Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

"Out of Africa" (iv) -- Stranger

We stop in a village, get out of the car and walk over to a circle of men sitting in thick shade to avoid the impossible African sun. A lump of charcoal or maybe a fist-sized hunk of wood is burning in an scorched steel sleeve the size of an old coffee pot. On top of that sleeve sits a tea pot, heating.

The men are watching the pot, but not thinking much about the tea that is to come because they're yakking about something I'd love to be able to understand. But I've been in a circle of guys like this often enough to recognize good, old-fashioned They laugh, rib each other, yuk it up but good. In Africa, where two or three are gathered, there's almost always a bushel of belly laughs.

They don't seem to be bothered by these strangers who've come out of nowhere. In fact, a minute or two after we arrived they offered a couple of low-slung lawn chairs, and I took one. If I'd known French, I might have been part of the company.  

They offered me tea but I waved it off politely because I didn't know the ground rules--tiny little cups full of frothy stuff dark as chocolate. I didn't want to embarrass myself.

It wasn't quite noon, and I guessed we were going to be here for awhile. Even though the guys sitting beside me were heartily welcoming, I'm a stranger in a strange land.

A young woman walks up. Even though the world is, I'm quite sure, entirely Islamic, she's not hiding her face, as I would have expected. There's no birqua. Islamic women are not supposed to be showy, I'm thinking, but this one is wound up in a gorgeous robe so profligate with color it's almost blinding.  You can't look away. It's beautiful, as she is--young and pretty. She smiles at the men she's serving. It's clear she knows them.

She's working, trying to make a buck. The food she's lugged up brews in a couple of pots that fit atop each other. There must be standing orders because she ladles out some stew for one of the guys sitting there, then flops some meat in a long, thin French roll, a kind of Maliean hot dog, I'm thinking.  

She looks at me as if I might want some lunch. I smile, shake my head. She doesn't seem nervous in the least. She's the only woman anywhere near the circle of gents in the shade, but she goes about her work as if this is everyday, which is what it probably is.

She doesn't say much, but it's clear to me that she's perfectly at home; and what I don't hear is the kind of cat calls I would have expected. There's at least a half-dozen men a good deal older than she is, and she's a woman, all alone, standing there in front of them. I don't know French, but I swear I don't hear a thing that I could translate as sexual innuendo.

Here's the way I've been trained to generalize. Islamic women hide themselves in flowing black robes with slits for their eyes only. 

Not this one. You can hardly look away from her dazzling robe.

And the American in me would have expected the guys to toss out a comment or two. The numbers were right--a pack of middle-aged men sitting in a circle with a pretty young thing leaning down and spooning out the goods. I'd have expected her to take some hits.

Mali, Ghana, Niger--hard as it is to believe, the lands I visited don't have significant drug and alcohol problems because the price for such iniquity, for such sin, is just too high--thus saith the prophet, after all.  They let the short-order cook alone--I really think they did. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it myself. Civility, after all, is not a word I would have associated with Islam. But I'm learning some things I never thought I would. 

I don't suppose that one incident in a village is enough to generalize, but I know the feeling of being in a little handful of men when some young thing comes along and brightens the day. I saw none of what I expected.

I didn't understand a word they said, didn't drink their tea, didn't sample the grub she spooned up from those pots she put back together after she'd sold them the lunch they wanted. I wasn't part of their world really, but as I sat there they showed me things I honestly didn't think I'd see.

In that little circle of gents I remained a stranger in a strange land, but I wasn't the same man I was when we'd pulled up in front of those guys having a good time and waiting for tea.

Monday, October 20, 2014

"Out of Africa" (iv) -- Worship wars

Years ago, some friends took us along to a Sunday night youth rally. The theory, if I'm not mistaken, was to show me some warm Afrikaaner piety. The rally was on campus in a big chapel area at what was, back then, the Pochefstroom University, Pretoria, South Africa. The Mandela era had just begun, the New South Africa.

What I remember of the youth rally is that it was really cute. I'm serious. Okay, cute is a strange way to describe religious piety, I know, but I'm not lying because it was really cute. Four hundred kids, maybe five, just about every last one of them doubled up with a sweetie. Think of it this way--250 couples, every last one of the males hanging one muscular Afrikaaner arm around his pet squeeze so that the rally looked like a huge blonde in-looped flag. It was cute. Really.

