardly make small talk. I hear a “Hodi?” (knock-knock) at the door and Mama MySue stands with a malaria ridden Laida on her back. Good thing I put on extra water. Mama comes in. The number of children grows and they crowd the front door. Hillary arrives home, looking slightly confused. I brief her and we trade off: she gets the ladies inside and I head to cut hair outside. Thank goodness for Hillary.  

The hair cutters make an awful noise. Who used these last? Ugh. They forgot to clean them.  Cloth is shoved at me. Gasper has a pair of his pants and is showing me the gaping hole on the left leg. I can sew those easily. “Na weza, Gasper, lakini sio tayari leo. Kesho.” (I can, Gasper, but they won’t be ready today. Tomorrow.) I sling them over my neck and continue with Molly’s dirty little head. Hair flies in my face and down my shirt. Itchy. I’ll itch it later. A deep voice instructs. I look up to see our fundi (worker) who has been hoeing for us, wanting to take over. Thank goodness, I can fix Gasper’s pants. I pass him the machine and almost run over David, with his shirt halfway off as her petitions me “Shona kwa mimi, shona kwa mimi?” (sew for me?). Can that even still be considered a shirt? It’s missing more fabric than it has fabric. “Nina weza jaribu, David. Sawa?” (I can try, David. Okay?) He smiles a grin that shows his missing front tooth. “Sawa.”

I park myself on the ramp to the storeroom with the pants, shirt and my small sewing kit. “Nina weza jaribu? Nina weza saidia!” MySue is instantly at my side asking to help. Ten more children surround me. I need some space or I’ll stab someone accidentally. “Songeni watato.” (Back up children.) They comply. How does Jesus Loves Me in Swahili go again? I sing a bit and MySue and Kelly pick up right away. Jesus, let them want to know what they’re actually singing about. Faustina emerges. Her shoe is missing. I call Gasper and he stops playing to show me further up the yard where her shoe is. How the….nevermind. “Pole sana, Faustina.” She sits down and the fundi begins his work.

 “Stefania!” An adult is calling me? Four people come up the driveway, one man and three women. “Polita?” She’s speaking Kifipa, she must be from Kasaroho, the village we visited yesterday. Oh God, I don’t remember her name. I welcome them. She pulls her wrap aside to reveal a pitiful, tiny baby who trembles and struggles for each breath. I hear the words dawa (medicine) and ng’ombe (cow). No translater. No medicine here for babies. Missionary Yoketon knows some English, maybe he can help. “Njoo na mimi, rafiki yangu ana weza labda saidia.” (Come with me, my friend can maybe help.) I send Kelly to get her father. She runs fast as her five year old legs can carry her and her orange dress threatens to drop off at any moment. “Stefania!” Venaci is at my heels with a newly shaved head and waits for my words. “Mrembo sana! Freshi!” (Very handsome! You look fresh!) The Mama with the baby looks sad. So sad it’s almost theatrical. Yoketon comes down from working, fieka in hand.

Broken English and Swahili. Mama is saying she doesn’t have milk for the baby and they’ve been giving it cow’s milk for four months, and now they’re here for special milk for the baby. Four months? This baby doesn’t look four days old. Special milk? We don’t have that. “Sina hapa. Unahitagi kuenda daktari Mamba.” (I don’t have here. You need to go to the doctor in Mamba.) She doesn’t believe me, I can see it in her eyes as she repeats that she can’t breastfeed because she doesn’t have milk and needs medicine. Her face is now proud and entitled. Just because I’m white doesn’t mean I have all the medicine in the world that you want. I don’t even think there is medicine for this. The baby struggles on; it’s so young that it can’t even support it’s head and it’s little chest rises and falls like a dog panting on a hot day. Tears come and I fight them back. “Na weza omba kwa moto, Mama?” (I can pray for the child?) She looks away and faces the wall. Why won’t you listen to me? This is all I have for you. Please. Jeremiah (our other translator) returns home. I call for him, and run back to consult Hillary.

Hillary has her own set of problems preparing dinner amid scores of children and directs me to our “When Women Have No Doctor” book. Hurriedly I flip to the breastfeeding section. More children call for me, proud of their new haircuts. “Freshi! Gasper’s pants flop onto the page as I power walk. I don’t know anything about breastfeeding, Jesus. What am I doing? I read some of the section that assures that almost all women have milk even when they think they don’t and it’s important to keep trying. I gain some confidence as I read that breast milk is the only perfect medicine for your baby. Jeremiah translates and I watch her shut her eyes because she doesn’t want to hear what I’m saying. Her brother repeats that they need milk from us. I repeat that we don’t have it, and that she needs to keep trying. Just listen to me. Please. Please try. Your baby is going to die if you don’t. I pray under my breath, and fight the tears that are come every minute. Just look at me. Why are you being so stubborn? There is no medicine here. There is no special milk here. You need to go to the doctor. I don’t have what you need. Joseph needs Jeremiah to help him kill the chicken for dinner and Hillary appears and reaffirms everything I’ve already said. “You need to keep trying, and you need to go to the doctor. Not the witch doctor, I need to tell her the witch doctor will not help. She goes a step further and says what I’m thinking, “Your baby will die if you don’t listen to us.” Jeremiah refuses to translate it. You need to say it. You need to communicate the urgency. Say it. I pace and I pray as Mama still doesn’t look at anyone. I can’t look at the baby anymore. Why won’t anyone listen to us? I’m not hiding medicine. I want to help, but I can’t! After what feels like an eternity, I see Mama try to nurse the baby. I breathe a sigh of relief and tremble with exhaustion the entire way back to the house. Please God, have mercy on this baby. Don’t let him die because his Mama is stubborn. The tears threaten again. I just need to get inside. Gasper looks to me and wants his pants. “Pole sana, Gasper. Sio tayari. Nita weza shona sasa.” (I’m sorry, Gasper, they aren’t ready. I will sew now.”

