I had the unique experience of getting to visit Arusha this week for an Evangelism conference for leaders of the Tanzanian United Methodist Church. This leadership included the District Superintendents, Missionaries, and Men’s and Women’s chairpersons. I will just go ahead and say that I … Continue reading Once Again
I am working towards a very intimate relationship with dust, vumbi. I walk a lot, most people do, sure there’s other transportation but my momma already paid for my legs. I am learning how to put my head down when a car passes to minimize inhaling the small particles, I am learning to walk quickly past the burning trash piles, and I know what color to expect when I sneeze. Dust cannot be avoided. Dust hides in the creases of my jeans, it sticks to the fibers of my hair (little of it that there is), and it never leaves the undersides of my fingernails. Even as I sit here in the office, the open doors look out onto a dusty red street and I hope the wind blows away from me, or I will have to sweep all the dust out of the office again, which I have done once already this morning. When I return to my home after a day of walking, my feet are stained a reddish brown, and real scrubbing must occur to remove the dust. Being a person of great visible difference from the majority of my colleagues and friends here, I receive well-meaning attention both for the visible collection of dust on my body and for the lack of skin care products appropriate for maintaining my skin. There is a greater occurrence of acne on my face and arms because of the dust, which people are very willing to notice and worry about (I would much rather pretend it wasn’t there at all). And while we all possess the same insides, Vaseline does much less good for my outsides than most others here who use it as lotion, hair oil, lip balm, and probably instead of Tylenol.
On Ash Wednesday we wait in line to receive a glob of dirt on our faces. It is special dirt; it is ashes, usually from the Palm Sunday palms of the previous year. It is dirt that is particularly black, it is very fine, it smudges well, but not so well that it falls onto carefully pressed white collared shirts or dry-clean only dresses. Ashes are clean dirt. Ashes are a way for us, at least for a day, to wear on the outside a part of our faith that is very difficult to admit. It represents the part where we mess up. It is when we get to talk about the fact that as humans we think we know. So we act. And only after acting do we realize that we did not know, that we were wrong, or that we knew but did it anyway. Ashes remind us that bodies are just bodies when the life is gone. And that a Black teen murdered by a cop becomes the same earth as the body of an old woman who died peacefully in her bed, as the body of a victim of a school shooting, as the body of a soldier shipped home in a casket. We wear ashes to remember and learn. We remember how we asked, “what were you wearing?” because that was easier than admitting that person whom we respect is hurting people. We learn that they kept hurting people because we refused to listen. We learn that even in repenting, and knowing we are forgiven, time does not reverse. A life that leaves a body does not return, spoken words cannot be unspoken, a country will have always been colonized. We remember that it is not God’s job to fix our mistakes.
We pour all of our guilt, all of our icky feelings and regrets into the fire that burns the ashes just as we dumped colorful sugar on braided cinnamon bread the day before. By submerging these feelings in the cleansing flames, and wearing the remainder of them, the ashes, on our foreheads, we are finally able to say the things in our hearts. We can say “yes, I did that thing, I didn’t even know I was doing it.” The miracle of Ash Wednesday is the fire, the purging of the good and the bad- for we should neither rest on our laurels nor wallow in guilt of past wrongs. The ashes are a covenant with God. God promises reconciliation of the past and of our mistakes to come, we must only press on. We must press on even though we only hear anger or fear or hurt in the people whom we may hope for reconciliation; but our responsibility is to each other, our reconciliation is with God.
While Ash Wednesday is one day and Lent is one season to make these reflections, we must wear the dust, the vumbi, every day. Lent is the start, the training wheels. The structure of a church service and a resolution to be mindful each day are our helmet and kneepads. For the road is rocky. We fall, we remember when we fell before, and we will fall again. The question is will we get back on the bike. The road is dusty. The dust settles in the creases of our jeans, it sticks to the fibers of our hair, it clings to the undersides of our fingernails; it takes real scrubbing to remove all of it. Will we go outside anyway? In a world where there may not be the right lotion or the right shampoo to be fully cleansed, will we accept the dust anyway?
Wear your dust with pride today, then wash it off and prepare for the dust tomorrow, there will be dust tomorrow.
In Revelations, it is written that God is “the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” I assumed that meant that God was also in the things in between. Having graduated from a university with an extensive Greek system, I am aware that there are more than two letters in the Greek alphabet. A recent trip I took to Mwanza has given me a new vision of Alpha and Omega.
I went to Mwanza for a funeral, while there, a baby was born. The funeral should have happened the day I arrived in Mwanza, an ending at the beginning of my trip. However, it did not happen till the night before I left. In fact, my trip was longer because I was waiting for the service.
Upon arrival, instead of being immersed in the stressful and heartbreaking preparations of a grieving family preparing their final goodbyes, I was enlisted to help with the stressful and heartbreaking preparations of a swiftly coming baby. Except the baby took its time, took too long. It is not always clear who knows most about giving birth. Is it the doctor? Is it the Mama to be? Is it the plethora of murmuring Mamas and Bibis that crowd and worry around the expectant mother?
