Sunday, February 21, 2016

Worth the Brave.

After a week in Cameroon I’ve finally found a few minutes to capture a few thoughts… My last blog post says something like nothing that is really worth doing comes easy.  Cameroon must be really, really worth it, because it seems very little here comes easy.

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My flight left Antananarivo at 3am which was less than ideal, but coffee in Nairobi was delicious and everything was on time. Thankfully my bag arrived just fine in Cameroon so I could clock at least one win for the day; immigration, money exchange, sim card purchasing, phone and internet installation were anything but straightforward and entirely frustrating for this exhausted, hungry, and dehydrated foreigner.  Thankfully I had familiar faces come to greet me and help as I couldn’t seem to string together more than two or three coherent French words.   We finally gave up on getting the phone to work and headed into town. Once I got to my hotel, my taxi driver didn’t have change and the front desk clerk was rude and unhelpful.  The AC didn’t work in my room and it was hot and there were no more rooms available and they had no fans either; the crick in my neck from sleeping in planes was nearly unbearable.

Until this point I had held back the tears but suddenly the dam broke and I sat on my bed and sobbed.

This is what brave looks like sometimes. 

It looks like wanting nothing more than to curl up in the fetal position under the covers and call in sick. It looks like tears and snot and sweat and fears and doubts and a heart crying out, why? and what was I thinking? and I can’t do this!

One of my favorite quotes in the world is from Little Women; Marmee is speaking with Jo who finds herself often on the fringe; misunderstood, questioning who she is and what she is meant to do with all her strange conglomeration of personality and skills and passions and desires that don’t fit in a traditionally manufactured social class or career box.  Jo laments Why can’t I just have a normal life?
Marmee’s response: You have so many extraordinary gifts, how can you expect to lead an ordinary life?

Oh, my heart.  Those words might just as well be straight from the mouth of God. To the depths I know they are true - I have been given extraordinary gifts, and I desperately want to steward them well.  It’s an incredibly brave thing to rock up in a foreign, third-world, non-English speaking country and survive, let alone accomplish anything. 

Brave also looks like feeling all of those ugly tear-stained emotions and deciding not to give up. It’s knowing, regardless of how I feel, that I can do this… that everything will look better after a meal and a liter of water and a long night sleep.

And it does.

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After that first day, things really did get better.  I spent much of the first few days at the West Africa College of Surgeons meeting, connecting with health professionals from across this region; asking questions and explaining who we are and what we do and talking quite a lot about hope and service and love.  

I’ve met some extraordinary people who are passionate about surgical safety, and about serving the poor, and about transformation.  I’ve talked about everything from anesthesia to nursing care to maintenance of equipment to surgical site infections and long-term follow up.  It’s never boring, that is for sure.  I’ve collected a ton of information about the health and educational systems here, so that we can tailor our programs to really meet their needs and have the maximum impact possible for those in the greatest need here in Cameroon.  What an honor.

"What you do is one of the most honorable things in the world." - Dr. Kassama, who worked with Mercy Ships when it was in The Gambia many years ago, and still tells stories of patient's lives transformed.  

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I’ve been thinking about trust quite a lot.  Running in the back of my mind - much like a background program on your computer runs without you really acknowledging it – in the realm of awareness but not active processing, is the knowledge that just by the nature of my skin tone and my gender, at any time and in any place, I am a target. 

I was riding in a taxi to the local hospital; when I got in to the taxi I told the driver which hospital I wanted to go to, and we agreed on the price, and we took off.  And about ten minutes into the journey, the thought passed through that this thing that I do requires a very high level of trust in humanity; I would have no idea if he was taking me in completely the wrong direction, to a dark back alley somewhere, or if he has a criminal background.  I don’t know if he has ever had his brakes looked at or if he has enough fuel to get to my destination or if the tires have any tread left in them.  I have to trust all of those things and more.

This is also what brave looks like.  It looks like trust.

Trusting that I haven’t been brought this far to be abandoned by the One who holds the universe together and who knows exactly which taxi I am in and knows the heart and the motives and the number of hairs on the head of that driver and every other driver on the road that day.  Trusting my own instincts and experience and intuition and the voice that whispers this one is okay and sometimes no, something isn’t right here. 

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I was staying in the hotel this week with a friend and colleague in the business of transformation, Sarah.  Sarah and I ate breakfast together most days, and every morning I would ask What are our goals for today?  Knowing my tendency is to feel like a failure regardless of accomplishments, it’s so helpful to have an outsider perspective and put words to goals and have someone discuss them at the end of the day.  So we would say things like I hope I can get some information about this-and-that and I want to either have or schedule a meeting with so-and-so.

And they always included survive. Because it is no small thing to make it through a long, hot, dusty day in a foreign land speaking a foreign language where nothing really comes easily.  And at the end of the week, we had a 100% winning streak in this regard. 

And as I was thinking about this, I was also thinking about the masses of people who read this blog and follow me on Facebook and Twitter and friends and family who tell me how amazing my life is.  And I think, it’s a pretty incredible thing that I get to do. But I also think, no calling is greater than any other calling.  I think survive is a pretty noble, brave thing for any one of us humans in this broken world.  I think about my people with young children and people with chronic illnesses and people who struggle with feeling valued in their work and people who struggle with feeling valued in their life and I think every one of us should pat ourselves on the back and celebrate that we survived one more day.  Goodness knows, I think my particular strain of brave has nothing on mothers; I would much rather get out of bed and face whatever it is I face here than face that. And I see updates from friends battling chronic illness and I think about how easy I have it…  So hats off to you, human; whoever you are, wherever you find yourself today, well done on surviving another day.

Getting out of bed deserves a round of applause.  I applaud you.

~~

Friday the sky was blue; a welcome respite from the brown haze that has blanketed this country for this season called Harmattan, where dust from the Sahara coats every surface and crevice along with your nose and lungs.   Survival requires maintaining a delicate balance of liquids; too much and you may have to find a ‘bathrooom’ (shudder), too little and basic mental processes start to fail.
I was waiting for my teammates to arrive and was just watching the hustle and bustle of West Africa.  

It’s incredible how a foreign land has become so comfortable.  Mamma’s in brilliantly patterned dresses with babies in a sling on their backs, their heads bobbing as they doze in the afternoon heat; sitting under a colorful parasol to block the sun, selling green oranges to passersby and waving off the flies.  Boys on their way home from school, pushing and shoving and daring and laughing and teasing in the worldwide universal boy language.  

Young men and women looking at their smartphones; it’s remarkable how Africa has really skipped an entire generation of technology.  Land-line phones and personal computers were completely passed by; cellular networks are often better here than in the West, making Facebook and email readily accessible to those who can buy a few dollars of pre-paid credit on a cheap knock-off smartphone.

The dust is red and cakes around your toenails after just a few steps; the honking of taxis and the smell of rotting fruit peels and body fluids and burning trash complete the experience that is somehow beautiful to me in a completely inexplicable way.  The only way I can explain it is I was meant for this world, and this life; it is worth the tears and the doubt and the trust and the brave. 

Sunset over Yaounde.

xxk

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