africa

Home/africa

A Belated Merry Advent Letter

*please note! I wrote this last year and then never published it. It felt kind of scary and raw. I have another letter drafted for this year’s Christmas/advent letter. But then I read it again and while parts are not relevant because I’m in the US and the twins graduated, parts were exactly what I needed to be reminded of personally, again. So maybe it will resonate with someone else who needs to choose joy this season. So, I’ll publish it now.

Merry Christmas from Abroad,

Our four-foot tree is up and shedding quite sadly. The Santa costume is being borrowed by a very Saint Nicholas type of fellow. The stockings, for once, are hung on steps and not over the air conditioner with care. The temperature is a chilly 87 degrees. The kitchen smells like ginger snaps and apple cinnamon candles. The grocery store has a horribly skinny Santa, barefoot, with no shirt under his costume, a rather sexy Santa with bright blue eyes. More stripper than Santa.

Its beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

This is our Christmas letter, the one in which we tell you about our exotic summer vacations (Minnesota is, truly, exotic to desert-dwellers) and about our children’s stellar performances at school (define ‘stellar’), about all the things we are really good at (like forgetting new vocab words in one of the three languages we’ve learned), and then show pictures of things we secretly hope you envy, ala the humble brag (like our incredible, rundown house with rats in the ceiling and roaches in the bathrooms).

What if, instead, I’m totally honest? What if, instead, I told you that this year I’m tired?

A few nights ago as we drove to church, a local boy made the shape of a gun with his fingers and shot at my face through the car window. A few days before that while I was running, a man drove by on a motorcycle and punched my ass. I miss my kids almost the whole year ‘round because all of them are at a boarding school two countries away. My husband and I started up a big new project, thirteen years in the dreaming and our hearts bleeding all over our sleeves, and no one told us that start-ups in Africa take a toll on a marriage.

I would like to go to a movie theater and disappear into the cool darkness and forget about it all. There aren’t any movie theaters in the country. I would like to enjoy a nice evening out with my husband but if we go for a walk we are harassed or are simply just bored of the same, limited, not beautiful route. We’ve tried almost every restaurant in town, there aren’t many cultural events like concerts or plays or dances. Plus, sometimes it takes too much energy to go out the front door.

It can be lonely here. This year, I have a full life, rich with new staff and new friends. People who speak my language, people I enjoy deeply and am coming to love. But I feel lonely creatively, if that’s a thing. Lonely for my people, people who pursue a life of creativity and words and I don’t even know if I have people anymore because I don’t seem to fit anywhere. Lonely spiritually, for a community that speaks my language – both the language of my tongue and of my heart.

What a depressing Christmas letter. At least, that’s what I thought when I reread this. But you know what? This isn’t a Christmas letter after all. Its an advent letter. A letter of longing, of waiting, of seeing the holes in things and the struggle of being alive while being fully convinced that hope is never in vain.

Someone asked me what I want to experience of Jesus this advent season. I want to experience joy. Not happiness, not glibness. Deep, abiding joy that acknowledges there are so many broken things in the world but that chooses to delight in the healing, beautiful things in the world. Joy that says, all is not right in the world. But, “all will be well and all will be well and every kind of thing shall be well.” Julian of Norwich

So, I conjure up joy because that is what I want. Joy is what I need. Joy is what my family needs. It feels like the snow falling in a snow globe. The flakes rest on the bottom and then the world is shaken with strenuous effort and a veneer of cheer falls over the scene below. The scene is the same old one, the flakes change nothing, but for a few minutes while they fall, it is Christmas. It is beautiful. And maybe that’s enough for this year.

Merry Advent,

Rachel

On Shoe Boxes, Generosity, Kindness, and Being Helpful

Last year I wrote a post called 13 Things I Want American Christians to Know about Stuff You Give Poor Kids. I got a lot of feedback for that essay. I don’t regret posting it or reposting it.

I do regret that I didn’t provide a specific enough list of other ways to serve. Because I am not anti-service, or against giving! I’m not against gifts or generosity! I’m sorry that some have felt paralyzed or personally hurt.

