Hearing the Voice of God

Six weeks into my stay in Tanzania, I was almost in tears as I walked down the hill to vespers. During the afternoon I had discovered that the source of the pain I had been feeling in my leg for the last week was not just any infection: it was an infestation of maggots that were eating my flesh. I had managed to extract four of them. Two maggots were left. I had swallowed my panic, but it was eating at me no less than the worms themselves. The next person I saw was going to get a tongue-lashing, and there was nothing I could do to stop myself but pray.

            God was merciful. Vespers takes place on African time, and there was nobody at the church when I got there. Some of the neighborhood children followed me into the courtyard, and I spent time just holding Agape, a little girl not quite old enough to walk yet. The priest, Fr. Paul Kagoma, and a chanter showed up eventually. I was able to greet them politely before we went into the church to praise God.

            Still deeply disappointed, I did not sing. It was all I could do to stand upright. Finally I collapsed into a chair as the chanter read what sounded like most of 1 and 2 Kings. Agape sprawled across my lap and went to sleep. I listened with half an ear to the exploits of Elijah against the priests of Baal, but mostly I just breathed in her sweet, sweaty scent. Breathing in and out, thinking without words: here I am, God is here, it could be worse. Slowly I came to a sense of peace and even gratitude. The stillness in my heart was the voice of God.

 

            I got the rest of the maggots out that night and completed my two-month stay in peace. As an Intercultural Studies major at Biola University, I had chosen to complete my required cross-cultural internship by working for OCMC in Tanzania. Missionaries James Hargrave, Maria Roeber, Felice Stewart, and Michael Pagedas welcomed me, along with Metropolitan +JERONYMOS of Mwanza and too many Tanzanians to name. I put my linguistics training to use learning Kiswahili and making recommendations to improve the curriculum the other missionaries were using to learn the language.

            When I arrived in Tanzania, I knew two words of Kiswahili, and I wasn’t totally sure they meant what I thought they meant. By the time I left, I could carry on a simple conversation (if my interlocutor had the patience of a saint) and I had a number of friendships with local people. I loved learning to communicate with people on a number of different levels. I loved learning the language and the rituals that communicate their culture. I loved trying to understand the thoughts of people who are different from me, and I loved praying with them. Like many people who visit Africa, I had Africa fever: the desire to return, even if I myself didn’t exactly know why.

 

            One of the articles in the GPA curriculum that OCMC missionaries use to learn the local language talks about the difference between “us stories” and “them stories.” “Them stories” are the primary way expatriate workers talk about their host cultures. We use our cultural experience and shared referents to interpret the behavior of our hosts. “You’ll never guess what happened to me today,” we say, throwing up our hands in good-natured dismay. “While I was paying for my new pair of shoes, someone came along and stuck his feet into my old pair and walked away. What was he thinking?” We remain perpetually on the outside looking in, and we are frequently perplexed.

            When we learn to tell “us stories,” sometimes it doesn’t occur to us that these are stories at all. Of course we bring a kilo of sugar as a gift when we visit someone’s house; that’s just what Tanzanians do. We have learned to see the world, at least in this small instance, as the host culture sees it. We have become able to dialogue within the culture, not just about it.

            To me this is one of the primary goals of missionary service. The missionary comes not to offer more healthcare or make more converts, although these things are important. The goal of missionary service is to create an icon of the Church by sharing in communion with aliens. Aliens: foreigners. The people that, the more we learn about them, the less we feel we understand them. Nevertheless, the less we feel we understand them, the more we realize our common humanity. The paradox deepens as we keep learning the culture.

 

            The noise of dancing and singing was barely a breath away in the crowded church. The bishop radiated joy as he addressed a gathering of Tanzanian religious education seminar participants and short-term missionaries in the following words. As best as I can remember, he said: “We are here in Ibale on July 28th, 2011. We are here in Ibale, Kagera region. We are here in the Church of the Resurrection in Ibale.

            “We must love one another.”

            I am reminded of St. John. When the churches asked him for a sermon, he merely said, “Little children, love one another.”

            I saw the Church in its fullness as Tanzanian readers and catechists came to be taught more about Christianity, and as individuals from America and Finland took their time to do the teaching. It’s a cliché, but a true one, that the missionaries learned as much from the experience as the students did. Christianity is always embodied, never abstracted. Here the embodiment of Christianity is the sharing in communion of people with very different cultures and experiences, serving one another.

