Monday, May 13, 2013

Now that’s sleeping in.

Our VBS, which had been scheduled for 9 a.m., was postponed until 3 p.m., so we all sleep until we feel rested. For me, that’s 9 a.m., which is absurdly later than my usual 5:30. Glorious.

I wander out to the kitchen, where a couple of team members are sitting silently at the table, staring. Since I had said last night that breakfast is on your own, people come and go, getting a slice of bread with jelly, boiling water for oatmeal, cooking eggs. I’m not a breakfast person, but I eventually poach a couple eggs and put them on a piece of toast. Not bad.

The toaster works, but not by itself; you have to hold the lever down. Fine if you’re patient. The egg yolks are a much lighter yellow than we’re used to; scrambled, they almost look like just the whites. Somebody cuts up a papaya—we have a basket with papaya, avocado and oranges—and we all have a bite or two. It seems sweeter than the papaya I’ve had in the States. The oranges look green, but they’re ripe; apparently they’re dyed for the American market? That’s what somebody claims, anyway.

We have to wash the fruits, except bananas, with vinegar water to clean them off before cutting them. If you think about it, slicing a fruit with a knife is a bad idea if the knife blade picks up corruption from the outside and just passes it through to the pulp. The bananas, obviously, we can peel without cutting. Nature’s perfect food.

By 10 or so, pretty much everybody’s around—even the boys have shown up. Some are reading, some catching up on chores, some journaling, some just sitting. It’s good to relax; for the first few days in a new culture, you feel tired all the time. Some of that’s from jet lag, of course, though we’ve done pretty well with that; I told them that the way to beat jet lag is to stay away from caffeine and sugar while in transit, and stay up until bed time the first night you arrive. I find it’s actually easier to adjust if you are sleep deprived when you arrive—you sleep solidly the first night, and the next morning you’re ready to go. For me that has worked in both directions, with time changes of up to 14 hours. (That one was Greenville to Saipan.)

But even beyond jet lag, you’re exhausted in a new culture, because of a general feeling of sensory overload from the unusual sights and sounds, and because processing the cultural differences requires constant attention and thought. It just wears you out.

Around 11 Gabriel, one of the college graduates, comes by, offering to talk to us about our plans for VBS. We jump at the chance. He tells us what they usually do, and we lay out our plans. He agrees that it all looks good. A number of national young people will be conducting the VBS with us, and to my mind that’s one of the most exciting parts of the project—our team members getting the experience of working with colleagues/peers from another culture, in another culture. I’ve already told them that they’re going to meet African Christians who are their spiritual superiors, from whom they can learn much; this, I hope, will be one of those times.

After an hour or so, while Abbie and Ellie are helping Mama prepare lunch, I offer to take the laptop over to the wireless hot spot in the chapel and let anyone who wants some Web and email time get some. Half a dozen or so take me up on the offer—I suppose their parents know who they are.

By this time lunch has arrived—more pressed vegetable sandwiches, some avocado and papaya, and the star of the show, a watermelon. It’s red and sweet, and we all enjoy it (Jon more than the others). And it’s really interesting to wash a watermelon with vinegar water.

Finally the central event of the day—a VBS program in a village where Faith is establishing a church plant. We load up the bus and pick up several college students—Simon, Gabriel, Janet—and drive northwest of Wa for several kilometers. The village is small, with concrete block or mud-brick buildings with wood and metal roofs. As soon as we drive up, people start noticing the bus full of nasala (white people), and a crowd of adults and children gathers. As we unload the bus, we realize that virtually no one there speaks any serious English. And in an instant, we’ve gone from a well-planned mission team to a bunch of Americans completely dependent on the Ghanaian college students to make this work. The Ghanaians take over, instructing the kids to line up for division into teams and for instruction on how the games will work. We try to assist as best we can.

After a few minutes of play, we pull the older kids over to the classroom where the church plant currently meets, for songs and stories, while the younger ones are introduced to the joys of “Steal the Bacon.” Sure. Have two kids run directly at each other at full speed. What could possibly go wrong? Surprisingly there are no injuries.