Some pastor's sermon got 'em all astir, and the eagerness was palpable. Love was in the air. Some of it was agape--sure; but you couldn't miss a touch of eros, too. Okay, maybe more than a touch. I'm not quite so old as to have forgotten the kind of rapturous zeal that can arise, even on a church bench, maybe especially on a church bench.

It's possible, I suppose, that all that youthful piety would have shown more brightly if the snugglers had been separated: males on one side, females on the other. The ardor might have been more pure if those guys had kept their arms and hands at home.

Sitting separate is the old way, the way things were done in church more than a century ago, and not just in Dutch Reformed churches. Most every northern European Protestant fellowship would have kept an aisle's width between the sexes lest communion descend into carnival.

Okay, I'm overstating. But I know very well that my ancestors worshiped in churches where, like some synagogues yet today, men and women keep a safe distance. Do women even pray in mosques? I don't think so. Put 'em together and you got a volatile mix, you know?

I don't think I'd ever worshiped in a church that split people up by gender until two weeks ago at the evangelical church on the top the page, a little church in a town predominantly--overwhelmingly--Muslim. Still, there we were--praising the Lord with men on one side, women on the other. Only the choir was integrated--well, one bench anyway.

It seemed strange, but then I remembered that crowd of kids in Pretoria, and even my own youth, the sheer bedlam of chemical reactions that will hardly stay in the test tube, even in church. Maybe--or so I thought--splitting up wasn't such a bad idea, silly as it seemed. Besides, it's a tradition as old as the hills.

Still, I just wondered why.

"I don't get it," I said to a man appointed to be my translator. "What's the deal here?--the women are all over there--" I was trying not to point, "and we're all over here." Billy Graham would never be alone in a room with a woman--I remembered that. Maybe we were missing something back home. Maybe we'd wandered.  "Is there a reason for separating everybody up?" I asked him.

"It's for our neighbors, the Muslims," the man told me. We were singing, I think, and I didn't know the words. Besides, he seemed to enjoy using his English on me.

"You split up for them?" I said, only half in a whisper.

"If they 'd walk by and see us all mixed up together," he said, then halted, as if there were no words to explain, ". . .it just wouldn't be worth it. They'd think it was terrible."

I suppose the word is taboo.

It was, I thought, a price to pay to get along in an Islamic neighborhood. Given what's happening elsewhere in the world these days, keeping men on one side, women on the other is hardly the "supreme sacrifice." One could suffer far worse.

Besides, Eugene Peterson likes to say that worship is really about learning to live with that bawling kid in the pew in front of you who just won't stop, learning to praise God in the middle of the mess of real life.

So I didn't question the man or the practice of that little church. I didn't try to enlighten him or press him to engage the Muslims. It seemed to me, right then, one of very few Christians in the community around me, that keeping men from women in church was a prudent thing to do, a wise move.

Besides, it didn't really matter a whole lot. In that little church that Sunday morning in Niger, both sides and the choir--we were all praising the Lord.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Sunday Morning Meds--End times

But all sinners will be destroyed; 
the future of the wicked will be cut off. 
Psalm 37

I believe there will be an end to the world as we know it, but, unlike millions of fundamentalists in America today, I have no idea what that end will look like nor when it will occur.

Years ago it was Hal Lindsey, a prophet who still has a website, even though I thought The Late, Great Planet Earth had all the believers delivered by 2005—lock, stock, and barrel—to the precious right hand of God, the Earth imbroglioed in pre-Armageddon politics or already aflame. He was sure that “the bear” in some minor prophet had to be Russia, which meant we were on the brink of the last days. Russia today isn't what it was, despite the chest pounding Putin regularly delivers. 

 In all fairness, I’m not sure exactly what Lindsey was forecasting thirty years, but neither do I care, one bit. All I know is he sold a ton of books. There’s always a market for end times.

And now there's yet another movie about the Rapture. Don't go.

After Black Sunday, that Sunday in the Thirties never to be forgotten by old-time Great Plains residents, the day the first of the dust storms arose like some great black fist in the western sky, lots and lots of good, God-fearing folks, sand-blasted suddenly into farming oblivion, got themselves convinced we were not all that far from The End.

