It is virtually impossible to not be greatly affected by your surroundings and culture in your worldview. It’s also virtually impossible to understand other cultures without a frame of reference. It’s hard to obtain a frame of reference without actually going, but the next best thing is pictures and video. So consider this blog to be my best attempt to provide a frame of reference. I’ve been back from Ethiopia for about three weeks now. Frequently after a trip, I pause my pontificating for a bit and just post pictures. There are unfortunately a lot of pictures I can’t show. However, here are a number of pictures from places we went and the people we met on the street. More later. Enjoy.
I’ve been back from Ethiopia for a week and a half now. I’ve finally recovered from jet lag. My work on the photos is largely done, and now I’m going through hours of video. I spent the better part of a week with 150 people who live their faith in the same way the early church lived their faith. These men and women are living in some of the most dangerous places and are literally putting their lives on the line for their faith. I met people who have been beaten and stabbed, lost their jobs and families, and still find Jesus to be who he said he was and consequently worth everything they’ve gone through.
I shot video of some of the most incredible interviews you could imagine, some of which had to be shot in silhouette to hide their identity. I thought the stories of the early church were good, but some of what I heard was better. You’d think then that the interviews would be the highlight of my week, but they weren’t.
During lunch each day the team I was with would walk back to our hotel and have lunch at the hotel restaurant. One day I decided to instead go across the street to a vendor who had been cooking a pot full of something that at the time I could not identify. Generally I would go across to her spot (there was no stall,) and have buna, or really strong coffee served in a small cup. As I sipped my buna earlier that morning and watched her cook, I decided to have lunch there instead. Now before you tell me that it’s foolish to eat street food in Ethiopia, I’m just going to say that just because the kitchen is in a hotel doesn’t mean it’s any cleaner than the street food. Plus, I’d been able to actually watch her cook, and I was comfortable with it.
As I walked over with a couple friends I’d traveled with, I realized that the place I would be having lunch was where the indigenous church planters we’d been ministering to were also having lunch. There were probably about thirty people all sitting together on plastic stools at low tables having what turned out to be shiro with either injera bread or baguette. Shiro is boiled bean flour mixed with water, berbere spice, garlic, and rosemary and boiled until it’s the consistency of thick soup. You then sop it up with the bread. Flavor wise, it was one of the better meals I had in Ethiopia. But flavor isn’t all there is to lunch.
The church planters made room for us at a very small table and through our translator, we began to get to know each other in a way that hadn’t been possible in the more formal setting we’d generally seen them in.
Before I left for Ethiopia, a friend of mine had told me that God felt he had a message for us as we were going. That message was that a lot of these men and women were having such difficulty that they were thinking of giving up. He said our presence would be very important, because it would help the Ethiopians know that they are not alone.
As I sat telling and listening to stories, they conveyed to us how incredibly important our presence was to them. They let us know just how much it meant to them that we’d come all this way to teach and encourage them. They said that because we had come, they would go and do even more. By having lunch with them, we were able to connect on a deeper level. No longer just teachers and pastors and students, we prayed for each other and become brothers and sisters bearing each others’ burdens. Lunch cost about $2 for the three of us, including tea, but I can’t put a price on the connection we all made that day.
We had lunch there the next day as well. When I go back to Ethiopia again, I will make a point to eat with the church planters again. The hotel restaurant may have more than one thing on the menu, but it can never match the company.
I am now back from Ethiopia. My plan was to write at least a post or two from in the field. Unfortunately, a few days before I left, electronic devices in carry-on bags were restricted on flights from a number of middle-east airports including one I would be traveling through. This meant that I was going to have to check my iPad in my luggage. Due to experiences some of my fellow travelers have had with airport workers with sticky fingers, I opted not to bring any more expensive gear than was absolutely necessary.
Though I would have liked to have been able to write from the field, by best thoughts on the things I’ve seen and experienced when I travel often come not during, but weeks or even months afterward. I need time to process and ruminate on things. I took a couple thousand pictures and hours of video on this trip, and looking at those will also help me to put things together.