Aeroboti lies on the ground, motionless. I ask if he’s okay and he says his stomach is hurting him. I ask if he’s had lunch and looks down ashamed. “Hapana” (No). Mama Winnie arrives for the prayer meeting and dismisses all the children because they make too much noise during service. They all scamper home and I break the rules because I can’t handle seeing Aeroboti hungry and I pull him inside. Please Jesus, don’t let the other children see that he came in here. He sits, ever silently, as I look through my suitcase of snacks. He needs protein. I don’t have any for him. Oh Jesus, let these biscuits help. I whip up some chocolate milk and join him on the floor. He eats quickly and loves the chocolate milk. I ask when he eats when his mom is working in the fields every day. Does she cook? He looks ashamed again and looks down. “Hapana.” No wonder he’s here every day, his mom isn’t home and he doesn’t eat. I find out it’s just him and Cassian, home everyday (I misheard him about more siblings, no surprise with my beginners Swahili). I give another set of biscuits telling him they’re for Cassian. He nods and chocolate milk spills on his thin chest.

“Stefania!” They can’t see Aeroboti in here or all hell will break loose. I sneak out the front door to find Lucas asking for David’s shirt back and medicine for an alarmingly large gash on his foot. I need to get next door and send Aerobotic home. I say my customary “Nina weza”, (I can) and tell them to wait a minute. I dart inside and usher Aeroboti out the back door, plant a kiss on his cheek and send him home. Please Jesus, keep the other kids from seeing these biscuits. I wish I could just cook for everyone.

David runs off with his shirt and my call that “I can tomorrow”. Lucas waits patiently while I apply the dreaded alcohol to clean his foot, flinching only a little bit. I feel my strength waning. Jesus, I just need to cry. I need to be alone. I don’t know how to handle all this. There’s too much. He smiles a huge grin that makes the little extra effort worth everything and I clean up all the dirty gauze. “Tutoanana kesho, sawa?” Tomorrow. They’ll all be here tomorrow.

I finally reach my room, pull back my curtain and start to stitch Gasper’s pants, my carefully preserved tears now falling freely. Jesus. Jesus. You have to be enough here. I can’t feed everyone. I can’t help everyone. Even when I want to help, they won’t listen. I can only help some. I can’t save anyone. I can’t change anyone.

And to think I thought I could.

“….We have tried to tell you the truth—the uninteresting, unromantic truth—about the heathen as we find them, the work as it is. No words can tell how much they are needed, how much they are wanted here. But will we need try to allure anyone to think of coming by painting pictures, when the facts are black and white? What if black and white will never attract like colors? We care not for it; our business is to tell the truth. The work is not a pretty thing, to be looked at and admired. It is a fight And battlefields are not truly beautiful.”
              – Amy Carmichael

The truth is that sometimes the Tanzanians are not waiting to hear what I have to say, they’re waiting for their handout that they’ve learned missionaries will give to them.

The truth is that I love these children more than I ever thought I could.

The truth is sometimes children who should be in school swear at you when you don’t give them the money they’re begging for so they can huff glue.

The truth is that no electricity isn’t that bad.

The truth is that poverty is more than not having food or good clothes.

The truth is that there’s something amazing about being able to say to yourself, “I washed my clothes in the river this morning”, as you hang them up to dry.

The truth is buying things for everyone when they ask only perpetuates their feelings of entitlement to free handouts, and their inferiority and incapability to earn things themselves.

The truth is that I have much to learn from the people here—just as much as they have to learn from me—and that’s a good thing.

The truth is that people, all people, African, American, Asian and beyond, are flawed and sometimes they choose what they want for their lives instead of choosing to love and submit to Jesus.

And the truth is that I can’t save them any more than I can stop the sun from rising over our valley each day.

   For in Him (the Son) all things were created…..God was pleased to have all His fullness dwell in Him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through His blood, shed on the cross…He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me.

              – Colossians 1: 16, 19 -20, 28 – 29 

All I can do is share who Jesus is and my life with these people, so beautiful and so flawed like me, because I don’t have in me the ability to save the world—nor should I.

The truth is black and white. 

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3 thoughts on “When the Truth is Black & White

  1. Your love, care, and wisdom is clearly being nurtured and used there as well as teaching and encouraging my faith thousands miles away. Hold and fast and take strength in Christ.

  2. Thanks for the post. Nice to absorb all of these sights, sounds and thoughts while everything is fresh. I remember how much journaling and writing I did when I was first in Tanzania (when Tori was born). now it has been 18 years since we came to Tanzania, and there was so much that I learned. I am just writing an article now about how little I knew about sickness, death, witches and TZ worldview until my research the last few years there (4.5 years ago – now teaching at Nairobi Evangelical Grad school of Theology).

    Anyway, just want to encourage you to keep learning and building relationships. You are so right they have SO MUCH more to teach you. Also wanted to encourage you that we are praying for you. we do hope to meet you sometime – Tori’s uncle Steve

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