Normally I don’t put two photography-only blogs nearly back to back. However, there were simply too many pictures from the last trip to include in my April post, so here is another. Plus, my thoughts on other subjects are still ruminating. So rather than work on getting my disheveled thoughts into a proper order, I’ve decided to be lazy and put pictures up instead. Judging by the number of people that look at my blog when it’s only pictures, that seems to be what people want anyway. So here are more pictures from my trip to Ethiopia last month.
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.
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 eastern Ethiopia is a small and ancient walled city called Harar. It was founded sometime between the 7th and 11th centuries, depending on whom you talk to, and it is Islam’s fourth holiest site. One of the things Harar is known for is the nightly feeding of the hyenas. The people of Harar and the hyenas have an “arrangement” if you will, where the hyenas come in at night and clean up the trash. There is actually a small gate in the city wall for the hyenas, known appropriately enough as the hyena gate. Though the hyenas will eat out of a person’s hand, they are by no means tame, but it makes for a great show for the tourists every night. Hyenas are known as scavengers, but I think a more accurate description of them would be that they are opportunists. If hunting is easier, they’ll do that. If intimidating a lion out of its kill is more convenient, or if taking food from a willing Ethiopian works best, then that’s what they’ll do. But the fact is that they are wild animals with no loyalties, and if ripping your face off works for them, so be it.
A couple days ago, I read a simple phrase that said, “The devil is an opportunist”. My thoughts were immediately brought back to the hyena gate. What is the purpose of a wall, but to keep things out that are dangerous to life and limb? Every walled city has weak points, but the people of Harar have made an “agreement” and purposely allowed something unsavory into the city. Yes, attacks are rare, but it remains that at any time that arrangement might no longer be considered convenient for the hyenas, and at that point, it’s too late.
This works for people as well. After considering this, I had to ask myself, “are there things in my life that I have made agreements with that have the potential to destroy me?” Have I told myself that having the hyenas inside my city wall is ok because they clean up for me? Have I learned to trust them? How many of us have gone so far as to install a hole in the city wall? The devil is an opportunist. I’ve heard lots of people say in one way or another, “the devil made me do it”. This is nonsense. He doesn’t need to. “But each one is enticed by his own evil desire. When desire is full grown it gives birth to sin. And sin, when it has reached completion, gives birth to death.” The devil has only to wait and see where our weak points are and exploit them, which is why it is so important to be vigilant and to daily put on the full armor of God. What are the gates we have installed? They’re different for everybody. “I have to drink after work or I can’t wind down.” ” “I know I shouldn’t look at that, but I’m not hurting anyone.” The list is almost endless, and if you think you have no gates, I can almost guarantee that pride is your gate.
The news recently has been full of people who had everything going for them, but had made agreements in their life they thought they could control. They were wrong. Their agreements were found out, and their lives were destroyed. It’s time to take inventory of the gates we’ve installed, and ask God where the weak spots are in the city wall. It’s time to get a pile of stones and some mortar and fix those spots, before the hyenas grow tired of our arrangement.
I’ve been back from Ethiopia for almost a week now. My head has been full of all the amazing things I saw there; the people I met and the amazing events that are going on. I’ve tried to sit down and start writing a number of times, but I haven’t had a rest since getting back. Between editing pictures from the trip and getting ready for my biggest time of the year, I haven’t had a spare minute. Well, I finally have a spare minute.
Do you remember in school, there was always that kid that had some kind of a disability, whether it was a physical deformity or usually a speech impediment of some kind? Do you remember how the kids treated him or her? Kids can be cruel, and more often than not, that child was treated as if they were an outcast and stupid despite the fact that they were often very intelligent.
Last week, I met that man, all grown up. He was a man who had a severe speech impairment, such to the extent that he literally had difficulty forming words at all. You might be wondering how he could be a pastor with such a disability. That’s where the real miracle lies. During his interview, he managed to get across how he knew that God had called him to be a pastor and an evangelist despite the fact that he had such a problem with speech.
