Tuesday, February 28, 2012

On the Mend

I’m sitting in the cutest café eating a bacon and avocado panini.  I meant to take a picture of it just to prove it, but once it arrived, well let’s just say I got so distracted I forgot.  It doesn’t look nearly as appetizing any more.  But it sure is good!

As some of you know I’ve been pretty sick on and off the past few weeks.  I had strep throat twice earlier this year and it came back in full force.  Twice.  In about 3 weeks.  Then last week Sunday I was visited by a pretty terrible bunch of stomach parasites.  I’m not sure what was worse – the symptoms of the parasites or the poison I had to consume for three days to kill them.  All in all, I spent another five days in bed, in the village,  dreaming about my return to the U.S. and wondering if I would ever be able to eat again.

My bed - and home last week

As you can tell by the panini, I survived and I’m eating again.  Thank God!  For a minute there I thought I might end up dehydrated, emaciated and dead.  Ok, maybe not dead.  But it wasn’t fun.

So, I decided to head into Iringa Town for a few good meals, a hot shower and some decent internet access.  I’ve been busy working on a research paper for school and haven’t had the time to get much done in the village.  My break here in Iringa has been amazing and refreshing.  I’m staying in this really cute little guesthouse that has a café and craft center and is run exclusively by people with different disabilities.  We even write out our orders because the waiters and cooks are deaf.  Pretty cool!  You can check out the place here:  www.neemacrafts.com

I start my journey back to the village tomorrow.  And when I say journey – it is exactly that.  An hour and a half ride on a paved road from Iringa to Mafinga where I catch a “bus” that takes me on the 4-hour ride through the tea fields to the village of Ikan’gombe.  The bus, as they call them here, is an old, dented up, psychedelic-looking thing, with cracks all over the windshield and a lot of black exhaust bursting out of the tailpipe.  It broke down twice on my way here and word from the village makes it sound like its condition has worsened considerably since the weekend.    Sometimes you just have to roll with the punches here, but in this case, I really need the bus to leave on time and arrive in the village at the scheduled 6pm arrival time.  That gives me just enough time to make it up and down the muddy, hilly path, through the forest and over the river before dark.  Here’s hoping…

Here are a few pics so you can see my home that I’m heading back to:

View from my bedrooms into living/dining area

"Kitchen" - the blue thermos is for my hot shower water

Stove, burner, hot water heater and oven


Morris - my buddy in the village

Mama Lillian and Angela - the two cooks at the main house and the best part of my days here

Last Sunday, the day I got sick, I went on a little big of a journey with Evodia, a Form 4 (senior) girl who did an interview with me for H20 for Life.  H20 for Life funded the water projects at our school here and wanted to hear from one of the students how it has improved life for them.  Evodia is such a smart girl, full of joy and ambition.  She is the student academic leader and helps kids with their homework.  She hopes to return to VSI as a science teacher once she completes university.  Our walk through the forest and down the hills was a bit of a hike – and of course, the path that goes down, must come up again.  The only difference is that here it usually goes up and down a few more times after that!  Flip-flops were not the wisest choice for the day.  We did finally make it to our destination though and Evodia proudly showed me the well the students had dug.  Now that I live in a home with no running water, I am much more appreciative of wells.  I’m also extremely appreciative of the schools girls we hire to bring us water back from the well.  That was a LONG hike I would not want to take with a buck of water on my head – especially knowing I am going to need at least 3 more buckets just to make it through a day of cooking, bathing, laundry and bathroom visits!

Evodia at the well the students dug

Me at the spring leading to the well

Storm rolling in on our walk back from the well

Not much else to report as of right now.  My illnesses put me out of commission for a bit, but I’m ready to get back to work.  Thanks to so many of you for your prayers, messages and emails while I was sick!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Humble Pie

For most of my life I have easily fit in just about anywhere; maybe most easily, as one of the guys.  I drink with the guys.  Watch football with the guys.  Shoot pool with the guys.  And talk shop with the guys.  I guess that’s why adjusting to village life – or Village Schools Tanzania life – has been more of an adjustment than I thought.  I had some idea what I was getting myself into.  I mean, I figured I’d have to give up my flat iron, heels and maybe even the sparkly eye shadow.  And while camping doesn’t exactly come naturally to me, I have found that I actually love it!  I thought that for four months I would trade in the girly side of me for the side that’s used to fitting in with the boys.  What I didn’t know that while the first part of that was true, I would definitely not be fitting in with the boys.  I am the last to be served at every meal.  Not only am I expected to carry all of my own bags, I am usually expected to carry one of the men’s, too.  I am rarely, if ever, included in any of the shop talk.  And no one ever opens the door for me or offers up their seat. 

