Alone in Africa {A Story of Waiting and Advent}

Kenyan countryside
Kenyan countryside, from my bus window.

Two years ago, I flew to Nairobi for a dear friend’s wedding. It would be a whirlwind trip with only five days on the ground in Africa, my first visit to this continent. I would spend three days meeting Gracie’s new Kenyan family and friends, frosting cakes, and, finally, putting on a red dress and curling my hair to be bridesmaid. But for those first two days, I would take a bus to Mbale, Uganda, to meet Brenda and Remmy, my sponsored children.

My flight arrives late evening, and I only get a few hours of sleep before I have to get up to catch the bus. We drive as close as we can to the station, then make our way through the crowds, Gracie and her fiancée, Ken, seeing me safely on the bus before leaving.

I take one of the closest seats to the door, the stairs down and below my feet, the sun destined to bake me through the windows once it has fully risen. I am carrying two child’s backpacks, each stuffed with toys and school supplies and toiletries, along with my own clothes and my camera. I am bringing no books to read, only my journal and nine Advent cards with a picture on one side and a one- or two-sentence reflection on the other.

The day wears on, the sweat accumulating on my back and at the bridge of my nose. I see zebras on the side of the road once, and monkeys, and an egret and a cow lying down nose to nose. Short trees cover the oh-so-green rolling hills, and plots of land are marked as “NOT FOR SALE.”

I order the beans and chicken everyone else is ordering when we stop for lunch, and I struggle to understand the heavily accented English around me.

I catch snippets of bus announcements, and after a while, when the conductor mentions Kampala but not Mbale, I start to worry that I am not on the right bus. The conductor knows only a little English, so I call Ken on my basic phone, and he talks to the conductor, and then Irene, my local contact at the center, talks to the conductor, but the accents, rendered difficult in person, are nearly impossible for me to unravel over the phone.

Finally, I break through the communication barrier and learn that my first inkling was correct: We are driving north now, as we should be, but when we are still two hours from Mbale, the bus will not take that turn but will instead veer west, bound for Kampala.

I approach the conductor again with my phone, and after he speaks to Ken or Irene in their shared language, I press the phone to my ear, hearing all but understanding very little. I repeat this scene again and again, sometimes with another traveler instead of the conductor, and I piece together more and more of the plan we’re forming, while simultaneously second-guessing everything I think I know of that plan, worrying that no one else understands the situation as I do, that I will be stranded and forgotten.

But in between the phone calls, in between the stops, while this is still the road I am supposed to be traveling, I have nothing to do but watch and wait.

I see Kenya from my window, hundreds of people living their lives: Women selling potatoes on the side of the road, men sitting on the hillside while their sheep or cows or donkeys graze, children playing soccer and holding hands, people walking, walking, always walking. Sometimes, a child skips instead of walks, and my heart skips too.

When I’m not looking out the window, I pull out those Advent cards from the small cloth purse tucked in my bag. Today is day 7 of Advent, and today’s picture is of a full moon in a star-speckled sky presiding over a mountain range. A lightness at the horizon promises that night will soon end. Alicia Heater drew this picture, and on the other side, Cara Strickland wrote, “In my family, we set out the nativity scene on the mantel, without Jesus. The lonely manger reminds me that in this season we embrace waiting empty.”

I read and reread that card and the six that came before it, filling myself with pictures of small lights in the darkness, of snatches of carols and Bible verses about the Incarnation, of words about hope and waiting, memory and silence.

“‘Have you forgotten us?’ ask the Israelites. ‘Have you forgotten us?’ ask Zechariah and Elizabeth. ‘Have you forgotten me?’ I ask.”

I think about how I’m waiting for this long day to end, and how I forget about people in developing countries until they’re right in front of me.

Advent cards
The Advent cards. Artwork by Alicia Heater, reflections (on back) by Cara Strickland.

We stop at the border near sunset, and the crossing takes hours, standing in lines in first one building and then another, filling out forms and getting my visa stamped, and then lots of waiting, milling around on the red patches of dirt, waiting for our bus and then waiting for our driver.

Night is falling by the time we start up again; I see very little of Uganda in the darkness.

