Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Listen and Pray

Sometimes, the hardest thing I have to do as a missionary is listening. I have heard life stories. I have heard joys and shared smiles. I have heard trials and tribulations. I have held people’s hands and let them cry. I have sat there and said nothing. 

Sympathizing with people in desperate need of empathy seems… hollow.

What do you say to the person sitting in the chair next to your desk crying because they’re overwhelmed with shame? How do you comfort someone who doesn’t believe themselves to be more than their disease? How do you hold back tears as you listen to them cough, watching their chest depress every time because they’re skin and bone wondering whether or not it will kill them? What do you say to someone letting their disease consume them?

I wish I had the answers. This is why listening is so difficult.

It isn’t easy opening up to a complete stranger; to spill your deepest fears to a person you met not even a minute before. It takes an amazing amount of courage.

I could spend all day telling them what they should do… Take your medication. Eat regularly and eat well. Surround yourself with love and positivity because there is nothing to be ashamed of. You are more than your diagnosis. You are strong and courageous. You have purpose, and the world is made better because you’re a part of it. The problem is, unless they believe it, those words are empty. It’s hard to give advice when both of you know in the end, the disease will win. How do you fight that? What do you say? I can’t force someone to take their medication. I can’t make sure they eat. I can’t give them a job, take their pain away, or instill in them a sense of belonging and hope.

I can only listen and pray.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Find Peace in the Chaos

It’s three thirty in the afternoon. The sky is dark with storm clouds, and since the first deafening crack of thunder twenty or so minutes ago, the overwhelming noise from the market has subdued slightly. I’ve already set the candle and matches out knowing losing power is a distinct possibility. The windows are open, the clean smell of impending rain mixed with cooking fires is being brought in on a gentle breeze and mixing with the intoxicating aroma of baking bread. 

When I sat down to write this, I had no idea the direction it would take. I was thinking along the lines of everything I have to get done before travelling to Douala tomorrow and then Kribi the next day for a much needed break from reality. My list included things like laundry, repacking, making cookies, and making sure my friend’s cat was pampered with fish and cuddles. Sitting down to write this blog post was just another thing on the list.

There are a million and a half things I could talk about. I could rant about my frustrations from work, my continual immersion into the Cameroonian culture, or the things happening at home that I am physically removed from. I could write about my irritation at once again spending three days alone in my office this week because my coworkers just didn’t show. I could tell you about every little thing in my apartment that is broken or the promises that have been made and not followed through on. I could tell you about the construction on my building that seems to happen at the strangest hours. I could tell you about the ninety thousand marriage proposals I received in the market this week and hitting my wall when one of the guys grabbed my arm. Let me assure you, he won’t be doing that again. Although, I don’t know if he was more afraid of me, the woman whose stall I was buying vegetables from or the man I buy my phone credit from who saw… 

Maybe what I need to do is touch on a little of everything. Maybe sharing some of the things that irked me recently will add more power to the point: sometimes the best thing you can do is slow down, breath, listen and experience. Find peace in the chaos. Learn to take compliments. Realize the power in yourself to inspire. 

For the second or third week, I honestly can’t remember now, I have been alone in my office most days. My boss is in Rome. No one knows when she’s coming back.  Another co-worker a list of things she wants to get done – most of which involve non work endeavors with many extra people in the office.  I have opted to work from home three Fridays in a row now just for a break from the constant stimulation. I can’t focus on my thought train let alone accomplish much when I am continuously inundated with unnecessary…stuff. I can handle music, a movie playing in the background, one on one conversation but when your tiny office has seven or eight people laughing and yelling over each other… Working from home on Friday is a mini vacation. 

It’s emotionally taxing and compounded with an uncomfortable mattress and odd hour construction in the unfinished apartment above me, I find myself more and more likely to detach the second I walk through the door. I have to remind myself that I have more than I need when something else breaks. I have to remind myself to be patient when my emails go unanswered or things aren’t attended to. Things are crazy right now, and until things level out, the water heater that hasn’t worked in two months, the broken toilet, and the lack of light in my kitchen from water damage have been set on the back burner, and I’m okay with that most of the time. When you’re walking that fine line between doing great and running head first into an illusory brick wall, you never know what it is that will set you off. You never know who or what the tipping point will be, and your anger will rear its ugly head.

Last week, my aunt told me I was her best friend…her hero…her role model…her strength. I got something similar from a woman I’ve never met in person. My grandmother reminded me that I am the master of my own ship. What can you say other than “thank you”? How can you convey to them the power of their words is breaking through the self-imposed stone castle? How can you reconcile your inner demons with the value other people see in you? The negativity seems to evaporate and the sunlight breaks through. Everything is made better in an instant. 

This journey I’m on is life changing. You cannot surrender yourself to a mission-minded life and not change. The change happening within me is helping me appreciate simplicity. It’s helping me to appreciate smiles, conversations, and the power of dreams. I started making bread again, a process I enjoy with every fiber of my being, but at home, I fall into the trap of “I’ll just buy it”. I miss gardening. I miss sitting on the front steps and talking to grandma while she takes care of her orchids. I miss having a dog. I miss lots of things, but I wouldn’t change this for the world. 