And it’s not difficult to understand why. A woman I know told me she’d never forget that day because she was in church—afternoon service—when the dust first rolled in. In a matter of minutes the dust was so thick, even in church, that all she could see was the pastor’s white collar.

Is it any wonder people looked up to Lord and asked him to come quickly? No one could see a thing.

Today new natural calamities appear weekly—record hurricanes, huge earthquake, now and then some catastrophic tsunami, and always, wars and rumors of wars. That people would look to their God as a deliverer makes all kinds of sense. It’s a joy to imagine an end to suffering, to know He won’t tarry.

Prophets of doom, like the poor, we will always have with us, even though history has proved their sure-fire prophesies and end-time scenarios—every one of them—little more than swamp gas. Think Mr. Harold Camping, the radio star, who's long gone even though the rest of us aren't.

Some American Christians say it about abortion too, and gay marriage, and evolution in schools—all signs of The End. When the sky is falling, and faithful seem few, the last trumpet can sound far more comforting than fearful.

My mother went there too often, by my estimation, so often I tried to coach her out of her fears, a job at which I was never particularly successful. Who knows? Maybe a couple decades down the pike, when I’m pushing ninety, I’ll be listening intently for a blast of that trumpet myself.

In this long 37th psalm of bellowing confidence, David can’t stop singing about how good it is to know that the righteous are loved and the wicked aren’t—how just rewards are a given to those who do and don’t do the will of God.

Someday, I assume—because I believe—one of the seers with the crystal balls will get it right, and the world will end, not because it was predicted, but because the Creator of Heaven and Earth wants it done.

David isn’t wrong. Some day—maybe even this afternoon—every last knee shall bow.

That I too believe.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Zuni's "Big House" is gone

It is no more, but for a 100 years in Zuni there was only one “big house.”

To say it loomed over the pueblo risks understatement. Even in its declining years nothing in town could rival its massive triangular bulk. It was not just one-of-a-kind, it was defiantly so, as if some miscreant Kansas tornado dropped it in the middle of town.

The first buildings the Christian Reformed Church built at the Zuni pueblo were hardly spectacular, but the denomination hadn’t been in the mission business long. In fact, Rev. Herman Fryling and Andrew Vander Wagon were just about the first to leave west Michigan for mission fields teeming with what they called "the heathen." The CRC itself was only 50 years old; there wasn’t money for a mansion.

But the big mission house had to look like a mansion to Zunis, who lived in three-high adobe homes of square-cut Zuni brick. When the big house sprouted up in 1914, nothing looked anything like it in the pueblo, nor has there been anything like it for the entire next century. Nobody else had colonial windows, a spacious front porch, or a peaked gable jutting from a huge, swooping roof line. 

Zunis must have been as ashen-faced when it went up as those first missionaries were when they peeked at the Shalako dancers from those three upstairs windows. It’s just about impossible to imagine a cultural statement as in-your-face as “the big house” must have been when it was built, stud by straight-cut stud.

If you want to megaphone your intent to change people’s lives and hearts and their whole way of life, what on earth could the missionaries have done more effectively than put up the biggest, whitest house between Zuni and Gallup—or Zuni and Albuquerque? “Here we are,” that house preached. “Aren’t we something? Wouldn’t you like some of this too?”

Nothing could be more “American,” nothing more foreign, an American Craftsmen design that could have been from a Sears catalog but was likely created from a pattern by J. H. Davermen and Sons, house and church builders who just happened to be Dutch and CRC. Another sprawling Daverman home, probably the same floor plan, still stands at Rehoboth, just a bit east of the post office.

That big house was an icon of the cultural aggression missionary endeavor often was—or at least facilitated—a century ago. For someone like myself, a descendant of those who exercised sometimes unyielding control over the work at the turn of the 20th century and beyond, the big house, and what it so aptly symbolized, is something of an embarrassment because nothing could be more out-of-place than a hulking Midwestern frame house smack dab in the tawny heart of a New Mexico pueblo.

Maybe it was high time that big house came down. Maybe it’s a crime it took an entire century.

