Alyson in Africa
Hi and welcome to my blog. I'm updating this blog with my latest experiences in Chad, Africa. Thanks for your interest and support. Please use the link below to send a message. I'd love to hear from you as well.
I’ve just completed the third day of this week of orientation. Wednesday morning around 10:15, Thom left for the airport and at 10:30, I was sitting in my first session. We’ve covered many relevant topics: logistics for our travel, techniques for telling our story to our congregations, managing our expectations, church planting, working in cross cultural teams, prayer, language learning. Each day my head has been full. On Day 1 I had lots of energy fueled by the newness of it. Day 2, I felt even more energized. But today, I was dragging from fatigue. I got to bed late working on some final business loose ends and short changed myself on needed rest. It soured my attitude and dampened my spirits. Unfortunate, but tomorrow is another day and I’ll try not to make that mistake again.
There are 6 other women and one man (who is the husband of one of the 6) in the orientation with me. Each of us is going to a different place: Gambia, South Africa, Albania, Spain, Italy and me to Chad. I will be the first one to leave but my trip is the shortest one; others are going for 3 to 9 months. One woman is just 18 years old and will be a helper to a missionary family. Another in her late 30s will be a preschool teacher. Another in her 30s is to work on a DVD project. Another in her 40s is going to help a team work with street kids. The couple in their late 40s is going to do maintenance at an established mission center. Another who is in her mid-20s has no idea what she is doing except to help a missionary couple. So I think I’m the oldest (but then I'm not always very good about judging others' ages so I might be wrong about that). They’ve all gone on short-term (1 to 3 week) missions before, ones like the Mexico mission trips church youth groups often do. And they all are wonderful people, full of love for Christ and enthusiastic about what’s ahead on their mission trip.
Because Thom was here with me for the first night, we got a room together and now I have that same room to myself. Mostly, I like that but it has meant it is not as easy to mix in and bond with the other women. I think I am missing out a bit on that and because I cherish that kind of time it does fall under the “Bummer” column. But, all in all, I really don’t mind it. We have been so busy in group sessions that, when we have some free time, (and there’s not much of that) I cherish being able to come back to a room to myself and have some solitude. And perhaps God just wanted to spare these women my chatty companionship – everyone needs their rest and, as Thom often tells folks with an I’ve-been-married-to-her-for-over-a-quarter-century sigh in his voice . . . I like to “visit.”
The WEC campus I am at serves as a sending base for missionaries. So that means it is buzzing with missionaries coming, going, staying, passing through, etc. This is a world I knew little about and so I am learning a lot about the missionary community, their lifestyles, needs, etc. There are some retired missionaries here that have many interesting stories to share – certainly leaves me with the impression that they have had full lives. There are also missionaries here on vacation or medical leave. The campus serves as a safe and refreshing place to come to renew themselves. There are also missionary kids here and I’ve learned something about their advantages and disadvantages. There is an entire department here dedicated to serving their needs. There are the staff people here that work in various departments, from the mailroom to the kitchen to the business office to the technology dept to the marketing department to the housekeeping and maintenance department. All of those I have met have been on the mission field in some capacity and so they go at their work seeming to understand very well the purpose of the sending base and the context of the work being done by those they serve. I just had no idea that I was coming to a place like this. They are all very much a family—a caring community that works efficiently and cooperatively to live and work here. Yesterday, the Director wiped down tables in the dining room and another missionary with years of service in the field took my dishes to the kitchen for me. It’s just not the typical organization with a hierarchy of mucky mucks in the corner offices directing all the gophers to do their jobs. It is a very supporting kind of a place filled with people dedicated to serving wherever they are and toward whatever needs to be done. Impressive.
I also spoke with a couple who had spent 13 years in Chad. I asked them about the rebel fighting and invited their perspective on the potential of danger to the missionaries and short-term workers. They acknowledged that the station they worked at had been closed because of the danger but assured me that where I would be should be very safe. The French military base is apparently just down the street and their security system is quite good. Sad as the fighting and violence is, they say life just goes on at the Abeche Learning Center. That was good news to me.
At dinner one night, I chatted with one of the staff and she asked if I was considering a career in long-term missions. I said I had no idea—that I was even surprised I was doing a short-term mission given that I'm not the rough and ready type. Who knows! Well God probably does. But I do know I am enjoying the opportunity to learn about it all and dabble in it a bit. And so far, with all the learning that has taken place so far, I have noticed that my experiences as a consultant and exposure to pastoral ministry as a pastor’s wife are relevant background for missions work. Working with companies to develop training solutions that will help them achieve business goals is very similar to the models of working with communities of people to achieve a church planting outcomes. Similarly, the process of serving a congregation where they are at in the areas of physical and spiritual resources is much like evolving and nurturing a body of believers in another country and culture. I’m encouraged (and relieved) that I don’t feel too much like a fish out of water.
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Journey to Abeche...Almost There
Here’s the tale of the journey to Abeche, Chad . . . almost.
There I was, just having boarded my plane in Washington DC and heading to N’Djamena Chad at take off. I had just hung up my cell to say goodbye to Thom and turned my attention to the other passengers, both boarding and already seated. We were all going to Chad.
I could tell that many of my fellow travelers called Africa home. Their dark skins and language were the clues. Also atypical was the mood in the air. Unlike the business travel flights that I am used to where passengers board quietly and take their seats quickly, these passengers were in a celebratory mood. Everyone seemed to know everyone and the greetings and laughter created a cacophony of voices. People were shouting greetings and remarks across the rows, with seven seats in a single row, it meant one had to holler to be heard by others seating on the other end. I thought it was a fascinating and refreshing change from our more stoic American culture that would have us locate our seats quickly, barely greet our row neighbors, and sit expectantly for any official announcements. It just looked like fun as they stood in the aisles and walked about as if they were at a cocktail party. I sat in my aisle seat sure that a no-nonsense flight attendant was going to come along any moment and put a stop to it until I saw several of them, dressed in traditional Ethiopian Airline splendor join in on the fun greeting passengers as if they were old friends. Eventually everyone got seated but still maintained the noise level and we took off.
We landed in Rome, refueled and restocked, and were on our way again within an hour. First order of business was breakfast. We still had 5 or 6 hours yet to go and, as happy as I was to confirm I was on the proper flight, the sitting, dozing, sitting, dozing, sitting, dozing was getting old. The eventual landing in Addis Ababa couldn’t have come soon enough. When the plane touched down and my African travel mates all applauded and made the most African tribal sounding cheer (a high pitched “hoola hoola hoola”) I was right there with them. I deplaned and reveled in walking down the jetway into the terminal. I was on African soil . . . or concrete anyway. Yippee!
Inside Addis Ababa's Bole International Airport, I settled myself on a bench about 200 yards away from the gate to wait out my 2-hour layover, after which I would fly to Chad’s capital city, N’Djamena. A group of German students joined me there. I listened to their conversation picking out a recognizable word here and there. I turned to one of the female students with hopes to practice my German. “Entschuligen Sie bitte. Meine name ist Alyson. Ich spriche ein bistchen Deutch. Konnen ich ubung mein Deutch mit dir?” (Excuse me, please. My name is Alyson. I speak a little German. Can I practice my German with you?) “Ja!” She replied with a big smile on her face. So we proceeded to chat, mostly in German with her helping me with the many words I didn’t know. She explained that she and her peers were students from Frankfurt and they were returning from Tanzania where they worked on a project as a practicum for their management skills course. Eventually a few of her classmates came over and we chatted about things like where I live, how I learned German, what I’ll be doing in Africa, etc. We were all having a good time, by my standards anyway, and I was touched that they were all participating in the discussion so enthusiastically. A couple of times they even needed me to provide a word to help them form a sentence in English and I got a chance to return the favors. God had provided me some companions to pass the time just when I needed some.
I’m not sure what prompted me to check my watch when I did but I was alarmed to see that it was 10 minutes after 10:00 pm and my flight was scheduled to leave at 10:30 pm. I had heard no announcements, of course, as they were likely drowned out by our group’s laughter at my attempts to conjugate one of my original Germenglish words. I looked to the gate and there were a few people standing around there but it looked quiet. I said my goodbyes to my new Deutsche Freunden (German friends) and headed quickly to the gate. When I got there, I stood for a moment to size up the situation. No one was going through the gate doorway. There really was nothing going on other than the gate agents standing at the baggage screening machine shooting the breeze (Ethiopians apparently do that, too).
After a moment, I approached a military uniformed man standing by the doorway and I announced that I was going to N’Djamena. I asked when they would be boarding. He looked at me and repeated, “N’Djamena?” I answered, “Yes.” His eyes flew open wide and he said “Go!” and urgently gestured me toward the door. He shouted to the commiserating gate agents, “She is going to N’Djamena!” Then their eyes flew open wide too and all of a sudden everyone was propelled into action. One took my backpack and put it through screening. Another took my passport and hurriedly explained he would process it. Another helped me figure out what in the world on my body was causing the screening machine to beep all three times that I had to walk through it. (I didn’t realize my iPod was in my pocket). And yet another insisted that I take a drink from my water bottle to ensure it was safe to take the liquid on board. Finally the passport processing agent ran back to get me and shouted, “Follow me!” We sprinted down an escalator all the while he was shouting to some unseen person at the bottom level, “I have an N’Djamena passenger. I have an N’Djamena passenger.”