The story of Moses speaking to the burning bush came to mind. God told Moses to go to Pharaoh and speak on behalf of the Israelites. Moses came up with all kinds of excuses. I’m too old, I’m nobody, I stutter. All of Moses excuses started with “I”. God’s answer also started with “I”. “I have promised to rescue you.” “I will lead you to a land flowing with milk and honey.” “I will raise my hand and strike the Egyptians.” “I will cause the Egyptians to look on you with favor.” Moses was under the assumption that it was about him, when it was not. His excuses were useless at that point. God was not looking for someone with special abilities. He was looking for someone willing and obedient, who would bring glory to God, not to Moses.
Which brings me back to the Ethiopian pastor I met, and to the real miracle of what God had done in his life. When I came in on the interview, it was almost over, and the interviewer and the interpreter were both praying for this man. You see, God had made good on his promise to make him a pastor and an evangelist, but the twist was this: When he preached or prayed, he could speak with clarity, but as soon as he stopped, his speech was as bad as it had ever been. He was asking for prayer that he would be able to have normal speech at the other times as well. His burden was palpable, and all three of them were crying. But the fact remained that God picked this man because every time he gets in front of a church and preaches, or every time he prays for people, he is pointing to the power and the goodness of God. People who know him know that it is not in his abilities, but in the ability of the one who sent him. And that is why he is more effective than someone with natural charm and speaking ability.
There may come a time when God lets this man speak with clarity, but I suspect that when that time comes, it will also point directly to the power and goodness of God. I’m reminded of 1 Corinthians 1:27, which says, “Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful.” I don’t envy this man for his disability, but I admire him because he is able to point people straight to God every time he is obedient and stands in front of a church. I’ve said it before, God is not looking for the über-capable. He is looking for the über-willing. This man was willing, and God used him. How is God calling you? Are you making excuses like Moses, or are you saying, “not by my ability, but yours?”
Every once in a while I like to give some practical advice to people who might be taking a trip to Africa, particularly those who are going primarily to take pictures. Well, 108 blogs later, I’ve finally decided to do a comprehensive breakdown of how I pack my carry-on bag. I start with the attitude that if the airline loses my check-in bag, I could still continue on with my trip without much inconvenience. As such, I only pack in my check-in bag extra clothing, toiletries, and medication that I can live without should the airline lose them. In fact, I’ve traveled to Africa on a few occasions without actually checking a bag. Traveling light is the key, because the more you have to carry, the more difficulty you will have getting around, and the more you will miss. I travel with a minimal amount of clothing, but mostly stick with synthetic materials and bring a small bottle of detergent so that I can wash clothing by hand every two or three days. Synthetics also dry much faster. The following image shows the contents of my photo backpack laid out. The bag is a Clik Elite. I’ve used other bags in the past and found that for the hard use I give them, they tended to break down to the point that my heavy lenses were all sitting in the bottom of the bag after a long day of walking. (I am not endorsed by Clik Elite.) The Clik Elite bag gets dirty, but it holds up to a beating.
1. Canon 5D Mk2 SLR camera. 21 megapixels which is plenty should I need to crop the picture later. It’s been beaten up, gotten wet, been in the dust, and still takes great pictures.
2. 4 lenses. My two primary lenses are a Canon 135 mm f2 for taking tight portraits, and a Sigma 35 mm f 1.4 for taking wider portraits and landscapes. These are my go-to lenses for taking those winning shots. The shallow depth of field I get and the low light capabilities make carrying these totally worth the extra weight of redundant focal length lenses. My two other lenses for more general use are a Canon 24-70 f2.8 and a Canon 70-200 f4 image stabilized lens.
3. Canon G1X Point and shoot camera. It’s small and discreet for when I have to be less conspicuous, but has an APS-C sized sensor inside for much better quality pictures than a typical point and shoot camera. It also shoots 1080p video. The camera does have its limitations though, just due to what it is.
