On being here.

27 August 2016

I blinked and a week has passed, almost as if arriving at home in the car and realizing you have no idea how you got there.  It was a busy week, one full of meetings and planning and challenges and joys; also one of peace, which is truly the cry of my heart for this season.  I am so grateful.


During my time away in France this summer, I spent a whole lot of time evaluating the things that went wrong last field service and what I need to do to remedy the situation this field service.  One of those decisions was I must have a Sabbath day once a week.  One full day, where I don’t do any work and I don’t do any school work.  This was nearly nonexistent for me last year, and I committed to arranging at least one day per week that was free to do whatever my heart needed to do to find peace and be refreshed for the coming week.  Reading, listening to a podcast, running, sitting by a pool, going to church; it might look different every week, but I knew it had to be a day free of school and work.

Then we landed in Benin. And things got crazy.  And two days after arrival I’m already thinking I am going to have to work all weekend to catch up.  We had literally been in country two days and I felt behind; the panic of failure creeping in the back of my mind, with a to-do list a mile long and the desperate need to achieve overriding any other needs, no matter how urgent. 

Two days in.

I took a figurative step back and said whoa.  No way.  I am not starting this way.  This is not going to be this year.  It. Is. Not.

So the weekend came and I worked hard one day to catch up on things, and then I did it. I took a day off from school, from work, from the need to achieve and accomplish and cross off to-do list items.  It was glorious and refreshing and I found that Monday morning not only was I not behind, but I was exceptionally peaceful and productive.  It makes no sense, that one.  The rational part of me says it’s a waste of time.  But I’m beginning to learn that rational doesn’t secretly mean right. 


I went up to someone the other day and said “I’d like to have dinner with you, I want to hear your story.”  Truly, she lit up like a Christmas tree; she said really??? like four times and then said how about tonight? We had a great dinner and a beautiful conversation, but what stuck with me was the excitement she showed when I gave value to her, to our time, to her story.  Isn’t that truly what we are all hungry for?  Someone to tell us I see you, you have value, your story is important and I want to hear it. 

I encourage you to try it.  Be brave. They might say no.  But if their face lights up and they feel seen for the first time in maybe forever?  It’s worth it.   


On Thursday we went as a team to the screening site.  In the last few years we’ve changed our screening strategy dramatically; while huge screenings with 7000 people lining up like we had in Congo has its benefits, from a public health perspective, large numbers of desperate and potentially ill people in a confined area could be a recipe for disaster.  So now our screening team holds smaller screening days over a longer period of time, and they need a lot of help with security and patient escorts throughout the day.

We left the ship long before the sun began to rise; when we arrived at the screening site, the crowds outside the gate were already loud and rowdy.  We couldn’t see them but could hear them; the desperation clear in a group of people who had already spent days in line, sleeping in the rain, the mud, the tropical sun.  It took a lot of jaw clenching and focused concentration to keep the tears at bay.

Once the police had them calmed down they started to file into the compound.  I got to greet each second person as a friend and I were giving everyone who entered a wristband.  They were so eager, the grandmothers and the pappas and the mamas with their little ones.  Some cried at the sight of our pale skin but most were just relieved to be inside and a step closer to their long-hoped-for healing. 

Some we can help; many, many we cannot, and it’s hard to see the disappointment of those who receive a no shuffling out of the compound, their faces and hearts heavy and grieving the death of hope.  Please pray for them; for the multitudes we cannot help, and for the screening team who have to deliver the news.


I guess it should come as no surprise that I aced my last grad school module.  What module was it? Programme and policy challenges in low income countries. Yeah.  Like a transcript of my daily existence would probably be a suitable textbook.  In fact, I had to read very little of the actual course material, drawing upon my own experience proved much more fun and less tedious.  Now I’m struggling through Managing crises and disasters which I think I would enjoy if it weren’t for so many other things I’d rather be doing with my time. 

So I’m still managing to work and do school at the same time; I also will be leading a small group and I hope to spend some time learning the local language of Fon while I am here.  I am not sure why but something in me really wants to learn it!  It’s very different from Tcha which was the local language in my village; speaking of village, I do plan to go up there sometime in the next few months.  Someone asked me today if I had seen anyone that I knew from my previous time yet, and I replied no, but we’ve only been here a week!  

