I’m back in Nyahuka, the village in Bundibugyo town that I called home for 2+ years. Many things have changed: road signs, paved roads, power lines. But, the important things are still the same. The mountains loom large, the beauty abounds, and sweet smiling friends greet you with warm smiles and laughter.
I’m especially grateful for a visit to see Adijah and Akiki, the potters who have become my Uganda grandmothers. I wish you could have seen them rush out to greet our World Harvest contingent when we rolled into their compound on Thursday morning. It felt like coming home.
“You.Will.Miss.This”-Annie Downs, originally found here
My friend Gladys, who doesn’t smile in photos, but graciously lets me practice my Swahili AND invited Sarah and I to visit her home and church last term. Also, I apologize for the fuzzy iPhone photo and for the fact that this has become the world’s longest caption.
Last week, I started Swahili lessons. Finally. And there was a part of starting to study that felt like letting go.
I’ve now lived in Kenya for (gulp) 6 months. In talking to my friend Jennifer last week, she reminded me that in patterns of cross-cultural transition, 6 months is often considered a low point. Past the honeymoon period where everything seems new and wonderful and exciting, and not yet in a place where things feel stable and certain and like home, people can often feel sad, discouraged or grouchy. Awesome. Doesn’t that make you want to hang out with me??
But, it is also a point from which things start to look up, where you begin to find footing in a new place and a new life, and start to put down roots.
Of course, my transition has been a bit unusual in that my work in Kenya started as a temporary situation that then was extended, somewhat unexpectedly, for the next 2 years. I also lived in someone else’s house for the first 3 months, and then in month 4, I went back to the States to see my family, which means it’s really only been about 3 months of making Kenya home. During that same time, the political system of South Sudan seemed to collapse, leaving me with mixed feelings of relief at being far away and a strong compulsion to return. Add to that the fact that the team of Americans I worked with in South Sudan have now almost all left Mundri, meaning that even if I went back it wouldn’t be the same, and it can all feel like a jumble of loss and relief and unanswered questions.
It’s easy to take the complexities of unexpected transition in unhelpful directions. But here is what I’m learning right now: This day, this work, this place-all of these things are purposeful and good. And while I might not be able to decipher all whys of how I ended up here, but I am still grateful for where I have landed.
Last week, after a sweet day of meeting with students, I took an early evening hike before heading home to make dinner. And unmistakably, I knew that one day, I will miss this. The beauty, the community, the sunset over the rift valley, the winds and rain and laughter and tears. It is all a gift. And I could spend 2 years wondering if I made the right choice to leave Sudan, and wondering why my story hasn’t turned out differently, and believing in my heart that things might be easier somewhere else. But that would be to despise the gift, to miss out on all the beauty that is here now.
The reason that starting to study Swahili was so hard for me is because I haven’t finished learning Moru yet. Or Juba Arabic. Or Lubwisi, for that matter. Bits of all these languages jumble in my mind, creating confusion more than communication. I’ve realized that being here means being open-handed about things left undone elsewhere, and starting, little by little, to become a part of this place. I’m learning that being “finished” was perhaps not ever the main goal of life in Sudan or Uganda, and won’t be the goal in Kenya. All those languages, from different places, studied and struggled through, aren’t wasted. They stay with me, keeping me connected to the other homes that hold parts of my heart.
The big catalyst in starting to study language has been the arrival of the Massos, who worked with me in Sudan and Uganda, and are now my neighbors yet again. We’re studying together, and that has made starting Swahili feel a little less disloyal to life in Sudan. What a gift, to have others who know me so well, and can work with me as I seek to speak new words to more fully articulate my life in Kenya. And to have faith that this little sliver of life in Kenya is part of a bigger story of hope and transformation being written the world over.
One day, I know, I. Will. Miss. This.
For the gift of the here and now in Kijabe, I am growing in gratefulness and joy.
First of all, let me say that I currently live in what I believe to be one of the most beautiful places in the world. The mountains, cool air, greenery, birds and blooms: it’s hard to describe how lovely it is here. Especially as I think about dry season in South Sudan, I realize that I am in a really different place than I was last year.
