Saturday, February 18, 2012

Far from Africa but close to my heart: Tijuana, Mexico

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” –Frederick Buechner

Me on a trip to Mexico in 2010
I miss Africa a lot sometimes. The memories of the months I spent in Africa give me such a mixture of deep joy but also sadness at the awareness of the extreme human need present in the world. Through my internship in Africa I learned a lot about poverty and experienced the joy that comes from living life serving others. This post isn’t about Africa, though. Not specifically. One week from today I’m going to Tijuana, Mexico for a week and I am so excited I had to blog about it! (Maybe I should change the name of my blog?)

For those of you who don’t know, a few weeks after returning from Africa I started working on staff at Huron Hills Church with their Youth and College Ministry. It’s been awesome! I get to work with a lot of great students leading small groups, mentoring students one-on-one, speaking at youth retreats, teaching, worshipping, etc. Next week, on Friday, February 24th, a dozen college students, my boss, two experienced team leaders, and I have the opportunity to go to Tijuana, MX where we’ll spend spring break serving. We will be doing work alongside local World Vision staff in squatter communities near the Mexico/US boarder. The partnership between the communities in Tijuana and our church community is a long and mutually encouraging and joy-filled one. I helped to lead a trip of high school students to Tijuana in 2010 (that’s what the photos are from) and I am looking forward to returning to see the people who blessed me so much then!
A worksite in one of the communities

Why am I so excited about going to Mexico? Multiple reasons. This trip combines several of my passions: traveling and learning about new places, helping and getting to know people in poverty and situations of extreme vulnerability, working with students, and raising awareness of global issues.
According to, “Almost half the world—over 3 billion people—live on less than $2.50 a day” and in 2003 10.6 million children died before they turned 5. Facts like that are awful but once you’ve seen the facts first hand, experienced what it’s like to have friends barely surviving because they don’t have enough food or access to medicine, and known the pain of watching a child die of AIDS, the simple facts about poverty and global needs become more than facts. It becomes personal. Living in Africa showed me this. It is no longer just random people somewhere suffering… the people have faces and emotions, family and friends, hopes and dreams. This is why I am so excited to spend spring break loving my Mexican friends in need and hopefully playing a part, however small it may be, in helping them “reach their full potential by tackling the causes of poverty and injustice” (as World Vision would put it). In my life of material abundance, I feel a responsibility to not ignore the physical needs of others. I am not ok with living a self-centered, comfortable life at the expense of someone else. This is why I am so excited that there will be 12 college students along with me joining in the vision of living a life serving others.

Ceasar... one of my favorite Mexican buddies
There is one more reason I love spending time with people who materially have much less than me. Christians living in places like Bangui, Central Africa or Tijuana, Mexico have a strong faith. Their physical need has helped them know the necessity of trust and faith. They have experienced God’s provision, God’s closeness in desperate situations, God’s unfaltering love, and the strong hope and knowledge that God will one day make things right again. I’ve never personally known what it’s like to have barely any material possessions and I’ve never had to wonder where my next meal was coming from but I do have needs. Emotional. Spiritual. Less physically obvious, but no less important. When I spend time with the joy-filled Mexicans I am always reminded of my need for God, my own helplessness and the need for faith and complete reliance on God that we share. The Mexicans living in shambled squatter villages in Tijuana may appear more needy than I am, but in reality I am just as needy. In need of Christ and his never-ending love. My Mexican friends encourage me and fill me with a fresh hope, joy, and faith. They remind me there’s more to life than the material. They show me the joy that comes from sharing Christ’s sacrificial love with others. I can’t wait to get to Mexico! 

I will have limited access to internet while I am in Tijuana but I will do my best to share pictures and update you all on the work being done in Tijuana. To read updates and stories about our trip while we're gone you can go to the Tijuana North Borders blog. You can find it here: 

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Next Chapter

I’m not in Central Africa anymore. In a way I feel quite removed from it actually. I’m on the other side of the world in a country where you don’t have to think about orphans and poverty and AIDS and violence if you don’t want to. I’ve moved on and started a new chapter in my life. Despite this fact, my heart still holds on tight to little bits and pieces of Africa. (Or maybe it’s the other way around and it’s Africa that has a grip on my heart and won’t easily let go.)

