It’s a Weighty Issue

It’s that time of year when people put on a few extra pounds, a little insulation for the colder weather, that happily coincides with Thanksgiving and countless Christmas parties throughout the month of December. The New Year comes and the resolutions to shed those holiday pounds are made and mostly forgotten by Valentine’s Day.

Weight is not only an American issue. In some way or another, what one weighs is scrutinized in every culture across the globe – just not in the way we may expect.

I have long surmised that that wealth equals beauty. What a culture considers beautiful is that which tangibly manifests wealth.

A culturally acceptable beautiful woman in the United States is thin, toned and usually tan. Healthy food is expensive. The luxury of exercise is dependent on having the time. Sunbathing accompanies beach vacations or cruises through the Bahamas. Of course these are all generalizations. But where does our standard for beauty come from? It comes from those things associated with wealth.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guinea, my entire village was thin. There was not a fat person, or even chubby person, in the vicinity. Why? Because they were all dirt poor. Intestinal parasites wreaked havoc in their guts. Bouts of malaria kept them from eating for weeks on end. They had to work in the fields to provide food for their families. For them, to be fat was beautiful. Fat=Wealthy. To be fat meant you had enough food throughout the year; it meant your body could digest the food ingested; it meant you weren’t scrapping by.


Some Guinean villagers

During my two years in Guinea I lost a considerable


circa 2009

amount of weight. Coming out of college, I was by no means overweight. But within six months, I was waif thin. I continually battled intestinal parasites. While I wasn’t a huge fan of the constant bloating, vomiting and diarrhea, I was quite happy with the results. At 22, I’d reached a pre-pubescent weight. I can hear the judgment in your head already.

“That’s not healthy”.

“I can’t believe you’d be happy about that.”

Well, you’re just jealous you don’t have parasites! Just kidding. I was 22 and stupid.

When I would return to my village after traveling, all of my neighbors and co-workers would compliment me on how fat I had become while away. At first, I was confused. Did I really look fat to them? Why would they wish to insult me like that? The weight loss wasn’t just in my head, was it? I would become offended quickly and escape to my mud hut to get away from their criticism. You may laugh at my naïveté, but growing up in a skinny-obsessed culture, it was outside my scope of understanding that anyone would find it complimentary to be called fat.

I live in an urban city on Clove Island. It is much more modern than my jungle home in Guinea. Most people aren’t starving. They may work in the field occasionally if they inherited a plot of land from their father, but the produce is not their main form of sustenance.

And yet, the idea that fat equaling beauty remains. I heard a statistic recently, which is unconfirmed, that one-third of all married women on


Procession of married ladies

Clove Island are obese. I spoke with a university professor who believes it’s closer to two-thirds. Unmarried girls and women are naturally thin. But once that ring is on the finger, pop, they balloon. Why?

I can’t say for certain. I have spoken with many people on the subject. Unmarried women long for the day they will be fat and men say they much prefer a woman with meat on her bones. My best guess is that being fat is still associated with wealth and closely tied to honor and shame. As a husband, if you are able to provide enough food for your wife to get fat, that is honorable. If not, you are shamed; you are poor.

Before coming to Clove Island, I assumed that I would lose weight here, just as I had in Guinea. So I put no restraints on what I ate. I love McDonald’s frappés and Starbuck’s chai lattes. I’m a sucker for Five Guy’s burgers and Dominoes pizza. And at 27, my metabolism wasn’t what it was before. So I packed on the pounds. No problem though, I’m going to Africa.

Unfortunately, while I have gotten parasites on several occasions, they’re not the weight loss kinds. My natural weight-loss plan never worked out. When I went home in August, I tried to put on my brave feminist face- it doesn’t matter how much I weigh, I can still be beautiful. But wow, it was hard and I was ashamed of how I looked. On the beach in Florida, I was surrounded by thin bikini models. I felt like a whale. Trying on clothes at the outlet mall, I wanted to cry every time I had pull something “large” over my head.

It was so much easier to be happy with my body on Clove Island. With no television, no malls, no bikinis, no one to impress- I just was. I didn’t dwell on my weight. But I won’t be on this island forever. My 30th birthday is quickly approaching and I want to return to America unashamed of my body.

I decided to make some changes upon my return to the island. I cut out a lot of my sugar intake and I started to work out several times each week. I’ve been using the Nike Training App, which I love! In the past three months, I have lost 20 pounds much to the chagrin of my island friends.

Yesterday I ran into a friend I haven’t seen in about two months. Our conversation went like this, “Jessica, it’s been so long I haven’t seen you.”

“I know. I am so busy.”

She reached up and touched my cheek, “Why you look so thin? You always so thin.”

My face brightened and with a huge grin I said, “Thank you! That is so kind. You make me happy.”

“What? You want be so thin. No, it’s not good. You must eat more.”

Don’t worry. I am not a waif thin Peace Corps Volunteer. I’m still 25lbs heavier than I was when I finished my Peace Corps service. But my brutally honest friend was telling me just how unattractive I had become in her opinion and I couldn’t have been happier!



So for all of you who worry about the Christmas pounds you’re going to put on, take comfort that in some places of the world, you would not be judged or scorned but considered very beautiful!

Also remember there are those less fortunate than you all around the globe, who consider you beautiful because you have more than enough to eat. Spread the joy and donate so they can eat too.

Freedom from Hunger

Samaritans Purse

Feeding America

World Vision

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Fear Not. Welcome. Love.

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,  I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?  When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Matthew 25:35-40

Over the past two years many controversies have rocked the United States. From Ferguson to the legalization of gay marriage to the latest protest of red cups (still not clear on that one…), my Facebook newsfeed is constantly filled with opinions from both sides of any controversial aisle. I may comment here and there but generally I keep my opinion to myself; social media needn’t know which way I lean.

My blog is reserved for personal anecdotes and stories of cultural run-ins here on Clove Island. It is not a platform for me to preach or stand up on my soapbox. That being said, I hereby place my soapbox on the ground in front of you and stand upon it.

Since the terrorist attacks a few days ago I have seen my Facebook newsfeed go from an outpouring of #prayforparis to an all out battle over Syrian refugees being allowed into the United States. I welcome the

attention. For too long the Syrian refugee crisis has been a side note to the American people, a sad news story we quickly skip over, preferring to see the latest picture of Kim Kardashian’s butt. Now it has come to the forefront and everyone seems to be choosing a side.

I have been shocked and appalled to learn of all the governors who are refusing to allow Syrian refugees to relocate in their states. More shocking still is that all four states that I would readily call home: Florida, Georgia, Indiana and Ohio have all claimed they will refuse to accept refugees. And I have been saddened to see many of my Christian friends applauding these decisions. And here I speak to you, Christians:

It is our duty to welcome the stranger. Throughout the ages, God has commanded his people to be hospitable, reminding them that they were once strangers in a new land.welcome

“And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.” Deuteronomy 10:19

We are to show hospitality. This is our duty as believers!

“Share with the saints in their needs; pursue hospitality.” Romans 12:13

Jesus tells us in Matthew 25 (see above) that when we welcome the stranger, we are welcoming Jesus. The next verses condemn those that do not.

“Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Hebrews 13:1

I have heard it said that we cannot afford to be compassionate. These refugees might be a Trojan horse! ISIS might use them to bring in more terrorists.

Many articles have been written about how there has never been a terrorist attack by a refugee in the United States and how the attackers in Paris were not refugees. But the simple fact of the matter is, yes, ISIS may use this for their benefit. Yes, more extremists may infiltrate our borders. But, Christian, where is your trust?

When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.
    In God, whose word I praise—
in God I trust and am not afraid.
    What can mere mortals do to me?
Psalms 56:3-4

Jesus-follower, where is your love?

There is no fear in love; instead, perfect love drives out fear, because fear involves punishment. So the one who fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us.”1 John 4:18-19

“You have heard that it was said, ‘you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’. But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.” Matthew 5:43-44

God is bigger than ISIS. Do you believe that? God loves Syrians just as much as he loves you. If we long to have a heart that loves the same things as God, we too will love Syrians. Do not let fear reign in your heart. Open your hearts and petition your governors to open their borders. Do not sit back and wringing your hands, saying there is nothing to be done. Stand up for righteousness!