4. Extra batteries for both cameras, as well as chargers.
5. 300 gigabytes of memory cards. At least some need to be fast enough to shoot video.
6. Oben carbon fiber tripod with ball head. This is a must if you’re going to shoot video or time exposures.
7. Camelbak All Clear bottle. This has an ultra-violet lamp built in so I can purify water should I need to. It purifies unsafe water in one minute. I drank water out of the Nile for five days without getting sick using this. I also stuff the bottle with an extra pair of clean socks and undies for traveling. (Use your space to the fullest).
8. Extra pair of pants and a fleece shirt. (It can be quite cold in the parts of Ethiopia I go to.) I also pack extra clothing into any empty spaces in the bag.
9. Ipad 64 gig (not shown). This has reading material, allows my to load pictures and write my blog while away, and has VOIP software for making phone calls when I have wi-fi overseas.
10. Adapters for linking my camera to the iPad.
11. Unlocked GSM world phone. This is a multi-band phone that I can buy a sim-card for when I get to Africa so I can make local calls. I can also call home with it when there’s no internet available but cell phone service is.
12. Passport and yellow fever card. Many countries in Africa require proof you’ve had your yellow fever immunization.
13. Power converter and adapters. Lets you plug in your US based electronics into foreign outlets.
14. Case of photo filters with polarizing filters and Neutral Density filters.
15. Disposable eyeglass wipes for cleaning lenses. Travel is too dirty to reuse a normal lens cleaning cloth.
16. Hand sanitizer.
17. Wet wipes for cleanup when there is no water available or for on the plane. (These are your best friend in Africa.)
18. Remote trigger for camera. Needed for taking long time-exposures or for discreetly triggering your camera.
19. Pain reliever. (I have plantar fasciitis which can hurt after standing all day.)
20. Bug spray. This is a necessity if you are going to areas where malaria is common.
21. Head lamp. Africa is frequently very dark.
22. Cash and credit cards. (Not shown)
What I didn’t bring but could have
1. Anti-malarial drugs. You have to weigh your risks. I’ll only be in an area with malaria for a couple days, so is it worth being on drugs with potential side effects for two days of protection? I decided not to. That’s why I have bug spray. Also, use the mosquito nets at night if you’re in an area with malaria and don’t be outside in the evening.
2. A flash. I’ve brought a flash before, but found that for my style of shooting, out of a couple thousand pictures taken, I used the flash for about 10.
So you might have a hard time believing that all that goes into the bag. I can assure you that it does. It does fit under a the seat in front of you even on a small plane, though I usually have to take the tripod off and place it beside. Weight is almost certainly over the limit, but fortunately most airlines don’t weight your carry-on bag. So here is the bag as it’s packed and ready to go. As a side note, my check-in bag is also a backpack, so that if I have to travel over distances cross country I can put one over each shoulder. Total weight for both bags is somewhere between 50 and 60 pounds.
The tickets are in hand. Connections are being made. Everything seems to be coming together. I leave for Ethiopia a month from today. This will be my second trip to Ethiopia, and my seventh trip to Africa in the last five years. In fact, it’s my third trip to Africa in the last eight months. It’s probably not a sustainable pace, but it’s how things have been laid out for me at this time. This trip came together probably more easily than any previous trip. The time was available even though it shouldn’t have been, I had the support of my wife and family, and the funds practically showed up on their own. It’s clear I’m supposed to go.
There are times when I’ve got a lot ruminating in my mind, when I have a concept I’ve been thinking about that I just need to put down in writing. Those times seem to get farther and farther apart when the time starts running short before my next trip though. Regular followers may notice that my blog posts have become more infrequent. The fact is that as a trip draws near, there is less reflection time and more nuts and bolts time. Both physically and spiritually, it becomes nuts and bolts. Are my shots in order? Are the funds all there? Is my photography equipment sufficient and in working order? Is my heart in the right place? Is my family in a stable place where I can be gone for a while? How is the security situation on the ground we where I’ll be going? It’s all nuts and bolts. Furthermore, spiritually speaking, difficulty always seems to make itself known shortly before I leave. Frequently it’s not directly with me, but it may be all around me. These are the reasons I originally started writing this blog, not because it may be interesting to the reader, but because I simply needed to sort it out for myself.
