Monday, May 18, 2015

The thing for which I am thankful #34,751: Reliable Refrigeration

It's a small thing, seemingly, but it really helps save time and money. We have what is basically a dorm fridge in our kitchen here, and it's nice to have a place to keep meat and leftovers and chill drinks. We make-do. It's not large enough for all of our produce, so we're left keeping a constant stream of fresh produce at room temperature. Besides it's a fritzy fridge, and will freeze everything without warning. If the power goes out for more than a day, we're left with a bunch of defrosted meat that needs to be cooked and eaten.

It's doable, but it requires more frequent trips to the market. And sometimes, a regretful trip to the woods to toss the rancid meat when the power goes out and we don't cook it.

Recently, our neighbor came to ask if she could keep some meat in our fridge, hers had stopped working properly. One whiff, and I knew the meat was bad. I almost vomited. I told her it had already turned and would make her sick. For her, she said, it wasn't a problem and wouldn't affect her health. I suggested, maybe you should cook it today? No, that wouldn't do because she had just cooked some meat; this meat she would cook and eat in two weeks’ time. She just needed the meat to get cold again, and it would be ok. 

We eventually came to an agreement that I would keep the meat in our fridge for a day or so until she had time to take it to her sister's house. I really didn't want to keep that gross, smelly, rotting meat... but when your neighbor asks... what can you do? She was so sad and disappointed when I wouldn't help her.

This woman is poor, and meat is pretty expensive, so she didn't want to toss the bad meat. I'm sure she has an immune system better equipped to handle this environment and climate and lifestyle than mine, but I'm also sure that eating that spoiled meat is a poor choice, health-wise. How do you tell that to someone who just spent 5-10% of her take-home pay for the month on meat that then went bad? In the moment, it seemed to me that her refusal to throw it out was only due in part to a belief that the meat was still ok, and that in her gut she just could not accept the loss.

Now, my neighbor is lucky! She has a refrigerator! Granted, one that doesn't work, but most of the world can't afford that, or can't afford the electric bill that goes with it. When offered coffee, a man here refused it, because he didn't want to start an addiction he couldn't afford. A wise choice! A sad choice, because coffee grows here.

There are so many things I took for granted in America: the ability to chill my food, the ability to brew a morning cup of joe without strain on my household budget, running water in my house. Now, I realize what gifts those are, and I am grateful.


Tuesday, May 5, 2015


We spend much of our time in our garden. Sometimes we go out just to walk around and see how things are growing. It is an exciting time of the year. The rains are falling, seeds are germinating, and seedlings are shooting up. Since we have over two weeks off between the Second and the Third term of the school year, we have the time to do our soil improvements and our planting and our weeding. Last year we sought help from others, but this year we're trying to do most of the work ourselves. As I did last year, I find myself thinking about Jesus' agricultural metaphors as I work.
Growing plants from seeds, you learn that different types of seed need different things to germinate, and then the resulting plants also need different things in order to thrive. Some plants need more water, some plants need less water, some plants have deep roots and some have shallow roots, etc. Some are delicate and prissy and fussy and wilt and die with no warning, like our cucumbers. Today we went out and a weeks-old plant that appeared perfectly healthy the day before had fallen prey to some strange ant-but-not-an-ant insect and was totally dead. Then, there are the kinds of plants, usually weeds, that are so hardy you almost can never get rid of them no matter how much you try. Mint is like this, fortunately, so we are able to enjoy mojitos no matter how much damage the rabbits or the chickens do to the mint we planted in our courtyard.

In a way, each person is like a different kind of plant. We have our own conditions and needs in order for the seed of the Gospel to germinate inside us, and then we each need different conditions in order to grow and thrive. For plants there are climate concerns, but for people there are cultural concerns. It's all very confusing, and often you have to learn from trial and error. I mean, it's really hard to find gardening advice for equatorial gardening at altitude... And the advice local people give can even be contradictory.

