Strong in the Broken: Home Is Where He Is

Today’s post is the first in the Strong in the Broken series. Melissa shares how she found home and healing after a traumatizing experience in east Africa.

 

Home is a town that rarely sees rain and faces daily highs often over 90 degrees. Home is a city where few speak our native language, English. Home is a medium-sized town in the heart of Africa. Dust collects in every crack, crevice, and makes itself known on every surface. It’s so dusty at times your skin collects a film, like beach sand that won’t wash off.

 

We’ve found Home to be difficult, but also it is Home. After 5 years of making this our base camp it’s just that now, our place to rest, work and live. I’ve learned one of the most important ways to make a place a home is to go through tough experiences. You get through it, come out thankful, and then, only then, the place where you endured attains this magical quality. It feels right and good. It becomes home.

 

In order to get to that point of calling Home “home,” I went through the most challenging things I’ve ever faced (even over childbirth, which I’ve done 4 times without pain killers!). Here’s one:

 

August 2013, I went on a hike. It was a climb many foreigners had done. Though cacti laces the edges of the path, it is decent and easy to follow. Here, it’s common as a foreigner to collect a posse of children, begging. Most beg not out of need, but out of boredom. They have a roof over their head, families, and food, though I wouldn’t say their life is comfortable or plush. They ask without a strong expectation that you would give. Some kids try to make a few birr this way, but they aren’t pushy.

 

I went up the mountain with my American friend visiting from India. We brought a water bottle, my phone, and I had a 50 birr bill (2 USD) in my skirt to cover our bajaj (auto-rickshaw) ride home. The afternoon was beautiful. We hiked past mud huts, old rock formations, and quickly neared the top where the mountain had a flat surface like a football field and a breathtaking view of the city.

 

The call to prayer, “Allah Akbar…” echoed. The crowd around us swelled from girls and boys ages 2-10 years old to a predominantly male crowd ages 10-15. The boys just as small, naive and childish as the children. I thought nothing of it. After inhaling the sights from the look-out point, we smiled at the kids and turned to make our way down the mountain. They urged us to walk further.

 

“No, no, this way, there is a fort you must see. It’s not far.” They spoke in broken English.

 

We agreed, it seemed just another 100 yards ahead. Near the fort, my friend grabbed my arm and whispered in my ear, “They keep trying to touch me inappropriately.”

 

Every once in a while, like a game, they slipped a feel. I got angry and told them to stop. As soon as I started feeling uncomfortable I took my surroundings seriously: Friday, call to prayer, no adults within earshot (they were at the mosque), not a single girl stood on the mountain except us. The small group of boys was now a larger group scattered all around and higher up on the peaks.

 

A boy asked for my phone. I refused. He tried to take it while another boy attempted to take off my clothes. I stepped back and screamed for them to stop. My phone wasn’t what they wanted. I scrambled to find my 50 birr bill in my pocket, only to find it had already been taken. I fought to keep my clothes on. What would the local people do? I picked up a rock to let them know I was serious. As soon as they saw I had picked up a rock, the gang of boys above us hurled rocks. We tried to run but had no hope of escape. They had us in their arms. We were unable to move or break free.

 

I looked past the mountain. In the distance a group of dark storm clouds formed above the valley between the peaks. My heart sank. My spirit of hope, love, courage, and grace, and the expectation of God delivering, dropped like an anchor, causing my body to lie paralyzed. I’m going to die. Or I’m going to get raped. I don’t know which I prefer. I wished so badly I was home, holding my four-month old son, my 2-year old bouncing at my feet. Anywhere but here.

 

Through the grabbing and struggle, my friend and I were separated.

 

I screamed in the foreign language I knew, “Help me!” The boys mocked me.

 

What felt like an hour was minutes. Finally my friend hit a boy hard and broke free, startling my captors enough for me to escape their grip.