Timothy tells me to come with him. We walk 100 yards or so to a large shade tree where three men are sitting on a low wooden platform. Timothy introduces me to the central man, who is the chief. I lower my head in respect, I suppose due mostly to the old judo days, and tell him that I am privileged to meet him. He speaks no English, so Timothy translates. Timothy tells him that I was his professor when he attended university in America. I tell Timothy to tell the chief that I said that Timothy was a good student. He translates, and the chief laughs. He tells us we are welcome in his village. I manage to say the one Waale word I know—“barakah!” (thank you! [I think that comes into Waale from Arabic, “blessed”])—and the chief laughs heartily. We seem to have hit it off. I ask Timothy if it would be appropriate if I asked to take a photo. The chief laughs and lines up with Timothy and his two friends; then, after I take the photo, he invites me to come join him, and Timothy takes a photo. We shake hands, and Timothy and I head back to the group.

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As we return, Timothy explains to me what just happened. This church plant has been meeting in the school classroom, and its members have begun to construct their own building. Two other churches (not gospel preaching) have pressured the chief not to let them build. Our showing up and playing with the kids is a gesture of good will, and our visit to the chief is intended to personalize our presence in the village. It appears to have gone very well; the chief said to us, “You are welcome in our village.” So maybe that’s that.

I think we can also provide something of a theological contrast in this heavily Muslim area. In Muslim theology, Allah does not love his people. If you do enough good works, you can persuade him not to eradicate you, and maybe get a fairly enjoyable afterlife. But the concept of a personal, loving relationship with Allah is foreign to Islam; he really doesn’t care about us, his transcendence far outweighing his immanence. So we show up representing a God who loves them, and we get to illustrate that love with them in small ways, by playing games, treating even the children with affection and respect, shaking their hands, hugging them, laughing with them. The contrast is tacit but stark.

When we arrive back at the field, they’re in the process of swapping the two groups, pulling the older kids back out for more games, while I, the pied piper, lead all the little ones over to the classroom.

I move around the whole area, watching the team and their peers work, watching the children play, taking pictures, enjoying ministry. I note that the field is surrounded by adults; virtually the whole village has turned out. I walk over to a group of about 5 men sitting on the ground. I offer my hand and smile, and they all shake. One of them says a couple of words of English to me, and I engage him in conversation. We talk about the village’s two wells (“boreholes”) and where they came from (the first one from the government, the second from a Catholic charity), and what life is like in the village. He asks about my children, and I ask about his: three sons. He motions toward the field. “They are out there.” He pauses, then looks up at me from his seat on the ground. “Thank you for coming today. Thank you for doing this.” Makes my day.

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Around 5:30 we tell the kids we’ll be back tomorrow and call it a day. Abbie, Ellie and Joy have run the games for the younger children; Jordan, Auria and Heather have worked with the older; and Will and Robert have worked with both. Inside, Simon, Gabriel and Gina have done the hard work in teaching and leading the songs, with help from Catherine and Jon for both the younger and older kids. Katie and Angel have told the Bible story to the younger kids, and Keri to the older. Everybody has played a role and done it well. The team is maturing into a real operation.

We break out a lot of water sachets on the way back. It’s been a sunny day, and everyone’s been running. We’re thirsty.

At supper (Mama J made peanut butter soup!) we talk about what we’ve learned. An obvious lesson is the grace of God in prospering our way, even when many of us didn’t have much of an idea of what was going on under the surface, and we were not prepared to minister effectively on our own. It’s also obvious to the team—I was hoping for this—that the Ghanaian college students are their superiors in both spiritual maturity and ministry effectiveness. I’ve wanted them to see for themselves the futility of “Great White Hope” missions; we are not in some way spiritually superior by virtue of our Americanness or our whiteness. The African believers are strong, knowledgeable and spiritually mature. We are learning from them—and that should not be surprising. This is a university class, at least partly because we expect the students to be more learners than teachers. Americans as a whole are fairly isolated culturally, and we tend to think of the American way of doing things as the right way; for many of us it is the only way we have ever known. American tourists have a reputation abroad, usually well deserved, for arrogant ignorance. I’m thrilled to see these students humbly learning that they’re not anybody’s Hope.

Devotions after supper, and a little strategizing for tomorrow’s VBS: how can we build on what we accomplished today? Then it’s my usual late evening tasks—write the journal entry, upload it, and take that glorious cold shower.

Tomorrow is scheduled to be another day just like this one. We’ll see.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

We sleep in. I get up at 7, and nobody’s moving. Good. I think we’re conquering the sleep debt problem and preparing for effective, strong service and maybe even good health too.

