Friday, September 20, 2013

On The Surface

I keep sitting down to write a post about all the things we are taking in and experiencing culturally but I feel tongue tied (finger tied?) when it comes down to it. There is too much and I haven't fit it all into a neat synopsis in my mind or anywhere else. Maybe there is too much to synthesize: the collapse of perceptions carefully built throughout my life may take longer than 2 months to rebuild. Instead, I find it easy to give superficial descriptions of some of our experiences like life with irregular power and water. 

We have been pretty blessed so far to have regular running cold water in our house. The school campus near us has a well and from there pumps water into a holding tank for the school's use. There were a couple weeks when the water was touch and go and that was apparently due to a broken pump. The school has the ability to turn on water from the city's tank but it costs money and so they try not to if they can help it, if we asked enough times they would "send us some water" as they called it, turning on the city tank for a few hours so we could get our business done. It took a little while to learn all this! 

After these difficulties we decided to purchase ourselves a rain barrel as some security. As soon we had our barrel in place they fixed the pump and we had no more water issues of course! Until the students came that is and then we had another day with no water. All this is preparatory for what everyone tells me is to come. Dry Season! We are currently in the end of the rainy season here, which is very much like a wet East Coast Fall in feel. Chilly and often rainy, but warm and crisp when the sun is out. Dry season supposedly is just as it says, dry. For about five months or so there is almost no rain and the water tanks soon go dry. And water must be carried every day. 

I can't even explain how difficult it is to have a basic level of hygiene here when there is water, but without, it becomes pretty grim. The children get grubby and grubbier, and suddenly washing your hands before you eat, or rinsing a piece of fruit seems to be a monstrous waste of water when you consider you don't know when else you will have any. Imagine what that looks like in a hospital when they lose the ability to flush the toilets. Apparently the boarding school here had to close for a few days because the toilets were so bad one season. I guess they don't have snow days. . .  

The power here is regularly irregular, mostly without seeming rhyme or reason, except that is Sundays. Sundays there is no power because why would you need electricity on the day of rest anyway? It can be inconvenient, but there isn't much point wasting energy lamenting the situation. And candlelit mosquito netting can be quite romantic... ; ) I was chewing over the idea of a way you could share a bit in our mission: Perhaps you could live in solidarity with us by going one day a week without power until it gets dark. Or, hire someone to randomly throw breakers on and off throughout the week. (Los Alamos, you already have your own power issues... especially when the accelerator is running). However, you might find yourself pleasantly surprised at how life goes on, albeit more peacefully, without the hum of electricity reminding you to stay busy.


The Unknown

"Confronting something and not quite knowing yet what it is."

Happily, there are books available in libraries in town. I have not been to all of them, in fact I haven't even seen the inside of the library here at SAC, but it is comforting to know they are here.

The Pastoral Center for the Kumbo Diocese is adjacent to the SAC campus. It is literally in our back yard, directly behind our house. The Pastoral Center serves as a retreat house and event center, and it includes a fairly decent library of books gleaned from various convents and monasteries around the country. The collection is geared to appeal to church workers, which I was in the states and continue to be here, in a way. There are Church documents, Scriptural commentaries, books on homiletics, and even a tiny selection of novels (ranging from an early edition of Henryk Sienkiewicz's Quo Vadis to a recent novel by Khaled Hosseini).

There are at least two libraries in Tobin, the main administrative part of town. As an aside, While Tobin serves as the governmental center of Kumbo, Mbve is the economic center with the main market, banks, supermarket, etc., and Kumbo/Squares is the Cultural and Religious center with The Cathedral, the Palace of the Fon, and the Bishop's Hill.

But back to books: one of the Tobin libraries is next to the Catholic Church there, run by the sisters next door. It is open for children twice a week, and the collection is comprised of donations from the states. One of the main benefactors is a used book shop in Santa Fe! the owner of the book shop is a relative of one of the sisters. I'm not sure the name of the used book shop, but I think it is the one off the Plaza down the street from the Yarn shop, Tutto's. I seem to remember the name of the store was some kind of pun. In any case, there are also novels, etc. for adult readerse. The selection isn't huge, but there are some great books there! I was happy to discover, and then subsequently check out, a copy of Italo Calvino's "If On a Winter's Night a Traveller," This is a book I began to read in New Mexico, but it got lost in the upheaval and chaos of the last year.

I remember enjoying Calvino's unique first chapter, a kind of meta-chapter written in the second person describing, in startlingly accurate detail, the process in which I buy and read a new book. Sometimes, the book turns out to be different than you expect, and Calvino writes, "in fact, on sober relection, you prefer it this way, confronting something and not quite knowing yet what it is."

That line leapt from the page for me this time around, though I doubt I paid it much heed back in New Mexico. Here on mission, it resonated deep within my heart and mind. We knew we were called to Mission-that much was clear from our prayer and discernment. We had been involved in various domestic mission and evangelization efforts in the States, but overseas mission was a big cloud of unknowables to us. Yes, we knew there would be cultural differences, but WHAT would those differences be? There would be hardships, but what kind? What would we miss most? Would we make friends with only expats, or could we connect with the locals? What would be the biggest joys?