By now it was 10:15 and, with all the commotion I had witnessed, it had sunk in that I might have arrived a tad bit late to the gate and could very well miss my plane. (Ooops!) I boarded a shuttle bus with just a few other waiting passengers and its driver whisked us across the tarmac to a waiting plane. Following the couple other passengers’ lead, I hustled on to the plane, the next to the last person to get on. As I turned to walk down the plane’s center aisle to my assigned window seat I was held up by the flight attendant who was resolving a seat assignment mixup – a man had sat in the wrong seat and she was firmly directing him to move. It struck me that her tone was far less courteous and warm than one might expect for typical passenger assistance. I also noticed that the offender and what appeared to be about 10 of his buddies – all young Chadian men -- were clearly enjoying the stir they were causing with this seating mixup and apparent resistance to the flight attendants directives. But she made assertive progress to get everything squared away and so their pleasure was short lived.
Once they were set, it cleared the way for me to proceed. First order of business was to find an overhead bin for my backpack. The open overhead bins looked full to me so I started to open a closed one when the same flight attendant nicely told me to place it in one to which she pointed. She went to the back of the plane immediately and, as I saw it, it did not look like I was going to be able to fit my pack in the suggested spot without squishing others’ items, most of them in shopping bags that didn’t resist compression. So I hesitated and resumed looking for an alternative painfully aware that I had become the new entertainment for these men.
Thankfully, the same flight attendant returned a moment later and reiterated her suggestion. I told her that I was concerned it wouldn’t fit there. She encouragingly said, “Sure it will,” and I was thankful she wasn’t using the same firm tone she had used with the former troublemaker. So I quickly tossed a travel pillow over a man sitting in the aisle seat of my assigned row and then used both hands to hoist my pack up there.
Once all was well with my carry on, I turned to go to my assigned seat. To my surprise the man sitting in the aisle seat, who I would have to step by to get to mine, had my pillow and was handing it back to me. I took it but presented a questioning look (I hadn’t yet learned how to say “Why are you giving me back my pillow” in Chadian Arabic so was defaulting to furrowed brows). He said something I didn’t understand but the flight attendant did. She translated, “He says you can sit over there” and she pointed to an aisle seat a couple rows forward. Having traveled some 20 hours in an aisle seat with no place to prop my germ-free travel pillow, I was really looking forward to the window seat and so I wasn’t receptive to his suggestion. I noticed how some of the other men who had enjoyed so much previous glee at rankling the flight attendant were smiling and giggling again just as before. I sensed a power play was at work. The pre-trip orientation training had explained that women in Chadian culture do not enjoy much respect. They have their place and it is nowhere near that of a man’s. I had been coached, in the interest of cultural sensitivity, that proper etiquette was to not make direct eye contact with a man, never touch a Muslim man, as in shaking hands, respect the dress code for women, etc. All that was fine and good but my thoughts went to sitting in another seat that wouldn’t provide the comfort I was looking for during this last leg of the air journey. And I also entertained the idea that it might be someone else’s seat and I would get booted when they arrived. Plus I didn’t appreciate being messed with and so publicly manipulated, likely for no other purpose than to throw a little weight around because they had nothing else to do. No, I resolved I would not budge on this. Modeling my tone of voice after that which I heard the flight attendant use with Mr. Musical Chairs, I said firmly but to the flight attendant to avoid the direct eye contact thing, “I prefer to sit in my assigned seat and I will sit there.” She shrugged her shoulders, clearly indifferent, and we both looked at the instigator for his response. He scowled and his peers giggled a bit. I felt bad for him because I had no desire to shame him but it appeared that would be an inevitable outcome. He shifted in his seat to reluctantly allow me by. I sat down feeling my heart beating in my chest like a jackhammer. I had no idea if I had handled that situation the best I could. But what was done was done and that was that.
During the flight, this man didn't talk to me but, after the meal was served, he arranged some pillows and blankets across his and the available middle seat and laid down. He likely wanted the entire row to himself to maximize this nap and my arrival had foiled his plan. As he settled in and fell asleep his feet kept creeping over to my seat and it wasn't long before they were pressing against my thigh and threatening to encroach further. This afforded me an opportunity to see that he had no big toe on his left foot -- it looked as if it had been cleanly severed at some point. In his slumber he would jerk a little (I’ve seen children do that when they sleep and it reminded me that this man, while he initially seemed like my nemesis, was a human being, God's child, with a beating heart, the need for rest, and past hardship and pain to endure (likely beyond losing a big toe). I felt some compassion for him and resolved that if his feet continued to push at my thigh, so be it. I should stop being so prissy.
Later, after I was settled in the N’Djamena guest house during my 2-day stopover there, I recounted the story to my host and hostess. They explained that I had just experienced my first dose of Chadian men and, not to worry, I had handled it just fine. The assigned seat was rightfully mine. These men, likely just uncomfortable enough in their travel environment, probably felt they needed to pick on someone to boost their egos. Along I came, a victim in the wrong place at the right time from their perspective. Best that I stood my ground. This was a good learning experience for my assignment as a teacher at a Learning Center that teaches mostly Chadian men. I’ll have to find my iron hand and wear it in the classroom, for sure.
When I arrived and deplaned in N’Djamena, I marched confidently into the baggage area saying “La. Barak Allah” (No. May God bless.) to the many baggage handlers that offered to assist me with my bags (per instructions provided to me by a missionary in Chad). My contact intercepted me shortly after I located my first bag, and, once I had all my bags, we were off to the guest house where I had a sound night’s sleep. In the next day or two, we would arrange for the last leg of my journey in a UN transport plane to Abeche but I counted it a good thing . . . I (and all my baggage) had arrived in Chad safely. Praise God.Here’s the tale of the journey to Abeche, Chad . . . almost.
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Layover in N’Djamena
Although my plan was to leave N’Djamena for Abeche on Saturday, August 31st, I was unable to complete the required security registration beforehand. The security office was closed for an important meeting and so it meant I had to wait until Monday, September 1st to complete the registration and then hopefully catch the next available United Nations transport flight, which is supposed to be Tuesday, Sept. 2. That gave me the weekend and Monday to experience N’Djamena to enjoy the hospitality of my host family at the mission guest house.
N’Djamena is the capital city but it has no glamour. There are only a few main paved roads and the minor and neighborhood roads are all dirt (and mud) with lots of potholes and puddles that are filled with standing gooey-looking water. Poverty and garbage are everywhere. On the main roads the traffic is horrifying. It is always heavy. Car exhaust permeates the air. Motorcycles dash in and around cars. Car and motorcycle drivers honk perpetually. Dust is in the air and everywhere. If one tries to make a turn into traffic, they’d be wise to say a prayer because no one yields to anyone. Yesterday we were driving in a circular round about and someone had an accident. The Chadian form of rubber necking is not to drive by slowly but to stop their cars, get out, and crowd around the scene all the while chattering and creating a din that certainly can’t be helpful to the policeman who is trying to sort things out. Add heat and humidity to the scene and I think I will never drive down here.
To be expected, my body clock is off so I’m having trouble getting to sleep at a reasonable time. To pass the time one night, I sat on the veranda journaling and enjoying the cool after a very hot, humid day. While the days are hot, the evenings are very nice. Either the absence of sun or a monsoon-like storm cools things down to a pleasant air temp. Finally, I went to bed but when I woke up the next morning I discovered that my lower legs and ankles had been dinner for Chadian mosquitoes while I had been out enjoying the nice evening air on the veranda. I found out later that the little buggers are “light biters” so you don’t feel them prick. In the heat of the day, when I am perspiring, these welts itched sooooo much. And to think I had mosquito repellent right in my bag that I could have just sprayed on to avoid it. But I just didn’t realize they were there since I didn’t feel a thing. (sigh) Good thing I have been taking my malarial prophylaxis regularly—haven’t missed a night, yet. There are enough discomforts down here and I don’t need any more!
While arranging for the flight to Abeche on Tuesday, I discovered a wrinkle in the plan to get my luggage from N’Djamena to Abeche. I learned that I can’t take all of it on the UN transport plane due to a 15 kilo (33 lbs) total luggage restriction. I had about 95 lbs with me so that was a problem. The alternative for the excess weight is cross-country bus. But during the rainy season, although it is only a 14-hour route, the bus can take weeks to make the trip. If it rains (which it has 3 out of 4 nights here) then the bus must stop at every wadi (like our desert washes) until they empty AND dry or else the tires will get stuck. This can take 2 to 3 days. The bus crosses several of these wadis so you can see the reason for the extraordinary amount of time it could take. In addition, the buses aren’t always in tip top condition (imagine that) so they can break down. In either case, they’ll sit in the sun for hours, maybe days, awaiting the ability to proceed. (So much for those semi-sweet chocolate chips and wax tea lite candles I brought for some of the missionary families in Abeche). Add to it, my bags may not leave the day of or day after I catch the flight. Between making sure it gets on one of the better busses and the weather forecast indicating that there will be at least a 14-hour break in the weather, it could be a few days before my luggage departs. So I’ve had to pare down to the bare essentials. Now if I was wearing shorts and t-shirts around here that might be easy enough to fit in plenty of clothes. But I must wear long, full dresses and a head scarf in public and packing two or three of these to last me along with toiletries, my computer (which I certainly shouldn’t send on the bus), and shoes will be no easy thing. But I’ll find a way . . . I’ll have to! Then I’ll just pray that the rest of my luggage joins me in Abeche in a reasonable amount of time. It you’re looking for needs to pray about, that would be one of them.