In the last hour and a half I’ve been sitting here working on this, I have closed my eyes and listened to the rain. I have pulled the scent of fresh bread and rainfall into my lungs and filed the wonderful feelings associated with both into my memory to be recalled when I need some peace. I have had my lap overtaken by her majesty Miss Kitty who vacated her throne only when she felt I had given her enough love and undivided attention. I slowed down. I listened to the rain, the ticking clock, and constant ruckus of the market. I heard sirens and drums from a funeral procession. I heard honking horns and laughter. I heard music and life. I found what I needed today. I found peace.

Friday, March 11, 2016

I Am A Missionary

I am a missionary. I will forever be grateful for the lessons of patience and perseverance God has taught me the last few months. I was hired to teach. I had mentally prepared to teach. When I got here, I didn’t know where I was going to live. I didn’t know what subject I was teaching. Everything was new and a little daunting. Joy (the outgoing missionary) got my keys, helped me move in, and got me acquainted with the market. I used the rest of the rainy season to find my way around and grow more confident in my surroundings.

When school started, I realized that teaching anything was out of the question. Why, though, I may never know. Every time I asked or spoke to the principal, I got a different answer. When I tried to talk with the education secretary, he was out. For the first few weeks, working in the library wasn’t so bad. I had someone to talk to. I got to talk to students when they came in. I got to learn a little more about Cameroonian culture through working with the librarian.

The thing is, I began to grow frustrated. I wanted to work and get things done, but my idea of how it should be done or the pace it should be done at differs just enough to cause divide. I became angry. I started sleeping in later and later and not giving myself time to get breakfast or enjoy a cup of coffee in the mornings. I found myself using the dead time I had while I waited for the librarian to catch up with me—out of respect for the principal’s request that I work at the librarian’s pace—reading or daydreaming. I went home mentally exhausted from keeping up a fa├žade through the day. I stopped eating the way I knew I should. It was bad.

I finally opened up to the Auxiliary Bishop. I told him everything: lack of hot water, frustrations with the work pace, the restrictions placed on library books, the run-around I was getting… I’m glad I talked to him. Even though I still had to go to the library every day, I had hot water. I had someone I could talk to and get advice from. He is the one that called Sr. Imelda, and asked if she’d like me to work with her. I met with Sr. Imelda once, and it was decided. My job would be changing.

The job I have moved into is vastly more taxing, but I would rather go home at the end of the day having spent the day working, making an impact, than sitting there angry at the world. As I sit here writing this, I am sitting in my new apartment. Things are quiet. I don’t have 750 girls screaming and running past my house. I don’t have a rooster crowing every fifteen seconds outside my window. I have a place in a new building, and even though I only have running water every few days, I am beginning to learn how to conserve water and fill buckets and barrels when I do have it. The apartment doesn’t echo like my last one. The floors are a neutral color rather than circa 1970 red and blue tiles that caused your vision to throb. I have a place I can make my own rather than living in what had been intended as a guesthouse.

With my new job, I get to travel a little more. I wouldn’t necessarily say I have the joy of going to our clinics, but I am grateful I get to go. The roads are challenging. I made the comment to those I was with that all I needed was to remember to put cream in a jar before coming so I could have fresh butter. My shoulders, neck and back were “thanking” me for the journey for days.
The village, Esaw, doesn’t show up on most maps. It’s a wide spot on the dirt path through the mountains a few kilometers beyond Teze where the church and market are. The clinic has a staff of three: a nurse, a nursing assistant, and a grounds keeper. There hasn’t been a patient in a week, but I suspect that has more to do with an inability to pay than having illness.

The clinic is small. It has two wards with no more than ten or eleven beds, a lab with a microscope and a few dusty bottles, a consultation room with a drug cabinet and a canteen that sells dry goods like rice and flour. The equipment is old. Things are wiped down but not clean and definitely not sanitized. There are no bed nets. There’s no refrigerator for vaccines. The path leading to the toilets was riddled with used needles, and there is no trained midwife. Women in the village have to trek or take a motorbike to the regional hospital run by the Ministry of Public Health to deliver, and many deliver on the side of the road. Going out there is a slap in the face, a wake-up call.

You can think of a million simple solutions, but implementing them is difficult and challenging the culture is like walking on a high wire over the Grand Canyon in the wind. You are confronted with the realities of poverty and begin to realize that poverty in the United States and poverty here are two different beasts. There is no government assistance. There are no health insurance or food pantries. One in three children in Cameroon are malnourished and their growth stunted. There’s one little girl in the village, who at three, is no longer walking, doesn’t speak more than “baby babble”, and despite eating, she doesn’t grow. Her diet consists of plantains, cocoyam and cassava. They fill her stomach, but they don’t provide enough nutrients for her. It’s hard holding that child in your arms and knowing there is very little that you can do because the effects of poverty on her body and growth are already permanent.
 Sitting here, all I can think about is how blessed I am. I have a roof over my head and food to eat. I have a bed to sleep in and one for my guests. My floors aren’t dirt, and I have a door that locks. I have a job I’m excited about. I have wonderful friends close by (by that I mean across town). I can call my family when I want to. I have more than I need. I am truly blessed.

Life in the mission field is challenging, but it’s also rewarding. The experiences, friendships and everyday life change you, mold you into the best you that you can be. Even though the last eight and almost a half months have been hard, I wouldn’t trade them for the world. I get to impact lives while my own life transforms. I get to have experiences that I will be able to relate to people and look upon fondly years from now. My heart is more open to God’s love and gentle influence, and in return, I can live the life He intends for me. I am Ashley Hansen, and I am a missionary.