Monday, December 13, 2010

Mission in Africa, Advent Dec. 13

Our early "Christmas" with pastors
The last regular pastor's meeting was also our last meeting before Christmas. Phyllis Hankins has been teaching English classes to the pastors weekly, and as it was an end of the semester, she handed out simple prizes (mostly pencils, rulers, some crayons in little baggies), for those who had the best attendance, the top three scores, and the most improved. The most improved was Mama Helena, an older evangelist who is pastoring a church, who has not had the opportunity for education before in her life. She has learned to hold a pencil and to write and to speak a bit. She said now she is proud to know the letters and can even say the letter "U". I have often helped her with her homework, which she finds quite difficult. She is the one who gave her African shout for Phyllis and I when we said we were now the drivers in our families, due to the injuries of Steve and Boo. When she got her award, I jumped up and shouted as best as I could and gave her a big hug. She was extra tickled. All the pastors were SO pleased to receive these simple things; their eyes shone. One special moment was watching them examine the rubber bands. The two women ended up taking the ones of the brightest colors and using them as bracelets.
Phyllis also handed out, grab bag style, one article each of used clothes donated by visiting teams. It was also the time to give out the Christmas monetary donations to each pastor from Holston Conference. After all these gifts, and the obvious gratitude of the pastors, I stood and led a common expression of appreciation as we sometimes do in groups by all clapping together in a certain rhythmic clap. One pastor then stood and expressed thanks for these gifts, saying it is more than his mother, father, brother or sister can give him. The rest of the session turned into my Christmas; this became a spontaneous event, Sudanese style. Time was given for everyone who wanted to, to stand and say what was on their mind. One after one stood and expressed thanks. Several gave prayers. They are thankful for the English lessons they have had. Several mentioned (first was Mama Helena) that before they could not even speak much in front of others, and now they are speaking more, and some are able to speak to other people in English. They expressed appreciation to Holston Conference, for the water, and other things. They expressed that these gifts also tell then how much God also loves them. They appreciate the missionaries who have left home and family to "come suffer with us in Sudan". This was a real celebration. (we have had other sessions like this but with needs expressed). Steve shared that although we have left family and home to come here, we are humbled by the pastor's constant sacrifice by serving with little or no pay; that in itself is a gift to us. My "Christmas" this day was being in the midst of sharing, gifts (small but meaningful), thanks and celebration. God's love (and Christmas) can be shared in small but meaningful ways. Here, cultural reminders of the Christmas season are not all around us. The Churches don't celebrate advent. Christmas decorations and trappings feel out of place in the heat and tropics, as I am from a northern climate. Christmas presents even feel out of place. But small reminders of the grand generosity and love of God do seem very appropriate, and this is what I will remember as I find ways to celebrate this year.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Mission in Africa - December 7

Village Visits
After much preparation, in November we have started going to the United Methodist Church in each village to have an all day planning session with all the local chiefs, leaders and people. Pastor Isaac Sebit rides his motorcycle and we ride ours, since the Hankins need to use their Landcruiser every day. Most of the rural roads are treacherous with ruts, mud holes and sandy spots, so we fall off the motorcycle now and then (at very low speeds with no serious injuries.) Usually Steve drives; but there is about 10 miles of the dirt road northeast of Yei that has been smoothed and hard-packed this year, and Diantha drove that stretch last Friday, her first trip driving the cycle. We switched drivers when it was time to go off the main road, and spent one hour going down a grassy lane, with mudholes and potholes, etc. Hard going, two falls despite new mud tires, but the meeting after we got there was very good. At the beginning of the planning meeting, Steve reminded folks of Jesus' teaching that if we have faith even the size of tiny mustard seeds (we held up sesame seeds), we can move the mountains represented by their huge problems. He also reminded them of the story of Jesus' feeding the 5,000 as a reminder that though the people may feel they have few resources in the face of the big task ahead, God wants us to make the commitment of offering it. Diantha had brought 5 small loaves and two dried fish, and gave them to some of the children to bring up front; of course the children started sharing it among themselves and eating before their part, but that's ok; the adults applauded and laughed as the children held up what was left of the object lesson. By the end of the meetings with the first three villages, we are as excited with the process of getting people to take ownership and action as we are of the selection of projects. Each of the 2 churches so far chose getting training to improve their farming production, wisely concluding that this might not only help them feed their families better but also give them more cash to solve other problems including paying school fees and for medicines. We're arranging for them to be trained by another nonprofit group here that does excellent training, and will help them reproduce that training back in their villages for other farmers. Since we'll go through this village planning process with 17 churches, it will take some months, and it will be slowed by the registration and campaigning for the important Referendum to be held January 9-16 on whether south Sudan should be independent from the north.

Hurt Arm
On November 8 Diantha and I were traveling to Kirikwa, a remote village about 2 hours from Yei. We worked it out that Diantha should ride on the back of Pastor Isaac Sebit's motorcycle, because he is a much more experienced motorcycle driver than I, and we decided it was safer for her. I drove our motorcycle, which I had spent a scant 2 months learning on since we got it.  About an hour into the trip as we dodged huge potholes in the road, I was necessarily going slowly, less than 6 mph, but steered too tightly around a pothole and the motorbike fell. I put out my right arm to catch myself as I fell, and my weight and that of the bike pushed the arm into my shoulder. My arm and shoulder hurt badly at first, but after about 5 minutes it subsided enough that I decided to get back on the cycle and drive another hour to Kirikwa II United Methodist Church. I was able to help Diantha facilitate a 4-hour planning meeting with Kirikwa I and Kirikwa II UMCs, eat a leisurely meal with the churches, then drive 2 hours back home to Yei.  For about two weeks after the incident I kept thinking it was just a strain and bruised muscle, but after 2 weeks when I couldn't raise my right arm past my shoulder, I talked with a friend Sunday after missionary fellowship, Dr. Constance Rossow (German doctor) advised me to see her husband Dr. Matthias Rossow right away about my shoulder, so Monday I did.  He diagnosed a partial rotator cuff rupture and urged me to get an MRI right away to determine whether just physical therapy, or surgery plus physical therapy would be needed.  According to Dr. Matthias, surgery of this kind would have meant going to the U.S.  After several days of preparation (mainly hounding the insurance companies to pre-authorize the MRI; Blue Cross did, UMVIM did not) Diantha and I flew to Kampala on Thursday and got the MRI the same day. I appreciate all the prayer, because it was very difficult -- but important -- to have my shoulder stuck in an extremely painful position for the 1 hour it took for the 48 exposures the MRI took.  Friday we picked up the results and took them to Dr. Norberto Orwotho, the same very excellent orthopaedic surgeon that operated on Boo! The way all this timing worked out was indeed God's doing.  Dr. Norbeto's assessment is that I do indeed have a partially ruptured tendon, but it is not bad enough to need surgery.  Diantha and I are deeply grateful to God for that! And we got to attend a most amazing worship service with the Congolese refugee United Methodist Church in Kampala, and Diantha and I had time to relax, and celebrate our 36th wedding anniversary with some great restaurant food!  Who knew there was fantastic Italian, and even passable Korean food in Uganda! I saw an excellent Physical Therapist in Kampala who gave me some good exercises and a list of things not to do. I am not doing the things I'm not supposed to do, and doing about half an hour of exercises three times a day, and already seeing improvement as the other muscles and tendons in my right arm gain the ability to compensate for the torn tendon. The main limit I face is not being able to drive either the motorcycle or the land cruiser for several months. It means Diantha and Phyllis have to do all the driving. And it makes it harder to figure out how to travel to the village churches, but we are determined to work that out so we can go to at least 2 or 3 every month and continue our work.
Some parts of dealing with injury have been surprisingly smooth for me: I got quick and excellent medical attention in Yei at a mission clinic, we were able to book an airplane flight to Uganda in a matter of days, the East Africa Annual Conference responded quickly with help by providing a driver in Uganda, the doctor and physical therapist in Uganda were extremely professional and helpful and gave me attention right away. But it is daunting to realize the distances to medical care that we had gotten used to having nearby: there is no ability to get certain tests, like an MRI, in south Sudan; and the closest physical therapist is a 5 hour drive away. The hardest part of the whole process was trying to communicate with insurance companies in the US who showed little flexibility to the difficulties of dealing with a health problem when overseas: the difficulty and prohibitive cost of communication by phone, the difficulty of finding a fax machine here, etc. And the most sobering part of the experience was reflecting on the reality that our Sudanese colleagues, pastors and lay people, have no access to the insurance and medical care that we are able to access. It was a powerful reminder of the enormous privilege we continue to carry as we live and work here. Readers can continue to pray for the Sudanese people who have so little access to medical help, and may consider making a contribution to the Sudan mission medical fund (at Holston Conference) toward the cost of medical expenses of Sudanese pastors, church leaders and their families.

Many of you have asked about our safety as news stories focus on the tensions, threats and scenarios of conflict leading up to the January 9 Referendum on separation or unity. Voter registration for the referendum began November 15 and will last two weeks. We have noticed more rallies, trainings of registrars, posters and also wake up every morning to the sound of the UN training Sudanese police to prepare for these events. We have some very knowledgeable friends who will keep us informed, especially if there is potential danger for us. We live on a compound with a fence and a guard, which is very near the UNHCR office, which monitors the situation and also keeps us informed. As we look at the situation, we think we are blessed to be in one of the safest places in south Sudan, with less crime and more calm than most places. We'll keep you posted as national events and our mission work develop, but meanwhile, pray for Sudan, for the referendum, for the Sudanese people, for the United Methodist churches, and for us and the others here working to help people.