In the past couple months since coming back to the USA it’s been difficult trying to share about my time in Africa. There is so much on my heart and so much I could tell—so many joys and difficulties, so many African orphans I grew to love, and so many lessons God taught me. What do I tell people first? I’ve discovered people (in general) are more interested in hearing about how cute the orphans are, how close I got to wild elephants and gorillas, or about how poor the county of CAR is and how difficult is was living with so few comforts.

I want to thank all of you who read my blog while I was gone for taking a sincere interest in Central Africa and my ministry because there is so SO much more to being a missionary intern in Africa than playing with cute kids, seeing wildlife, and surviving on less than American status quo. I learned a lot more than I’ll ever be able to share, experienced a lot, worked a lot, was frustrated a lot and blessed a lot. I hope my blog has helped give a realistic snap shot of life in CAR.

13-year-old Fiacre
I’m not the only one not in Central Africa anymore. Last Sunday a precious 13-year-old PHC orphan named Fiacre moved on from his struggle with AIDS, his pain, and his failing earthly body and to a better place.He is probably dancing in heaven with God right now full of energy and life and joy. Fiacre was a beautiful and happy young Central African but the next chapter that he’s moved into is incomparably more beautiful than the last. It’s full of victory and joy. I had the privilege of spending time with this quiet little guy during his last year of life on earth and it broke my heart to hear that his life ended at such a young age.

You can watch the video tribute PHC put together for Fiacre here:

There are some things about life in Africa I will never be able to explain or understand and I think I will always have a difficult time answering the question 'How was Africa?' What do I say?
Central Africa does have a lot of cute orphans. AIDS and poverty and cool wild animals are all there. And yes, living in CAR was difficult and frustrating and an adventure and heart-breaking. It's all true. I could talk about it for days. But if I could only tell you one thing right now I wouldn't start talking about any of that. It doesn't seem that important compared to the truth that God LOVES orphans. No matter how cute or sick or hungry or poor they are, they are loved. So much. I'm glad I was able to spend time loving and serving and being friends with the PHC orphans in Central Africa. I will always love them. The experience I call my "African Adventure" was all worthwhile because I got to help God love his precious orphans and loving like Christ is always an adventure worth pursuing.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Out-of-practice American

It’s a beautiful breezy 75-degree day with no humidity and I’m all bundled up in blankets and a sweatshirt. I guess I’m not used to Michigan weather yet. After 13 days back in the United States there are still a lot of things I’m re-adjusting to. The smells of the USA are different than I’m used to (sugar, cleaning supplies, fresh cut chemical-saturated grass), I’m not used to wearing shorts, blending in with the people around me is a change, and I’ve been having to remind myself that I don’t have to shake everyone’s hand anymore. I’m a bit out of practice when it comes to being an American but I’m relearning quickly. Pets and kitchen mixing machines, however, have proven to be the most difficult adjustments so far.

Last Saturday my family’s curious little sheltie dog, Kaia, got into my backpack and ate a sample medicine packet—the medicine and the tin foil lined package both. I’m not used to having a curious little pet poking around my room and the mistake of leaving my backpack on the floor proved to be a big one. As soon as we realized Kaia had eaten medicine my mom hopped on her computer to google “what do you do for a dog that has eaten way more medicine than they should?” (or something along those lines). Thank goodness for 24/7 wireless internet! Needless to say, Kaia got really sick, the event turned into a class five life-threatening crisis, and I felt terrible!
Around midnight I found myself driving to CVS pharmacy in search of Pedialyte for my dog. I walked through the automatic opening doors into the store filled with bright tungsten light and rows and rows of medicine and was immediately overwhelmed. My dog doesn’t know how fortunate she is! There are kids in Central Africa dying right now for lack of medicine. The Pedialyte, unfortunately, wasn’t enough and a few hours later Kaia was rushed off to the pet hospital for emergency care. It was a rough few days but after lots of tests and iv’s, Kaia is now home and recovering. I’m so glad America has pet hospitals.