We know what we were getting into, but in some ways, we have no idea what we are getting into. In a way, it feels a little bit like getting married: In the days leading up to the wedding, and even in the days and weeks and months and years after the wedding, you don't know quite what to expect; you have butterflies in your stomach; you know, theoretically, a little bit of what marriage is like, but there is no teacher like experience to teach you what marriage actually is. 

For me, mission so far has been like that. As school starts, I am confronting more and more of the cultural differences that have thus far remained hidden under the surface of our experience. More and more our experience of our struggles, hardships, joys, and successes is being revealed to us. Relying on God's grace to get us through, we soldier on through the spills and the breaks and the miscommunications and the jokes and the smiles and the dinner parties and just plain old life in general.

I still do not know exactly what I am getting into, but on sober reflection, I prefer it this way: confronting something and not quite knowing yet what it is.

Starting mission work is like opening a wrapped gift.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Birthday Party

(James) I was having fun at my birthday party. We played a donkey game which was Pin the Tail on the Donkey. We were taping the tail on the donkey. And we played musical chairs. We had popcorn, and raisins and groundnuts in the popcorn. For dinner there was potatoes, rice, and fried cabbage. The people that came to our party were some friends that we made.

(Helena) I just want to say the same thing, all that Jamesy said.
(Eric Now)  Helena and James are now six! It is hard to believe that the tiny 4.5-5 lb bundles of joy from the NICU are now reading and writing and doing chores and getting into trouble... We decided to throw a small birthday celebration for our eldest twins. The "small" part quickly snowballed into "largish," as it seems if you mention a birthday celebration, people assume they are invited. Helena and James mentioned it at school, and we had no idea how many people to expect. 10? 20? The one other birthday celebration we have been invited to, we received an invitation the very day of the party. I guess word gets around.

Anyway, we enlisted the help of Fidelia, or "Mommy Tchina," as our children call her, to prepare the food for lunch. If you are keeping score at home, let me explain: we had hired Nyuykividzem Faustine to help us with laundry and cleaning and some cooking, and when she went back to school, her mother, Fidelia took her place. Because adults are rarely addressed by their name, most parents are known by their eldest child: Ma Modest for the mother of Modest, or Pa James for the father of James (or Ba James, meaning the same, ba being a Lamnso' loan word from English.) We buy our roasted groundnuts from Mommy Wilma, who is Wilma's mother. Anyway, Sally couldn't say Faustine's whole name, and called her Tina, but it sounded more like "Tchina." Incidentally, it is pronounced kind of like mommy but spelled Mame. So, Mame Tchina helped us cook food that Cameroonian kids would like at a party... basically, rice with some veggies and fish thrown into the mix. The gigantic pot in which she cooked the rice was HUGE.  It was a cauldron.

The guests ended up not being overwhelming in number, and after feeding close to 30, we had leftovers... plenty leftovers, (in pidgin, "chop where e never finish") which we ate for dinner... and breakfast... and dinner again. We even had more guests at one of the extra meals.

The party was a blast: There were over a dozen children, and a handful of parents that also arrived. The party games were fun, and the other children loved them. I think Logan had more fun playing musical chairs than the children! The power was out and we couldn't play music, but someone had music on their phone and we just used that.

Helena and James loved their birthday outfits, tailor-made and designed by a local seamstress. The matching-outfits thing is pretty popular here. For special occasions, people will get matching shirts made... or families will all wear matching dresses to church. Anyway, Helena and James looked pretty sharp in their one-of-a-kind clothes.

The eating and games over, we had three-ingredient chocolate cake (can you guess the ingredients? a hint: one of them is chocolate) and passed out bags of popcorn trail mix as favors. As it was pouring down rain, all the children were content to color with our crayons, then play card games, then color some more, then dash home during a break in the weather.

It was so good to celebrate Helena and James with their new friends, and though it was a lot of work to put everything together (even with Mame Tchina helping) but we loved to share our joy.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Picture Blog

SAC Chapel:  Mass every morning at 6 AM. a great way to start the day! The morning light comes in from behind, and it is beautiful.

Elevation Change:  See that hill behind Logan? the Cathedral is visible way down low... it's 1000 feet up or down between the cathedral and the pastoral center, the highest point on the walk from our house (still a ways to go from where the picture was taken). For you Los Alamosians out there, that's like hiking down to the Rio Grande from the Overlook, in terms of elevation change.
Sr. Hilda is awesome and works in the BEPHA office (Bamenda Ecclesiastical Province Health Assistance). It's like insurance, but not. We might write more on this later. But Sr. Hilda is also our next door neighbor, and we often hear her deep, full laugh coming over the courtyard wall. She is a gem and has been a huge help, along with Sr. Mercy, who also lives next door. They are Missionary Sisters of the Holy Rosary. If you want something done, especially if you want something done right, find a sister!