For myself, my life has been good. I can honestly say that for myself I have no complaints. It’s what goes on around me that’s disturbing. It’s as if I’m dealing with a spoiled child who has a grudge against me. He has no way of hurting me, so he just starts breaking everything within reach. That spoiled child’s name is Satan, and this kind of thing frequently happens just before I leave on a missionary trip. Everything within arms length is great, but the chaos that goes on just outside of my grasp, though it doesn’t hurt me directly, still effects my spirit, particularly when it’s loved ones that are struggling. The verses in Psalm 91 are brought to mind.
“Those who live in the shelter of the Most High
will find rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
This I declare about the LORD:
He alone is my refuge, my place of safety;
he is my God, and I trust him.
For he will rescue you from every trap
and protect you from deadly disease.
He will cover you with his feathers.
He will shelter you with his wings.
His faithful promises are your armor and protection.
Do not be afraid of the terrors of the night,
nor the arrow that flies in the day.
Do not dread the disease that stalks in darkness,
nor the disaster that strikes at midday.
Though a thousand fall at your side,
though ten thousand are dying around you,
these evils will not touch you.”
The comfort for me is knowing that when your enemy gets desperate, he’s usually about to lose. This is why prayer is so important, both for me and for the support team. It’s not just a trite request that people pray for you when you’re gone. It’s the most important role the people staying home can have; equally important to the role of the one going. So for those who will, please pray for those going, for those who are already there, and for the families of those who are going. It’s really important. Let the spoiled child be revealed for what he is.
There has been a reoccurring theme lately with random things I’ve read; with conversations I’ve had with people, and with the events in my own life and the lives of people around me. That reoccurring theme is the faithfulness of God and hearing God’s voice. The initial catalyst for this theme for me I think was the decision to go back to Ethiopia, but other things have built upon it since then.
As I’ve been drawn more and more into the events and the lives of people in Africa, I’ve become closer with certain people in ways I never would have imagined just a few years ago. I find myself wishing I could go back and visit with many of these people again, but there is only so much time and funding available for someone with a family and three kids. Besides, many times East Africa doesn’t necessarily need my physical presence, as many things can and should be done through and by people already there.
I talk a lot with a friend in Kenya, who has given up a lot to minister to kids who have been lost along the way somewhere. He ministers to girls in a reform school, many of whom are estranged from their parents, and to kids who are in prison, among others. He has given up any form of financial security to do this, as this is all volunteer, and any funds that come in are through the generosity of people who believe in his vision, and by the grace of God.
Last week, he asked me “how do I hear God’s voice concerning the things he wants me to do?” This question caught me a bit off guard, because I felt totally unqualified to answer it. For me, it was like Michael Jordan saying to me, “so tell me about this game you call basketball.” You see, the problem is that while he is out there doing, I am still currently unlearning what I have either been taught explicitly or by example from American culture. The great depression taught our culture a lot about security and setting up contingency plans. Our parents and grandparents swore they would never go through something like that again. Their children found a good job with a pension that would take care of them. They valued job security above everything else. Work that job for 35 years no matter how miserable you were; no matter how far from your true calling that job was. Get a job with health benefits, dental, pension, matching 401k. Wait until you are financially secure until you have children so they won’t have to go through the things you went through. Leave nothing to chance. Leave nothing to faith. Leave nothing to God. I don’t need God anymore, because I’ve got a contingency plan for everything. Life’s decisions became based on fear of the lack our parents had, and not on faith, or even on reality.