And yet, even in this place of sweaters, sunshine, and steaming cups of chai I still feel the need to get away sometimes. I want space from the intensity of my job, and also time to regroup and gain perspective. This weekend, I headed into Nairobi with Karis and Stephen Rigby, who are also a part of my World Harvest community. He works to train Kenyan soccer coaches and she coordinates and leads internships for college students who want to spend 2 to 4 months volunteering in Nairobi.
They graciously hosted me, making sure I was filled up with good food, rich conversations, time to rest and think and pray, and time to enjoy being in a city. On Friday, we went to see The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Have you seen it? I know it got some not so great reviews, but I liked it, especially the reminder to live adventurously while acknowledging that the most lovely parts of life can be hidden in what seems mundane. Also, there was beautiful scenery of of Iceland (can we go, please?) and music by Jose Gonzalez and Of Monsters and Men, which made the movie worth the price of admission.
On Saturday, we went to Diamond Plaza, which has this crazy Indian food court. As soon as you sit down, you’re surrounded by 20 men all waving menus in your face. And then, if you say something like, “Maybe I want chicken tikka,” each of them starts shouting that they have the best chicken tikka and you should order from them. It was entertaining and stressful and awesome, and I enjoyed trying lime/ginger/sugarcane juice and bhajias for the first time.
On Sunday, we went to a lovely Kenyan church with energetic Swahili singing and dancing, and a warm and welcoming community. Then, a quick stop to buy fresh produce and frozen yogurt, and I was back up in Kijabe by 5. It was a great weekend, and I feel ready to jump into this last month of school.
I’ve been thinking about the ways we get away from things. It’s good to take a step back, to give yourself space, to find rest and renewal. The book I just read on introversion was a good reminder that things profitable and creative can happen when we step away from the intensity of community.
But some of the ways I chose to step away are not always good: too much media, too much time looking at people’s pins and pictures, too much chocolate or coffee or what have you. These things appear to offer refreshment, but can are just leave me craving more and more without actually giving the rest they promise.
In a couple of days, Lent begins, a little later than usual. It’s a time to think of giving up some of the ways we normally get away from life, and instead seeking to see that there is really only one Refuge. I’m thinking about what I might let go of in order to find more rest and joy in Jesus.
I’ve been listening to Ellie Holcomb’s new album on repeat, after hearing her sing a couple of times while I was in the States over Christmas. “Songs of Deliverance,” says, “When these waters rise, I’ll call for you, I know you’ll hear my cries. Your intentions are not shaken, everything that once was breaking, tear me down and bind me up, in You I place my trust. Your intentions are not shaken…I know you’ll answer me.”
I’ve been thinking about that, about the fact that God’s intentions for me, for my friends in South Sudan, for my students at RVA, and for you wherever you are; His intentions are not shaken. As confusing and hard and difficult as things may seem now, His goodness and faithfulness are greater. So, I enter Lent by faith, looking for God to answer and acknowledging that the other things I look to for rest may be good, but they are not sufficient.
I’ve been reading Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, and appreciated this quote from a woman whose infant son died because of SIDS:
Tim Keller once said that God gives us what we would have asked for if we knew everything He knows. The idea that the prince of Heaven would empty himself and become poor, to live and dwell among us is humbling. The idea that there is nothing in the human experience that God himself has not suffered…is sustaining. And the idea that in His resurrection, Jesus’ scars became His glory is empowering. God will use these scars for His glory as they become our glory. Indeed, the end hasn’t been written.”
May Lent allow us the opportunity to embrace the humility of Christ, to be sustained by his identification with us, to by empowered by the glory of His scars, and live in the hope that he is bringing beauty out of our brokenness, that the end hasn’t been written yet.
“The more I work… the more it happens that I need to read poems. And work my garden. Beauty restores your trust in the world.” -Elaine Scarry, quoted here
This weekend was RVA’s annual banquet weekend, a time where 11th and 12th grade high school students get all dressed up and attend an amazingly elaborate dinner theater.