Jesus says, “If you love me, keep my commands.” What therefore are we to do?

Fear not. Welcome. Love.

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Yes, I have Muslim friends

I currently live in a predominately Muslim country; in fact, according to the CIA Factbook, it is 98% Muslim but I would venture to say, if you do not include any expats it’s close to 99.5%. I’ve lived here for two years.

From 2007-2009 I lived in Guinea which is 85% Muslim.

Needless to say, I have many Muslim friends. I have prayed with them, sang with them and fasted with them. I have cried with them in their grief and danced with them in their joy. For four years, I have heard the call to


Prayer at the mosque

prayer five times a day, every day. I have shared my life and they, in turn, have shared theirs. Here, on Clove Island, I have family: mothers and sisters and brothers. And they are Muslims. I love them. And I know they love me in return.

In Muslim nations, religion is all pervasive. God is mentioned in every conversation in the common taglines, “God willing” or “Praise God”. All of my friends and neighbors know that I am a follower of Jesus, that I read the Bible and pray in a different way from them. Some have tried to convince me that the way of Islam is the truth. But I have never felt threatened or in danger because of my differing beliefs. My Muslim friends do not believe in violence in the name of religion, else we would not be friends…

I have been asked to share my experiences living in a Muslim community, in order to quell some of the rising fear in light of the recent attacks in Paris. I was asked to say that Islam is a religion of peace. While many, or perhaps most, Muslims live peaceful lives, I cannot in good faith say that Islam is a religion of peace.

There is much confusion over what Islam teaches. The mainstream media makes it worse, fueling fears and hate mongering. I do not claim expertise in Islamic studies, by any means. But I would humbly offer what I have learned in two years of studying Islam, while living in an African-Islamic context.

Brief overview of the Qur’an

The Qur’an is believed by Muslims to be the very words of God revealed to the Prophet[i] Mohammad through the angel Gabriel. He first received these revelations while living in Mecca around 610 A.D.

The original language of the Qur’an is Arabic. Muslims believe that only the Arabic is the true word of God. Translations are created by man and therefore cannot be relied upon. With that in mind, any claims at interpretation by a non-Arabic speaker are easily brushed aside. Still I persist.

The Qur’an was compiled over a 23-year period. The chapters, or suras are arranged by shortest to longest, not chronologically. However, there is the teaching of “abrogation”, meaning that for contradictory statements, the one that is written later is the one that is to be followed. Therefore, it is important to know which suras came later. It’s easy enough to find a chronological listing online.

Stages of the Qur’an

In researching, I came across a fascinating article that connects the Prophet’s life events with the Suras that were written during that time. The author breaks the Qur’an into four stages.

  • Stage One: (In Mecca)- No Retaliation. Mohammad was living in Mecca, among pagans who worshiped many gods. He and his followers were greatly persecuted. These verses teach peace and patience.
  • Stage Two: (First Instruction in Medina)- Defensive Fighting Permitted. Mohammad and his followers fled to Medina. Many more Arabs in Medina followed Mohammad and he was recognized as a prophet. But the Meccan persecutors followed them. Muslims were then instructed that they could fight those who first attacked them.
  • Stage Three: (Revised Instruction in Medina)- Defensive Fighting Commanded. Just a few months later, fighting became a religious obligation, not simply permitted.
  • Stage Four: (After Conquering Mecca)- Offensive War Commanded to Kill the Pagans and Humble the Christians and Jews. Muslims continued to gain strength until 630AD when Mecca surrendered. These verses advocate aggressive Jihad against all unbelievers.

This is just a brief summary and I highly urge you to read the article[ii] or the Qur’an itself, along with a chronological timeline.

There are many verses in the Qur’an that advocate peace and allowing people to go their own way. However, these were written earlier and according to abrogation (Sura 2:106; 13:38; 16:101), it is the later passages of war and violence that should be adhered to.

I am thankful that my Muslim friends to not follow this version of Islam. I just returned from a local language lesson. Every week I meet with twin 30-year-old single women. Today, I asked them if they’d heard of the attacks in Paris.They answered in the affirmative so I probed to get their thoughts on the matter. The men who did this are not true Muslims, they said. They told me that killing is strictly forbidden in the Qur’an. One of the twins told me that anyone who kills should have their hand cut off. “No, no!” the other answered, “You get your hand cut off if you steal!”
I asked if they had a Qur’an. Yes. Could we read it to see where it says these things? We don’t understand it, they responded.
“So where do you learn what is in the Qur’an if you cannot understand it?”
“We learned in Quranic school as children. The teacher told us what it said.”
“What if he lied?” I asked. They just laughed. They told me they believe they are following the Islam of old- what was taught from the beginning. Many islanders study abroad or work overseas and come back with strange versions of Islam, claiming they have the path of true Islam. But my friends are content to follow what they were taught from childhood. It suits them.

I like their version of Islam. They believe in peace. They believe it is wrong to kill. They believe we should show kindness to our neighbors, Muslim, Christian and Jew. They believe many of the same things I believe. Romans 2:14-15 says, “Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.
We know instinctively that it is wrong to kill. Most of us long to be at peace with our neighbor. We do not yearn for war. We do not believe that blowing up innocent people will send us to paradise. We, mankind, left to our own devices have the law of God written on hearts- a moral law that teaches us to respect human life.

Unfortunately, this is not what the Qur’an teaches.

[i] I use the title “Prophet” in respect to my Muslim friends. I do not believe that Mohammad was a prophet.

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Dealing with Death

This morning I watched “Thank You”, the third episode in the sixth season of the Walking Dead. Lots of people died in this episode. People die in every episode really. The post-apocalyptic zombie world is hazardous to the health of anyone who doesn’t have a long-term contract with the show. But today someone that I really liked died; someone who’d weaseled their way into my heart in that way that TV characters tend to do. With a show like the Walking Dead, you learn to hold the people with an open palm. You learn to not get too attached because next week their face may be eaten off by a zombie. Or maybe their leg will be eaten by a cannibalistic human. But I was attached and I cried when this character died. I grieved for the death of a fake person in fake world.

The characters themselves deal with death on a daily basis. They don’t cry anymore. They see death and simply move on.

It’s not real life though. In the West, death is very distant from us. We hold it at arms length and never look too close. I’m 29 years old and I’ve never really seen a dead person.

My great-grandmother died when I was four. I went to her funeral and my mom let me touch her waxy face. But the open casket culture, where the dead are carefully positioned and made to look like they’re just sleeping, that’s not real life either.

In the past couple weeks here on Clove Island I’ve been learning a little bit about how islanders deal with death.

Abraham is the caretaker of the house I rent. His uncle is the owner, but he lives in France. So Abraham ensures that water gets pumped into our cistern on the roof. If we have electricity or plumbing problems, it’s his job to get those fixed. He does a reasonable job and since there are always problems with island houses, we’ve gotten to know him well. He’s very kind. He has a gentle demeanor and I feel comfortable in his presence- an unusual feeling for me around island men.

A few weeks ago, his mother died. It was not unexpected. She’d been sick for a long time. My neighbor, Mable, invited me to go to a ceremony involved in the death rites. Up to this point, while I’ve heard of many people dying and seen the processions, I haven’t been close enough to any of the dead or grieving to be invited. So I had no idea what to expect.

On the appointed day, I dressed in a nice shirt with a “saluva” tied high on my chest. A saluva is a piece of fabric that is sown like a tube. You step into the tube and tie the extra fabric in a knot below your chin. It originally comes from Madagascar, where they tied them around their waist. It was here, in the more conservative culture, that it began to be tied over the chest. This is the culturally acceptable attire for most ceremonies- weddings, prayers and funerals.


