Saturday, April 26, 2014

That's What I Love about Niger

Recently an appointee to Niger asked John what he likes about living here.  This is what John wrote:

Dear ______,

Some of what Suzanne wrote on her blog is exactly what I was going to say to you. So let me begin with the weather. Yeah, it's hot, but that has its advantages.
Trying to stay cool one day when our power was out.

For one thing, you don't have to pile on layers of clothes. One thing people always tell me in cold climates is that you can always put on more layers to stay warm, but you can only take off so much in a hot climate. The problem for me is that I'm always cold in cold climates, and it's because my face, head, feet, and hands never seem to warm up. Besides, you can only put on so many layers before you can't fit into any more. And, I hate putting on layers. It takes so much time and fuss and costs so much more money. Plus, as Suzanne says, it's always warm enough for a swim or a water fight in Niger. Truth be told, I like hot. There are months when the heat is too much and I complain and longingly think of cold winter nights in North America, but if I had to choose between extreme hot and extreme cold, I'd choose the former any day. Fewer people die of extreme heat than of extreme cold (that's my unscientific opinion, anyway). That may be of small comfort to you as you think about Niger, but there are times in Niger where the weather can be really nice. Cool, clear December nights are some of my favorites. So are the clear blue skies of a rain-washed September day. There's more I could say that I like about the weather, but that gives you my opinion of it. (Of course, it's easy for me to say as I 'freeze' in 13C weather in England when it's 43C in Niger now.)

Now, take the people. Nigeriens are open, friendly, and outgoing. They do have their suspicions of strangers, like everyone, and Niamey is a big city, a place where people tend to be more reserved, but people are so much more warm and friendly than in North America or somewhere like here in England. I like that you don't always have to call to make an appointment to see someone. I like that people drop everything just for you, the guest.

Yeah, it means your program gets messed up and you might feel pressure to get something done, but it's so much more refreshing and healthy. People live in community, and they depend on each other. It's not really a matter of dependence or independence, but interdependence. We westerners have got to learn to make a declaration of dependence. The truth is we need to fight against being totally independent. We have a lot to learn from our African brothers and sisters in this area. Living in community has its difficulties, but there are some big benefits. You develop deep, lasting friendships. Just a few weeks ago, I went back to the village where we lived for 16 years. I was welcomed like a long lost son. Even though my memories of our time there are filled with much sadness, I was blown away by the sincere greetings given me. Wow, all friendships we developed over those years. I have rarely had such deep friendships in North America where everybody looks out for themselves and people seem cold and unfriendly by comparison. I shed tears as I write because that is one of the things I like the most about Niger. I am not trying to say Canadians or Brits are unfriendly and unfeeling, and you still have to work to make friends in Niger, but it feels more open and inviting in many ways. Oh, and another thing Suzanne mentioned is the community amongst missionaries. You may not feel this immediately, but time and again, my missionary family has stepped up to the plate when we've had a need. There is a sense of community and sharing among us. Yeah, there are problems, too, but the family feel often helps to make up for the loss one feels when biological family is far away.

Suzanne mentioned the culture. There are things I like about the culture and other things I don't like. One thing I like is that people are always more important than work. I have to remind myself of that when I'm so busy that I don't feel like I have time for one more visitor, but that's what helps make community. Also, things happen slowly. Sometimes that can be frustrating, but often it is wonderful to have life slow down and take a more leisurely pace.
One of the most generous people I know.

One thing that astounds me is the way my poor friends will share what little they have with their rich, white friends. I have been humbled and amazed by their generosity. In a big city like Niamey, you may not see that right away, but the longer you stay in Niger, the greater the chances of that happening. Oh, and some of my Muslim friends will stand up and defend my reputation amongst friends, government officials, and folks who don't know me.

Now I'm going to diverge a bit from Suzanne's blog and talk about some other things that I like about Niger. One is that it's a great place to raise your kids (in my humble opinion). No, it is not exempt from evil and the sin nature, but some of the blatant nature of western culture is muted and behind doors in Niger. Some of that excessive materialism is also masked and not as in-your-face as in North America or England.

