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


things I will never be able to put into words

Assuming I can read your mind with some degree of accuracy, you will want to know certain things when I get home.

For example, I have not taken what you might call "classic missionary in Africa pictures"--myself surrounded by a sea of smiling black children; cuddling little ones with enormous liquid dark eyes; tiny sleeping brown babies tied with a bedsheet onto my back. Those things have happened, to be sure. But the things that are worth taking pictures of are exactly the kinds of things that it is impossible to take pictures of. And I am trying to the best of my ability to not perpetuate the unconscious voyeurism that comes so naturally when you view African snapshots from the comfort of your living room at home.

I will not be able to come home and talk about how Africa itself has changed me, or how Africa is in my blood, or how I may be white outside but have an African heart (all things that various friends have said upon returning home from Africa).

But while I may not be changed in exactly those ways, the fact remains that I am changed.

Before I came, I mentally equated coming to work with Mercy Ships to taking a spiritual cliff-dive: step up to the edge, take a deep breath, and plunge off into the unknown. The truth is that God gives of Himself abundantly. He took the tiny amount of faith and trust I had and covered the rest with grace, and when I look back I wonder why it seemed such a trustfall to come to Benin. It turns out to have only been a small step of obedience. Who knows what steps of obedience may be required of me next, but each time His grace will be sufficient.

Part of what has changed me is the conversations I am having here: conversations of a depth that universities back home struggle to foster. Gather people from all corners of the world to live together in community, to work towards a common purpose, and with love of God and others as a common motivation, and certain types of conversations will flow naturally.

I have talked about what I think about President Obama; what I think about black people; what my friend Christian thinks about white people; why Americans are typically so ignorant of what is going on in the rest of the world; what other countries think of American foreign policy, especially the war in Iraq (I'm unable to comment with any intelligence at all on this last one).

I am learning about what really constitutes luxury; what disease in the body can do to a person's heart and soul; what fear can drive people to do; how so much of my lifestyle at home is bought at great cost to other people; what it looks like to dream of opportunity but have no real hope for it to actually materialize.

I am learning what it means to ask questions with humility. I am learning just how much I do not know. I am learning to listen, I am learning to slow down, I am learning what it looks like to honestly care for another person, and I am learning of the faithfulness of God despite appearances. God is faithful despite poverty, despite disease, despite shame, despite ostracization, despite fear, despite brokenness.

I am learning to trust that when all is said and done, God is the answer to the unanswerable questions.


first night

I spent my first night on African soil last weekend in a small town/village called Dassa-Zoume, about 4 hours' drive from Cotonou. Dassa is known for its basilica, 41 hills, and a nearby river with hippos, among other things.

After spending literally hours working out the logistical nightmare of trying to arrange transportation, hotel rooms, and a hippo tour for 14 yovo nurses, we woke up bright and early on Saturday morning to shoulder our luggage and walk down to the port entrance to wait for our transportation.

In true Beninoise fashion, we sat and waited. And waited. And waited for nearly two hours for our pre-arranged transportation to arrive. As we were attempting unsuccessfully to call the interpreter who had arranged everything for us, another two interpreters--Daniel and Charalampous--rode by on a zemidjan, telling us that they would take care of everything, just give us 20 minutes.

And also in true Beninoise fashion, they returned in the allotted time with our new transportation--an old ambulance redone as a very large taxi. We were amazed that in only about half an hour it was possible to come up with transportation for such a large group of people!

After 4 hours bumping down the (mostly) paved road, we arrived in Dassa at L'Hotel du Auberge. What a treat! Each room was outfitted with a double bed, a fan, private bathroom with a sink, shower, and flush toilet (the old-fashioned tank-above-the-toilet variety). The sweet citronella scent permeating the air, screens over the windows, and a mosquito net over the bed made the ambiance complete.

We set out to explore the town, heading first in the direction of the Catholic basilica. It draws thousands of pilgrims each August as they commemorate the appearance of an image of the Virgin Mary in a grotto several hundred years ago. After exploring the church grounds, we asked some local women where we could hike in the hills, as some of the 41 rocky hills that surround Dassa are sacred. We started off down a path that turned out to lead directly through the yards of some of the townspeople, so we started attracting attention rather quickly.

After making friends with some of the children we met as we traipsed through their front yard, they showed us a small boulder we could climb in their backyard. It had a fair view of the town, but we wanted to keep climbing.

As we climbed, we scrabbled through a jungle of trees and stickery vines and tried to avoid stepping on the hundreds of large snails and giant millipedes(!). At times the rocks were so slippery that we had to haul each other up... with the help of four of the kids, who were amazingly strong. Finally there came a point where those of us in flip flops had to turn back while the rest forged ahead in search of a better view. We hadn't really thought to hike right away or I certainly would have worn my tennis shoes!