Women in the courtyard

Over the saluva I wrapped a shiromani- the equivalent of an Indian sari, but worn over regular clothing. I put on muted make-up and small earrings. Then I met Mable and we took a taxi up the road to the courtyard of a daughter of the dead woman. Before arriving, I asked Mable what I should say. How do I express my condolences? I know of no way to say, “I’m sorry” in local language in the sense of being sorry for someone. She gave me an expression that translates to “I sold you the news.” What??

There were many women sitting around the courtyard. Some were quietly talking to their neighbor. Several ladies tended a fire in the corner of the courtyard where a pot of tea was boiling. I was ushered past all of these women into the house where the family members were sitting.

I lost count of all of Abraham’s siblings. I met cousins. I met his aunts and uncles. Many of them had come from the neighboring French island. Some had traveled as far as France. They were a well-to-do family. They spoke French among themselves and spoke to me in local language- it was rather amusing. They just talked about normal things. There was no crying. To my Western eyes, it didn’t look as though anyone was sad. After giving our greetings to the family, Mable and I went back to the courtyard and sat among the women. A very old lady, back bent from too many years lived in a harsh place, hobbled into the courtyard. She sat in a chair in the middle of all the woman and in a gravelly voice began to recite prayers. “Amens” chorused from the gathered ladies after every phrase that she uttered.

Then Mable told me it was time for us to go. I hadn’t been served any tea or bread like the other ladies. We’d stayed for perhaps 45 minutes. I had no way to place what I had just experienced. I was simply confused.

Later that week, I sat down with two friends and picked their brains on the matter of death. It wasn’t something they were terribly comfortable discussing, but I really wanted to understand at least the outward expressions if not the worldview of islanders.

This is what I learned:

When someone dies on the island, they are taken to a room in the house but the body cannot touch the floor. Flooring is dug up and the body is placed on slats over the hole for the washing. The men go to the mosque while the body is being washed. Special women are paid to wash the body. The women family members pray in the courtyard.

The sheets and clothes of the dead are washed. The body is wrapped in a white linen cloth and placed in a coffin. The men carry the coffin to the cemetery, where paid gravediggers have already dug a hole. Any man can help carry the coffin- not just family members. In fact they believe that you earn points toward heaven if you help carry the coffin. The body must be buried on the day that the person dies. This is Islamic law.

Family members and close friends will stay at the house of the dead person for seven days. They may go to work; they may not. They show their solidarity by staying with the grieving family. On the third day there is a big prayer (this is apparently what I stumbled upon). On the seventh day there is another big prayer and after this family members will return to work.

The official time of grieving lasts for 40 days. Immediate family members should not have any celebrations- marriages are pushed back until after this time. The 40th day after the death, there is a big ceremony where the men pray at the mosque and the women cook a large meal for everyone who comes to show their respect for the dead.

I asked about the expression “I sold you the news”. My friends agreed that I had translated it correctly but it is simply an expression that means, “I share in your suffering; we are together.”

I asked if it was ok to cry. When I lived in Guinea I learned that public displays of emotion, especially crying, was very frowned upon. Women wailed during the funeral procession but that was it. My friends said, yes, it’s ok. Is it ok for men to cry? Yes, sometimes men cry. But it’s much better if they don’t. If the person died, it is God’s will. Therefore, you show your piety by accepting the will of God. Crying and open grief shows that you do not agree with God’s will and that isn’t a good thing.

Just a few short weeks later Mable’s brother or sister (or maybe cousin, or possibly close friend) died. The local word is non-specific. She asked me to go with her to visit the grieving. I agreed, feeling more prepared this time.

funeral attire: saluva

funeral attire: saluva

I dressed appropriately and we found ourselves in a small room tucked away in an alley. There were a couple old people, one man and a few women, sitting on a mat. Mable and I sat down and they began chatting about normal life things. No one paid me much mind, except to ask Mable a few questions, not knowing I could understand what was being asked. And then we left. We were there perhaps 20 minutes tops. Once again, I was outside my element. That did not fit into what I had learned from my friends.

But I’ve made peace with not knowing. I claim no great knowledge of island culture regarding death. From what I’ve seen, I like the solidarity found here. In America we avoid the grieving. We don’t know what to say, so we say nothing. We don’t know how to act, so we do nothing. We leave the grieving alone in their grief. For seven days after the death, islanders do not leave the side of the grieving. They tangibly show that they are together.

I do not like the pressure to bottle up emotions, however. Maybe they really don’t want to cry. Maybe they have internalized completely the worldview that death is inevitable, what is the point of crying? But if it is an outside pressure of religiosity that prevents them from opening up, then I wholeheartedly disagree with that. We may have this same attitude to some degree in the States, but in general, we acknowledge that it is healthy to cry and express grief aloud. But perhaps islanders live in a world closer to the Walking Dead. There is no real medical care here. Many preventable illnesses are death sentences. There are no real traffic laws and people die in motorcycle and car accidents daily. They try to make their way to the French island and instead drown in the crossing.

Death is natural. We all live with the possibility of death everyday. It is the great equalizer. No matter how hard we try, we cannot escape it. We can try to ignore it, but eventually it will catch up to us. In the West, most of us are comfortably separated in our daily lives from this reality. Islanders are not. And so, we approach it differently. There is beauty and pain intermingled in our differences.

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Strike It All

I should be getting ready to teach right now. I should be starting lunch preparation, thinking about the nap I want to take and finishing any lesson planning I need to do.

Instead, I’m sitting here writing a much overdue blog post because now I have the time.

Every Friday I make a 2-hour trek across the island, packed in a 15-passenger van called a “taxi bus” that holds anywhere from 20-29 passengers depending on the driver’s mood. I squeeze and squish myself between sweaty armpits and unyielding metal sides, to bump up and down over roads in desperate need of repair on shocks that scream in protest. I arrive, usually a little shaky, my legs are cramped, and my back a mess of knots. It takes the five-minute walk to class to work out the kinks of the voyage.

A "taxi bus". And a boat blocking the road. #justanotherday

A “taxi bus”. And a boat blocking the road. #justanotherday

I teach an hour and half Level One class then I wait on the side of the road for 15 minutes to an hour for a return taxi bus. And I repeat the whole nasty business of travel to get back home.

But today is different. There are no taxi buses. In fact, there are no taxis at all! This may not seem like a big deal to most of you. Some of you may never have had the occasion to take a taxi. Maybe you only take one when you can’t find a DD. Or that one time in New York when you splurged to get to the theater on time.

But I take a taxi every day. Every. Day. And so do a lot of islanders. Old Peugeot hatchbacks with door handles that have fallen off and windows that no longer roll up make their way from one village to the next carting their four passengers (plus children and sometimes animals). Many, many island men make their living as taxi drivers. While more and more men are buying motorcycles to get around, still a large majority of the population cannot afford personal transportation. So they walk or take a taxi.

However, as of yesterday, taxi drivers are on strike. Taxi buses that travel long distances and the cars that just go between close villages, no one is working. Rumors are flying. I’ve heard so many reasons as to why I have no idea where the actual truth lies. It seems clear though, that the drivers are striking because they are angry about insurance. The most likely rumor I’ve heard is that the government-required insurance is not paying out when there is an accident (an unfortunately frequent occurrence). I do not know what the drivers are demanding exactly…new insurance? Not being required to carry insurance? Ensuring they get paid? But according to a taxi driver friend I ran into yesterday, the government isn’t budging.

Unlike the strikes most Western countries are used to, where the strikers strike until their demands are met or a compromise is reached, strikes seem to be more ceremonial here. They have a schedule and an end date. Most strikes last just one day. It came as a surprise yesterday when I learned that the taxi strike would continue to today and possibly tomorrow and maybe even beyond that…

So for now I’m just hanging out.

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That Time I Cried in an Airport

I love to travel…in the general sense. I love to go to new places, meet interesting people, have exciting experiences and delight my taste buds with exotic cuisine.  However, I hate to travel…specifically. I don’t like the getting there.