I still have a lot of big feelings about things like the White Savior Complex and the American Christian emphasis on stuff, on consumerism, when we talk about generosity. No family is perfect. But I don’t want to shoot at the Church, who proves over and over to be kind, generous, and loving. I don’t want to take down people I love and care about and I want to be pushed back, to be challenged.

I have been.

I’ve specifically been asked if I could be more useful, which is ultimately the point – not to point fingers or complain, but to help us all grow and do these things better.

Some of these ideas take more time, relational energy, creativity and courage, others are strictly financial.

So…onward to some ideas for helping without hurting.

Send money to the place you want to bless with gifts. Funnel it through someone you know and trust. Don’t know or trust someone in a location you care about? Email me or leave a comment and I’ll try to connect you. Let the local church hire moms and dads to fill boxes with things they purchase locally. They can keep the income from that work to buy Christmas dinner for their families.

Is there a single mom (or dad) near you? In your church, family, neighborhood? She works so hard to care for her family. Call her up or stop by, even if you barely know her. Ask if you could do her laundry. Tell her what day you go to the grocery store and ask if she could give you her shopping list and cash. Pick up her groceries and just drop them off. Tell her that if her kids have a snow day or get sick, that you will babysit so she doesn’t have to miss a day of work.

Visit someone in the hospital, in a home for the elderly or disabled, in your local prison. Read Christmas stories, bring Christmas cookies, a stocking stuffed with goodies like warm socks, a new card game, gum. Bring your kids along. Ask the chaplain at the hospital or prison if there is someone who was recently released and who might need a care package or a home visit. Transitioning out of the hospital and especially out of prison can be really hard and lonely.

Check out Angel Tree Prison Ministry to get involved personally and practically, locally.

Do you live near kids with two working parents? Offer to take their kids sledding when you go with your own kids. Offer to make Christmas cookies with or for them, maybe their favorite recipe.

Is there someone at your child’s school who needs a Christmas tree or who can’t afford to bring treats to the school holiday party? Ask the teacher and ask if you can provide an anonymous gift so that child can participate with pride.

Write letters to people who live far away. You can do this as a family or with a Sunday School class or small group Bible study. Draw pictures, write silly poems. Remind people who were once part of your community that they are still remembered

Pregnant moms nearby? There might be a center near you that serves young, pregnant, or new moms. Sometimes there are homes for them if they need shelter (link to a great new one below), sometimes there are service centers they access for diapers and clothes, counsel, and medical care. Find one of these and see what they need.

Do you live near an area impacted by fire, flood, hurricane, or other natural disaster? Can you do something in this close-by community that is practical and useful? Maybe a family needs someone to play games with their kids in a shelter for the afternoon so the parents can return to their destroyed home and pick through the debris without traumatizing the kids. Maybe they need warm winter socks or new pots and pans.

Find out who in your town works with refugees, newly arrived immigrants, families with children who have special needs, someone recently diagnosed with a debilitating illness, a nursing home for the elderly…it takes some pre-planning, some initiative, and a lot of courage, but you never know where a willing heart might take you.

Specific local and international opportunities:

Support nurses in Kurdistan. This is run by a dear friend, Marilyn Gardner. Give the gift of life. Marilyn needs $10,000 more to reach her goal. It costs $9.00/per shoe box just for the box and shipping. Average $5-6 more/box for the items inside. That means she needs the equivalent of 667 boxes. Some groups do that in a night. For toys. I realize my frustration is evident, but here is a chance to invest in lives. “Nurses are foundational to health care systems. You can have the best doctors in the world, but without nurses both public health programs and hospital care suffer. Building a strong and accountable group of nurses a world away will have lasting impact.”

Elevate Hope House is run by a childhood friend and is a brand new project. Melinda has big dreams and a huge heart. “Elevate is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization established to empower young, single moms and their children in crisis, by providing a safe home and an empowering support system, while each mom learns self-sufficiency and renews, restores, and regains her self-worth through the love of Christ.”