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Everybody’s ready to leave for church at 8:45. We climb on the Times Academy bus (that’s the name of the Christian school associated with the church) and drive the few miles through downtown Wa to the church. It’s a large concrete building (pretty much everything of quality here is concrete) that can seat probably 400 or so. There’s a beautiful, nicely landscaped complex that includes the 2-story Christian school. Simon (see-MONE), one of the students at the college, takes the team to the English-speaking youth class, while I go with Pastor Timothy to the adult Waale class in the sanctuary. Philip, one of the deacons, teaches the class, and Timothy and I sit in the back corner so he can translate for me without our being a disturbance. The lesson is about diligence in serving Christ.

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After class I learn that the team did some impromptu teaching; Joy and Abbie stepped out of the youth class into a children’s class, where the teacher was late. So they taught several songs, and Joy taught a lesson on the 7 days of creation. I had told them to be ready to be called on—this is Africa—and they were, and they were. (Did you follow that?) Good kids.

The church service was not that different from the one you probably attended, except that the choir marched in in procession, singing, and everything was bilingual. We knew most of the songs, and for the ones in Waale we just sang in English. The choir is entirely composed of young people; Timothy tells me that the older folks are not confident in their singing, and they’re bringing up the next generation to be different. They do a good job.

The various elements of the service—music, announcements, offering, etc.—are handled by different people. Timothy has several deacons, and it appears that he is training leadership well. One of the deacons interprets for me during the sermon, and does well as far as I can tell. Before the sermon I introduce the team one by one, and afterward they line us up across the front of the sanctuary, and the whole congregation comes by to shake our hands. That’s a lot of shaking.

Then about half the attendees leave, and the rest stay for the Lord’s supper, something that we didn’t know was coming. During the break I have an opportunity to tell most of the team that I intend to take the elements, even though there’s some risk involved, because this is a visual sign of the unity of Christ’s body, and that is important enough to take a relatively minor health risk. Since we’ve all just shaken hands with everybody there, and we don’t use hand sanitizer in public as a courtesy (what would you think if somebody used hand sanitizer right after shaking your hand?), I suggest that they take the bread with their left hand and handle it as little as possible while waiting.

I don’t check with the team individually afterward, but I think everyone participates. The bread is half a snack cracker; the liquid appears to be diluted grape drink. It tastes fine; I’m confident that the canned product is safe, and I assume that the diluting agent is filtered water, because Timothy knows we have to be careful, and he doesn’t act concerned.

I don’t mean to sound obsessive, but I figure the parents will want to know the details.

After church we head back to the house and decide to set up the water filtering system, since we’re close to polishing off the water sachets (they call ’em SATCH-ets) that have been our primary source of drinking water since we arrived. I figure it makes more sense to use the available filters than to keep paying for water. One is a commercial water filter, which looks a lot like those 50-cup coffee percolators you see at church fellowships. You put a gallon of water in the top half, and it filters down to the bottom, where there’s a spigot. The other one is homemade from a couple of plastic buckets, and it’s a surprisingly rigorous system. You fill one of the buckets with water and put it on the counter; it contains a filter unit attached to a plastic hose. You place the other end of the hose in the other bucket on the floor, and start the siphon. The only way water can get into the lower bucket is to go through the filter. Pretty soon both systems are silently and steadily generating drinking water for us.

Mrs. Seidu brings us lunch. She really, really wants to cook for us; I’ve explained to her that we want to serve her, not be served. I joked that our problem here is that we love each other too much; no one wants to let the other side work. But she notes that we are working in ministry activities and might not have time to do all our cooking, and she wants to help us with that. We compromise; we handle breakfast and lunch, and she’ll supply supper as well as lunch and supper on Sundays. I ask her to remember that she is not under any obligation to do any of this. She agrees, and we both go away happy.

So lunch is rice and beans with a slightly spicy tomato-based sauce and beef chunks. It’s tasty, and we eat it all. As usual, Robert and Jordan have extra. Those boys are furnaces; their metabolisms are astonishing.

I’ve asked Mrs. Seidu to give the team meals that are Ghanaian rather than American; I want her to share her skills with the team, and I want them to have an African experience, not one of those fake African safaris with big tents, fine china, and linen tablecloths.

After lunch—it’s Sunday afternoon, you know—I disappear for a nap. I can hear the team further bonding, telling stories, laughing, enjoying one another. They are really coming together well. When I come out, an unspecified length of time later, Joy and Keri are over helping Mrs. Seidu get supper ready, some of the guys are relaxing at their house, and about half the team is playing games with the pastor’s kids in the living room.