Long car rides get super boring after awhile. Long train rides give me an intense sense of claustrophobia. And long plane rides, well, so many things can go wrong. The guy next to you snores. The baby in the seat in front of you screams for 14 hours straight. The kid behind you keeps kicking your chair. The people on the plane, specifically your neighbors, smell like they haven’t showered in days and have never heard of deodorant. By the time the flight attendant gets to you in row 97 with the meal cart all that’s left is the vegetarian green mush with a side of white stuff. If you’re in the aisle seat, you’re constantly getting up to let your neighbors go pee. If you’re in the middle, or worse, the window, you don’t get up to pee until you’re about to bust because you don’t want to wake the snoring, smelly people beside you. Then when you’ve finally made everyone move there’s a line for the tiny bathroom and the person inside has decided to camp out the rest of the flight. You try to move your ankles like the video keeps reminding you, but inevitably your ankles swell and eventually disappear into your calves. Deep vein thrombosis.

And once you arrive, you think, “Yes! Finally!” But no…first you must go through the Ebola/Swine flu/Bird flu or whatever else is the latest pandemic detector. Phew, you made it…to the immigration line where you fill out all the countless paperwork telling this foreign country your entire history. The person next to you doesn’t have a pen and out of the goodness of your heart you give them yours. You arrive at the counter to get your visa from the ever-friendly immigration officers. Oh, I need to sign something? But I don’t have a pen. You stand and wait off to the side while all the lucky people who signed everything already get their stamps and move on their merry way. Eventually you make it through immigration. The baggage carousel isn’t moving any longer. There is one of your bags…the luggage locks have been cut off. Awesome. Your other bag isn’t there so you trudge to the airline office and fill out more paperwork with a borrowed pen. They’ll call you…

I came back to Clove Island a week and a half ago from a vacation in the States. It took me four days of travel to get there and three days to return. The musings above mostly didn’t happen to me on this trip (although they all come from experience, except deep vein thrombosis). Screaming babies and smelly people (myself included) are every trip occurrences. I flew from Jacksonville to JFK (3 hours) with a 3-hour layover. Then I flew from JFK to Dubai (14 hours) with a 4-hour layover in Dubai.

My last frappé :(

My last frappé 😦

Then I had a five-hour flight from Dubai to Nairobi. I arrived at 8:30pm local time and got to my hotel at 10:30pm…two hours for immigration, luggage, customs and the drive. It’s winter in Nairobi right now, therefore cold, especially for someone who has lived on the surface of the sun for the past two years. All I wanted after 31 hours of straight travel was a hot shower. But the hot water wasn’t working. Maintenance came. At 12:30am I was able to take my shower after which I fell into bed. At 5:30am I was back up, repacking to redistribute weight for the smaller planes I was to take that day.

The budget airline I’d booked, notorious for late departures and arrivals, almost left on time. I promptly passed out and slept right through lunch. At noon I arrived on the big island, where the international airport is located. I had an interisland flight scheduled for 4pm. I saw it on the screen. This airport is small with no amenities…the bathroom doesn’t even have toilet paper. You cannot wait inside the airport for a transfer flight. Instead I had to exit the airport building and wait outside. There is a tiny “café” with “food” and drinks outside. So I dragged my 70lbs of luggage to a table covered in flies and plopped down. Twenty minutes after arriving I was able to get the attention of a server (there were three other customers…).

“What do you have today?”


“No chicken?”

“No, just meat and bread. That’s all.”

“Oh, ok. I’ll have meat and bread.”

She comes back with a plate of lumpy, grey…meat, I guess. Some pieces had bone shards sticking out of them, others had some sort of globulous white gelatin attached and others still had hair. The pieces were floating in a greasy, smelly oil. I was really hungry though. So I bravely picked up the least disgusting-looking piece. Gag! Gag! I couldn’t do it. I munched on a piece of bread that I tried to dip in the oil. No!! Bad idea. So just plain bread then.11896950_10100808748363810_59582398_n

Finally it was time to check-in. This is the only time you’re allowed to enter the airport building. There are guards to ensure that you only enter when it’s your check-in time. Fortunately the guard let me pass and I stood in the line that said “Clove Island: 4pm”. I get the counter, put my baggage on the scale and give the lady my ticket. You’re in the wrong line, she says. This is Airline #1. Your ticket is for Airline #2.

(Note: There are only two airlines that fly from island to island. They are both unreliable. Either their planes need maintenance, the pilot didn’t show up for work, they’re on strike or some government official has commandeered the entire plane for their entourage.)

So I got in line for Airline #2. I was the only one in line except for one man who was already at the counter. I waited. And waited. And waited. This man at the counter seemed to think himself quite important by the way he carried himself and the obsequious manner in which the airport staff treated him. I still starred daggers at him. It was now 3:15 and my plane was supposed to leave at 4. What was taking this dude so long?!? Then I see the check-in guy count out about 20 boarding passes and give them to this one man.

Finally, it’s my turn. I show my ticket to the guy. He looks at it. Looks at me. Looks at the ticket again. And asks, “Didn’t they tell you about the flight?” My hand luggage, to that point on my shoulder, drops to the ground.

“Didn’t they tell me what about the flight?”

“Your flight left at noon.”

“I was in an airplane at noon. My flight is scheduled for 4pm. How could it leave at noon?”

“Well, I’m sorry. You will have to leave tomorrow morning.”


“Excuse me.”


(I learned later that my flight hadn’t left at noon, at all. That was this guy’s excuse to save face. Instead, the president took my flight. He was invited to a wedding on my island and since he’s the president, why plan ahead when you can just go to the airport and take any flight you want at any time? So the man in front of me, one of the president’s entourage, had just commandeered my plane.)

It crossed my mind to begin yelling and throw a fit. This usually doesn’t end well for me. And it’s not nearly as satisfying to do so in French when I don’t have the proper vocabulary to adequately express my rage and disgust. So instead, I decided on a different tactic. I started crying. With tears streaming down my face, I let all my hunger, tiredness and frustration intimidate this poor man who had no idea what to do with sobbing, white girl at his check-in counter.

“Don’t cry! Don’t cry! You can just leave tomorrow.”

“I do not have any money to stay in a hotel. I’ve been traveling for three days. I haven’t slept. I haven’t eaten. I just want to go home. Why won’t you let me go home?!!!” A note of hysteria had entered my words.

“We will find a solution, madame. Don’t worry. Here, sit in this chair.” Instead, I flopped onto the floor, with my back against my suitcase, surrounded by my smaller bags. And I cried some more.

You better believe I had the attention of every single person in that small airport. They were all starring and whispering. I did not care. The braver men ventured over to ask me what I planned on doing to which I responded that I would sleep right there on the ground. It is Airline #2’s fault that I am stranded, so unless they plan on providing transportation and a hotel, then I would just sleep at their counter.

“But madame, you cannot sleep here. We close the airport at 6.”

“Is it illegal to sleep in the airport?”

“Well…no. I don’t think so.”

“Are the police going to remove me?”

“Oh no! They’ve already gone home.”

“Well then. I’m sleeping here.”

Meanwhile, people were still checking into the 4pm flight with Airline #1. So I stood up and asked the lady whether there were seats left. No, however, the 5:30pm flight, which was not listed on the screen, still had seats. Excellent!! I will buy one of those. (I did say I had no money for a hotel, which was true in the sense that I had no local currency. But I knew the airline accepted Euros which I did have.)

But then Airline #1 lady disappeared. When she reappeared, she asked me what I was going to do. Confused, I said I was waiting to buy a ticket from her. Oh, she said, that flight isn’t going anymore. There are only four passengers- she pointed to three island men waiting across the room.

Completely crestfallen, I despaired and resigned myself to trying out the new hotel by the airport to see if they took Euros or dollars. But the other three men made no move to leave so I decided to wait until they left. Eventually, they did. So I dragged myself up, got my luggage situated on my shoulders and began to plod out of the airport.

“Where are you going?!” Airline #1 lady called.

“I’m leaving.”

“But the flight is going now!”

“Huh? Why did those men leave?”

“They just went to pray. See, their bags are over there.”