We reach a busy intersection, and the bus slows across from a hotel. They are stopping for me. “This is it!” people are saying, everyone now aware of my plight, my confusion, my anxiety. I gather my bags and thank the conductor. A man walks with me across the street while the bus waits for him.

I sit in the dimly lit lobby, surrounded by my possessions, for another two hours. Others notice me waiting and offer to help, but I am now where I need to be. Finally, Irene arrives and we drive the rest of the way to Mbale. I can now relax. It is nearly midnight, and a trip I thought would take six or eight hours has taken 18.

I fall asleep in my fancy hotel room thinking about the kindness of strangers, and I awaken to palm trees and a fancy buffet breakfast and excitement.

I meet Brenda, a teenager on the verge of adulthood whom I have been sponsoring for more than 10 years. She is almost as tall as my 5 feet, 9 inches. I meet her mother and stepfather and siblings, and I see where she goes to school. She is wearing an ankle-length blue-and-black dress, and I recognize her immediately. I can tell she recognizes me too. She can’t stop smiling. She shows me old letters and pictures I’ve sent her over the years. She speaks less English than I expected, but someone is always there to translate.

For weeks, I didn’t know if my other sponsored child, Remmy, would be able to come. He is from another part of Uganda, at least half a day’s journey away. I was planning to mail him his gifts once I was in the country, but then I found out that they would be able to bring him to Mbale after all. He is here with Godfrey, a former sponsored child himself, and they also came on the bus. He is eight years old and shy and doesn’t smile for the camera at first, but eventually we bond over selfies, and he delights in taking pictures of everyone and everything with my DSLR camera. He is wearing a tan suit and dress shoes, but seems more comfortable, more himself, after he takes off the coat.

We eat a meal together, and the center staff share Brenda’s file with me, and then we take the van to her family’s house and I meet everyone. Remmy is there too, sandwiched on the couch between us and treated as part of the family. They open their presents, and then they give me presents I had not expected: a purse with black and white and red beads that Brenda made for me, and a letter from Remmy’s mother that means more to me than I can say. I wish I could have met his family too.

The day fills me up to the brim, worth every twist and turn it took to get here. Before I know it, I am waiting on the side of the road for my bus. Brenda and Remmy and I sneak in a few more pictures, a few more memories, and then the bus arrives and we say our hasty goodbyes.

With Brenda and Remmy
With Brenda and Remmy, right before I left Mbale.

The return trip is uneventful. I sit next to another American all the way to Nairobi. Through the night, I sleep and I wake and I cross back into Kenya and I sleep again. I am not alone and this time I don’t need my Advent cards to comfort me.

So many of my experiences with Christianity have soured, but the season of Advent remains sweet to me. I have a soft spot for “O Come O Come Emmanuel” and the candles and the waiting. I don’t know how much is true and how much is myth in the traditional Christmas story, but somehow, for a few weeks, I’m able to suspend my cynicism and let my heart expand in the darkness.

Advent has never been more special to me than it was that December in Africa, and especially that day when all I had to keep me company were those cards, when I was waiting in the unknown and could only gaze at the pictures and the words and think about all the others who have also felt lost and forgotten.

 

Alicia Heater’s illustrations can be found at slightlystationery.com, and Cara Strickland’s writing at carastrickland.com.

When You Miss the Darkness

dark church
Photo by n3wjack on Flickr’s creative commons

Is it strange that I miss the darkness that sucker-punched my soul?

This was four years ago. I was living overseas, six months split between two continents, saturated in Christian community that was young and fiery and expectant. I was young and fearful and depressed, but this was my chance. This could be my cure.

One day, we left our drafty English manor with its roast dinners and familiar faces and small groups for the Midlands, for Coventry, for Evangelism Week.

During the day, we threw ourselves into creative evangelism and indirect evangelism and woo-woo evangelism. At night, friends and strangers slept beside me on the carpeted church sanctuary floor, but I couldn’t sleep.

Do I really believe what I’m trying to get everyone else to believe?

The door was opened, and oh what blew in! I lay on my half of the air mattress and tried to keep my breathing steady and my body silent. For the first time ever, I was seriously considering walking away from Christianity. And my soul gaped and gasped and trembled as it realized what all that would mean. This wasn’t a drill.