 

“Mjakazi,” the old man, a participant in the religious education seminar, called to me. “Can you help me? I lost my pen.” I hurried to dig a new pen out of the box and brought it to him triumphantly. Later it occurred to me that my real triumph was the title he gave me. Mjakazi. Not mgeni—foreigner—or mwalimu—teacher—but servant girl. I was one step closer to having a real role in this community. I wasn’t entirely sure I liked being called a servant, but the title helped me identify more with the Tanzanians. And that was everything to me.

 

I remember that when I was asking permission to serve my internship in Tanzania, the bishop welcomed me and added, “Let us pray she may find this place worth to return.” I saw him again, in Irvine, California, after my internship was complete. He gave me a big, joyful smile. When he invited me to return to Tanzania, I heard the voice of God, through his Church, addressed to me. You are welcome to join in this work.

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May I attain to the dignity of a loser.

UnTangled

You can be right, or you can be married; take your pick. I can’t remember who told me that, but I do remember that they were only half-joking. The other half, the serious half, is exceedingly important. This is why.

Many therapists aren’t crazy about doing marital therapy. It’s complicated and messy, and it often feels out of control. In the worst case scenario, the therapist has front row seats to a regularly-scheduled prize fight. But I love to do marital therapy. Why? Maybe I enjoy the work because I keep one simple principle in mind: if marriage is going to work, it needs to become a contest to see which spouse is going to lose the most, and it needs to be a race that goes down to the wire.

When it comes to winning and losing, I think there are three kinds of marriages. In the first…

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Book review: Nine Hills to Nambonkaha

by Sarah Erdman

I have a hard time thinking of the author of this book as Erdman. To me she is Guissongui, the name the village of Nambonkaha gave her when she lived among them. Erdman’s prose catches hold of you that way. It allows you to see Nambonkaha’s inhabitants, and herself too, through her remarkably clear eyes.

Erdman tells the stories of a number of unforgettable people: Sidibé the nurse, who eats from the same bowl as his wife, the brash Abi whose mockery keeps Erdman away; tiny Moussa who befriends Erdman and learns to read; Dramane, the joker who carries half the responsibilities of the village and fears a curse; Ali, the boy whom a herd of do-gooders cannot save; Benoît, who nonchalantly bouffes a bit of the funds for the maternity clinic; Oumar, who works in the fields in place of his father until sickness strikes him too; Djeneba, who no one will admit brought AIDS to the village through no fault of her own, and who wastes away slowly. Then there are all the mothers enticed to learn to keep their babies healthy in Erdman’s program. At the edges of the scene hover the chief and a herd of grands types. The chief welcomes Erdman, gives her gifts as befits her status as a guest, and grants permission for her projects. The grands types seem to be good mostly for showing up at fêtes and eating the refreshments: “When Dramane, Bakary, and I finally… appear at Sidibé’s for our share, the grands types are lined up in chairs in the courtyard, stuffed and stretched out, shifting occasionally like a row of sunbathing walruses” (p. 260, hardcover edition).

The people are intensely real. They come off the page and talk directly to you as Erdman strives to come to grips with the difficulties of being transplanted and the realities of a new culture. Sidibé, so progressive, so close to being a feminist, does nothing to prevent female circumcisions. The cost is too high, the hope of victory very low indeed.

Nine Hills to Nambonkaha reads like a good story in any genre. It is engrossing, nearly unputdownable on the dramatic level. We travel with Erdman into the heart of Africa and find it is not dark but human, with the nobility and degradation of all of us. And there is always something new to see in Nambonkaha. Erdman’s gift might be best displayed, though, in the small, specific scenes she writes. The market is not chaotic, as most tourists describe it, but ordered in a peculiarly African way. Erdman conveys the dynamics and emotion of the situation lovingly, without wasting space. Through discomfort and frequent grief, she has seen the peculiar beauty of African life.

A sample from near the end:

“I went to see Massieta today to count my chickens and remind her to start on the pill once this pregnancy is over. She stood outside her house with her hands limp at her sides and just kept saying, ‘Thank you, thank you, we have nothing to give.’ I said, ‘You gave me your sons, and that’s all I wanted. They are many, but pei chengué, they are good.’ Maimouna’s mother came by and stood by a tree. Her cheeks were shining. I said, ‘Are you all right, are you sick?’ And Massieta snorted, ‘She’s crying for you, Guissongui.’ They all say, Yele sin, na tanri mon na mereban. You can go for two years and then come back. Mon na mereban. You come back.

