Friday, November 26, 2010

Learning How to Live

I see the faces of little ones full of joy and enthusiasm as they run carelessly through the long grass; I then take hold of their hands which grip mine tightly and I wish deep in my heart that their future’s could have more hope than what I see before me. I see their eagerness to go to school but the brightness finishes at high school. Most likely after they will get married and if they are girls they may be abandoned by the father and left to look after their young children by themselves. If they don’t have the opportunity to go to school they will end up working in the fields the rest of their lives or selling tomatoes at the market. I feel much pain for the youth here who have to grow up in a country with such huge barriers before them: lack of opportunities to study and to work, corrupt government systems etc. Not only the youth but also the adults here who have to support their families and try to find the most means possible to get their kids through school. I feel a slight sense of guilt as I prepare to leave to Canada where I know I will have things much easier than the Congolese people. It also is difficult for me to say goodbye to those who are truly suffering in the present moment and knowing that their situation will continue since there are no other possible means here to help them. For example Mado, the young girl with hydrocephalus, who is left day after day by herself in her bed with little attention from her family, will most likely continue to live in this condition. Despite my efforts to talk with the family and tell them how they should look after her and bathe her more often etc., it just doesn’t seem to get across to them. It crushes me to know that some things will not change; people will continue to feel rejection, go to bed hungry, lack money for proper medication and for education. The reality for these people is one that unfortunately will take a lot of time to improve. Little by little I hope that the Congolese take some pride in their country and start making some changes. All I can do is hope that I have given encouragement and some knowledge that will help them in their lives.

As my days have just about come to an end my soul really speaks to me. It is telling me: Lydia, it is not what surrounds you where your joy comes from but from within yourself. I can carry my joy wherever I go in life and this is something truly important. Yes I am sad to leave behind these people and the children but I know that I can help people wherever I go. Africa will forever be in my heart. It has been this magical land that has whispered words of wisdom to me and taught me the importance of life. It is not what we do but who we are. Our lives our short and we need to be okay with the fact that if we die today that we will be content with how much we have loves our neighbours and whether we have lived for ourselves or for God. This journey for me has been about learning how to live: to walk in the love of God, to breathe freely, free of pressure and stress, to live in the moment and not to miss the beauty that is right in front of you, to live always with God in our minds and to live in genuine gratefulness for every blessing that comes to us. Africa, you are a sweet melody to my ear; you open my suffocated soul to see the life in it’s purest form: living for the moment. The vivid clouds, the soaring hawks, the dragonflies that pause in the air and then dart forward in the dancing wind all paint an image on my soul. How can I return home and be anxious or worried about anything after living in Africa where one is transformed into a being that is free to love. I have realized how much the world’s mentality that wealth and riches will make you happy is the reverse. I am envious of these people and the freedom they have in their souls. I am envious of their strength to endure hardships. They are able to continue to live despite their sufferings: it is as though nothing can touch or break them a part.
My journey in the Congo has come to an end but will stay forever in my heart as I take on my next journey.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Possibly my last blog....Ciao Africa...until we meet again

As my time here is coming to an end here I am being confronted with many emotions. One year of my life living in a world drastically different than mine where I have come to learn the culture and language and now I have to say goodbye and leave this world for the one that I once knew. Fear is welling up inside my throat as if I have lost touch with what my previous reality was. It is not that I have forgotten the world that I came from but more like I have forgotten “where” I have come from. “Where” in the sense of where my heart, emotions, opinions, perceptions and outlooks were before I left. Now I am returning home with a new outlook on life, a new inner joy and a new desire of how I want to live my life differently. I did not leave thinking I could change the world by going to Africa but with the intent that by changing myself I could make a better difference in the world. Yes, many times I felt that my being here could really make a “change” and when I did not see any results my heart would sink and I would question why I was here in the first place. But after reflecting on these moments I realized that if I can simply learn to live better personally I will be able to help the people here in the sense of truly being a witness of love in action. Many people back at home talk lots about what they want to achieve in life but they lack the courage to “act.” Here it is easy to take action and show love, wherever you go you can pick up a child and hug them, give some spare change to a passing mamma or simply greet them in their mother tongue, visit those who are rejected and have no one to care for them and the list goes on. When one begins to put love in action a sense of freedom and joy wells up inside that can and one is able to battle evil that comes across one’s path. The sense of freedom I have gained here is not the freedom of doing whatever one desires but an interior freedom. My soul has been set free here: it has not been tied down, twisted or confused but rather has soared high because it has realized that when it lives only for God and nothing else and submits itself to the will of God it can break the chains of this world and nothing can attack it. This freedom is found amongst the people here who have struggled and taken their share in battles that for us seem like impossible barriers to face but with their inner freedom they do not become slaves to their poor situations in life but rather submit themselves to the will of God. Mothers who tell you how they have lost 3 or 4 of their children and yet continue to live their lives constantly in joy is something I will not forget. I will never forget Mamma Aurelia who after a stroke lost her ability to walk properly. Twice a week her sons would take her to see me and sacrifice their time for their mother. I visited her at her home where her family was all together eating and she said how the Lord has blessed her with her family. She never complained about her inability to be free and independent but always found the joy in what she had with her: her family and her interior freedom to soar with God amidst her suffering. I hope to carry this new joy and strength I have discovered here in Africa back to my new reality. I know that it will be a difficult route since the devil for me seems to lurk more profoundly in our society and is an expert in weaving lies for us to believe. I just pray that courage and fortitude will welcome me when I come home.
My life has been refreshed by the hot sun and the wind that touches my face always brings a smile upon my face. My eyes turn upward to the expansive sky; I then close my eyes and inhale the sweet air thinking to myself, “I am in Africa!” How many times I have told myself that one day I will go to Africa and now my dream has been made true and is now over…or maybe it is just the beginning of a new journey. My next journey my legs will scramble high, they will traverse along rough roads but eventually arrive with great confidence where the soft earth will carry me home. Thank you Africa for the inspiration you have breathed into me, for the stillness you have rested upon my soul, for the wellspring of joy that you have excavated from deep within me and now can no longer stop flowing, for the people who have taught me to embrace life for each moment, the children who have shown me that having much does not mean you will be happier. Thank you God for Africa, thank you God for continually filling me with your grace, power and courage, thank you for giving me the most amazing community to live and share such a strong experience with (I don’t think I would make it through this year without the support of my community who found patience with me, who laughed with and at me, who taught me much about myself and about life), and thank you for continually picking me up and encouraging me. Africa…I will miss you, but you are always there and maybe our roads will reunite again. The sun sets but there is always a sunrise bringing new light to a new day. I know that my heart is calling me home to Canada for the meantime.
Thank you to everyone who has followed my journey this year. I look forward to sharing it in person which is always better.
Take up the challenge to make yourself a better person each day and always remember to live in joy!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

"Let us never live in stone houses"

I would like to share an exerpt I read in a book I am reading. It is a prayer of a man in Kenya which went lik this: “I pray that we never will live in stone houses.” The significance of “stone houses” is houses that we westerners live in or “rich” people meaning houses with doors and locks and cement. Here is what the father replied with: “People here live in little huts, and huts have no doors. That’s why your family is my family and my family is your family. But as soon as you move into a stone house, you build a door. And on the door you put a lock. And behind this door you begin to collect your belongings, and then you have to spend the rest of your life defending those belongings.” I can learn much from this attitude of openness as I think we all can. When was the last time you welcomed a stranger into your home or lent or gave your possessions freely to another person? We live in a culture completely on the opposite side of the spectrum where each individual family lives for themselves and relies on themselves. This applies obviously to individuals also where we desperately try to do everything ourselves without relying on the help of others. When we have to ask someone for help it is humiliating because our precious image of self-reliance and strength may be lost. We have this false idea that we need to do everything ourselves. Our doors are locked to others and we do not let others enter our homes to help us. Imagine if we lived without doors, where everyone felt free to enter their neighbours’ house to drink tea or to ask to borrow their lawnmower? What beauty is found in living in community where your family is my family and my family is your family. One experience I will not forget was in Ariwara where we visited the mother of one of the Sisters here. We arrived at the house (a hut to be exact) and were greeted by a dozen kids and were welcomed to sit and relax. When we were leaving the mother came out with a goat for us as a gift. This goat was not any old goat but the best and fattest goat. This offering meant that the family would most likely not eat meat for that month. Later Sr. Charlotte told us that they live by the motto: when you give, you give the best. The people here truly give their best, they are not stingy in giving. This reminds me of my birthday when my friend Bienvenue baked me a cake, which for Congolese is a special gift offering. She did not just bake any old cake but a cake which for me felt like it had 10 eggs in it and tasted as if it had 4 kilos of sugar.
To live with our door always open means detaching ourselves from our possessions, and when we detach ourselves from our possessions we become free. This reminds me of my arrival in Congo when I didn’t have my luggage for the first 2 weeks here. I can honestly say that this was a gift in disguise for me because I felt free without it. There was no worry about having my possessions stolen or damaged or thoughts about what to wear; one pair of clothes and the basic hygienic needs was all I needed. It was a weight off my back, just like living in huts without locks where we have no possessions to worry about.
The reference to the stone houses also refers to our hearts: our hearts that can easily be locked to others. So many times our hearts are locked to others and we put up barriers to keep people out of our lives. We fear others opinions, judgments, our own weaknesses and insecurities so we hide ourselves behind locked doors and our true self is not revealed in its unique beauty. When one is able to break free from these chains that hold us down what joy is found in this rebirth. Here in Africa I have realized how many insecurities and fears are created from simply living in a culture where you feel you are constantly being judged upon your status in life, your job, your education etc. To be able to simply live, this is a gift, this is beauty. This leads me to a quote by C.S. Lewis:
"To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket- safe, dark, motionless, airless--it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable."
C.S. Lewis

