The winding road.

30 September 2017

I’m sitting here in this beautiful place this morning; the soundtrack complementing the lush green hillsides and cool(ish) morning breezes is a mélange of children’s voices, roosters calling, birds tweeting from the surrounding palm trees, the hotelier rhythmically sweeping the dirt of the entryway, and the firey evangelist some ways away on a loud microphone emphatically preaching indecipherable words punctuated by amen, amen, alleluia, alleluia, amen approximately every other sentence.

This place feels a part of me already; the red dust coating everything, the smiles of welcome, the directness with which people speak, the slow, methodical, clearly-enunciated English surrounded by emphatic Swahili that I can’t yet follow more than a few words at a time. I’m working on that.  It’s been cooler than I expected, quite pleasant really, and the scenery so beautiful I found myself actually gasping as we crested a hill or turned a corner to a panorama of natural glory.

The first part of the week was spent trying to force my circadian rhythms seven hours into the future and traveling out to the northwestern region of the country; the last three days have been filled with hospital visits surrounded with meetings with local authorities, debriefing, report-writing, and summarizing said visits.  I always loved this type of work with Mercy Ships and it has me fondly remembering assessments and trainings and the relaxed trust and flexibility it requires; made more challenging here due to my extremely limited Swahili language abilities and traveling with a group of complete strangers.   Jet lag doesn’t help.  But truly, I love a good challenge, and have really, really enjoyed it so far.

This week will be busier than last, but thankfully my sleep has been better in recent days and we have a little time to breathe this weekend. A resetting of focus, a recommitment of trust; this season is one of growth and learning and humility and wide emotional swings that need to be acknowledged but not empowered.  I know I’m the best version of myself when I’m eating well and sleeping well and exercising well and feeling supported well; today’s reminder from the stillness is that even with all of those things absent and when my emotions seem to swing wildly from one end of the spectrum to the other and back again, in the same way that fear is not the boss of me neither is hopelessness or excitement or loneliness or passion or doubt or joy.  They are welcome in the room and their presence acknowledged but they don’t get a seat at the decision table. 

So I keep on doing the next right thing, loving this place and these people and this wild calling on my life; when you spend a day on the road and the worst thing that happened was you didn’t see any giraffe, that’s a day to be grateful for.   And though the road I’m on feels both figuratively and literally winding and waving though unknown savannahs, I trust my feet and the ground under them to the One who directs my steps and created both my feet and the red earth to reflect eternal glory.

Until next time...

My literal winding road through rural Tanzania

The fabric of my soul.

25 September 2017

I’ve been on the ground in Tanzania for less than 24 hours, and somehow it feels like home.

It defies explanation; I don’t understand how it is or what it is or why, but something in me just feels alive here in a way I seldom feel in the United States.  I'm watching the cursor blink as I try to find the words to explain that somehow the air and the dust and the equatorial sun feel as though they have become a part of my DNA; woven into the fabric of my soul. I can feel it running through my veins... and that's where the words begin to fail me.

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that no one expects understanding here; I feel free to ask anyone for help, where to find things I need or how to get there or what they mean by one thing or another.  Everyone is so helpful and warm and greet you with a big smile.  In the states, we’re siloed, cut off from others, fiercely independent and asking for help with something that is unfamiliar is a challenge.  I think back on one of my first train rides in Boston; after a certain time at night, on one particular line, you have to signal when you want the driver to stop/open the doors but only after a certain point.  Of course, I didn’t know this and was so confused and embarrassed when I missed my stop.  If that happened here, I would simply ask the person next to me what was happening and they would explain how it works without a second thought.  Maybe that would have happened in the states, but in general the culture is such that I don’t even feel comfortable asking. It’s intrusive and I feel like an idiot.  Here, it’s just expected and people look out for each other. 

I also love the complete 180 in my own temperament regarding time.  In the states I’m attached to a rigidly pre-defined schedule and a certain amount of anxiety is allocated to ensuring I’m on time (or early); here, you figure things out as you go along and planning is limited at most to a few hours in advance, with loosely-defined hours. 