Unfortunately, I’ve come down with a cold, caught I think from one of my host’s children who was suffering one, as well. It started with an ache and persistent tickle in my nostrils that verged on a sneeze the whole day. Then progressed to sneezing and a sore throat. I predict it will travel down to my chest to prompt a cough. I don’t feel horrible but I really would prefer not to feel compromised at all. Please pray that I kick it quickly. After all those shots for yellow fever, typhoid, hepatitis, meningitis, and then I get a common cold, which I haven’t had in years. How ironic!
On Saturday, my hosts went to a gathering of the N’Djamena missionary community and invited me along. They had arranged a fun day for the missionary kids to do an Olympics competition -- everything from a 3-legged race to kicking soccer goals, to long jumping. Then they had a potluck to cap it off. Gave me a chance to visit with a lot of people, several Americans, some Swiss, others British. Interesting to hear their stories and backgrounds. Most were long-term missionaries contracted for two or more years. I was so impressed with how these young families had compromised their standard of living, safety and security, conveniences, and loads of other things to bring the gospel to the unreached people far, far from their homes. Special people with a special calling, for sure.
Sunday we went to church and it was so neat. Attendance was over 900 and 99% were Chadian Christians with a few expatriates joining in the fun. They had a choir of about 40 that moved and jived with the music. Their “choir robes” included some fancy headdress for the women, you know tied in amazing knots around their hair. While everything was in French, the congregation sang two hymns for which I knew the melodies. But the rhythmic flare the worship band put to it really spiced it up. They were, Thine is the Glory and On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand. Can you imagine these with the African vibe added? It was a moving experience to be IN AFRICA, worshipping and singing familiar hymns. It brought tears to my eyes.
My hosts translated for me on the fly so I pretty much understood everything that was going on but the sermon, which was impossible to translate given its length and pace. The youth group did a skit that was apparently hilarious based on the congregation’s reaction. It was a lament about all the things they have been suffering there in N’Djamena (war, flooding homes, poverty, sickness – I know, hard to imagine where the humor was in all that but they found a way to make it funny and absurd) and then spoke to the difficulties with a message that God is in control. Nicely done and a message that could speak to all of us, whatever our suffering. But get this . . . the total service was 3.5 HOURS LONG!!!! My hosts said that the services usually aren’t that lengthy, more like 1.5 to 2 hours, but added that some people travel quite a ways to come so they certainly don’t want to keep it to a 1-hour service and not make it worth their while.
Unfortunately, sitting there on the most uncomfortable pew benches in the rising indoor heat just about did me in. At one point, for about 20 minutes, the generators went out and the overhead fans stopped leaving no moving air to dry the accumulating sweat and cool bodies. I was wearing one of those long full dresses and the fabric is heavy. Add that to the required head scarf and I was melting by the minute. I finally had to take off the scarf to let some body heat escape. That helped or I think I would have fainted for sure. After that I got a second wind but I still wasn’t all that comfortable.
Since I will help with planning a computer training center in Abeche, my layover in N’Djamena gave me a chance to meet with a computer training instructor at another mission’s learning center. I spent about an hour asking him lots of questions and getting information to help the Abeche team plan their own computer lab. Because technology is involved it is a complicated project. Add to it the unique challenges of Abeche, technology, intermittent power supply, and culture and it will be a real feat when they get this off the ground. Anyway, I felt useful doing my interview given my arrival in Abeche had been delayed by several days. Let’s hope and pray that I will get a seat on that plane to Abeche and can get started teaching English and supporting the Abeche team.
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I finally made it to Abeche on September 2nd. My N’Djamena host drove me to the airport at 6:30 a.m. to catch the 8:00 a.m. flight. When I got to the ticket counter I learned that I had been bumped to the next flight that left at 12:30 pm. So I went back to the guest house to wait until later in the morning when it was time to report in for the flight. I had better luck the second time and received my boarding pass. Then I grabbed a bite to eat in the airport café and boarded the plane.
The plane was a propeller-type plane with about 20 seats (gulp!). The flight was about 90 minutes and, as we descended into Abeche, I thought the topography looked very similar to the Sonoran desert that I live in (minus the Saguaro cactus). Because it is rainy season in Chad, the desert was greener than normal and really kind of pretty.
The plane landed in a torrential downpour and the plane parked out in the middle of the tarmac so when I deplaned, in my full length dress and headscarf, I got soaking wet. My friend was there to pick me up. It was a hurried initial reunion since we didn’t want to stand in the rain too long. We I hustled to her car and we were off to the WEC station compound. Roads were just as bad as N’Djamena’s. I was surprised when my friend remarked that the roads had recently been grated and she thought much improved. I guess I’ll never complain about the few potholes we have at home again!
When we arrived at the WEC station, I met the other workers living and working there. They seem like a fun, dedicated group, all single women with a calling to serve, in all places, Chad, Africa.
I’ve met several Chadians over the next few days and each time it is an event. Greetings are VERY important here so each time I am introduced to someone I must go through a sufficiently lengthy series of comments in Arabic to satisfy the cultural expectation of an appropriate greeting. Here’s an example, in English, to give you an idea of how it goes.
Alyson: Peace be with you.
Chadian: And peace be with you.
Alyson: How are you?
Chadian: Well. How are you?
Alyson: Well. How is your family?
Chadian: Well. Your family well?
Alyson: Yes, praise God. Are you well? (This is asked again even though I already asked it).
Chadian: Very well. You well? (This is asked again even though they already asked it).
Alyson: Yes, very well. You well? (This is asked yet again even though I already asked it twice).
Chadian: Yes, it is God’s will.
Alyson: Are you well?
Chadian: Very well. And you?
Alyson: Well. May God bless.
Chadian: Praise God.
Alyson: Yes. It is God’s will. Be well.
Chadian: Go well.
Generally, the more familiar one is with the person, the longer the greeting. So you can imagine that if the above is the typical length of my greetings, someone whom they barely know, then the greeting of familiar Chadians can really go on for 5 minutes or more. I know, it is quite different and seems nonsensical at times but that is the way it is.
Naturally, these first few days are revealing other interesting cultural practices and customs.
- I’ve had to suppress my reflex to shake everyone’s hand. Women are never to extend their hand unless a man extends his. I have to remember to put on a headscarf anytime I go out in public outside the compound.
- Chadians are very hospitable. When you go to visit a Chadian at their home, you are usually treated to some kind of beverage and perhaps a snack of dates or peanuts. It is considered impolite to refuse it. When Chadians offer you water it is a gesture that means they don’t have a problem with you. Refusing it suggests you have a problem with them. Similarly, if you visit someone and they don’t offer water, it means they have a problem with you. Given that the water here is not safe to drink, this can present a difficulty for someone like me for whom the drinking water likely presents some intolerable bacteria. Some of the workers have just bit the bullet, accepted the water, and endured the consequences. Others just stick to accepting tea for which water is boiled and therefore purified. So far, I’ve just been offered chaahi (pronounced chy-e). It is a very sweet tea sometimes flavored with peppermint or peanuts. It tastes very good.
- Laundry is done by hand – there are no automatic washing machines here. The workers here hire a Chadian woman to do it. She does it by hand in a big bowl. The procedure involves rubbing a bar of special soap on the web fabric and then rubbing the material together to get it foamy, then dunking it in the bucket to rinse, then wringing it out. It is a slow process but the clothes come out looking very clean. I’ll have to remember to hug my washing machine when I return home.
- Chadians don't knock on doors to announce their arrival at someone's home. They stand in the courtyard and clap their hands. So you can be sitting on your couch reading a book and suddenly hear some clapping. This is your cue to go to the door to see who it is. A couple of times, I have heard the clapping but didn't recognize that it was a visitor's announcement of his arrival to see my roommate. Poor guy stood and clapped for quite a while before I realized what I was hearing.
- Men and women sit seperately in church. While a family may arrive together, the women and children sit on one side and the men go to the other. In fact, in most aspects of socializing, the men and women are separated and rarely do they mix.
Clearly there’s a lot to learn as I settle in for my couple of months here. I’m glad I’ve finally arrived and I’m looking forward to the work ahead. Please pray that I transition effectively into the team and ramp up quickly for the work that I will do at the Learning Center.