The Charm of Africa: The Heart of Children

My feet know this earth well: the bumps along the road, the cluster of eucylyptus trees shooting like arrows into the sharp blue sky, the crops of corn, rice and manioc that grow with the energy of the hot sun, the “ndakos” or houses along the roadside where I can anticipate exactly which children will come running to me yelling “ciao ciao ciao” with their bare feet and clothes as black with dirt as their skin, the workers in the fields tilling the soil with their hoes’ under the hot sun, the mammas at the same corner of the route selling their bananas and peanuts, the flowers dripping with colour and brightness that makes your eyes widen and your feet stand still, the intricate coloured grasshoppers and butterflies with patterns that startle the unexpected North American’s eyes. The landscape here is a continual gift from God to me. Each day I am surrounded by dramatic colours and contrasts of the sky and the clouds and the trees that give me goosebumps. The darkening clouds set against the blue sky with the hot afternoon sun that casts its light against the soft twisting eucyltptus trees revealing colours of whites and browns wrought into the peeling bark is a moment when the whole world stops.
There is another beauty here other than nature which is the heart of children. Never have I gone a day here without encountering and greeting a child. They are everywhere. This is what gives Africa its charm: the constant reminder of the beauty of childhood. Their feet are always flying through the long tall grass, climbing up trees (many times climbing trees to fill their stomachs with mangoes and bananas), kicking a soccer ball or playing creatively with pieces of plastic or wood made into toy cars. The children here have nothing but they are they are content and play and run free without complaints. One experience I will never forget was when I was in Ariwara working at the hospital. I was washing the floor of the surgical room by myself one day when 3 children who are always hanging around the hospital came in and began to observe my work. They stood there for 1 or 2 minutes and then one by one began to wash the floor with me. The youngest was not yet 3 years old in my opinion and would stick his hands in the soapy bubbles and rub it all over the floor and then walk through it with his dirty feet. Despite the floor actually becoming dirtier with their help I couldn’t help but sit in awe over what I was experiencing. Here were 3 little kids who voluntarily started cleaning the floor with the biggest smiles on their faces as though it was play time. The 2 little boys bottoms were showing through the ripped shorts and none of them wore shoes. When I told them that the work was done I had to drag them out of the room. When would this ever happen at home in Canada? The children here find joy in the smallest things; they don’t need fancy toys to play with or brand name clothes: all they need is each other. The importance of community is very strong here and is something I truly admire about the culture here. Kids as young as 5 years old can be seen carrying their new born brother or sister or nephew or niece or some little child on their backs. When someone in the community or the family needs something or is sick there is always someone who is able and willing to give a hand. Also here people live much closer together in their villages and do not live in big houses with lots of space therefore resulting in people being more community oriented. Also everyday living here is physically demanding and if you are alone and have no community behind you your life will be much more difficult.
I will miss the children of Africa, always running after me and calling me by name. I will miss going to the field will a ball alone and leaving with 20 kids running behind me. The charm of Africa is truly the joy of the children who make you envious of their freedom and simplcity. But who said I can't still be like a child?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The month that Italy came to me

Finally after a one month hiatus I have found the time to update everyone on my experience here in Congo. So if you didn’t know for the entire month of August I was living in a community of only Italians. Also if you didn’t know I spent the month of July as well as August in the village of Ariwara which is 50km north of Aru (where I spent the past 7 months). Each summer there are short term volunteers from Italy who come to Aru and this year it was the first time to have a group stay in Ariwara. I was very nervous for the arrival of 10 Italians and I was also hoping that at least one of them spoke English. Luckily when the group arrived I quickly came to learn that one girl spoke a few words in English! Phweff! and another girl could speak French. So all is well so far! Since the Canossians Daughters of Charity are an Italian order all the Sisters speak Italian therefore I have been surrounded by much Italian for the past 8 months (with the Sisters and of course the 3 Italians in our volunteer community). I really surprised myself by how fast I picked up Italian; after the first week I could speak in sentences and communicate decently. After our 3.5 weeks together I was sharing and speaking in Italian with much more ease.
Our project for the month of August was painting the hospital, the one which I have been working at. I have to admit painting is one of my least favourite things to do. After massaging people all morning and then craning my neck towards to ceiling with paintbrush in hand my body was in desperate need of a massage and a vacation. We ended up painting 3 large rooms which entitled much work: cleaning, dusting, washing and painting. If it wasn’t for the dynamism of this group with their energy and joy I wouldn’t have found much satisfaction from our work. It was a blessing in disguise to rest with a new group of young people with enthusiasm to experience Africa, joy to be with children all day long, desire to learn, be challenged and share with one another. Despite the language barrier, which I am not going to lie at times was very difficult for me, I was able to communicate and share my experience so far in Africa. I wish I could have been able to share more because I could see in each one of the volunteers a sense of yearning for a purpose in their lives. In Italy as well as in North America it is difficult to find God and to find a purpose in one’s life. The month spent in Ariwara was filled with many opportunities to play with the children here who would come to the elementary school where we were living in the afternoon everyday to play with us. One very memorable experience for me was after the morning mass at the parish where when we walked back to the school we were followed by close to 60 plus kids who waited outside the school wanting to play with us. I jumped on this opportunity to arrange some group games at the field close by. I wish all of you who are reading this could have been there to experience the joy that was present in this moment. There I was instructing in half Lingala and French to what felt like 100 kids how to play piggy in the middle, British bulldog, touch tag and to finish a game of soccer. Then on returning home I asked all the kids to sing a song in Lingala, so of course they all start in chorus singing the church song “Kembo Tata” “Glory to God” and we all ran and sang and danced together. This moment will always be in my heart. Simply playing, running, throwing a ball brings more joy than you could think. If I could stay in Africa and play with kids all day my life would be filled with an abundance of joy. Another experience I want to share is when both the groups from Aru and Ariwara came together and went on a trip to the village of Watsa about a 5 hours drive away. We arrived in the evening at the parish there where a little old missionary Italian priest lived. He had spent close to 40 or more years alone as a missionary priest. The moment we arrived we were surrounded by swarms and swarms of kids. Here in Watsa the parish has a program for the street kids here where they have a place for them to stay. I again jumped to the opportunity and brought out the volleyball and stated playing with the kids and of course the Italian guys started a game of soccer. We played together on the field until the sun went down. That night we all slept together on wood tables that we pushed together. I don’t think I slept more than half an hour since I had no pillow and the hard wood was aching against my back and hips. It’s always good to embrace a little suffering, especially knowing that the villagers here will go to bed sleeping on the floor with maybe a bamboo mat and a blanket. To finish off the month of August with this enthusiastic group of young people we spent my birthday all together in Ariwara. The group from Aru came to visit Ariwara and the work we had completed and at the same we could celebrate my birthday together. It was a very memorable day starting with a trip to the market where I came across a panye (the African fabric) with St. Cecilia on it who is my Confirmation Saint and which is extremely rare to find here since the Saints here consist usually of African saints. Then I came across a little girl selling green apples which added even more joy since I adore apples. When we returned back to the house, well the school actually, my friend Bienvenue was waiting with a cake for me. To prepare a cake for the Congolese is something very expensive so I was overcome by her generous gift. It was the heaviest cake I have ever held; I think she added close to 10 eggs in it haha. Little surprise blessings kept coming as the day went on and I felt as though God was constantly at my side the entire day. After we ate lunch, Clara brought out the most amazing brownies ever! mamma mia, bellissima! After we ate lunch the group of volunteers in Ariwara gave me a gift of the 50th anniversary of independence for Congo panye which was something I wanted to buy. Then Stefano presented gifts from my community which consisted of things which Karen had brought with her from the U.S. such as Fructus hair gel, oatmeal and Bengal Spice tea (I think of you Kim every time I drink it). Then Stefano brought out his digital camera and showed me a picture of him and Sr. Daniela next to a beautiful wooden easel which he said is waiting for me in Aru. I was blown away by this gift since it has been something that I had been wanting for awhile but I never told anyone. It is made out of beautiful red wood and hand made by Stefano with the help of one of the carpenters here. I just hope I can somehow manage to take it home with which will probably cause difficulty because of the size of it and the shape. In the afternoon the group from Aru left and our group in Ariwara took a beautiful promenade to the “swimming pool” here. Yes, there is a swimming pool here and is very natural, let’s just say it’s like a big pond. I didn’t have the courage to go swimming in it, so I have a feeling I am going to have to wait until I return home to go swimming. Then in the evening we watched movie and drank citronella tea and ate the birthday cake of Bienvenue and I have to say that this birthday was one that I will treasure forever in my memory.
As the month came to end and the volunteers were preparing to go back home I was overcome with many emotions. The talk of returning home caused me really to become homesick, but on the other hand all the volunteers were saying to me how I am so lucky to be able to stay here since they know when they return back to Italy where their lives will not be satisfying. Okay, so I am able to stay in Africa and have the satisfaction of helping people, playing with kids whenever I want and living in a place where I can find much joy and peace but in reality why is it not possible to find this peace, joy, satisfaction and meaning in one’s life back in Italy or in my case Canada? I have been thinking a lot about my return home and how my life will be different because of what I have learnt from this experience. I have been changed here in ways that I needed for my life. I left Canada desiring to learn how to give more of myself, how to stretch and reach my potential. I have reached a point now where I feel that I have been challenged enough and now I am beginning to feel tired. I need now encouragement to continually give of myself. I think of Blessed Mother Teresa who continually gave of herself to the poor and I am amazed at her strength and endurance. This leads me to dwell on the words of St. Paul, “More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” Romans 5: 3-4