Seeing a Christmas tree in the hospital lobby in Kampala was the first reminder that it was two days before Advent. I realize how much I depend on cold weather and other cues to get me ready for Christmas. As we talk with mission and other expatriate colleagues here, we find that we are in a tiny minority staying in Yei for Christmas. We'll celebrate with a Christmas church service at Yei UMC, and probably a potluck Christmas dinner with Boo and Phyllis and a few other friends. We're all so busy we don't get to spend much time together. Meanwhile, we put Handel's Messiah on the the CD player, and look wistfully at snowy, cold emails and photos from friends.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Mission in Africa: November 7

We have had three U.S. doctors here for a week, in part so that two of them (husband and wife) could continue their discernment about whether God might be calling them to Sudan next year. Diantha and I really hope so. They are particularly interested in improving the rural health situation, including preventing sickness through improving health practices in the community, which is our focus as well, and it was greatly encouraging to us and especially to Diantha to think we might have colleagues to work with on this. Diantha and I urged that their schedule while they were here should include some meetings with women and others from the villages to ask them about the health situation in the villages, and to answer their questions about medical matters. The three such "hearings" (plus another with the United Methodist pastors) were great, though exhausting. One piece of good news we gleaned was that the WaSH --Water, Sanitation, Hygiene -- training Diantha has been doing is well accepted and appreciated. The bad news was the reminder that the cost of medicines, of getting to the clinics in the main city of Yei, and of the clinic fees is prohibitive to most people. Time and time again the doctors' answer to a medical question quite rightly was, "You need to go to a clinic and be seen." It really came home to me that the only way that this huge barrier will be overcome in the long run is to help people increase income so they can afford these costs; this is another way my agricultural and economic development work is connected to the crucial work of improving health. And another distressing bit of news was that almost no one in the villages we visited had bed nets! The exception was those pregnant women who went to prenatal appointments (not all did) and got one bed net. The NGO that was giving them out free last year has ended that program. Diantha and I will begin some fundraising right away to buy 5 or 10 bednets at least for each of the 17 villages we are working in.

To relax last night, we watched a movie the Hankins brought with them, K-PAX. It was a powerful reminder of the huge impact of personal trauma (one character's wife and daughter are killed) on an individual's ability to cope and live in reality. My immediate thought during the movie was that we are living among a whole people under this kind of Post Traumatic Stress. So many here (estimates are about 50%) have experienced such a trauma, and it can't help affecting the way they live and relate to each other and to us. So many have seen family and friends brutally killed, seeing neighbors fight over resources in the refugee camps and the bush where they have been for 20+ years, so many have felt and still feel left behind or feel guilty for leaving someone behind, so many have been treated as less than human by not only by enemy soldiers but sometimes the host population around the refugee camps. While I know some of what surprises us here is a matter of a different cultural attitude toward money and relationships that we are learning to respect, still I wonder if widespread PTSD -- or something like it -- at least partly explains some of things we've noticed as we've gotten to know people here: the fear of being forgotten, mistrust of each other (and us), difficulty in accepting rules and authorities, and grabbing resources for oneself at the expense of others. I suspect that the implications for our life here include (1) be very patient with people even when they disappoint us (2) make it clear again and again that we are here for several years to devote time, knowledge and some resources into a series of developments they think are important (3) follow through on anything we promise to do and not promise anything we can't do (4) continue working hard at building friendships and relationships that are genuine and respectful. To do these things I think we'll have to make a serious commitment to listen, especially before we speak; a listening that includes learning about their culture, and a listening that includes trying to take into account the traumas of their lives.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Mission in Africa Week 9

On Monday, Oct 18 Edina Tumalu, one of the church leaders here, gave birth to twins!! Everyone is so thankful she is healthy and the babies are healthy!! She had some rough spots in her pregnancy; she recognizes God’s mercy and is thankful for the medical care she has received during her pregnancy and for the birth (in more common circumstances here she would have died). She is also thankful for the key support people from Holston have given her. Not everyone can access medical care. She has been going to the best obstetrician in town, Dr. Wole, who is an MD, has an ultrasound, and does surgery. The twins were just over 37 weeks gestational age, and though they are a bit small, they are fine and are now nursing well. The boy is 5 lb.7 oz. and is named Willfred Swanson (for God’s Will, Rev. Fred Dearing and Bishop Swanson); the girl is 4 lb 9 oz and is named Phyllis (for Phyllis Hankins) Desire. On her second day she was very lethargic due to some low blood sugar and an elevated temperature, but recovered the next day with some glucose and antibiotic and is now doing great (again, in the average situation in Sudan, the baby would have died). I feel blessed that I was able to be of some support and help during this past week. Edina called us Monday afternoon. She had some labor, and was admitted for a cesarean procedure , as the babies were not in good positions for vaginal birth. Boo, Phyllis and I went to the clinic right away, while Steve rallied prayer supporters by email and on Facebook. The clinic was waiting for the payment before starting, so Boo, through Holston Conference, was able to loan the money. We could peek through the curtain of the hallway which led to the operating room, and saw the babies as they were just born, and handed to the nurse to dry off! In Sudan, the family has to provide supplies and a lot of the care, so the babies were handed over to us and Edina's two aunts (see photo) to take care of (Edina’s husband was in Juba attending school). Edina came in the room soon. Her husband arrived this weekend; she should go home Monday. They keep mothers for 7 days in the hospital until their incision closes, as so many women return with infections if they are sent home earlier. I think this length of time will give Edina more rest and more chance to nurse the babies than if she were to go home. (She has a son 4 years old and daughter 7 years old, plus is taking care of 3 other orphans, and has a widow living with her who helps out.) She has several tukels (little one room houses) in a compound with a garden, next to her in-laws, and has needed the support that Holston has given her.
The clinic rooms are small and have two beds. Fortunately they have mosquito nets, as the windows have no screens. The beds are about two feet apart, and the door does not close. The conditions are not as desperate as at Yei public hospital, but they are not anything like the clean hospitals we have in the US. I was happy to be able to come back several days this week to support Edina in getting breast feeding started for Phyllis Desire, and be of general support. It has been quite some time since I had the chance to be of service, and I wasn’t sure how much support from me Edina would want. She told me in Sudan many women do not breastfeed until their milk comes in, which can take a few days. I’m glad she was interested in feeding anyway, so the babies can get enough food and gain the incredible immunity that the colostrum gives in those first crucial days. Also, they do not wash the baby with water for the first one or two months, but scrub them with cassava flour. Edina, however, was OK with using water! Phyllis Hankins was able to buy some clothes for the babies, as Edina only had cloths for baby blankets and no clothes. You can buy used Western clothes in the market, and that is the best place for baby clothes. The new clothes here are few and more dresses than little shirts.
Steve and I have both been working intensely to meet the November 1 deadline for applications for Advance Special Projects, which is how United Methodist Churches give designated money for specific projects. Once approved, churches may then donate to the project, and money is turned over as it is received. The application is similar to a four year grant application, but the approval of course does not guarantee a specific amount of funding. Actually it has been good to have this structure to project our workplans for the next four years. Steve wrote one for micro-finance (people can choose a village savings and loan program, or microenterprise start up help), and just finished a another for agriculture development. Now he and Boo are working on one to construct “permanent buildings” for churches (with concrete block walls and metal roofs). Buildings would double for the nursery/primary schools. All 17 of the Sudanese United Methodist congregations are asking for permanent buildings to replace the thatch roofed, wattle-and-daub structures that now serve as churches and schools.
I have been working on a church/village health project. The challenge I've been struggling with is to make sure the final impact of the project is saving lives. South Sudan health indicators are some of the most desperate in the world, caused by a combination of poverty, poor transportation, lack of functioning clinics and hospitals, lack of clean water (most of our churches now have wells giving access to safe water), lack of soap, lack of latrines, and poor sanitation and hygiene practices in the homes, lack of education and poor or wrong information about disease and prevention. So much can be done with health education and promoting disease prevention. For example, diarrhea kills especially children under 5, because of the poor sanitation and lack of latrines. Actually the resulting dehydration kills them, which could be remedied with homemade oral rehydration fluid and some basic knowledge. If everyone in the village has clean water, latrines and good handwashing, 80% of diarrheal disease can be prevented. Well meaning people have gone into villages and built latrines before. The villagers then feel like the latrines are owned by the builders, who should have the responsibility to clean them and keep them up. If the people do not understand their importance, they may tear them down to use the parts. If they don’t understand how disease is spread, they will not take all the many steps needed for general cleanliness. Though the solution seems simple, there needs to be a lot of health education, starting at the most basic level, and very thorough community involvement, training of committees, training of individuals to go house to house, and some time for change. I think there is lots of misinformation about the causes of various diseases, how the body functions and how to prevention disease. The horrible maternal/infant death rate (among the worst in the world) has a complicated solution too. The government of South Sudan has a good plan to establish rural health centers with birthing rooms. The problem with these, currently, is that there is not enough money for staff and medicines (part of their long term problem is there is no way to transport a mother for higher level care because of impassible roads, no ambulances and few vehicles). There is a 6 month training program for midwives, but trained women would rather find a job that pays rather than work at the public centers, where there is also no money for equipment for the birthing rooms. The midwives at the centers are supposed to train the Traditional Birth Attendants (TBA) in the villages, and give them supplies (which is unlikely). Most of the births occur in homes with or without a TBA. So I'm planning my work to complement this effort; I started with a simple plan to help distribute basic equipment and supplies to the midwives at the government health centers. That could save lives with a trained midwife. Steve encouraged me to keep working on a plan that could make that difference with TBAs as well, since they are on the "frontline" in the villages. Currently while there is a little training in south Sudan recently begun for midwives, there is no training program here now for TBA’s. By the end of the afternoon I had drafted a core curriculum and basic skills list with needed equipment. (It was exciting for me to get to use my midwifery knowledge again and love of teaching). With birth there can be an impact on improving infant and maternal health by making sure the mother has good nutrition, is healthy, and with some non-technical measures, but you have to have some knowledge of what to do. All these plans add up to more than can probably be accomplished in four years. We shall see! It eventually will take contracting with some trainers who are already here as well hiring a couple people part time to help me, which would be good also for preparing someone to continue the projects after we leave.
We are all very excited that AROSS, a local Christian group, including our churches/schools in their educational program. In our photos this week you can see the “megavoice players” being given to the pastors to use with their congregations and schools (see photos). These players have 40 lessons for teacher training, 4 lessons on sanitation and hygiene, and 3 which narrate the story of the Bible in English and Bari (local language.) They can be set up for small groups to listen to. All the churches have been asking for teacher training, and now they can some help in this area!! It is a great example of appropriate technology. Lessons can be added later on other topics as they are developed. There will be more coming out on health as well. The pastors were quite intrigued, excited and appreciative. Some of them are not familiar with any level of technology.
We have gotten some good feed back on the sanitation training I did a month ago. I passed out two additional handouts based on the training which were translated into the local language, with pictures so it can be used with those who can’t read the words. Several pastors said they have made “tippy taps” for handwashing.
The government of south Sudan is making plans for the referendum. We don’t have any reason right now to be worried about our safety, and we have a good network of well informed people here who keep us updated as needed. Steve wrote a sample advocacy letter to be used in the US. If you are interested, you can find the link at
A bit of personal news: the new house (Captain’s House) that Boo and Phyllis will live in is coming along. They should be ready to move in a few weeks. We have been gradually buying the things we will need for our household here at the UMCOR Guest House when they move out, including plates, silverware, bednets, and ordering furniture to be made (you can’t really buy ready made). I am thinking of Tennessee fall and seasonal foods. We can get some nice greens here (amaranth) and I cooked a local pumpkin, which is close to texture and flavor of acorn squash. We're blessed with access to a great variety of vegetables and fruit!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Mission in Africa Week 8