 

She screamed, “Run!” We sprinted, not caring that cactus needles marred our skin. We struggled down the mountain, scraping our hands on the rocks to outpace the boys.

 

Screaming, crying, and making a spectacle so someone would hear us, we made our way to a hut in hopes to stop the pursuit. It didn’t. The women in the huts had little control of the village children.

 

Finally down the mountain, not sure if we were in the clear, we found an adult man and I insisted, in tears, that he take us further.

 

“Stop crying,” he said. “No, no, you don’t need me.”

 

We insisted. I held his arm and my friend’s tightly. We finally found an auto rickshaw to take us home.

 

I’ve never felt more relief and more sadness as I did riding home. I was startled by what had happened; in pure disbelief that the quaint town I was raising my children in harbored such disgusting evil, cruelty, and malice.

 

Where was God? Never had I felt so strongly I might die. Why would a good, gracious, loving God put me through that? Yes, He delivered me (and now four years later, I see how apparent His presence was), but in that moment I felt so strongly, like never before, has my God has abandoned me?

 

Have you ever felt like you were about to die? The literal unfolding of your death taking place.

 

Have you ever felt like God had abandoned you? As if you were in the depths of Hell, evil around you?

 

I was quickly led to Psalm 23:

 

“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of Death, I will fear no evil for you are with me.”

 

I hadn’t known what this scripture truly meant, until that day. It was the darkest moment and even in it, I saw an actual valley with dark clouds above. My heart mirrored the environment. But, here’s the important part: God was with me. I could fear no evil, He was there. He didn’t abandon me. He provided a miracle, and we escaped. Though our bodies were touched in deplorable ways, our hearts, minds, and spirits were unscathed. Hope came to us. We made it out alive and are better for it.

 

Jesus didn’t promise the men who followed him that they would not experience tragedy, pain or would be untouched by evil. He said “I will be with you always.” This is the hope the Psalmist had, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for you are with me.”

 

When I think of my awful experience that day, and the city it happened in, I’m okay with calling it home. It is where I’ve encountered the worst and survived. It’s where my first two (and now my 3rd and 4th) children took their first steps, said their first words. It’s where I’ve welcomed five anniversaries and celebrated five birthdays. It’s where my children have celebrated birthdays, gone to their 1st day of school, and where I learned to speak a language I thought I’d never learn.

 

Home is where Jesus felt so near. Home is where I found what true community means, and what a grace it is to see it. It’s where my husband cradled our kids in the middle of the night when I was too tired to hold them. It’s where I’ve felt extreme joy and extreme sadness.

 

Home is where Jesus is, and He’s everywhere. So I’m always (even in the midst of despair) in a good place, because He’s there. I’m Home.

 

Melissa Rowe Smith lives on the edge of the desert in Eastern Ethiopia with her husband, four children and three tortoises. When she isn’t busy homeschooling and offering support for her husband’s company, Ayaana Publishing & Media, she likes to create in its various forms—writing, singing, playing guitar and piano, attempting to watercolor—and teaching aerobics and nutrition classes to her neighbors. Find her at: dustyfeetinbeautifulplaces.wordpress.com

Instagram: @melrowesmith

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Arrive, Survive, and Thrive in Djibouti

I get emails nearly every day from people coming to Djibouti either as tourists or to live and work. They need to know how to find a house, where are decent hotels, what should they do in a medical emergency? Are there playgrounds? What are the best school options?

I’ve compiled answers to these questions and so much more, in this e-book Welcome to Djibouti.

Phone numbers, websites, email addresses, tips and suggestions…you’ll find what you need here.


Famine in Somalia. How to Help. Or Not.

There is a drought in Somalia, growing into famine proportions. Something needs to be done. So, good people are doing something. And I sit here, writing, working, going to the beach, hiding Easter eggs, not really doing anything specifically related to the famine. And, I sit here with a lot of questions about what is being done. It is so hard to articulate them because I really, truly believe the people doing these things are topnotch people. As in, people with deep empathy and compassion, people who love with abandon, who take risks to serve, people who are not after fame or fortune or glory. I don’t want to hurt feelings or to disparage. But I do feel the need to raise some issues, to ask some questions.