If my writing seems a bit off, it’s because I’m still jet lagged. I was up for almost 48 hours straight this time coming home, due to the schedule and some very uncomfortable flights. (I truly hate middle seats). I traveled a different airline this time than I have before, Turkish Air to be specific. I had some initial trepidation about flying this airline, but after the experience I can honestly say I would do it again. The food, by airline food standards, was actually pretty good. Furthermore, I had an eight hour layover in Istanbul on the way home. Turkish Air, though they don’t seem to advertise it, will give you a free tour of the city with a guide on a nice bus if you have a long layover. We opted to do this, and I’ve got to say that Istanbul is a fantastic city to visit. At least the parts that I visited were modern and clean, but full of ancient historic sights everywhere.
So the long and the short of it is this. I had lunch in Eastern Ethiopia, dinner in Addis Ababa, Turkish coffee in Istanbul, then I flew to New York where I had pizza in Brooklyn with a very old friend. In Istanbul I was able to see Asia across the water as I drank my coffee. All told it took about thirty six hours, but from leaving Africa to landing in New York was about 24 hours. It was not the most relaxing way to travel, but it was an adventure, and I was able to add Turkey to the list of countries I’ve been to.
Soon I will start writing about Ethiopia, but I need to get some rest first so I can put two words together and have them make sense.
In four days I leave for Ethiopia. This will be my third trip to Ethiopia. I’ve also been to South Sudan four times, and I’m not even sure how many times I’ve been to Kenya. Every country I’ve been to, and every city, and every village has been different in some way or another. Cultures are different. Tribes are different. Nations that border each other have vastly different characters and cultures. I’m only talking about East Africa. I haven’t even been to central or West Africa, and only passed through South Africa.
I sincerely wish everyone could do what I do, at least once. I wish everyone could uproot and leave home, truly leave home and go somewhere so far out of their comfort zone that you couldn’t stand on a stool and see where your comfort zone is.
I hear so many people say, “We are so blessed here. We have so much we take for granted.” Having traveled to the places I’ve been, I know how true that statement is. I also realize how little the people saying it realize what they’re saying. If you take something for granted, then by definition you do not understand what it is that you either have or do not have. It’s easy to say, “We have so much,” because that’s the more obvious observation one can make, but it doesn’t mean you understand poverty. There is so much depth to what we don’t understand that I can’t describe it without taking someone with me and letting them experience it for themselves. There is so much more than, “We have so much.” There are cultural things we have so engrained within us that we have no understanding of how other cultures think. Each time I go, I understand a little more, and I realize more how much I don’t understand.
The observation of “We have so much” also belies our idea that our culture is somehow superior to other cultures, because we see them as having so little, while having little understanding of what we lack within our own culture. What are the divorce rates within American culture? How much of this “We have so much” is actually things we don’t need that get in the way of family relationships and friendships? How many families have been broken up because we had a choice of either building a legacy with our spouse or children, but we chose instead that a career was important and having a nicer car than our neighbor? How many of us have heart disease, cancer, gout, high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity because we are “rich”? While most Africans would be considered poor in our eyes, it’s not always because they lack basic necessities. Rather it’s because our idea of “richness” is so monetarily based that we fail to see our own poverty. I know many Africans that have a legacy that I can only dream of.
There are so many other things we take for granted that I could get into, but I fear that it would only evoke a deer-in-the-headlights look in many readers. I say this not to be demeaning or to look down on people. It’s because I’ve been there. It’s fairly easy to describe some ways of doing things that are different, but it’s virtually impossible to describe the different ways people think. Which brings me back to the beginning. If you ever have the chance to do missions, by all means go. Get to know the people one on one. Build relationships. You’ll find you learn just as much what you didn’t know about yourself as you do about them.
In a week I leave for Ethiopia. I often write my thoughts and post pictures as I’m in the field, and it’s best to work any bugs out of the system before I’m there. There are no gorillas in Ethiopia, but this one I took a picture of last week is helping me today as I test software to help with my internet connection when I’m overseas. In the next week or so, you should be seeing pictures from my trip.
