Tuesday, August 26, 2008

St. Mary's Clinic

Mary Bari was the revered midwife in the village for 40 years. She safely delivered hundreds, if not thousands of little Irigwe babies during her lifetime, and I am keenly aware of the truth that I can never fill her gaping shoes. Nevertheless, since March 2005, I have been trying. Mary’s daughter, Abi, is one of my dearest Nigerian friends, as well as my partner at the clinic. Although she is not a trained nurse, she assisted her mother in the clinic for many years, and is generally considered an expert midwife now. Together we treat approximately 100 women per year, and regardless of the fact that I have been at the clinic every week for over 3 years, I am constantly learning new things about the women.
The Irigwe language is quite different than the common trade language called Hausa spoken in this part of the country. Irigwe has a sing-songy Asian sound, and uses muscles in the tongue that I do not believe I possess. I try, and am able to say quite a few words, but the women usually laugh or look at me with a blank stare, wondering what language I am speaking. Inevitably, Abi will repeat EXACTLY what I have just said, with the same intonation, and the women will give that knowing expression of comprehension and repeat the phrase again to me, to try to clarify to my unwilling mouth how to form the strange words.
The women come one by one into the exam room, whose water damaged ceiling is clinging to the cross beams by a thread. The walls, painted 3 years ago, are home to more than a few spider webs, with which I gave up my fight sometime in 2006. I must constantly resist my prior-life addiction to Clorox wipes. In the absence of running water, I have resorted to bathing my hands in Germ-X until the stickiness drives me crazy and I dip them in rain water to wash away the gunk.
Most of the women are dressed in a very similar manner, as though there were a dress code for the pre-natal clinic. The uniform is a V-neck white, lacy blouse with puffed short sleeves atop the familiar “wrapper.” Every Nigerian woman owns several wrappers, 6 yards of brightly designed fabric cut in half – three yards serve as a shawl with the remaining three yards wrapped around the waist “sarong-style.” There are no strings to ensure that the wrapper stays in place, but the ladies have learned to tuck them in such a way that their money is stored safely in a knot at the end of the fabric held closest to the stomach. Even the heaviest of Irigwe women will only weigh 140 lbs at full term, so they do not have to wear a special white lacey blouse near the end of their pregnancies. They also cover their heads with a chiffon scarf or a head tie made from the same fabric as their wrappers. One of the classic signs of beauty among this tribe is “de open teeth,” a condition that forces many Americans to the orthodontist every year. Here, however, this is considered such a sign of beauty that some women will force their upper and lower front teeth to separate with a twig. If someone was to have the luck to lose one of their front teeth, all the better!
If a woman is bringing an infant for vaccines, the baby will be strapped to her back with two more wrappers. No matter the temperature outside, the child will be bundled in at least 5 layers of clothing with no fewer than 3 blankets, booties, and caps on its head. Even the newborns are painted with charcoal eyeliner and eyebrows, many with a tiny black dot between the baby’s eyes. Often as I peal away the many layers, I discover the boils of heat rash, and try in vain to plead with the well-intentioned moms to use fewer layers. This week, I watched as Abi bathed the tiny Baby Mary, whom I have affectionately named “Kadunk kadunk” (Small small), as she was 4 lbs at birth. After a soak in a bucket of scalding hot water, the screaming infant was slathered in Vaseline, then oil, then powder, then charcoal, then 50 layers of clothing.
I learned early on that I am a visitor, appreciated for my knowledgeable contribution, but dismissed if my advice contradicts common Irigwe practice. If my treatment regime is not enforced by Abi, it is invalid. This is a very difficult time of year my patients. The men of the village prepared the fields for planting several months ago, but the remainder of the labor is women’s work. This farming community does not use any modern equipment. Rather, the women bend over the ancient hoe as they till, weed, and transplant their crops. It is back-breaking work and many times the women will begin premature labor as a result. The rule is that if a woman will not work in the family field, she will not eat the food that she is responsible for planting, growing, and harvesting. One of the most common cures for preterm contractions is rest and hydration. So if I ask a woman to rest from her work while she is hurting, she leaves the clinic laughing. Last week Abi had a visit from a husband whose wife was instructed to rest. Abi, of very slight build but extremely fiery temperment, informed the reluctant father, “Okay, I did not know dat you had too much money. Fine. If you have so much money to pay fo de hospital bills, go ahead and allow your wife to go to de fields.” The man, knowing that he could not afford a hospital admission, allowed his wife to stay home and rest.
One of the most confounding scenarios follows the initial greeting and assessment phase of an exam visit. I smile and say “Na quway, rayray weray, chweray?” (Morning greetings) Then invite the patient to sit down, “srabay, njeeya.” After blood pressure, the patient lies down, “Nyebay” for a listen to “nufanchin yaro,” or baby’s heartbeat. After the exam is complete, the patient sits on the bed, obviously with something to say. However, she is too shy to say anything, so we all sit in silence. Finally, Abi takes a deep yawn, which to her is a sign of interest, and claps her hands together, as if to say, “What is wrong?” The lady diverts her eyes, as maintaining eye contact is a strong sign of disrespect. After a few more seconds, the woman will whisper in a tiny voice what her true concerns are. She and Abi may never actually look at each other during this conversation of hushed whispers, but eventually she will leave, and I am left to wonder what just happened, a reminder that I am a visitor and Abi is the boss.