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Now that I'm in Abeche, I am learning to get around town. Mostly I walk when it is possible or not too hot. But some destinations are just too far for going on foot so I must arrange a ride with one of the workers here or take public transportation. They have rickshaws here, which are enclosed buggies attached and pulled by motorcycles. They are pretty comfortable and cost about $2 to rent one with a driver. Another means of public transportation here is riding on the back of a motorcycle. They call them “klandos” here. Klando drivers can be hired at several points on the main road and it costs about $1 to get just about anywhere. However, as inexpensive and available as they are, I’ve been reluctant to use them because the drivers go so fast and carelessly that it is easy to imagine horrible outcomes to any klando journey. For the first few trips to the Learning Center, I had managed to avoid hiring one, catching rides with others in cars or walking once when time permitted. But one afternoon, in the middle of my class, an ominous front of storm clouds rolled in and my students asked if they could leave so they could get home before the rains began. I initially chuckled at the request but then I realized that they were serious. Most of them walk to class and getting caught in a Chadian rainstorm would be very unpleasant, maybe even dangerous if there was lightening. So we ended class about 30 minutes early.
As I was gathering my things, the Learning Center manager (he is a local Chadian resident) came to my classroom. He is a very nice man and always so helpful. I was touched that he would keep my needs in mind in his busy day. He speaks French and I don’t but even I could tell that his message was an urgent one -- I should hurry and he would give me a ride home before it started raining. I could tell he was worried about the trip because he was rushing about helping me close the classroom windows and turn off the lights. Following his lead, I packed up my things quickly. We locked the door and as we headed to the parking lot it dawned on me that he drives a motorcycle. This would be the last thing I wanted to do but I realized I had no choice. I certainly couldn’t walk the distance now. And this kind and gentle soul surely would get me home safely, wouldn’t he? He disappeared and a moment later pulled up on his motorcycle gesturing that I should quickly mount up so that we could get going. I said a quick prayer as I got on, taking care to adjust my dress to cover my knees.
A millisecond after I was set on the bike, he revved the engine and off we went, the clouds overhead dark and threatening. Naturally, since he had to do a round trip route, he was motivated to complete it as quickly as possible. This meant, to my dismay, that we were virtually racing through town. My heart was in my throat as we zigged and zagged around potholes, passed pedestrians, and dodged donkeys at a high speed. Hitting bumps on these dirt roads was inevitable so my body would bounce and my head would jar. I didn’t see the specific bump that caused the headache which I suffered the rest of the evening but I imagine it must have been a good 6 inches high.
Keeping with the cultural practice of women not touching men, I only had a thin metal bar on the back of the seat to hang on to, which I held so tightly that my hands were getting numb. There is one curved intersection that my driver leaned into at such an angle that I just couldn’t suppress a scream. When we came out of the turn, he shouted back, “You okay?” I was so relieved to have survived I reflexively shouted back “Yes!” but I think that only encouraged his throttle hand and, once completely vertical again, we lurched forward with increased speed.
As we neared the center of town, the wind started picking up. Other motorcycles, animals, and a few cars were also racing to their destinations to avoid the impending storm, which only increased the dust in the air. In my haste to get on the bike, I hadn’t put on my sunglasses and I just had to close my eyes to keep my contact lenses in and minimize the irritation to my eyes. The WEC station is on the other side of town and once we were about two thirds of the way, the rain started. Big drops smacked my face and if that wasn’t discouraging enough, the rain just spurred my driver on to a higher speed. No doubt he was more determined than ever to drop me off so that he could return to his own home for cover from the threatening deluge. We had to pass through two big dips in the road (called “wadis”) before we would then turn into the station gate just a half a mile beyond. We flew through those wadis, catching a little air on the way out of one and jarring hard before we entered the next one and repeated the same thing. Every bone in my body hurt as we finally turned into the station gate.
Once stopped and a little dazed, I raised my leg to dismount and stumbled off the bike, hurriedly thanking him for the ride so that he could get on his way. With a big smile, he waved goodbye and was off. I ran to my room for cover just as the rain started in full force. It rained so hard, I had to shout to tell others at the station about my harrowing ride home. After the adrenaline subsided, I paused to thank God for my safe arrival. The trip certainly didn’t do much to quell my reservations about hiring klandos for future transportation needs. But it did assure me that God is looking out for me, his hand of protection there just when I needed it. I learned later that the driver made it back home safely but very wet. God bless him. All fright aside, it was very nice of him to give me that ride home. I’ll have to find some way to thank him more fully for his kindness.
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I’m teaching two groups of students, about 20 in total. Each group meets three days a week. My students are just beginning at the intermediate level. This being the first time I have taught English, I’ll admit, I’m learning a thing or two about it, too. Having learned the language as a child, I tend not to think of it in grammatical terms. There has been more than one occasion when I’ve had to stop and think about the grammar rule before I could explain it, much less confirm a student’s answer.
I really enjoy teaching the students. It’s a wonderful way to get acquainted with the people. As a woman in Chad, I typically wouldn’t have the freedom to interact as directly with people, especially men. But as a teacher, it gives me a reason to interact and a role that allows more flexibility in social rules. And since French and Arabic are the common languages around here and I speak no French and only a little Arabic, it is a great way to find English speaking Chadians (or at least those who want to try). Students are so enthusiastic about learning that they prefer that I speak only English so I don’t even have to apologize for being mono-lingual.
In my classes, there have been multiple occasions when we’ve bent over in laughter as I try to pantomime new vocabulary words that defy verbal explanation. Imagine, how would you define the verb “to appear” to students with a limited vocabulary. I decided to step out of the room and then suddenly pop back in the room to “appear.” Or how would you define “jump?” They got a kick out of Ms. Stephens standing on a chair and jumping to the classroom floor. Or today, we were defining “famous” and I asked students to name some famous people. They replied with some obvious personalities such as the Chadian president and star athletes on the national soccer team. But to my surprise, one student offered up James Brown. Who would’ve guessed that this musical blast from rock and roll past would have reached audiences in Chad? To confirm we were talking about the same person, I did my best toe-tapping, finger snapping rendition of his famed “I Feel Good” chorus. I’m sure that will be the only time in my life that I will get applause for such a performance but we were indeed thinking of the same person.
While that little performance went over well, I’ve tried other tactics that didn’t. On one occasion, as I was explaining that the simple present tense is used to state a general truth, I offered the example, “God loves you.” Several of the students looked up at me with quizzical expressions. I elaborated. “He does. I know it’s true so we can use the simple present tense to say it.” The students weren’t getting it. Concerned that I would be overstepping bounds, I moved on to a different example and eventually conveyed the learning point to their satisfaction. But later I talked with the English Program Director about the students’ reaction. She explained that, for Muslims, God is not a loving god. They know him as a distant, uncaring, and judgmental entity, not the personal God of grace that we worship. Add to it, the word “love” is understood as a romantic feeling, not the unconditional caring that we Christians enjoy from our Creator and Redeemer. No wonder they were confused! What I hope and pray is that they’ll connect the dots of my successful and unsuccessful tactics to realize that the reason “I Feel Good” is because God loves me.” Amen.
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The classroom has provided a playground of new experiences for me. Learning the names of the students has been one of them. I‘ve never had a roster that presented so many unusual names: Zokaria, Zoulekha, Djaafar, Josias, Moustapha, Bakere, Rawa, Naore. Having name cards in front of each student is not the total solution as pronouncing the names can be a phonetic challenge.
Something else new is the way students snap their fingers to ask a question. Unlike American classrooms where we are taught to raise our hand and quietly wait for the teacher to call on us, Chadians raise their hands and snap their fingers multiple times until the teacher acknowledges them. Now you can imagine how the first occurrence of this would have raised my eyebrows just a bit. Fortunately, I defaulted to the possibility that this was a culturally driven behavior instead of choosing to “teach” Mr.-Snap-Your-Fingers how to request my attention. I’m used to it now and don’t even give it a second thought – but Thom, don’t get any ideas. ;-D
As most know, I’m a game lover — charades, pictionary, cards — I like them all. I haven’t been able to resist incorporating them into my classroom activities. During a review lesson I created a game that involved team competition. One team selected a slip of paper from Basket #1, which presented a verb. The other team selected a slip of paper from Basket #2 that presented the name of a verb tense (e.g., present progressive, simple present, or future, etc.). The first team would then need to form a sentence using the selected verb in the designated verb tense. If spoken correctly, the team would get a point. If not, then the other team had an opportunity to “steal” the point. Then teams would switch the baskets and repeat the process until all the verb tenses had been played. The team with the most points at the end of play won a prize, toffee bon bons that I had purchased at the market.
Before we got started, I told teams to determine a team name thinking that might kick off the competition with a little team spirit. To my surprise, students took on this initial task with intensity. Selecting their team name prompted several ideas among each team, which led to disagreements and an ultimate stalemate on a decision. Finally, the oldest or most respected student on the team decided the name, which, for most of the teams, was completely different than those put forward by the rest of the team. But, not to worry – in this culture, that’s the way things are done and none of the team members objected to the executive decision that bore no resemblance to their input. In the end, we had Liverpool vs. Sao (the name of the national soccer team) and Lions vs. Eagles.
