And Still Hope Grows

This week I’ve spent most of my waking moments again, thinking about or being with the kids. I’ve been bouncing all kinds of ideas off of Tori, Hillary and our translator Issac. Upon our last trip to Sumbawanga, with some of the funds I’ve been blessed with by my home church, New Hope, and several generous friends, Tori and I went around to get the ball rolling on some of my ideas.

I bought new scissors, 15 spools of thread, 40 buttons and extra fabric to mend holes that need patches for my sewing box, some bandage tape for the shepherd boys that seem to always have horrifying gashes and about 15 books, both bible stories and basic reading, science books, etc. I’m so excited—and it’s officially recognized that a large part of my ministry, beyond documenting, is being with my little darlings. I felt that way, thought that way, but it’s relieving to have had it be spoken of and supported. I have less to think about now that I know the pull of my heart has the validation of my team leader. I also can’t help but feel like I just became a mother overnight, and it makes me feel very happy and fulfilled.

Thursday with the help of Issac, I told the story of Baby Moses. 15 of my little friends were there, like Oscar, Kasim, David, Jedlai, Ali, Aeroboti and the only girls were MySue, Kelly and Laida, the last of whom promptly fell asleep with roasted corn in hand halfway through my description of the animals that lived in the Nile. The listened pretty attentively, having not heard the story before, besides the older boys having to run off to tend their mbzui here and there; Mama MySue gets so cross when they traipse through her corn.

As it happens each day, more and more children arrived. I smiled to myself when I saw Gasper coolly swaggering up the hill and flash me that winning smile of his. More and more of familiar faces began to appear until there were close to fifty. I’d determined to try to involve them as much as possible with things as I’m getting to know them, so I decided to go ahead with the idea that Issac and I came up with together.

Giving each one a pencil and a piece of paper (with strict instructions not to keep them and run away), I told them I wanted them to each draw for me a picture of their favorite thing in the world. It’s interactive, personality revealing and a chance for me to encourage each of them one-on-one.


And also, very difficult with 40 plus children not used to waiting. We also spread them out so they each had privacy when working on their drawings, and it was hard to separate some of the packs of usual cronies. But I found that Issac was right: as I went through looking at each picture and asking about it, telling them I liked it and they did well, they waited patiently and looked to me with their eyes saying, “You see what I like, you see me and you think I’m important?”

The reality is that kids draw what they know and these kids don’t know much about the world. Most of them drew cars, their houses and friends and family. A few very creative ones surprised me, Luis drew sunglasses, Gasper drew a particularly detailed bicycle and Seda drew shoes. I also had them write their names and was stunned to see how some of them actually spell their names: Gasper is really Gasipa, Oscar is Osika, Luis is Luiwis. I’ll try to spell them right from now on—oh the ups and downs of constantly misunderstanding everything.

They then each presented me with their pictures and as much as I thought they would ask for them back or to keep them, not one of them did. I think they were just so pleased to have someone care about them and ask them what they thought about they didn’t question it. Gabe was able to snatch a few shots for me—what a project that was.Getting mostly 8 to 14 year old boys to sit still for a photo…forget it. But I treasure these photos, as I’m learning to treasure my babies. They’re so bright and I relish even the smallest victories: today Matata (yes, as in Hakuna Matata, and he’s full of mischief just as his name suggests) said please when asking to play with our soccer ball. 

There is a God in heaven.


Death came to visit again nearby in the village: a mother of twins died in childbirth, along with one of her babies. Tori and several of our church leaders went to share their condolences and I was told I’d be coming along as well.

Arriving on the scene, we were met with scores of men sitting under trees and along the road silently, and the unearthly mourning wails of the women surrounded the house. I closed my eyes for a moment. It sounded not unlike you’d imagine hell to sound: hopeless, deafening choruses all joining together to sound like a living creature writhing in despair. 

I’ve never seen anyone mourn like Africans.

I didn’t know her, but then, neither did many who came to pay their respects. Tanzanian tradition says that when there’s a death in the family, that family is obligated to feed all those who show up offering condolences—up to three months afterwards. There seemed to be close to 300 people all sitting about and all I could think of is how expensive and inconvenient that must be for the family, especially while grieving.

Shortly after a few words from the Catholic Priest, a choir burst forth in traditional sounding hymns, save for the fact they were all in Swahili. It was oddly comforting somehow and reminded me of Vienna Boys Choir at Christmas time. They headed up the front of the procession, followed by us in the truck, as we ended up driving the body and family members to the burial site. I dared not turn around to look at the screaming—literally screaming—family members or even out the windows at the crowd. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what was appropriate. But I did cry, because unless you have a heart of stone, hearing that kind of sorrow does something to you. We’re currently in the process of buying formula for the baby and getting to know the very large Rungwa family who lost their daughter. Pray with us that we can build good relationships with them, that the baby will grow stronger and live and that we can share Jesus with them as soon as the opportunity arises.


Aside from these two occasions this week, not much has stood out to me. I never would have believed it, but it is actually possible to settle into a familiar routine in the most unfamiliar of places. Everything becomes commonplace with time, even my quiet times in the morning. Sometimes I’m tired and roll over, taking too long to get up and sometimes I read things such as “You have the mind of Christ”, which seems only a distant memory by the time I’m juggling q-tips and peroxide at 3 pm for one of my kids who’ve again–surprise–lost their bandages and come seeking new ones. 

I feel like someday I should write a book. A large one, entitled: “All the Things Missionaries Aren’t Supposed to Admit to and How I Struggled with All of Them; The Stephanie Elwell Story”. I can envision it being on the paperback best sellers rack by the deli in the grocery store while patrons eagerly turn the pages to see tales of duels with lions, life and death encounters with half-naked tribespeople and heroic looking photos of me on the back of an elephant…only to put it down in disappointment when they realize the table of contents contains something like:

    Chapter 1 – In Which My Stomach Is Constantly Upset and It Makes Me Cry
    Chapter 2 – In Which I Don’t Understand The Culture and Become Massively Irritated
    Chapter 3 – In Which I Forget Only Christ Can Change Hearts
    Chapter 4 –  In Which I Fall Asleep During My Devotions for A Week Straight
    Chapter 5 – In Which I Wonder If I Even Know Who Jesus Is
    Chapter 6 – In Which I Forget What Cheese Tastes Like

Too bad they’d probably never get to the Epilogue where I tell them–thank goodness!–that missions aren’t what we’ve been taught, but that doesn’t make God or His call to go any less real. And that I did end up riding an elephant. 

The first one I know for certain. That latter is more of a hope.

But some days, all we have is hope.

“The lines of purpose in your life never grow slack, tightly tied as they are to your future in heaven, kept taut by hope. The Message is as true among you today as when you first heard it. It doesn’t diminish or weaken over time. It’s the same all over the world. The Message bears fruit and gets larger and stronger, just as it has in you.”
              – Colossians 1:5 – 6


© Stephanie Elwell and Keep Your Eyes Open 2013.


4 thoughts on “And Still Hope Grows

  1. Check out the blog “Jamie the Very Worst Missionary.” Her blog sounds exactly like your book idea! I have a feeling you’ll relate to her.

  2. You are an amazing young lady. I am always considering the realities of your trip and how He is working in you an understanding of His ways. What an eye opening blog to hear your simple daily routine to the scares of the world as we live in it.
    You are so young and yet have become a mother to these children and will soon feel all the wonders of that position in life as you relate to their souls and touch their spirit. Thanx for sharing the truth of it all and I pray for you continually.

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