On a lighter note, yesterday was my birthday! I decided that despite the fact that American processed sugar has been making me sick ever since getting home I couldn’t have a birthday without a cake. It’s been a while since I’ve used a mixer, though, so when I went to mix up the cake ingredients instead of flipping the switch to lock the mixer in place I turned the mixer on full blast causing a volcano to erupt all over me and across the whole kitchen. This little set-back didn’t stop me, though, and I managed to make a lovely little cake with chocolate frosting, raspberries, strawberries, and a mixture of short and tall yellow candles. Definitely fit for a birthday party! The problem was that the short candles melted the middles of the tall candles and before I could get all the candles lit my cake had gone up in flames. Literally. Who thought up the Western tradition of putting birthday candles on cakes anyway? It seems a bit strange if you stop to think about it. Between birthdays and the fourth of July I’m beginning to think Americans are a bit pyromaniac.

In spite of accidentally causing my dog to overdose on medicine and ruining birthday cakes, I’ve enjoyed my first 13 days back in the United States and I’m hopeful that sometime in the near future I’ll be back to being a somewhat normal American again. I don’t know, maybe I’ll never stop comparing the prices of things with the cost of providing clean water for an African community or sending a kid to school for a year. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. I wish I could end this blog post with a really great conclusion about being back in the US and how my time in Africa has changed me and how I will forever be a better person because of it but I am incapable of that right now. I know that Africa has left its mark on me but I’m still in the middle of processing and readjusting.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The beginning of the post-African adventure

I made it through all the goodbyes in Africa and in a matter of six hours I went from living in the second most undeveloped city in the world to the number-one visited city in the world. I would say it feels like two separate worlds but it doesn't. Not really. People all over the world are more or less the same at their core. The culture shock will probably come later.
My general impression after one full day of seeing Paris is that it is really beautiful, busy, cold, and there's no end of the stuff to see! Oh yeah... and the internet is crazy fast! 
we're not in Africa anymore!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

My Last Saturday in Central Africa

Sannu sannu! As-Salaam-Alaikum. Bala-o! Bonjour.
I heard all these greetings this morning. And I understood them all although it’s not difficult to pick up on greetings. Reading body language and paying attention to non-verbal communication is something you learn when you’re surrounded by people you can’t speak to.

Alima, me, and ananas seedlings
My first Saturday in Central Africa was spent in the rice fields at the Project Hope and Charité widow gardens. It was harvest time. I only knew a couple words in Sango then—greetings mainly. It seems fitting that my last Saturday was also spent in a rice field. This morning I went along with Wilfried to help one of his Fulani friends prepare his rice garden and to spend time with the women in the Fulani community near there. I have been to this community several times and have been building relationships with the women but I still only know a few words in the Fulfulde language—greetings. It proves a very humbling point that even after living in Central Africa for eight months my knowledge of the country is still miniscule.

So this morning I found myself back in a similar situation as I found myself in eight months ago: observing an African lifestyle I know very little about.

Here are a few pictures from my observings:
Ibrahim, his younger brother, and Wilfried working in the rice garden

washing dishes
doing laundry
I wasn't the only one doing observing

My first Saturday I spent harvesting rice that had been planted long before I arrived. I observed the Christian widows as they did what they do on Saturdays. Today I helped prepare a rice field that has yet to be planted and I observed Muslim women doing what they do on Saturdays. I am an observer and a learner taking part in only a small period of work. Many people have labored here before me and there is much work to be done after me. This is what I have learned from my first and last Saturdays of my internship in the Central African Republic.

Saturday, June 11, 2011


I think I’ve forgotten what is supposed to be normal. Normal? You ask. Yeah, you know… normal. That adjective that means “usual, typical, or expected.” nôrməl. Those things you do and see that seem so natural you don’t think twice about them. After 7 ½ months of living in Africa I think my standards of normal have shifted. Maybe. But who am I to say what is "usual, typical, or expected."

