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Memories of that time in Togo

Wow–just got a message from an old friend in Togo, West Africa. Now, I guess I’ll say friend, though we were not the best of friends at the time. I was trying too hard, maybe, and our cultures were so different. Not even because of the world apart aspect so much as that different things were important to us, our personalities, and that we were immature and in our twenties, each going through culture shock, loneliness, who know what else, for her. There was a bit of a language barrier, too, as I was just gaining fluency in French while she had no English.

That was in 1986, thirty years ago, in a cultural exchange between our countries that took us to rural areas to live with traditional farming families. I at least had come from the country and knew about farm work, she was from a more urbanite background, and it must have been harder for her to get up at 5:30, feed the cows, milk, shovel pig and hog manure, pick rocks and hay, milk and feed again, then to supper and bed in our host home in our little shared room painted deep cyan. At least it was summer. Then in Togo, though we lived for three months in a village with a family that practiced agriculture, the hosts were uncomfortable with their “guests” sharing the work, so except for one occasion after I pleaded to go with them out to the fields to work, we pretty much lazed around and did our own thing, supplied by the family out of the program’s allowance with fruit, meat, coffee, and fufu. I think that was part of my problem, having no real role except to absorb things, write, sketch, wonder if I was gaining weight, try to learn the local language from the children, and feel frustrated that my Togolese counterpart and I weren’t becoming bosom friends.

So now we’re friends on FaceBook. A bunch of the other Canadians are on there too, but we all pretty much live very different lives, all across the continent, some in French, some in English. As I message my Togolese counterpart, I’m amazed at how easily my French comes back to mind. What a thing the mind is, holding things in reserve just in case for twenty years.

I was so very lonely there. I wrote and wrote, dragged myself through the routines of meals, water filter maintenance, my nightly shower, and flopped down on my foam mattress under the mosquito cover, grateful to sink into sleep. The shower was a favorite time  as I washed off the sweat of the day and rinsed out my lingerie, looking out toward the forest and the tropical storm clouds raining and thundering a few miles to the west.

Sometimes I’d get a visit from the chain smoking Quebecois who would play my guitar, while I rolled him a few cigarettes, or one of the other Canadians. But except for our weekly get together with our group leader , our lives were in our host family homes with our counterparts. I enjoyed the company of my compatriots, but didn’t find a deep friendship there. There were only seven of us, and we supported one another, but what a set of different personalities and backgrounds. The program selected us that way, as a matter of fact. I thought I’d get on well with one of the guys, but he was asked to leave before we flew to Africa, apparently for a drug offense, so It’s just as well, for that and other reasons. One of the women was apparently almost sent home too, for being too cozy with the local Africans and their traditional African. No one was quite sure, except that she was giving our group leader some sleepless nights, and was put on a kind of probation.He certainly had his troubles, Pierre did, with an alcoholic Togolese group leader and trying to keep everyone secure as several coups d’etat were struck in the capitol a few hours away, curfews were declared, soldiers rolled through every few weeks and the village young people proclaimed their loyalty in elaborate and very African-groove song and dance rallies. Drums and traditional cloth outfits, leader call and chorus answer songs, President Eyadema came, and there was light.

And then there I was telling Pierre I didn’t think I was going to make it, fighting what I realize now was depression, and him insisting he needed me to stay, feeding me scrambled eggs with maple syrup and telling me I was the most mature one he had, so would I please just hang in there for one month more and see. Finally I said I’d do it, and somehow I made it. The turning point was giving up on my expectations for a close relationship with my counterpart. I treated her as a co-worker, stopped trying to “get to know” her, just let her do her thing, kill and cook a chicken now and then, show me how to make a nice sauce not as spicy as the local version, how to make yesterday’s beef stew last another day without refrigeration. The children, a set of four from an assortment of loosely related aunts or foster aunts, were  a blessing–I’d draw sketches of things and ask them what the word was, and they’d get all excited, debate what I meant, and tell me the Kotokoli word. Scorpion! Chaliamlu!