But a house becomes a home once it’s lived in, no matter how monstrous its style.  Zuni Mission’s two-story Daverman has been home, not only to dozens of families, but hundreds, even thousands of guests, Native and Anglo. It's listened in to a couple million prayers, lots of them said aloud and a gazillion more uttered in silence.

Real people lived in “the big house,” and real people have loved there too. They laughed hard I’m sure, and cried and fought hard too; some, regrettably, left in huff. It’s seen more than its share of life.

But a thousand heart-felt reconciliations have been made beneath its broad, sloping roof, lots and lots of human stories, some maybe a bit too intimate to retell, all of that life sheltered and sustained within those four wide walls. One early missionary conducted a good business as a dentist by pulling teeth right there in the kitchen.

One sad night in 1971, the fire that ravaged the mission threatened the big house next door. Zuni residents came to the rescue and hauled everything out to the river. Kathleen Klompien remembers seeing her refrigerator tip when it was lifted it up and out of the kitchen; she will never forget what was inside spilling out as they dragged that monster outdoors amid the smoke and heat so intense it broke windows and blistered paint.

After that devastating fire, those who worshiped in the sanctuary that burned down moved their worship to the big house basement, where the ceiling was so low that the hymns they sang had to rattle even those cement walls.

Verna Chavez is downright disgusted about its demise. She claims it really should have become a museum because so much history was lived within its walls. She hasn’t forgotten professing her faith in the basement, where she also baptized her daughter. The big house wasn’t a symbol of suppression or degradation to Verna Chimoni; it was a holy place.

People lived life there, ate and drank, played Monopoly and Rook and Uncle Wiggly, raised kids, had friends over, drank endless cups of coffee, baked a hundred thousand cookies. Old Zuni women used to knit together in the dining room.

When demolition of the big house began, dozens of tiny holes showed up in old cardboard insulation upstairs, where the Koning boys shouldered their BB guns and shot at targets and once in a while even themselves. Some of those BBs were still there years later.

Bannisters became slippery slides. The boys from the preacher’s downstairs apartment once strung wires up and 
a pair of tin cans so they could talk to the boys from the teacher’s family upstairs.

One young teacher kept a pet crow in a back room upstairs until that crow took off and got thumped by a car at the intersection just outside the front door. Ouch. In a flash, that dead crow was salvaged by a Zuni who had to think himself as blessed to come heir to a supply of sable feathers for Zuni ritual. Pity the poor teacher.

That big house may well be a symbol of cultural oppression; but most of those who lived there in the last century can remember times when someone—male or female, young or old, Zuni or Navajo or Anglo—showed up, any hour of the day or night, in a fit of turmoil that made being anything less than a good Samaritan unthinkable.

In the early 90s, a number of factors merged to put the whole Zuni Mission at great risk—low school enrollment, lack of funds, and other factors. News got out that the whole mission was tottering. People from the pueblo told Pastor Mike Meekhof not to let it happen, not because they were Christians, not because they’d ever professed the name of the God those missionaries have talked about for an entire century; but because, they said, the big house and the mission downtown was a citizen whose presence, they said, would be sorely missed. 

Such unsolicited comments were a joy, he says. When he asked them why they felt that way, some claimed they like to think of that big house and the mission itself as “a place of peace.”

Think of it this way. The big house fit in the pueblo like wingtips jutting out from a Navajo blanket, an ungainly symbol of perceived cultural superiority that could have made mission work doubly and triply difficult.

Still, it was sad—for everyone who has ever been there, inside and out—to see that massive icon tumble because through a century at the Zuni pueblo the big house became a home for hundreds of real people, even a church when it had to be.

Through an entire century of mission life, it has done far more than the old Heathen Mission committee ever asked. By God's own design, it
 became a great big ungainly place of peace. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

"Out of Africa" (iii)--In the seat of power

There was nowhere else to sit, so I took a place beside him at the corner of the couch. I'll admit it: it made me nervous to be that close. He was a big man--the Prefect. We were in French-speaking Niger on a guided tour of the city of Madauoa (mah'-jew-a), a town of maybe 10,000 people. 

And it was a holiday, Tabaski, the Festival of the Sacrifice, a happy Muslim festival. The whole town was out in the streets, but then, in west Africa people most often spend their days out in the streets. And sometimes nights too.