When I say normal I mean this:

  • Living at a mission station with a high fence around it and a guard at the gate.
  • Sleeping under a mosquito net.
  • Morning runs past the president’s palace, along the river where the sun is rising and over a crowded mountain trail full of goats and Africans headed to work.
  • Greeting everyone with a handshake and the subsequent questions of how they slept and how they and their family are doing.
  • Skirts. Everyday.
  • Sweatshirts and winter coats when the temperature drops below 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Ants. Everywhere.
  • Sifting flour before cooking to get the bugs out.
  • Having fresh fruit and vegetables brought to the door every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
  • Hairdos that stick out all over.
  • Blaming upset stomachs on worms and parasites.
  • Squishing seven people (sometimes more) into a taxicab to get home from work.
  • Bartering.
  • Mangoes that cost 5 cents each.
  • Powdered milk in a can.
  • House help that does all the cleaning, laundry, and dishes three times a week.
  • No electricity between 5am and 9am, 3pm and 6pm, and sometimes between Wednesday and Friday… give or take a few hours.
  • Generator noise.
  • Soldiers standing around with machine guns slung over their shoulders.
  • Getting stared at for being white and staring at other people for the same reason.
  • Using filtered water from a bottle for teeth brushing.
  • No air-conditioning or TV.
  • Eating peanuts out of a whiskey bottle.
  • Palm trees, a mango tree, and a flowering plumeria tree outside my bedroom window.
  • Daily trips to the swimming pool at the US Ambassador’s house.
  • Potholes. Little boys standing beside potholes holding shovels and tin cups begging for money. And more potholes.
  • Words that begin with mb, ng, and nz.
  • Missionary parties that you have to bring your own food to and leave before 9pm.
  • Kids with ripped clothes and 17-year-old mothers with naked babies.
  • Ditches full of green slime.
  • Grapefruit soda in glass bottles.
  • Belgian Google.
  • Stories about pets accidentally getting killed for food and stories about annoying flights with extra long layovers at sketch hotels in Cameroon all because an African tried to catch a free ride in the wheel well of the plane and got crushed to death by retracting landing tires wrecking the chance of the plane's smooth landing.
This is Africa. This is my normal… at least for a dozen more days. I’m forgetting what United States normal is. Sometimes I go into my empty kitchen pantry and flip on the light to remind myself what used to be my normal. The light is the only light in my house that comes on the second you flip the switch. Sometimes I turn it on and off several times really fast for the pure novelty of it. It’s hard to believe that in a couple weeks I’ll be back in the land of instant light, clean kids, dogs with leashes, and boneless-skinless chickens with price tags on them. Normal? The more I think about it, the less I know what normal is. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Soccer, Soldiers, and I Shook the hand of the President

Sunday. 5 June. A day for being proud to be a Central African.
Starting early in the morning I could hear vuvuzelas and see Central African flags parading down the street towards the crowded Barthélémy Boganda Stadium. Why? Sunday was the third round qualifying soccer match between the Central African Republic and Tanzania for the African Nations Cup. It was a pretty big deal because Central Africa has previously competed in this tournament, well… um… never.
Pre-game: Tanzania in white, CAR in blue
Central Africa, currently 113th in the FIFA world rankings, pulled off a 2-1 win over Tanzania. They deserved it because they played well (even if it wasn’t all completely fair... not counting Tanzania's second goal was payback for getting unfairly beat by Tanzania in March I guess. Apparently playing on your home field with your own refs makes all the difference when it comes to winning matches between these two countries.)

Being at the game with thousands of Central African fans watching soccer was exciting enough but my serendipity of the day was sitting in the same row as President Bozize and getting to shake his hand. I can now check that off the list of things I need to do before heading home.

With high profile people attending the packed out game and recent unrest in Bangui, the military presence was anything but inconspicuous. The minute the final whistle blew, a crowd of camouflage-clad military men and women carrying big guns stormed onto the field.
Post game: Central African military lining the perimeter of the field

Victorious, proud, and well behaved. That’s how I’d describe Central Africa on the evening of June 5. I’m pretty sure that regardless of the various facial expressions (jubilant faces of fans, angry face of man getting shoved in a crowd, stern faces of soldiers, emotionless face of the president) every Central African in the Barthélémy Boganda Stadium was proud to be Central African.