Frustration. I've been thinking about frustrations this week. The rainy seasons adds an element of unpredictability to each day. Boo and Phyllis and Diantha and I took a chance and planned a trip to Goli, mainly so that Faustino and Peter could check out the pastor training program and take an oral test of their English ability. But it rained especially heavily the day before, so the roads were even more of a muddy mess than usual (see photos.) We almost got stuck (that made the folks in our Landcruiser tense); and the doctor driving the Evangelical Presbyterian Church car did get stuck, we had to pull him out. My most frustrating time in Sudan so far was the Sunday before, when I slipped and fell twice in the mud while on the motorcycle. I wasn't physically hurt, but arrived at Morre UMC very muddy and feeling upset and humiliated. It was a gift of grace that the church members at Morre didn't seem to mind how I looked, and asked me to preach anyway. Then I spent a couple days inside with some kind of stomach flu. About midway through the week someone remarked on how much suffering the Sudanese people we know put up with, on a regular basis. We know so many with malaria, typhoid, serious injuries, who keep working right through because they have to. They routinely walk long distances, carry unbelievably heavy loads, and do hard physical labor in the hot climate (see photo of Nyoka). I started thinking about how insignificant my frustrations really are; and how much we who are here from outside Sudan need to do a better job of "getting over it", spending less time complaining and letting small things restrict our activities. When I get my attitude adjusted to the reality of the lives of people here and the bigger context of where God is at work and my place in that, many of the things I think matter turn out not to matter: being muddy doesn't matter; being embarrassed doesn't matter; and its not the end of the world to feel sick.

Scale. I've spent most of the week at home, working on a couple funding applications that could help us address health, sustainable farming, and building churches and schools on a larger scale over several years. Writing proposals is a familiar activity for me, one I feel confident I can do, but I feel uneasy. I know from experience that it's so easy (especially for me) to be focused on large schemes to impact many people, that I'm not spending as much time being available for encounters with individuals, for building relationships. On the other hand, I see the real temptation as missionaries to be so caught up in responding to a string of crises that individuals have, one person after another, that we don't take the time to figure out and make the changes on a larger scale to remove the causes of these crises. It's like the hospitals in the Congo that Dr. Dan Fountain told us about (in the Health and Agriculture Workshop I took last April) that are so busy with treating patients with problems like roundworms, they don't think they have time to develop a community health outreach that would greatly reduce the roundworm problem by increasing handwashing and latrine usage. So is the answer to find a balance between the large scale and the small scale, some way of doing both? Do each of us here doing mission need to seek that balance in our own service, somehow? I worry if we settle for doing one or the other, because I know clearly for myself that I need to leave myself open to the personal encounters that make the work here real, and yet I would really hope that we missionaries would not miss the forest for the trees, that we would stretch our minds to seek what can be changed on a larger scale to make health and livelihoods better for these very people and many more like them that we may never encounter, but whom God loves too?

Giving. The question for me is not whether to give; I/we have so much, and clearly God wants us to share it with those who have so little. But the questions are how much to give, how and when to give, for what purposes, and what does it do to the people we give to? I've read a whole book on this (African Friends and Money Matters) and been here two months and it seems like I ought to have a better handle on this, but I don't. After talking with two Sudanese colleagues who work for another NGO, I understand from them that many Sudanese formed their attitudes about getting money from foreigners in the refugee camp experience; it was an extremely lopsided relationship in which the NGOs were set up to give away stuff, and the refugees had nothing and little opportunity to earn/farm anything for themselves. For me the challenge is somehow to share the abundant resources I have in a way that doesn't simply reinforce this dynamic. A few ways that might work are (1) providing part but not all of the cost of something (tools, seeds, medicine, etc.) (2) investing in someone's training especially when they have a clear commitment to put it to work to benefit others. (3) providing the staffing that makes a beneficial development program possible, but expecting the participants to cover most or all of the other program costs. I'd like to figure out some more.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Mission in Africa: Week 7

This week I (Diantha) went a second time to Lasu near the Congo border with some colleagues from UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief) who were going back to see the Congolese refugee camp and the UMCOR work there (a bumpy 1 ½ hour drive; a few weeks ago we were at the opening of the school). I wanted to go in order to see the government health center that UMCOR helped by improving the existing building and giving supplies for the midwife there. They have free care and medicines (not all centers actually have staff and medicines). This health center which is the only health facility for miles, is staffed by a medic who sees sick people, gives immunizations, dispenses from their simple pharmacy, and is in the future supposed to provide preventive health education in the community. They have one medical bed (see photo).The midwife does maternity education and care, including births for which UMCOR brought thermometers, a birthing bed (behind the screen in the maternity room in photo), BP cuff, simple supplies for births, fetascope, and otton cord to tie the baby's cord. They already had gloves. Many rural centers like these have little to no supplies for births. And even here in Yei, a city of over 200,000, women who go to the government hospital must bring gloves, a cord tie, and everything for the birth. The midwife at Lasu said the mother is only supposed to bring a blanket to clean the baby with and take it home, except even then she often has nothing, and the baby goes home naked, or she cuts one of her blankets or sheets to use.
At the Lasu refugee camp we also saw the schools, with a metal roof supplied by Across, a Christian NGO, and bamboo half size wall built locally. UMCOR was pouring the concrete floors for the school. I am told the refugees have enough food for 2 to 3 meals a day (more than many Sudanese have). The children were dressed sometimes in shreds of clothes, but had a happy smile for us. They were growing rice (not the wet paddy kind) and other things in their gardens. Agencies are providing additional food, a medical center and schools for them, and uniforms, which are bright, new and whole garments.
   Yesterday we had a long service at Mirodu UMC, a rural church, for "Pastor's Forum", an event where all the Sudanese pastors are try to visit one different church a month, and have a special service. It was also World Communion Sunday, which for us was a nice connection. There were baptisms of 4 infants, and Boo and Phyllis were asked to serve communion (see photos). These are new practices for the pastors, so they do not yet seem to feel confident to do them on their own. Communion was an easily accessible cracker, with water in a tin cup. There is some bread here, but no grape juice. It was very moving. All the visitors were asked to introduce themselves, and I also mentioned it was World Communion Sunday and that my pastor brother Dave had talked to me just the day before asking how we celebrate communion, and for some ideas to share with his congregation.  I told them many, many people would be praying for them that day!! Boo did a nice job in explaining communion and the about the New Covenant. He explained Passover, when the Israelites were freed from slavery, as the Old Covenant. There were some flowers on the alter table, in a reused plastic soap container. So he made a demonstration out of it, saying the use of this soap container is now made new, just as Jesus gave a new meaning to Passover when he began the Last Supper. They also had a time for prayers for those who need healing. Those who are ill or are representing sick family member come and stand or kneel in front. Others lay hands on them, pray and anoint them with oil. Usually Phyllis heads this up. The last team that visited gave anointing oil to all the pastors. So this time, Phyllis deliberately stepped back and the pastors did the praying. Progress!
While we were at the church, we brought 2 blackboards Holston Conference had provided for the church’s nursery/primary school made up of 5 classes (see photo). These are the only supplies for these schools (even the teachers do not have books to teach from). Schools here are operated out of school fees, but in the rural church schools, pupils do not have the fees, for the most part, so teachers are volunteers. Later in the week Steve and I rode our motorcycles, and Sebit, the Sudanese Assistant to the Superintendent and interpreter, accompanied us to visit Morre UMC, the newest rural United Methodist church. Steve was asked to preach once we arrived. On the spur of the moment he gave a great sermon based on Jesus feeding the five thousand, how Jesus needed the people to come up with the little they had, to step out in faith in spite of an overwhelming task. They have 5 classes covering 7 grade levels in their school, and are constructing a second thatch structure to use for school in addition to the church structure (see photo). We were also excited to see that at the school structure they had erected a “tippy tap” for hand washing, a simple device which we introduced at the health and sanitation workshop last month. Several pastors mentioned they have made them, and Pastor Mukasa of Morre showed us the one he had made (see photo.) It encourages hand washing (which isn’t practiced often, especially with soap) using very little water. The church had beautiful church gardens (see photo), using the tools and some seeds that were donated. We are encouraged by all of these signs of advancement.
    The 1 ½ hour motorcycle ride is a story in itself, especially since it was our first ride out of town. The main Kaya road had been worked on in spots, so we were able to reach a top speed of 25 miles an hour. We cut off that road and went about 4 miles down what you could call a lane with one or two tracks, with tall grasses on either side, rocks in the road and mud holes. The motor bike spilled only two times (we were unhurt, as the speed was about 2-3 mph, but got muddy). The scenery was beautiful, and we passed a few tall stone hills which just rise abruptly out of the ground. One time when we were stopped with the motors off, I heard about 5 kinds of birds at once (we see/hear just a few birds here in town). On the return trip it looked like the skies would open up with rain, and the drops were starting as we approached home and made our way carefully through the small herd of cattle taking up the road!! In addition, Steve got the stomach flu during the visit (he is almost better now), but had the ability to drive the motorcycle home. Our prayers were answered and we arrived safely.
This is my one year anniversary of being diagnosed with breast cancer. I am celebrating with thanksgiving for healing and continued health, and putting the experience farther behind me. October is breast cancer awareness month, so I will add my voice to remind women to do self breast exams. Thirty minutes of exercise a day (or 2 ½ hours total per week), eating preventive foods, plenty of vitamin D (at least 30 min. a week of sunshine exposure; most people probably need supplements) are good preventive measures. Celebrate the health, family and friends that you have!! Many of us can be thankful for access to a cleaner immediate environment, health care and medicines, unlike the situation here in Sudan for so many.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Mission in Africa Week 6