Once I was convinced she was not joking, I sat down again, quite relieved. At this point, I was approached by a man who said he had heard there was foreign girl who was crying in the airport. He would move heaven and earth to ensure that she got on a flight to her home island. And because he’s so kind, wouldn’t it be great if the next time I was on the big island I could visit his home village? He would introduce me to his family. He could even show me his house. We could eat and drink together. We would have so much fun.

Thank you but no…and come to find out, he had nothing to do with anything….literally, nothing. He was some technician with no say on what planes come or go. Nice try, buddy.

At 5:45, my plane finally took off. I’d had to pay $50 for overweight luggage. I could have argued. There were only four passengers after all. But I just wanted to get on my plane! Half an hour later we landed…on the wrong island. I looked up from my Kindle and realized that I was not on my island at all. The pilot, who had to crawl past me to open the door, saw the panic in my eyes and assured me that we were just stopping on this island for 5 minutes to pick up more passengers. Phew.

We touched down on my island 45 minutes later. It was pitch black. My small island’s airport has no lighting. The runway was lit by the fire truck’s headlights. Dangerous, yes. But I was finally home!!! The End.

Home sweet home

Home sweet home

Categories: Travel | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

So Many Kinds Crazy

“Did you hit some guy last night?” my housemate squatted next to the mat where I had been contentedly sunbathing, praying and reading all morning. In an instant the relaxing day-off I’d foreseen, where I get tan in preparation for my trip home, dissolved.

“What?” I asked confused.

“Tim*’s on the phone. Bert [our English class administrator] and the mayor are at the police station. Apparently they think you hit a guy outside of a mosque last night.” My heart started to beat uncontrollably. That’s not the story! What have I done?

Last night, after finishing a prayer time, I invited the two interns, Martha and Amelia, who are living at our house for the month to walk home with me. It was a cool night. The walk takes about 40 minutes and I thought it would be a good opportunity to hear their stories since I wasn’t here when they arrived.

We began the walk around 10pm. The island is incredibly safe and the most we have to worry about is being hit by a car while we walk down roads with no sidewalks. It’s Ramadan so people are out later, socializing after having broken the fast. We walked through the capital and entered my town. While descending the hill into town Amelia noticed that there was someone following us very closely. In fact, he was touching her. But the narrow street was crowded and she thought perhaps her discomfort was misplaced. Once we reached the bottom of the hill, this young man started yelling to another and making rude comments about us. I said something along the lines of “Rude” and Amelia confided that she’d been uncomfortable for a while now with that same guy walking so close to her. I immediately turned around and asked him what he was doing. He mumbled incoherently about “just going home”. I told him he needed to leave us alone. He should stop following us and just go. Being publicly called out like that in front of so many people should have been enough. But he just kept right on our heels. I certainly did not want him to follow us to our house, which was now just five minutes away, so I asked the girls to stop and see if he would pass us and keep going. He did pass us, but just to lean against a car several feet from us and stare out into the ocean nonchalantly. He was obviously waiting for us to continue on our way so he could take up his nefarious stalking again.

I stood there with these girls to whom I felt I great responsibility. How do I get rid of this guy? I decided that the best thing to do was to document his behavior so I could show Bert the following day and this young man could be reprimanded and instructed to leave us alone. So I dug out my phone, turned on the flash, walked up and snapped a picture of him.IMG_4813

With a slurred voice, he started yelling at me not to take pictures of him. He approached me but I would not back down and I forcefully told him to go, while pointing in the direction from which we’d come. If he did not want his photo taken then he needed to leave my friends and me alone. He came closer, all the while spewing threats and so I took another photo right in his face. When he saw the flash, he slapped my hand away. And that was where he crossed the line. An island man who had witnessed this interaction from across the street, ran over and began dressing him down. “Do you have no brains in your head!”

I quietly slipped away and ushered the girls down the street, away from that place, shaky but relieved that the situation had been taken out of my hands. As I passed some ladies selling oranges, they told me that this young man was not right in the head. He was “crazy”. That is the only reason he would act so badly, they reasoned. I thanked them and we arrived home shortly thereafter.

I prayed for this troubled young man before sleeping and for wisdom on whether to pursue the situation with Bert the following day or just forget about it. That decision was taken from my hands when Bert began calling me at 7am this morning. I, still sleeping, did not answer. I had plans to see him later that day anyway so whatever he needed, I rationalized, could wait until then.

However, it could not. And that brings us to the rooftop phone call, where Tim, my boss, was trying to figure out why Bert was calling him! How did the story get turned around into me hitting him? Why were they at the police station? Why was the mayor involved? Was I getting in trouble? After hanging up with Tim, I called Bert to find out.

He. Was. Mad.

I could tell because he only spoke in French, which meant he really wanted me to understand, although he spoke at a speed that was barely comprehensible. It was the speed of a man on the verge of a meltdown. If he spoke any slower I knew he would just explode!

He told me he was at the police station. He’d heard a man had threatened me last night, near his own shop, no less! This man isn’t even from our town. So he has been arrested. And the police are waiting for my statement. Could I please come to the station right away? I told him I would be there as soon as possible.

I grabbed Amelia and we headed out. Three influential men from my town were waiting outside the station for us: Bert, the mayor and a town councilor. They ushered us into a back room and we sat on a wooden bench placed in the middle of the room. Men in uniform filed in front and behind us along with the men from my town. We were asked what language we would prefer: English, French or local language. I said I could communicate in any, Amelia speaks only English but if we want the majority of people to understand without me bumbling around for words then we should speak in French. However, I think many of the officers saw it as a wonderful opportunity to practice their English so English it was.

We sat there and men bustled in and out of the room. Friendly banter ensued, Our island attire was commented on. And then our “assailant” was dragged in the room and flung on the floor at our feet. Amelia and I exchanged wide-eyed glances. He was worse for wear. The night before he had been dressed stylishly, with thick-rimmed blue sunglasses on his head and a swagger in his step. Now he sat on the floor, deprived of his stylish sunglasses, covered in dust and barefoot. But he did not cower. He glared at the officers who took the chance to kick him whenever they passed in and out of the room.

My heart hurt for him. What he did was not appropriate but it did not, in my mind, warrant this treatment. The commanding officer looked up from his computer, where he had been dutifully typing the report (of which I had not been asked a single question; not one person asked me what happened), and asked, “What do you want me to do with him?”

“Let him go.”

Incredulous, he demanded, “Let him go! Why?”

“Because,” I said, looking to Amelia for confirmation, “We forgive him.” She nodded her head enthusiastically.

“You are a lucky guy,” he said in English looking at the man sitting on the floor. Then looking back at me, “You may forgive him. But I do not.”

Time passed as the men in the room discussed amongst themselves what would be done. The mayor leaned over to me and asked me why I would forgive him. I told him that first of all, what he did was not serious. He did not hurt me. Secondly, Jesus tells us that when someone slaps us on one cheek we are to turn the other. He also tells us to forgive 70 times 7. As I looked from face to face in the room, they all nodded in seeming approval at my words, even though what I’d said was far from eloquent. I sounded like a kindergartener giving a Sunday school lesson with grammatically-incorrect and butchered French. But hey, they understood. Meanwhile, the man on the floor continued to offer insults to those in the room. He adamantly denied that he was crazy, which is what everyone was saying. He also told the police that he was not scared of them. And he did not want our forgiveness. He did not accept it!

One of the officers observing all of this from the window asked me why I would forgive someone who did not want my forgiveness. He went so far as to say it was impossible to do. If the person does not admit they have done anything wrong, then how can you offer them forgiveness? I explained that forgiveness is for the one offering it. Unforgiveness only hurts me. Whether he wants it or not, this man is forgiven in my eyes.

The mayor acknowledged the sentiment but went on to say that this man was not from our town. He is from a village on the far side of the island. They had welcomed him into the town as a brother but now he has treated us, the town’s guests, disgracefully. He is no longer welcome in our town. He would be kept in prison until his family from his village came to collect him.

