It’s midnight and I’m sleeping soundly under a grass roof and mosquito net, when I suddenly hear my friend Queen say, “Bethany, wake up, this is very dangerous.” Now, these are not words you want to wake up to in a war-torn place like South Sudan. I notice that it has begun to rain. Only, it’s not rain. It’s ants. Hundreds and hundreds of biting ants swarming the house, dropping from the roof to the floor, driving us out into the night.
So much of these last 2 weeks in South Sudan have been a delightful revisiting of what was, for awhile, routine. During my language learning days, my friend and teacher Queen welcomed me into her home for several extended home stays, and so it seemed important to spend at least one night under her roof during my short stint back in Mundri. Everything was going great, until the ants showed up.
Dazed and bitten, we clumsily danced out of the house, trying to avoid being bitten by ants on the ground. Then, we walked through the compound to sleep in the house of neighbors, who seemed completely unfazed to welcome us in.
2 nights later, back in my own cozy tukul, I am drifting off to sleep when I feel something bite my arm. I think I must be paranoid after my homestay, so try to shrug it off. But then, I feel another bite. I click on my headlamp to find my room filled with biting ants. I do what I always do in these sort of situations: yell out the window to my teammates. Heidi and Michael come to survey the situation, and we realize it is a job too big for Doom insecticide. Once again, I leave my house, and this time am welcomed into Heidi and Ann’s house, to stay for the night as we wait for the ants to move on.
Safari ants are fascinating because they just keep moving on. When I went back to my house the next morning, I couldn’t even tell they had been there, and I almost wondered if I had dreamed it. The ants shake everything up, and then they are gone, and you wonder what the big deal was.
I complained to people about the ants and how they had driven me out of my house. It was interesting to hear their response, because all of my Sudanese friends said the ants were actually good. Because, when they move through your house, they chase out things like spiders, scorpions, and snakes that like to like in the roof or in dark corners. So, as painful as the ants are, their disruptive nature is actually protects us from things more dangerous.
Donovan Graham has led our teams on various spiritual retreats, and one thing he always encourages us to do is to sit out in creation, to notice how God is speaking in nature. Now, I’m not trying to read too much into the safari ant situation, but, when you are driven out of your home and bed 2 out of 3 nights, perhaps you should pay attention.
It feels so natural to complain about the things that disrupt my life. And this year, my life has been disrupted in lots of ways. Some of the disruptions (like the opportunity to work at RVA) have been happy and fun. But others have been hard. And, in my work as a counselor, I have been struck by how painfully disruptive life in East Africa can be for many people. It seems to drive people out of their comfort zones, and push them into new types of dependence on others, and raises all sorts of questions that don’t have easy answers.
Generally, I want the hard things (like the ants) to just go away, or better yet, to never show up. But perhaps these disruptions are actually working something good and protecting us from the pride and self-reliance that sneak in and are much more dangerous.
Tonight, I’m back in Uganda. I’ve had my first hot shower in two weeks, and I’ve eaten pizza and salad in one of my favorite restaurants. It’s really nice to feel clean and settled. But, the gift of this short trip to South Sudan has been a growth in gratefulness for the many disruptions Mundri has brought into my life. The very things that have seemed so painful and hard have actually pushed me out of dependence on myself, and have given me the opportunity to walk by faith and live in dependent community.
Proverbs says to “go to the ant.” I guess the ants got tired of waiting for me to show up, and decided to come to me instead. I’m hoping I’ve learned my lesson, though, because it sure would be nice to get a solid night of sleep.
My second afternoon back in South Sudan, the breeze picks up as I bike home, and suddenly the sky is filled with countless butterflies. On the dusty road, I feel like I’m swimming in a sea of brightly colored wings, and I wish I could pedal fast enough to follow their flight.
We flew into Mundri on the heels of a butterfly migration, with hundreds of them showing up for several afternoons.
When my friend Queen comments on the insects, I ask if they are good or bad, assuming there must be some cultural interpretation of the migration. But she says they are neither good nor bad, just passing through.
If there is one thing I’m familiar with, it’s the transitory lifestyle. Even when I think I’ve landed somewhere, the winds always come, and I move again.
My recent transition to life in Kenya has been an unexpected gift. I have a job I love, a team I am grateful for, and a life in one of the most beautiful places on the planet.
But, I have unfinished business in South Sudan, and so I’ve returned for 2 weeks to pack up my house and say goodbye to friends, to travel again down familiar roads, to make my place ready for someone else to move into.
I worried that returning would feel awkward, or hard, or exhausting. But mainly it’s just felt normal. There have been visits to the market, and meals with friends over one common plate. There have been cups of piping hot tea, and scorpions killed, and lengthy church services, and hugs, and language missteps. It has been a sweet homecoming.