Affirmation: Several encouraging conversations: (1) When we describe our intent to facilitate a congregational/village planning process to lead to projects in health, agriculture, income-generating projects, Pastor John Kenyi says "we spoke and you listened; thank you for your sweet words" and Lasu Payam (sub-county district) Director says "You have the best plan" (2) When Diantha describes the regional women's trainings she wants to do with Methodist church women and the traditional birth attendents from their villages, Poppy Spens (UK missionary ) tells us she's been planning the exact same thing with Episcopal church women and suggests we collaborate (3) John Spens (also UK missionary) agrees that if I can come up with some additional funding, the Episcopal church's women's microenterprise program could be expanded to include women from the United Methodist churches as well. (4) We meet with the County heads of Health and Agriculture and they are genuinely happy for our presence and our plans.

Boda: This is the word for motorcycle locally. I've been riding it a lot more than Diantha, but am having trouble with it stalling almost every time I try to start it. When Diantha goes to practice, she has no trouble at all; she shows me how to give it more gas as I let the clutch out. So now that she's taught me how to start it, I'm teaching her how to think ahead about downshifting so she can stop it without stalling out. Boo just borrowed the boda to get familiar with it in case he needs to borrow it one day when we need to use the Land Cruiser.

ulture: A couple fundamentals about Sudanese culture that shape our days: (1) Relationship, relationship, relationship. From something as simple as being sure to say good morning to every acquaintance, to understanding the importance of the handshake as an affirmation that you are focusing on the other person and acknowledging their worth. Even better if you ask about their family, or their crops, or something that shows you are putting your attention on them. I still remember a couple striking instances in which a church member has said that "You came and visited us and promised to come back and to help, and we felt we became somebody." Its hard to imagine how dehumanizing the 22-year war must have been. We who feel frustration with how slow cooperation, trust and maturity can be must keep remembering how deep this dehumanization has been. (2) Wealth is to be shared. A fundamentally different view of wealth and possession. Unlike the assumptions of westerners here like us that we have a right to our possessions, both our stuff and our "space", the conception here is that those who have wealth have a responsibility to share it with those who don't. Also the assumption that its more important for donated resources to be spent on the greatest need that presents itself even when that is not the intent of the donor. I think the African assumptions are far closer to Biblical teaching than our western assumptions, even though we tend to get bent out of shape and grumble when people don't exhibit the western assumptions. (3) Knowledge is highly prized. The book African Friends and Money Matters say the many Africans share resources more readily than knowledge. I haven't observed that yet, but when we visit a church we always hear clearly that they value the knowledge they believe we have to share with them and are excited and hopeful that it will make their life better. It makes me want to get back to the villages quicker than we seem to be able to do, thanks to the rainy season making roads difficult.

Devotions: I've been re-reading Thomas Merton's first journal, Sign of Jonas; p. 82, "If You allow people to praise me, I shall not worry. If You let them blame me, I shall worry even less, but be glad. If You send me work I shall embrace it with joy and it will be rest to me, because it is Your will. And if You send me rest, I will rest in You. Only save me from myself. Save me from my own, private, poisonous urge to change everything, to act without reason, to move for movement's sake, to unsettle everything You have ordained. Let me rest in Your will and be silent. Then the light of Your joy will warm my life. Its fire will burn in my heart and shine for Your glory. This is what I live for."

Education: What a week for learning. I'm learning about fish farming as a real possibility here and the pros and cons of using improved cassava varieties. Diantha is learning about how midwifery is and isn't practiced in the rural health centers run by the government, about community health committees and community health educations supposedly in every "boma" (like a township, a 10 mile x 10 mile area). We're both learning where there are and aren't functioning health clinics, some of them mobile clinics that come in one day a week, and sharing that information with the pastors of the 17 United Methodist churches so they can educate their member about it.

Farming: Gradually five weeks of listening, reading and thinking are taking shape. There are several NGOs (=nonprofits) already doing some excellent agricultural work here.  One of them (Christian Reformed World Relief Council) has conducted an excellent baseline survey, and just finished training 833 farmers in the area; I hope to be able to get some of the farmers in "my" villages into their program the next time, which will be the end of the dry season in February before the March/April rainy season begins.  Their survey shows that the major barrier to growing enough food for their families, much less for commercial markets, is "labor".  What this really means is that using hand tools (hoes, machetes, axes, spades) and traditional cultivation techniques (turning over the soil before planting, minimal irrigation) the typical family is not usually able to cultivate enough land to feed themselves and produce food for sale so they can meet their cash needs for buying other food, medicine, school fees.  So the answer of the NGOs, the Government here, and of the new USAID grant to south Sudan is to provide more tractors which will be rented to farmers at a subsidized cost.   As a short term strategy, I will probably promote this program with the farmers in the 17 villages I am working with (each of the villages where there is a United Methodist church.)  But I have problems with it as a long-term strategy; both on the basis of financial sustainability (how will the impoverished farmers come up with the rental capital in 4-5 years when the program ends?) and environmental sustainability.  I have been studying no-till and minimal-till agriculture and I think it could hold the future of sustainable farming for these folks: it retains much more of the fertility of the soil than plowing, or at least of inverting the soil when plowing.  And pilot projects elsewhere in Africa show that once the no-till/minimal-till plot is established in one or two years, it decreases labor time by 40% for the same amount of acreage, while producing anywhere from 3-9 times as much yield per acre.  To move to these methods will take time and persuasion, so I am thinking about establishing a demonstration garden that allows people to see plots side by side illustrating the different methods and yields, as a hands-on teaching tool.  If this works, it might persuade a village to try this on a limited basis.  There's a whole system of Limited Input Sustainable Agriculture (LISA) which combines minimum-till, near-organic conservation agriculture with an emphasis on perennials that allow food production during the dry season, animal confinement (almost all animals roam free almost all the time, wreaks havoc on gardens), etc.  One mission organization has put this together in a way that I think will work with the predominantly Christian villages in our area of south Sudan;

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Mission in Africa Week 5

Here are the highlights for Diantha from the week:
Sunday at Yei Church (see photo): Phyllis Hankins has been teaching people to bring offerings of food from their garden if they don’t have money, to help support the pastors and teachers for the church’s schools (who are all virtually unpaid). People are now starting to respond. Saturday at Diantha’s health workshop for 43 United Methodist women, we gave them each 8 bars of soap, sold in a row, and suggested they could give one bar each to the church and the school. Sunday, one of the women who had attended this workshop brought a big tub of her peanuts and a dozen ears of dried maize wrapped in a hand embroidered cloth. After church the pastor auctioned it off (which was a lively scene) for about 4 times their value. Apparently other churches do this as well. The only way the church’s schools here can pay their teachers is to charge school fees, and the people in the rural villages are subsistence farmers, without much cash. Money was donated so each school has a blackboard and chalk. They have little else (no books, etc.). Their determination is inspiring.
Monday we had a chance to visit another health clinic, this one run by the Evangelical Presbyterian Church with German doctors. It is a secondary health center, and has one of the few dentists here. They are building a unit to house about 15 more patients overnight (they already have 4 beds.) The private clinics are very well run.
Bishop Wandabula is our bishop from East Annual Conference (which includes 5 countries: Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi!), and he is based in Kampala Uganda. He came for a visit this week. It was very successful. The church at Yei held a great reception, with the children singing and processing. He was very supportive of the difficult work that Boo and Phyllis have been doing, of our proposed work, and also held a meeting with the local pastors where he answered their concerns point by point, firmly backing up Boo as the District Superintendent (see photos). Friday we traveled 26 miles to Lasu near the Congo border which houses 9,000 Congolese refugees for ribbon cutting celebration. United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), the UN High Commission on Refugees, and other NGO’s had built several school buildings, latrines, drilled wells, and updated the government health center. Now it is the best equipped health center (many sit without money for staff or medicines), and includes a midwife and birthing center. They said the original water holes were shared with gorillas. That’s the closest we’ve come to wild animals here besides the tropical gecko that lurks outside our bathroom window snapping up mosquitos. On the way to Lasu we stopped in to see 2 very isolated Methodist churches. Mama Kamisa at Gwiria was so excited to see the Bishop and wanted us to come to her house up on the hill. She has helped start 4 churches, and is about 70 years old and very lively. She is raising her arms in joy in the photo. We also had a blessing of the bore hole which was made possible by Holston Conference offerings. Twenty six miles does not seem like much in the US. Here however, it is not an easy trip. It took over 2 hours in the land cruiser in a very lurching ride. There are places which have become impassible where people have made a little detour side road. A torrential downpour began just before we left, so parts of the road were like a river, (see photo) totally covered in water and Boo who was driving couldn’t tell where the ruts were. A few times the wake from the water splashed on the hood of the land cruiser (it is made to drive through water). We made it back safely, but very tired.
Another highlight was Betty receiving her bicycle (see photo). She is about 17 years old, and in the 9th grade (the war or poverty disturbed many students’ education). A Holston Conference church is supporting her high school fees and her food as well. She is already an outstanding leader in her church. When her mother was ill, she took over her position as United Methodist Women’s leader.
We are waiting for the roads to clear up before visiting more rural churches, and in the meantime are visiting some of the other NGO’s here who are doing similar kind of development in the villages, to learn from them and find out what the local resources are.
We really appreciate any little notes you send us, and updates on your lives.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Mission in Africa: Week Four