The Prefect was an important man, the appointed governor of the neighborhood, so important that armed guards sat in the shade of trees inside the formidable gates of his house, his mansion. To call the place an armed camp is going too far, but those soldiers brandished daunting automatic rifles I thought looked too well used. Anyway, there I was sitting beside him, an old bald white guy with no flowing robes, feeling something like Moby Dick in a pullover.

Political pecking order in a rural Niger town remains something of a puzzle to me. There was, after all, a mayor; but there is also a tribal chief--maybe even two. And then there's this man, the Prefect, who sort of outranks everyone, although he's a political appointee, which means his power is here today and often gone tomorrow. I'm not sure who trumps who and when.

A day before we arrived, the President of Niger, Mahamadou Issoufou, had visited because he'd gone to school in Madauoa. The President. Of the country. Think pomp and circumstance.

But the mayor wasn't around, nor was the local chief because they'd both gone off to Mecca for the same reasons all Muslims go to Mecca. Apparently in small-town Niger, a pilgrimage to Mecca for Tabaski trumps a Presidential visit, no questions asked.

That left the Prefect to take care of all the Presidential odds and ends, which included dozens more uniformed guards with daunting automatic rifles. 

Was it busy?--we asked him. 

"I haven't slept in a week," he said, this Prefect in a shiny yellow robe. 

I liked the way he said that, although I heard it only in translation. To me, it sounded familiar, human: "Good night, I haven't slept in a week." That humanness may explain how it is that I have my arm around his wife the way I do. I can hardly believe it myself. I hope my Western forwardness wasn't an atrocity.

Everything was brought to him while we were there, all kinds of goodies dished up by a gargantuan servant in a pin-striped suit, a man who could have slam-dunked a basketball from a stand-still. And everything was brought to us too--the pot of yams, the guinea hen and stew, the bottled water. 

We broke bread together, washed hands together afterward. It was clear that he was special, but it was equally clear to me that to him we were special too, like wise men from afar.

Some things about rural west Africa seem sheer chaos, but don't be deceived. There is protocol. The politics have to be taken care of, and it would have been thoughtless of our host, the man who runs the Christian medical clinic, not to pay a visit, guests in tow, to the Prefect. That made us important too and may explain why I've got my arm so brashly around his wife--I knew I had some formidable political capital myself.

Something about the man simply reminded me of a politician--the way he sat in one place while those around him all paid great homage, the way he talked about politics--he loved JFK and quoted that line from his inaugural--"Ask not what you can do for your country. . ." What politician wouldn't love that line, right? I don't know if he'd like me saying it or not, but he seemed to me to be more political than religious. But then, there's nothing particularly strange about that either, I guess.

I think he was a socialist, but, oddly enough, he claimed to greatly admire American liberty. But some things got lost in translation, and he was, after all, a politician. 

Several women made appearances, then sat on a couch a room away and closer to a television playing an endless music video of some Western-dressed group dancing up a storm. I didn't get that. BTW, it was a huge flat screen built into a cabinet beneath a massive drawing of Mecca. Everything was dimly lit, as is typical throughout west Africa, where the sun hardly ever hides its immense glare. Tall ceilings, immensely tall, to hold the heat; flowing, brightly colored curtains for doors.

There I sat on the couch of an Islamic honcho, right beside him. A world away in Iowa, I can hardly believe it.
When we left, he gave us each a pound of the spiciest jerky I'd ever chewed, a Madauoa speciality, we were told. It was great but it would never go on an airplane. I'm sorry I can't pass it around.

The Prefect had to know we were Christians--he had to. But somewhere beneath that brightly waxed robe and the elaborate drawing of Mecca up there near the tall ceilings was an ordinary human being. Sometimes that's the toughest lesson to learn. 

Check out that snapshot up top--I really look at home, don't I? Before we left, we had to have our pictures taken, so his wife came over and sat between us. 

I've actually got my arm around her. Amazing. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

"Out of Africa" (ii)--Highway Robbery

When I say "highway," don't think "interstate" or a "freeway" or even the courteously painted blacktop you might travel to get out into the country. Don't imagine gravel either, those chunky washboards so woebegone you drop fillings every time you approach a corner.