Tonight I’m writing this blog because in less than 60 days, I leave for Ethiopia. It doesn’t seem like it, but it will be two years since my last trip to Ethiopia. I was supposed to be going in November, but the security situation on the ground wouldn’t allow it. Last year I had work to do in Kenya and couldn’t go. Now the time is coming.
One of my favorite foods in Ethiopia, and a taste that I miss is misir wot, a dish made from red lentils, garlic, onions, and the ubiquitous berbere spice, which is in nearly all Ethiopian food. This week I was excited to have found some locally; excited until I made misir wot with it, and found out that it was nothing like the authentic spice I knew so well. Nevertheless it was better than nothing, and I was able to give my friends an ersatz taste of Ethiopia.
I’m also writing this blog today to get any kinks out of the system I’ll be writing from. I normally write on a computer, but I will only have an iPad with me, so I’m writing from that. I’m also testing out transferring files over wifi from my camera to the iPad, then editing a picture with Snapseed. So far, so good, though with the snags I’ve run into, I’m glad I’m practicing at home first.
I will be writing my normal blog as I get thoughts worth writing, but I’ll also be writing more about the preparation for the upcoming trip as it gets closer. Until next time…
It’s been a long time since I’ve written. I’ve been busy with work, busy with teaching, busy with a lot of things. Well, it’s time to redirect, because I leave for Ethiopia in a little over two weeks. It’s been a year since I was last in Africa (too long really) and it’s snuck up on me a bit. Every time I go to Africa, I understand a little more, and realize how little I knew before. This also frustrates me when I talk to people who have never traveled, and who have never done missions. I have to look back at myself five or ten years ago, realize how little I knew then, how much I still have to learn, and let that grace then pass on to other people.
I had one of those situations happen this past week. Inevitably when I am going to Africa, someone comes up to me who has been storing away used or new clothing, shoes, flip-flops, glasses, etc, and asks if I can take them over with me to Africa and hand them out. I understand that people are trying to help, and sometimes some of these things can be helpful, but let me be clear. Africa does not need your used flip-flops. The person who came up to me this past week went even further and asked that I take pictures of people wearing the clothes they wanted to send over, after telling me how much they’d spent on various items. I refused.
There is a point where giving becomes selfish. If this makes no sense, let me explain a little. It can be noble to try to donate clothing and supplies to people that may need them. It might be noble, but it is also likely ineffective. The point where it becomes selfish is when you insist on the satisfaction of knowing that someone in Africa is wearing your unsolicited donated clothing. At that point it goes from being a donation made out of a well-meaning heart to being all about you, and at that point I find my grace tested.
I understand why people want to send clothing and things with me. In the West, people with means usually think of poverty in terms of lack of resources. But if you go to the poor and ask them what poverty is, they might mention lack, but they’re also going to talk about things like powerlessness, despair, lack of hope, fear, sickness, and isolation. Poverty is much more a state of mind than it is a lack of “stuff”. As the great western savior comes over and starts handing out free things, it does a number of things. First, it reinforces the idea that Westerners are the haves, and that they are the have-nots. If it is obvious that a lot of materials are being handed out, it makes people a target to those who did not receive. This is a problem we came across in Kibera slum in Kenya, but it applies almost universally. It also undercuts people who are selling those same things in the community when someone comes in and starts handing out things for free, thus stifling business in already poor communities. So I’ll say it again; Africa doesn’t need your flip-flops, your old dancing shoes, your worn out pants, or your bags of disposable diapers and water bottles that add to the garbage problem that plague communities all over the developing world. But if I stopped here, I would be remiss and would be doing nothing but complaining.
The inevitable question after reading what I’ve already said is, “what does Africa need then?” Or perhaps, “if donating stuff isn’t the thing to do, then how can I help?”