“Last night I couldn’t leave Sidibé’s. We had tea, two rounds, then three, then four, as night fell around Nambonkaha’s orange lights. Abi said, ‘You don’t want to cook now, so just stay to eat.’ The president came by and the mayor and the school director and Ibrahim the teacher, and Abi unloaded bowls of rice and sauce onto the table. There was a chair for me, too, but I sat on the other side of the courtyard with Abi. She was leaving for Tiébro in the morning. We scrunched up rice with our hands, sitting low by the fire. She gave me greetings for my family–each member has passed through this courtyard and eaten at her table. She told me what she will do when I come back. I’ll be collecting things for you, she said, all those things you can’t take home this time. Like a really nice mortar and pestle. And a good stool. I’ll collect them. And then she muttered, ‘A sister like you…” into the fire. ‘A sister like you…’ And said nothing more.

“They set up chairs in crescents around the middle of the village later on, and Sidibé and Siaka and I sat down on the edge of the dancing circle. Villagers melded into their places: mothers in the middle, girls in the outer ring, feet thumping, shoulders twisting, elbows pumping, between them young men and children spinning. And along the outer edge, just on one side, Moussa in his tiny 49ers sweatshirt dancing Rasta-style for me. My ASCs snaked through the circle in their uniforms, twisting, laughing, a conga line of blue-and-white lattice and grins. I stepped into the line behind Massieta, dancing with a baby on her back and a baby in her stomach. And I danced out the glee, danced out the sorrow, danced out the notion that this end is final, that this dance is the last, that the next ride over the nine hills from Nambonkaha does not turn back.

“Tonight Mandou says, ‘Thanks to you we have electricity, a maternity clinic, latrines at the school, a moulin–‘ ‘Wait!’ I say. ‘I hardly brought all that.’ ‘I know,’ Mandou says, ‘but that’s what they say.’ I wonder if we’ll go down in each other’s histories as only golden, romanticized legends: Guissongui who did everything. Nambonkaha that was my Shangri-la.

“Moussa says, ‘Ach! We cry or we don’t cry, but you’re going to go anyway. Il y a quoi dedans?’ Tough little Moussa cried himself to sleep leaning against my screen. Mandou shoves his hands in the pockets of his prized jeans. He says, ‘This is why we’ll miss you, Guissongui: you came laughing.’ I tell him I couldn’t have laughed so much if the village of Nambonkaha hadn’t already been smiling at me. And I wonder if he knows he’s a poet.

“Tired now, but I don’t want to sleep because it just means blowing out this last Nambonkaha night (quiet again despite the lights). I scribble away in my wooden armchair, electric orange bleeding in through the back window but my front room warm with lantern light. So tired, but there must be one last thing before I put down my pen, before I surrender this night. My life here is unfinished but all wrapped up. Why am I leaving? Why do you trade in happiness for uncertainty? What makes you give up a good thing? I have no answers except that there are so many paths that I haven’t yet traveled. I’ll just keep writing, past midnight, moving on one. My lamplight wavers. For two years it has light my nights, lit my students crouched around their shivery rows of letters, lit dinner in pots on the stove, lit faces outside my screen. I lift my pen from the page. The fire sputters and stretches, searching for fresh wick. Then with a soft sigh, the flame goes out” (pp. 306-9).

new quick takes from the life of Meg

I’ve needed to be quiet a bit this semester, so I haven’t written much. I’m happy I’m not trying to be artsy and wordy all the time; I need to just relax and be with friends. So here’s some of what I do.

1. Things that have made me laugh recently

http://shitmystudentswrite.tumblr.com/

I could contribute so much from my little gems that I grade for, but I shall respect their privacy.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CXNNsbUhN-U

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DrQRS40OKNE

2. The long goodbye

It’s my last semester of Torrey. I’m happy and sad. Torrey has been a major part of my life and a mirror to my growth. I’ve already been to my last lecture, had my last Reynolds session, written my last pull question, and tried to come to terms that I will never.spend.three.hours with my original group again. My last session is this week, and then I deliver my last paper next week and have my last DonRags.

Tonight’s pull question, after we discussed love and the End in 1, 2, and 3 John, was, “How can you keep loving your group once Torrey is over?”

It’s been real, it’s been fun, Torrey. Here’s to the start of something better.

3. Africa

I love it.

My research paper on East African beliefs about witchcraft is the only paper I’ve ever written that’s come out longer than it’s needed to be. And there’s still more to write.

4. Anthropology

Love that too. Also, see “senioritis.”

5. Things that could conceivably make me cry

The generosity of friends. Going to confession. The goodness of God. Going home.

Happy tears.

6. Kindle

Library books are available via kindle now. It’s quite possibly my favorite invention since the codex and French bread.

7. Church stuff

I can’t wait to be Orthodox. And I’m incredibly grateful to all my Protestant friends and discussion partners. I’m glad of the structure of Church life and for the way it refuses to let me get neurotic about religion.