Andrea and I headed back down, making friends with the kids who hollered "yovo, yovo!" as we passed. After a lovely cold shower, we ventured into the 'backyard' of the hotel where some ostriches were fenced. Only in Africa!

After the rest of the group arrived from their climb we assembled for dinner at the hotel--we'd been instructed by the hotel staff to order 2-3 hours ahead of time, and the same thing for everyone: roasted chicken and fries. Dinner was eaten by candlelight as the electric lights attracted all sorts of giant flying insects which being true women we did not appreciate. Toughest chicken I have ever eaten, but despite that it was very good when coupled with fries and a Youki pamplemousse (grapefruit soda bottled in Cotonou, similar to a Fresca), not to mention a fabulous chocolate mousse.

After dinner it was time to tuck ourselves in under the mosquito nets to sleep before our 0600 departure to look for some hippos!

That next morning, our transportation was (thankfully) prompt... however, instead of the two vehicles we had contracted for through the hotel, there was only one: a rusty, beat-up blue van. One of the nurses who speaks French told our driver that since there was only one vehicle, we would not pay full price. We then crammed 13 yovos and two Beninoise into this tiny, uncomfortable, falling-apart piece of blue junk. There was a significant hole under the gas and brake pedals in the front through which the road sped by underneath. Several people sat on the floor, several had to sit facing backwards on a makeshift seat behind the front seats, and the rest of us crammed onto bench seats. For a tall woman like me, the seats were sufficiently high that I had to sit hunched over or risk a head injury. So off we went, until of course we had to stop at a roadside stand so we could get some (illegally imported, varied quality) petrol. Then onwards.

I thought a journey of 25km (16 miles) would not take us more than a half hour to an hour, allowing as always for what we fondly call "African time." However, goodness only knows how far we traveled, because it certainly took almost 2 hours in that wretched van to reach the river. Along the way, we had the additional boon of breathing in the acrid fumes from the petrol, and the unexpected adventure of a small creek having washed away a good chunk of the road. We all piled out of the van, and the driver attempted to drive over the creek. No luck. Now the van was stuck in the mud at a forbidding angle. Fortunately some men had come along on zemis, and they helped push the van back out of the mud. The second attempt over the "river" was the charm, thankfully, so we once again all piled into our assigned niches and we were off again.

(Side note: one of the zemi drivers was carrying a baby goat like a woman would carry a purse, with its legs were tied together and it was strung over one shoulder. The poor thing cried as it went past us, hauntingly similar to a child's cry. I realize that goats are animals, and they are also very tasty, and there are not really pets in this part of the world. But still! It was a little disturbing.)

After jostling around for nearly two hours, we finally reached the village near the river where we were supposed to meet some local men to paddle our canoes and act as our guides on the hippo-search. However, there were no canoes: someone had died in the next village over and the body was currently being transported somewhere. So we stood by the river and hoped for additional canoes to come along. Of course, the presence of yovos had roused the entire village--or at least most of the kids--to come and stand with people with the strange white skin.

(Keep in mind the absurdity of the whole situation from a Beninoise point of view. Not only are there 13 yovos in a rather remote village in south-central Benin, but that a group of Beninoise women would never ever EVER set out for this kind of trip--not just the hippo part, but the whole thing. It's just not done. One of our translators on the wards had already told us, smiling as he did so, that he didn't think we could possibly want to go to Dassa on our own, without an interpreter and (reading between the lines) without a man to navigate the bumps for us.)

So on the banks of the River Ouémé we stood hoping for more canoes. While waiting, we marveled at the industry of some ants who had literally dug a long, winding trench with raised sides in the ground, stretching as far as the eye could see in each direction. During our marveling at the ants, we realized that we ourselves were being explored by said ants. And the ants were biting. "Having ants in your pants" took on an entirely new, unpleasant, literal meaning.

So now we are standing, paranoid about the ants, and (of course) feeling all sorts of real and imagined critters crawling on us. And at about this time, a few canoes arrive to start our trip downriver to look for hippos.

One canoe held nine yovos (plus two men to paddle... the total weight must have been close to a ton! In a single, carved wooden canoe; amazing!), and the other canoe held only three yovos (one decided to wait it out on the banks) plus two guides. Down the river we headed, the men paddling leisurely and the yovos white-knuckling the sides as we adjusted to the back-and-forth motions of the canoe.

