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.

The Sun and the Sky: Eclipse (part 2)

I dreamed about the eclipse several times before August 21st. Sometimes they were happy dreams: The sky did strange things, things that would never happen in the waking world, but I was there to see them. Most of the time, though, they were anxious dreams: I wasn’t able to find a place to stay along the path of totality. Traffic held me at a distance until it was too late. The weather was bad.

And it wasn’t just my dreams that held a sense of dread. I, who had known about this event for ten years, I, who should have known better, didn’t think to find a motel until most of them were gone. The eclipse was still months away, and I was already doing it wrong.

It was no longer a little secret between the sun and me; now, everyone knew, and they were just a little bit faster.

I was still an eclipse apologist, converting people and counting the days, but all the worst-case scenarios hung about me, the reminders that foreknowledge was no guarantee.

So there I was, spending the night on a field in middle-of-nowhere Nebraska, hoping like everyone else in this 60-mile stretch from coast to coast that I had won the weather lottery.

Sun peeking out of clouds
8 a.m., three hours and 49 minutes before totality.

 

I wake up engulfed in cloud. Dribbling fog hides the sky, but there is hope, stronger than before, that the sun, the wonderful sun, will burn it all off long before midday.

Living in Denver, Colorado, the sunshine is our most familiar meteorological feature. Rain and even snow are welcomed as visitors, but the sun melts and dries and acts as if nothing else ever was or would be.

The beginning of an eclipse isn’t First Contact, when the moon takes its first, tiny bite out of the sun. No, it’s that morning when the sun comes up over the horizon, it’s when the clouds part and the sun, the whole sun, fills your world, and it’s a better pick-me-up than coffee, and The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” must have been written for this time.

For the sun to disappear, it must first appear.

Less than ten thousand people live in Alliance, Nebraska. The main street is long and wide, and to the south is the train yard. As another train, probably a coal train, thunders by, I wonder aloud how many young people growing up here had, at one time or another, wished to take a train Somewhere Else.

The evening before, everyone seemed to be Somewhere Else. Traffic was light. A roadside booth and a K-Mart clothes rack showcased eclipse souvenirs, but otherwise the town was going about its rhythms with little interference, unless you knew where to look for the tents and the RVs.

And now, Monday morning, everyone is Here. Our makeshift campground begins to fill and the downtown coffee shop is already full and out of food.

You can’t see the sun from the big windows there, but you can see above the storefronts, and the ratio of blue to white is tilting in our favor. I sip hot chocolate or tea, one of the two, and I duck out once or twice to call my parents and look up.

My parents are with extended family in Albany, Oregon, doing the same thing I’m doing. They are an hour behind me, but today they are roughly half an hour ahead. I don’t reach them, but then it is time to put away the board game and get off main street, time to drive fast to the outskirts, me in the passenger seat opening the sunroof and tilting my head back, watching, watching for The Moment, but it is still minutes too soon, and we don’t miss anything at all.

me viewing partial eclipse
11:02 a.m., 47 minutes before totality.

Here comes the moon, do do do do.

A man on a loudspeaker announces First Contact, and for a few seconds I can’t tell which direction the moon is coming from. And then there it is, and the orb is no longer quite an orb. It is like seeing the moon go through its stages, only faster and more dangerous.

I have never seen a partial solar eclipse before. The closest I got was in Shanghai, several years ago. An annular eclipse would begin in southern China after sunrise, then cross the Pacific Ocean and pass over my hometown in northern California before sunset. I was thrilled at the chance to see the same celestial event my family would see from the other side of the world, even if only in partial form, but it was not meant to be. City lights and city smog shielded the sky, but perhaps it was just as well as I had no way to look at the sun safely.

Today, I have my eclipse glasses and they have theirs. We have both traveled to see this sight, and it is now that I reach them, for a few minutes when I am seeing a small sun and they are seeing one smaller still. We watch the waning together, and then I leave them for their totality and wait for mine.

I sit and stare for a few minutes, and then jump up and put on sunscreen, or throw a bag in the car, or look around at my fellow sun-gazers and this bit of green we are choosing to remember for the rest of our lives. It is about an hour and fifteen minutes, this pre-show, but it goes by so quickly.