I’ve encouraged the team to be aware that they have ministry opportunities everywhere, not just at specified ministry activities like VBS’s. The Christian workers—national pastors, teachers, and other church leaders, and missionaries, and the children of all of these—need encouragement and an enriched circle of friends. I’m glad to see them taking that to heart.

Mrs. Seidu has asked us to call her Mama J (for Janet), and that sounds good to us. She brings the supper that Joy and Keri prepared under her careful supervision: pasta with a spicy tomato and vegetable sauce, and fried chicken. Pretty much all of the girls are planning to learn some local dishes under her tutelage. That will be good for the team, of course, but I think it will be enjoyable for Mama to interact with these girls.

Back onto the bus for the 7 p.m. church service. We pick up a few parishioners along the way, and when we arrive, the call to prayer is going out from the mosque across the street. Through the open front door we can see a dozen or so men bowing on their prayer mats, foreheads to the ground, facing Mecca. Sunday isn’t their holy day, of course; this is just their fifth and final call to prayer on an ordinary day.

When we enter the building, the team nearly outnumbers the rest of the congregation. But as is typical here—and in many other places—many more people are late than are on time. As the small group sings “Send the Light,” the echo of the call to prayer provides a stark contrast. By the end of the service, the team is about 20 percent of the congregation. All of the team members are spread out across the sanctuary, surrounded by children. Pastor Timothy holds a more interactive lesson on Sunday evenings, and he helps the congregation review the morning message (they get it right!) and then provides a well-thought-out and well-presented discussion on what love looks like in practice.

After the service pretty much everyone stays for quite some time, talking, fellowshipping, learning, laughing. The children take the team members’ cameras and shoot endless series of photos. We finally have to encourage the team to leave, because the parishioners who rode with us need to get home.

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It’s almost 10 p.m. when we arrive at the house. We drink a lot of our newly plentiful water, have a quick meeting about policies (such as which water pitcher is used for pouring unsafe water into the top of the filter, and which is used for receiving the filtered water from the bottom—a little detail, but a lot rides on everyone getting it right), and I ask if they want to have devotions or get to bed. They all want to have devotions. It’s a good time of singing and sharing observations from our first Sunday in Africa.

I spend a little time with the guys, laying out the preaching schedule for the rest of our time here. Pastor Timothy wants all the guys to go out each Sunday and preach in the village churches. None of them are ministerial students, but all of them want to preach, even though they’re nervous from inexperience. If things go as expected, each of them will preach in at least 2 different village church plants and once in the Wednesday night prayer meeting at Faith Baptist, the home church that we attended today.

My favorite time of day. The cold shower. It’s hot here—not as hot as we’d been led to believe (110-120), but in the 90s and usually sunny. The big factor for us is that none of the places we’re working has air conditioning, and we Americans are really used to it. We do have AC units in some of the bedrooms here at the houses, but I’ve encouraged the team to try to get along without them as much as possible. So we just sweat all the time. You learn to be friends in spite of it. That means that even though we have hot water available, none of us wants to use it much. Turning on the cold spigot and feeling the relief from the heat is a great way to end the day.

So, do you want to see where we are? View in Google Maps.

The girls’ house is at lower left; the Seidus’ house is at upper center; the boys’ house is at lower right; and just northeast of the boys’ house, with the dark roof, is the chapel and primary Bible-college classroom building. Just off the screen to the right (east) is the dormitory complex.

Talk to you tomorrow.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

We agreed last night to have breakfast at 9 this morning. Mrs. Seidu brought a flat of eggs over yesterday, so we figure scrambled eggs and toast will be just fine. Keri, Abbie, Catherine and Ellie go to work on that. We soon find—or rather, don’t find—any butter or oil, and they decide, against my unexpressed better judgment, to try it anyway. To my amazement, they produce some edible scrambled eggs, with cheese, on a gas stove without any oil. They make toast by essentially dry frying the bread in a pan. Works just fine.

As all this is going on, there’s a knock on the front door, and guess who shows up? Our 3 wandering team members! Timothy ushers Joy, Katie and Robert into the house, and we all come running. I assume they’ll want to go straight to bed, but to my surprise, they actually want to talk a little. We gather around the dining room table, while Robert eats some sandwiches from last night’s supper, and they all describe their adventures.

