People, Part 1

April 15, 2017

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Settling in for the ride, I mention to Peter that it’s a lot easier to handle the prospect of this overnight bus journey at the tail end of the trip than at the beginning. Something about village stays just makes my a-bit-too-western self grateful for a comparably comfortable and dust-free seat appealing. I think through my mental photos and plan some quiet writing time while I mix a cup of my extra-cocoa chocolate mix for us. “Mind if I ration out my hot water and make it more of a pudding,” I ask. I interrupt him before he gets out his amused “mind?” response …”yeah yeah-you’re always there for me, ready to eat my sludge.”
As I take out my phone to begin tapping out notes for serious trip documentation, Jin pops his head over from the row in front of us. “What are you eating?” he asks. Peter starts to take the spoon out of his mouth and I answer for him “it’s chocolate mix,” I say. Jin’s eyes widen a bit. “Oh-it’s your lucky day!” Not missing a beat, Peter says “Nah-it’s my lucky life.” Jin’s 4th grade brain missed the meaning of this one; his mind jumped to jokes about random occasions for luck. But I was duly impressed with my generally un-verbally-romantic hubby. We moved on to various riddles and bantering conversations with Jin for some time.
So much for that quiet writing timeI thought. But then I realized that, realistically speaking, that’s one of the things I love about this sort of international life. In short, I find it comforting somehow to embrace life that is all-consuming, in practical sorts of ways, and that interrupts plans in a way that reminds you what is really important in that moment.
That said, I’m going to try to document this week in a bit of a different way than I generally feel compelled to do. I will share about moments that mattered to me without necessarily telling a start-to-finish explanation of the whole. We’ll see how it actually plays out once I start writing, but that’s the plan 😉
I want to tell you about my husband. He went into this trip already weary from a job that demands too much from him, and that exhausts his patience for on-call and help-me-now sorts of “needs.” But this week he dove into work that he was familiar with, thanks to the water engineering projects he did when we lived in China, and he did it with energetic enthusiasm. When the rest of us would finish and head home for showers and dinner, he’d be summoned to go shop for parts they might need for the next day’s work. And when concerns were voiced about the work ethics of the person hired to do the next stage of the project, Peter mentioned that he knew how to do it, so the outsourcing was canceled and Peter got the job. There is now a brand new bore hole providing good clean water for this dry and dusty village. There is also a weary man dozing in the seat next to me who I’m tickled pink to get to claim as mine 😍
I want to tell you about Yvonne. This woman has a serving spirit that puts me both in awe of her and ashamed at my own lack of the same. She tends to be so others-focused that I have learned to watch what I ask of her, in our friendship. I have to anticipate what ways she might overextend herself and go beyond what’s needed, so that I can keep from causing over work. Two days ago I noticed she was favoring one leg, as the three of us in one room readied for bed that night. Turns out she had a bad burn from a motorcycle exhaust pipe that she’d been hiding from us. She was walking around so much that it hurt worse by the day. The next day we were finishing up with lunch and she started to get up to join the group of us going to greet folks in the village. I forbade her to join us. “Sit under the tree,” I said, “with Peter. You’re not allowed to walk anymore.” I went over to Peter to tell him that she was going to stay with him in the “burn unit” (Peter’s redneck was so bad he was also forbidden to emerge from the shade). As I turned to go back over to Yvonne, I realized that she had gone over to the well and was washing everyone’s lunch dishes. I marched over and proceeded to arm wrestle her for the job. It still didn’t work. She allowed me to help her but would not leave until the job was done. This is just one instance in many of the same, as she goes about life with the unquestioned assumption that if something needs to be done, or someone needs help, she wants to do it. Period.

I want to tell you about The Mothers. They are technically grandmothers to some on our team, but I mentally called them mom’s the whole time as I felt we were all mothered by them. Split into teams for our different assignments, these two ladies were the cooking team. Last year we cooked for ourselves over an open fire, peeling charred skin off our potatoes so that each meal left our hands and faces smeared charcoal. This year we ate hand-rolled rice balls with seaweed and sesame, spicy noodles, and kimchee. “I’m in food heaven,” I would say, asking someone to translate my words to the chefs.
These ladies were not your average grandma, mind you. When we were in between jobs and hanging out under a mango tree, one of them walked over to a man standing by his bike. She was curious how it would ride and he gestured she was welcome to try it. With him holding it steady from behind (it being too tall for her to mount easily), she began wheeling circles around us. Her guide wasn’t watching the ground in front of her, though, so she realized she was getting too close to a child crouched on the ground; without being able to brake herself, she quickly veered the handlebars so sharply that she forced the bike to fall. Rolling herself quickly back up to her feet, she shooed away the rest of us running to her, brushed the dirt from her clothes, and smiled widely.
Later we moved to another mango tree for a meeting with the village. Chairs were carried over for us, as special guests. She walked over to a log in the back, however, squeezing in amidst all the children. They giggled a bit. She laughed with them.
I want to tell you about a child. As I mentioned in an Instagram post, I fell in love with a wide-eyed face, and the animated conversations coming out of that mouth . We couldn’t understand each other in the slightest, but that didn’t hinder her one bit as she rattled off stories, instructions, and reprimands to me. Eventually we had a focused enough interaction, outside of the schoolhouse, in which I wrote out the spelling of my name in the dirt, and then found out hers. She nodded and repeated “Anna” to my own nod, smiling with a childlike but also a bit too old-soul sort of pride. Sefia.
I want to tell you about People. The reason for sharing details about this trip is a bit of a complicated one for me. A part of me hesitates to tell the stories, for fear of coming across as some sort of heroic figure. Our team this past week worked hard, and did well. But we did what anyone could have done just as well. There was no need for a bunch of “obronis” (foreigners) to come do the songs, dances, drilling, teaching, and medical care that we did; in fact, I suspect that some of the work we did could have been done just as well, if not better, by those who live in that village. There is an inordinate amount of brilliance and genius to be found in anyone, anywhere . . . a remote village in Western Africa just as much as in a bustling city in the Western world. One look into the blazing eyes of Sefia confirms this truth to me. But we—Peter and I, at least—went on this trip because we believe that there is a profound beauty in the celebration of differences within humanity. We learn from each other, and in sharing who we are with others in the world we become, in baby steps, a tiny bit wiser, a tad more patient, and a little more loving. We become whole.
*So tomorrow I will share the photos that tell the rest of this written story. Today our internet is not working, and I have just enough time at a friend’s place to post this one. Maybe I will get the rest posted tomorrow. Or maybe the next day. When the time is right it will happen . . .

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