And let me just start by saying Somalis are so much more than starving children and people covered in flies. Please. Seriously. Be wise about what images you share.

**********

Research has proven unequivocally that famine is caused by authoritarian regimes, by harmful politics and policies, by corrupt governments, by tyrannical rulers, by war. The root cause of famine is not the lack of rain or a failed growing season. Changing weather patterns contribute to drought but famine, starvation on a mass scale, is a different beast.

Here is an important article about the factors underlying Somalia’s current crisis, by Dr. Mohamud Mohamed Ahmed (Buyow). I wrote to Dr. Mohamud and in his response he stressed the importance of working with local organizations and local authority structures for long term solutions. He wrote, “…short projects and inappropriate responses will not be a long lasting solution to the recurrent droughts. The best way to address the root causes of the famine is  settling with the needy people and identifying the immediate needs and longterm support needs and provide the right intervention that suits the needs of the target people through working with relevant  authorities in that respective area rather than copying projects from other countries  and implementing  them regardless of the outcome and impact.”

He spoke about the historically strong agriculture, livestock, fishery, and business realities in Somalia and that the people need help strengthening those sectors, not just food aid, in order to end long term dependence on outside sources.

The cure for a famine is not a rain shower.

The cure for famine is not to provide meals.

I have seen both scenarios presented on social media as viable solutions.

One campaign promotes their efforts to ‘stop the famine’ by providing millions of meals, boxed in the US and shipped to Somalia. This will not stop the famine. This will give people food for a while. It will effectively delay their starvation, it will not stop it. And, based on history and current threats coming from al-Shabaab in Somalia, it is unlikely that all the meals will actually feed the hungry. So, if you must box meals, at least do so knowing that you are not ending a famine and that you might be feeding a terrorist. Truth in advertising seems important here.

Also, rain…

Rain in a land denuded of forests and trees, either due to systematic stripping or because people, desperate for food and shelter because of conflict and poverty, have been forced to cut their own trees down, can be catastrophic. Floods. Cholera. Typhoid. Malaria. Dengue fever. Diseases which, were they diseases that plagued western countries, might have had vaccinations or effective medicines developed to fight them by now. These diseases descend on the dry land and on weakened people with a vengeance when there is a little rain. And a bit of rain won’t make the agricultural industry boom again. Especially not when that industry has been destroyed by bad management and violence.

Yes, rain is needed so that crops can begin to grow again. But if all the farmers are gathered in feeding centers and it rains for a while one afternoon, that does not mean corn will spring from the ground around them and the people will now be satiated. A rain shower is not going to end a famine.

Some of the bad management and bad control that are contributing to this famine are, in fact, remnants of previous famine relief efforts. Western nations, goodhearted people, bring in food and seed and grain. This undermines what the local economy and farmers had been able to provide, cuts prices, leaves farms fallow, pulls people away from working the land and into feeding centers. Once they land there, it is almost impossible to return to a farm. It may be taken over by a neighbor or by a warlord. The ground might be destroyed. The herd animals die so a nomadic family has nothing to go back to. They are stuck. Perpetually.

So sure, box up your meal and stop the famine.

Sure, pray for rain and stop the famine.

What will you do tomorrow?

And the next day?

And the next day?

What will you do when the millions of boxed up meals ends? When another famine strikes because the underlying causes have not been addressed?

You’ll develop compassion fatigue.

Okay, pack the box of food. And then go to Somalia, make sure a hungry person eats it, make sure that hungry person is repatriated, along with their entire community, to their agricultural region or to their flocks (which have died so must be donated), so that they can become self-sustaining again, they way they once were. Make sure that person doesn’t spend the rest of their life dependent on meals that you box up in the US. Make sure gangs don’t rob, rape, or kill the people. Make sure violence doesn’t force them to abandon their land in the future. Make sure just and good governance is instituted.