Friday, July 23, 2010

Life...the reality

Leprosy stealing helpless limbs.
Petrol burning through the flesh.
Disease leaving children crippled.
Infection seeping through the weak body.
How can one find joy in suffering?
How can one be cured if one has no money?
What if all you are told is to wait for death to come?
What if you lived your life for each second?

Our life is a gift. One day we live the next day we may be dead. The other week a woman died of intestinal cancer. I had visited her a few days before and the only words she said that I could understand were ¨I am just living now;¨ to breathe was life for her, this was living. A few days later during the night all I could hear was the drilling and hammering of the coffin as the men worked through the night to prepare a place for the body. I did not sleep well that night. Like the tiny light bulb in my room that flickers, so is life. It flickers, sometimes only for a moment and other times it gives its last gasp and darkness comes.

Life here in Ariwara for me revolves around the hospital where I am working. My experience here so far after almost 1 month has been life changing for me, in the sense that the way I look at life now has been affected in a profound way. I will share with you a few descriptions of some of my patients:

The Mammas come with feet as hard as rocks from walking barefoot all their lives; backs as stiff as boards from carrying babies on their backs since they were children; bones brittle and aching from carrying heavy loads and walking countless miles. Most of the mammas come once or twice and then their money runs out so they can’t afford the hospital, as is the case with the majority of people here. They come to me always with smiles, without teeth of course, and strong handshakes which bring meaning to my day.

Mamma Suzanne has money to spare. She comes each day dressed elegantly in her brightly coloured panyes and scarves. I commented on her beautiful purple scarf and told her how purple is my favourite colour. The next day she came with a purple scarf for me as a gift. The Africans give much even though they have little. I am always amazed by their generosity. She tells me each visit that she will come by bike to the hospital to stay fit, but she never does.

Papa Bubakari, a butcher from Mali, flashes his enthusiastic smile of crooked yellow teeth as he greets me with continuous ¨Ca Va’s¨ and ¨Tout est bien.¨ He regrets his choice to come and find work in Congo since work here is extremely hard to come by. His shoulder muscles bulge from continual butchering of goats and his skin is as dry as the desert of Timbuktu (he tells me that the average temperature of Timbuktu in Mali is 40 degrees!).

Mamma Ania’s feet creep over the end of the bed. She babbles on to me in Lugbara as I massage her knotted back and legs. Between her babbling Lugbara she continually thanks me saying, ¨Ahh...Merci, Merci, Merci beaucoup!¨ She makes me laugh; her silk Holy Spirit scrave on her head, her gaping teeth and strong hand shake make me smile.

Then we have the chilren: victims of meningitis, paralysis, malinjection, broken bones, muscle spasms, and malnutrition. These children should be out playing, running through the long savanna grass, climbing trees, kicking soccer balls, but they are trapped in their weak bodies, only their eyes have the sign of youthful vigour.
Little Meme, Etsoni and Bolinga come with sore legs, hardly able to walk let alone run. They are all around 7 years old. I massage their tense and stiff little legs and teach them how to walk properly putting their heel down first. I think back to when I was 7 years old: running free, climbing trees and going to bed without pain.
Freddy-Alpha is also 7 years old but his body is the size of a 4 year old. He suffered not only from meningitis, but also malnutrition. He is not able to fully extend his legs and waddles like a duck in his oversized jeans. His hair still has a tint of red which is one of the symptoms of malnutrition. I try to get him to lift his arms up overhead but he can only reach halfway. I think to myself, ¨How can these kids get strong if they don’t eat right.¨ I can massage his legs, do some exercises for his arms and legs to become strong, but if he doesn’t eat right he can’t gain any muscles. In the end it comes down to money. People here can’t afford to buy milk and meat is only eaten on special occasions.
Then there is Caleb a 5 year old who suffered meningitis that left him basically like a vegetable: all he can do is move his eyes. The mom looks at me with desperate eyes as I assess her child. I try to tell her that I can help her child but I know that with a disease like meningitis where the brain and spinal cord have been damaged there is not much hope for recovery. It’s not only the mom who stares up at me but soon enough there are 4 or 5 other mothers gathered around the bed hoping that I can save this little boy. My emotions at that moment were filled with sadness because I knew that this boy’s body would never be able to walk. Who knows though, these mammas have faith that can move mountains so I should not doubt the power of God to heal the sick. I try to straighten out his arms that constantly are in a bent position. I splint the arms with some bandages to keep them straight. I then try to tell the mom in broken Lingala and French to take off the bandages in an hour or 2. The next day I visit the boy the bandage is still on and she tells me how he didn’t sleep at all and now his hands are all swollen. Here is a good example of miscommunication. I have learnt my lesson and will now always clarify with the nurse in French to make sure the mom understands. I don’t want to start inflicting pain upon poor innocent children here in Africa, hahah. Yes, language is really difficult here, especially medical terms in French!
My favourite child is Gyllian. He is 7 years old and is paralysized on one side from meningitis. His left foot is hyperextended so much that he walks on the ball of his foot. His left arm is contracted tightly and the hand hangs lifeless. You would think that a poor little kid like this would have no joy in him but this special boy has one of the most captivating smiles. His mouth is partly paralyzed so when he smiles it’s like a grin almost like he knows some sort of joke that you don’t. He can’t talk but he is a very intelligent little boy. He puts out his good hand and shakes it with all his strength and his slanted amusing grin creeps up half of his face. I can’t resist but to smile. He then quickly scampers off to play with his friends, limping and swaying back and forth with his left arm clinched close to his body.

The most amusing patients I have had so far have been those seeking advice on how to lose weight. Yes it’s true! There are not only malnourished starving people in Africa but also Big Mammas haha. The best comment I got was from one woman of 26 years old who said she heard that I do massage and she wondered if I could massage her stomach to help her lose weight. At first I thought I misunderstood her French so I asked her a few more times, but no it was true she really 100% believed that if I massaged her fat it would disappear! I had to hold back my amusement and told her that if it was that easy to lose weight there would be no overweight people in the world. Another man the next day asked me if drinking alcohol helped to lose weight. Again I said that if that was true our world would be a terrible place full of skinny drunkards running around (I didn’t exactly say that in French but somewhere along those lines...and plus my French limits me to what I would really like to say).

There have been some really disheartening encounters such as a little boy, only 5 years old who broke his hip bone and left it for 10 months. The mom came seeking me for massage for her son. Right away I knew there was something wrong with the bone and I asked if he had ever taken an Xray of which she replied no. She came back with the results that his hip bone was fractured and that he would have to go see an orthopeadic surgeon in Kampala. I am 100% sure she will not be able to afford this operation and the travel expenses since I paid for the Xray which she wasn’t able to afford. My heart went out to this poor child who if was in Canada would have been looked after properly and not have complications with how his broken bone had healed. It is common here to encounter people from the villages in the brush who use their own herbal medicines and medicine men. For example instead of antibiotics they will put some sort of leaves they have boiled on their infections, or a broken bone they will shake and push back together thinking that it will be all better. This is the reality of these people since they have no doctor or proper hospital in their area that is close.