Saturday, August 23, 2008


Lately I have been reading a charmingly silly series of novels by Ray Blackston. His second offering, A Delirious Summer, features a missionary on home assignment from Ecuador. Visiting suburban Greenville, NC, his character reflects, “While I understood the rush to purchase what was man-made, five years on the mission field had one me over to the leisure of observing what was created.” Something about that sentence made me smile. In my former life, I thought that pretty sunsets and flowers were delightful, but they did not necessarily feed my soul. My perspective has changed dramatically. Living in a place where the rhythm of life is meandering, conversation with strangers is easy and fluent, and beauty is either absent or astounding, one’s quest for satisfaction seems to change focus. Bottom line – I notice things that I used to miss. Small details that have now become the backdrop of my life, nuances which once were so foreign.
I have a beautiful garden surrounding my home. With six months of daily rain, the hybiscus have blossomed, the grass is a vibrant green, and towering eucalyptus trees guard majestically over the dalias, bouganvilla, and xenias that pepper the flower beds. In Texas, I had a struggling patch of impatiens beneath the front windows, always withering under the heavy heat, starving for water in the Brazos clay. So I was not a gardener. But here, the blackest of thumbs has a chance, as our fresh taki (manure) and fertile soil are very forgiving to the novice. As the sun sets over the horizon, Tim and I sway lazily on our back porch swing, enjoying the left over smell of rain on the wet earth and feeling deeply content at the sight of so much floral beauty.
Last summer, I found myself wandering the same streets in Bryan where our children learned to ride their bikes. Cassidy was brought home to the little house on Kensington, our first home. We had an amazing life in that little neighborhood – an excellent school, an abundance of wonderful friends, and an awesome church. My heart broke when the Lord nudged me to leave that life behind. I will never forget our final evening as homeowners on Kensington. After packing the last of our meager possessions into our minivan, we made one final sweep of our home, saying emotional goodbyes to the walls that I had scrubbed, the rooms where we had loved, the tile floors that we could barely afford. I was trying to stall, for I knew that if I could not close the door on my home, then I would never have to hug my friends good bye. But the moment did come when we tore ourselves away from the Greiner’s, the Vessell’s and the McMath’s. Their children chased our van, sobbing their farewells, and our children cried back their devotion to their little friends. My heart throbbed with the need to comfort my children, but my own inability to control my sobbing revealed to them the gravity of what was happening. Our lives would never be the same. This seems like a rabbit trail, a real divergence from my thoughts about “noticing things.” Maybe so. But last year, as I strolled down Kensington Road, my mind went right back to that rainy night in June 2004, and my heart felt torn between my two worlds. I realized that my family and so many best friends are a tether, binding my heart to the world of manicured lawns and full calendars. There is no replacement for you people, no moving on to something more important than you. So in your absence, I have sought something else, and a deep longing in my soul is filled, at least part way, by the little things that I notice in this African life. This reflection was driven home during that walk through the old neighborhood. I was listening to the sounds of suburban America. The children were in school, so there was no raucous of play. Most of the adults were probably at work. I happened upon a lawn crew at work, with the sounds of the mower and weed whacker breaking the silence. But as I drifted farther from them, the only sound was the occasional air conditioner, launched into life by the warm fall weather. A little wind, my feet hitting the pavement, the cadence of my breathing, the occasional bird call, and …silence.
Nigeria is the opposite. We live in a very nice cement block home, but it is still one step up from camping. There is no drywall or insulation in our walls or ceiling, only a thin layer of particle board separates us from our zinc roof. Our windows have screens and leuvered glass panes, which are always open, providing us with our only source of air conditioning. The floor is cool terrazzo, usually host to much of the outside dirt as the children are constantly in and out, in and out. It would be very inappropriate to close our front or back door during the day, so they stand open and waiting for the arrival of so many visitors. Screen doors hang from the hinges in a vain attempt to keep the flies, mosquitoes, and two little Dauchsunds from gaining entrance on the heels of our visitors. With infrequent electricity, there is no ambient noise of television, the clothes dryer, or the hum of the refrigerator. Instead, we have a constant symphony of birds during the day, the electronic chirp of bats at night. From all over Jos, we hear the incessant beeping of motorcycle horns, soliciting their availability as the City Taxi. Each evening, thousands of dogs raise their voices in a cacophonous racket of howling which lasts for an hour or so. The constant tinkle of rain hitting our metal roof, then rushing like a river through the drainage ditch in our backyard sounds like our own private waterfall. There is a new house being built beyond our own, so the happy chatter of day laborers, punctuated by easy laughter floods into our home. The noise of hammer on steel and saw on plank is tolerated but unwelcome. Even without the television, we always know the score of a national soccer game by the number and volume of cheers that erupt outside the walls of our compound.
With this sort of accommodation, we are also subject to the smells of the outdoors, defenseless against their intrusion. The fragrance of the orange blossom and rose garden under our bedroom window may at any moment be interrupted by the pungent incineration of burning rubbish across the driveway. Two years ago, our neighbors left 200 dead chickens in the gutter outside of our gate. To ward off the stench, our guards decided on petrol-doused old tires as a more pleasing option, so the odor of burning rubber mixed with dead chicken filled our home for the next week.
Lastly, when you live at one with nature, whatever temperature you find outside, you will also find inside. If the air is heavy with moisture, drenching everything under its canopy, our house is also soiled. The clothes never really dry, sheets and pillows feel damp when we slide into bed, and our closets have the faint aroma of mildew. The cold, wet wind blows briskly across our open living room, chilling us to the bone. In the dry season, a thick layer of dust coats every countertop, imbedding itself in our hair, our furniture, our computers. Much to my chagrin, it is impossible, even with closed leuvers, to keep the insipid stuff out of the house. Without the tent poles and fishing rods, this is a life of camping.