It is a work of grace that they’re here. They spent Wednesday night at JFK airport; they checked on hotel prices, which of course are absurd in NYC; two rooms would have been $500, plus two cab fares. Their judgment was that their spot in the airport, where I had delivered their passports to them, was safe; there was airport staff, including TSA, around, and so they decided not to go for the hotel.

So. That’s one night without sleep. The next day, they had the whole day free, and they were already outside security at JFK, so those rascals decided to go sightseeing in New York. Jumped on the subway, went to the 9/11 Memorial, Times Square, and Grand Central.

Back to JFK for their 10:30 p.m. flight to Accra. They say it was uneventful, but that’s now two nights without sleep.

James met them at the Accra airport, right on schedule, and drove them to the guest house, where they were able to get a shower. He took them out for pizza with the money Timothy left behind for that purpose. And then the 9 p.m. overnight bus ride to Wa. That’s three nights without sleep.

But there are evidences of grace all around. On the bus, an American Methodist missionary lady saw the three white kids and made their acquaintance. She was going all the way to Wa—and further yet, to her mission station in the very far north. She took them under her wing at the bathroom stops and saw that they were OK. I don’t know her name, or her mission board, but someday I’ll be able to thank her.

Robert says that the driver turned out the lights on the bus, and he thought there might be some sleep in his future, but then he turned on loud music, and during the 12-hour overnight ride, they played three movies, one of them twice. One was some sort of horror movie, with witch doctors and animated blood and such. When Robert arrived at the house, he was unable to close his eyes. (OK, I made that last part up.)

Three nights without sleep, and a graduation ceremony in 30 minutes. I send them all to bed.

I had it in my head that the ceremony was at 11; a couple of the team members remember 10, and they’re right. So we get dressed quickly and walk 100 yards or so across the compound to the ceremony site, a sort of Quonset hut with no ends. (Those of you familiar with the BJU campus, think the Activity Center about half size.) There’s cloud cover, and a nice breeze through the wind tunnel, so it’s a lot cooler than it could be.

There are four graduates. The school has existed for about 50 years as Baptist Bible Institute, but just recently, with the considerable expertise and help of Dr. Phil Smith, retired BJU provost, the curriculum has been upgraded to Bible college level, and the name changed to West Africa Baptist College. This is the first group of men to have gone through the entire program, so it’s the first graduating class of WABC.

The service runs almost 3 hours, but that’s mostly because everything is done in both English and Waale; the pieces of the ceremony move right along. Each of the graduates gives a testimony, each of their stories distinct accounts of God’s grace in different ways. One was raised a pagan, complete with animal sacrifices; another grew up in a devoutly Christian home. I have the privilege of relaying greetings from Dr. Smith, and then I preach from Haggai, addressing most of my comments to the four graduates. They, and their pastors in the “Amen corner,” and the rest of the congregation, seem to receive it well. Timothy confers the degrees and distributes the diplomas. In accordance with local tradition, gifts are given to each graduate, including a smock in the traditional design for the tribal chief. It’s moving.

During the service, the team is sitting in a section reserved for them. A little boy comes over to Angel and crawls up into her chair. Happens every time.

Afterward the crowd moves out into the surrounding area and is fed a bowl of seasoned rice and vegetables. Timothy suggests that the team go back to the house, where his wife will bring us our food. We have the rice and a piece of fried chicken. Very tasty.

After lunch a few of the girls are doing the dishes, and I am enjoying studying the ceiling over my bed, when I hear them calling my name. Water is spewing out from under the sink, and there’s about half an inch already covering the kitchen floor. A quick look underneath shows that the cold water feed-line receptacle at the bottom of the faucet structure has broken off, so that the feed line is emptying itself at random. But as many of you know, feed lines don’t empty themselves; you have to turn them off. No sign of cutoff valves under the sink. I see the feed lines going through a hole in the cabinet to the left, so I ask Heather to pull that drawer out. Feed lines go behind the drawer and into the next section of cabinet. I open the door under that section of the counter; Keri shows up with a flashlight and shines it back there; the feed lines go through the wall.

I run through the increasingly deeper swimming pool that we used to call the kitchen, looking for the other side of that wall. It involves going through the living room, down a hall, into an unused bedroom, and into its closet. There are the two lines, coming in to a water heater. Two valves. I turn ’em both off. Ha.

