Thursday, November 30, 2006

Hope from Advent

I have been looking forward to Advent for some time. I always loved advent, as a child, because it marked the time of anticipation before Christmas. But I think this year what I've been longing for is the waiting and the hope that advent represents.

Here in Liberia there is much waiting: waiting for supplies, waiting for long overdue pay checks, waiting for clean wells to be drilled, waiting for the government to be capable, waiting for the peacekeepers to leave, waiting for stability, waiting for an economy, waiting for jobs, waiting for a better life. But at the end of 15 years of unthinkable brutality, atrocities, and horror, I'm not sure how easily hope comes. In the face of all they long for, and all they have survived, the people of Liberia continue to live. They live in the toil of their everyday routines, but also in their laughter, in their singing, in their arguing, in their bright colored cloth, in 9 people stuffed in a taxi, in their extended families, and in their dependence on one another.

The beauty of advent is the presence of hope in God's promise. On Sunday the preacher reminded us that God is, and was, and will be. And in advent it's the "will be" that we celebrate.

What "will be" for Liberia? It's difficult to hope in the face of the unknown, with only "small small" progress being made. What I learned about hope when I was doing relief work after Hurricane Katrina, is that the hope that made a difference to people was the hope brought by each volunteer, and each shipment of food. When they couldn't hope for a better tomorrow, they had hope from support, hope from friendship, hope from a helping hand, hope from love. That is the hope that sustained people.

I hope that by your support and prayers, and my presence here, together we are a "small small" ray of hope in Liberia. From day to day, I don't do anything too spectacular. I grade papers; I scrape together mediocre lectures; I supervise the planting of some corn; I show my students how to give injections to pigs; I walk from farm to class and back again; and I look forward to the weekend as much as the students do. Recently I have felt discouraged with myself because of how truly mediocre my service here seems to be. But with the coming of advent, hope has returned to me as well. Life is perhaps rarely spectacular, even for a missionary in Africa. Each of us, no matter where we live, are called to do our "small small" piece, and together all of our mediocre and feeble efforts, set the great tides of hope and love, which bring light to the darkest places and times in human hearts, and become the human experience of God on earth… something truly spectacular!

Yes, this season we await the promise, we await the kingdom, and we celebrate an experience which is beyond the confines of any religion: the collective power of this human experience of weakness, hope, and love.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Hand-me-downs and Blessings

So many things, hand-me-downs, travel across the ocean, across continents, and end up here in Africa. I ran into someone wearing a shirt from Pass Christian Mississippi (where I went to do Katrina relief). I've seen a young man wearing a flowery old-lady's jogging suit. Most of the time, in the villages, the clothes are worn out, and the colors don't match, but the Western cast-offs are cheaper than traditional clothing. On campus, the science building, has a plaque on it "A gift from the people of the United States of America," dedicated by the US sponsored Liberian dictator of the 1980s. Students cram into rooms past doors that hang from busted hinges. Plants grow from the roof; lab counters are disintegrating, with rusty sinks that lost their ability to give water more than a decade ago. In the library there are more books than I expected. I eagerly picked my way along the agriculture row, squinting in the darkness, my nose full of the smell of molding books. There were USDA yearbooks from the 1920s and 30s, a book on pig production in England from 1944. And then I saw the only modern book on the shelves, "Range Management." I recognized the cover, I had seen it before in the US. Just what I need for establishing a cattle program, and teaching animal husbandry, or so I thought. But it turns out it's about semi-arid, American plains rangeland, not at all applicable in tropical Africa. So I went upstairs and sorted though the recently arrived agriculture books, where I found such titles as "The plant life of New Jersey"… hand-me-downs. It reminds me of the cliché "eat your dinner, there are starving children in Africa," and the child's response "why don't we send them my broccoli then".

I found out two days before class started that I'm teaching, Introduction to Agriculture and Animal Husbandry. My students are passionate, dedicated, intelligent people, and they are starving for knowledge. They are going to the most prestigious Liberian University (or at least it once was), paying a tuition they can't afford, studying an industry that is only at the survival level right now. Agriculture, they are told by their friends, is the work of the poor, why would you study that? But when I ask them why they are studying agriculture, their eyes light up. They speak with passion about how important improving agriculture is to helping their nation, how they want to help subsistence farmers to improve agriculture, how they want to bring businesses back to Liberia, how they want to grow food here to feed their people. These young people have known only three years of peace since their childhood. They have seen, and survived unthinkable evil. And now that they have made it to the University their plans aren't to flee for a better life elsewhere. They love their homeland, and they are committed to it's future.