After about an hour, our guides pointed the canoe towards the banks and told us to get out. So we waited on the bank, watching mystified as the guides "called" the hippos by banging on the sides of the canoes with their paddles. Why hippos would be attracted to that, I don't know. Certainly none showed up. After a while, our French-speaking nurse negotiated with the guides to take us downriver further to where the hippos supposedly lived--a big, mean daddy hippo, mama hippo, and a baby hippo. Convicing the guides took some work, as they kept explaining that we did not want to get too close and that we would not see more than a hippo's back anyway (they don't stand up on their hind legs or shake hands in greeting, apparently).

But downriver we went again, the guides telling us to be quiet and still, yet singing and talking loudly themselves. After a while they skirted around a little island in the middle of the river and pointed to a small gray area raised out of the water. Apparently, it was a hippo sleeping. We sat for quite a while waiting, but the thing (pile of rocks?) never moved, not even when the guides "called" it with violent pounding on the sides of the canoes again.

We finally grew tired of the sun, waiting for the "hippo" to move, and the swaying of the canoes and decided to call it a day. Our guides paddled us back to their village where we happily climbed back out onto dry land and jammed ourselves back into the blue van for the long ride back to our hotel.

And that's it for the Dassa weekend, folks! We arrived safely back at the hotel, where we had to haggle with our drivers over the cost of the ride to the village. We had told them upfront that we would not pay the full price for only one vehicle when we had contracted for two. On top of that one of the men insisted that he ought to be paid extra for acting as our "guide" when we had neither wanted nor contracted for a guide... nor did he do anything other than ride in the car with us. Anyway, we settled things and piled back into the relative comfort our ambulance-turned-taxi to head back to Cotonou.

All in all: a lovely weekend away from the ship, an African-style adventure, and a lot of quality time with my yovo friends. What more could a girl want?


what to do in Cotonou

The last two days have been a nice respite from being cooped up on the ship. Yesterday I walked with some girlfriends to the nearby Hotel du Lac, where for 2500 CFA (US $5) you can relax and swim in the piscine (pool). We enjoyed jumping off the high dive (not terribly gracefully on my part, I admit, but it was fun!) and swimming around. On the way home we went into a supermarket which sold everything you might ever need, from sausage and cheese to underwear and foie gras. We gambled successfully and did not get rained on all day!

Today we walked to the Centre de Promotion de l'Artisanat (CPA), also known as the craft market. Getting there is quite the experience as you have to walk quite a long ways along the waterfront, dodging in and out of the crowd of semitrucks waiting to pick up cargo at the port and the inevitable mass of zemidjans. Add in lots of muddy puddles, men randomly peeing in public, semis jacknifing while trying to make u-turns, a multitude of roadside vendors, and noxious black clouds of exhaust, and you have a fairly good idea of the obstacle course we walked! The craft market turned out to be inside an area surrounded by a sculptured and painted cement fence. I expected hordes of people jostling around, lots of hissing and shouts of "sista" and "yovo" (white person), but was pleasantly surprised at the calm. No crowds of people and very few aggressive or persistent vendors...definitely more my style than the Dantokpa marketplace which was a zoo.

Highlights of the day: practicing French with the vendors; bartering for my one purchase; explaining (in French!) the words of an English hymn to a painter, who then proceeded to sing the first few lines of the song to me; stopping on the way back home at a quaint little boulangerie where for $1.60 I enjoyed un chausson de pomme (apple pastry).

One thing I still don't understand is why it is acceptable to just shout out "yovo!" as we walk by. At home, it would never be all right to holler "black person!" or "foreigner!" or "tourist!" at people as they walked by.

I do know that the longer I am here, the more comfortable I feel being out and about. Cotonou will never feel like home, but it has mercifully ceased to be the full-on assault on the senses that it was initially.


life on and off the ship, aka a newsy update

My work schedule has not been the most conducive recently to getting off the ship, and the rainy season has not helped either. Many things become significantly more complicated or even impossible once the unpaved roads can no longer absorb the rainfall.

Despite that, though, I have been able to get off the ship some recently. I do have pictures, but can't upload them at the moment so will try to add them later.

Earlier this week I took a tour of some of the off-ship ministries. We stopped first at the Hospitality Center which is a warehouse converted by Mercy Ships to sleeping space for patients either before or after their surgeries, as well as the evaluation and follow-up site for some of the eye patients and for the orthopedic patients who have a lot of rehab.

Next we visited one of the sites of the eye team, which rotates around 5 different locations depending on the day of the week (this helps with the logistics: imagine trying to queue, evaluate, and treat 400 blind or visually impaired people... and that's just at one site, on one day!). Some people just need eyedrops or steroids; others are referred to the ship for cataract surgery. Some are given "prescription" glasses--I say "prescription" because what happens is that patient tries on a pair or two, and if their sight is improved then it's a match. Obviously we don't have the facilities or equipment to create custom lenses for everyone, nor is that high on our priority list (helping the blind see by removing their cataracts definitely trumps eyeglasses). Even a moderate improvement with eyeglasses is still an improvement.