In a boarding school context, with conservative roots and a strict(ish) no-dancing policy, this is as close to a prom as these kids are going to get. It’s been a fun 6 weeks of seeing girls get asked to the banquet, and hearing them plan their dresses and shoes, and discussing countless details and hopes.
I spent Friday afternoon making snacks, styling hair, and doing make-up with girls in the senior dorm. If you know me, you know that doing hair and make-up in fancy ways is not really my strong suit. But, it was fun to see these girls transform, suddenly all curls and swirling skirts, heels and mascara and giggles. I braided Julia’s hair, slipping flowers through the loops of hair, hearing her laugh with her friends as they got ready together. It’s still a little hard to believe that the spunky 3rd grader I taught in Bundibugyo now hovers on the edge adulthood, going to banquets and getting ready for college.
At 7 o’clock, the girls’ dates began to arrive, bearing flowers and nervous smiles. As flashes went off and mom’s begged for just one more picture, the kids were off to celebrate and savor a beautiful night.
I love Elaine Scarry’s idea that beauty in the world can lead us to work for justice. And there is so much beauty around. Kijabe especially is filled with glorious scenery that still amazes me. But we can get so accustomed to the everyday, and beauty can almost seem mundane. So, it was nice to take a night, and focus on beauty and celebration and joy. And more than that, the beauty of these students is also have a huge capacity to impact the world by fighting both for justice and for beauty. My job especially can pull my eyes towards what is broken and hard about life, so it’s good to remember the power of pausing for beauty.
Elaine Scarry also says, “Beauty always takes place in the particular.” So wherever this week finds you, I hope you too catch glimpses of beauty in your particular circumstances. And, I hope those pictures of beauty encourage you to fight for justice and joy in a world where beauty can be easy to miss.
And, if the cold and snow of lingering winter is making beauty hard to find, or even if you just need a good and redemptive read, may I suggest The Language of Flowers? Maybe it’s because I work with many adoptive families, or maybe because I think flowers are cool, but I was surprisingly captivated by the beauty of this book over my mid-term break.
“Praise be to the Lord, to God our Savior, who daily bears our burdens.”-Psalm 68
There’s something about high school life that feels so urgently immediate. Students seem to run from tests to sports to celebrations to frustrations, and I’m pulled right along with them. 6 weeks ago, I wrote from the limbo of transition from America back to Kenya. And since that last post, I feel like I haven’t had time to catch a breath, much less type out a coherent sentence.
Days have been filled with good things. With really good things, actually. I love my job, and see students changing in hopeful ways. I love having my own house, and a kitchen I’m painting yellow, and big windows, and the opportunity to try new recipes and have friends over. I love having a fire in the fireplace on cold and windy evenings. I love the mountain views and hiking trails of Kijabe.
Our small World Harvest team is growing here, and the Masso family just arrived this weekend, so I’m feeling at home in a new way, and grateful for friendships that can span 10 years and life in 3 African countries.
We’re approaching Banquet, which is RVA’s version of the prom, so I’ve been trying to figure out how to help girls style their hair and do makeup, and in the midst of witnessing all the “who is asking who” drama, I’ve realized how very glad I am to not be a high school student anymore. It’s fun to see the joy and energy and creativity of this community, and to celebrate with them the newness of the many firsts that happen in high school.
But still, I am a person who best understands the world when I have space to step away, to string thoughts and words together on paper until things seem to make more sense. So I’m feeling the cost of the rush, and the intensity of being in a bit of a fishbowl community, and the absence of time to process what all of the change of the last year means.
Though maybe the bustle and busy of this season is good, because it’s keeping me present here and now. I miss Sudan, I miss my family, I miss Uganda, I miss my friends. But, there’s not a lot of time to think about that. It’s more like a quiet hum singing under the surface of everything else. And as I see the gift it is to be here for this season, the grief of leaving other places is quieted, and replaced with something like peace. Even though I can’t quite tell you why, I find myself happy and content to be here.