Monday, August 11, 2008

More Than Dreams

I love a good story, especially when it is true. One of the greatest benefits to life in this country is in hearing the incredible stories of men and women who are captured by the love of Jesus in supernatural ways. In America, we are sometimes lulled into believing that the Lord no longer performs miracles, that visions and dreams are extinct, and that the Bible is the ONLY way to hear from Christ today. But this is not at all the African experience. In the absence of a Christian witness or any written Scripture, so many of our friends have come to Christ through a dream-encounter. There is a video that is widely circulated about a faithful Muslim boy named Mohammed. He loved his father very much and longed to please both his father and God. He spent a decadeha in Quranic school, learning to read and write in Arabic. Returning to his village after years of education, Mohammed was searching for a way to travel to Saudi Arabia for deeper schooling. He began to have tormenting dreams of dark beings struggling to kill him. His father took him to a traditional healer who prepared a concoction, sure to rid Moha of his nightmares. However, the dreams only increased in intensity. In them, he saw a figure in brilliant white clothes coming to his aide in the battle between he and the dark forces. This vibrant Creature would escort him home to safety, and always say, "I love you, my son." After seven consecutive nights of vivid dreaming, the Brilliant Figure finally revealed his true identity to Mohammed. Upon awakening, Moha knew that he needed to visit a Christian in a neighboring village. The villager introduced Moha to a pastor who explained that Jesus was indeed the Messenger in the dream, the One who loved him enough to protect him from the evil one. Moha gave his life to Christ, knowing that his father would disapprove.
Indeed, over the next few months, Moha lost all respect among his people. By his father's command, the men in Moha's family attempted to kill him. When offered a bowl of poison to drink, Moha lifted the calabash to heaven and prayed, "Jesus, it is for your sake that I drink this poison!" His family waited for the mixture to claim his life, but Moha only slept soundly and woke to a surprised crowd of onlookers. He was later shot with poisonous arrows and imprisoned for six months, but he never lost his faith.
This story is representative of so many of the Fulani who we know that have come to faith in Christ. Many times, they seek after a Christian for an interpretation of the dreams that they have had. Jesus has a way of revealing Himself, causing the rocks and the trees to cry out when no one else is available!

