Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Class Trip to the Serengeti

If you have ever been a chaperone on a youth trip, you know that youth trips, even to tourist destinations, are not the same thing as vacation. This weekend was evidence that this truth is universal ;-) That being said, we were delighted to have some time with Form 4 (senior class) students outside the bounds of the school. Here’s a little peak out the Senior trip to the Serengeti:

Day 1
The original time of departure on Saturday was 5:45am. Thankfully we got the message the night before that the bus wasn’t going to be able to get there that early—new departure time: 8am. Like good mzungu (white people) who are still figuring out when time is fluid and when time is strict, we arrived at 8am. The bus however didn’t arrive until 10am, because they had wanted to wait for a full bus of passengers to take to Shinyanga before starting their next job. Time isn’t money here. Money is money.

By 10:30am we were loaded up and on our way with five other teachers and the fifty Form 4 students that could afford the trip— the students were expected to pay the equivalent of $30 US dollars. The bus is not like buses in the U.S. with an aisle. Each aisle has a seat that folds up and down, so that five people can fit across comfortably. We fit six on each row. Everyone had packed lightly, but even still the bus was packed to the max. (Side note: we thought we had packed lightly, and we had for us, but Tanzanians take it to a whole other level, washing clothes to be re-worn again another day).

We were expecting the trip to take about 7 hours (2.5. to Mwanza, 3 to the Serengeti entrance, and maybe another 1.5 into the park). We made it to Mwanza in good time, but since we had left late and the Serengeti park gate closes at 4pm, we were still in a rush. Lunch consisted of a box of cookies per person, a soda, and a water bottle, because that is what Philemon (the Assistant Headmaster) could buy quickly from street vendors while the bus filled up on gas. Then we were on our way again. By God’s grace, we arrived at the gate at 3:58pm. Whew! Praise the Lord! It was only once we entered the gate that we began to realize our time estimation was way off. We were in a bus, not a Land Cruiser, which meant we were practically crawling over the bumpy roads of the Serengeti. Plus the Youth Hostel was in the center of the Serengeti, which by crawling bus was 7 hours away from the entrance.

Let me paint the picture for you: For those of you who are international travelers, imagine a 12.5 hour flight. Now, take away the leg room and imagine that you are sitting on a wheel, so your feet rest a foot off the floor and your thighs are at a 45 degree incline (this was Linda’s situation). For entertainment, you have Tanzanian music videos and a Tanzanian soap opera on one central TV, but only for the first 5.5 hours because for the next 7 hours it is too bumpy for technology. You get one bathroom break the entire time, which consists of doing your business in the middle of nowhere with a dozen others of your gender around you. There is no privacy in a time crunch. At one point during the trip, your group is attacked by a band of tsetse flies—the really bad ones that can cause Trypanosomiasis, aka sleeping sickness. Thus all the windows are closed, and you get to enjoy your own personal unventilated sauna with fifty teenagers. Getting (smelling) the picture? Good times ;-)

Yet, with all of those challenges, the students behaved beautifully! We didn’t hear any complaining. In fact, one of the students asked Linda if she was tired. She confessed yes and that her body was aching from hours of sitting in one position. The student then encouraged her, “You have to be strong.” We were amazed at the strength of the students and the teachers. During the travels there were some really special moments, such as the students breaking into an impromptu hymn-sing, seeing a band of lions sleeping on the road, and being led down the road for many kilometers by one particular zebra who liked running in the light of the bus. It wasn’t until we stopped the bus and turned off the lights for several minutes that the zebra went on his way.

We arrived at the youth hostel at 11:30pm. Given that it was so late, the students were sent to bed with some bread and butter for dinner. Accommodations included a large room with bunk beds for the boys and one for the girls, with boys’ and girls’ cement outhouses nearby.

Day 2
The next morning everyone was up by 6:30am bathing, cleaning, and preparing meals. The youth hostel provided a place for coal fires and some large pots, but we had brought everything else with us. Since everyone had had very little food in the last day and a half, we made the first meal the main meal. The girls worked very hard preparing the cow meat and fish cooked in a tomato sauce, as well as a giant pot of rice. By noon, everyone had eaten, all the dishes were clean, and we were on our way to tour the Serengeti.

For many of the students, this trip was their first time to see any of these animals. There are no zoos in Tanzania. They were mesmerized! I think we enjoyed watching the students as much as we enjoyed watching the animals. Since most of them did not have cameras, Eric became the class photographer and students will be able to pay to have pictures printed. This opportunity got a little out-of-hand at some points, as we were mobbed by students wanting us to take their picture ;-) We did love their enthusiasm though.

We also stopped by the Serengeti tourism center. The students and teachers were placed into three groups as tour guides led them through the complex, teaching them about the animals and the environment. The center had bones of various kinds of animals, emblems of their footprints in cement, and descriptions of various animals and land conservation efforts. The guides were very knowledgeable, and the students asked them lots of questions. The center even had its own wildlife as dozens of hyraxes and mongooses scampered about. They were obviously very accustomed to visitors.

That evening we had some of the drama that one might expect out of a trip like this—items going missing, issues of appropriate boy/girl relations, trouble settling down after a big day, safety issues, etc. I see all you youth ministers out there nodding your heads in empathy. We got very little sleep that night. However, that night also held one of our most special memories as well. After dinner, Eric got out his guitar, and we led the group in song and devotions. We loved singing with the students, and we pray that throughout the trip they heard grace from us.

Day 3

The next morning we were once again up with the sun, preparing some left over rice and tea for breakfast, and dealing with some remaining drama. By 10am we were packed up and on the road. We found a better road coming back which cut an hour and a half off our trip. Because the road was less known, the driver did have to stop and ask for directions once from a very accommodating “rastaman,” as the students termed him. Our new friend enjoyed the attention as the students with cameras took pictures of his dreadlocks. When we arrived at the Serengeti gate, we ran into a bit of trouble, because apparently they were supposed to charge extra for ex-patriots, even working ones. However, since the entrance gate hadn’t caught it, they let us go this once. Good to know for future reference.