Rowing Dangerously is fellow runner of the Somaliland Marathon, Jordan Wylie. He ‘ran dangerously’ through Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan to raise money to help children in need. This year he is rowing across the waters near Djibouti, to raise money for education in the refugee camps of Djibouti, clearly issues near and dear to my own heart.

International School of Djibouti, that’s us!

Resource Exchange International, that’s us, too!

Hidden Treasures Thrift Store. In St. Anthony, Minnesota: “We are a non-profit Christian workplace that partners with a large community of donors, shoppers, and volunteers to provide a place for meaningful employment, Christ-centered life development, and a loving community for those of us who have backgrounds that include addiction or a criminal record.”

The Angel Foundation is a Minnesota-based organization that provides practical, financial, and emotional support for people with cancer and their families. One of their activities is offering a camp for kids whose parents have or had cancer.

And here are two ideas I took from magazine articles I read recently but don’t personally know anything about:

Reader to reader, helping teachers supply their classrooms with books (note that our school in Djibouti is also always building our library, the largest accessible to all English-language library in the country and it fits on five shelves!)

Power My Learning, accepts used computers, laptops, and other technology for low-income families and students.

 

What Happens Every Time I Write about Sexual Harassment

Quick link: Let’s Talk about Sexual Harassment

I wrote about sexual harassment for A Life Overseas today but I still had more to say. So here is the follow-up piece.

I’ve written about sexual harassment in the past and inevitably, a friend will tell me that they’re surprised by my stories, that they have never been harassed. I immediately whip through a range of internal reactions. One, great! I’m so glad for them. Two, shame. Why me? Three, doubt. I don’t believe them. Four, anger. Why are they saying that to me? Do they not believe? Do they think I’ve “asked” for it in some way? Am I doing something wrong?

Like I said, I’m glad other women don’t experience harassment.

But.

I think there are reasons other than that I’m just asking for it.

  • I speak the local language. It is hard to know someone is insulting you when you don’t know the language. I’ve been called a whore more times than I can count but not one single time has been in English. I’ve been told that I will be the first one someone would choose to kill, but it wasn’t in English, or that my breasts are nice and my butt is jiggling but never in English.
  • I spend a lot of time outside. I run, outside. Most of the time I am encouraged and cheered on by men on the streets. But not always. Not always. I bike, I walk. Apparently, a woman on a bike is cause for boys or men to shout, “Sex! Sex!”
  • I spend time in certain sections of town. I don’t spend time only at the upscale hotels or grocery stores or neighborhoods.
  • I understand the culture. I know the hand and facial gestures, at least some of them. I know the lip and tongue noises. I know some slang, some history. Some words seem benign but they aren’t when you know the backstory.
  • I’ve been living internationally for sixteen years. I’ve been a woman for forty years. I’ve built up a lot of stories.
  • I used to live by several schools. Never again. Things got so bad on one particular street that even my daughter was being harassed: touched, pinched, stopped on her bike, chased, mocked. We spoke to the director of the school, we spoke to our landlord, for a while a police truck patrolled the street. Eventually, we moved.

I know I’m not the only one because I’ve spoken with other women and hugged them and cried with them. I’ve been with them when it has happened, both local and expatriate women. But sometimes it can still feel like I’m the only one, especially when I hear others express that they haven’t experienced these things.

Should I stop biking? Should I drive the car two blocks to pick up a baguette? Should I move into a neighborhood with rents higher than our salary? Should I stop running? Should I wear a cardboard box from head to foot? Should I never speak or laugh when outside? Should I not tell these stories?

Should I, as a few commenters have suggested, pack up my children and leave? But where would I go? Nowhere is safe from harassment, it has happened in every country where I’ve spent significant time. Should I concede, as one commentor suggested, that harassment can’t happen to me because it happens at the American military base? As if the harassment of women in one location cancels out the harassment of women in another?

Should I feel bad that I seem to be one of the few expatriate women to be on the receiving end of harassment?

Should I say, kids will be kids, with the feel of my breast in their palm and the reality that if they actually do trip me while I’m running, I might be seriously injured? Should I pretend like these boys won’t grow up to be men, stronger and faster, with wives and daughters?