As I reflect on 4 years of life rooted into the soil of South Sudan, I wonder what people here would say about my presence. Was it good? Or bad? Or perhaps I was just another in a long line of transient foreigners, just passing through?
I can say that landing here has forever changed me. I am thankful for rich friendships, for opportunities to learn languages and train teachers and work with students. I have seen the power of faith in adversity and the beauty of new things starting. I have also learned to wrestle with brokenness and ambiguity in a difficult part of the world. I have laughed and cried and battled spiders and snakes.
I’m trying to sort through and pack up what has happened here with grace and faithfulness. It is not as easy as I would like, but I am grateful to realize, even as I’m preparing to fly away, that I can always come back to Mundri and find the feeling of home.
The world of TCKS, or Third-Culture Kids, is where I spend the majority of my time these days, and I love it.
In 2003, when I first started teaching American kids whose parents were working in Uganda, I don’t think I even knew the term third-culture kid. I had not really considered many of the implications for children who grow up in a culture that is not their parents’ home culture. But, thankfully, there are books, articles, and conferences all addressing the specific strengths and struggles of kids who grow up between more than one culture.
Over my time in Uganda, Sudan, and now Kenya; I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about TCKs and their strengths and struggles. Especially now at RVA, I’m learning from these kids how hard it can be to not feel like a specific place or country is home. But, I’m also seeing the amazing resilience, empathy, creativity, and flexibility that third culture kids often have. My recent trip through East Africa was with 4 TCKs, and I watched them try out French and Swahili, build relationships with younger TCKs while the adults had meetings, reconnect with friends from school, provide great music for our car-ride, and generally make things much more fun. The diversity of places where they have grown up means that they really can feel comfortable almost anywhere, and I learn from them how to gracefully cross cultures.
Today, classes resumed at Rift Valley Academy, and in the bustle of routines beginning again, I’m trying to see beyond the busyness and remember that living as a part of many cultures is a gift to these students and to me. And hopefully, their strengths of cross-cultural living will be a gift to the larger global community that they call home.
“I could look down on narrow valleys of cultivated fields and up at steep hillsides, some covered with grass, others quilted with groves of eucalyptus and banana trees and dotted with tiny houses roofed in metal or thatch…The little nation, centuries old, straddles the crest of the watershed of the Congo and Nile rivers, just south of the equator in East Central Africa. It is bordered by Tanzania to the south and east, by the Democratic Republic of Congo across from Lake Tanganikya to the west, and by Rwanda to the north. It’s a landlocked and impoverished country with an agrarian economy that exports excellent coffee and tea and not much else-a land of dwindling forests that still has lovely rustic landscapes.”-Strength in What Remains, Tracy Kidder
From Bundibugyo, we headed south and set our sights on Rwanda, crossing the Equator, and spending one night camping in Queen Elizabeth National Park. We made it to our campsite, set up tents, drove through the park looking for animals, ate grilled fish from Lake Albert, and watched the rain move in. The rain thankfully seemed to keep the hyenas and other wildlife away, and we slept pretty well. Of course, packing up wet camping gear can be a muddy endeavor, but we did our best, and then piled back into the car.
We reached Kigali on the day before the 20th anniversary of the genocide. A sobering moment to return to a country that has lost so much, and that has taught the world about the power of forgiveness. We were dirty, and tired, and ready to be out of the car.
We stayed with a Rwandan family whose children attend RVA. It was good for me to get yet another picture of what life is like for the students I work with every day. We were received with warmth and kindness and great Rwandan coffee. I was also privileged to hear stories of the genocide: loss, grief, trauma, forgiveness, grace, and hope. There’s something remarkable about bearing witness to to the freedom that forgiveness can bring.
On Sunday, we walked through the streets of Kigali on our way to church. Once there, we sang and listened and prayed, hoping that change would still be at work in Rwanda. Then, we loaded up the car, and continued on to Burundi.
Burundi has many geographical similarities to Rwanda: hills and valleys and green as far as the eye can see. There are also similarities in language and tribes, and a similar history of violence and loss, though one that was perhaps less publicly documented by Western media. If you haven’t read it yet, let me recommend Strength in What Remains for a redemptive story and a good descriptor of Burundi.
You can’t begin to wrap you mind around the nuances and specificities of a place when you are only there for a few days, and it feels foolish to even try to describe Burundi after such a short visit. But, I was struck by the beauty, the poverty, the chill in the air, and the warmth of the people.
I can also tell you that the team of doctors and educators pouring their lives into the work at Kibuye Hospital are amazing. And not amazing in the, “wow you are so impressive and tough that I don’t even know how to relate to you” way. But more in the, “wow, you are all so interesting and open and surprisingly funny and humble and dependent on Jesus, and I would like to be your friend” sort of way.
