The thoughts of a woman trying to live simply yet abundantly, contentedly yet expectantly, wisely yet adventurously... all for His glory.

6.20.2009

a time to mourn and a time to dance

To work in the wards on the Africa Mercy is to be confronted by extremes--despair and joy, poverty and riches, darkness and light, mourning and dancing.

I watched in tears as one of the VVF Coordinators held the hand of one of my patients and explained to her that we were sorry, but we would not be able to do the surgery that we had planned. I watched as the interpreter and the VVF Coordinator took their turns explaining the situation to her, and I watched the light die out of her eyes and her entire body slump in defeat as understanding broke her.

I watch as some of my ladies who have been through VVF surgery realize that they are still wet; the surgery did not fix the hole in their bladder. Most are stoic, still thankful that we tried to help. But with many women you can see that hope has left them in the same way that husbands and families have abandoned them.

And yet a few days ago I danced in the hallway with the women as they marched up and down the corridor singing and clapping, enjoying some time outside the ward.

I held a beautiful three month old baby named Louise, whose birth caused her mother's fistula. Louise is cause for joy because most of the complicated, prolonged labors that cause a woman to receive a fistula also cause the baby to be stillborn.

I made my hands into fists and moved my arms as if I were gently pounding on a tabletop, a motion that means "it is good!" after I removed the pad underneath one woman. Her eyes widened as she understood the implication of my action-- she was dry!-- and she signed back to me "it is good!"

It's hard to have to live with both the joy and the sadness. It's also hard to know that although we are able to help many people, there are thousands more that we cannot help. Mercy Ships had to turn away 1150 people during a recent screening day because we had no more room on our surgical schedule.

It's easy to think about all the "if only's": if only we had additional specialty surgeons. If only we had more operating room nurses and ward nurses and pediatric nurses. If only we had enough staff to operate all six operating rooms and open all 75 beds. If only we had more room on the surgical schedule. If only we had more resources: time, money, equipment, staff, you name it.

But when I look into the sleeping face of little Louise, I know I am thankful to be a part of how God is healing people and changing lives here in Benin. I am thankful that God gives me grace to live with these kinds of extremes. I am reminded that the joy of the Lord is my strength (Nehemiah 8:10).

6.13.2009

this little piggy went to Dantokpa market



(Photo taken by my friend & fellow crew member, Giles Smalley. Check out Giles and Adrienne's blog for their perspectives regarding Mercy Ships.)


My bunkmate is a highly adventurous Aussie woman named Margot. She was given AUS $50 by a coworker to buy musical instruments to give to children in a local orphanage. Yesterday, Margot invited me to come along with her as she went to the market with Matthieu, one of the ward translators, to search for said musical instruments.

An acquaintance who served two years with the Peace Corps in Benin warned me that I might be so overwhelmed by the market that I might cry. For the record, I did not cry. But I did pray.


You can find nearly anything you want at the Dantokpa market: beans, chilies, vegetables and fruits, assorted seafood, herbs (I recognized aloe and eucalyptus), eggs, live hens and doves, chipmunks (or a close cousin), cement chunks, dish soap, DVDs, fabric, cow patties or coal, and musical instruments. We would never have found our way without Matthieu, who stopped to ask directions at least twice as we wound our way through the muddy, narrow aisles, watching both where we stepped and also all around us as people bustled in every direction.

We paused to let a man pulling a wheeled metal cart pass us. His cart became stuck briefly on a large concrete chunk, and to make matters worse the nearest woman selling her wares began to tug his cart in the opposite direction, preventing him from continuing on his way. Apparently she was angry that he had chosen to pull his cart so close to her corner. A shouting match ensued, settling down only after the man violently yanked his cart off the concrete block and the woman threw a bowlful of water at him, narrowly missing me as I scurried to get out of the fray.

We finally found the two stalls that sold musical instruments, and I settled onto a concrete stoop to people-watch while Margot decided what she wanted and Matthieu did the haggling. I received many stares--some curious, some less-than-friendly--as I sat there, but almost no one stopped to show me their wares, so I simply took in the general 'ambiance.'

It's hard to even know how to describe what I saw displayed for sale in the market stalls across from me. Will you believe me when I tell you what I saw? Monkey heads and skulls, dead songbirds and vultures, dessicated lizards, hippo feet, hippo skulls, live fish in water bottles, long shanks of golden and black hair (lion mane?), leopard skins, and all sorts of other dead and decaying things.