Should I pretend I was terrified when a man punched me in the butt, his fast swinging with the force of the motorcycle he rode? Or that I wasn’t disgusted when someone dumped a bottle of liquid on me and for a moment I had to wonder whether or not it was urine or something even worse?

Should I pretend it doesn’t happen here? Didn’t happen in Italy? Didn’t happen in Turkey? Didn’t happen in the United States? Didn’t happen in the UK? Didn’t happen in Kenya?

No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No.

I hope I’m the only person who experiences sexual harassment but I don’t believe that’s true. So I’ll keep talking about and keep hoping it stops and keep hoping other women will be willing to talk about it, even through the shame or anger.

Are Expat Families Really Any Different?

Quick link: But What’s So Different About Being an Expat Family, Anyway?

I wrote at Velvet Ashes about being an expatriate family and what that means for my kids. Honestly? I don’t know exactly what it means for them, they are going to have to figure that out on their own. I have some ideas and we have some conversations, but ultimately, as two of them are about to ‘launch,’ they will have to do some work in this area. From race to gender to wealth to faith, things have been different for my kids than they would have been had we stayed in suburban Minnesota.

My twins are seniors and our conversations have naturally turned toward university choices. For my family, of course, that includes conversations about America and culture, home and upbringing. We moved to Somalia when the twins were two and we’ve lived in the Horn of Africa ever since.

One evening, my daughter asked, “But what’s really so different about growing up here? How does my experience compare with that of a high school girl in Minnesota?”

How can I even begin to answer?

Read the rest of the essay here: But What’s So Different About Being an Expat Family, Anyway?

Acclimating to Africa, a Book Review

Debbi DiGennaro sent me her book Acclimated to Africa last week (full disclosure, she sent it for a review).

Have you read African Friends and Money Matters? I found that book helpful, while simplistic and limited in scope. This book reads in much the same style, as Debbi unpacks some significant cultural differences between African and Western cultures.

To be honest, my only real criticism of the book is this set up: African/Western. Debbi directly addresses this and her explanation makes good sense. It is true that narrowing down the focus would make for an entirely different book, so I’m glad she discussed her choice. Still, I found it grating to read over and over about Africans and African culture. We’re talking about fifty-four countries, hundreds of people groups, hundreds of languages. My co-worker from Zimbabwe had a very different response to African Friends and Money Matters than my co-worker from Kenya did and both said the book had a highly West African bent to most of the issues.

That said, many of the topics Debbi raises are major issues in cross-cultural adaptation, no matter what the specific cultural traditions are – gift giving, value of relationships, managing money, perspectives on time, birth, death, spirituality, and so much more. From deep cultural differences to things that on the surface appear minor, Debbi unpacks much of what a Westerner can expect to encounter in daily life on the continent.

Adaptation and cultural competence requires patience, self-forgiveness, curiosity, and a willingness to be changed. Too many expatriates assume that if they eat local food, wear local clothes, and use a few local words, they have adapted.

Wrong.

Cross cultural adaptation is so much deeper than these things, it is almost laughable, if our failure to adapt weren’t so sad and inter-personally damaging. It is pretty easy to eat ugali with my fingers. It is far harder to change the way I see time or possessions or faith or grief.

With humor, clarity, and relying on local perspective, Debbi pokes holes in this theory of easy cross-cultural adaptation. The major takeaway for me from her book is how challenging and rewarding that adaptation is. The only way to do it well is through ever-deepening relationships, with persistent humility, and a good sense of humor.

I would recommend Acclimated to Africa as a resource for opening up conversations on teams, among coworkers, between neighbors and friends. Know that it is only a guide, though, and be sure to ask your own host community how their perspective differs or is similar. As has become so common now to restate, thanks to the wonderful Chimamanda Adiche, author of Americanah, there is no single story.

Use this as a guide to your international growth, let yourself be challenged, and learn to see the world from another perspective.

You will never regret that.

You can find Acclimated to Africa here and read more about Debbi at her website here.