I have to be honest.  This was not what I had bargained for.  I mean, I have tons of experience, right?  I expected to be a huge help to this organization and to be appreciated and, I’ll admit it, even respected for what I can do while I’m here.  Instead, no one really knows who I am or what I’m doing here.  In fact, VSI has never had an intern before so since I’m not a teacher, I don’t quite fit into the hierarchy.  And as a woman, without a title, that puts me at the end of the table with the leftover rice and - if I’m lucky - some of the sauce left in the bottom of the pan.

I realized yesterday that since I am not here to change the culture, the only thing that can change is me.  And the truth is, it’s not about me.  It’s not about the people that are around me.   And it’s not even about Village Schools Tanzania.  It’s about God’s plan for me (which, let’s be honest, is still really about Him).  I’m working through the book Sun Stand Still by Pastor Steven Furtick.  It’s a pretty incredible book about the power of faith and desiring for your life to be so impactful that people have no other option but to say that it was God.  Early last week while I was reading the book, I was struck by I Peter 5:6, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God so that at the proper time He may exalt you.”

Humble.  I decided to make that verse my prayer.  I knew I was struggling with a few things around me and figured a little humility might help me fit in a little better.  Heck, it might even round out my character a little; prepare me for whatever is next.  So, while we’ve been warned in church a thousand times that when you ask God to change something about yourself, sometimes it is painful, I marched right on ahead and prayed for humility.  After all, I thought God would just flip the switch and change something in my heart.  I didn’t realize He would continually place me in situation after situation where I was literally forced to be humble!  And worse than that, I’ve been surrounded by some of the most amazing women I have ever met.  They wash clothes, clean filthy bathrooms, boil hot water so the men can shower, cook meals, fetch water and clean dishes.  But, more than all of those things, they are strong, and smart, and hard-working, and joyful….and FULL of humility. 

So here’s the thing.  I haven’t mastered it yet.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I have a long way to go before this trait is anywhere near the list of my top ten qualities.  But, my eyes have been opened to the true beauty of a humble spirit.  The women of the villages here in southern Tanzania are truly gracious.  And while they aren’t treated as such, in my opinion, they deserve far more respect than any of the elders or leaders around them who demand it because of title, age or gender.  These women don’t demand respect.  They don’t expect respect.  But, they have mine. 

Rehima, me, Suzie, Sara, and Antonina

Thursday, February 2, 2012

A Story from Madisi

For the past few days Steve, Emmanueli, Sara and I have been stranded in the small town of Njombe, about 6 hours from our home school, Madisi.  We left for Lukima, a VSI school near the border of Tanzania and Mozambique and not even halfway into our journey, the transmission in our truck went out.  After 5 hours on the side of the road we finally got a tow back to Njombe which was an hour away.  We are still waiting for the repairs to be finished.  I don't have internet access often and thought I'd take the time to write a blog post.  The only problem:  Not much to write about when all I've been doing is waiting in a tiny guest house for 3 days.  So, instead of a story from me, I'd like to share with you Susan Vinton's latest blog post.  She and Steve started Village Schools 7 years ago and Susan has dedicated her life to supporting her friends with HIV in the villages surrounding her home.  The sick come to the VSI clinic every day for help, support and friendship.  She is the busiest woman I know and treats everyone who comes to her with compassion and love.


Steve & Susan Vinton
Village Schools International
Box 1929 Tomball Texas 77377

February 1, 2012

A beautiful scene – Baba Asia walking with his 2-year old little boy Bekam, as the two of them were coming home from church.  Baba Asia had been my enemy for at least five years – he hated me and he hated everything about me – but recently he became my ally and even more recently my brother in Christ.  In the midst of all of the death and sorrow that is a part of our lives here, I see God so at work as He draws even the most unlovable towards Him.

Baba Asia was arrogant, angry, mean and oh so very powerful.  And he didn’t like me, he didn’t like Village Schools, and he especially didn’t like what I was doing here.  Oppressing and being just downright mean to women in these villages seemed to be his specialty, and for some reason I will never understand, he seemed to get away with it.  As I tiptoed into the world of HIV six years ago, and as I slowly started putting the pieces together, following the trails of infection, I ended up at his house on several occasions.  The first time the trail of infection led to his house, I humbly and politely let him know that getting tested for HIV was a great idea.  He was polite and all only because of my nationality and because of age, but his heart was oh so very hard.   