Evangelization through both example and words (see Paul VI's Evangelii Nuntiandi), in a new and strange culture is also a work of trial and error. While we feel more and more at home and part of the community, there are still interactions that leave us frustrated, or where we totally goof-up and insult people, or we don't hear them, or we realize after the fact (days or weeks or months, even) that we didn't communicate at all.

We are growing corn and beans on several largish plots. Before the corn germinates, the black and white “tuxedo” crows, as we call them, swoop down and treat themselves to lunch. You end up with a place where corn should be growing but isn't. So, James and I recently went through our new corn rows and sowed again where it didn't come up. In my ministry in the United States, whenever I have read the parable of the sower, I saw it as my job to help the soil of the hearts of the youth of our parish to become the fertile ground in which the Kingdom of God could grow and thrive. A homily I heard here in Cameroon showed me that, luckily, God is a generous sower. He sows even on the rocky ground, where the birds eat it, etc., and so part of our job in evangelizing the World is to keep sowing the seed, everywhere and abundantly.

[General garden update: Radishes are wonderful because they are ready to harvest in about a month. Arugula is a nice addition to our cuisine. Everyone asks us about our chickpeas, they are an alien crop here. Our pumpkins and squashes and melons seem to be picking up well. We'll have fresh green beans soon. We have a few rows of carrots and cabbages and tomatoes and lettuces, and more. There's always something to plant or pick, or a new bed to prepare. The corn and beans are growing well, and we like to think it is because of our work to amend the soil. I have a farmer's tan, and am proud to say I come by it honestly!]


Thursday, April 23, 2015

Easter Egg Hunt

In Boy Scouts, I learned to always “Be Prepared.” It is a motto that has served me well in my life, and yet I am still learning how best to apply it, especially when generosity and charity are involved.

For instance, this is the second year we've held a small Easter egg hunt for the neighbor children, and this year we were able to dye and decorate the eggs beforehand. (Thanks to the help of Annika and Eva, our neighbors and volunteers from Germany, who supplied the dye and decorations!) 

We planned a modest expansion, because really it's not very much of a sacrifice for us to buy a couple dozen more eggs. Logan told me to get 4 trays of eggs (at 30 per tray, that's 10 dozen total) and I bought 4 trays of eggs... in my desire to “be prepared,” I figured our family would be prepared to use about one tray of eggs for omelets and pancakes and muffins or whatnot, and we'd dye and hide about three trays.

Well, it turns out that between my 7.5 dozen and Logan's 10 dozen, we should have gone with my wife's numbers. The egg hunt was wildly successful, and we were so happy to share a little bit of our culture. Some children walked away with two or three or more eggs... this in a place where teachers tell their children to beg their parents to give them one egg a week for the protein and nutrition. We eat eggs all the time, we're comparatively rich Westerners. 

The thing is, an egg is about 75 francs or so, which is less than 20 cents. However, a teacher gets a monthly salary of less than 80 dollars. Comparing the economies of the USA and a developing country is tricky, but in terms of buying power and percentage of income, it's more like each egg costs $5. And here we are, just giving them away! No wonder it was a popular activity with the children. An average family doesn't buy eggs by the trayful... let alone three traysful.

The colored eggs were a bit of a shock to every Cameroonian. Who has ever seen a blue egg? Or a bright red egg with a bunny face? We explained to the children how the eggs represent new life in Christ, and how we celebrate Easter by dyeing and hiding and finding eggs. Then we let them loose, and everyone (including our own children) had a grand old time.

Of course, not everything went smoothly... we told the children to come at 11, and as things were wrapping up and everyone was heading home, a good half dozen or so children showed up, ready to enjoy the mysterious game we invited them to come play. Well... Cameroonians aren't known for their timeliness, so we had started late by 15 or 20 minutes to accommodate... but an hour and a half? Sorry, kiddos. Several of them stayed and ended up playing at our house and reading our books, so at least they got SOMEthing.

Next year, we are talking about dyeing and hiding even more eggs. I'll be prepared—for generosity.