However, this same approach was less comfortable for the Eagles when the game began. According to the rules that I had established, teams had 30 seconds to collaborate on an answer before they stated their “final answer.” Ahmat was one of the older and more respected members on his team and he would often raise his hand in the midst of his team’s deliberations to indicate that he would decide the matter at hand. I would call on him and ask, “Is this your team’s final answer?” Ahmat would shush his teammates’ protests that they were not ready. Out of respect, they would acquiesce and Ahmat would gather himself and very proudly state his answer. Unfortunately, it was usually something with an atrocious grammatical error like, “The boy did to go with the market yesterday.” Then he would slap his hand on the desk as if to say, “So be it!” and nod his head vigorously looking left, then right, his expression full of confidence and reassurance to his team that he had delivered a response that was surely correct. I hated to do it but I had to tell him (and his team) that the answer was not correct and he would always look at me like I was crazy. Then, according to the rules, the other team had the chance to steal the point by offering a response. More often than not, the other team, if only because they had the benefit of more time, would state the correct response and win the point. Ahmat’s team would groan in dismay. Ahmat would tilt his head slightly to acknowledge the lost point and then demand the next question with renewed authority, only to repeat the same flawed process once again. Needless to say, Ahmat’s Eagles lost badly. After class that day, Ahmat came up to me. “I like game.” He said. “You will play it again,” said as a command, not a question. “But the other team he take much too time. Zis is no fair.” I just smiled, nodded and wished him a good evening. Maybe I can make Ahmat the official timekeeper next time we play.
On the less lighthearted side of classroom life, most of the students are fasting for the Muslim (M) holiday of Ramadan, which means that they don’t eat or drink from sunrise to sunset. Understandably, this is very hard for the students as my class is held during the last few hours before they can break their fast for the day. During the first class I taught, two students left early complaining of headaches, probably due to mild dehydration. (It was a very hot day). And for those who stayed to the end of class, they weren’t shy about telling me they were anxious to go home. No doubt they were looking forward to feasting into the night to satisfy their hunger before the next day’s sunrise. (Food prices actually go up during this holiday as merchants take advantage of the feasting and partying that occurs each night). This means, by the time my students come to class at 4:00 pm., they are not only hungry again but tired from staying up the night before breaking their fast.
While most Chadians don’t really understand what they are doing or why, Ms fast to earn points to get into heaven. They believe that if they are diligent in their fasting, their prayers will be answered, their sins forgiven, and they will receive many blessings. It is taught that all Ms must fast unless they have a legitimate reason not to. (There are only a few acceptable reasons including serious illness or needing to travel. Women are not required to fast when menstruating, as they are considered unclean at that time. Even nursing or pregnant women must fast.) It is a very difficult time for them and irritabilities increase as the days progress. I tried fasting this week and I made it about 2 hours! (In my defense, I got nauseous because I had taken my malarial prophylaxis without food and it upset my stomach. But still that gnawing hunger for just two hours was no fun.) I don’t know how they do it. I’m so thankful that my faith doesn’t require me to jump through fasting hoops to be assured of my salvation. For it is by grace we have been saved, by faith, not from ourselves. It is a gift from God, not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8)
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A Touch of Homesickness
I was off to play volleyball at the orphanage on a Sunday afternoon. The previous Sunday, I had accepted the invitation to play from one of the German female workers from another organization. I had really enjoyed playing. The two of us had taken a spot on each team to fill out the two teams made up of friendly young Chadian men. Having not played volleyball in a while, I was relieved that I had played decently and gotten my serves over with some consistency. So this week, I was looking forward to a similar experience, this time heading to the game minus some first-timer jitters. “It should be fun,” I had mused.
This Sunday, I had decided to walk to the orphanage, which took about 30 minutes. Having left the station a little later than planned, I was in high power walk mode. Unlike last week, when I wore my Teva sandals and suffered some court traction problems, this week I was in my Reeboks, which would not only help me get there faster but also would improve my agility on the court. I even had on a more roomy long skirt this week, having struggled the previous Sunday to bend and pivot in the more A-line design that I had worn. This skirt was a lighter cotton, as well, so I would be cooler, too – a good thing since much of my body heat gets trapped in my headscarf and it needs an alternative escape route so I don’t melt. (Unfortunately, women should wear skirts and head scarves to conform to cultural norms around here so, with some dismay, I choose to wear them). My spirits were high as I stretched my stride and swung my arms to get a good aerobic workout before I arrived at my destination. This was going to be another fun 90 minutes of volleyball and I was ready.
As I walked, I couldn’t help but notice that people milling about the main street were staring at my feet. Everyone around here (men and women) wears sandals or flip flops. It’s a strange feeling anytime I leave the station and go out in public. The locals are always curious about me (or any other foreigner). Begging children often approach me hoping for a donation from what they assume is a rich foreigner. The sight of me pounding along in my Reeboks was, no doubt, unusual. My fellow workers who have been here a long time and have a pulse on the culture tell me this idea of power walking or walking for exercise is just not part of the norm around here. Nonetheless, I try to walk as often as I can to get my exercise. I’ve resigned myself that the sight of me marching around town to my various destinations is probably a bit of entertainment for the many people that shuffle slowly up and down the main street going about their daily shopping at the market. Today, as usual, a few shouted at me, “Nasara! Nasara!” (White person! White person!) Some greeted me in French. “Cava, Madame!” Others greeted me in Arabic, “Asalaam aleku!” And many stared at me like I was an alien. I admit, I felt even more conspicuous because my WHITE Reeboks were apparently glowing and attracting much attention. But I forged on. There was volleyball ahead and I was going to have fun.
When I arrived at the orphanage courts, I expected that the game would have already begun. It had, but I was surprised to see that there were many more players on the court than last week and a few extras watching, likely waiting their turn to rotate into the next game. And those few friendly young Chadian guys that I remembered from my first time and my German friend were all on one side this time playing big burly Eufor (European Forces) soldiers. The only woman soldier was off to the side smoking a cigarette and looking kinda tough. I walked past her and caught her eye hoping to share a friendly greeting. When our eyes met, she nodded her head slightly and snorted smoke out her nostrils. I smiled, gulped and decided against making conversation. Gosh I felt like a pansy in my cotton pink flowered long skirt next to Brunhilda in her camouflaged fatigues. Just then, in between volleys, my German friend shouted a quick hello to me. Her warm welcome reminded me that I was invited to play and so I shook off my reservations that I might not be welcome.
I turned my attention to the game. The Chadian team was holding their own and giving the Eufor team a run for their money. It wasn’t too long before the game was over and the players came off the court for a break. The Chadian team had won. Good for them! My German friend encouraged me to take her place for the next game. I hesitated, “You sure?” and she reassuringly shooed me on to the court. I took a back row spot and acquainted myself with the boundaries while my fellow teammates took their positions, as well. There were a few new faces on my team but some familiar ones that I had met last week, too. No one said “Hi!” but I figured that they all knew I didn’t speak French or much Arabic so why bother. I took comfort that we would soon be speaking the common language of bump, set, and spike and that was communication enough for me.
The referee blew his whistle and signaled the Eufor team to commence the game with the first serve. Gunnar (not his real name, but it sure fit him) tossed the ball up and forward, took two or three running steps, jumped, and sent the ball to the Chadian court coming directly at me. I braced myself but realized the ball had swerved high and to my right. I tried to adjust to get in better position to receive it but I was too late. The best I could do was stretch for it and take big step to the right to make contact. But my foot got stuck in my skirt, tipping me over so that I leaned precariously too far to recover. I fell with an audible splat, my legs splayed one way and my arms the other. At impact I felt my hip and knee take the brunt of the contact with the ground. Boy did that smart and so did my ego. There was nothing graceful or athletic about that effort at all. Tears threatened but I desperately didn’t want to cry so I stood up, laughed it off (in probably a slightly higher key than my normal laugh, I’m sure) and assured the one teammate who asked, that I was okay. Didn’t want anyone to think I was a wimp, for sure.
A little embarrassed at my effort, I resolved to do better. “Be ready, Alyson!” I coached myself. “You played well last week. You can do this!”
Gunnar sent his next serve straight into the net (thankfully) and it was side out. After a few short serves, volleys, and team rotations I was positioned in the front row. I remembered that this position required that, if at all possible, I should take the second hit of the three each team is allowed to set the hitters up for an offensive spike. I mentally prepared to hustle to it. Afterall, I had on my Reeboks. Surely I would exceed the performance of last week if for improved footwear alone!
Klaus (also not his real name but he looked like a Klaus to me) served a bomb to the back row and Ali on my team bumped it accurately to me in the front row. I took a couple steps toward it to optimize my position for the set when Amoudaye suddenly collided with me. Apparently he had the same idea even though it wasn’t his ball to hit. His momentum knocked the breath out of my lungs. It seemed someone turned the light down and then back up slowly as I gasped for air. Having lost the point, my team was readying for the next serve but I made the “time-out” sign with whatever strength I could summon to gain a few more recovery moments. Eliki asked. “You okay?” I could only nod silently since one needs air in one’s lungs to speak.