People may have walked hundreds of kilometers to get to the food. Now what? They are effectively stuck in the feeding camp until you, who brought them there with your meal, help them go home. Will you do that? Will you stay involved and engaged for that long? Will you fund organizations who will do those things?

Sorry to say, but in the case of the outsider, the answer is most likely no. No, you will not stick it out for decades, a commitment some compare to a marriage. That long, that much effort. Nope. You will move on to the next crisis or to the next Netflix show.

Who will stay?

Somalis.

Somalis in Somalia and Somalis in the diaspora around the world, most whom still have relatives living in Somalia. These are the people who have proven track records of caring for Somalia. Remittances from abroad make up almost a quarter of Somalia’s GDP. Money transfer is keeping people from starving, is helping them set up small businesses or reestablish farms. Somalis who care about good governance and sustainable food security need to be supported.

Somalis who know the culture, region, and people intimately. There are Somalis leading aid work. Get behind them, support them.

This means you might not get your face on a brochure. You might not get a great selfie opportunity. You might not get the praise for risking your life to go to Somalia to see what people are already telling you, if you would just believe them. You might not get the glory of praying for rain and seeing it fall and tweeting about it.

But you might be able to make a difference, just without your left hand knowing what your right hand is doing.

If you are willing to support Somalis helping Somalia, then here are some ways you can get involved.

*There are loads of Go Fund me campaigns being run by Somalis: Somalia Famine Relief, they are partnering with the American Refugee Committee and the International Refugee Committee. And Somalia Famine Relief 2017, run by a group of Somali youth in Minneapolis (go Minnesota!), they are partnering with a Somali-run NGO Read Horn of Africa.

*Technology and social media are both playing large parts in responding to this crisis. Here is how some Somalis are using both to help.

*Abaaraha has developed a crisis mapping system to help aid providers see the big picture and know where there are urgent needs.

*If you have Somalis in your community, talk to their community leaders. Maybe at a mosque, maybe restaurant owners or shopkeepers. Find out what they are doing and ask how you can participate. I know Minneapolis restaurants recently had a Dine Out for Somalia evening, with the goal of raising $150,000 for famine relief. The list included almost 50 restaurants, most of them Somali, Horn of Africa, or Arab cuisine. You can still donate: Dine Out for Somalia.

What if there weren’t only Somali restaurants participating? What if they weren’t primarily Somali diners? Do you, non-Somali American, really need to start your own organization, project, or fund? Get behind what Somalis are already doing, join with them. I suspect you’ll find your donation of time, resources, or money will go further and you’ll be able to see more long-term impact both in your own life and in the lives of people you hope to serve.

*There are so many Somalis helping Somalis, unrelated to famine relief. But all development is positive and can move the entire region in the right direction. Saada Moumin is one such woman, with her school for low-income and special needs children in Djibouti.

*And, sure, I’ll encourage you to pray for Somalia. But keep in mind that you are not the only one praying. Millions of Somalis are praying, both in Somalia and in the diaspora. There are Somali Muslims praying and Christians who care about Somalis praying and I even know some Buddhist Somalis who pray. Don’t fool yourself that when God provides an answer to prayer, it was solely your powerful and effective righteousness that brought it. You are not standing alone in your hope and faith. You are not the hero.

*Read When Helping Hurts. Seriously. If you haven’t read this yet, read it now.

Now, with humility and generosity and critical thoughtfulness, go out and try to do something wise and good.

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How is Being Married Like Being an Expatriate?

Quick link: How Marriage is Like Living Abroad

Today I’m writing at A Life Overseas about the various stages of being an expat and the various stages of building a marriage.

Compatibility is an achievement of love. It shouldn’t be its precondition.