Well the baby came finally, an end to waiting, a beginning of discovery and growth. But babies are so delicate, they are indeed life and lively, but death lingers for a while in the doorway, ready to slip in at the darkest part of the night. Baby is fine, and with each small intake of breath in this new world she is stronger. Would Mama be okay though? How does such a blessed beginning of a life change by the possibility of a different life ending? Mama’s life? How does it feel when the doctor, who should be the secure passage of new life into this world, also bears the dark shadow of death?
So we held our breath, we gathered experience and wisdom, we talked, we prayed. We prayed for the new life, we prayed to keep the life that lay drained and exhausted, fragile as her small child. I came to Mwanza for one funeral; I did not intend to go to two.
Mama and baby are both well and healthy, but I shouldn’t say that death did not touch the family, for death is in fear, and there was much fear. The funeral was sad, it was an end, and people carried on as people must. When the sound went out, the choir kept singing, food came from somewhere, an alley between houses became a sanctuary. There is worry and stress about the future, but the fear is past. I have yet to hear of a person who’s fear is vested in something already done, The fear comes with anticipation, with waiting. There are hard times for this mourning family, but the sting of death, like a mosquito bite, is faded. Where, O Death, is now thy sting?
I came to Mwanza for a funeral, while there, a baby was born. Each thread of life has a beginning and end. It is the weaving together, the patterns, the designs that lead us each from our beginning to our end. Karibu. Welcome.
In our end is our beginning,
in our time, infinity;
in our doubt there is believing,
in our life, eternity,
in our death, a resurrection,
at the last, a victory,
unrevealed until its season,
something God alone can see.
(Hymn of Promise, v. 3)
To cut up a pineapple you must first go and find a pineapple. So you and your roommate Cynthia go to the market, well, markets because you can’t just have pineapple for dinner you also need cabbage, onions, carrots, pili pili peppers, and tomatoes (kabati, vitunguu, carroti, pili pili, na nyanya). Oh and you need bread for breakfast. That is at least three different stops. So when you finally get to the kibanda with the good pineapples, you are already longing for the light sweet flavor. To pick a good one is easy, just run your hand along the bottom of each pineapple in the mound and find the one that is leaking. That is the one you will take home.
So you buy your leaking pineapple for elfu mbili tano (about $1.00), put it in your bag with the other foods for dinner and head home. When you get home you must lay out all of the buckets and sufurias you will need to cook dinner, and for the pineapple of course. You fill one bucket with tap water or rain water (it doesn’t have to be boiled because everything will be cooked or peeled. You throw all your veggies in the bucket to wash. You can also peel them over the water, keeping all the mess in the bucket and your knife clean. As the carrots, peppers, tomato, and onion are peeled and chopped you throw them in to another sufuria. The cabbage, which you bought already chopped in the market, is in another bowl soaking. While your roommate heats the oil to cook the veggies and cabbage, you set to work on the pineapple, it was your idea in the first place.
As if it knew the monstrous task ahead of you, the power shuts off just as you kneel down to make your first cut. So, you put down the knife and look for your flashlight; you then spend several minutes in debate with your roommate about what is the best angle to rest it so you can both see what you are doing. Compromise is tough when pineapples are involved. Eventually you settle on a position and resume the task of cutting. The good news is the woman who sold you the pineapple pulled the top off for you (with her bare hands!) so you don’t have to do that part. Now the tricky part is in the organization. You don’t have a cutting board, just a pot, a towel, and a knife. So to buy more time you wash it in the rainwater but then realize it is rainwater and have to find a way to dry it off quickly. It’s okay though, during the distraction you’ve figured out your plan. First you cut it into fourths, place three of them on the towel and peel the fourth in the bowl with the knife. You do the same to the other three.
After the second one, the power turns back on so you must wipe your hands and run to plug all of your electronics in so that they will be charged enough for the next time the power cuts out. After that you kneel down and peel the other two quarters. You dig around under the sink for a clean plate, when you find one, you slice the pineapple quarters long ways and let them fall into the bowl. Now your pineapple is cut, but you must put the pineapple debris in a bag and deposit it into the communal garbage can outside. Then return and wash your hands. Dinner will not be ready quite yet, and you do not have a refrigerator, so there is nothing stopping you from digging in! Oh, but you should probably share with your roommate, oh and the little girl next door would love some, and her mom. Do you think the neighbor across the courtyard wants some? He never cooks his own food.
So maybe in the end you only get one or two slices. But eating a whole pineapple in one night, filling up so you are about to bust and then rolling into bed, is maybe not as much fun as it sounds. The eating is just for a moment; the preparation is all night. Indeed if I just wanted to eat pineapple, the preparation would not be worth it. The preparation is as sweet as the fruit itself.
Come thou long expected Jesus
Born to set thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us;
Let us find our rest in thee.