I took a quick look around at my teammates hoping for some encouragement but suddenly none of them resembled the friendly young Chadians that I had played with last week. It seemed that all the Mr. Nice Guys had been replaced with nostril flaring ogres fired up with competitive fervor to defeat the Eufor team. “Hmm,” I thought. “This may not be as fun as I had hoped.” I considered for a moment that I should leave the court but, then my wind returned – a second wind – and I decided I wouldn’t be deterred. Just as in softball, after dropping fly balls or making fielding errors, you just need to shake it off and get your head back into the game. So be it!
The rest of the game progressed but I felt myself holding back. My hip was throbbing, my knee tender. I probably missed a few bumps and sets because I was gun-shy about having another collision. And not surprisingly, my teammates started playing into my court position, likely skeptical that I could do anything right given my clumsy, crashing, and colliding performance of the afternoon. They set the ball anywhere but my direction and soon I was just a body on the court, a placeholder. This was no fun.
I sat out the next game to let my German friend play the next. Did I mention that she had a black eye, which I learned later was earned during the mid-week game she played among the same cast of characters? Though she had invited me to that one, hindsight confirmed that I had been saved by my concurrent English class schedule. I guess God was looking out for me. But, given my recent bumps and bruises, it felt a bit as if Sunday was His day off on that job.
I played one more game enduring the same placeholder status and then everyone called it a match and turned for home. My German friend gave me and three of the Chadian guys a ride home. (It isn’t advisable for a woman to walk alone near dusk so this woman doesn’t). They all chatted in French and Arabic about who knows what and I felt excluded. Though it was a short ride home, my hip and knee had already started to stiffen up by the time we arrived at the station. I got out of the car slowly, said thanks, waved goodbye, and slipped into the station gate.
I felt a little relieved to be back. But at the same time, I felt defeated. Perfectly aware that it was just a silly volleyball game – not even the point of my being here in Chad – I still felt glum at the sour outcome of the afternoon. My body ached and, once inside my room, I checked my hip and knee to confirm their respective purple knots.
I longed to tell Thom what happened because he knows me well.
I lamented my poor volleyball play and yearned for encouraging words like those that my church softball team shares when I goof up.
I craved the easy and accepting fellowship of my friends and family.
I was tired of feeling like such an oddity in Abeche and longed to walk around without feeling conspicuous in a nice comfortable pair of shorts and tank top instead of the yards of full dress fabric and head scarves.
I was bummed and, to make matters worse, I was bummed that I was bummed.
Miserable, a small voice said, “Alyson, you’re homesick. You had better pray.” I sat at the desk in my room and thanked God for all the things at home that I was missing – acknowledging their blessing in my life. Philippians 4:19 came to mind. “My God will meet all of my needs.”
I told God I wished I was home in my familiar surroundings. Psalm 139, verses 9 and 10 came to mind. “If I ride on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me. Your right hand will hold me fast.”
I told God I didn’t want to be homesick anymore and needed happier thoughts. Philippians 4:8 rang in my ears. “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things.”
I left the dissatisfaction of the afternoon at God’s feet and said “Amen.” I needed a shower and food. Onward and upward. "I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength." (Philippians 4:13)
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Ministry Partners Around the Globe
I accompanied a team member on a visit to a local Chadian pastor. In fact, he is a pastor ordained with the Lutheran church, in a synod that shares our tradition in its history and development but is not currently affiliated with the ELCA. As is typical when one visits a Chadian home, we arrived and went through the lengthy greeting process. We met his wife, his son, and his associate pastor (who had just arrived the day before from a southern Chad town). Four of us sat on his verandah while his son and wife prepared Chaii (pronounced “shy-ee”), a very sweet hot tea, to serve us. Once that was served we settled into conversation. The pastor was Chadian and spoke French and Arabic, only, so the plan was for my teammate to translate for me so I could participate in the conversation and understand what was said.
I had heard that his church had purchased some property in a Muslim (M) part of town and was planning some kind of outreach project there so I asked about what was planned. He explained that they were considering a school or a medical clinic. Either would be staffed with Christian (C) teachers or health care workers that would seek to establish relationships with Ms in that neighborhood – all with the intention of laying a foundation for sharing the Gospel.
He asked what tactics we use in America to reach people with the Gospel. I told him how my church has a preschool that was established to serve the needs of the community, which has a high percentage of unchurched. The idea of establishing education-related ministries was a common strategy—offering education based in Christian values builds bridges to families.
I also shared how we are expanding our congregation’s ministry to a different “neighborhood,” by establishing a second worship center in a nearby town. He responded with his vision for using the school or medical clinic in a nearby M neighborhood as a means to establish a small group of M background believers (MBBs) who would become the core of a new church body. Our conversation drifted to sharing other ideas and challenges of ministry: working with limited resources, identifying a clear vision, nurturing strong leadership, and having a boldness to go forward were shared themes. I was impressed with how our work, though accomplished at opposite ends of the world, was so similar. It was easy to feel like I was talking with a partner in common ministry and I really enjoyed the visit.
Later in the week, I attended a MBB worship service. These are believers who have converted from the M religion to C. Most have suffered significant persecution for their decision including family rejection, beatings, and threats on their lives. Held on the verandah of the MBB pastor’s home, the service had more of an intimate Bible study session than the typical worship service I’m used to. There were about 20 people and we sat on mats around the perimeter, men on one side, women on the other. The pastor shared a meditation and then we sang a few songs. People shared prayer requests and praises and then everyone bowed their heads, each person praying simultaneously in a quiet whisper before God. Afterward, everyone shook hands to greet each other and enjoyed a time of fellowship.
Having shared my observations about the different worship style, I learned from the WEC team that one of the important aspects of church planting in an unreached region is to avoid overlaying cultural traditions and social practices of western culture on the new believer communities that form. To avoid dependency and promote growth of a new body, it needs to reflect the culture of its members. So the look and feel of the MBB worship strongly reflected that principle.
For example, today’s outreach teams encourage new believers to incorporate their own style of music into their worship services rather than adopt the western traditional hymns. It is much better for people to sing praises with rhythms and melodies from their culture. When I visited another church here in Abeche, one that has been around a long time and had a stronger influence of “old school” outreach teams, I could recognize a completely different spirit amongst the worshippers when they were singing songs written in a style inherent to their culture and history as compared to western hymns that missionaries had taught them. A Mighty Fortress is Our God sounded like a dirge next to their heartfelt rendition of Barak Allah (May God Bless) sung in tribal melody and cadence.
The WEC team promotes a worship service grounded in scriptural principles and cultural norms. Rather than conforming to our western tradition of a one-hour service (give or take a few minutes), worship can last for two to four hours understanding that some travel quite a way to attend and the people need ample time to inform, learn, praise, tithe, commune, pray, and fellowship together in their new faith.
My thoughts went to our second site ministry and our desire to expand the outreach to new members, perhaps the unchurched. I wondered if there is more we can do to approach that ministry in ways that attract those we hope to draw in.
--If we want to draw new people into the body, how do we evolve to invite them effectively?
--If our hope is to attract new people, have we anticipated their needs to enable their participation?
--If our desire is to worship with a body that reflects the demographics of the area, have we shaped the worship (e.g., times, styles, message focus) to be a comfortable fit?
--If our music ministry seeks to speak to the hearts of the new community, what style would do that most effectively?
The questions are many and the answers are not easy. Seeing the careful thought and planning that goes into it here in Chad emphasizes their importance back at home.
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A Trip to the Market
Each noon and evening someone on the team prepares the meal. There’s a rotating schedule among us and my day is Thursday. The task involves planning the meal, shopping at the open-air market for the necessary ingredients, preparing and cooking the meal, and washing the dishes. Probably sounds no different than home except for a few details.
- Most everything is cooked from scratch and the prepared ingredients in my recipe favorites are not available here.
- None of the vendors at the market speak English.
- All produce must be washed carefully in bleached water.
- The kitchen has about a 12-inch by 12-inch surface for preparation.
- There is no dishwasher—I am the dishwasher!
All that said, I’m a team player and I was determined to take my turn during the week. The first couple of weeks, one of my teammates took me to the market. Basically, they did the shopping, interacting in Arabic with the market women selling their goods while I tagged along. But I was regretfully aware that this was taking team members’ time and energy – I wanted to support their efforts, not require them. And on Thursday of my third week in Abeche, everyone was occupied and unable to take me so they arranged for Zanuba, one of the Chadian women who comes to do laundry for the team, to go with me. I stood along side one of the team members as she explained to Zanuba what they needed her to do. Zanuba doesn’t speak English and I speak very little Arabic but it didn’t take much for me to recognize her reluctance. It reminded me of elementary school times when a new student arrived mid-semester and the teacher decided to assign one of the classmates as her “buddy.” The lucky student selected for the “honor” usually accepted the role reluctantly realizing that the new kid was going to cramp her style like a ball and chain. Who wanted to spend time escorting the newbee around when there was tetherball, foursquare, and hopscotch to play? Nonetheless, Zanuba agreed, likely as flummoxed as I was about how this could possibly work. We had been partnered for the task yet she couldn’t talk to me nor I to her.