I want the very best for them. But all I have to offer is me, with only a bachelor's degree and no teaching experience. With a hand full of irrelevant hand-me-down books printed more than fifty years ago. But I have the internet (when it's working), a few books I brought, and some creativity. I have deep respect for my students, and a growing love of Liberia.

So far I've taken on the role of a veterinarian (thank's Lucy for the advice! The cat is doing very well), a community needs assessor, a grant writer, a program developer, an ag engineer, and now a college professor. And I thought this Young Adult Service Corps was supposed to be "Mission work 101". The thing about a place like Liberia, is that through extreme need, it invites each person to become the absolute most that they can be with what knowledge and creativity they have. Reinvent the wheel? Why not! I don't think that I will ever help them as much as they are teaching and growing me.

Mary and I were just talking about how we entered this experience willing to sacrifice. And yet, far from sacrificing, we are being richly blessed, by all of you back home and by the people of Liberia. Serving in Africa seems like such a scary thing from the other side of the world, but from this side of the world it's not scary at all, it's beautiful. And any small discomforts (like not having cheese) pale in comparison to the constant joyful reminder of how lucky we are to be serving here.

Reading St. Luke's newsletter over email, I see how the fire of mission is burning strong back home, and it excites me in my work here. "It only takes a spark to get a fire growing". The extreme need in the communities that surround us, no matter where we are, is an invitation for extreme action. We don't have to worry about the outcome, we can leave that to God, we just have to take the fist step, and then see the fire burn in ourselves and spread to others. Love is greater than fear.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Reach Out and Touch Someone

Yesterday evening a few members of the farm management team at Cuttington, and myself, bumped along a narrow, barely passable red dirt road, for several miles, through a rubber plantation, until we came upon our destination: the Leprosy Colony.

It looked like any other village in the area at first glance: a mix of houses constructed from sticks, mud, and palm roofs, and houses of mud bricks and tin. All the children in the colony came running up and swarmed around the car. "Alo, Alo!" they yelled to me. The ones I saw first had big happy smiles, though they were covered in dirt. Many of the small children don't wear clothes, but those who were clothed only had half a tattered outfit on (all western clothes), and flip-flops.

This was one in a series of stops we were making to do preliminary needs assessments in the communities surrounding the University. We had been notified of some potential grant monies for outreach programs, and were fact finding before developing a proposal.

As we went to look at the pigs and chickens people were raising, the children swarmed around me. They wanted to shake my hand, and as each one did, they would laugh with glee and then come back for another one. Some of them just poked me and ran off laughing. I'm used to children laughing at me, there are so few white people around. But these children's laughter was contagious, and pretty soon I was laughing at me too.

"We have 140 children," our guide told us, as they milled around us. "We have a school here, but no teachers, none of our children go to school." After looking at the animals, he took us into the old part of the village that was built by missionaries in 1950. "There are 54 leprosy patients here, and all of their families make 240. This boy here, his mother, there, has leprosy, and he has it." The boy he pointed to was about 10, or 12, it's hard to tell with malnourished children. His eyes didn't shine like the other children, he looked old. I said hello to him and looked around the group again. Their bright eyes had distracted me from their pain. Several had scabs all over their scalps, and many had distended bellies. "We need clean water," our guide said. "The pump does not work, so our water comes from the swamp, and when it rains everything is washed to the swamp. We have no latrines, we need latrines."

We also learned that the colony had organized into farming groups and had a vegetable project, and a fish pond, and that the nearby hospital ( Phebe Hospital, a Lutheran institution) provided free care to leprosy patients, but not their families. People in the colony cannot work, so they survive on subsistence farming and selling some crafts and woven palm mats.

As we were leaving, the children swarmed around the truck again. "Bye, Bye" they shouted this time. The boy with leprosy who our guide had pointed at was standing right by the car, and I shook his hand. He never smiled, just gazed at me.