Life. It comes with the morning dew, the rising sun, the soaring birds, the torrential rain; life is in the withered hands stretching to the heavens pleading their prayer, the sunbaked faces and gaping smiles of mammas who have toiled the land for decades, the running feet of children through the long grass. Life is a gift. Life is what we make of it.
Life is fragile. It needs to be looked after. It needs to be appreciated. I am learning that here in Africa. I have come to appreciate how lucky I have been in my life. I am grateful for my life, my health, the bright future I have been given.
I think to the people here, to the sick. Just the other day I came to visit one of my patients in the hospital and the man beside him was covered with a bed sheet with a kerosene lantern lit beside him. His wife was sitting hunched over on a bench weeping. Every time that I have come to visit my patient I always look over to his neighbour and flash a quick smile. One could see in his hollow eyes and wasted away body that he was on the last stretch of his life. As I entered the room and took in the covered body and the light shining as if to say that his soul still was still shining, I couldn’t handle the situation. I left the room and took a breather. An hour later I went to visit another mamma in the hospital but there was a crowd of mammas surrounding the bed beside her where load moaning and weeping were taking place. Another person close to death. I left the room immediately and took another deep breath of somewhat fresh air.
Here I am, a North American girl who has been surrounded by many joyful things: the material distractions that I can hide my sufferings with like a bandaid, opportunities to expand my knowledge and do the things that I enjoy to do, liberty, freedom, and adventure at mydoorstep. The suffering that has been thrown at my face is like a brick wall; it is a difficult thing to get over and to see the light on the other side. I am not accustomed to experiencing the bitterness of life. I have felt alone before, I have felt failure in my life and I have felt despair but never before have I felt these in the raw context of Africa. I am surrounded by words and utterances that I cannot understand, I am stared at everywhere I go, I am in a culture that is the complete opposite of mine, my freedom to explore and adventure on my own is impossible, the village is dirty with no sense of dignity or pride in its craftsmanship and the way things are looked after, the same food with the same taste each day, and the inability to express myself completely. On top of these feelings I am engulfed in the poverty, suffering, hardships of these people which are neverending. Each day I hear mourning echoeing through the green savanna that reached my ears as I start my day. Each day I hear a heart wreching story or see something that I really wish I didn’t have to. At home I have the choice to escape from these. I can find many distractions where my mind can be free. But I am only closing myself off from reality. Reality needs to be seen. Right now I do not want to face the reality here but I don’t think the people here want to face reality either! I don’t think the people here want to wake up in the morning and walk many kilometres to get water, to start the day in the same dirty clothes that had on the day before and sit in the dirty market selling tomatoes to come home at night to nothing but their hut with a tiny fire where the family of 5 kids will sleep together on one bed and then hear that someone they know has died.
I try to be courageous but I am weak. I read a writing by John Merton which reads:
¨The man who does not permit his soul to be beaten down and upset by dryness and helplessness, but who lets God lead him peacefully through the wilderness, and desires no other support or guidance than that of pure faith and trust in God alone, will be brought to the Promised Land.¨
This is my goal. I want to be able to have faith like this. Faith that is able to withstand the dryness and helplessness of situations such as the ones I am experiencing now.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Descriptions of Africa

Discriptions of Africa

The silhouettes of women carrying large casseroles on their heads are cast by the large yellow full moon rising strongly above the towering eucalyptus trees. The moon floods the savanna with lifes as children scurry home along goat paths, men pedal laboriously around tree roots, puddles and potholes while balancing their heavy loads and mammas come out of the darkneess pulling their goats on ropes.

Children with swollen feet and bellies with eyes full of pain and suffering make my heart break. Tears roll down the faces of children with blistering burnt legs as each step tears at their fragile skin. Young kids that should be playing football in the fields are instead trapped in 7 year old weak bodies deprived of the feeling of the grass between their toes and the wind upon their face.Why must these children suffer so? Where is the joy in their faces? Why must they be deprived of the joy that comes from childhood where you can run freely and happily as a bird and not have to go to bed with hunger pains? These are questions I ask myself. I also ask myself how can one return to the land where the sun rises and sets to the rhythm of progess and power? I do not know suffering. I was born in a country that offered me safety, health care and education. I was born into a family that had money to send me to school and to give me opportunities. How was I different from a child growing up in Africa with no access to health care or proper schooling, who was confined to stay at home and look after one’s brothers and sisters? I have never been angry with God until this moment; the moment I saw the spirit of a 15 year old girl trapped in her body because her teacher made her carry a tree as a punishment for being late resulting in paralysis. She must lie there in her bed, her child-like spirit dying within her because her ¨teacher¨ inflicted pain upon her for being late for school. How my heart cries out for her. I cannot help but feel anger towards God for letting something like this happen. I know that in suffering we can find strength and by suffering we can unite ourselves with the suffering of Christ, but when it comes to children I cannot accept this easily. A heaviness weighs upon me as I take in the dark circumstances of the people here. How can I turn my back to their suffering?
Life throbs on for these people in the midst of their suffering. What sustains their pulse? What brings the vibrant colours to the earth and the sky here? How do they find the courage to persevere?

Thursday, July 1, 2010


Since the school session has now finished I have more time on my hands and for me I don't do well when I have lots of free time because I am actually more unproductive. So I decided to work in the hospital in the town of Ariwara which is 50km north of Aru. It runs parallel with the Ugandan border and is 65km southwest of the Sudan border. I left behind my community in Aru which was a big sacrifice for me since I have such a great group of people I live with. I am here in Ariwara living with the Sisters and will be working at the hospital doing ¨physiotherapy¨, yes I am a real Physio here in Africa, haha.
The hospital is respectable hospital for African standards. There is a maternity ward, surgical ward, internal medicine and pediatrics. Here it only took 1 day to prepare a room for me which is double the size of my room in Aru. The nurses here are very helpful and kind and I believe this is going to be a great experience for me. I will be here all of July and August. In August 8 volunteers from Italy will come to do a short term mission project here involving building, painting etc. So I am at present trying to learn more and more Lingala each day so I can communicate better with the sick (many of them come from outside villages where they only speak Lingala or other languages), as well as learning some Italian. Lots of learning here in Ariwara and lots of challenges! There are many sad sights I have seen for example one mamma who was bitten by a dog in one of the villages which wasn't vaccinated for Rabies. Here at the hospital they don't have serum to treat Rabies so she will basically die. She is already showing signs of rage. Her eyes were the most frightening eyes, almost like they could see right through you. She was just sitting on her bed when I saw her and I was afraid that she might just jump out of her bed and attack me. It is sad to see people suffering when you know that back at home there are treatments for these diseases and here it is not possible.

Here are a few descriptions of my first patients here
The smell of fish, peroxide and fresh wounds fills the room. As I approach the bedside of my patient who is lying on his stomach my foot touches the roots of a stack of sweet potatoes underneath the bed. My eyes then meet face to face with the the fish I have been smelling which are wedged between some plastic bottles in a basin by the bed. I then realize that my patient is also sleeping with his baby next to him who is breathing heavily curled up in a little ball. My patient suffered extreme external wounds in an accident with his bicycle. Road accidents involving bikes, motorcycles and trucks is very common here. He cannot rest on his back due to the wounds and his spine suffered a slight fracture.
Another one of my patients is very difficult for me. Imagine first of all this young man speaks Lingala and a little bit of French. Second he suffered a motorcycle accident and damaged the part of the brain in charge of language resulting in aphasia. Therefore he can barely speak and explain anything even in Lingala. It is quite a challenge working with him. He is a hemiplegic so he can only move his left side of the body and also suffers external wounds.

My first experience in Ariwara
The church is packed and people are left to sit outside on logs lined up around the church. The bamboo sticks making up the roof sag downwards with streams of sunshine flowing in. A bright array of colours fills the church but not one white person. The ¨dancing girls and boys¨ are the cutest I’ve seen but I do have to admit they looked a little retarded bouncing up and down and swinging their heads around during the mass. The ushers here don’t wear neon traffic uniforms with Boboto (Peace) written on them but instead wear khaki uniforms with boyties and green hats that could have been worn by WWI veterans. During the consecration they all lined up with one man in the middle carrying a white flag and they saluted Jesus with their 3 fingers forward representing the Trinity. Then during the Our Father, which took about 5 minutes to sing, they did what I would call a ¨Brownie¨ salut. This was just an ordinary Sunday mass and it took 2 hours. The people here could sing all day and all night. It is amazing! The music here is so joyful and everyone sings with so much passion with their arms in the air, swaying and dancing. I am really going to miss this when I go home. At the end of the mass when the priest usually says announcements, one of the Sisters tells me that the priest is introducing me right now and that I need to go up onto the stage. I step up onto the altar and the priest asks me to say a few words to the people. I look out at a vast of black faces, probably 400 or so. I say ¨Mbote¨ which is how you greet people in Lingala, and everyone just went crazy cheering and clapping their hands. I wanted to say more things in Lingala but I was a little nervous and unprepared. After the Sisters said the people LOVED how you spoke their language and that their respect for me has increased dramatically. After this experience I really felt that God wants me here. The people here show so much love and care for their neighbours.
The next day I went with two of the Sisters to visit a woman who is dying of colon cancer. We walked through the village trying to find their house, which is really difficult here since none of the houses have numbers and streets here don’t have names. When we finally found her house we entered into the little round hut which was pitch black. The lady was lying on her bed in the darkness with her family all around her. It was rather frightening for me because it seemed as though she was already dead lying there in the darkness no saying a word. The mother said she hadn’t eaten anything for 4 days and had not spoken in days also. When the mother said the Sisters were there she finally starting talking which made the mother very happy. All I heard her say was, ¨I am just living right now.¨ Then when we left the mother escorted us all the way home which was about a 15 minute walk and talked with us with so much joyfulness in her voice that you would have idea her daughter was on her death bed. The people here never cease to amaze me with their strength and courage. Admist their suffering they can find joy. Their hearts are always open and free. They have no care for time, disturbances don’t bother them, setbacks, death, war, suffering and hunger does not extinguish the fire within them.