There's no image I can conjure to help you imagine what roads are like in rural in Mali or Niger or even Ghana. They're infested with speed bumps, for instance, but if those bundles of dirt and blacktop weren't there'd be vastly more horror, given the fact that speed limits are as non-existent as the highway patrol. 

Trust me. The speed bumps cannot be casually disregarded; neglect them at your and certainly your vehicle's peril. Let me just say it as if I were the ugly American I sometimes became out there in the hinterland: rural roads in west Africa are nothing like home. Nothing at all. 

There, I said it. Shoot me.

And gas stations. They exist, but most of them seem to have been abandoned a few years back. Front doors swing open negligently, ghostly gas pumps have been picked apart like road kill, and nobody sweeps anything up. It's as if once upon a time someone had a great idea--put in a gas station here and everybody will stop.  Didn't happen. 

Which means there are no public restrooms either, but that's another story.  I take that back; "no public restrooms" means the road itself is a public restroom. Later on that one.

So anyway, we're on the highway, where there are stretches of road that seem smooth as a baby's behind, smooth enough anyway so accelerators go to the metal and for a few quick moments you make time until you hit the pot tholes. Not just any potholes. Deep ones. Really deep ones. And they're legion. They come in packs too, hundreds of unavoidable potholes that mean whatever it is you're driving takes an awful beating.

But I was talking about gas stations, of which there are few. Think none and you're safe. I'll try not to ramble, but when you're on the blue highways of rural Africa, you can't help but ramble.

So, infidels like me ask, "If there's no gas, how can there be a highway? A highway without an ample supply of gas?--well that's bound to turn into some kind of junkyard."


There are some buses and other forms of public transportation like the picture at the top; but most of the traffic is trucks, semis, models you rarely see in North America--Dutch trucks, German trucks, Danish trucks, even Chinese trucks some of whose flat noses carry an insignia meant to make you think the dumb thing is a Mercedes. I'm serious. There are dead trucks all over, hulking husks of what once was. 

I'm sorry. This morning I'm almost out of control.

I was talking about gas. There's no gas stations or very, very few, and some that are open sometime have none--gas, that is. So that's what happened to us, and that's where this story begins.

Now listen! Capitalism works in rural Africa. It really does, or my name isn't Ronald Reagan. Why are all those gas stations pipe dreams (so to speak)? Because the micro-economy outsold them. Rural entrepreneurs sitting in the shade of grass huts along the road sell gas cheaper than the stations, sell it in whatever will hold it. There's no law, really. Libertarians would love rural Africa. 

So when we couldn't find any at the gas station where we'd planned to stop, we pulled over at a mini-mart along the road, where a half-dozen men were more than happy to pull out the funnel, drape it with a cloth, and refill our tank from one of theirs. If you're on a mo-ped, by the way, you can buy two-stroke gas by the quart by simply pointing at the what was once a bottle of gin.

We needed more, so the driver bought some to put in can in the back of the car. Yes, there were fumes, but don't sweat the small stuff.  Anyway, when the half-dozen men, the street vendors, opened the back of the Toyota, where our suitcases and rucksacks were, I'll admit more of my ugly American-ism: I hoped it would all be there later when we unpacked. I was thinking we'd get ripped off.

Now a word from Desmond Tutu, and I'm not making this up.  Tutu once got on a plane somewhere in Africa. When the pilot showed up, Tutu said he cringed because the pilot was black. Again, true story, and Tutu uses it and his reaction to explain how it is that all of us have some kind of racism in us, except those people who claim they don't, who are, quite simply, either lying or idiots.

Okay, I'm the ugly American. There are a half-dozen black Africans from the side of the road poking around through our stuff. I'm thinking I'm going to lose, all right?

And then one of them tried to talk to me, in French, which, of course, no ugly Americans like me can speak. He points something at me in the early evening darkness, points it through the back window. It's my camera he's got a hold of, a little point-and-shoot I took along and thought I'd left in a pocket of my backpack, from which it had slipped and probably fallen to the ground. This guy--the man I figured had to be a thief--pokes it back at me to be sure I wouldn't lose it. It happened, I swear.