Friday, August 8, 2008

Summer Memories

I fondly remember the summers of my childhood, lying like a lizard on the warm pavement of our driveway after a long day in the pool. As the sunset and the fireflies began their evening dance, the locusts sang out a heavy song. I listened and tried to create a melody of their chorus, waiting for my mom to call me in for dinner. Sleeping in my swimsuit so as to not waste time the next morning, my skin was always bronze and shiny, my hair a blonde mop, usually wet with chlorine. There were dozens of children on my block, all of whom spent their days at the neighborhood pool, two doors down from my home. It was a time when parents were free to relinquish their kids for the day, unafraid of the predators who roam our city streets in this modern age. We swam until we were raisins, then took a break to play ball or roller skate around the pool. We knew every Beach Boys song by heart, considering the tunes to be as ancient as the hills. We sipped Cokes and munched on Pop Rocks then hopped back in the pool to escape the Houston heat.
This is not at all the summer that my own children will remember. Their school break is marked by “rain, rain, go away, come again another day” – like tomorrow, and the next day and the next. Guaranteed. There is one swimming pool in our city, but it is impossible to see the bottom due to the green hew of the murky waters, with no shortage of floating algae. I am accustomed to the Gulf of Mexico, the temperature of a warm bath, while the pool here discolors one’s lips and chatter’s ones teeth. But the air in the summer has a cool bite, and swimming is out of the question. There is one natural warm spring 4 hours north of Jos, but the place is over-run by aggressive baboons. We must be desperate to brave the journey to Yankari. Once a year it is worth it, and this year’s trek was beautiful! The clear water comes from beneath a huge rock, producing a gentle current that moves the swimmer along at a lazy pace until the tide become beach and you have to get out and walk back up to the rock, starting the leisurely descent all over again. There is one climbing tree hanging over the water, the perfect entertainment for a jumper. Around its base is a string of old barbed wire, a vain attempt to ward off children and monkeys. But the rules are not enforced, and the kids are free to climb and jump, climb and jump. There are a few prohibitions painted in large, red letters on the wall of the defunct café by the water: DO NOT BATH NAKED. DO NOT BATH WITH SOAP. No worries. We will not bath at all. Just swim. There is also a safari offering at Yankari. If interested, one may rent a guide and a truck, mope out into the bush, and search for the herd of elephants that sometimes show themselves. There are a few bushbuck and warthog, perhaps some goats and wild hog… do I sound unimpressed? Well, I love the water.
So the summer for my children is not about swimming pools or day camp. It is not about driving to the grandparent’s house for an evening Bar-be-que. It isn’t about movie matinees or theme parks. So what will they remember? I can only guess. Our compound is home to 14 children ages 14 and under. We have a small playground with a zipline, a trampoline and a tire swing. Many of the other missionary kids (MK’s) come to our compound to play everyday. They spend hours on the trampoline, 10 at a time in the pouring rain, unable even to bounce. They scatter all over the grounds playing Go-home-stay-home until dusk. When the lightening forces them inside, they plop onto pillows on the floor to play Uno, watch old Brady Bunch re-runs, and dance in their socks to Toby Mac, “Boomin’ out your stere-o-o-o!!” They are all caretakers of the 6 dogs and rapidly increasing number of rabbits. They know each animal in the Jos zoo on a personal level, and going to Afri-one for ice cream is an excursion met with great enthusiasm. The boys build forts, shoot arrows, and have wars with air-soft guns. The girls make cookies and push each other for hours on the tire swing.
They all attended Sports Camp 3 days a week, for which parents were grateful, but they readily accepted any diversion that may spare them from running the Dreaded Mile. So they happily agreed to go on Outreach. Laden with bubbles, soccer balls and appropriate bush-attire, our caravan of vehicles set out for Fulani outreach. Eight MK’s in tow, we ventured deep into the bush, literally cutting a path with machetes as the vans trudged slowly along. The children were met with sheepish glances from their Fulani peers. No one was quick to greet, or confident to communicate well. So our children slowly approached, smiling and friendly, careful not to startle the wide-eyed spectators. We adults busied ourselves with preparations for the medical outreach, leaving the children to make friends on their own. Drawing strength from the group, the equally shy MK’s reached out to touch the small Fulani kids, blowing bubbles and sharing their soccer balls. Within an hour they were all the same color, each giggling at the other’s attempts at language, each surprised more by their similarities than their differences. At nightfall, under the stars they watched the evangelistic films, huddled alongside their new friends, raptured by the story of Jesus. Corporately they gasped at the 6 foot snake that was killed just outside of their tents. As they crawled into their sleeping bags after a long day of activity, each drifted off quickly, dreaming the dreams of the exhausted.
These will become the memories of my children. Sometimes I feel pangs of guilt that my kids will not have the experiences that are so common to their American peers: memories of Disney Land or summer camp, and especially the gaping loss of their extended family. But then their Father gently reminds me that He called them to a childhood that would be compiled with African memories- unique and special in their own fantastic peculiarity!