Friday, June 25, 2010

A Story of War

As I was returning in the evening from putting away stacks of soya at the farm with Clara I was welcomed by one of the teachers at Ecole Maternelle who wanted to visit with me. We sat down in our yard and started to talk about simple things and then slowly she began to share with her life story, a story of war. If you think you’ve had a rough past, some barriers and struggles think again. I have been teaching at Ecole Maternelle for 5 months now and I had no idea that this young teacher, probably 35 years old, was going through psychological trauma from the war here in Congo. She came to Aru only 9 months ago from the village of Tunda, 30km south of Faradje which edges on the national Park of Garamba and is where the LRA, Lords Resistance Army is situated (rebel group from Uganda). On Christmas Eve 2008 after the evening Mass the LRA attacked and killed people outside of the church. For 6 months she was in the middle of war between the Ugandan military and the LRA. For 2 weeks she stayed in her house not able to go out at all or if she was it was to flee to a different area. People would flee into the brush, children grabbed by rebels and killed, women raped, houses burned, people butchered decapitated with machetes infront of her etc. In the middle of her village the captain of the rebel group was slaughtered infront of her. She said they took their machetes and just butchered him to pieces. She described the rebels as having hair half way down their backs and dirty dirty dirty. Here in Congo I have never encountered a man with much more than a little afro and so I can only imagine how terrifying it would be to encounter a towering muscular African in the bush with hair half way down his back. Now whenever she hears her phone ring she gets anxious because during the war when someone’s phone rang it was to signal to everyone where the attack was and where they should move. She also cannot prepare meat because when she has to cut up the animal it brings back vivid memories of children and people being slaughtered during the war. When she hears loud noises she thinks of the bombs that fell in her village. She cannot handle blood either obviously. She said many of her friends around her age have gone crazy or are psychologically damaged. In Faradje she said there are humanitarian organizations that have come to care for the children in that region who she says are terrifying. They are aggressive almost like animals and have completely lost their minds. But she said children will recover quicker than adults. She attends once a month here in Aru a session with a psychologist along with 50 other people. Here in Aru there are many refugees who have come from areas of war like Clementine. Aru is a peaceful place, a safe haven for the traumatized Congolese people. Life is not easy for Clementine. Working with little kids who scream, cry, get bloody knees etc. does not help her in her recovery. The slightest loud noises cause her to become anxious. For her she needs to be around people and to talk about her experience to help her move on. Her life right now makes no sense and she finds it difficult to find joy. But she has faith that I have never seen before. Faith like a rock. She said there was a Bishop in the territory of her village who would travel during the night, through the bush to gather people together to pray. She said for weeks people would be in the bush with nothing. All they could do was look to the expansive sky and pray to God to save them. Clementine was lucky because just as the LRA was advancing to her village killing and ravaging homes the Ugandan military came in and started war. She said if the Ugandan military had not come the LRA would have continued to slaughter and slaughter people.
The possibilities for her now in her life are even more difficult since she is not married. This is not common for a woman her age. She wants to study and become a counselor but for her she needs to find money to go to school and before that of course become psychologically stable and healthy. She at least has some joy in her life which is found when she is surrounded by people but for many other people during the war joy has not been renewed. Many people she said live with no expression on their face, no joy can be seen at all; they are not able to forget the images and atrocities of the past and so they live in complete darkness. Clementine hides her true emotions of the gruesome sights she has encountered by laughing nervously, almost with a slight insanity to it. When she recounted the history of the slaughtering that took place I asked whether she saw this with her own eyes, for example when the captain rebel was butchered in front of everyone. She said, “yes of course” and started laughing with a her eyes looking off to the side. It is good she is able to talk about what she has gone through and that she is able to laugh about these things and not rest in solitude and darkness. I am sure there are many stories of war here. What has inspired me is the faith of the Congolese. Hiding in the bush for weeks with nothing but the expansive sky above them they pray to their Creator to help them; they gather together to pray whenever they have the chance to leave their homes; many have lost their homes, their families who have either been killed or they have no idea where they are, and yet they have the strength to carry on.

Suffering here is a constant thing. As I have been slowly melding into the community here (well not entirely of course since I will always stick out as the tall blonde white girl, “mondele”..the word for white person), I have discovered more about life here and the struggles the people face here. For example just last Sunday as Stefano and I were returning from dropping Mado (the girl with hydrocephalus) off at her house after Mass we encountered 4 boys in the street wearing rags that were the colour of the earth. Stefano asked whether they had gone to Mass and they replied no because they do not have proper clothes to enter the Church. We were both shocked by their answer and saddened by this. How many children don’t go to Church because they don’t have the proper clothes? When I walk around Aru there a street kids everywhere: popping out from the bushes, running through the fields, sitting on the dirty ground of the market, running through the streets chasing tires with sticks, up in the mango trees, scooting along the bumpy roads with bikes 2 times too big for them, and playing football in whatever field they can find with a scrap of rubber for a ball. There is also much physical suffering which I have encountered much of working at the health centre here. There are many people here who suffer from tuberculosis, meningitis, infectious diseases from injections not given properly, birth defects etc. It is not uncommon to see people crawling on their hands and knees due to defects at birth which have caused their legs to be completely twisted. At home children born like this would be treated immediately where their legs would be properly restrained to prevent further twisting of the limbs and would have equipment such as walking canes, crutches, splints etc. It saddens me to see people suffer when I know that if only they had some medical equipment it would ease their pain immensely. Seeing the calloused knees almost worn to the bone from being dragged along the gravel dirt roads, and the hands gripping thin foam sandals to ease the pain causes my heart every time to feel their suffering. There have been a few patients of mine whom I have had to say that there is nothing I can do for them and seeing their faces turn from anxious anticipated inner joy to sunken eyes of distraught is a difficult thing to see.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Cow slaughter on the way to class

I am on my way walking towards the terrain at 7:30am to teach my gym class as usual when I notice 4 men holding some sort of animal beneath one of the trees bordering the terrain. As I get closer I realize that it is a full grown cow being held by all 4 legs. There is one man skinning the cow with a machete and people are walking by barely even glancing at this rather grotesque scene. One of my students was with me as we walked by and she found it funny how I found this scene so strange and rather amusing. I told her how at home I go to the supermarket and I buy my meat already packaged and cleaned which she found very surprising. Yes, this is one big cultural difference between Africa and North America. I then continued on my way to the terrain to teach my class where only 5 girls showed up to. During the class I would look over and see the machete coming down hard and loud on the head of the head of the beast and every time I saw and heard the noise I would say, “pauvre vache.” Poor Cow! As I leave the terrain I pass by again and the men are in the process of pulling out all the intestines. They manipulate the intestines quickly and with ease as the steam rises from the recently terminated beating heart. It is a gruesome sight: the legs lying on a bed of branches, the gaping rib cage revealing the heart and intestines and four large men with bloody hands and machetes. I am pretty sure the meat was for a “fete” of some sort, but could they not have chosen a proper place to slaughter a full on cow rather than between the high school, the playing field and the main meeting hall. Sometimes I find myself thinking, “Africans really are savage-like”, which I know sounds very racist but in fact it is more of their way to survive. If you are not able to live off the land and work the land you will find many difficulties. Our volunteer house here is not at all embracing the “Congolese way of life.” We have a fridge, electricity, a gas stove, a strong house with windows made of glass, running water and toilets. Many of the people here live in round houses made of mud and wood and straw roofs. The doors of the huts have a piece of cloth that hangs in front and each room is separated by cloth that hangs from the wooden beams of the roof. One has to go to the market many more times without a refrigerator and to cook it takes much more time when you have to cook over a fire. All in all, the Congolese living conditions require much more endurance than us North Americans and the ability to embrace what the earth provides and work the land. This is a little bit off topic from my cow slaughtering experience but just thought I would share a little more.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Here I am in my African attire ready for the "Teachers Day" procession where all the schools of Aru march to the beat of the African drum around the "grand terrain" holding a sign with their school's name which all takes roughly 4 hours. I found the whole fete rather pointless but none the less culturally interesting and of course very draining (I got THE worst sun burn on my back!!)