I had this little song I made up and played on my guitar, with their names in it, Teba, Nura, Falila and Celimata, that they got a kick out of. They all had such unique and distinct faces–I’m sure I could recognize them as grown-ups.

My host brothers used to like to hang around a bit, and they at least spoke French, while my old host father and his two old wives didn’t. One was just a sweet young man, though he would use a razor to hack away at his plantar warts on the cement floor of my hut. I thought his intentions toward me were refreshingly platonic, compared to the city boys hinting they would like a “souvenir” before we parted. That’s the way I gave away my harmonica about a week after we first arrived in the capitol city, to a nice young man who worked at the community center where we lodged, who befriended me, even invited me to his family home and gave me soda as we sat in the living room with “Dallas” on TV, of all things. He wrote to me for over a year as if we were betrothed, though nothing happened between us. One of the other women had the same experience. I still feel that sourness. that sense of being wronged, for all of that, and for being begged from in the cities just because I was white. I didn’t want to go to Africa to develop bitterness against Africans, not the plan at all.

Later in the village, after several months of foster sibling friendship, my host brother shyly asked for a souvenir too. I explained to him that he was like a brother, that i liked him but not in that way, and he gave it up and sort of went back to normal, but I never felt the same ease in his company.

Problems within our group arose too, among the African exchange participants and us. We figured out among ourselves that the Togolese young people had not been chosen for their cultural openness or ability to communicate cross culturally, as we Canadians were, through a series of special activities observed by screeners. They were mostly urban, privileged, and well connected politically, hoping to nab some of perks of the Western world. Two of the Togolese men in another group were sent home for a semi-hushed up sexual assault charge. Another two were basically leering, chauvinist jerks who drove all the Canadians, both men and women, nuts. Another was screwing a series of local Togolese village women who perceived him as a good prospect. The one Togolese participant we liked, and who therefore received all our fond attentions, had actually worked at some kind of tourist place and had a lot of experience with Westerners, and also spoke English. He was culturally sensitive, respectful, and a lot of fun. He and one of the women of our group fell in love and married after the program. He was from a traditional village, and was just a more wholesome, mature guy able to relate to anyone.

Our recourse for dealing with the spoiled chauvinists was to help their Canadian counterparts and group members let off steam on the weekends by making up derogatory songs and rhymes about them. That was after trying to convert them into sensitive new age guys, which failed utterly. Some of the Togolese women weren’t much better, gossiping and tittering and all catty. Mine at least was only guilty of being taciturn and scowling in an intimidating way, at least to my young, sensitive feelings. And now it turns out she kind of did, or does, want to be friends, at least on FaceBook.

More memories there–i can feel them peeping in at the edges of consciousness. I wonder where my writings from that time are–in some box or other fading away on the cheap notebook paper I got in the village market. I wrote reams to my family and to a boyfriend who didn’t manage to wait for me, and when he expressed his interest on my return, i was too emotionally exhausted to accept him.

It did change me, and I guess the goal of the program, to teach young people about rural development and experience cultural differences, was achieved. I lost my shyness of foreigners, was glad to meet much more likable Africans at university in Nova Scotia, got to see the world, and there’s nothing to compare with that. But I never felt tempted to switch to an international development major, or lead an exchange myself, as it seems many of the participants did. I don’t hang out at community cultural centers, or follow any Eastern religion, and never even went for dreadlocks or henna. Wearing a swirly skirt in the summer once in awhile is enough for me. I don’t want to go back.

 
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Posted by on January 22, 2016 in Places & Experiences

 

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Just say no to short term mission trips?

Last week our church bulletin listed an upcoming opportunity for youth to participate in a short term mission trip to Mexico, and I asked my two older teens if they were interested. Both said “no” without hesitation, though I know they both want to travel. My daughter saw another “ad” for a youth mission trip and scoffed at the mention of a free river cruise for participants. Poor taste, she thought. Maybe they should add free tickets to a bull fight, too. After all, isn’t the short term mission trip the ideal kind of vaca-, I mean, opportunity to serve, and who will go if it’s not fun?