At the time, I would’ve given anything to close that door.

Now, I want to open it again.

The darkness was wild and terrifying and bleak, but it also blew away illusions and assumptions and meaningless hypotheticals, at least for a time. I learned how to be honest with myself and others, how to be awake to my own soul. What I learned in the dark, I carried with me into the light. The darkness was fierce, but so was the light, and I wonder if they needed each other.

Today, I’m so tired. The darkness is not a sucker punch to my gut anymore, but rather weights on my chest that keep getting heavier and making it harder to breath.

Every so often, something breaks through the fog. Every so often, a Lenten hymn or a line in the Creed will catch in my throat, catch on something inside me, and I won’t feel quite so tired that evening. But all too soon, I’m drifting off again, and it’s getting harder and harder for anything to rouse me.

The loop starts again, that cynical loop, whenever anyone bumps the “Play” button. But by now I’m bored by the sound of my own voice. I’m dragging, dragging, dragging, and experience tells me that nothing will happen unless I can somehow make it happen. Someone asks me if it’s faith or fear that keeps me here, and I don’t know, it’s all tangled together. I’m too tired to try anymore.

This is not the darkness that blows open doors and knocks me flat, for good or ill. Rather, this is the darkness of closed doors and stale air. Maybe one day I will find good in this too, but I can’t help but think that the door needs to open again, whatever may lie behind it now, even if it scares me. Even if I die a sort of death in the process.

Who knows what the morning will bring, or the evening.

 

This post is a part of Addie Zierman’s synchroblog to celebrate the release of her new book, Night Driving: A Story of Faith in the Dark. Read other entries here.

Beautiful Truth

I want to be someone who sees the good, the silver lining, the glass half full. I don’t want to burrow into cynicism, negativity, and, eventually, contempt about my world and its people. But at the same time, I don’t want to be one who is easily fooled and misled, duped by false appeals to emotion, by propaganda, by happy masks that hide ugly realities.

I want to see the truth and I want to see the good. In such a broken world, is it possible to have both? Or am I just trying to have my cake and eat it too? When motives might be mixed or Hollywood romanticizes a true story, can I still embrace the beauty (even the partial beauty) of the message? Should I? Or would it be willful ignorance to welcome that good when there’s even a chance of a hidden agenda?

Sometimes, the appearance of good is used to hide what is truly bad, whether that is a defective product hiding behind pretty lies, or slave labor hiding behind cheap products. Then, “embracing the good” is really just looking the other way. Then, the issue is black and white. Then, there is no good to be found nor beauty to be mined, only truth to be exposed.

Sometimes. But it’s those not-so-black-and-white cases that I want to look at.

It’s easy — almost automatic — to be critical, to point the finger at supposed consumerism, manipulation, or pandering. And yes, chances are, the bigger the movie or project is, the more likely it is that some of those involved are just in it for the money. But does that possibility render any good message, any touch of beauty, null and void? I say no!

Our motives aren’t completely pure and true, yet God still uses us. Who are we to impose harsher standards on others than God does on us? And yet, it’s so easy to do because we can see our hearts but we can’t see the hearts of others. We excuse and justify ourselves, but question others’ motives. When we don’t know the people behind the art or the project or the story, it’s even easier to let the cynical words fly.

We aren’t perfect people with perfect hearts and minds who create perfect art. No one is. So why are our standards so impossibly high? Why do we keep setting ourselves up for disappointment and colder hearts?

You may have already seen this video of Dove’s social experiment exploring “how women view their own beauty in contrast to what others see.“ If you haven’t, I encourage you to watch it. I found its message inspiring, thought-provoking and full of truth. Not the be-all of truth, not the perfect, complete picture of what true beauty is, but still worth celebrating for what it is: a poignant step in the right direction.

Since I watched it, I’ve read several critical comments pointing out perceived flaws in the message, questioning the project’s authenticity, or remaining skeptical of its motives. These responses started the train of thought that led to this blog.

Art might just show us bits and pieces, the tip of the iceberg, the first step. It might not reach its fullest, perfect potential. But we aren’t perfect either, so why not recognize, celebrate, and learn from the nuggets and handfuls of truth and beauty and goodness rather than cast them aside for not being bigger and brighter?