Alain de Botton

The same could be said for living abroad. I hear many people say they ‘fell in love with Africa’ as soon as their feet touched the ground off the plane. I’m not sure how Kenyan or Nigerian or Burundian tarmac has developed this incredible ability to inspire love for an entire continent, while American tarmac is just tarmac. But. I think the above quote by de Botton applies to living abroad as much as it does to love. We achieve compatibility with the new places we live in as foreigners, we don’t arrive perfectly adjusted. We need to know this and we need to know this is okay.

Here’s how living abroad can be like building a marriage (aka: achieving compatibility in love):

Week One

Everything in this country is awesome and fascinating and I just want to know, like intimately, know it. I want to be one with it. I think that is totally possible. I want people to see that I belong here because I’m so good at communicating, I can even do it just with my hands. Who needs words when I’m such a good fit? I fit in so naturally; wearing all the beautiful clothes and eating all the fascinating food. I adapt so easily to all the things that are done differently here. This country is the best country I could have chosen, it will make me better, smarter, funnier, more attractive. People will think I’m amazing, just because I live here. I’ll probably never leave. This country can do no wrong…

What, oh what, do the next years have for our marriages and our expat life?

Click here to read the rest of How Marriage is Like Living Abroad

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The Mysterious Letter In My Purse

Quick link: Letter from a Stranger

I have an essay at Brain Child today that feels important in this global moment. The essay is about a letter in my purse, about the love people feel for family and about why, on earth, do I keep this letter? But as I consider the relationship between the girl who wrote it and the sister she wrote it to, I’m reminded that, of course and it feels so ridiculous to even have to say it, but of course, these Muslim girls are just like non-Muslim sisters. Loving, teasing, gentle, hoping for the best for each other. Go figure. Humans being humans.

I have a letter in my purse written by a stranger, to her sister, also a stranger. It is written in blue ink on lined notebook paper, folded over several times and crinkling around the edges. It is written in broken English with a line of Arabic, a few hashtags, and a scribbled local telephone number.

I found the letter when we moved into our current house. The house was furnished but we weren’t keeping most the furnishings. The landlord asked us to move out what we didn’t want and keep what we did want. The things we removed would be tossed away.

I’ve always been fascinated by what goes on inside other homes. After dark, warm light spills out of living rooms and kitchens onto snowy Minnesota winter streets. I jog past and glance in. People’s mouths move but I hear nothing, they eat dinner but I can’t smell it. They watch television, the green glow reflects off glasses, but I don’t know what show they’ve chosen.

In Djibouti, where I live now, homes are often surrounded by high walls. Homes that don’t have walls often don’t have windows either, or have barred windows and curtains pulled tightly closed. This is to keep out mosquitoes, dust, heat, thieves, and prying eyes. Like mine. Much of life here is lived outside, sometimes kitchens are pots and pans placed over charcoal fires outside the home. People nap in the shade of trucks parked on the side of the road. Men play pétanque or drink tea while sitting on overturned tin cans arranged in circles. People eat spaghetti from aluminum plates, wrapping the noodles around their fingers while watching football at neighborhood restaurants. Women breastfeed on street corners, kids brawl in the middle of pot-holed avenues.

I enjoy people watching in these countries for opposing reasons. In Minnesota I am merely an observer. The image of life moving on without me, completely unrelated to me is comforting. The people inside could be fighting, grieving, celebrating. No matter what their specific circumstances, they are alive, they are pressing on.

In Djibouti, I enter it. I smell the fried onions, hear the religious debates, interact with the pudgy babies, or join someone for tea. But at the same time, I miss the separation between insider and outsider, like in Minnesota. I miss the mystery and the speculation. I miss the curiosity, the idea that courageous people leave their lights on and their curtains open after dark and that courageous people are what the world needs. And I miss the sense that this glance is a gift, that the people inside could pull the curtains shut at any moment…

Click here to read the rest of Letter from a Stranger

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