Over the years I’ve seen many young people go off with church groups to impoverished communities around the world to help with building projects, do dramatic evangelistic presentations and run Bible learning programs. They send out letters or do short appeals from the pulpit asking for prayer and financial support, do fundraising and so on, and off they go. Their leaders are usually only a little older than they, and full of excitement and youth appeal. They come back with stories of how much it affected them, how grateful the people were, and photos of themselves with cute impoverished dark-skinned children smiling sweetly. The participants’ relatives are proud that their children are off doing good in the world and not just focused on material success or on drugs or something, plus they got to travel and see the world (without parents having to go, or foot the whole bill–and with nice church people). The church feels glad to offer such youth programs and opportunities, and everyone enjoys the multimedia presentation in the post-mission church service.The participants always say the received more than they gave. I think they mean this humbly and truthfully. But wouldn’t they be surprised if the missionees admitted the same, “We gave more than we received”?

I just got one of these mission reports in my email box, and, as usual, it had the photo with the smiling dark-skinned child. And a photo of a tarantula the young man had “defeated.” There were also reports of numbers that “responded for Christ,” etc., and a hope that this young person will get to participate in another mission trip soon.

What do these communities think of this invasion by cheerful, enthusiastic, purpose-driven, privileged young people? Was an invitation even sent? What kind of prep has to be shouldered by the community? It is like a mini-Olympics, where dissenters and ugly, uncooperative people are hidden or sent away (or are they kept in the wings to provide the exciting challenge of “spiritual opposition”)? Does the visit have a long term positive impact on the community visited? Maybe some of the local parents can get a break and get more work done while their kids get entertained in the day camp, I’m thinking. And there’s definitely entertainment value, even without dramatic presentations. Maybe some gifts are given, the hope of gainful connections is established. Of course the local folks get to encounter another culture, and that can be positive, but is it?

What about the fact that these people remain virtual strangers to one another and never meet again? Does anyone ever follow up, keep in contact, have the communities “served” give an evaluation or debriefing, the people “saved” get established in their new-found faith? And though I’m familiar with the phrase, “responded for Christ,” what does that really mean, besides the raising of a hand or a coming forward to an altar (Is someone holding a clicker to get the stats, or taking names? Does anyone know the motivations of people who respond, the prior experiences, the hopes for the future these people have? How many times have they “responded for Christ”? Are they doing it out of individual desire to demonstrate faith in the Lord, or just to follow along, or even do what they are told? I’d also like to go into the question of the nature of the mass message offered, because seems to me that Jesus and his best friends tended to make it pretty personal, pretty specific, except for the general “repent.” The current message seems to be more along the lines of “believe, and you get off, and get in.” But the theological inquiry is for another time. What I want to ask here is does a short term mission do more harm than good, apart from the message? For the impoverished communities, I mean–that harm done to the young people (in terms of getting a wrong idea of their own usefulness, a surface impression of a people, etc.), I think they’ll manage to weather just fine.

I don’t blame young missionaries for their good intentions, but I think they, and especially the leaders who plan, organize and train for these events need to think more deeply about these things, and talk to wise, experienced, older people (here and in other cultures) in considering how youth might best be engaged in the sharing of the message of Jesus, and how it is best shared.

I found a great article by Darren Carlson of Trinity Evangelical DIvinity School that beautifully addresses these questions: Why You Should Consider Canceling Your Short-Term Mission Trips.  I was tickled that I found it smack dab on a missions organization website, the Gospel Coalition–no self congratulation there, just smart self-critique, right there with a myriad of other voices. A subsequent article suggests better ways to do these types of trips, or what should be done in their place.

This is just the sort of topic Blimey Cow would probably address, and sure enough, I found a hilarious video lambasting short term mission trips. (My daughter introduced me to Blimey Cow–they are often right on, in the Flannery O’Connor tradition–writ large for the semi-blind, shouted through loudspeakers for the semi-deaf. It’s a bit sarcastic and maybe offensive for the tender-hearted, however.)