Thanks were given all around and we were able to leave after a short introduction to the commandant. In the taxi on the way back I quizzed Bert as to how he found out what had happened and how they had found the man.

This morning, after morning prayers, all the men from my town gathered to hear the news about the “assault” on the town Americans. As the story passed from man to man, tempers rose. The young men of the town went on a hunt to find this guy. How dare he touch one of their Americans! Somehow they found him and dragged him into the street. Belts were removed and a beating was about to commence. That is when the important older men intervened. They saved this man from the mob and brought him to the police station for his own protection. Bert emphasized again and again just how angry everyone was on our behalf.

Just three days after my return from Kenya, this has been quite the welcome home. I have come to recognize some important things from this experience:

  1. I feel safer than before. From the man who intervened last night, to the mob who wanted to beat down a dude, I am protected by my town.
  2. I feel more loved than before. Even though I complain about the children pestering and the men flirting and the women gossiping, the people in my town are fiercely proud to have two Americans live here.
  3. My town is crazy. I say this in the best possible way. While much of Africa wrestles with tribalism, my island wrestles, or maybe embraces, town-ism. Your town is your clan. When we moved from the airport town to our current town, we were warned against the people of this town. “They are bandits!” And while all towns have some rivalry with one another, it seems that my town has a special reputation for being troublesome. As Bert told me in the taxi, “Our town youth like ‘noise’”- meaning, causing trouble.
  4. God can use any situation. Jesus says in Matthew 10:19, “When they deliver you over, do not be anxious about what you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” In front of important and influential men, Jesus’s teachings were proclaimed today (even with poor grammar) because a possibly crazy, probably high young man decided to follow three girls home.

And so I reflect on all the crazies in this situation. The young man was accused of being crazy. Maybe I was crazy for provoking him. My town has a reputation for being pretty crazy. Mobs are always crazy. And I am reminded of Francis Chan’s Crazy Love when I say, ever so reverently, that only God is crazy enough to have orchestrated all of this for his own good purposes.

*all names have been changed

Categories: Clove Island | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Teaching Communal Learners

Me and a student

Me and a student

On June 17th I finished my second round of English classes on Clove Island. My organization has created its own curriculum. We offer three levels of beginner’s conversation English. Level Three has been created and introduced in the last two years.

I teach in three towns: the airport town and my home town twice a week, and two hours away in D-town once a week. Two other teachers teach classes at the airport town and my home town as well. When deciding which levels each of us would teach during our first round of classes, the airport town was easy. We began the program there so we all taught Level One. In my home town, classes had been taught beforehand so we had all three levels to choose from. I chose Level Three because I fancy myself a trailblazer and no one on my team had yet to teach this level. I was excited about the challenge of creating brand new lesson plans and tackling the unknown.

And…I ended up hating it. For many, many reasons I just did not like teaching Level Three. It was hard. The students were not prepared. The lessons just didn’t come together. I struggled with presenting the material in an interesting and intelligible manner. In the end, a full third of my class failed. I was disappointed in them, in myself and in the curriculum. And I knew I did not want to teach Level Three again no matter what!

After a break for Christmas and January spent teaching two month-long classes, it was time to decide which classes each of us would teach again. I really liked my Level One students in the airport town so, in my mind, the ideal scenario would be for me to teach Level Two in the airport town and my home town. I was just starting the class in D-town so that would be Level One.

Things didn’t work out quite as I’d planned. One thing I never anticipate and always dislike is when other people don’t just do whatever I want. Plans were made sans moi, arguments ensued, feelings may have been hurt…but the end result was that I was teaching Level One in the airport town and Level Three in my home town…again. *Sigh*

I trudged to class that first day back in March, dreading each step that brought me closer to the pain of standing in front of a class that doesn’t understand and not knowing what in the world to do about it. However, I had one trick up my sleeve. Over the previous several months I’d been doing the University of Toronto’s online TEFL course and it had given me new ideas that I wanted to try out.

I began the class by writing three questions on the board:

  • What are we learning today?
  • Why are we learning it?
  • What are we going to do?

These three questions are designed to take any initial confusion out of the class and help create a safe place for learning- nothing is a surprise. Students are not going into each activity wondering what comes next. I implemented this strategy in all three of my classes and found it wildly successful. On occasion, when I was in a hurry to begin, I have forgotten to write these questions. Each time a student has raised their hand and requested that I do so.

The second thing I implemented in each class, I refer to as Exit Slips. The last five minutes of each class are dedicated to these. Each student is instructed to take out a piece of paper and record these three questions:

  • What is one thing you learned today?
  • Was there anything you didn’t understand?
  • What was your favorite thing we did today?

The first question is for the student to examine his or her own learning. The second and third questions are integral for me to improve the learning of my students. If several students write that they didn’t understand the same thing, then I obviously did not teach it well and I need to return to that subject during the next class. And the third question helps me improve the overall learning atmosphere by incorporating more of the games that they enjoy.

In my Level One classes, these two measures made a world of difference. But I knew Level Three needed something more. After ending that first Level Three class in March, my dread for the remaining three months had not diminished. In fact, it had increased. Overall, I could tell that this class was at a lower level than my previous class, but worse than that, the range from lowest to highest student was enormous. I could have a normal conversation about practically any topic with one student, while not being able to discuss the simplest, most basic subject with another. How was I going to do this? Additionally, I had 30 students! We’d requested a cap at 25 students but for various reasons the administrator had allowed 30. The room was crowded and I was overwhelmed.

I walked home from class just as downcast, dragging my feet and pondering ways to get the worst students to drop out. The last time 7 of 20 had dropped out before the final exam. I needed that to happen again!

The next day, I did my normal devotions and prayer time on the roof of my house. My most brilliant ideas come from time spent with the Lord…go figure. As I’m thinking and praying about something completed unrelated to English classes, an idea pops into my head.

Family Groups!!

My team has been learning about the communal decision making of many cultures around the world, of which Clove Island is no exception. If they are communal decision makers, perhaps they are also communal learners! In which case, being incredibly individualistic myself and teaching in a way that makes sense to me, perhaps I was doing my students a huge disservice. What if they don’t learn like I do?

So I ran downstairs and took out their Exit Slips from the previous class. I divided their slips into advanced, intermediate and beginner. I had five students whose slips marked them as advanced students. So I created five groups and divided the intermediate and beginning students amongst those groups. Each group had 6 people in it.

In the past, all exams had been individual oral exams at the end of the three months. I knew that model would not work if I was to incorporate group learning. I was grouping them in what I decided to term “family groups” so that they would help one another learn. But individual oral exams did not promote a group-learning atmosphere. In the end, I decided to have them do a skit together. It would comprise 30% of their grade; every group member would receive the same grade so it was in everyone’s interest to help the weaker family members increase their competency before the end of the class. The other 70% would be the traditional oral exam of which the students were accustomed.

And so began the great experiment. Each family group chose an American last name by which to be called: Jackson, Jones, Smith, Wilson and Lewis. (Side cultural note: Islanders do not have “family names” like we have in the West. Each child is given a first name and their second name is the name of their father. So the concept of a “last name” that carries down from generation to generation is foreign to them).

Each class students sat with their family group. I began the class by passing out the questions I had been asked in the “Was there anything you didn’t understand?” question from the exit slips. With the combined knowledge of the family group they were usually able to answer their own questions without much input from me.

I noticed friendships and even some secret romances develop among family groups members. I had two students from different groups who wrote the exact same thing every single Exit Slip. Question: “What’s your favorite thing we did today?” Answer: “Working with my family group.”

Even more telling, I had only two students drop out during the entire three months.

Two weeks before the skit the groups were given their instructions for creating a skit:

Family Group Exam
Each family group will be required to present a 10-minute skit (sketch) on June 10th. The skit will be based in a restaurant. You need to bring your own props (plates, glasses, forks, etc.).
Every one in the family will receive the same grade (note). Your success depends on the success of your group. You will be graded on content, pronunciation, presentation, organization, time, props and teamwork.

Every family member must have at least 5 lines.

  • The skit should be 10 minutes.
  • The skit is in a restaurant.