Margot asked Matthieu about these things, but the most he could say--or would say--was that they are used in traditional religious ceremonies.

While many of my patients wear a double strand of beads around their waist as a protective fetish, this little trip into the market opened my eyes to the more macabre side of Vodun, also known as Voodoo. Benin is called the birthplace of Vodun, and although only 18% of the population practice it, that still amounts to about 1 million people. Often traditional Vodun beliefs are syncretized--I think of it as layered--with Catholicism or Christianity. (For an in-depth, academic explanation, including a brief discussion about what the response of the Church should be, check out this link.)

So with the hot African sun beating down on me, I sat on the concrete stoop and thanked God that the war has already been won. I prayed for the people of Benin--strong, dancing, passionate--who reflect Imago Dei, the image of God. I prayed for the people involved in this kind of belief system--that God would break through their darkness and make Himself known, for He is light and in Him there is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5).

And after a little while, Margot and Mathieu called me over to help carry their purchases: assorted drums, rattles, bead-covered gourd shakers, and what can only be described as cow bells. I wrapped a heavy yellow and red wooden drum under my arm and followed them back out of the maze of the market.

I've thought about it, and I did not feel an oppressive sense of evil or darkness while I was there. Rather, I felt sadness that today, in 2009, people are still living in belief systems that require darkness and death. It was hard to see all the dead animals--beautiful creations of God--rotting and laid out in rows for use in ceremonies. And I was once again thankful for a God of infinite power and love, who calls His people out of the darkness and into the light.

Not all of the patients that come to Mercy Ships are Christian. Some are Muslim, and some have layered traditional religion plus Christianity. But we tell people over and over that we have come because we love Jesus, and we tell them that through Him we have new life and freedom.

As one of the translators said during the VVF dress ceremony I went to this week, "God has seen your sufferings and has made a way through the sea for this ship to come."

We have come on this ship as people with a story: a story of how God has led each of us, both individually and collectively, out of darkness and into light. He has cast out fear with His perfect love. And as we seek to love and heal the people we meet, we pray that they too will come to know Him.

The war has already been won.

6.07.2009

chasing after the new

Just a few thoughts today...not nearly sufficient to encompass the experiences of the last week, but they are all I have at the moment.

I am afraid I will end up disappointing some of you regarding my lack of pictures. I'm struggling with the reality that I am here--on the M/V Africa Mercy, docked in Cotonou, Benin--and you are not. I can take picture after picture and write detailed lists of the people I am meeting and what I am seeing, eating, smelling, etc., but it will not be enough to bring you here with me to walk the dusty roads of downtown Cotonou together. I will try to share Cotonou with you to the extent that I can, but please bear with me when I get frustrated by the inability of words and pictures to convey even a fraction of what I am experiencing here.

I mentioned something fundamentally important in the previous paragraph--did you catch it? Read again, and this time notice where I am living--on the M/V Africa Mercy, which just so happens to be docked in Cotonou, Benin at the moment. You need to understand that I am living on a ship with 300 some other people from all over the world, but I am not living in Africa. I happen to be taking day trips into Africa, but that is not the same thing. At the end of the day I come back to the ship: back to AC, a library, computers, a warm (albeit quick) shower, Starbucks coffee, regular meals, and the latest rugby match on the TV. I leave behind the oppressive heat, the open sewers, the acrid smoke of the zemidjans, the dust and trash, and the sense of my 'otherness' that shadows me when I am off the ship. It is a little strange to be experiencing not one but two new environments at once: ship life, and Beninoise life.

In a semi-related vein, I was thinking today about the process of transitioning from "new" to "normal." Life here has generally transitioned from being exhilaratingly new to being (relatively) familiar and normal. I sat in church today--the same church I attended two weeks ago-- and realized I wasn't feeling the same thrill of newness as before. I then realized how easy it is to chase after the new things in life, always needing "new" people, experiences, and places to be happy. Potentially dangerous, too, to continually be running after the feelings of novelty and excitement that accompany new experiences. If I once start to feel that I have seen all there is to see here at this moment in Benin, that is also the moment I start wanting to go somewhere else so I can feel the pulse-pounding newness again. Instead, I want to be characterized by consistency, and by contentment with the old and the familiar. I'm reminded of Paul, who spoke about being content whatever the circumstances. I'm also reminded of God, who as I AM is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

The challenge is to be faithful in this place, at this moment in time.