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.