During the skit, you must include:

  • Lesson One: Need + Infinitive/ Have + Infinitive
  • Lesson Two: Giving advice with “should + verb”
  • Lesson Three: Discuss the weather using vocabulary
  • Lesson Five: Correctly use polite language
  • Lesson Six: Describe an object using vocabulary
  • Lesson Eight: Describe a person using vocabulary
  • Lesson Nine: Use at least three adverbs
  • Lesson Twelve/Thirteen: all prepositions should be used correctly
  • Lesson Fifteen: Use at least one “if/then” phrase
  • Lesson Seventeen: Ask and answer at least one “which” and “how” question
  • Lesson Eighteen: Use basic math vocabulary when you discuss the bill
  • Lesson Nineteen: Use at least one present perfect sentence

Those of us who have grown up with a Western education have probably been required to do some sort of group presentation, skit or performance. Island education does not include this type of learning. Students were initially nervous and I was worried that they would completely bomb this assignment.

June 10th arrived and my housemate and I sat together with a rubric I’d created. I was so impressed with the results and so proud of my students! Some groups had obviously spent much more time preparing and their grades reflected that but every group presented a 10 minute-ish skit about a restaurant. They had real food and drinks (which I was able to sample…teacher perks!). They tried to make the skits humorous and entertaining. And they all seemed to have fun doing so.

Oral Exam Set Up

Oral Exam Set Up

In the ensuing oral exam, which I shortened and set a time limit, students were able to demonstrate their conversational skills. I ended exams pleased with the results. I felt that my students had had the opportunity to fully demonstrate what they had learned. Those that passed deserved to pass and those that didn’t will be able to re-take the course and study more.

More than likely I will be teaching Level Three again in the near future. I will not go into it with dread this time but with an openness to the students and their needs. I am not wedded to the “family group” model. The next class may be completely different. However, I am grateful for the opportunity to experiment in my classroom and create a learning environment that matches more closely with the culture in which I have the privilege of teaching.

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A Release from Darkness

Below is a short story I wrote in response to Isaiah 61.pit

It was dark and dank. Little light filtered in. No ceiling could be seen but the walls pressed close on each side, circular, no lines to break up the monotony. Endlessly the foul-smelling bricks went round and round. Nothing distinct caught the eye in the gloomy darkness.

In the center of this foul place lay a creature. Shriveled and misshapen, it sprawled out and unprotected. Large eyes, incessantly wet, stared sightlessly out of an oversized head. It had long ago exhausted its capacity for tears. Its mottled, red skin festered with sores that wept putrefying ooze, constantly picked at by the creature’s sharp nails. The smell of infection permeated the small space. It never smiled but if it had it would be a grisly sight. It boasted razor sharp teeth that could tear through flesh and bone, stained dark red and a pointed black tongue that could lash out and destroy anyone or anything that dared approach.

To look at it, one might think it had gasped its last breath long ago. But with careful observation, one could see its sunken chest rise and fall as it gathered its strength. Then periodically with a burst of energy, the creature would twitch in an attempt to get up from its degraded position. With a moan of pure agony, it would soon collapse and return to its previous condition. New wounds would appear from the latest struggle to pull itself up. A careful examination would reveal the chains that chaffed at wrist and ankle, holding the creature down. Small hooks were buried deep in its flesh from head to foot, tearing and interring themselves deeper with every movement.

Mostly unaware of anything and everything that was not its own pain, the creature spent its days in solitude. Tepid, black liquid covered the floor of the small cell. From this the creature derived its sustenance, licking up whatever ran past its parched lips. The liquid provided no nourishment; day by day, the creature grew thinner. Each drink twisted the creature’s insides more, turning them to the same consistency and color as the liquid itself. The hooks and chains stretched allowing the creature to further curl in upon itself.

If the creature had had a mirror, it might have seen a patch of uncorrupted skin, a tooth that was not yet sharpened or a wound that had healed, reminding it of innocence foregone. But it had no such mirror.

The creature had no recollection of the past or any thought of the future. It just was.

Then one day the creature became aware of a presence. The creature felt it, warmth where before there was only a chill. But it did not have the strength to lift its head from the mire.

Later the creature heard a sizzle of something burning and felt a hook being removed from its raw flesh. It barely struggled, too weak to take much interest in the release.

The presence never left. It was a comfort to the creature to not be alone. But where conscious thought still operated, in the recesses of its mind, it was ashamed. Naked, exposed, disgusting, with no way to even lift its watering eyes to this presence, would its companion grow tired of waiting and leave? Once it discovered the true nature of the creature, would it shield its eyes and return the creature to its previous isolation? As hooks continued to be removed, the creature became nervous. It needed to cover itself from the gaze of this stranger before it could really see and understand the beast at its feet.

With all of its remaining strength the creature pulled against the chains and the hooks, each breath agony, every nerve screaming in protest as skin ripped away from muscle and bone. Dirty rags, that it had once worn, lay to one side of the cell; the creature reached out to grab them in the hope of hiding its bleeding, bruised body from the presence but it could only touch the hem before once again collapsing under the weight of countless chains, utterly helpless, no longer able to even lick the dredges off the floor.

The presence approached the creature. The creature felt its head being lifted and gently rested on something soft. It hurt all over. Too weak to even open its eyes, it lay there waiting for the presence to recognize it for the disgusting wretch it was and to leave it to itself again. Or maybe it would have pity and put the creature out of its misery.

Instead, it felt a warm hand caress its skin. Then it felt cool, refreshing liquid on its scorched lips. Some dribbled into its aching mouth. Water! Clean, life-giving water was being offered to the pitiful creature.

Energy coursed through its frail, damaged body and it slowly opened its eyes. Light. Blinding light filled every inch of its vision. It was too pure, too good after the darkness that had been all the creature remembered. It shut its eyes tight against the light and retreated back into itself.

Then a voice came from the light. It was an ancient voice filled with the wisdom of eternity, deep and melodious. It rang out through the cell, filling it with fire but not a fire that burns. It spoke with a fire that purifies, commanding and confidant but gentle. The words caressed the creature; three words only. The creature shook its large head. Those words had been spoken in the past by others, but they were a lie. The creature knew those words would never be true, for it was too repulsive, a horror to behold and impossible to get close to.

It did not know how long they stayed that way, the creature fighting to keep its eyes closed, the light whispering those three words over and over again. Why wasn’t the light leaving? Did it take pleasure in torturing the creature with empty words that would never be true?

But the presence, the light, did not leave. Relentless patience incarnate. It rocked the creature back and forth in a comforting caress. Time passed, unheeded by the cell’s occupants; water was offered and accepted. The creature regained strength and confidence.

When the creature dared open its eyes again, just slits, to protect itself, it first noticed that it could lift its head. Nothing was dragging it back to the ground. It looked at the hooks lying on the ground and heard the sizzle as the water was poured onto yet another that held its hand firmly in place. As it watched, the bond was burned away. The cords could not stand against the power of the water.

This time when it raised its eyes to the light, to the one pouring the water and releasing the creature from its bondage, it saw a face, a kind face smiling down at it. The eyes sparkled with joy and welcomed the creature. The creature looked around in confusion. Who was this man looking at with such love? Surely not the creature. And then the man took the creature’s chin in his hand. Deep, liquid brown eyes met the formerly sightless tear-stained eyes of the creature. The man breathed out the three words, “I love you.” There was no mistaking it. The creature could deny it no longer. There was no one else he could be talking to; there was no way to ignore the declaration of this stranger that claimed to love this worthless monster. And this time, it saw the truth of the words. This was no lie.

The creature resolved that it would make itself worth the love of this man who had degraded himself to enter the cell of the creature. And so with no more hooks piercing its skin, the creature released itself from the man’s arms. Sunlight streamed into the cell. Now it was obvious. The creature lived in a pit but it had become shallow, the sky could be seen where before there was only gloom. So it thought it was happy. And it began to work. Still chained, it removed bricks from the walls and began to pound them with its chains. The man must be pleased with the creature’s work. Tap, tap, tap day after day. It used the only tool at its disposal, its chains, to break down the large bricks into smaller bricks. It benefited greatly from the sunlight and occasionally it would glance at the man, sitting patiently in the cell. The man would smile at the creature, but there seemed to be a tinge of sadness in his eyes now. The creature would work harder.