Sunday 12
After the church service at Yei UMC, which includes three “hot songs” during which we dance (actually, jump), we walk across the soccer field to the two new school blocks, which form a U shape with the one old one that I remember from a year ago. Phyllis and Boo lead a dedication of the new school blocks, with Phyllis playing an adaptation of “Bless this House” and then going around to each of the classroom doors to anoint them and pray. In the late afternoon, we go to the weekly prayer group/Bible study on Mark, which this weeks focuses on going out in mission with a minimum of possessions and knowing when to persist and when to shake the dust off your feet and move on. I'm supposed to lead the study next week.

Monday 13
With most of the visiting team we go the Logobero United Methodist Church, which had to relocate when a local tribal clan decided they wanted the land the church was on. Even Boo and Phyllis haven't been here; we go as far as we can get the Landcruiser, then Isaac Sebit leads us up a narrow path for a mile, over frequently wet ground, two streams spanned by wiggly logs, to a wood-and-thatch church they built in two months. Boo introduces each person and when its my turn to talk, I give my usual summary of what Diantha and I hope to do by working alongside each congregation/village to help them make a plan to address their biggest needs, and provide specific help in health, agriculture, and microenterprise. The pastor responds by thanking me for my “sweet words”, which I understand to mean our approach of listening and working beside them, as much as the concrete help we hope to bring. We worship by dance-jumping a second day in a row, and as the worship winds up we see dark clouds gathering and thunder. We stand up to go but are not allowed by the pastor, who shouts to the “kitchen” to hurry up: they have lunch planned for us, and by gosh we're going to eat it! So as the clouds burst and rain drips through the thatch down our necks, we accept their hospitality with a smile and eat the posho (corn mush) and chicken stew. The rain stops right before we start back down the mile-long path, which is much more slippery now and the puddles are bigger. The streams we have to cross are much bigger and the logs more slippery, so a couple of us visitors end up stepping into the water despite help from 2 or 3 Sudanese men. We make back to the Landcruiser, and home, a little wet but unhurt.

Meanwhile on Monday Diantha is spending the day at the Yei General Hospital as part of Africa ELI's community service day for students from Yei Girls Boarding School. She has been asked to do a training on the use of bed nets to prevent malaria; as part of that training, she leads the students in a skit to show hospital patients on how malaria is spread and the importance and means of preventing it. With the students, she helps present bed nets and soap to expectant mothers on the maternity ward. The contrast between this local government-run hospital and one of the exemplary clinics run by an Episcopal mission group that Diantha visits is like night and day. The Episcopal clinic has 12 or so beds for overnight admissions. They have just opened at new children’s ward, (there are no pediatricians here), and are preparing to open an eye clinic (the only one here; another clinic has just started the only dentistry clinic). They see sick patients for the equivalent of about $2. Many people in the villages cannot afford transportation to come, nor the fees and medicines, as they are struggling subsistence farmers. All of their staff are well trained, which actually is a novelty here. Plus the grounds and the buildings are clean. In contrast, the government does not have enough money for services, so the government hospital is abysmal. In fact most missionaries recommend people do not go there, as it is poorly staffed; sometimes people may wait, admitted, for 3 days before anyone sees them. To Diantha, it seems third world; families must cook, clean, do laundry for and care for their patients; some latrines are there for the several hundred people on campus, but are not always used, which is the predominant custom in the bush. While she is there it rains heavily; the children’s ward includes a screened-in veranda with no shutters, so all the mothers have to take up their children, mattresses and belongings and rush inside; there is an inch of water left on the rough unswept concrete floor. On the positive side, there is a nurse there on duty, who has gloves on and is administering medicine; there is a container of water outside for hand washing. Mothers in the maternity ward keep their babies and bedding clean. Inside are about 40 beds, up next to each other, with only 1 mosquito net. Diantha leads the students in carrying out a skit to show how best to keep mosquitoes out.

Monday night my calves are really sore from two days of dance-jumping.

Tuesday 14
Four of the six visiting team members fly to Uganda, while two stay a couple more days. I (Steve) attend the weekly security briefing at the compound of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR). This week there are reports of tribal conflicts over roads, about 30 miles away; an increasing problem with crashes between the “Boda-Boda” motorcycle taxis in town, and an unsuccessful attempt at robbery at another NGO compound foiled by a guard. I'm relieved there are no new reports of attacks in Sudan by the LRA (Lord's Resistance Army, a rebel group) though there is news that the second in command in the LRA has relocated from Darfur to Western Equatoria (the state just west of ours.)

We get a call from David Muwaya saying that Bishop Wandabula is coming this Thursday instead of next Tuesday, so we call the Sudanese United Methodist pastors to alert them that he may come by their Thursday meeting at the end.

Wednesday 15
Today is “International Democracy Day”, a day I didn't even realize existed while I lived in the U.S., though during the day-long speeches in the center of town there are many references to developing an accountable system of democratic government and a balance of powers like the U.S. I look around and realize I am the only U.S. citizen at the speeches. At suppertime we have a birthday party for David Muwaya, one of Bishop Wandabula's staff who happens to be in Yei, along with Fred and Libby Dearing from the team, and Pat Hipp who is hear helping with Africa ELI. We have a truly scrumptious meal with beef stew, rice, cabbage, green beans, fresh pineapple & bananas, chocolate brownies, and banana cake,

Thursday 16
This is the day Phyllis teaches the pastors English, and after that Diantha is going to give them a brief workshop on handwashing, so Boo and I drop them at the Yei UMC compound across town. Diantha takes with her the “tippy-tap” I made the day before, from a 5-liter plastic juice container, string, a stick and and a bar of soap; you hang it by the handle from the tree, tie a 1-meter string to the (capped) spout and a stick to the other end , and make a hole in the side a little below the spout so that when you step on the stick it tips the whole thing enough for a small stream of water to come out the hole. And there is a bar of soap hanging by a string on the tippy-tap too. These can go near latrines and kitchens to promote handwashing.

After we drop Phyllis and Diantha, Boo and I start toward the airport to take Fred and Libby Dearing to catch their flight. On the way to the airport we get a call from David Muwaya saying that Bishop Wandabula has missed his flight and will come next Tuesday instead. We say goodbye to Fred and Libby and head back to get Phyllis and Diantha only to find that a large dump truck is stuck in the only passable stream to get to the compound. So we walk in a half mile to get them and walk with them back out to Land Cruiser.

In the evening Diantha continues her preparations for the Saturday workshop on health with the United Methodist Women, and after talking with Boo and Phyllis I write up a proposal for funding a series of trainings and meetings at the village churches, our work for the next 4-5 months.

Friday 17
Di meets with 3 of the Yei UMC women to plan a special lunch for the Saturday health workshop that will illustrate balanced nutrition. I study Arabic, research an obnoxious weed that's a problem for farmers growing grains, prepare to lead the Sunday night Bible study, and try unsuccessfully to set up the brand new printer we bought in Uganda on our way here. Apparently, after several emails back and forth with tech support, there is a problem with the power supply. Too bad the only place I could possibly take it is Kampala, Uganda.