 

Little by little, the lighting begins to change. There are no trees to cast strange shadows, but it is as if it is overcast, the sun behind a thin cloud, and then a thicker cloud, but all the actual clouds pushed to the edges, the sun high and alone at midday but for the moon. I need my sweater and I can’t contain my joy.

All that light becomes an ever-more-focused sliver, and it looks a manageable orange through my glasses, not the fiercest yellow that ever there was. And there is so much strength even in this tiny ray.

I know in my mind everything I’m meant to be watching for, everything I want my surroundings to be so everything will fall away, everything except the sun and me, and we will have our little secret again. At some point, I forget about my lawn chair and it’s impossible not to be standing.

In the last seconds, the light goes slant and otherworldly, the sky darker but the ground brighter, like sun and smoke, or sun and storm, and then we can look up unprotected, or nearly, as the last of the fierce yellow glint disappears.

 

And there it is, the black moon, backlit by the sun’s corona, a soft whiteness that in some ways resembles the nighttime moon, but is its own wild and beautiful animal, not a reflection but a reveal.

We are caught somewhere between dusk and nightfall. It is pink at each horizon, and we are the epicenter, suspended just before birth or death or both. For right now we are in the front row seats, and there are no rows behind us. The world had changed slowly, almost imperceptibly, for over an hour, and then everything happened at once, and now time is stopped for almost two and a half minutes.

If I could only look at you for two and a half minutes, how much would I remember of the features of your face?

Is that enough time to memorize the features of the sky?

Everyone around me is talking or taking pictures or both, but I am silent and my hands are still.

This new world is only ours for seconds, and then everything will happen at once, again, and it will be gone.

 

When the sun comes back, the sun I knew before, there are fractions of a second when it doesn’t seem so bright, when I can take in the light on the edge, before I have to tear my eyes away for their own sake.

We are ready to leave and so we do. I open the sunroof again and watch the sun grow back. I call my parents and we are mesmerized together by our memories. I keep looking up, and the saddest part for me is when the partial eclipse ends, and wherever you look, it is as if nothing has happened.

 

This is part two of a four-part series.

Part 1: The Sun and the Sky: Beginnings

Part 3: Skydiving

Part 4: Finding Magic

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Living the Joy

_DSC0150Today is a day of joy.

But it’s not Christmas yet.

No, it isn’t. Neither is it any sort of long-awaited day circled on my calendar. There are days I’m looking forward to in the weeks and months and years to come, some of which are attached to definite dates, while others are still fluttering in dreamland.

But I’m not there yet, and I don’t want to live my life in a constant state of assuming that the greatest joys in life are in some future, far-off place. As I get to know people more, as I get to know God more, our relationships won’t be the same. They will get better. In that sense, the best is yet to come. But I don’t want to just bide my time until the conditions are perfect, because the conditions will never be perfect. Not in this life.

I don’t want to lose sight of this journey, this beauty, in a rush to get to a destination. Because the only destination that bears the resounding finality of crossing the finish line in a race is death, and even that is debatable. All the other “destinations,” all the events, the milestones, the turning points, expand the original journey, they don’t complete it.

And yet there is beauty in expectation. There is beauty in waiting. There is beauty in Advent.

In this waiting time, this “now and not yet,” I can find real joy in that just-as-real “now” even as I wait for what is “not yet.”

I don’t think I will ever stop reminding myself how important it is to seek God not as a means to an end, but as an end in Himself. Not as a means to having a more fulfilling Christmas, or being a better person, or finding out my purpose. The noblest of ulterior motives is still an ulterior motive, and it doesn’t compare with the pure joy of knowing and loving just to know and love.

It’s not just about five days from now, or 55 days from now, or five years from now. It’s today.

The Gift of Waiting

There are many things I’m waiting for right now.

And I’m learning to dance in the hallway in front of the closed door, to smile in quiet hope, to sing my half of the song even when you aren’t here to complete the duet.

Calmly holding gifts that I can’t unwrap yet … that is my gift.

Love grown through wisdom learned through patience gained … that is my gift.

The reassurance of a Savior carrying plans that He knows but I do not … that is my gift.

The waiting … that is my gift.