Friday, August 1, 2008

Crossing Paths with Nathan

Yesterday morning, I met a doctor from South Africa who told me tales of the high crime rates in his city of Johannesburg. Although he had spent the previous night in our city, had been warned of the security risks, and was here with the purpose of Med-Evac'ing a boy to South Africa, he looked me squarely in the eye and stated emphatically, "You people have not a care in the world here." I thought that he was joking, and almost spit my coffee out in his face, trying to muffle my laughter! But then the hope rose up in my heart that just maybe we are showing this doctor the strength of the Lord in the face of crisis, causing him to falsely believe that we have a wahala (trouble)-free existence in spite of an onslaught of fiery darts that our enemy loves to cast every chance he gets!
This story is about a 15 year old boy named Nathan, for whom I had the pleasure to care this week. Nathan is a missionary kid from a different country, and had come to minister to the orphan kids of Gidan Bege. He, his sister, and his team arrived in our city on Monday morning from the States. The sunset that evening was spectacular, so Nathan and a buddy climbed the highest structure on the guest house compound to witness the sight. Their perch was a 20+ foot metal scaffolding, which they believed to be firmly attached to the ground. However, as the boys both began their simultaneous descent, the tower began to fall. The other boy was able to jump to safety, but Nathan was pinned beneath the heavy metal, crushing both of his legs in the process. The team rushed to lift the scaffolding, and Nathan was transported to our mission's hospital, the best in the city, but still considerably lacking in modern medical equipment and ability.
For this I am most thankful, that an excellent orthopedic surgeon was visiting Nigeria through SIM for 3 weeks, and was available to operate on Nathan's crushed legs immediately. Breaking both legs and damaging the muscle around the right tibia/fibula, the surgeon was able to intervene in a way that saved the bones and tissue. My involvement in his care began early Tuesday morning, when I took over from the family practice doctor who came with Nathan's team. Immediately, I was impressed by this boy. His legs bore the heavy "external fixators" that the surgeon had placed the night before. He was in and out of consciousness, as the general anesthetic lingered in his system. But every time that he woke, he smiled at me and tried to converse, not just about his injury, but telling me about his upbringing as an MK, about his wonderful parents and many siblings. His love for his family was evident on his face, and was proven by his questions as to their welfare.
For the following 48 hours, I spent the majority of my life with Nathan. Our ability to manage pain is minimal, as strong narcotics are scarce or unavailable. But even as his open wounds were being scrubbed, he barely even winced. Never one time did he complain. I asked him how he could be so brave, so far from his parents. He stated simply, "The Lord is helping me." The medications were giving him a serious migraine, but many of the missionaries wanted to visit him and pray for him. Without fail, when a stranger would come to greet him, Nathan would extend his hand, invite the guest to sit down, and proceed to ask about their lives and ministry. He would always thank them for coming. He even tried to muddle through the Hausa greetings with the Nigerians who came to visit him, always with a smile on his face. Countless times, as I moved his injured legs, I know the simple movements brought him unbearable pain, but he just smiled and thanked me for helping him. I just kept thinking, "What if this was my Colin, lying in a hospital thousands of miles from home? This could be MY son!"
We were set to evacuate Nathan to South Africa, but I was concerned that the bumpy road would jar his tender legs, upsetting his already queasy stomach. We do not have an ambulance, so we converted an old van by removing bench seats and putting a mattress on the floor to transport him to the airport, where a Leer jet awaited him on the tarmac. Over bumps and potholes, no complaints. As the driver dodged a swarm of motorbikes and animals on the highway, no complaints. As the swerves made him nauseous, no complaints. As his muscles tightened and flexed in an excrutiating, involuntary spasm, Nathan just looked into my eyes and panted, "It will pass soon."
As his stretcher was lifted into the plane to prepare for lift-off, my thoughts turned to his parents, and how proud they must be of their son. His life in crisis was an incredible testimony to all who met him in Jos. He had every natural reason to be egocentric, focused on his own pain and the common question, "Why would God let this happen to me?" But he never once went there. His faith is wonderfully simple, the kind that Jesus used as an example to the religious community. My prayer is for my own parenting, that I may be an example like Nathan to my precious children, and that they would also live a life marked by that amazing brand of grace. Godspeed to you, Nathan! May your recovery be quick and your life continue to bless those with whom you find your path somehow mingled!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Road Signs