Saturday 18
I go with Diantha to help her with the workshop she is leading; 43 women show up representing 14 of the 17 Sudanese United Methodist churches, an excellent turnout! About 8 women bring their nursing babies. Diantha is glad she had lots of experience planning for the county leadership program back in Tennessee, and also the WASH (WAter, Sanitation, Hygiene) local training she had her second week here with Sudanese community health workers. But still this workshop represents a big unknown for her, as communication is different here, and she is just getting familiar with how people think, and their customs. All in all the workshop seems to go well. The women report a lot of sanitation related diseases; many places do not have latrines; little access to clean water, and little use of handwashing especially with soap. Some of the challenges are that they can’t afford soap and have to carry water on their heads. At the end the women start asking questions about the causes of various diseases, and shared a few of their traditional beliefs. One was that leprosy is a curse on a family because the grandfather has committed murder. They also misname many diseases, so she will have to do research to find out exactly what diseases are prevalent, but they named diarrhea, vomiting, malaria, and polio, malnutrition. We have heard from other medical missionaries that there is some Vitamin A deficiency. The women ask for another workshop with a nurse or doctor who could explain more about the diseases and answer their many questions, and we tell them we hope to arrange this. Some of the churches they come from are 20 miles away; one young mother had walked 16 miles to come. Cell phones don’t reach the rural areas and there are no land lines or postal service, so we rely on sending messages to the churches through the weekly pastor’s meetings. United Methodist churches in the U.S. have raised enough money to buy each pastor a bicycle, so that will help them.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Mission in Africa: Week Three

Steve and I are taking turns writing the blog entries each week.; it is my turn (Diantha) to write the blog entry for our third week. We are thankful for friends and family. We have had a few live Skype (free phone over internet) sessions with video with some family members. Totally amazing. The internet is somewhat on and off depending on clouds blocking access to the satellite. My laptop, which is several years old, apparently isn’t up to date enough to receive the more modern Wi-Fi from the UMCOR (United Methodist Committee On Relief) office; we are living 50 yards from them on their compound in their guest house, shared with Boo and Phyllis Hankins (click the photo link on this blog page.). I’m using Steve’s email address as it is easier to access and has our complete address book. Request: please become a “Follower” to our blog to get an email reminder when we have posted something new.
There is a team of 6 people visiting from our home Holston Conference. Steve is helping a lot with errands for them. They are here primarily to supply furnishings for the new guest house which is being built. It will be the residence of Boo and Phyllis, with guest rooms and a bunk room to also house visiting teams (up to 14 people). It is a short 5 minute walk from where we are, along a grassy lane (see photo of how Yei feels rural). The donor, Rev. Linda Bird Wright is here. It is nicknamed “Captain’s House” in memory of her late husband, who was an airline captain. Linda is receiving ongoing chemotherapy for lung cancer, and has scheduled this trip between treatments. She is truly an inspiration to us.
Steve has been the busiest one this week, as I was under the weather for several days with some little bug (better now). There is little ready made furniture here, so we just set up the 5 foot wooden table he ordered as book shelf and desk for two! We are both able to go to the weekly pastor’s meeting in Yei, along with our team, where Steve describes how to avoid a snail infestation in the garden (see photo). The easiest way is form a 2-3 meter cleared margin around your garden, and then pick them off by hand; they don’t like to cross open soil. We know an agriculturalist at the Christian Reformed World Relief Council here who donated hoe blades, and peanut and sorghum seeds to give some to each church. These are some of the things they have been asking for. It is time to do the last planting of the rainy season. In the rural areas, most people barely survive by subsistence farming, though they can't cultivate quite enough land to feed themselves and sell the excess. The land is quite fertile, but all labor is by hand tools.
We visit two rural churches along with the team. They present their list of needs, which as usual includes the need for a better shelter than the open thatch roof (especially from the rain), which now houses the church as well as nursery students (with spill over seating under the trees). You should hear the clapping when they were told they will each have a covenant relationship with certain Holston Conference churches (represented by the team), who will help them with the cost of building a “permanent building”, especially for the “iron sheets” (ie corrugated metal roof). Church members will be asked to provide river sand, rocks, home made mud bricks, local logs and some labor. At Ligitolo United Methodist Church Pastor Cosmos Ali is given candlesticks and candles, and a ceramic chalice and paten for communion (photo.) Churches have a simple table in front with a tablecloth, and sometimes prayer cloths hanging from the rafters, so the gifts represent an elaborate addition. They also receive a photo album of them taken at a previous team visit. I would imagine most people have never seen a photo of themselves. Adults and children alike gather around and laugh out loud at themselves and their friends. As at every church we visit, there are sick people who come forward with their needs. The abandoned mother, whose child’s school fees are paid by Holston, has a horrible toothache. Looking inside her mouth, I see half the tooth is eaten away by a cavity. Fortunately one of the clinics in Yei has added a dentist, the only one here. It costs about $10 to get a tooth pulled, so she is given the money. It turns out she doesn’t have the $2 also needed for a round trip on the taxi motor cycle. I am struck by the realization of how many things I am able to afford for $2 or more, and what a privilege access to health care is. In many villages, they do not have local pharmacies, and it would be too far to walk to one. We give her all the Tylenol we had in the medical kit in the land cruiser. When folks see we have medicine we were approached: “I have had a headache, fever and vomiting every time I eat for two weeks. I went to the hospital, but I am not better “. “I also have a headache”. The Tylenol was gone. Some could afford to go to the clinic. The hospital does not have enough staff, nor well trained staff to really treat disease. The local non-profit clinics are better. We have also been given used eyeglasses by churches to hand out. People flock to the land cruiser. They have to just find a pair by trial and error (reading glasses are the most popular). One teenager has infection in both eyes. Another gets glasses so he can see the blackboard. While there is a new opthamologist at a clinic in Yei, few of them can afford the fees or the journey; I think about the fact that I have been wearing glasses since I was 7 years old and would have a poorer education without it. While we are at the churches, I also help get the names, photos and stories of some of the orphaned children, who are living with relatives (see photo). Libby Dearing is on the trip; she is part of the team looking into having an orphanage built here. A good many of the children are wearing tattered clothing; many if not most I am sure could use more food as well. The families in the villages don’t have money to pay the school fees, which pay the teachers, nor to bring much in offering to pay the pastors. They are being encouraged to bring garden produce. Pukuka church has a few ears of dried corn hanging from the ceiling. They are proud to show that they are starting to do as they are being taught!!
An additional highlight, especially for me who loves stringed instruments, is hearing a large and small odungu (see photo) accompany the choir. The strings tuned to the same scale as we use, and the notes of the chords are plucked rhythmically (but not like a guitar strum); the sound sort of reminds me of a thumb piano. We usually think of Sudan as a place of poverty, but it is rich with cultural (and spiritual) riches like these.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Mission in Africa Week Two

Saturday, August 28
Yesterday (Friday) was very unusual. We'd planned to visit two churches, but got a call that there had been two incidents of shooting and everyone (not just foreigners) were advised to stay at home. Actually, we felt well taken care of since three people called us and three others dropped by to check on us and update us about the situation. Apparently one was a domestic dispute in which a Dinka husband-to-be argued with his fiancee's family about marrying his wife sooner than originally agreed even though it would cut short her education; when the family disagreed, he shot and killed 9 of them. And in a separate incident, a Dinka soldier shot and killed his Nuer superior because he had been disciplined for drinking and drug use. We stayed and worked at home, and heard UN helicopter landing at the nearby UNMIS compound; later found out top GOSS (Government of Southern Sudan) officials from Juba had come to handle the situation and that both shooters had been caught. We praise God that things were handled in a way that did not fan the flames of the traditional Nuer-Dinka rivalry, and that it is being resolved by rule of law rather than the rough justice that prevailed during the war and has sometimes still occurred though the war is over.

Elias from UMCOR was supposed to take the Landcruiser to Uganda yesterday to pick up up a backup generator for the Hankins new house, but was delayed until today because of this situation. He left early this morning. Phyllis is not feeling well so we pray for her. Rev. Isaac Sebit comes to talk with Boo, and gives me a lesson on his motorcycle (a brave and generous man.)

Sunday, August 29
Since the Land cruiser is in Entebbe to pickup the backup generator, we are walking or “footing” as they say here. We took the opportunity to go to church with our UK missionary friends, John and Poppy Spens, who help the Martha Clinic and build primary schools. It is an ECS church (Episcopal Church of Sudan) with 3 services, and we're at the English service. Poppy apologizes for the formal liturgy, but we tell her there are United Methodist churches that have a more formal liturgy than this. The sermon is on Psalm 121, about God being our only, and reliable, source of help! Good reminder. Diantha and I go to the missionary prayer fellowship on Sunday evening for the second time; the crowd has doubled since last week and there are 12 there. John Spens leads an excellent Bible study on Mark, the passage when Jesus is asleep in the boat when the storm arises. Take home point: fear is the opposite of faith. A difficult lesson to really incorporate and practice, but Amen.

Mon, August 30
Since the Landcruiser is on its way back from Uganda and still not here to day, there is no way for us to go to yet another 2 churches we had originally scheduled for today. Also, Diantha has discovered she has the chance to take a free week-long train-the-trainer workshop being offered on Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (one of her main focuses for her village work), and the workshop is being held only a 30 minute walk away. So we postpone going to the churches. Tally: we've been blocked from 1 church by road problems, 4 by last Friday's security situation and the way it changed the schedule, and now we'll skip yet another 2 because Boo and Phyllis and Diantha have persuaded me it makes much more sense to go to the villages at a later date when Diantha can go too. I'm eager to get on with our initial visits to churches, but I have to (reluctantly) admit they are right. I must not only be flexible about changes in the schedule, but also must be patient with how much longer things take! So I go do something fun; I go visit the Principal of the Crop Training Center, David Bala my friend from 2 previous trips, and have a great talk with him. He gives me excellent advice on how to handle the snail problem that is devastating the crops in two of the churches we met with. David also offers me free papaya starts to share with the churches, and free chaya cuttings (chaya is “tree spinach”, a perennial with edible leaves that have more nutrition than spinach.) And David also gives me very good advice on which motorcycle brand will be best to buy for riding out to the villages. We agree to try to travel together to meetings of the USAID agriculture group in Juba. When I walk back to the UMCOR compound, Elias pulls up in the Landcruiser with not only the generator, but all the luggage Diantha and I had to leave at the East Africa Annual Conference Office! We were expecting to get it a week later! What a day of blessings!

Tues, Aug. 31
While Boo takes Phyllis to the airport to fly to Uganda to meet the team coming in tonight, I go to weekly security briefing with Flora from UMCOR. The briefing is just down the street a short walk at the UN High Commission on Refugees compound. When we walk in there are four UN uniformed personnel from various countries, five other NGO/mission foreigners like me (two Americans, two UK, one Norwegian) and about eight Sudanese representing various NGOs. We learn details about the Friday security incidents, and also that the phone tree to inform NGOs was only partly effective; plans are made to improve it. Later while Diantha is still at her training Boo and I make 3 visits to the drivers license office, finally find it open, and in one short hour have licenses for Diantha and I! Then we go and with much silent prayer I buy a motorcycle, the same brand David Bala recommended, and ride it home still praying. I only stall twice; its controls are different than the one Sebit taught me on, but I finally figure it out with no major mishap. The first time I stalled, in the market area, a young man ran over and helped me get it started (answer to prayer?); I appreciate his help, especially since half a dozen of his friends are watching and laughing! When I get back home I practice riding in the UMCOR compound for about 2 hours. Prayer is great, but practice helps too.