Here is our neighbour preparing a "termite gateau" which involves smashing the termites with a rock along with some green onions and other things and then boiling it in oil. It does not resemble or smell anything at all like the cakes I know but this is truly a "cake" for the Congolese.

We ate some fried termites in oil and salt which were surpringly not bad once you got past the sight of them. They taste a little like meat and have a crunch to them. During the rainy season they are everywhere and the Congolese eat them all the time. One of the Italian Sisters who has been in Congo for 50 years plucked a flying termite from the air, pulled off the wings and ate it live!!! 

Joy found in the little things

It is the little things each day that inspire me. Every morning I hear the same guy yelling after me as I head towards the health clinic, “Italien, Italien, Italien,” and every morning I shout back at him, “Je suis Canadienne.” At the health centre every morning my friend Ornelly runs towards me shouting, “Lydia, Lydia” and wraps her arms around my legs and squeals with joy. Then there are the mammas and their malnourished babies whom I see every morning. I greet them with “Mbote” and ask them how they are, “Sango nini,” with which they always respond with “Malamu,” meaning “good” (well actually Malamu has many meanings). Some days I give them bread which means the world to them or peanuts and candies. I simply sit and try to speak Lingala with them and hold their fragile babies. This is one of my favourite parts of the day where I feel that I am slowly connecting and living with the people. Then there are my students who whenever they see me greet me and ask me how I’m doing. I really have enjoyed getting to know the young girls here and I am going to be sad when I have to leave. One time I somehow got on the topic of my family and I mentioned I had a brother their age. They all wanted to know about him and so I described my brother and they were swooing (ya that’s right Paul, you have Congolese girls swooning for you!) and getting all excited. One girl then said in her terrible English, “Paul is MINE,” with so much drama in her voice, wow, it was hilarious. They also LOVE to dance. Sometimes in the morning there is a prayer session happening next to where we play and during the entire class the girls and singing and clapping and dancing to the beat of the drum. These girls may not be capable to playing any kind of sport well but they are capable of singing and dancing which is rooted in their culture. Yep these girls are pretty special. I am pretty sure that in Canada when you tell your kids to run two laps around the track you won’t turn around and see your students stuffing their faces with mangoes. There are some great advantages to teaching here in Congo such as witnessing sights like this or being attacked by biting ants while you play football or your students eating termites live from the ground. There are also my students at Ecole Maternelle (aged 3 to 6) who call me “Educatrice Lydia,” and run after me whenever they see me and begin to stroke my arms or pull on them, one time so hard that my pants almost got ripped off me. They look so cute and innocent but when you get past the cute smiles they can be very violent and aggressive little buggers. There are many other little things that bring me joy here such as  seeing people in the  morning walking their goats on ropes  down the road,  having  a branch of your avocado tree break with 50 avocadoes and then having them ripen all at the same time, going for  runs in the morning and seeing the sun rise blaze across the sky in  beauty beyond words, and of course the termites that swarm by our lights in the evening and make a good snack (not joking). 

Africa has revealed God’s love to me in so many ways. In the smiles of the mammas, in the scurrying feet of the little children, in the insects who cross my playing field in armies, in the babies who cling to my arms and legs, in the eyes of the mammas when they look to the heavens to thank God, in the gentle greetings and soft eyes of my patients, in the courage, faith and witness of the Sisters here, in the excitement of the young girls I teach and their unceasing cheerfulness they carry with them and of course in the rain that thunders from the heavens and gives colour to the earth and the plants, and the wind that sings a song of freedom and peace, a song that soothes the soul, caresses the body and invigorates and refreshes it.
The rain here is of God. It rushes in with force I have never experienced before. The roads bleed red, the people run, the sound deafens. I have never seen Congolese rush or run anywhere except when the rains come. The streets are flooded with barefoot, panye clad people of all ages running or biking hastily with white smiles glowing through the downfall. Everyone is enjoying themselves despite the mud and chaos and as a bystander one could say that the rain could be some sort of community fun fair.

Africa has also shared its spirit with me. Yes, Africa does have a spirit and I believe that anyone who visits this continent will experience this spirit in some form or the other. It is the people who carry this spirit within them. It is not locked away but is free as a bird and it moves in them. I can see it in their eyes, in the way they pray, sing and praise God. It is as though time has no power over them. What brings forth this free-spirit within them I ask myself? What captures them? Perhaps it is the sun that rises with majesty and casts as spell or perhaps it is the earth that sings a lullaby, a rhythm that vibrates in one’s bones. 
Perhaps this spirit is found when all is stripped away and we are left only with ourselves. And when we have God what else do we need? We are at peace and our spirit moves freely within us. I find in North America we tend to wear many masks and can easily lose ourselves to the distractions this material world tempts us with. When luxuries, securities, selfish desires are removed we enter a state of vulnerability and it is in this vulnerable state where we are broken and formed into a new creation that can bear much fruit. This reminds me of a quote by C.S. Lewis that a friend shared with me. He writes: 

"To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket- safe, dark, motionless, airless--it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable."  
C.S. Lewis

When our hearts are broken and we love others recklessly our selfish desires melt away and we truly begin to see ourselves in a new light, the light of a new creation, the creation that God intended for us. But when we are trapped, as Lewis writes, by our selfish desires we bring much suffering upon ourselves. It is a saddening how much suffering we bring upon ourselves in North America that can be prevented. I think of the many people who suffer from divorce, depression, eating disorders, disillusion, betrayal, self-dejection etc. It is as though we have imprisoned ourselves. This reminds me of my experience at the prison here in Aru on Easter where the literal prison walls were broken down by the faith in the Resurrected Christ. I felt it and saw it in their eyes that with God in their hearts they were free men and women. The people here in Congo, and maybe in other countries of Africa, have their faith to hold them up. They don’t have much, perhaps a tiny hut with a bed, a few pots to cook with, a lamp and one pair of clothes and maybe a radio. I sincerely believe that having less is better than having more. How much freedom can be found when we live each day only for God, without hesitation about what we’re wearing, the way we look in public, what people will think about what we’re doing with our lives, and how far up the ladder of career success we are. It is ridiculous how much these preoccupations take away from our inner beauty. 
We can learn much from the African people who live without self-inflicted pain and carry with them everywhere a free-spirit that cannot be taken from them no matter what harsh struggles and suffering they have to endure (which they encounter unfortunately each and everyday due to lack of basic human rights that the rest of the world are able to appreciate). They are able to carry this free-spirit always with them because they have completely abandoned themselves to God. 
Thank you all for sharing my journey with me thus far. I also have been uploading photos on flickr as well. 

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The mammas shelling peanuts to sell at the market

My simple clinic here in Aru. I like the Bermuda blue walls I painted!

My clinic is finally finished

 Here is my clinic after 4 months. It is now officially being put to use. I am not sure how it took 4 months to prepare a room with one bed, a chair and a cabinet, I guess only in Africa

So I have finally opened my "little Physio clinic" here. I have 4 patients so far, all of which are men in their 60's with back pain; 2 of the 4 speak basic French but mostly Lingala so I have been using the little Lingala I know with them which is pretty interesting. One of them has to walk 5 kilometres to get here and I think to myself afterwards whether or not whatever massage therapy I gave to him was worth it...I hope. I have to wear a white nursing coat which is smoking hot to wear in the middle of the day. I am now trying to figure out how scheduling works here. I told the first 2 patients certain times to come and they told with great assurance that they would arrive at that time. I am not sure what I was thinking when I thought they would actually arrive at the certain time. I waited an hour for the first guy to arrive and then the next one had already arrived. This is going to be an interesting experience. These patients I have so far basically have overworked their bodies and have never stretched their muscles in their lives. I am getting very comfortable with massaging some pretty nasty feet. For many people here it is common to walk and run without shoes resulting in some beautifully calloused, leathery, weathered and twisted feet. Hooray for me who gets to touch these precious gems! It is pretty funny when I try to explain how to stretch (basic stretches that I learnt when I was in grade 4 gym class probably). I told one of my patients to do large circular rotations with his arm and somehow he understood turn his whole body in a cirle. So here is this old man turning around in a circle with his arm out to the side while I am restraining myself from laughing at him. Well, my clinic is pretty small but it is nice and cozy and has a beautiful breeze and a view of some of my favourite trees here in Congo and I can always sit outside and play with my favoutire little kids who are always hanging around the health centre. I am excited to see what other kind of people I get to work with. Hopefully 4 months of waiting pays off. Although I must say that my wrists are a little fatigued after only 1 week of doing massage.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Hope and Inspirational People in Aru

I would like to share with you a few inspirational people here in the village of Aru, Democratic Republic of Congo.