Bonus: good Advent reading

http://www.bartleby.com/122/37.html

testing the waters/into the deep end

Putting my money where my mouth is, and other cliches

This morning I was invited to submit an application to OCMC, the organization I went to Tanzania with. It’s fifteen pages of thought-provoking questions (Q: “Define the ideal missionary.” A: Someone who’s not me), and it’s due in three weeks. If they accept my application, I could be back in East Africa in a year or so.

I can’t honestly say what I want out of life at the moment. I’m a senior, after all; we’re not supposed to know what we’re doing. I do know that looking over the OCMC application makes me a lot happier and more enthusiastic than looking at grad schools, even if I do have to send fundraising letters. (In general, I’d rather spend my life as a taste-tester for a company that makes oatmeal with mushrooms and olives than send fundraising letters.)

I like East Africa and I like learning foreign languages. I like the people I worked with this summer. I like anthropology. Two years (the minimum first term for OCMC workers) is doable. After that, we’ll see.

My work might involve doing translations of the Scriptures and liturgical books into native languages. It might also involve sitting in an office somewhere more civilized and creating programs and resources for others to do this. It will surely involve spending lots of time learning language and listening to people’s thoughts and concerns.

Sounds fun to me. Here’s to the journey.

unplugging

Yesterday I splurged on internet time and checked all my favorite blogs. Three hours later, I was bored, tired, and empty. Did I really used to do that every day?

It was dusk. I climbed down the hill to the church for vespers. The sun lay mellow on the land, like honey. I could see the houses on another hill and dream of what the world would be if the seven hills of Mwanza were as famous as the seven hills of Rome. Children shouted greetings at me, and my neighbors also.

Not wanting to be alone, I invited myself to dinner with my host family. Standing in the “backyard,” a vacant plot raised above street level, right next to where they cook, I watched sunset over Lake Victoria. Then we sat in the open corridor by the charcoal burners and chatted in Swahili for a long time. Dinner was finished after dark, as usual.

This is real. This is what matters. The words on the screen are ephemeral, illusory.

So I want to stop hiding from life.

I remember how the first couple of times I watched my family cook dinner it was torture. The meal took forever to prepare, and most of the time we just sat there–on a bench made for much shorter legs–while the charcoal burned down. Now it feels natural and wonderful that things should be made from scratch and cooked for an hour, while the family enjoys each other’s company and every now and then speaks across the open space to the neighbors’ kitchen. I don’t miss the hours I’ve spent online. I know I will miss my family, my Tanzania.

hippopotami in the synagogue and other news

Furaha na amani! Joy and peace!

That’s how we greet each other after church in Bukoba. I spent the last week there hanging out with the long-term missionaries and enjoying hot showers and vacationing from formal language study. I did read my Swahili Bible and learn some interesting idioms.

Kupiga kiboko puzzled me for a long time. Kiboko is the word for hippopotamus, and kupiga means to hit. Why was Jesus talking about hitting hippopotami? I didn’t think they even existed in Israel (but you learn something new every day…).

Someone explained to me that it’s an idiom for ‘to flog.’ Kiboko also means a whip made out of hide. Then we all engaged in the typical Tanzanian pastime of having a good laugh at my puzzlement.

After a week of relaxing by the beach of Lake Victoria in Bukoba, I took the bus back to Mwanza to get back to language study. My teacher had had a whole week to mature her opinion about how terrible the curriculum I’m supposed to be revising is. Looks like I have my work cut out for me.

family life

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Mama Flora says something to me, smiling. I nod, pretending to understand. She sees through that right away. Finally my missionary contact, who’s eating with us, interprets for me: “She says to tell your father you can get married, because you know how to cook.”

Mama Flora is my landlady in Mwanza. We’re eating a meal that I bought and cooked with the help of her daughters. One of the daughters, the one whose name I can never remember, actually did most of the work, having quickly realized that I was too ignorant to be trusted alone in the kitchen.

We went to the market, fifteen minutes away by bus, and bought a live chicken, three kilos of uncooked rice, and some assorted vegetables. I let my host brother do the buying for me; if the vendors deal with me they’ll raise the price. The chicken is butchered, plucked, gutted, and cut into serving-size pieces as we watch. I carry the pieces in their own plastic bag inside the bag of rice.

At home, the kitchen is a corridor between two houses. It has a floor but no roof. The salient features for my task are the two charcoal burners, the bucket of water, and the low bench. Someone cleans the chicken and throws it into a pot with oil, water, salt, and ginger to simmer before I can blink.