One day the creature felt a familiar pain. Looking down it saw a hook digging into an old scar. Worried, it began working more frantically. Tap, tap, tap long into the night. The next day another hook appeared, ripping into pink flesh. More and more appeared until it became too painful to lift its manacled wrists to hit the bricks any longer. No, no! This was for the man! It struggled futilely until finally defeated, its face was slowly drawn back toward the black liquid that had fed it in a previous life. The man was standing beside the creature. His arms were stretched out waiting for the creature to grab hold of his hand. Had he been there the whole time, waiting and willing the creature to look up from its labors? In desperation, the creature moved to reach the man but it was too shackled, it was too painful. The man knelt beside the creature, sinking into the slime; he placed his hands beneath the creature’s head so that it would not slip into the sickening filth that awaited it at the bottom of the cell.

The creature saw that the man also had scars. The hands that held its head had deep marks. Heedless of the blood that gushed forth from the creature, the man wrapped it in the white of his clothing, staining it crimson. He was no longer smiling, he was weeping and the creature knew it was the reason for the man’s pain.

Looking into the tear-streaked face of the man, beautiful even in its pain, the creature relaxed. Bleeding, chained, naked, exposed, the creature finally and utterly released itself into the warm, scarred hands of the man who had found it in its disgusting state and had loved it anyway. As the release penetrated its soul, the chains fell from its wrists and ankles, the hooks disappeared and the creature felt a warm breeze on its face. The breeze fluttered through fabric. Still cradled in the man’s arms the creature looked down and saw it was wearing a white flowing robe. The grime was washed away. The blood had disappeared. Its tongue tentatively glided over once-pointed teeth. The man set the creature down on grass, greener than anything the creature had ever seen. In fact, all the colors around it were more vibrant, the sensations of the wind and the sound of the nearby ocean more potent. For the first time, the creature knew what it felt like to live and not simply be alive.

The creature held tightly to the man’s hand, looking adoringly up at his beaming face. The man looked lovingly down at the creature he had rescued and called her his friend. She never wanted to leave the side of the man. She would go wherever he led.

It has been years since that day. She has been led to places she would never have imagined from her tiny cell. Sometimes she has let go of the man’s hand; something she said she would never do. Sometimes she longs for the familiarity of the chains. In moments of forgetfulness, she thirsts for the foul black liquid. Sometimes she forgets she is holding the man’s hand until she tries to walk on her own and cannot. Falling to her knees, she cries out and there the he is, right where he has always been.

She has looked into many pits and seen other creatures, much like she was, shriveled and misshapen. Some have cried out for rescue and the man has descended to help them out while the she watched in awe. Many have found it easier to sit in their rot, having been disappointed too many times, no hope remaining, unable to believe the three words that man says. They close their eyes against the light and stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the warmth that radiates from his presence. But her heart holds compassion. She visits these pits with the man and they wait together until the other creature chooses to see the open arms of the man.

She has been transformed; she is no longer the pathetic, grotesque miscreant she was. She is still is far from beautiful. But hand in hand with the personification of beauty and light, she cannot help but reflect that with whom she stands. She walks from pit to pit, with the hope that many miserable creatures will join her on this journey with the man, the Master, a journey that will end in a healing of all the scars, an end to all of the tears and perfect beauty.

 The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
    to proclaim freedom for the captives
    and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
    and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
 and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
    instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
    instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
    instead of a spirit of despair.

Isaiah 61:1-3a

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Goodbye: To Say or Not to Say

I sat outside our island’s small airport. People milled around; women hoping to sell flowers to relatives awaiting the arrival of their loved ones, men lounging in their cars or clumped together talking. There are always more people at the airport than the tiny strip that allows one twelve-passenger plane at a time dictates. But there they were. And there I was too, at 7:30am.

I was waiting for a friend. We’ll call her Rachel. She had told me she’d be there at 7:00am. So I arrived at 7:30 to be safe, you know, Africa time and all. She arrived at 8:00am… We all wore smiles as she checked her luggage and got her boarding pass. I gave greetings all around the airport as many of the employees are former students of mine. Then we walked back outside together and said our last goodbyes before I headed off to work.

Only God knows what the future will bring, but I will very likely never see her again.

We met just about a year ago. She was very pregnant and scared. At only 19, she had lived the life of someone much older, she told me. She was a “club girl”, something mildly acceptable in America, but not at all in this Islamic culture. She smoked, drank and partied every night, dancing into the wee hours of the morning. She became involved with a foreigner but when he found out she was pregnant there were no more phone calls and he even moved houses so she couldn’t find him! When I met her, she hadn’t heard from him in 7 months. Almost completely alone, with nowhere to turn, when she was invited to study the Bible with some of her “club girl” friends, she jumped at the chance.

Within a few months she had wholeheartedly accepted the good news of Jesus. And she believed in his promises of provision, peace and joy. With nowhere to go after she gave birth, she went into the hospital with hope. The day after the baby was born, the father “Will” came to see them. He invited her to move in with him so they could be a family. It was a complete miracle for which she praised God.

Life has not been easy since then. It never is. She’d alienated herself from her family during her party days. When she accepted the Lord and began to change her life her former friends turned tail. As a young mother she struggled with a baby. Her cesarean did not heal quickly. The baby cried…a lot. She was lonely, in her home most of the day. She longed for a way to make money, but she had never finished school. Yet through all the struggles she held onto her faith and was the first to point out the goodness of God. She was quick to tears whenever we opened the Word together. It spoke to her in ways she couldn’t even explain.

Then my team left the island for a month. Upon returning I couldn’t get in touch with her. She wouldn’t answer my messages. Every time I passed by her house, it was all closed up. I feared the worst. She and Will had broken up. She was living with her sister, unhappy and abandoned. Then on Monday night, returning from the beach, Rafaela and I asked her neighbor if she was traveling. “Not yet. She’s traveling on Wednesday.” What? We walked by her house and the door was open.

“Rachel!!!” We yelled, past the gate. She let us in and I asked immediately, “We heard you’re traveling on Wednesday. Is it true?”

Incredulous, she asked, “Who told you that?!”

“The lady next door. Is it true?”

“No. Not Wednesday. I’ll be traveling Thursday.”

“Where?” I’m excited for her!

“[The country of her boyfriend]”

“How long?”

“Indefinitely.” My face fell. Indefinitely? How can she leave me? And then it hit me like a brick in the face. I sat there staring at her silently. She wasn’t even going to tell us! If we hadn’t passed by her house at that moment, when the door happened to be open, we could have missed her. She wasn’t returning our phone calls. She hasn’t told any of our mutual friends she was leaving. She would have slipped away without telling anyone but her family. Why?

This is not unique to her. This is island culture. I have had many friends, already in the short time I’ve been here, leave and not tell me until they were gone. I’ll get a call from a French island number. When I answer I find out it’s one of my students. They won’t be coming to class anymore because they’re now living illegally on the French island. I can surmise why they don’t share this information:

  • They don’t want to be shamed in case their travel plans fall through (they don’t get the visa, or if illegal, they’re caught by French police)
  • They don’t want to be cursed. Jealously is huge here! As are curses and jinxes. People genuinely fear having their plans ruined by malicious neighbors, “friends” and even family members.
  • They don’t like goodbyes? Maybe they’re emotionally uncomfortable with the finality of saying goodbye so it’s easier not to?

Though I have been saddened by the departure of previous friends and students, Rachel’s leave-taking really hit home. She is someone I really love and into whom I invested a lot of my heart. God knew I needed to say goodbye. I would have been devastated and deeply hurt if she’d left without telling me.

I am now working on being happy for her. I truly hope she finds contentment and joy in her new home.

Categories: Clove Island | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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