The idiom goes, “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.” I would go one step further and say, “Find people who already know how to fish and equip them to teach others.” Identify those people and resources that already exist, and leverage them to help other people in the community around them. Wherever possible, it needs to be Africans helping Africans, and not just people coming from overseas to fix their problems. Africa is full of talented and intelligent people. Often they just need someone to stand behind them and give help when needed to spread that talent and knowledge around. Did you notice I said stand BEHIND? Your presence should be seen as little as possible.
I know it’s harder to give of yourself than to just donate things you have lying around, and some people are not equipped to do that. The more effective alternative though, if you can’t go or do, is to simply give money to organizations that focus on long-term development rather than sticking band aids on problems.
Sometimes someone will ask for donations of clothing and such, like someone who might be running an orphanage, for example. In this case it’s ok. But we need to be mindful of the fact that helping, really helping, often requires more of us than just going through our closet. Often the things that help the most are the things that take a long time and don’t offer us the instant gratification many of us would rather have.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been born in America, or maybe the sum of my experiences has carried me in a different direction than most of my friends and acquaintances, but as time goes by, I find my world view changing and my values diverging from what many in this country find important. As the lyrics from a profound song by Downhere goes,
I was born depraved but created for the divine
With death in my bones, in my heart eternal life
I’d love for Eden, but I’d kill for Rome
I’m native in a land that is not my home.
One of these values that I no longer hold dear is for comfort. Comfort and the seeking thereof is everywhere around us in America. Comfort is seen by many as a right. Just look at all the ads, whether it is for clothing, or mattresses, or some prescription drugs that promise comfort in one way or another. Well I have to say, comfort is overrated. Comfort keeps us from doing the hard things, the noble things, the right things.
I’ll be teaching a class on missions soon at my church, and this is one of the concepts I want to try to convey. Too often, missions is pitched as “a golden opportunity for a life changing experience”. You get to go and help people and have a wonderful experience, and at the end of it, we’ll go snorkeling.
This is not the experience I’ve had. If missions is going to be a lifestyle and not just a chance to make you feel good, it’s going to be hard. I’ve been sick, brought sickness home to my wife, traveled on bone-jarring roads, slept with sweat dripping down my neck, woken to the sound of a woman wailing who had just discovered her dead child, seen starvation, malaria, leprosy, AIDS, and TB. I’ve been stopped at gunpoint and my driver pulled out of the car and beaten. I’ve woken to gunfire. Are we having fun yet? If you go expecting a wonderful experience, what happens when the reality is so hard that it leaves you questioning your faith? Will it fail?
“Consider it PURE JOY by brothers whenever you face trials of many kinds, because the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.” This is how the book of James opens. I’m genuinely sorry if this is a hard blog to read today, because I know this concept at best lurks around the periphery of many people’s faith, but rarely does it look them straight in the eye. Let’s be honest, we have it extremely easy in the western world; many fail to realize just how easy we have it.
Do we want comfort, or do we want to be effective and walk in the Spirit of God? If there is a way to do both, I don’t know that path, and I haven’t seen it. The title of this blog today comes from an observation my wife made. She asked me, “you’re comfortable being uncomfortable, aren’t you?” I had never thought about it before, but I had to answer that I was. I wouldn’t have it any other way. So many times the Bible talks about the joy of the Lord, or says we will find rest in him, or that he binds our wounds. All of these verses though speak of that joy or rest or comfort that we find in God. This is why it’s possible to be comfortable being uncomfortable. The trials and “uncomfortableness” of the world, if you will, are temporary and finite. It’s an infinite God that we find comfort in even when the experiences of the world are harsh, painful, sorrowful, and hard. It’s why it’s possible to see and experience terrible things without losing our faith. It’s possible because it’s all in God’s hands, and the harder the word, the more glory is brought to His name. So go ahead and consider it pure joy when you face those trials, and when the opportunity comes to go to the truly hard places, take it.