Pretending I know what I’m doing, I pour the rice into a large flat basket and proceed to pick stones and bits of husk out of it. And pick. And pick some more. The real cook teaches me how to wash the rice. You put it into a basin with lots of water and pour the water into another basin. You let a little bit of rice pour into your hand, check it, and leave it in the second basin. You pour the water but not the rice back into the first basin and repeat. It seems to take hours to transfer all the rice to the second basin and get rid of the last impurities.

My plan had been to boil the rice in roughly twice the amount of water, as I would do at home. The Tanzanian way is to cook it in plenty of oil and add a little water later. It smells like popcorn.

I begin cutting tomatoes to make sauce the way I learned last week, when I observed the family cooking. My head cook orders me to peel them first (I learn a Swahili command: peel!). Then, observing my lumpy first products, she demotes me from peeling to chopping (I learn a Swahili command: chop!). I chop them small and start on a couple of onions, and then peppers.

When the meat is done, we put another pot on the fire and I pour oil into the bottom (I practice listening to a Swahili command: put!). After a long time it’s hot enough. I put the onions in and we wait another long time, until they’ve turned faintly golden. All the heat that’s not going into the food is scorching my leg as I sit. I add the tomatoes and stir them about for a long time. They cook down into something like a sauce. I add peppers and salt, stopping only to panic slightly when a cockroach crawls out of the jar of salt.

We started around 4:30 at the latest. By the time we finish sunrise has been and gone. Now I know why Tanzanians always eat so late.

The whole family eats together in the courtyard. The youngest teenagers serve their mother, their older brother, and the two guests, as is customary. Everyone compliments me on the dinner and thanks me for making it. I wish I had enough Swahili to explain that it wasn’t really me. But now I know how to cook properly, so I’m eligible to be married off.

habari zangu

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My assignment is to learn Swahili, basically. So I spend two hours a day in language school learning the names of things and how to describe actions. Then I spend time with my host family in the afternoon, and later I prepare my next lesson and study some more. I go to church morning and evening: every day I understand a little bit more.

It’s a strain not being able to communicate. My missionary contact says he’s never seen anyone adapt faster, but I’m still frustrated. My ability to speak runs from simple greetings to simple questions (with, hopefully, simple answers). At church I hang out with the bishop, the priest, the deacon, the housekeepers, the kids, and a Greek couple who is helping construct the new cathedral. The bishop and the priest speak English pretty well, and it turns out they also speak Greek fluently. So if I ever want to talk to this Greek woman, I have to find a bishop to interpret for me. I asked her if she spoke Spanish, and she thought that was hilarious.

In my free time, I hang out with the housekeeper’s daughter, Dimitra, who is about ten, or with the daughters of my host family. The oldest daughter speaks English very well, so we have a bad habit of not speaking Swahili together. She’s showed me some of the sights around here and let me help cook a meal on their two tiny charcoal burners.

Tanzanian men love white girls. They greet me politely and take the time for long conversations. The sober ones explain that they like meeting people from foreign countries with different points of view. The drunk ones (don’t worry, this has only happened once, and in a place I won’t be going back to) tell me, “You is mzungu (white)! Mzungu is good!” Then they tell me I have a lot of money and they will do anything for me.

Comparatively, I do have a lot of money, though that’s hard to believe. I could afford to take taxis everywhere and eat in nice restaurants if I wanted. It’s more fun to see what the locals do.

sisema kiswahili

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I hate that moment in a conversation when I’ve run through everything I had to say and don’t know how to end the talk gracefully. Over here it happens much faster than usual, because I only know a few words. I stumble through hi, how are you, and sputter to a stop after what’s your name. If the person keeps trying to talk to me, I can say I don’t speak Swahili. Then I wait for something to happen.

One of my landlady’s daughters is on vacation from school and she offered to teach me Swahili yesterday. So I pulled out the curriculum I was given and began walking through it with her. Four other would-be teachers gather around and help me learn the words for father, mother, child, cat, dog. Many of the words I will forget soon because we’ve gone too fast.

Later I retired to my apartment (two rooms about six feet square, one of them almost entirely taken up by the bed) and wrote out guidelines for future language sessions. Only speak Swahili during the lesson. Introduce words one at a time and practice them until you’re bored enough to scream. The point is that I am a child in this language—I need to listen a lot to common words and respond nonverbally. I need to get the words so far into my memory that I can say them without thinking and think of them before the English comes to mind.

This morning we had matins and liturgy in the archdiocesan chapel here. The chapel is only a little more than twice the size of one of my rooms. Listening to the prayers is comforting, because I can figure out what point in the service it is and hear words that will be repeated tomorrow and the next day.

Next project: buy a bottle of water without a translator.

I love it here.