An inspirational person for me here is a young girl named Mado. She was born with hydrocephalus and now is bedridden with contractures in her legs and arms. Her mother gave birth to her illegitimately but the beautiful thing is that the husband of Mado’s mother returned from being away and instead of seeking revenge or letting out his anger on his wife he forgave his wife and the man and took Mado as one of his own children. Since his passing Mado has now been somewhat rejected from the family in a way. She spends all day in her dark room, is washed once a week (maybe) and is fed once or twice during the day and sometimes not at all. Her bed is made of a few wooden planks with mattress as thin as a dime with a dirty tattered sheet over it and no pillow at all. The only possessions she owns are in a black plastic bag and include a few photos with Liz, a past volunteer from the States who visited with her, some stickers I gave her, some knitting wool (she makes AMAZING knitted centre pieces), and a bar of soap. She eats in her bed, since it is difficult to get her out of bed all the time; actually to get her out of her bed is a lot more difficult than I presumed it would be. I thought that I would be strong enough to lift her into her wheelchair by myself but I really couldn’t. Her head is rather large and weighs quite a lot. With this burden to carry this means that if she needs to go to the bathroom or wants to sit up in her chair she needs the help of two people, and not just any two people but her older sister or her Mom who are strong enough. I had to leave to go open the bakery and had to leave her there waiting for someone to come home who could take her to the bathroom. I felt so terrible to leave. The next time I tried to lift her myself and I found the strength within me which has really helped me be able to help her a lot more. 
One time when I visited Mado she was in tears and told me in her broken French how her mom says that she is not her child. I try to console her with words but they don’t really do much. Instead I give her a hug and she holds me in her arms tightly for a good 2 minutes. I think I almost cried. I could feel her body giving into me, needing a hug more than anything in the world. She just needs to be loved. She lies in her bed all day long without any one to visit her. Myself and the other volunteers take her to mass on Sundays which is really nice for her. She waves her arms back and forth with great joy during the singing and praying and I think to myself, “how does this girl find the joy within her to praise God in her deep misery and rejection in this world?” She truly amazes me with her courage and her faith in God. We pray after each of our visits and I can see in her that she truly trusts in God’s power to answer her prayers. 
For Easter us volunteers worked together in creating a wonderful head rest for her wheelchair. Before she would sit in her chair with her head leaning against the handle of the chair with her body at a terrible angle. I noticed this right away and thought of the idea to create a head rest. With the help of the handiwork of Clara and Stefano and the useful chord my Mom sent me we assembled (with much effort!) a helpful head rest for her. It was a beautiful thing for us volunteers to each be able to contribute in our own way with our skills and to see the face of Mado when she received this gift. It is great to be able to help someone live with a little more comfort. Here I am learning that you can’t “change and solve the problems of the world,” but you can make little differences in the lives of people. You can help one suffer less, make their life more comfortable. There is always hope even when you first encounter such suffering and it seems rather impossible to give any hope to the situation…it is possible, just with a lot patience and a lot of LOVE.

Another person who has inspired me is a young man named Francoise who works at the high school where I teach as the secretary. He shared his life story with us one Sunday afternoon which really was quite a history. First of all he didn’t go to school until he was 10 years old because it was during the war and he was not able to. During the war here in Congo he spent 1 month living in the bush with nothing. He also showed us a scar he had on his hand which he said was caused by falling out a truck filled with people fleeing during the war. When he did finally end up going to school he said he would walk to school alongside soldiers terribly afraid every day. He finally graduated with a 60% average, which for Congolese students is considered as very well and means much celebration amongst family members for this great achievement. He then searched for work here and there and finally found a job as the high school secretary in Aru. Many people during the time of the war he said are still suffering some with injuries and many with much psychological trauma. He told us that if you look at the steeple in the parish Church you can see near the bell tower where it is still black from when the church was burned. The life of Francoise has not been easy and it doesn’t get easier when you need to consider finding a wife. For men here in Aru you need to give the family of your bride 12 cows which is not cheap at all. Francoise then promised to come every Sunday to share more with us and us with him but as for now this is all I have of his story. Francoise’ story so far has shown me how simple things I take for granted require much struggle here in Africa. For example to afford paper and pens and books for school he had to travel a distance every day to the market to sell bananas and other things. When you talk to Francoise he is always smiling and seems very joyful. It makes me wonder why so many people in North America are always so hostile, distraught and grumpy when they have everything they need surrounding them and have to work so little to get the things that they do want, and then of course when they have all these things they are still unhappy. It is people like Francoise who teach me to appreciate all the blessings that I have received in life and be grateful to others. Just offering tea to Francoise was a great gesture for him and he thanked us truly from the heart. People here are grateful and happy for just the slightest amount of kindness you show towards them which is something I am not used to back home. 

Sister Angela
Sister Angela, not the one who walks with slouched shoulders whom I mentioned in my last blog, comes from Italy. She has spent a large portion of her life in Congo as a missionary Sister teaching and doing prison ministry. When she was younger she used to bike from Aru to the village of Ariwara which is about a 50 kilometer rough road through the Savanna a few times every week. Unfortunately this rigorous undertaking took quite a toll on her body causing her severe nerve damage. When I first met Sr. Angela I had no idea that she spent most of her day in pain and sometimes had no sleep at all during the night. She carries herself with the most glowing and vibrant spirit that one sees only joy in her. When she came to me asking me to help relieve her pain with reflexology massage I was very surprised to know that she even had pain or a any form of illness. I have now been massaging her feet and hands twice a week and I cannot comprehend how it is possible to go on living with the amount of pain she suffers. With reflexology there are certain points in the hands and feet that correspond to other parts in the body such as the head, neck, spine, lower back, intestines etc. When I slightly touch her middle toes for example she feels extreme pain in her cervical spine and it shoots towards her head. It is a rather frightening thing when you cause other people so much pain. She has been so close to tears during one of our sessions and it is sometimes hard for me to see someone suffer so much. I know that afterwards she will be able to sleep well which is what I try to think about. She told me just the other day that on Saturday and Sunday she worked so hard without much time for relaxing that she was unable to sleep for 3 days straight. She then told me, “God gives me the strength to go on.” This statement of faith really blew me away because God truly does come to the aid of our weaknesses and he is powerful enough to carry one through days without sleep. Sr. Angela continued to say how her pain is her cross to carry and that she can relate to how Jesus felt when the nails were driven through his wrists. The point in the wrist is where many nerves channel through and to have all your body weight to put there must be excruciatingly painful. When I massage Sr. Angela’s hands I can see Jesus in her. She is lying there close to tears but with such courage and strength that it almost brings me to tears. She also told me how she went to Italy for treatment and for one month in the hospital she did not sleep at all. Also she said that the doctors in Italy said she would have to have surgery for her nerves. She returned to Congo where when she prayed to St. Bakhita (the Saint who is from Sudan and was also a Canossian Sister) told her to clean herself with the red earth of Africa which she did and when she returned back to Italy the doctors were amazed that she would not require surgery. 

Another story to add about Sr. Angela is when we visited the prisons here in Aru on Easter Sunday. When we arrived at the prison we waited as many of the prisoners were issued from one small room to another small room. We placed Jesus on the bench surrounded by flowers and a candle and Sr. Angela began to preach to the prisoners about Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection with joy and gladness I have never seen reflected in a human being before. She honestly is a living Jesus to me. The prisoners, all men except one woman, respectfully listened to her and answered all her questions correctly with excitement and renewed spirit. Sr. Angela asked simple questions where they would have to fill in the response and all of them responded with such passion as though breaking forth from a hiatus. The majority of the prisoners were Catholics but many other non religious sects and just on Friday when Sr. Angela visited she said about 7 or 8 received confession. The prisoners were not aggressive which I had expected but very respectful. I noticed one or two really young guys and the rest were probably in their 30s; they looked like ordinary young Congolese men who work in the fields with tattered clothes, bare feet, strong arms and skinny legs. Sr. Angela read the Gospel from St. John about the Resurrection and preached about how Jesus is here with all of us right now. His Peace is for all of us. Even on the cross he forgave us for our sins, in the midst of his suffering. The prisoners all had their gaze on Sr. Angela and there were many nods of understanding and agreement. When I sat there I thought to myself, “Jesus’ love is so strong that it surpasses the walls of prisons. These prisoners are ‘free,’ inside with the Peace that Jesus offers to them.” We then sang some songs in Lingala and ended with a wonderful Congolese Alleluia with loud and energetic beatings on the drums and dancing. It was really an unforgettable experience to see roughly 40 prisoners dancing and singing praises to God in a tiny cell room with a religious Sister, 4 white people, and 3 young African girls. Just last week we watched the film Shawshank Redemption and the character ‘Red’ says that “hope is a dangerous thing.” He does not want to hope in things that will only set him up for disappointment such as the hope of escaping from Shawshank Prison. But we see the hope in the man ‘Andy’ who despite his many setbacks he continues to have hope and we see at the end of the movie how he achieves his freedom and escapes. That day in the prison in Aru hope could be seen in the faces of those prisoners. They had hope in Jesus’ Resurrection. This hope is stronger than evil, it is stronger than the force of man and is stronger than the walls of prison.