This camera is the size of a soft pack of cigarettes. He could have slicky-slickied it into his pocket and nobody on the face of the earth, not even his mini-mart buddies, would ever have known.

If there'd been more light that night, the white guy in the back seat would have been even more distinguishable because what was there on his face, I swear it, was bright red with flat out guilt. 

Like Tutu, me too.

We all stand in need of forgiveness. 

Well, I do at least, the ugly American.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

"Out of Africa" (i)

Part of all of this is ignorance--mine. Part of the shock that first morning at a rural medical clinic in Ghana grew from my innocence, my substantial prejudices, the hefty files of caricature and stereotype that most of us lug around quite unknowingly. I guess I didn't know that ordinary folks dressed as brightly as that room full of people had that morning.

It was, more than anything, the immensity of color that had me reeling. It was still early morning, but the clinic's waiting room was so awash with color it almost made me dizzy, as if a whole carton of crayons had melted in a bright African sun. Imagine, say, forty women, maybe more, like this one, within the walls of a dimly lit room slightly larger than a classroom, many of them holding sick children, all of them dressed as brilliantly as she is. Here and there sat a man much more plainly dressed, a man I might have assumed was, like me, a grandpa but could well have been a father in a place where many men have multiple wives.

I was stunned. Really. If it hadn't been for sicknesses, the whole place could have been a cartoon, so vivid and beautifully animated with colors. I'd never seen anything like it, and I certainly hadn't anticipated the kind of wonder and awe I felt when I walked in. The place was a quilt of Joseph's coat.

But it was also a medical clinic. St. Luke Hospital, Kasei, Ghana, is a place where sick people go and healthy people take their children; and the waiting room was full of hopeful patients dressed in such lavish colors that for a moment I had to remind myself why they were there. Many, like this woman, held children who seemed exhausted, limp. It was the end of the rainy season, a time of great blessing for rural people in Ghana, but also a time of great blessing to hoards of mosquitoes, and mosquitoes, in west Africa, are fighter pilots armed to strafe the world with malaria. 

That first morning, I didn't hear this child's prognosis, but one could hardly be wrong in assuming the little boy was there for malaria.  

I'd been to Africa before, but not to a place like St. Luke, a place of refuge in a time of storm and sadness. I'd never been to a place where people in need come for medical services they simply might not get if it weren't for this oasis. 

Malaria is a killer in Africa, have no doubt. But most of the patients--men and woman--won't be among its victims because malaria isn't a stranger there and established treatments can most often be effective. St. Luke is going to win the vast majority of cases.

Still, it was all so new--the immensity of bright color on rows of benches just as full of concern as they were beauty, all of it in a faraway corner of a world most of us will never see and can barely imagine. I was in a kind of psychic shock because it just seemed impossible to believe.

And then this. If you look at the young mom's picture, follow her loving arm over her child, you'll see a cell phone. They're as ubiquitous in sub-saharan Africa as those stumpy Baobob trees. They're everywhere. They're in the hands of people I somehow would never have guessed would come to the clinic as armed with technology as they do and are.

In five years, between 1999 and 2004, the number of mobile phone subscribers in Africa jumped from 7.5 million to 76.8 million. Impossible as this may sound, many more Africans have cell phones than have access to electricity at this moment. Take a trip down a west African country roads sometime, and the only constants among the sheep, the grass huts and the donkeys, are spanking new mosques and, shockingly, cell phone towers.

Smart phones are yet to come, but when I saw that mother holding on to her child and her cell phone, it seemed clear to me that smart phones won't be far behind; and when they're here, in Africa, it's impossible to think the internet won't shape women like this--and their children--as definitely as it has shaped us.

In Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles, Richard Dowden claims that what Africa's immersion into cell phone culture illustrates is two things: 1) Africa's ability to pay; and 2) their "desire to communicate." 

That first moment in the waiting room of the clinic at Kasai took my breath away like nothing else I saw in Africa in the next two weeks--this lovely young woman in stunning technicolor, holding her sick little boy, a cell phone in her hand.

Part of the shock that morning, I'm sure, is my own ignorance. But part of it too is the compelling and even beguiling mystery that is Africa, a people no more or less mysterious than we are I suppose, a people just as much the children of God.