I think it also has something to do with my own anxiety levels here.  They're nearly nonexistent.  In Boston I feel stressed about trying to understand things that aren't clear, how to get around, how to interact with people and how to ensure I'm doing a good job and doing everything 'right'.  Here.... here we figure things out as we go along. And I know that very little is actually in my control.  And I probably should try and transfer some of that temperament back to the states, now that I think about it... 

And really, nothing fills my heart with more joy than the excitement with which my few words of Swahili are received.  When I ask how to say something, eager to (re)learn basic conversation, you would think I’ve just offered them a million dollars, they’re so excited.

So today is a settling-in day; I got my Tanzanian cell phone number, adjusting to the many-hour time difference and reminding my skin that secretly it really loves the heat and humidity. Tomorrow I head out at 4am to fly to the north of the country where we will be doing hospital assessments; something I love, have done many of with Mercy Ships and am so excited to be able to do again. 

My heart is so full it feels like it might burst right out of my chest.  I’m so grateful to be here. 

Tuk-Tuks are called Bajaji's here.


The power of voice.

23 September 2017

I spent a few days this week at the UN General Assembly in New York.  It was crazy. It was chaotic. It was exciting and powerful and really showed me the power of voice and passion and a community of people making topics or ideas into real issues.  I wrote here a few months ago about the fact that I didn’t really see much value in marching and screaming about whatever upsets your heart and mind and passion; I really felt that doing something about it, loving instead of screaming, action and change and the work of one’s hand was more important, practical, and beneficial.  However, through many thoughtful conversations that sprung from that post, and my experience at the UNGA, I’ve completely shifted my thinking and understanding on advocacy.  A leader I know said it, the UNGA is basically a multimillion-dollar pep rally; that really, really bothered me.  The money spent could be put into action; could pay for food for the hungry or surgery for those that need it or new roads or new hospitals or any one of the millions and billions of things that are desperately needed. I felt that way about the money spent for me and our team to go there; is this really the best use of funds? We really just talked with people about the fact that we think surgery is important and the data supports this; but did we accomplish anything?

The resounding answer is yes.  Because, as one of my colleagues said, issues aren’t issues until people are talking about them. That's the power of voice. Surgery will never get its place at the table or on the global health agenda without people asking for it, pleading for it, demanding it, fighting for it.  Issues aren’t issues until someone decides they are and rallies a group of likeminded people who won’t take no for an answer and will work tirelessly to meet and network and share and speak and chip away at the walls that divide us, regardless of what the issue is. For me it’s surgery; for others, it’s social justice or equality or race or a million other worthy issues that wouldn’t be issues unless someone was talking about them.

So I see and get and embrace and understand in an entirely new way; and want to support those people who keep trying and calling and speaking and chipping away at the walls; it’s much more important than I ever realized.  But also; it’s not for everyone.   If everyone was advocating there’d be no one doing the work on the ground, in the trenches, actually teaching or writing the policies or organizing the donors or installing the new stuff.  And while I’m really, really grateful to have had the opportunity to experience the UNGA and understand more fully the power and purpose of advocacy, my truth is I would rather be in the trenches. 

This afternoon I fly back across the globe, to a country I’ve only visited as a tourist and am thrilled to get to work in; the government of Tanzania and several other entities have partnered with us to see what we can do to improve surgical services. I’m thrilled to be returning to Africa; the truth is I’m much more comfortable in an African market than I am in an American supermarket, and I can’t wait to experience the Tanzanian culture and learn more Swahili and kick my feet in the red dust of the continent that is inextricably woven through the fibers of my soul.

It’s been a challenging season since arriving in Boston, but the good news is there is always good news; things have really been looking up and I’ve got about a dozen half-written blog posts about things I love about Boston and about how hard it is to find community and about the dear John letter I wrote to the church and about how even though I wasn’t sure I wanted it anymore, it still wants me and won’t let me just bail.  And I’m grateful for that. But for now I’ve got a plane to catch and should probably throw a few things in a suitcase; thank you for being a part of my story, of the journey, of the ups and the downs and the joys.  I’m so grateful.

Until next time -

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