As we drove away some of the children returned to playing soccer. The newscaster on UNMIL (UN Mission In Liberia) Radio said "150 million children die every year because they don't have access to clean drinking water. 2 Billion people world wide do not have access to clean drinking water." In the US we hear these numbers, and we see images on TV of filthy muddy villages with starving children, and we care, but at some level it remains unreal, so different from our own experience it's hard to conceive. Maybe we feel guilty for a few minutes, or maybe we get involved and sponsor a child, but in the end we return to our lives, because what else can we do. But I think what we miss out on is the humanity of it. When you look people in the eye, when you shake their hand, when you greet each other, you become equals, you see that they are no different from you, you touch their suffering.

Before I came here I talked about wanting to reach out and share the experience of the other. I have not shared their experience. I am well fed, and housed, and clothed, I have filtered water, and someone to haul it for me. But I have met them, and heard some of their needs and concerns. And what I have found is that there is no "other". We are one family. Children everywhere laugh the same and draw the same stick figures, and chase the same balls.

And adults everywhere worry about their children, and providing for their families. I wasn't depressed when I left the Leprosy Colony, something about them filled me up. Perhaps it was their inherent joy, joy without reason. The beautiful thing about Liberia is how much people realize their need for one another. And we (Americans) need them too!

I leave you with the song they sing at church while passing the peace: "Reach out and touch somebody's hand, make this a better place if you can."

Friday, September 22, 2006

First Update--Nuggets of Life in Liberia

Mary Tom and I made it to Africa! And it’s been quite an adventure already. I already feel like I’ve been here forever, even though things are still so new. We spent a day in Monrovia, and then headed out to Cuttington, 120 miles away. We are all still figuring out just what we will be doing here. I’ve been spending time touring the school farm, and am spending this week shadowing the supervisor in each of the different areas. They have a rubber plantation, pigs, chickens, a fish pond in development, vegetables, and rice paddies. I met with the Dean of the College of Agriculture and Rural Development yesterday. It was surreal to look over course schedules and descriptions in his office, where the power was out, and where the walls were still stained from the damage sustained during the war. He said my arrival was timely and he hoped my presence would encourage women to join the
College of Agriculture, which is currently dominated by men. I have a month to work on the farm before classes start. I still don’t know what I will be doing except that I will be working with the students, and with the management team on the farm. The farm management team has welcomed me very warmly. Cuttington’s campus is 1,500 acres, and could be considered the most prestigious college in Liberia. Charles Taylor (the notorious war lord) and his troops occupied the campus for part of the war. They destroyed all the infrastructure, consumed all of the agricultural products and animals, burned all the documents and books, and destroyed the buildings by tearing off the roofs. Not to mention the torture, maiming, and murder they committed all over the country, ultimately resulting in the deaths of 250,000 people. The UN is still a very big presence here, and there are signs of a recent terrible conflict everywhere. Power is returning to parts of the capitol city for the first time in 15 years. Grant funding has provided for basic rebuilding of many campus structures at Cuttington, though running water is still hope for the future. I was surprised to see almost no guns in the streets, even the national police are not allowed to be armed. Progress is being made, very slowly, but a lasting peace will require major economic stimulation. Liberia is the poorest country in the world right now. Cuttington is located in a very rural and impoverished area, and is well placed to make a difference here, as well as educating leaders for a new Liberia.

So some of our adventures have included: Taking a taxi to Gbarnga (pronounced “Bonga”) where the taxies never drive off until there are at least 7 people in them. Shopping in Monrovia where there are absolutely no road signs or traffic signals, and people absolutely everywhere. Being told not to cross the road just in time to see the President’s motorcade speeding past. Hiring a car to take us from the airport who got two flat tires in the dark and pouring rain. Arriving to stay at the Lutheran compound (a veritable fortress) in Monrovia after dark and unexpected. Being taken under the wing of a young man who had spent the war fleeing from refugee camp to refugee camp, he escorted us from Monrovia to Cuttington just to be sure nothing happened to us. Trying to learn “Liberian English”. Learning how to snap fingers with someone who is shaking your hand (a custom). Eating the delicious Liberian cuisine. Our several hour walk around Cuttington’s campus which lead us through several traditional rural villages. Having a face off with the snails in our kitchen whom we will be eating in the next few days (we were feeling much more brave at the idea of snails, now that we have purchased them, they are a bit scary). Trying to figure out how to be a servant when you are being called “Professor” and have a staff of people taking care of you. Passing the peace on Sunday in a country where Peace means so much more than we could ever imagine. Being touched time and time again by people’s stories of pain and survival. Being warmly welcomed, loved, and cared for, by the Liberian people.