This weekend was midterm, and so I did get to step away a bit, and therefore you are getting a blog post. Hooray. Though this should not be taken as an indicator that I will blog more frequently, let us hold onto hope.
Anyway, the days of break were filled with good books, good music, adventurous stories, a party with friends, and a pedicure in town. And, the kind RVA community loves to celebrate Valentine’s Day, so they made sure my house was full of roses and cookies. Tonight is cool and rain threatens, and I’m doing laundry and cleaning house and preparing to tumble back into the urgent dailiness of life when the alarm goes of at 6 in the morning. As I step back into the fray, I’m seeking to hear, over the shouts of busyness and the hum of sadness, the voice of One who rejoices over us with singing and daily bears our burdens.
PS: Have you read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking? I’m reading it now, and it’s fascinating. Would love to know if you’ve read it, and what you think…
“How might we think about the things for which we personally long and wait? What does God’s desire for a reconciled and healed world have to do with our desire for children, companionship, vocational fulfillment, and other yearnings? The question has no easy or definitive answer. There is nothing wrong with having our particular deep desires and prayerfully laying them before God. We were created to flourish in the gift of God’s world while waiting for the fullness of the kingdom. Yet we remain open to having our desires trumped by what God may invite us into for the sake of fostering the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Elizabeth and Zechariah bear witness to how our deep desires can match God’s desires for us. But God’s longings for us always seem connected to a bigger picture that includes others. From what we see in Scriptures, God’s story always makes room for those whom society wants to push to the margins for all sorts of reasons.” -Silence and Other Surprising Invitations at Advent, Enuma Okoro
2014 came in quietly, while I was somewhere over the Atlantic and not paying any attention.
At dawn on the first day of the year, I’m sitting in Heathrow Terminal 5, sipping coffee, and resonating with Jason Isbell singing about how he’s grown tired of traveling alone. Thankfully, Acacia is traveling with me this time, both of us having said sad goodbyes to our mammas. Even though I’m years older than her, we’re both feeling pulled between 2 continents, 2 worlds.
This year has involved many journeys for me. Some have been exciting, like my trip to Morocco (where the camel photo is from). Some have been sobering, like my journey to Tanzania when a friend was hospitalized with severe malaria. Some have been surprising, like my trip to Rwanda in July. And some, like my transition from South Sudan to Kenya, have been good but also perplexing.
The Christmas story is as much about journeys as anything else. Angels traveling to bring news, and Mary traveling to see Elizabeth, and Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem. After the birth, the Wise men are led by a star to Bethlehem, and then Mary and Joseph fleeing to Europe. And ultimately, the story of a birth that began a journey to a cross.
Some of the journeys were joyful, some were perplexing, and some were excruciating.
But each small journey was a part of a bigger story, the Advent story we’ve spent the last weeks celebrating.
The experience of traveling, for me, is always multi-faceted. I’m excited to return to Kenya, but I am also sad to leave my family, and I am heartbroken over the current political situation in South Sudan.
A new year offers a chance to reflect on the year past, and make plans for the year to come. When I think back to this time last year, I realize that what I had planned and what actually happened are 2 very different things. So, in 2014, I am seeking to journey on by faith, with honesty about the things I hope for and openness to God having something different for me. And, in creating space for journeys to go in unexpected directions, I also hope to create room in my life for those around me who may have been marginalized or pushed aside. Whatever your dreams are for 2014, I hope you too are surprised by the ways your desires become a part of the bigger journey you are a part of. Happy New Year!
Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,
what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.
In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.
And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.
-Rainer Maria Rilke
Today marks the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. The news coming out of South Sudan is sobering and sad. But light dawns on this darkest night of the year, and Christmas comes faster than we realize, and I think that poetry (or perhaps poetry and peppermint Joe-Joe’s) is the best way to respond to the darkness and sadness. In a world that has ceased to hear, may hope ring out through the One who was battered for us, who became light and music and wine poured out.