Weds, Sept 1
Today we drop Diantha at her training early in the morning at the ECS Guest House, and double check the reservations there for the team coming in this weekend. On to the bank where I get the paperwork to open our checking account, and to the market where we finally find motorcycle helmets the right style and size for Diantha and I. Back at the house, Pastor Isaac Sebit comes and helps us divide up the 400 lb of sorghum and peanut seeds that have been given to the United Methodists from the CRWRS (Christian Reform World Relief Service.) Using our luggage scale, Sebit and Boo and I fill 17sacks of equal weight of peanut seed, and another 17 sacks of sorghum seed, one of each kind of seed for each church. CRWRS has also given us good hoe blades, two for each of our churches. We'll give the seed and hoe blades to the pastors next at the pastor's meeting. It's hard hot work today, but it feels GREAT to do something concrete and immediate for agriculture in the UM churches. Most of what we will be doing this fall is a long-range planning session at each church and a first project coming out of that, but we need to mix the long-range with some short-range. It is still planting season, so these seeds and tools will come at a good time. We get done just in time to grab a cold coke, Skype with Danny Howe, and then I jump on the new motorcycle to go pick up Diantha from her workshop while the sky thunders and threatens the usual evening downpour. Its the first time I've ridden the motorcycle a mile with someone on the back, but all goes well and we beat the rain. Thank God for a productive, good day.

Thurs, Sept. 2
The exciting and inspiring days of work in the villages, the part of my service here that I enjoy so much, is inevitably founded on days like today of tedious detail and errands: setting up our bank account, setting up our budget and financial record-keeping on the computer, buying a chain and padlock for our motorcycle, shopping for groceries. One exciting thing is arranging to get parts for a grinding mill (hand- or bike-cranked) sent to Kampala so it can be manufactured and we can buy one and try it out to see if its feasible for the villages; this was one of the high priorities of 3 of the 6 churches we visited last week.

Fri., Sept. 3
I have a completely free day until 3 pm, so I set out walking ½ mile to the compound for the Christian Reformed World Relief Commission. High of the day: great talk with Nate at CRWRC not only about their group's excellent work in village agricultural development, but the real scoop on the other NGO (Non-Governmental Organizations) and government agencies involved in agriculture. My list of the NGOs I've identified is now longer than the list of plants and animals I can identify. I called two other key agriculture contacts and set up meetings with them. Low of the day: the brand new HP printer I bought in Kampala will not install on my computer or make copies.

Sat., Sept 4
Today the team from our home Holston Conference arrived: Rev. Linda Bird Wright, Delphine Swanson, Jane Robinson, Joy Robinson Schultz, Libby Dearing and Fred Dearing. They are here to head up the purchase of furnishings for the new Hankins house/guesthouse for visitors and mission teas (mainly the first four people listed) and Libby and Fred are also here to work on the future orphanage project and the present school situation. We'll go to Ligotolo UMC tomorrow morning for worship, and from then on Diantha and I will pretty much devote the next week and a half to helping with the team. We'll probably be able to get the rest of our own household shopping done as we spend time in the market helping them shop for the Hankins house. And we may be able to squeeze in a few meetings with other mission groups and NGOs as we try to get a full picture of work already going on like ours.

Today Diantha completed her WaSH (Water and Sanitation and Hygiene) training. The purpose was to train 16 people from three area villages to be Sanitation and Hygiene promoters. This is organized through a Christian NGO, Across which is doing many things we hope to do so we will visit them too to learn more. We'd tried to take the WaSH training in the U.S. twice, and were stymied both times; but it turned out for the better since by doing it here Diantha learned a lot about language, and learning styles and approaches, and also about local culture and situations: many people must get drinking water from contaminated rivers and boil water if possible; many people do not have latrines; some have pits with a simple or no structure . She'll get to put these things into practice when she does a local training on September 18 to which women from all the Sudanese United Methodist churches have been invited.

Friday, August 27, 2010

A week of visiting villages

As we finish our first week in Yei, we are having a catch-up day at our new home at the UMCOR guest house with the Hankins. It has been a BUSY week, as the four of us (Hankins and Hodges) have visited one to two rural churches a day in our effort to eventually visit all 17 as soon as possible. On the way, we are carefully studying the scenery, trying to identify trees, buildings and figure out what people are doing or selling as we pass to better understand the life here. The local Assistant District Superintendent, Pastor Isaac Sebit, travels with us to interpret, and patiently answers our many questions. Each community of course is a bit different, but with very similar needs, as all are in poverty, in remote areas where roads are sometimes impassable, or too far from Yei (where there are services and markets) for them to access given their mode of transportation (mostly walking, carrying things on their heads; there are some bicycles and a few motorcycles on the roads; almost all 4-wheel vehicles are owned by service organizations). The tiredness we feel at the end of the day I think will ease as we adjust to our new life. Differences in the visits are marked by which chorus of “welcome visitor” is sung by the children and by what their presentation is composed of; but more so by the things that happen on the side. There are always people at these rural locations who need a ride back to Yei for medical treatment or other purposes. One trip was especially organized to bring one of the widows of the church for a vital visit to the clinic. On another, we were stopped by someone on the road to carry a limp woman with severe anemia; there are no ambulances and this woman was too weak to ride even a motorcycle.

The purpose of the visits is to let each church met us and to have an introduction to what we hope to do. We also visit the recently dug bore holes (wells with hand pumps) with all the people and have a blessing prayer. This is the clean water for the community, and they report a reduction in disease, plus do not have to walk as far to carry water home. Each church is also used as a “Nursery School” which is preschool and Kindergarten; education which is not provided by other schools in their areas. Villages have Primary School, and students must go to Yei traveling daily or as a boarding school for High School which is one year past our high school. PTA’s and School Committees are included in the government outline for schools, but some do not have these. We heard of Nursery Schools with attendance as much as three hundred. For the most part, teachers are not paid, as parents do not have money, and the United Methodist Church (UMC) is encouraging people to plant an extra row of food for the teachers, as well as one for the pastors as they are mostly unpaid as well. Greeting visitors is of high value here, so the children form a chorus to sing a welcoming song, and sometimes process with a slow dance into the church to form a “parade”. (We are working on posting short video clips on You Tube. Also, check the photos we put on Facebook, and click on photos to enlarge and pass mouse over them for names, and note the descriptions). Several classes meet under open sided thatched church/school, with overflow under the trees. Holston Conference is providing 2 blackboards each, and UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief) will bring each child a notebook, pencils, etc.

The chiefs of the area also come to our meeting (one was a woman) as well as elders of the community and church, church members, parents with babies and little ones. While it is our first visit, it is also a second or more visit from Rev. Boo Hankins (the District Superintendent provided for East Africa Annual Conference by Holston Conference, TN to help support and organize the churches) and his wife, Rev. Phyllis Hankins. We tell our story of coming here, explain how we hope to learn about their problems, and their way of life and work together for solutions. They nod at this. We also say we want to be called brother and sister, rather than the honorific “Mother” or “Father” and they clap at this. We emphasize how patience is needed to make lasting, long term solutions. Then anyone who wants to speak is invited, starting with the most honored chiefs, then the elders, the teachers, parents. It is a very inclusive, open meeting. We are welcomed warmly and given tea or simple lunch of just rice with salt, or rice with meat and sauce. The food is passed as far as it goes. They are hopeful for improvements in their situation.

We note common themes among the priority needs mentioned during the inevitable “report time”: they would like more permanent buildings to last and shelter school kids and church attenders from the rain, they would like teacher remuneration, teacher training, and teaching materials (there are no textbooks, sometimes no notebooks, etc. etc.) They want seeds, agricultural training, and implements (hoes, axes, machetes to cut the brush and small trees.) Right now during the wet season, snails are eating all the crops and children are getting sick and dying. They all ask for grinding mills as it is too far for most to take their millet to the mill; also their grinding stones break and put particles into the meal and the children get sick. Access to market is a great need (in 2007 there was an agricultural project to raise millet, sesame seeds etc. but it was too far for them to carry the grain on their heads to the market area.) The “road” to Yondoru UMC, several miles off the terribly rutted main road, had water filled holes the whole width so that even something like a hand pulled garden cart could not get through. Women are interested in selling embroidery, but again money for materials and access to market is a problem.

They report disease has been reduced since the bore holes (deep wells) have been drilled and provide them with clean water, but we did not notice pit latrines; worms were not mentioned but are a common problem. One headwoman mentioned the problem of low birth weight babies and danger to young babies and mothers. All mentioned lack of adequate medicines at area government clinics (if there are any) and difficulty accessing health care in Yei. Money for transport, fees and medicines is also an issue. Malaria is not mentioned everywhere, though not all have bed nets and mosquitos are out. People can become ill quickly and die before they can get medicine. I see that the babies are breastfeeding, but many of the little ones and a few adults have red hair, indicating lack of protein. There are orphans among the children. The most impoverished are two churches in an area where the Lord’s Resistance Army has destroyed their homes and taken everything they had. Now the military has a camp there to help protect. On the positive Boo notes that several churches last year met under trees, and this year they have thatched huts with rough log benches for church/school. They will soon all have bore holes. Some of the schools are very new. Some are more organized with PTA’s and maybe a School Committee. Some of the reports are given English!! Selfishly, it will come in very handy to have one or more English speakers in each church or village when we return to do trainings and planning.