It’s so good to be here. Thank you for your prayers and support, I couldn’t do this without my funders and my friends and emails and family and letters and love.  Thank you, from the depths.  


On arrival. See me? ©Mercy Ships

On new life and mango trees.

20 August 2016

I was teary several times on Thursday, arrival day, the day we have all been waiting for since 2014. People asked if they were good tears; I said they aren’t necessarily bad tears, just alive tears.  Most people get that, thankfully.  I was awakened by the horrid grinding of metal on metal reverberating through the walls; the pilot entrance being opened!  The usual annoyance of a sound like that was quickly replaced with leaping out of bed and throwing open my window shade – Benin, right out my window!   We entered the harbor and our berth (parking space for ships) with all the pomp and circumstance expected; singing, dancing, a ceremony attended by various dignitaries, representatives, and assorted VIP’s.  During the sail I had shared with the crew some of my Benin experiences; quite a few came around and asked me if it looks familiar.  Well, I was never in the port, so no, not really!  Let me escape these industrial barricades and I think I will feel more at home again.

And it was true.  Yesterday I got to go out and see or HOPE center, and had several meet-and-greets with hospital directors and contacts that I will be working with over the next ten months.   Aah, the familiar streets, the lively colored clothing, the massive assortment of fruits or fabrics or other paraphernalia piled on heads and babies slung on the backs of their mamas.  We pulled in to the HOPE center parking lot (a pre- and post-hospital residence for patients and caregivers) and as I got out of the Landcruiser it just smelled like Benin.  No idea what that is; some combination of the local foliage in thick, humid air with whispers of garbage fires, cooking fires, rotting fruit, and life going on all around us.  I was immediately transported back to just over eight years ago; my first steps on African soil right here in this city, taking it all in with wide eyes and an open heart.  I could feel it in my blood, the feeling that all is as it should be; that a piece of myself that was left here has slipped back into place and I am whole again.

I wandered around the compound, the reddish dirt at my feet and the honk-honk of the Fanmilk man walking just outside the wall.  Laundry hanging out to dry, and a huge mango tree with baby fruits just making themselves seen, and I remember.  So many good times under a mango tree. So many friendships forged and memories imprinted and beverages consumed and laughter and light and joy experienced under mango trees.  They’re everywhere here and they provide a really nice canopy of shade so many gathering places near my village and elsewhere were under a mango tree. That’s where you’d spread out your mat and take a nap during the hottest part of the day in the hottest part of the year; desperate to catch a breeze and unable to do anything but lie still.   There’s a deep joy that wells up in me at the sight of the mango tree; in a cruel twist of fate I happen to be allergic to mangoes, but there’s something about a mango tree that makes me feel at home. 

Today we meet our day crew, 225 locals without whom we couldn’t do what we hope to do here in Benin.  The ship is now blissfully still for the next ten months, so the work of unstrapping, untying, and unsecuring has begun.  Patient screening starts next week, with the hospital opening a few weeks later and the first of many medical training programs also in just a few weeks.  It is a lot of work; but suddenly I find myself thinking not about the work, but about the joy it is to do this, to serve here, bringing hope and healing, light and life and service to the least of these.  I pray our patients find new life, our training participants new hope, and our crew their own mango tree experience here in this incredible nation. 
HOPE center mango tree


17 August 2016

After nine days at sea I feel myself getting rather… antsy, shall we say.  I’m tired of being penned up and I’m ready to hit the ground in Benin; to pour out hope and healing and love and life into the place that will always hold a special piece of my heart.  Instead of a distant point off the horizon, suddenly we are saying things like ‘tomorrow we’ll do this’ and ‘next week we have scheduled this and this’.  Finally, it is time.

This morning we started bobbing a bit more than we have been, and after a long-ish meeting in a windowless room that was rolling and swaying and stuffy, I took some seasick meds and got myself up to deck 8 for some fresh air and a long look at the horizon (the only unmoving thing in my current existence).  Sticky tropical air greeted me; we crossed the equator yesterday, that invisible line that meant exchanging winter for summer and the inevitable teasing of new crew to make sure to look for the line just under the surface as we sail over it.