Fortunately, we were both saved from the non-verbal collaboration when one of the English-speaking team member’s schedule changed and she was able to accompany me. However, the aborted plan spawned a strong desire in me to be more independent. I resolved that I would go by myself the next time. “Grocery shopping isn’t rocket science,” I chided myself. So as I tagged along during what I decided would be my last accompanied trip to the market. I paid close attention to how things were done, what prices were paid, and where everything was located in the open air market. Sometimes foreigners pay higher prices because vendors take advantage of their ignorance of reasonable prices. (There are no price tags. Rather, the market vendors inform you of the price.) I wanted to be knowledgeable and ready for my next trip . . . alone.
When the next week’s market run came around, I announced that I would go by myself. Team members generously offered their time to accompany me but I refused it, determined to make it a solo run. My plan was to teach an English class from 9:00 to 10:30 and then walk home, stopping at the market, which is on the way. I packed my Reeboks in my backpack, along with the household grocery money, and my list complete with items in English and Arabic and notes on reasonable price ranges for each. Equipped for the task, I left for English class.
Following class, I replaced my flip flop sandals with my Reeboks, put on my headscarf and marched down the road toward the market. It was about 11:00 in the morning and the heat of the day was rising, I estimate to about 90 degrees. I would have liked to get a good aerobic walk in for the 15 minutes or so to the market but the heat discouraged it. As it was, I could feel a steady trickle of sweat running down my back since my backpack was trapping some of my body heat. Didn’t want to arrive at the market drenched and spent.
I kept my mind off the rising heat and dust in my path by silently rehearsing requests.
- Nidoor nus kilo safi. (I need one-half kilo boneless meat).
- Da be kam? (How much is it?)
- Nidoor banana. Tamane. (I need eight bananas).
- Achera hoopsa. Sakyhra. (10 small buns)
Then I went over the money language. On this I concentrated carefully because it is very complicated. Chadian money is the Central African Franc, CFA for short. The bills come in denominations of 500, 1000, 2000, 5000 and 10000. The first challenge for me was getting used to spending amounts with that many zeros. I have to keep reminding myself that 5000 CFA is really only about $10 US.
But this is only one of the money-related challenges. The most complicated aspect is that when a vendor states a price, they don’t refer to these CFA denominations. Stemming back to a different monetary system called “riyaals,” vendors use the related language. Thus the stated price doesn’t resemble at all the quantity on the printed bill. For example, if the vendor states a price of “miya,” which translated actually means 100, you must do quick mental math to determine the actual CFA amount. You multiply “miya” times five to arrive at the equivalent CFA quantity. So miya means you hand over 500 CFA. Another example . . . If the vendor says the price is miyateen, which actually means 200, then one actually pays 1000 CFA, 200 times 5. You’re probably getting the idea but now imagine doing that with figures that don’t multiply so easily by 5 while other Chadian customers jostle you to reach their selections and cars and motorbikes whiz by just a few feet away and boys are staring at you with their small bowls outstretched begging for spare coin. Not at all a low pressure theater for this can’t-do-math-in-your-head-challenged shopper.
Feeling a headache coming on, I switched from rehearsing mental math to practicing my greetings. I was almost to the market and even though I would have preferred to save time and stick to business, it would still be necessary that I greet the women in the market with the expected lengthy Chadian greetings. The market was filled with women selling their goods and each one that I would do business with would expect an appropriate greeting before I got down to business.
Once at the market, my first task was to get the meat. I stepped into the meat market area, a long building with slabs of meat hanging from the ceiling and carving tables set up in front of them. I tried not to look around too much because I’m used to selecting my meat from an orderly stack of cellophane-wrapped packages in a chilled cooler and this was a far cry from that cleanly forum. Carcasses looked . . . well like carcasses, flies were everywhere, the air was still and certainly not refrigerated. Fortunately the meat guy I was told to go to had his table set up just inside the door. When I approached, he was serving someone else but eventually he looked up and seemed to recognize me, probably as that newcomer that had come with the familiar long-term teammate who had escorted me the last time.
His eye contact was my cue. I initiated the greeting process, quite please with myself that I did it fairly smoothly and confidently. We went back and forth telling each other how well we were before I finally stated my request. “Nidoor nus kilo safi.” (I need one-half kilo of meat). He went straight to carving, weighing, and wrapping my half-kilo of boneless meat in a black plastic bag. I worked hard at ignoring the fact that he had just handled the previous customer’s money and then my meat without washing his hands as I have found that these observations are not helpful to one’s peace of mind here in Chad. Then he handed me the bag. I thanked him, wished him well, and promptly turned to go on my way. I took about five steps out the door and suddenly realized with alarm that I had forgotten to pay him. I rushed back. One-half kilo always costs miyateen so I hastily gave him the 1000 CFA bill that I had already removed from my wallet even before entering the meat market. He laughed heartily at my mistake. Grateful for his sense of humor, I apologized, said goodbye again, and left the meat market for the next stop. . . the meat grinder lady.
This woman had always welcomed the other, long-term team members warmly and I was relieved that she treated me the same. I greeted her properly at some length, bumbled through answering some questions that I assumed inquired about my fellow team members because I heard her say their names. Whatever she asked, my answer was “aiwa” (yes) so who knows with what I concurred. Then I handed her the meat and some onions. Niftily, she grinds your meat with any onions, peppers, and spices that you might provide. Sure beats chopping the stuff yourself! However, since the grinder isn’t cleansed between grindings, if the meat that has been ground before yours included any herbs and spices, then yours was likely to share the same flavorful benefits. And yes, if the previous grinding was chicken, then you are likely to have some residual chicken in your beef. As instructed, I left the beef and onions with her while I moved on to do the rest of my shopping. I would come back later to pick it up and pay for her services.
Next, I wanted to get some canned goods at one of the shops around the perimeter of the market. I greeted the proprietor of a small shop with some confidence and then browsed the shelves for the canned items I wanted. Once I found them I approached the register and asked how much my few items cost. “Da be kam?” This was a moment of truth because, unlike in the meat market where I already knew exactly how much a half-kilo of beef cost, I had no idea what would be the total cost of my armful of cans. (Remember that the items display no price tags). Poised to do the multiplication, I listened as the shopkeeper said, “Mhfmhfwashn.” It went by fast and I had no clue. I asked him to repeat it. “Gulah betaan” (say it again), I said. So he did. “Mhfmhfwashn.” I blinked still clueless. I asked him to repeat it once more, but slower. “Gulah betaan be raha” (Say it again slowly). To my dismay, he repeated it in the same unenunicated, speedy cadence. I was stumped but not wanting to let on I decided to fake understanding. I handed him a 1000 CFA bill hoping it would cover the purchase. He shook his head. Obviously, it cost more than that. So I added another 1000 CFA note. Wrong, still not enough. Desperate, I asked him to repeat the price once again. “Mhfmhfwashn.” I resigned that it was hopeless, took out a bill of the largest denomination, handed it over, and resigned the accuracy of the transaction to the shopkeeper. He deftly made change, handed it to me and turned his attention to the next customer. I stepped out of the shop suddenly aware of how wet my armpits were. “Relax, Alyson,” I told myself. “You can do this.”
After situating the canned goods in my backpack, I straightened my shoulders and moved on to the vegetable row. Several ladies, all selling basically the same assortment of vegees, sat on mats behind their produce looking at the approaching foreigner. To my dismay, this transaction would likely have a rapt audience curious to see how this “nasara” (foreigner) handles herself. (Not many foreigners do their own shopping in the market but rather opt to have their Chadian househelp do it for them. The WEC team purposely and admirably deviates from that norm as part of their commitment to relationship-building.) Determined, I raised my hands and greeted them all as a group. Several replied warmly and we went back and forth about a minute to complete our greetings.
That done, potatoes were next on my list so I went to one of the ladies with several piles of potatoes in front of her and made my request. “Khamsa bumbeteer” (five potatoes). She repeated my request. I confirmed it with “Aiwa” (yes). Then she spoke in an urgent tone to the woman next to her. In response, the woman came over to her. The next few seconds were a flurry of activity as they gathered some plastic bags and exchanged rapid-fire Arabic. I watched, not at all sure why a request for five potatoes would cause such a stir. The theater of onlooking ladies started chattering, too. Next thing I knew, the two ladies were tossing potatoes in the bags, three and four at a time. In no time they had at least 15 potatoes bagged and they were still loading. I waved my hands for them to stop. “La, la, la” (no, no, no), I said in a confused panic. I knelt down and picked up five potatoes, one at a time, counting out loud so they hopefully would understand. “Wahid (one), tineen (two), talata (three), arba (four), wa (and) khamsa (five). Khalaas! (That’s all!). Khamsa bumbeteer, bas (Five potatoes, only).” The women looked at each other apparently surprised that this was all I wanted. I surmised that somehow they had misunderstood my request. Anxious to complete the transaction, I asked for the price. To my relief, I understood the amount, paid and went on my way.