We were impressed that people, especially the chiefs and leaders, have an in depth understanding and analysis of the problems of their village and are focused on the long-range goal of developing a better life for their children. Their group process is organized and inclusive. Women are involved, though only sometimes in leadership positions. This are all very encouraging!! The village folks we’ve met make it clear that t is of great importance to them that we are here at all; that help is coming out to try to reach them. Often it is mentioned that the different colors of our skin is not important. Diantha will hold a training Sept. 18 for the women on health and nutrition. Steve has immediately begun researching solutions to the need of reducing snails and increasing grinding mills.

A welcome song sung by the children in one church was “We are the future of Sudan.” They sang it like they believed it! This is also a common theme, that we must work for improvements for the sake of the children. The needs now are great, but these people have made it through even tougher times. The children are bright eyed, love to sing, and also bring joy to our hearts.

One of our highlights was one church where they practiced the custom of bringing a young child before the respected visitors and elders to pose a riddle (spoken in English no less). “I love my mother and my mother loves me. I strike my mother and my mother kills me. What am I?” We were given 5 minutes to come up with the answer, which of course we could not (the answer was a matchbox), so had to pay the forfeit. Fortunately we had some gum and peanuts/M&M’s in the jeep to give them as a reward for their cleverness, and Phyllis taught them a song with motions also as a reward. We’ll learn to carry treats in the future!

We are appreciative of these things: love and support from family and friends, the weather which is cooler than Tennessee, with less humidity and more breeze (high has been 85 in the shade with some cloud cover, rain every several days), the beauty of the air, grasses, trees, sky, the rural feel of south Sudan even in Yei which is 250,000, and the people here who greet us with thanksgiving and open arms. We cannot forget the Hankins who have taken us into their home in the UMCOR Guest House, and the Landcruiser which toils under Boo’s skilled hands to bounce over bumps and down pot holes and plow through water filled holes several feet deep (I call the jeep a water buffalo) and though we have come close we have not become stuck. The mosquitoes are omnipresent at night so we shut ourselves inside from the evening to morning biting time. I call the occasional ones that slip inside the house “Mr. Lurkey” as they lurk around damp drains and clothing, but we have successfully eliminated several and have no mosquito bites yet. A small thing, yet we give thanks.

Monday, August 23, 2010

First week in Africa

Sunday, August 15
The week before we leave for Africa has been one of disinvestment. The phone broke, and we bought a $13 replacement phone at the drug store. Then just after getting the muffler and side mirror fixed, the car broke down and we were told it needs a new engine. We sold it for parts. The same week we met with the people who came from Florida to discuss buying our house; even though they ended up deciding not to buy it right now, Diantha and I went through the emotional process of letting go the house we built and raised our kids in for 19 years. When I mentioned at work how much was breaking down all at once, one woman immediately replied that the devil was trying to disrupt our lives. But I that's not the way I see it. For several years I have been pondering Jesus' repeated reminder that if anyone would follow him, they must “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me:” and now I finally feel these words taking shape inside me. I have by no means come close to selling all or denying all, but its the furthest I've ever gone.

Monday, August 16
A dozen Christian friends from as far away as Chattanooga, Greeneville and Kingsport drive several hours and gather at the airport in Alcoa to send Diantha and I off. At my request we form a circle and each friend gives us a hope they have for Sudan that we can take with us: lasting peace, courage and joy, a home for orphans, healing and wholeness out of brokenness. When its my turn, I say my hope is that the people of Sudan have patience to work at the long hard task of rebuilding their lives and nation, and patience to keep choosing this path rather than violence. At the end we pray for all these hopes to be fulfilled.

Tuesday, August 17
Arriving at the airport in Entebbe, Uganda we spot the man with the sign for the Fairway Hotel here the staff at East Africa Annual Conference has arranged for us to stay. It turns out the promised hotel shuttle has left some time ago with a group from an earlier flight, so hotel guy Abdul has contracted with a private van-taxi to drive us the 40 miles to our hotel in Kampala. We load the bags in the van, and Abdul disappears! As the young driver pulls out of the airport, I realize we are totally at the mercy of someone with whom we have no sense of accountability, in a place totally new and strange to us. Suddenly I feel much more vulnerable than I have on the whole trip so far and I'm pushed further than ever to trust God for protection. I pray.

Wednesday, August 18
We have an amazingly good first night sleep and get up in time to meet Robert Kisubi who takes us to our appointment with Bishop Daniel Wandabula at East Africa Annual Conference. Bishop brings in 4 staff and 2 District Superintendents, we all introduce ourselves, then he gives us a quick history of EAAC. When we're asked to make remarks, we share our vision for mission service in Sudan emphasizing a grassroots planning process ineach church and village out of which projects in health, agriculture, microenterprise will come. We talk about the importance of integrating literacy into all these projects, of working collaboratively with other missions, NGOs, and government groups. The strength with which the Bishop and staff affirm this vision amazes us. We ask for patience since this longer-range approach will take time to bring results, and they quickly agree. Hallelujah! Then we go to get our money changed, buy cell phones, and even have time to check out the International Hospital.

Thursday, August 19
The driver sent by EACC is a little late, but we still get all our planned shopping done in a half day! We are extremely grateful that we've had several conversations with Boo and Phyllis Hankins, already in Sudan, about what is most important to buy in Kampala and where to get it. We take the driver to lunch back at the hotel cafe, and repack our bags because we can only take two carry-on items and a 22 pound checked bag on the small Eagle Air plane to Yei. Then the driver takes us to the EAAC offices again to leave 4 big suitcases and the stuff we've just bought, including a two-burner gas hot top to cook on, a printer for our computer, and 2 pillows to be brought later in September on the UMCOR truck that will bring furnishings for the Hankins' new house. After having worked hard at getting rid of so many possessions as we left home that we should have divested long ago, it feels funny to both of us to be buying things for our new (rented) home in Sudan; but we've planned carefully to get the minimum stuff needed to enable us to carry on our missionary service.

Friday, August 20
It's Diantha's 58th birthday, and things have gone so smoothly we have nothing we have to get done today! Anne Travis has emailed that we should rest while we are in Kampala, and this day we can. We sleep in a little, have a late breakfast, then go to the desk to ask about walking to a museum we have heard is nearby. The desk clerks all urge us to take a taxi, saying walking is too dangerous; after the last two days being driven around Kampala I believe them. As one of the desk clerks, a young woman, walks us down to taxi stand at the gate, she complements Diantha on dressing modestly like an African woman, perhaps an unspoken contrast to the tank-topped Italian tourists who clogged the lobby this morning. Diantha tells her that our daughter made the dress she is wearing, and the young woman is surprised we have a daughter old enough to make such a beautiful dress. The clerk is more surprised when Diantha tells her how old she is and how long we've been married, and she comments that it must be a happy marriage from the way she's seen us interact over several days. It strikes me how much we witness without realizing it, by the way we act in parts of our lives we don't think about as the witness parts.

Saturday, August 21
We rise at 2:15 am because the hotel staff insist we have to get to the Entebbe airport 3 hours before the 7:00 am time we have been told to show up at the gate. The reason, they say, is that following the bombing of the soccer club in Kampala several weeks ago, security has been much tighter and it takes longer to go through security at the airport. So the hotel van races through abandoned streets in the wee hours, we breeze through security, and sit for three hours waiting for the ticket counter to open. Its the only time the people we've been relying on in Uganda have been wrong, so we forgive them though we can't really make up the sleep on the hard plastic chairs of the waiting room. Right at 7 am, the missionaries from the UK John and Poppy Spens walk into the airport and I'm delighted to introduce them to Diantha. Poppy is carrying a portable ultrasound machine back to the Martha Clinic in Yei, and she and Diantha immediately begin talking about health care matters while John and I find we share a strong interest in getting the various mission efforts in Yei to collaborate in more concrete ways. As we settle into the little 19-passenger plane, Diantha turns to me and says, “There's no turning back now.” Actually, there hasn't been for some time, but it really sinks in then. I make sure she sits by a window, and she notices the difference in the abundant, organized farms of Uganda and the scarce cultivation when we cross into Sudan. The plane's smooth landing amazes her too, and then we get out onto the red maram clay landing strip and hug Boo and Phyllis.

After Boo and Phyllis have taken us from the airport to the UMCOR guest house where they and we will stay, we finally have an hour or so to make up a little sleep. Then at 2:00 pm we splash water on our face and walk to the new little meeting hut built in front of the guest house where the Sudanese United Methodist pastors have begun to gather. Eventually 14 of the 16 show up, a good turnout, for what we realize is a reception to welcome us! We speak briefly about our hopes and plans for mission service, and then one by one most of the pastors speak, some briefly and some at length and some practically preaching a whole sermon. They have been praying for us to come, they are joyful that we are here, they are thankful that the Church has sent us to help them, they have great hopes and expectations for the impact we can have. I'm actually kind of scared (I find out later Diantha is too) by the immensity of their expectations. As the hour and a half of sharing and prayer ends, I tell them that there is so much to do that I am aware it impossible for us to do it out of our own abilities; BUT that I know three things: with God all things are possible; that needed change will happen as we are partners with each other, each teaching the other what we know; and that though I don't completely understand it, I believe God has a great purpose for Sudan of which we are all together a part.

The more I reflect on this welcome, the more I am blown away by the first step of trust the pastors have placed in us. Thank you, God.

Sunday, August 22
I've been looking forward to worship at Yei United Methodist Church, especially because it will be Diantha's first time to worship in a Sudanese church. Sure enough, I watch her enjoyment build to ecstasy when at the first “hot song” the children rush up to grab her hand and dance, jumping up and down with her. In fact, she has several children holding each of her hands. I get teary when I see her glowing face, and realize she is taking the time to look into the face of each child dancing with her. I'm seeing Jesus taking the time for each little child.