This new team came together to train doctors and build up the medical education program at Hope Africa University, and as they do that they are delivering babies and doing surgeries and responding to emergencies and learning new languages and building into a community. I’m excited to see how they will continue to grow into the new roles they all have in Kibuye.
As though that was not enough, we then traveled sought to Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, where another Serge team is starting, working on the campus of Hope Africa University. It was fun to briefly reconnect with the Bonds, who visited our team in South Sudan, and are now making their home in Burundi.
Though I would have loved to complete the circuit of the journey with the Myhres, I had to leave them in Bujambura and board a plane for Nairobi so I could make it to an education conference where I was helping to give a talk on trauma.
The end of the journey is often the hardest part for me, since I love the adventure of traveling. But, I’m grateful for places I saw, the people I interacted with, and I’m glad too that Kijabe is currently the place I call home. Nothing like leaving for a little while to give me fresh eyes to see the beauty and adventure of the here and now.
“I would think about when I was staying with Okwudiba in his first small flat…how his neighbor downstairs used to shout ‘Praise the Lord!’ whenever the light came back and how even for me there was something beautiful about the light coming back, when it’s out of your control because you don’t have a generator. But, it’s a silly sort of romance, because of course I don’t want to go back to that life.”-Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Two weeks back from The Epic Roadtrip, and I’m finally finding the words. In this instragramming, always connecting world, people seem report things as they happen. But often, I need time before I can tell you all about it. So, let me go back to the beginning, and tell you where I’ve been.
Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi seen from a LandCruiser: thousands of kilometers covered, land borders crossed, friendships renewed and new friendships formed. There was laughter, and lots of music, and beauty, and adventure. There was prayer, and tears, and study, and thoughtful conversation. It was brilliant, challenging, and over too soon.
We spent some time in Fort Portal, participating in a retreat for the Serge (did I mention World Harvest has changed it’s name?? What do you think of it?) team working in Bundibugyo. It’s a wonderful group of people, working in education and medicine, agriculture and language learning and discipleship. I was thankful to get to know each of them, and so challenged by their perseverance in a place that can be really difficult.
After the retreat was over, I had two short nights back in Bundibugyo. The road is now paved all the way to Congo. This is no small feat, and the drive went so quickly and smoothly. It’s hard to realize that the countless hours I spent on the winding switchbacks of that muddy road are now a thing of the past.
And then, staying in the house that used to be my home, I was shocked to find the Duplex with indoor plumbing. A flushing toilet AND a hot shower. What in the world? Add to this power lines, and I felt like I was in a totally different place. With homecomings, it’s easy to have nostalgia for the past. And I did find myself missing the season when I was privileged to live in Uganda.
I wasn’t particularly good at life in Bundibugyo. I struggled to learn language and build relationships, I had lots of questions about suffering in the world, and I never was able to get my kerosene fridge to light. But my time in Bundibugyo changed my life, and set me on path I would never have planned, and for that I am so grateful. Seeing people continue to engage in life there reminded me again that God often brings you to Bundibugyo as much for what He is doing in you as for what He will do through you.
On this visit, I missed the things I never thought I would: walking out to the purple cho under the light of equatorial stars and how the starlight shines so brightly in a place with no electricity. And also, the quiet that comes from a place that doesn’t have much electricity and so cannot blast music over speakers at 2 in the morning.But, as Adichie says, nostalgia is often a silly sort of romance, because I wouldn’t want Bundibugyo to go back to that life.
Even though there may now be some electricity, a few toilets, smooth roads and telephones; there is still a lot of darkness in Bundibugyo. But this awe-inspiring team shines like stars as they seek to walk alongside the hungry, the sick, the needy, and the poor. Love continues to be the force that will change Bundibugyo, and will change the world. I’m grateful for the season I was privileged to call Uganda home, and I’m grateful for the few recent days of returning.
PS. Have you read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s newest novel, Americanah? I read it as we travelled, since I was in the car for more than 40 hours. Anyway, it was interesting to read about a Nigerian’s experience of America and also about her return to Africa after time in America. She has such a way with words, and though I found the blog posts inserted into various chapters incongruous, I generally enjoyed it. Especially this quote that made me homesick for Philadelphia:
Philadelphia was the smell of summer sun, of burnt asphalt, of sizzling meat from food carts tucked into street corners… Ifemelu would come to like the gyros from these carts, flatbread and lamb and dripping sauces, as she would come to love Philadelphia itself. It did not raise the specter of intimidation as Manhattan did; it was intimate but not provincial, a city that might yet be kind to you.
As Spring starts to bloom in America, I can’t help but think of that city that smelled of summer, and that was more kind to me than I deserved. Perhaps returning to Uganda made me grateful for all the amazing places I’ve called home. Grateful, and a little homesick.
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.