Nothing happens. Water is still pouring out from under the sink. While I’m standing there, puzzled—that’s really supposed to work—Keri hollers through my window, from the back yard, where she’s unaccountably run, that there’s a faucet handle sticking out of the ground there; should she turn it? Sure, I holler. The flood stops.

Now that’s teamwork. The girls start mopping up the kitchen floor; I inform Timothy, who says he’ll call a plumber. Can you get a plumber on Saturday? Sure. This is Africa; people actually believe in working here.

Then Joy, who, last we heard, was asleep, walks into the kitchen. She sees a tub in the middle of the kitchen floor, which is filled with water that came out of the spewing pipe. She asks if she can borrow it, because Katie is in the shower and had just shampooed her hair when the water cut off. Ah. Timing is everything. We get her the water so she can finish her business.

So. That means that the outside valve took the whole house down. We have no water until the break is repaired. I think about options in the meantime. We have no water at this house, but the boys’ house has water, and a bathroom, and a kitchen sink. We can cook here, where there’s a stove, wash the dishes up there, and use the bathroom up there, pretty much indefinitely if we need to. We’re good.

The team starts working on plans for the VBS that we’re starting Monday. There’s a lot to think about: schedule, songs, stories, games, team names, cheers. Initially we don’t have much information about the specifics of our audience, but just then Mrs. Seidu shows up to see if everything’s OK in the kitchen. Just in time to answer questions—how many kids? What ages? What do they like? As an additional providence, she has brought along two of her sons and two of their friends, and we grill them. Do you like to sing? What songs do you like? Do you like to learn new songs? Do you like to play football? (I know what you Americans are thinking. But in most of the world, in football you actually use your feet. It’s only the Americans who call it soccer.)

Along about that time Katie comes out, nicely showered, and shortly later the guys show up, with even Robert shaved and walking. Soon the whole group is gathered around the table brainstorming, figuring out who’s good at what, planning a structure that will be as flexible as possible, given that this is, after all, Africa.

They’re a team now. I always love when this time comes, a few days into the trip. They’ve moved from acquaintances to partners in something that is bigger than themselves. It’s the moment that keeps me doing this.

By the time they’ve gotten the program together, the plumber has come and replaced the faucet with one of those nice new high-spigot models, so you can get really big pans in the sink. Water’s back on, and a cheer goes up from the crew around the table. The plumber smiles and waves. Janet comes running down to find out what all the cheering is about. I tell her she’d better get used to it; we’re one happy bunch.

It’s 6 p.m., and they decide to go for a walk around the compound. It’s prime time for mosquitoes, which means it’s prime time for malaria. I tell ’em to repellent up.

We tour our side of the compound, which includes the Bible college classroom, the men’s dorm and the library. I can’t help looking through the stacks; they have a really excellent library, with the standard commentaries and a few (e.g., NIC) that I didn’t expect; a good theology section, including biblical theology; and very good materials on biblical introduction.

Eventually we work our way back to the house, where it’s leftover night for supper. I’m really surprised that we have leftovers; I expected them to eat more. A couple of the guys do seem to excel the others; their parents know who they are.

After dinner the boys volunteer to do the dishes. We thought it was worth taking a picture. They had to keep asking the girls where things went. When I commented that only two of them were doing anything, and the other two were just watching, the other two volunteered to do them tomorrow night. I’m speechless.

The work done, we had our first devotional time as a complete team. Good singing, good testimonies, good prayer time.

A good day.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Boy, 4:00 comes early. Especially here, when it’s midnight EDT. We all spring from our beds in the guest house—well, except for one of the girls, who needs some, um, reminding, but we won’t mention any names—and we have all our luggage, and our persons, on the bus and headed north by 4:23. It’s a nice big tour bus, air conditioned, with wide reclining seats and lots of room for the luggage underneath.

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With only 12 of us (counting Timothy) filling seats, we have plenty of room. We have a Ghanaian driver and a helper, and by the end of the trip I’ve decided that he’s very good. He moves this monstrous bus through heavy city traffic, around potholes, and through herds of cows crossing the road in the rural areas, with a deft hand and just enough aggressiveness to get the job done without endangering either us or the people that our bus could easily demolish. He speaks little English, so his conversation is restricted to his helper and Timothy. (As in most African countries, there are several tribal languages in common use in Ghana. In Accra they speak Ga, and in Wa they speak Waale. Twi’s also big. I ask Timothy how many of the Ghanaian languages he speaks, and he says 3.)