I entered into the lives of his many wives.  One of my very first friends here was his first wife Sila, who I was shocked to find out was just left to die, after three of her children died.  As she put it, he and his new wife would just laugh at her as she turned to skin and bones.  When I picked her up and sent her on to treatment, what Baba Asia had planned was thwarted and it made him angry.  Sila recovered and her presence made a mockery of his powerful arrogance.  And then there was Zaida.  She was only 19 years when he married her, but threw her out when she became sick and her baby died.  I called Zaida one of my daughters and through many visits to her little house, I grew to love her. I still remember when she became a new creation in Christ.  The joy transformed her dying body.  Then there was Mama Asia, the wife of the moment in his home at that time.  Her misery and unhappiness was apparent to all in the whole village.  I could barely watch as sores took over her body.  As I privately talked to her about HIV testing, she let me know that she also would be kicked out of the house and she would lose her children.  But eventually she chose life and she got on our bus and she started treatment.  And sure enough, he kicked her out and sent her back to her parents – without her children.  As she left, Zaida entered the house once again, becoming the next wife of the moment.  Why would she return when he arrogantly sent for her?  I honestly will never know.  Poverty and hunger and desperation is something I’ve never lived with, so I have no pat answers, and I won’t try to think I can understand what would cause her to return to his house.  But what I do know is that God used the fact that Zaida was there in that house when Baba Asia’s past finally caught up with him.  Maybe all Zaida wanted was a child she could love – and indeed that she got – her little Beckam was beyond adorable! 

HIV is something that you can’t hide from.  It is just a matter of time.  Baba Asia used his money to buy all the antibiotics he needed.  He used all his money to buy good food.  He used all of his money to get good medical care if he did get even a little sick.  And it kept him going for a few years longer than all of his wives.  But it was TB that finally kicked him hard.  And then when he learned that he not only had TB, but that he was also HIV positive, that was when his world unraveled. Within a few months, he went from being all powerful to being a man who was dying.   Through my friendship with his scared teenage children, through my contacts with his father, and through my many conversations with the all-forgiving Sila and Zaida, I stayed updated on Baba Asia’s illness and through them I sent him many times practical help.  It was through them that I sent him to Kibao Hospital to be admitted, and it was there that he encountered by dear friends, the sisters.  When he informed them that he really didn’t have any money to pay for the hospitalization and the treatment and the medicine, they told him, “Don’t worry, Mama Vinton is taking care of it for you.” 

“Why would she do that?” he asked. 

“She does it for everyone.  She serves Jesus like we do.” 

And it seems that it was that day at the hospital that the seeds were planted.  His dog eat dog view of the world was finally challenged.  It took a whole year for Baba Asia to recover.  His damaged lungs collapsed twice.  Zaida faithfully cared for him, at times as though he were an infant, and then she fell to TB as well.  We prayed with him often, and I took any of medical specialists Dr. Leena would bring with her to visit him.  Talking to him after his two near death experiences, he finally agreed that God sent him back to take care of his family.  He even smiled and had a playful twinkle in his eyes as I talked with him. His heart was finally started to thaw.

And then there as a Christian marriage seminar going on in our village and I asked him to go.  Word had gotten out late about the seminar, and we needed some participants fast!  And so I just went to him to invite him.  Zaida was way too sick to attend, but much to my surprise – and everyone else’s – Baba Asia showed up.  Three days later, he told me that it was the best thing he had ever attended. He told me that that he learned that he had just thrown away good marriages over stupid and little things.  His heart was thawing even more.

Visiting in November with Sila, she let me know that Baba Asia was visiting her church, always sitting in the back, just listening.  It was on Christmas Day though that Baba Asia and Sila’s son both became Christians.  I couldn’t think of any better Christmas gift in the world.  Sila’s son told me later that he just decided that living without God was hopeless.  The new sparkle in the boy’s eyes revealed a new person.

I wish the story had a happier ending, but ten 10 days after Christmas, Zaida, the one I liked to call my daughter, got a headache and died 12 hours later, leaving Baba Asia, her two-year old Beckam and all of the children in Baba Asia’s house who she had lovingly cared for in lieu of their own mothers.  Few things shock me anymore these days, but this one broke my heart. We rushed to the funeral and watched her be buried. Mainly I watched Baba Asia watching Zaida being buried.  There he was burying the one woman he had finally come to appreciate.  I’m glad that Baba Asia is still with us.  He doesn’t hate me anymore.  His transformation speaks volumes to all those in these villages who have yet to meet the One who is the Great Physician.  He heals a whole lot more than just bodies.