Recently we made a road trip from our town, which is located atop a 4,500 foot plateau, to the capital city of Abuja. The view during rainy season is breathtaking. The rolling horizon stretches for miles, the green hills growing darker until they meet the huge African sky. The hills are pocked with grazing cattle, hosting endless fields of towering corn stalks, sugar cane, and the elephant ears formed by the casava tuber. Driving through village after remote village composed of mud huts and thatched rooves, there are no big cities along the 4 hour journey. No tall buildings, no restrooms, no fast food places to grab a burger. No Discount Tire in case of a flat, no WalMart if the kids forget a toothbrush. No gaudy bill boards boasting a national obsession with aquistion. But there ARE a few Road Signs.
The two-lane road winding down the plateau is treacherous to say the least. Mini-bus taxis overstuffed with travellers speed down the sharp inclines. Ancient lorries belch exhaust as they struggle to climb the narrow road. A few modern sedans and SUV's race around these lorries, unwilling to wait in the long line that crawls behind the smokey, sputtering contraptions. Every corner of the road is a blind curve with no shoulder, and the carcasses of victim vehicles are a frank reminder to the wary that patience is a lifesaving virtue. Every kilometer is marked with past wreckage, stripped of anything valuable, but left as a planter for weeds. If the old cars were not enough of an eye-opener, the government has posted many road signs, reminding the travellers to drive carefully. Although there is nothing jocular about the frequent loss of life on the highway, I am very amused by the bluntness with which the people are cautioned. Here are a few:
"Have a friendly day and don't die."
"Many have died on these bends. Only the living can celebrate."
"You have been warned: Slow your driver down before he kills you."
In Texas, the law states that a defensive driving course may be taken once a year to exsponge a moving violation from a driver's record. I used to be ashamed to admit that I took Defensive Driving every year of my life from the time I received my license at 16 until moving to Nigeria in 2004. Now I know that nothing is ever wasted, and that the Omniscient God was preparing me for a life in the land of offensive driving!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Just A Quickie

Whew....we have been busy little bees this summer! I am happily typing on my resurrected Mac, completely restored after our lightening disaster last month. I wrote nary a word since the laptop was Medivac'ed back to Texas for a little surgery, and the stories are piling up in my brain like so much firewood! So as soon as I find a few minutes to write - OR the children return to school - I will fill this page with tale after happy tale. (One is actually not-so-happy.) So stay tuned.....