I took a walk around deck 8, the wind whipping my hair and clearing out the dizzy that had built up earlier.  As I sauntered along, I came across two of our security guards; Gurkhas from Nepal, who are some of the most wonderfully kind and selfless people you will ever meet.  These are the guys you want on your team. If you’ve never heard of Gurkhas look it up; they’re fierce, they’re loyal, they would do anything to protect the people in their charge.  These guys leave their families for months at a time to serve this little crew of world-changers trying to make a difference.  I am forever grateful for these unsung heroes.

After chatting a few minutes I moved along and around the corner; there I ran into our maintenance coordinator, an amazing guy who always says hello and has a word of encouragement on his lips.  I said hi and looked more closely at what he was working on; he was making walkers from plastic piping.   He said he wanted to get a little bit ahead before getting to Benin, because once the big work starts he’d have to put them together at night and on the weekends.  Incredible.  Giving up his time and energy to help make life a little bit easier for our littlest patients; helping them learn to walk on their new legs or their new feet into the gift of a new life and a new future that surgery has offered to them.  Another hero, another world-changer, giving of himself to spread hope and healing.

A bit further along I find our transportation manager picking up a zillion little washers of various sizes that had been spilled across the deck and rolled under the vehicles secured up there. As I stooped down to help him gather the runaways, I couldn’t help but think here is yet another unsung world-changer.  I don’t know much about his job, and like many who work in service, he probably spends the majority of his time fixing problems and handling complaints; I confess, I don’t really think about or appreciate the transportation guys until the cars don’t work.

This organization does amazing things and I’m so grateful to be a part of transformation.  But even more, today, I am appreciative of the community that I get to be a part of.  It takes an incredible amount of unsung heroes to put out the stories of transformation.  Thank you, Africa Mercy Crew, for continually teaching me about selflessness, about humility, about service and loving your neighbor and the power of community, family, and faith; when all rolled together, the result is truly glorious.  

To the unseen and unknown heroes in our midst, my heart echoes His in saying well done, good and faithful ones.  Well done. 

Can you see the line?? 

May it be so.

14 August 2016

It’s the strangest thing to look out the window and see absolutely nothing.

It’s early, the first sunbeams have yet to make their way to this side of the globe. I’ve become used to the rocking; to the unending movement, never still, always swirling and rolling and flowing our way over the sapphire blue to our destination far beyond the horizon.

I feel so small.

As far as the eye can see, rocking, rolling, white-capped water; they say it’s teeming with life, but the evidence of that has been mostly hidden from view.  A few whales have made themselves known; in the early days sea birds would soar around us, but they’ve disappeared now as we’re cruising both along and away from the land mass of Africa.

The first ribbons of light have begun to appear on the horizon; somewhere out in the beyond is Congo.  I remember, with fondness, stepping out in faith and courage to bring great ideas from the dimension of mystery into reality, running our first training courses and mentoring programs; stumbling through the unknown with grit and perseverance and a few tears but a lot of joys. 

That little program has grown; from a few part-time investments alongside our surgical programs to now a large, stable, solid program with full-time staff and international recognition.  I love what I get to be a part of.

And we are cruising towards Benin; the country where it all started for me, my first experience with Africa and her beautiful culture and people and heart and passion. It wasn’t just an experience, it was a becoming; seeping into my blood and bones and skin until I could no longer separate myself from it.  While I’ve loved my time away, and wouldn’t trade it for anything, there’s a longing somewhere deep in the marrow of my existence that needs red dirt caked around my toenails, pounded yams and peanut sauce filling my belly and the enveloping community of ‘we are all family’ that pervades the African spirit.  

One of the hardest things that I faced when I was first in Benin (as a Peace Corps volunteer, 2009-2011) was seeing so much that I intrinsically knew was not okay, but not being able to do anything about it. The baby born with a cleft lip that was abandoned. The way that midwives treated the women in labor and the way they handled the newborns.  The broken, rusty, dirty instruments and equipment used in the healthcare setting.  These things didn’t sit right with me but I couldn’t do anything about it; now I’m returning, and I can.  What an honor.

So we’re just over halfway there; in another few days we’ll enter the harbor of Cotonou; there will be drums and dancing and celebration and joy as we begin ten months of service, bringing hope and healing, to her people and her health system.  May the words of our mouths, the meditations of our hearts, and the works of our hands be pleasing to the One who knows both their deepest needs and our deepest desires, and can bring them together in a glorious symphony of new life this year.

May it be so. 
Photo: ©Mercy Ships

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