As you can imagine, the team—and I—sleep for much of the trip. We make a bathroom and diesel stop in Kumasi, about 4 hours in, and the girls get their first experience with the standard African “squatty potty.” It’s shaped pretty much like a commode, but it’s buried, so the rim is at ground level. This toilet structure is pretty standard in Africa, and I’ve seen lots of them in China as well. I guess we’re most comfortable with what we’re used to. OK. Enough on that subject.

We have enough of last night’s chicken and rice left over to make it our brunch meal today, on the bus. That chicken has nutmeg or mace, I think, and it’s really good. We have enough to feed the drivers too.

The scenery ranges from urban in Accra and Kumasi, to mud-brick villages (thatched or metal roofs) every few miles, to open countryside, which is green and surprisingly lush. Lots of palms—I recognize banana especially. At most of the villages, there are kiosks (little vendor huts, what the Kenyans call tuck shops) out of which ambulatory vendors approach the vehicles and display their wares. Timothy gets a call from his wife asking him to pick up some tomatoes on the way home—life in Africa isn’t really all that different, now, is it?—and he tells the driver to stop at the next village with a good-sized collection of kiosks. When they see a big bus—and white people!!!—they all come running. (All white people are rich, you know.) They talk us into a couple of bunches of bananas, probably 25 or 30 in all. As we leave, I ask Timothy how much they cost. 5 cedis. $2.50. Almost makes the plane fare worth it.

We arrive at Wa and pull up to the compound right at 4 p.m., less than 12 hours. Timothy’s wife, Janet, is there to greet us, as well as Pastor Abraham, one of the students at the college, and the dog, Brita. (Yes, like the water filter.) And others, too, whose names, regretfully, I have forgotten. We unload quickly and move into what will be our homes for the three (Tanzania crew) or four (Cameroon crew) weeks.

The main house is large, with 6 bedrooms. The girls will stay here. There’s a large kitchen and dining area where we’ll do our cooking and eating, a living room, and 2 bathrooms. Lights, some AC—but we don’t intend to overdo it—and, believe it or not, both Ghanaian outlets (220V) and American outlets (110V). This is easy.

The boys are in another house 30 or 50 yards away, with 2 bedrooms, a slightly smaller kitchen, a living room, and 1 bathroom. And wireless Internet access. All the facilities are clean, bright, well decorated. The team will be fine.

A word to the parents about security. The compound is surrounded by a concrete wall, roughly 8 feet high, with, umm, security features at the top. The gate is locked and attended at all times. They’ve never had the wall breached. At night there are 2 security guards on the property. All the external doors at the residences have locks, and all the windows have steel grates over them. Your kids are safe.

And there are mango trees everywhere. When the fruit is ripe, it just falls to the ground. New ones every day. Heaven, I’m in heaven . . .

Janet fixed us grilled sandwiches for supper—look a bit like samosas, but grilled rather than fried. Plenty for everybody, and leftovers for breakfast. They have Coke here, too, of course. I give the case 2 days.

Brief meeting after supper; got most of our immediate questions answered, and ourselves encouraged. It gets dark before 7 p.m. here, so things get quiet pretty early. Right now the team is at the girls’ house, playing games, and I’m at the guys’ house, using the Internet. But I guess you already figured that out.

To get the Internet password, I stopped by Timothy’s house, and one of my former students at Central Africa Baptist College at Kitwe, Zambia, where I taught when the last team was there in 2010, was right there. Matthew Yaaneh is teaching Bible and Greek here now. Boy, does that do a body good.

We’ll spend a couple of days getting our feet under us, but we won’t be just sitting around. Graduation is tomorrow, as well as grocery shopping; we’ll be in several churches on Sunday, and we’ll hold a 2-day VBS at a nearby church Monday and Tuesday.

And away we go.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

As is always the case on red-eye flights, it’s a long night. My restless leg syndrome drives me nuts, as usual, but everyone has a pretty sporadic night of it. Catherine and I are seatmates, because our last names are so close together in the alphabet, and we manage to keep out of each other’s way. The floor thing doesn’t work at all, by the way. The seats must be closer together, because I can’t have gotten larger in the last three years.

They serve breakfast at about 9 a.m. (5 a.m. EDT)—a spicy meat pie (served hot) and a little fruit, very British. Catherine decides she doesn’t like it. She’d have made a lousy Welsh miner.