So here’s how that went. The children of the baby boomers who grew up with everything provided for them came to expect everything. They (we) still live on a fear based existence, unable to live without a well thought out escape plan from all of life’s struggles and problems, but now we expect to have everything handed to us. Well, let me tell you thing from the point of view of a business owner; job security is a myth, as fictitious as the Minotaur or the Medusa. There is no security in life, only the illusion of it, so prettily put together in a welcome packet with a brochure of your company’s stock options with a big red bow on top. We’ve given up our God given talents, our vision, that fire God placed into us to make the world a better place, and traded them for a matching 401k.
What would it look like if we started living by the seat of our pants again? What would it look like if we took risks? After all, there is no reward without risk, and we’ve given up an awful lot of reward. We’ve fooled ourselves into thinking the only reward is financial, and in doing so given up our souls. Hebrews 11:6 says, “And it is impossible to please God without faith. Anyone who wants to come to him must believe that God exists and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him.”
I’m still pondering this idea in my head, and I’m not yet fully sure if it’s true, but my thought is that God speaks to us the most when we put ourselves into a position in which we MUST hear him. This is why I feel unqualified to speak to my friend in Kenya. He has given up everything, and put himself in a position where he has to hear from God if he’s going to move forward. I personally believe this is the way to go. It’s not a comfortable way, because there’s always that gap between hearing from God and when everything comes together, but the alternative is to live in a manicured facade of security that I know does not exist. I would rather live in a manner that fulfills the destiny God has placed me here for. As such I have started to wean myself off of the high overhead that comes with the typical American life. I believe it’s healthier in the long run, allows me and my wife more freedom to do what God calls us to do, and is a far better example to my children. This has not yet all fully ruminated for me, so as I think further about this, I will probably write again. What I learn this time in Ethiopia may further clarify things for me as well. So until next time…
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere–in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” These words of Jesus were the last he spoke before he was taken up to Heaven. I am blessed to have been able to go many times now to the uttermost parts of the earth. Tomorrow I will buy airline tickets, and soon I will go to even more uttermost parts than last time. I won’t be specific as to where yet, but I will be in Ethiopia again.
Some people say they don’t hear God’s voice. I have to say that I do. Sometimes it’s in the form of thoughts that I know in my knower are the truth. Other times it’s in the voice of someone else, or in dreams, or in things that I read. There are many ways God can speak if you’re listening. But you do have to put away all the busyness of the world around, let the distractions go, and listen for that voice that comes when you’re paying attention. I spoke with God recently, and my first question was, “Lord, am I supposed to go back to Ethiopia?” As soon I asked the question I felt a bit foolish, not because I asked it, but because I asked a question that, had I been thinking about it, I would have already known the answer. The answer I got was, “I have given you many opportunities now; I’ve given you a passion for this, and a passion for people and the gospel. Most of your funds are raised even before you started trying to raise them. I’ve cleared your schedule at the specific time you would need to go. I’ve given you a wife who is supportive of you in all these things. Do you really need to keep asking if you’re supposed to go? I’ll tell you when you’re NOT supposed to go.
I’m excited for this trip. Frankly I’ve been excited about all of them except for one, but that’s another story. We’ll be covering some new territory, but also some familiar, and building on the relationships we’ve already established. All the while I will be documenting again, so there will be plenty of pictures. I won’t be specific on places and times until I’m already there, but I will be putting my thoughts down all the while, even if I don’t publish them until later. I learn more about myself than I do about Africa every time I go. I expect this time to be no different, and look forward to sharing what I’ve learned.
This is my 100th blog post on South Sudan Traveler, and what better way to celebrate it than with some of my favorite pictures of all time. Some you’ve seen in previous blog posts, but many others are brand new (at least to you). I think back to my first time going to South Sudan back in 2010, before it was its own country. I think back to how green I was, but fully aware that I am simply a different shade of green now. My perspectives have changed since that time, but thankfully I have the pictures to document how those perspectives changed. So please enjoy Africa as I’ve seen it over the last five years, from South Sudan to Kenya to Ethiopia. Soon I will have even more. All pictures can be clicked on for a bit larger view. Also, I am beginning to work on a book that will feature the unexpurgated version of Africa you don’t see in the brochure. More on that later.