Last on our itinerary for the day was visiting the dental site in Akpakpa, which is a little way outside of Cotonou. Some NGO built the Benin government a really nice facility that was intended for a labor and delivery ward/maternity clinic, but the government doesn't have the money to pay staff to work there, so this really nice compound has been sitting empty... until Mercy Ships. The Beninoise government offered MS the use of the building and it has worked really well apparently. The team is able to run generators for their electricity, sterilization equipment, etc. A lot of teaching happens here (dental hygiene, how to prevent cavities, etc.) as well as extractions and cleanings. Interestingly, some people have really nice teeth here, and others have severe cavities and infections of all sorts. Many of my patients use a stick to clean their teeth--it looks like a really thick toothpick, but with a blunt end which is chewed until soft and then rubbed on the teeth.

The biggest adventure on this tour was the drive to and from the sites--since we are in the rainy season, things get unpassable really quickly. Dirt roads quickly turn into lakes and rivers, and I was thankful we were in a utility vehicle, as the water was probably waist high in some areas! Below: a truck headed towards us as it begins to head down into one of the "puddles."


Today I visited an orphanage called Jardin d'Eden with a group of Mercy Shippers. I'm not sure who runs the orphanage, but the kids ranged in age from probably 4 or 5 to about 15. Everything today was tied to the story of Joseph as he went from being the favored son with the robe of many colors to being sold into slavery to interpreting dreams for pharoah and being reunited with his family eventually. I was really impressed with the way the lessons were all related to the story--everything from singing, doing a skit, coloring, and games all served to help the kids remember the story.

As often happens when anyone from Mercy Ships is out around town, a mother who lived nearby brought her little boy to us. A little spitfire about two years old, he burned part of his arm 6 days ago, probably in a cooking accident. It's unfortunately all too easy for kids here to accidentally pull a pot of steaming food from the cooking fire down on themselves. (Incidentally, I have not seen too many burn patients, but the surgeon who does those cases will be returning soon so I might.)

What do I know about burns? Next to nothing. But I was there along with one other nurse, so we were called upon to give recommendations to the mother. Through a translator, we talked about how to keep the wound clean with clean water (boil water, add a spoonful of salt, and let it cool), how to keep it moist (she was already applying a cream meant for sunburn which was not probably ideal, but it was probably helping), and how to cover it to keep the cream in place and to keep the dirt out. I don't know anything more than that, but hopefully that should be enough to keep the open areas clean, moist, and free of infection so it will heal. Fortunatelythe burn was not very deep, so I think he will end up with scars but not lose use of his hand or arm.

I could definitely use a primer on first aid with an emphasis on bush medicine. Although I am not in the bush, even in Cotonou people with very basic health problems and accidents and cannot necessarily go to the doctor. They can't afford it. So a whole range of problems--from the "little" things like ear infections and cuts, to bigger things like burns, days-long labor, cleft palate, tumors, and flesh-eating bacterial infections--are essentially untreated apart from whatever can be found over the counter or through the local herbalist or the equivalent.


This afternoon about 85 of the Americans onboard went to the US Ambassador's house for a Fourth of July celebration. We had originally been told we would go to the US Embassy, but no such luck! All the US citizens of Cotonou were invited, so there were maybe 100 people total for a potluck meal and socializing. It was very low key, but it was nice to be off the ship and in a lovely backyard with food and music and plumeria trees (I had a flower in my hair but I lost it before coming back to the ship). I met some MS folks I hadn't met before as well as some people who work for the US Embassy in various capacities. Overall a nice dinner, and it was fun to have some classic foods like corn on the cob. In order to have corn on the cob, they had to buy a plot of land and plant the seeds themselves--you just can't buy sweet corn around here. I think there is feed corn, but not sweet corn! A little hilarious, the lengths that people will go sometimes for particular foods. :) But I enjoyed the corn anyway.

Nothing much else to add at this point. I continue to enjoy work, and the way things are scheduled means I might work 6 days (64 hours) one week and 3 days (24 hours) the next. But going off ship is limited by transportation or, more accurately, the lack thereof. You are limited either by the heat, the rain, or by how far you can walk... or, by how complicated it is to get someone to drive somewhere. But I have a long list still of things I want to see and places I want to go! And of course life in the wards is always an adventure.

Tout a l'heure! (See you later/until later!)