Lord, let us not fear finding the Joy of Christ’s coming. Whether that means saving up to buy pecans and whiskey for fruitcakes to share, or taking on the task of cutting up a pineapple in Tanzania, let us push forward. Let us soak in the hardships, the awkward moments and the late nights of decorating and planning. When we find this Joy, help us to share it. A cup of coffee is never quite as satisfying as when taken with a friend, a loaf of bread is much sweeter when wrapped snugly in aluminum foil and hand delivered.
As we anticipate lighting the “Joy candle” on the advent wreath, let us remember that Christ is the light of the whole world, not just for Methodists, not just for our city, not just for us. This means that it is a long road, it is frustrating, it is dusty, we may not have all the tools we think we need to share this Joy. And how much sweeter is the Good News because of that?
My first three weeks in Mwanza I have met many new people. In fact, every person I have met has been a new acquaintance. When meeting new people, you usually say your own name. I have said my own name quite a lot recently. I … Continue reading Introducing “Benedetta”
At the time of writing this, I have been in Mwanza, Tanzania for nine whole days. Goodness has a lot and nothing happened. I am getting used to not understanding the people that walk by me. I am getting used to being stared at. I am getting used to being far from my wonderful family and support system. I am getting used to being a foreigner. It seems like I have been here forever, and hardly a day. Mwanza is not my final destination; I am taking a month’s stop here for some language lessons from the knowledgeable and terrifying Mama Salala, a robust German woman who has been here some thirty years.
I have a lesson for an hour a day and then I study and do the little work that I can still being away from my placement site. One of the things I have been forced to quickly adapt to in Mwanza is the transportation. When I must travel on my own there are three options: walking, piki piki, or dala dala. Dala dalas are vans that take you to various stops in the city. Fare is always Tsh 400 (Tanzanian Shillings) about 18 cents- that is also about what it costs for two bananas. Piki pikis are motorbikes, you sit behind the driver and it is like a cheaper taxi, they will take you as far as your Swahili will allow you to explain. I received many warnings against using them in the US, but here the motto is “check the tires, check the helmets.” However, walking is the mode of transport I have used most so far. I don’t have to pay for my legs.
As I am learning my way around Mwanza, I encounter many roads that do not seem to really be fit for driving or walking. However I must change my judgments there because I have seen some masterful feats of driving. I have also encountered some masterful feats of walking. Mwanza is a city that is expanding, and with that comes lots of roadwork. Fine, except there is just as much foot traffic as there is car traffic, and many a time I have come across some large pile of construction rubbish and thought, “now how will I get over this?” Well, each time I just have to take a minute and let my eyes adjust, and each time I find a worn footpath amidst the construction piles. Someone has always traveled through it before I have, and judging by how worn down the paths are, many have traveled before me.
As I endeavor to “start” my journey here in Tanzania I think I will do well to remember that while I sometimes feel singular in the things I do, there are always people who walk before me. Even if the path is obscure, I know that God is also walking beside me.
Sitting in the eye doctor’s office earlier this week, I was doing the things that you do when in a quiet waiting room, playing a game on my phone and hoping the advertisements that popped up were muted and would not start blaring the sounds of the Halloween themed movie preview. My vision fuzzy from already having removed my contacts in preparation for the eye exam, I was not feeling particularly observant. I suppose this is why I was startled when an elderly gentleman sat down next to me and struck up a conversation. “You remind me a lot of one of my granddaughters,” he said. “Are you in school?” I replied that I had just graduated from LSU and inquired about his grandchildren, not really prepared to launch into the long conversation about what I am doing now that I am out of school, I had a gut feeling that David (that was his name) was a talker. The granddaughter that I reminded him of was still in school and his grandson was taking a year off before looking for a job. “He’s taking some time to travel the world,” he said, “have you ever been out of the country?” And it was with these gently sneaky questions that David coaxed me into talking about my upcoming plans to work in Tanzania.
He wanted to know about the United Methodist Church, were the Methodist Churches in Africa? How were my parents handling this transition? Did I speak another language? I did my best to answer all of his questions. Soon the nurse came into the waiting room to collect me. I shook David’s hand and felt something warm and metallic in his grip. I withdrew to find a large goldish coin with John Kennedy’s face, looking rather contemplative, weighing heavily in my palm. “That’s called a Pop Pop coin,” he said. “Oh,” I replied a little confused trying to recall a currency that used “Pop Pops.” “I’m Pop Pop to my grandkids, and I give them these coins, so they are called Pop Pop coins. I also give them out at my church. I’m Baptist, not Methodist, but every time I give out a coin this week I will tell the person about you and ask them to pray for you.”
The nurse was shifting politely but impatiently, so I made a quick reply of thanks and then hurriedly followed her into the next room. As I was walking away, David called out, “I gave you one with Kennedy on it cause most young people like Kennedy!”
Who would have thought a former president would be accompanying me on my international mission of peace and learning, and that there would be a Baptist praying for me! I wonder if I could enlist the crew of the Enterprise on this mission as well?