The whole potato scene shook my confidence further but I consoled myself that I had at least come away with the right amount of potatoes for a reasonable price. I counted it as success and was stuffing my change in my purse when four young boys approached me holding small bowls forward. “Sile, Madame?” (Coins Mrs.?) I responded with the reply that I had been taught, which was supposed to politely turn them away. “Allah yafta leku. Barak Allah.” (May God provide and bless you). To my dismay, the boys didn’t leave but instead pushed their bowls forward, insisting on coin. I repeated the reply focusing on my pronunciation hoping to clarify my statement. No luck, they persisted. Unsure what else I could do I just pushed my way forward past them. But they followed. Then an elderly woman, apparently intending to come to my rescue started yelling at the boys in Arabic. Her harsh tone and shooing gestures told me she meant business. Though I winced at the technique I was glad for the help. The boys scattered on her command. “Chukran,” I said to the woman to thank her. "Afwan" (You're welcome), she replied.
I moved on to buy just a couple more fruits and vegetables, thankfully, without any problems, checked my shopping list and was pleased to see I had purchased everything but the soap and insecticide. I had planned to buy those items at a store closer to the WEC station so I zipped up by backpack heavy with my purchases and started to head home. Feeling the weight tugging on my back I contemplated how in the world Chadian women carried their market purchases home on their heads. Right in the middle of that thought I remembered that I hadn’t picked up my meat from the grinder lady. I hustled back to her grinding station and she greeted me just as enthusiastically as the first time. In spite of my growing fatigue, I mirrored her enthusiasm through another round of greetings. She eventually handed me the meat. I thanked her and turned to go. I had taken but one or two steps when she shouted after me. I turned to see her holding up some coins to remind me I hadn’t paid her. Ugh! I’m nothing if I’m not consistent. I returned to her, giving her the 200 CFA she had earned. "Samini," (Sorry) I apologized for my forgetfulness. Her good nature prevailed. "Amchi afe!" she said wishing me well as I left the market.
A half a mile down the road I came to the shop where I would buy the remaining items. Teammates had told me that the shop proprietor’s name was Taha and that, if I introduced myself to him and identified myself as being a friend of Eliki’s, our respected WEC team leader, that Taha would certainly take good care of me and see to it that I got what I needed at a good price.
As I entered the shop, I greeted the man behind the counter and assumed he was Taha. I introduced myself, “Usmi Alyson” (My name is Alyson). To establish my association with WEC and Eliki early, I continued. “Ana be WEC wa hana Eliki” (I am with WEC and know of Eliki). Taha nodded uncertainly but nodded nonetheless. I assumed my message was accomplished and so began to shop as Taha watched me browse in his small shop. After a few moments of browsing, I asked Taha where I might find soap. “Nidoor sabuun.” (I need soap). To my embarrassment, Taha pointed to the shelf directly in front of me at eye level. I would have to be blind not to have seen it. A little embarrassed, my flustered state prompted me to sniff the soap and invite him to smell it, too. “Semeh” (Good), I said as I lifted it near his nose and encouraged him to sniff. He hesitated and then took a whiff, smiling with visible discomfort. I gathered that he wasn’t in the habit of sniffing his merchandise with his customers. (Who would be?!?!) Nerves can make you do the dumbest things sometimes.
Refocusing on the task at hand, I began to look for insecticide. As far as I could see, it was nowhere to be found but, after my last I-must-be-blind request, I didn’t want to ask Taha until I was absolutely certain it wasn’t right in front of me or even in my peripheral view. Checking and rechecking, I finally relented and asked him for the brand name. “Nidoor Total Insecticide.” I was so glad to see that he had to reach up, around, and beyond something to locate it. It was a valid question afterall. With my shopping complete, we settled up on the purchases. I was too spent to put my brain into the math of this transaction so I just handed him 10000 CFA bill and trusted he would do me right. He gave me my change, I thanked him, added the items to my backpack, and turned to finish the trek home.
I arrived at the station, washed my produce in bleach water, and put away the other items. Phew! I was hot and tired from the adventure and thought about sitting down to relax. I checked my watch. No time. I needed to begin preparations for lunch. I drank a glass of water and hunkered down to make the meal.
An hour or so later, lunch was ready and my teammates gathered around to eat. They asked me how things went at the market and I recounted my foibles and successes. In the course of my debrief, I learned that potatoes are sold in piles. When one requests the quantity, it should be in terms of piles, not individual potatoes. So I had actually requested five piles of potatoes, or about 25 to 30 potatoes. Thus the flurry of activity was the women’s attempt to quickly package my sizeable order. Mystery solved. Live and learn.
The team shared in my happiness about having achieved this personal milestone in my short-term mission. Wanting to thank them for training me for success, I shared that I had taken their advice and introduced myself to Taha in Arabic, as well as announced my affiliation with Eliki. “What did you say?” one of them asked. I repeated my words said to Taha, “Usmi Alyson” (My name is Alyson). Ana be WEC wa hana Eliki” (I am with WEC and know of Eliki). To my surprise, they burst into laughter. I had to wait a good minute before any of them could compose themselves to explain. Apparently, the phrase I had used to state my affiliation with Eliki actually inferred that I was Eliki’s wife. Oops. That might be acceptable according to Muslim standards where multiple wives for a man is the norm but it would be quite an admission on this CHRISTIAN team . . . since Taha knows Eliki already has a wife! I realized then that sniffing soap wasn’t the only unusual thing that I had shared with Taha during my visit in his store. “No worries, Alyson,” team members assured me. “We’ll sort it out with Taha next time we see him. He’ll get a chuckle out of it.” (Sigh!)
Though the debrief over lunch refined my feelings of success, I was still pleased. In spite of the few missteps, I felt good about my first solo trip. I had shopped at the market all by myself in Abeche . . . in Chad . . . in Africa . . . where nobody speaks English, only Arabic. A cherished feeling of independence and achievement flooded over me. (I wished Zanuba would have seen me do it.) I did it! Yes! Who knew grocery shopping could be so fulfilling?!?!
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Sights and Sounds of Abeche
As I near my departure, I sometimes sit and just take in the sights and sounds of Abeche. It is a town of interesting visual and aural contrasts. There are the images of the long ago blended with the sounds and sights of modern machinery and the timeless melodies and rhythms of life in any community and even a dash of rural life. Let me give you some examples.
Most people here are dressed in what I would think of as biblical time fashions, the men in their jalabias (long sleeved dresses with pants underneath) and the women in their lafais (wraps from head to foot) and headscarfs. Left to my imagination, you would almost expect to see Jesus and the twelve disciples walking down the street in similar garb. Women ride donkeys to the market just like Mary rode the donkey into Bethlehem to birth the baby Jesus. Nomads, with their heads wrapped in turbans, come through town on their camels with a herd of them following behind bringing the story of the three wise men to mind. From a fashion perspective, it seems like I've traveled back in time.
Yet the ever-present transportation vehicle noise confirms that I am in fact in the present day. Big "busses" rumble by throughout the day with their engines racing in a downshift roar. They're called busses but they are actually these big trucks that carry people and cargo piled high. (See the attached bus picture). Today several military vehicles and tanks vibrated the ground in my house for about 5 minutes straight as they thundered by our gate, their turrets pointed forward and gunmen riding on top. Tonight from about 5:00 to 8:00 there were helicopters and planes taking off perpetually at the nearby military base airport. And I can't forget the gunshots that woke me at 1:30 a.m. a couple nights ago. I counted six consecutive shots. Rumor has it that someone was murdered over some neighbors' dispute about an unpaid debt.
Then there are the times when, if I close my eyes and listen, the sounds take me right back to a suburban neighborhood in the US. You always hear kids shouting, screaming, and laughing as if there is an elementary school playground just down the street. The surrounding neighborhood has many families, many with one husband, up to four wives each expected to bear children every two years per the Muslim tradition. Occasionally, you'll hear women greeting each other across the roadway, their high voices shouting out friendly hellos in Arabic abba dabba babble. Sometimes the guards here on the station play a radio and, if I didn't know better, I would think there was a neighbor in their driveway next door listening to the radio as they wash their car on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Or, when the station gate is opened for an arriving visitor, the ka-chunk of the security bar sounds just like a heavy garage door opening to release a soccer mom and her mini-van full of kids.
At night, I can lay in my bed and the sound of crickets singing is just like a summer night in Arizona City. Then, just when I've convinced myself I'm back home, a rooster will crow, a goat will baa, and a donkey will sound off with a hideous bray taking you right to the heart of farmland. But there is no replicating the periodic call to prayer that resounds from the town mosques. Islam is ever-present here. As early as 5:00 in the morning, the fakis (pronounced fah-kees) man the public address system installed in each mosque tower to announce the time for first prayer of the day. Then, throughout the day and into the evening, you can be sure to hear the melodic, repetitive chanting of the Koran, an audio backdrop to daily activity and, finally, the sunset.
It's amazing -- this place is so interesting to look at and listen to. What a privilege it has been to see and hear it all!
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