We were so encouraged by what good time we were making that Philemon decided to stop and get a hot meal for everyone for lunch. It took over an hour to get chipsi mayai (fried eggs and potatoes) for everyone on the bus, but it was a nice treat. We ran into our biggest travel problems in Mwanza, where we got stuck in traffic that resembled a parking lot. Thus, the trip back actually took longer than the trip there. Thirteen hours later, at 11pm we finally arrived back at the school. We never ceased to be amazed by the energy of the students. While we looked and felt like something the cat dragged in, the students were as jubilant as ever. They cheered as we drove into the school and were already exchanging stories with their classmates as we headed home. We are thankful for their joy. 

Friday, August 2, 2013

What God Is Teaching Me: How To Live Simply

This post is a tough one for me to write, because I’m still not very good at this lesson—at all. However, this topic has been rolling around in my head since we moved to Mwadui, so I figured it was time to put a few of my thoughts down in print. It’s a struggle for every missionary: “How ‘Western’ do I live?” There are large variations in the answers, and there is no “right” answer.

·   Some are naturally adaptable and live exactly as the people in their community. I admire these folks, and there are significant advantages to this lifestyle as it allows them to better see through the eyes of the people and understand the needs. However, these people are rare, and there are unique challenges to this lifestyle. For example, what do you do when your health or the health of your children is in jeopardy? How do you maintain financial support without modern conveniences?  How do you successfully adapt to the culture shock, which is extreme in general, but even more extreme when giving up all familiar experiences and technologies that keep you in touch with family and friends in other parts of the world? If you plan to return to a Western environment, how do you readjust?

·   Some recognize how difficult living in extreme circumstances can be, and they try to make their home a refreshing haven for themselves and their families. This allows them the emotional health to continually reengage in a draining ministry. For example, a family we came to know and love in Nigeria bought a standing pool for their children. They lived in a city where bombs went off regularly, and sometimes their children had to stay home from school for days due to various real threats. The pool gave their children a sense of normalcy and fun in the midst of trying circumstances. Even in less extreme circumstances, some missionaries recognize that certain Western conveniences and hobbies help stabilize their emotional health and make them better people and servants.

·   Some buy Western conveniences so that their time is more efficient and they can give more time to their ministries.

·   Some buy Western conveniences to be shared and used by the local community who would not otherwise have access to such things.

·   Some utilize Western conveniences because they know their children will someday live in/receive education from Western countries, and they want to familiarize their children with this other world.

·   Some use their resources to become a retreat center for those who are live more simply. 
·   And for many, their decisions are a mixture of these principles.

I have found that each situation, culture, and missionary is unique, so to place judgment on others without having walked in their shoes is both hurtful and unjust. However, on a personal level, this topic has been both challenging and convicting for me. “How ‘Western’ will I live?”  

I recently read a book called “Missions and Money,” talking about the complexities of wealth among missionaries. I’m not recommending the book, because it is intensely law-oriented and put me into depressive tailspin of “I’m a terrible missionary, and I should just give up on being here, because I might be doing more harm than good.” Thankfully, a good infusion of gospel brought me out of that, and though I don’t agree with everything in the book, there were many passages that provided food for thought. This passage gave a label to some of my tendencies:

“The word that perhaps best sums up the plethora of secular values which influence all North Americans – including missionaries – from infancy throughout life is consumerism, the way of life established upon the principle that the great goal of human life and activity is more things, better things, and new things; in short, that life does consist in the abundance of possessions.”[1]

Consumerism. Our entire economy in the U.S. is built around it. If everyone in our country was content with what they had, I fear that our economy would crash. Can you imagine a Christmas where everyone decided the gifts were not necessary to celebrate our Savior’s birth? I did not realize until I moved here how much a part of my psyche this is.
I understand that sometimes buying something new can be better than something used. We have been in a three-month battle with our used refrigerator that sometimes refuses to cool. And sometimes, we all buy things for the same reasons as mentioned above—to be used so that we have more time for ministry, to be used in our work and ministry, to be loaned to others, to give us a space to emotionally, spiritually, and physically recharge, to create a retreat and safe space for other people… Yet in Tanzania, I am learning the value of living simply. And though I don’t always succeed, the quest to live more simply is one worthy of undertaking.

In the Bible, Jesus gives just warning to the rich that we can put our trust in things instead of God. Physical wealth can lead to spiritual poverty. In 1 Timothy, we are warned that the love of money (and not just money but the things which it can buy) is the root of all kinds of evil. And yet, in the Bible we also see some examples of the “righteous rich.” In the story of Abraham, God told Abraham that he was blessed to be a blessing for others. The primary meaning of blessing in this context is spiritual blessing, but at the same time Abraham was by no means poor. His resources could be used to help others. The resources in and of themselves were not evil.[2] So how do we keep greed at bay and use our blessings to be a blessing to others? It’s not easy, especially for those of us who have grown up in a materialistic culture. For me, one helpful tool has been when I buy something to ask myself, “What need am I trying to meet in buying this?” “Can I meet that need with something simpler or with something I already have?” “What impact will this purchase have on others in my life and on my ministry?”

Like I said, I’m a work in progress. There have been many times that Eric and I have purposely bought the simpler item or not bought something because we decided that the alternative, while nice, was not necessary. And yet, we also recognize that we still have a lot of things that our Tanzanian friends don’t. We pray that through the financial blessings we have received, we can be a blessing to others.

[1] Jonathan J. Bonk, Missions and Money, (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books), 34-35.