There are many things I am learning here in Africa and I hope that all of you who are keeping up with my blog appreciate what I am learning as well.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Life in Africa so far

Life in Africa so far:

Here is a quote I would like to share with you all:

"Life isn't about waiting for the storm to pass but learning how to dance in the rain."

If any of you are going through tough times in your lives try learning how to find joy in your situation. Learn to dance in the midst of the storm and hopefully the storm will pass. 

I am learning lots here in Africa and slowly slowly am beginning to get feel more at home here. My schedule here is becoming much fuller. I am now giving massages to three Sisters, as well as teaching another “gym” class and taking Lingala lessons once a week. One of the Sisters I give a massage to is the funniest Italian Nun I have ever met. Her name is Sister Angela, she is about 70 plus years old and just as wiry as can be. Her shoulders are terribly misaligned so she walks tilting towards her left side. She is always on the move whether it is shooing cats out of the convent or beggars away from the bakery, lifting heavy buckets, working in the garden etc. She is just skin and bones and weighs roughly 90 pounds. I tell her an exercise and two minutes later she forgets it which is really testing my patience. Also my clinic which I have mentioned before is finally all ready to be used but I am now waiting to have “permission” and for the word to get out. hahah. In African standards I am assuming that by the start of summer perhaps. 

The extra gym class I am teaching is just for fitness with the older girls at the boarding school. The girls are not at all athletic. For example we usually run around the terrain one time and they are all panting and complaining at how they are already tired. For the fitness class I had them do pushups but none of them could do it so I taught them women’s pushups of which they could do one of. I got them to do squat jumps with the proper technique which made me laugh quite a lot and I wish you all could have seen them. They would jump about 30 cm off the ground and kick their legs in really funny ways. The whole class was pretty pathetic and amusing at the same time. The next day one of the girls told me her legs were sore from the lunges (we only did 10 lunges) haha. 

People have been asking me, “how is life in Africa?” so I will try to give a little overview of life here.
After 3 months I am beginning to get frustrated with the African ways of doing things. In my first blog I wrote that Africans are hard workers. This is true when it comes to everyday living. Physical labour is necessary to live here. For example one must cut wood and carry coal from the market to start a fire to cook; clothes need to washed by hand which takes a lot of energy and time; collecting water from the well which also takes much energy since one usually has to walk quite a distance etc. etc. Work outside of the everyday living is to a much slower rhythm. The Congolese do not have the same idea of what “efficient” work in the western sense of the word means. For example this clinic that I am opening up has taken so far 3 months and counting. Sometimes Sr. Claire, the nurse in charge, just doesn’t show up to the health centre. When I come asking what I can do today she always has some strange reasons that there is no work for me. Examples are, “I have a meeting,” “it’s a holiday,” “there are no paint or paintbrushes,” “we lost the broom,” “the key to that room is lost,” “the person who was supposed to show up didn’t today,” “I have so many things to do that I can’t explain anything to you today,” “actually, the room we had planned for you is not appropriate because there is a bee hive right by it,” etc. etc. I am learning enormous amounts of patience with Sr. Claire!!! Work goes so slowly here. I could have put together this room in less than a week. Time means NOTHING here. I do find it funny though when people tell in you English, “Time is Money.” Karen who teaches English said that when she oversaw one of the English classes the teacher has written on the board: Time is Money, and all the kids were writing it in their books and saying it out loud very slowly. I find this absolutely ridiculous that they teach this because this saying is the complete polar opposite of Africa. I was working at the bakery one afternoon and was caught off guard when one lady says to me, “Time is Money,” and then I start laughing, and she then says, “well isn’t it right?” She was truly being serious so I tried not to laugh more at her but it was hilarious. Time is Money. Here Time is SLOW. My opinion is that if anything is going to change here in Africa the work ethic needs to change drastically. I am really beginning to get frustrated at how inefficient things are. Time could really be used better here. Oh yes, how could I forget about “time” with the schools I teach at! The students show up whenever they feel like it, sometimes 5 minutes before the class ends. I tell them every class that next class I want them there at 7:30am. It gets really frustrating when you only have 3 girls who show up to gym class because what things are you supposed to do. You can pass around the volleyball in a circle, toss a Frisbee or dribble a basketball (on the deteriorating cement court) only for a certain amount of time until it gets boring. I class tells me that I “apparently” have 20 to 30 students in each of my classes but every week there are only 6 or 9 that show up. Just today though I was absolutely stunned! I showed up for the first time 5 minutes late to class at 7:35am (I am getting a little lazy to come early or on time because none of my students arrive on time…yikes…I am turning slightly African!), and there were NINE!!!! girls waiting for me and they told me that I was late. HAHAH. I was just stunned!!! It gets better though. About 10 minutes later there were TWENTY-SIX girls! I was beaming with joy to have so many students. I quickly took the opportunity to explain a game that required a large amount of people which ended up being “capture the flag,” which they miraculously understood in my French. 
Another thing to add about these girls is that I asked the girls to write down what their dream or aspiration in their life and more than half of them wrote that they want to go to Canada and study. I was quite surprised by this and am still not sure whether the girls wrote this only because I am Canadian. 

Some other things that are beginning to frustrate me are when people, both young and old, are always asking you for things. I know this sounds cruel of me to say that I don’t like it when people ask me for things but after awhile when everywhere you go someone is asking for your shoes, your shirt, bonbons, bread, your volleyball, your bike and of course money it starts to get slightly annoying. This brings me to say a word about the local beggar “Diddo.” He sits outside the bakery all afternoon and will come and ask for bread. The first time I gave him one bread and two minutes later he came back wanting another one. I said to him that I already gave him one and he then complained to me that I am so cruel. Another time one man bought him a bread and a bag full of bonbons. A few minutes later he returned wanting me to take the bonbons and give him money instead. Ahh! This beggar is terrible. Anyways, this is an extreme example of how some Africans can ask to the point of anger.

Other than things going slowly here I am connecting more with the people here. I just started learning Lingala with a lesson once a week which helps a lot in connecting with the people on a different level. When you can speak their language it means a lot to them and they really appreciate you making the effort. It is such a foreign language to me so it is a little challenging but all in all the language itself is very simple and primitive. For example the word “lobi” means yesterday and tomorrow. When you ask people how they are, “sango nini” they ALWAYS respond with “malamu” which means good. I asked one of the Sisters how you say, “ca-va mal” (I am not doing well), and she said it doesn’t exist in Lingala. I found this very interesting because coming from the western world I can see how many things they do not have and it makes me think that they would be unhappy because of these things. People here surprisingly enough find much joy in the little amount that they have and I am now understanding why they do not say they are doing poorly. It is something very beautiful seeing the joy of these people. In Canada when Monday arrives people are moping and complaining about the start of their week and only until Friday are people joyful. Here most of the people in the village go to church and it blows me away every time at the mass to see so many people! Kids are coming in and out of the church everywhere you look. Many times the church is so full that people have to sit outside the church on plastic chairs. I am also amazed at how many people attend daily morning mass. At home when I go to a daily mass there are usually only about 20 or 30 people, but here I think there are probably up to 100 people. These people truly have God at the centre of their lives and I admire this very much. 

I have also been very blessed with my community of volunteer here. There are now 6 of us, 3 Italians, 1 Czech, 1 American and me. The Italians are amazing cooks and I am learning lots from them. I am sharing a room with Clara who is the only one who doesn’t know any English but it is perfectly fine since we both can speak French together (well basic French that is). The Italians really bring a great work ethic here and a very fun spirit to our community. We are building our own Aruopoly which I am pretty excited about. I went for my first run here in Africa with Stefano which was awesome! Everyone stared at us and laughed. I am pretty sure it is the first time they have seen white people running and I am 100% sure it is the first time they have seen a white “girl” running. It felt so good to go running, ahhh…I definitely miss the freedom to go running and I also miss going somewhere and not being noticed.

Well that is all for now. I am sure I have forgotten to mention many things but that is a quick overview. I am trying to write more often! I feel that I am growing lots here and I am so grateful for the opportunities to learn more about myself and how I can challenge myself. Africa is continually capturing my heart. The people here blow me away with their faith in God and their joy. These people have suffered much (with war ravaging through this area just 3 years ago) and I hope to learn more about their history and stories from people.
I hope to keep you all updated on my life here in Africa. I hope you are all well and know that I am always happy to hear from people. 
Peace and Love