Before long we’re over land at an altitude low enough for us to see what’s going on. We all look out the closest window during the approach to Accra from the north. It’s fairly green—I assume because we’re getting into the rainy season—with lots of agriculture evident, and the red soil we all recognize from Georgia and South Carolina.

The landing is uneventful—that’s the best kind—and as we’re taxiing in, I text the parents that we’re on the ground in Africa. I tell the team that we have plenty of time, so we’ll just stay together and let others go first. First comes the yellow fever vaccination check—they seem really, really serious about that—and then immigration. There the guy comments on my pen, takes it to look at it, distracts me with something else, and keeps it. Smooth enough that I suspect he’s done that before. Next is baggage claim and customs. We go through the “nothing to declare” line, because, well, we have nothing to declare. They’re interested in my big white box, but they lose interest when I tell them it’s full of caps, gowns, tassels and diplomas for West Africa Baptist College. No problems.

Out of the terminal, through the gantlet of hawkers trying to sell their services, willing to do anything—carry your luggage, make a phone call, whatever—for a tip. Finally we reach the outdoor waiting area, where we take seats and wait for James, the proprietor of Baptist Mid-Missions’ guest house in Accra, and Timothy Seidu, with whom we’ll be working in Wa, to show up. We wait long enough that I decide to use my newfangled global phone to call him. Can’t seem to get a call through; I try it with the country code, without the country code, with the leading zero, without the leading zero. Every time I get a recording saying “Your call has been rejected.” So I call tech support and get a nice American-sounding lady named Cheryl. As we’re working through several possibilities, I spot Timothy and a muzungu (that’s Swahili for “white person”—but they don’t speak Swahili here in West Africa) who I suppose must be James. I tell Cheryl that I’ve found the person I was trying to call, so I’ll get back to her about the phone problem.

Timothy is a BJU grad from 2001, just after I started teaching. He has the confidence of a bicultural person. It’s good to see him again. Soon a couple of other Ghanaian pastors arrive, we have introductions all around, and we load the luggage and the people into 2 SUVs and a pickup truck. As we drive to the guest house I decide to try to call Cheryl again. I reach her—which is odd, since you hardly ever get the same tech person two calls in a row—and to make a long story short, we figure out that she’s the ex-wife of my first cousin once removed. What are the odds?

She gives me several things to try. None of them work. But we’ve arrived at the house, so we put the problem aside again and move in.

It’s spacious, with several apartments and plenty of room for everyone to sleep, especially since three of us aren’t here. First order of business—in fact, pretty much the only order of business—is to go grocery shopping for things we won’t be able to buy in Wa. John Cross, my old Press buddy who was here with the group from Faith Baptist in Taylors two months ago, has been a lot of help in that regard. Timothy takes us to a grocery store within a mile or so, and we execute the list: ground beef, shredded cheese, frozen veggies, mueslix, canned tuna, PB&J, laundry detergent. I grab a few bouillon cubes, since my experience is that they’ll work wonders on bland food.

We decide to let the vehicle take the food back, and walk ourselves home. We’re assaulted by street hawkers virtually the whole way, and I have to encourage the girls to call on their rude side a little more aggressively. These guys are professional con men, and they’re always working something with the passersby.

We do stop for a coconut (everybody gets one; some like the milk better than others) and some rotisserie chicken and rice (takeaway, as they say in Britain and former colonies) for supper. When we get back, we set up a cafeteria line and everybody gets plenty, with enough left over to be a significant contributor to tomorrow’s meals. Several of the team—Abbie, Auria, Catherine and Keri—do the kitchen cleanup. Teamwork is starting to come together already.

Somewhere along the way, with my phone still useless, Jon gets a text through to Joy in New York and gets a reply. The three of them are scheduled on the next day’s version of our flight, so they’ll all be here at 1 p.m. tomorrow. James will be able to meet them at the airport, take them to the guest house for a bit of a break, and then to the bus terminal for the ride to Wa. They’ll ride all night, with some food and extra local currency that we’ve left behind, and arrive in Wa, d.v., in time for graduation.

After supper we have a team meeting. I’m hoping for some singing and testimonies, but it’s clear immediately that everyone’s exhausted. At least three of them can hardly keep their eyes open. It’s 6:30 p.m.—2:30 p.m. New York time—and they’re ready for bed.

That’s a good thing, because the bus we’ve hired to take us to Wa is going to show up in less than 10 hours at 4 a.m. I tell them that, and we all head for bed.