Here’s another question: Why do church youth need to go to a foreign country, or at least a good ways from home, to get a polite hearing? I think it’s partly the demands of hospitality placed on the host community (perhaps the power dynamic also, as mentioned in the Carlson article). But hospitality means making someone feel welcome, not that the visitors actually are welcome. You put up with a lot in temporary guests, and want to be thought of well, so you smile and feed them, show them around, let them feel important and try not to get into arguments over their crazy views. And it takes a while to get your energy and routine back afterwards.

I once heard that sort of evangelistic outreach compared to “flashing” (as in indecent exposure)–show quick, get a reaction and a thrill, and run away anonymously. It would be different, wouldn’t it, to do a short-term mission in one’s own home town, without being invited, in the public square, rented room in the library or under the bridge by the freeway. One might even be recognized, pulled in, held accountable over time to practice what’s preached. That kind of ministry is for those who are truly full of God’s love, willing to lay themselves down, open to real relationship, and who believe and live the message deeply, or try to. Those are the kinds of missions and ministries we should be supporting.

Young people need to learn about their world, observe and experience different cultures, and in the process become more critically objective about their own. Short term group trips with the youth pastor can whet the appetite for a more in depth experience. There are lots of good foreign exchange programs that provide extended encounter with other cultures (see this list of exchange programs around the world), and lots of ways to intern or assist in programs and projects run by nationals. But why shouldn’t churches organize these educational opportunuties too, with reliable, intelligent Christian leaders (preferably from the host country, or at least who speak the language) who can help young people stay safe and on the straight and narrow (secular programs can be pretty wild), relate what they are experiencing to their faith journey, make a real contribution in the community according to needs and gifts, and finally, do no harm. Each young person is different, and is involved in church for different reasons. They’re at different stages of maturity, they have a variety of personalities, beliefs, doubts, lifestyles, and should not be herded into programs that require profession and dissemination of convictions before they are really there. Churches shouldn’t take advantage of young people’s naivete, “lifestyle flexibility” and energy to get them to spread a message they themselves wouldn’t take downtown to people they wouldn’t allow to tag along after them. We’re not all ready to be like the Master, who said to the extra-curious in his audience who wanted to know where he was living, “Come and see…” (John 1:39-41) after his sermon.

But why not harness the opportunity to take these young adventurers across cultural divides, in a thoughtful and non-invasive way, so they can become “world citizens”? God knows we need more of those in America, and in conservative evangelical churches in particular.

I welcome your comments. By way of background, when I was twenty I participated in Canada World Youth/Jeunesse Canada Monde, a government-funded exchange program that places selected youth from Canada and a partner developing country (mine was Togo) in rural host families in the two countries in turn, three months each, to learn about rural development. Families receive compensation for expenses, and host a pair, one from each country (not the participants’ home town), who simply live and work there, learning the languages as best they can, with weekly group meetings to process and discuss. I’ve never been on a short term or long term foreign mission, though I have participated in informal evangelism in universities I attended.

 

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Desperation and recovery

Desperation and recovery

Have you ever been in a situation so demanding that the voice in your head is saying, “I can’t do this! I can’t do this! But I have to–there’s no one to help me–I have to!” You are between a rock and a hard place, pushed beyond where you thought your limits were. And no one understands, or has time to, ’cause all your usual helpers are in the thick of it, too. Or if they can sympathize, and try to reach out to relieve the pressure, you blast them out of frustration, back into letting you handle it on your own, hurt that whatever it is seems more important than they are. Your perspective is off, it’s not a life or death by any means, but it seems like the only way to get to a place of balance and normalcy, and you can’t get through the bottleneck, not…yet…can you ever? You get even more upset as you perceive how badly you are handling things, taking it out on others. You judge yourself incompetent, think “better if I just go… You frantically search for a mental picture of how a person would cope, but you have none. Think maybe you’re falling apart. It’s either a situation without precedent, or one which you saw your model handle just as badly. You feel the effects of the stress on your body–the foggy thinking, the slow reflexes, the racing pulse, the exhaustion, the knotted innards, the headache.