Recently I started going through many of my pictures and revisiting some that either I hadn’t looked at before, or revisiting some with a new eye. What I found was that there were a tremendous number of stories that haven’t been told. It is probably about six months until the next time I go to Africa. Until that time, I plan to honor as many people as I can, telling their stories and showing you through words and pictures the beauty of who they are. All will be from either South Sudan, Kenya, or Ethiopia. I’m doing this primarily because the more I talk with people about Africa, the more I realize just how vast the disconnect is between what I have seen and what people understand. There is simply no frame of reference for people in the western world. I can tell stories, or I can show pictures, but without both together; a powerful picture with an explanation of what you’re looking at; people just fill in the blanks with their own preconceived ideas. So without getting too wordy, here is the first one. All pictures can be clicked on for a larger view.
This is Alemi. I met her in the highlands of Ethiopia. She is a widow who lives with her son. I really don’t know what happened to her husband. The most common reasons in this region of Africa are either tuberculosis or HIV, but I don’t know for sure. Alemi lives in a simple home. She has wallpapered the mud walls with newspapers full of ads for things that will likely never be within reach for her. However, she recently received a micro-loan through a Christian organization called the Petros Network to help her start a business. With just a small amount of money, she is able to feed herself and her son, and even put a little bit of money away. She is able to do this not because of a handout, but through a method that allows her keep her dignity, promotes work, and teaches her son the value of work. I hope to see her again next year and see how she has progressed.
As westerners, our first reaction is to feel sorry for people we see who are poor. Don’t feel sorry for her, except perhaps for the loss of her husband. She has a roof over her head, food on the table, a small business, her faith in Christ, and she and her son are healthy. She is complete in that she has everything she needs except her husband, and very little that she doesn’t. However, let her be a centering perspective when we think we deserve better than what we have.
My wife made an interesting observation recently about censorship, and how nations use it to control their people. She noted that most of the nations that censor their media and internet, like China, North Korea, and a number of Arab nations, do so because they know that if the word got out that much of the world was such a great place to live, they’d never be able to keep people within their own borders. You look at the blind, maniacal loyalty displayed in North Korea (at least on the outside), and it only exists through a combination of fear and the kind of propaganda that only can exist if the flow of information is tightly controlled. Which begs the questions, “so what’s our excuse?”
Do I mean that our government censors the information we receive about other nations and cultures? No. They don’t have to, because we do it ourselves. The average American has no idea what the rest of the world is like. We don’t watch international news, learn other languages, or travel. When we do travel, we go to resorts where we won’t have to mingle with the indigenous populations. We are not generally taught geography after the seventh grade. According to National Geographic, half of American 18-24 year olds can’t find New York on a map, which is in their own country. One third can’t tell you which direction northwest is on a map. Three quarters think that English is the most commonly spoken native language in the world. Only half could find India on a map.
So why all the self-censorship? I believe it’s the repeated mantra that America is the greatest country in the world. Is it? Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t. It depends on what standards you are basing your assumptions.
When I was in my twenties, I mountain biked with one or two friends quite frequently. Compared to them, I was quite fast, so I decided to start racing. I entered my first race in the intermediate category, thinking I was too good for the beginners. Well, I came in dead last by a long margin. It wasn’t until I actually raced against people who were serious about it that I found out where the bar had been set. Only someone with a lot of arrogance or a self-proclaimed idiot declares themselves the best at something when they don’t even know what standard that statement is based on. I was probably a bit of both, and I had to be both educated and humbled by those that actually were the greatest. It was only at that point that I really started to improve and start winning some races.
Thinking we’re the greatest as a nation is potentially more damaging to ourselves and the world. On one hand, without knowing anything about the world around us, we fail to see the needs of the world around us. On the other side of things, we also don’t see where other cultures or nations do things better than we do, and believe me, there are many areas where we are not first. By having this myopic, insular view we have lured ourselves into complacency for both the needs of the poor and our own improvement as a people. We have both no compassion for the world and no willingness to strive for what is better. We have willingly relegated ourselves to live in a cultural wasteland. We think that the rest of the world isn’t worth knowing about because we are better than them in every way, and we’re totally wrong.
People who think they have nothing to learn from anyone else are people who have willingly decided that they are going to stagnate. And stagnation is no recipe for greatness.