I hope not often, if ever. I hope that nothing but the prefect storm of circumstances can bring about such feelings in your life. For me, it was these:

  • Being newly arrived in a foreign country whose language (complete with a unique alphabet) I needed to know to buy food, get phone service, fix an internet connection, figure out why my credit and ATM cards weren’t working, ask for directions, deal with an ailing gas burner, take a bus or taxi, everything. I’d started studying using Rosetta Stone, and pick up languages quickly, but not quickly enough for my new life there.
  • Having children dependent on me for emotional support, help with sibling relations, entertainment, education, and of course the other usual parental tasks such as dealing with food, clothing, and household management. Friends were a world away.
  • We were too isolated for homeschooling to be a healthy option. Didn’t know any homeschoolers nearby (the only group we knew met across the city). So we put them in school, and I had to advocate for them in their various situations (usually across a language barrier), as well as help them process all the stressful situations they encountered. During the day I missed my kids and was very concerned about them as well. First time in school ever, and it was in a foreign language!
  • My husband was available very little, being in the midst of an intensive language learning program.
  • Hottest time of the year, in the Middle East
  • Culture shock–some locals were more blunt, sometimes abrasive, and it seems that argument and yelling was a prime form of communication. Others were ultraconservative, so I had to be careful what I wore and where I was as a woman without an escort.
  • Small apartment minimally furnished, cement walls that bounced around all our sound.
  • We knew no one locally, had no prearranged network. It was only us, the people we could connect with on the go, and internet communications with family and friends at home. Our internet periodically and inexplicably dropped.
  • Symptoms of possible illness came and went in my kids–rashes, slight fevers, neck pain, and although we had medical insurance, I didn’t know where the clinic or hospital was, or if there were English-speaking providers.
  • No car to get around on Saturday, church day, when the buses didn’t run.

You may have guessed that were in Israel. For a study sabbatical and major family adventure we expected to last two years. I know that it wasn’t always so hard, but for the first several months there were waves and waves of HARD. There was no quick fix. There were oases of hope–my husband’s tenderness when he could spare it, an occasional encounter with an anglophone in the grocery store or bus, a helpful janitor to fix something, quiet times in the warm evenings to write my heart out. But it was grueling.I found I was doing so much to help my kids cope (especially one of my kids, who was quiet as a mouse at school but let all her intense emotions out at home), that I could barely take a breather to process my own reactions. I wrote a lot, a blog, and frequent prayer letters to friends at home.

Slowly, slowly (Hebrew: Leyat, leyat) we moved out of the storm (with occasional recurrences). Every time things started to get hard, we’d learned to ask friends to pray for us, and it was amazing what help was sent. There were milestones–I joined a Hebrew language class, where I was HIGHLY motivated and met some wonderful people from all over the world. I figured out how and where to buy the best groceries and housewares, and even found out how to get to the malls. Who would have thought I’d enjoy shopping in a mall? I outgrew that, and went back to the downtown open market and local vegetable stand, but at least I could get that “western” fix if I needed to. I found modeling clay and art supplies for the kids, a great second hand bookstore (my twelve year old devoured Moby Dick, he was so book-deprived by then), a library. I met a local woman and her kids at the playground, who befriended us, showed compassion, and answered every question I brought her. I found out how to get through to an English speaker at our internet and phone companies, how to pay bills, opened a bank account. Slowly the stress diminished, and the memory of it heightened a sense of accomplishment. And I am still amazed at the inner strength I discovered in myself. Okay, so what didn’t kill me (or cause a breakdown) made me stronger.

But it could have been different. What doesn’t kill you can make you weaker–crippled, wounded, destabilized, so I don’t sing that song. Now I understand why we had to sign a form when we applied to go overseas so my husband could study: a form that certified that we were mentally and emotionally stable enough to withstand the stress of cross-cultural living. I thought that was a bit odd, but they knew …

All six of us agree now that although it was hard, especially at first, spending that time overseas was enriching and not to be regretted. We all got different things from the experience, but it was a very worthwhile time. And a sense, as we realize how it changed us, it’s not over yet.

 

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