Of course, our kids grew up in a bush town in an almost ideal environment (if anything on earth could be considered ideal). They had many friends in the village and learned the language well. They were not isolated from the hardships and evils of life. They saw much suffering and pain. But they were part of our work and participated in it often. I think that's one reason they loved it so much.
They didn't live in an isolated 'bubble' where all the ex-pats were. Of course, there are dangers, but you need to take reasonable risks and let your kids develop friendships with Nigerien children. Our kids benefited greatly from their experience, and I believe God has made them better for it.

Next, there are certain foods that I crave when I'm not in Niger. Some we can make or find in North America and some we can't. Lemonade made with fresh lemon juice. Sweet, ruby red grapefruit. Papaya, fresh pineapple, cashew fruit and guava. Groundnut stew (peanut butter sauce), the specialty food of West Africa. Sauces made out of egusi (pumpkin seeds), baobab leaves, or sesame. Fried plantains (cooking bananas). Delicious, cheap street food (chicken or shish-kebobs cooked on grills outdoors).

Big, juicy, vine-ripened tomatoes. Spicy purple onions (one of the chief agricultural exports of Niger). Bean cakes and fried doughnuts (cooked outdoors in big vats). The list could go on and on. Don't get me wrong. There is not the variety or quantity of foods you can get in North America, and some of the foods are only available in season, but they make my mouth water as I think of them, and I've barely been out of the country for two days.

Another thing I love about Niger is the birds. There are times when Niger doesn't look too pretty to the western eye. But the amazing variety of colourful birds dazzles the mind with its splendour. Sometimes a bright red or blue or yellow or green bird will pop out and fly by when you least expect it.

It sometimes takes patience and observation to notice this, but as you will be living near the Niger River, there are many possibilities for seeing colourful birds. Take the time to watch for them. Another treat is the flowers. Some of them are breathtaking. And many of the flowers bloom the most during the hottest time of the year. Go figure.

Let me return to the subject of the weather. We actually have four seasons, but they don't follow the four season of North America. There is the rainy season from mid-June to mid-Sept. I love rainy season, especially the sound of rain on a tin roof. It's one of the loveliest sounds in the world. I love hard, driving rain and big thunderstorms. Yes, it makes the streets messy and the drainage is poor in Niamey, but that's part of the fun. I also love the dust storms that precede the first rains at the beginning of the rainy season. Some people don't like them because they rain down massive amounts of dust and blow fierce gale-force winds, but they remind me of God's majesty and power as they roll in on a hot afternoon, like a wall of fire stretching up thousands of feet into the air.

As soon as they hit, the temperature drops precipitously, and I like to go out and stand in them just soaking in God's goodness. (Dust storm season is usually May and June but can last into July.) Then when the rain hits, it's so cooling and refreshing, you want to run and skip and play in it. And it's amazing to watch the country literally change colour after the rains come. It's like the bloom of spring in North America, but different, too.

The second season is the hot, humid harvest season, which runs from mid-Sept to early Nov. That's not my favorite season because it's when my allergies start to kick up, and it's hot, but it doesn't last long. Then comes the third season: the long, dry, cool season, which goes from Nov to Feb. Again, one of my favorite seasons: cool nights, dry days, and often I don't even need the ceiling fan. Temperatures don't actually go that low (usually we get some nights in the teens celsius in Dec and Jan), but the dryness actually has a negative heat index effect, causing it to feel cooler than it is. Any breeze will be coming off the desert at that time, and it's relatively cool. It starts getting hot by early March, and the fourth season, the hot season, goes from mid-March to mid-June. These are the hottest months of the year because the sun's rays are directly overhead and we have not had rain for many months. May is my hardest month because it is both hot and humid in the run-up to the rainy season.

Did I mention how Niger brings the Bible to life? Nigerien culture is so much more like the culture of Palestine during Jesus' day that it really helps you see the Bible with new eyes.

One final thing: I am naturally an extrovert, but I feel constrained and unsure of myself in North America, more like an introvert. Partly it's because I've been in Africa so long, partly I don't feel free to approach people and be myself there. I feel more like I'm in my skin in Niger. I can be myself and act like the extrovert I was created to be.

Have I whetted your appetite for more? There's lots more. I haven't mentioned many things that I actually enjoy. And this exercise of writing to you has made me remember why I'm there and why I love it. We are prone to complain, aren't we, to look at the rough or difficult side of life? But these are some of the reasons I love Niger, and I hope you will grow to love it as well. I can't say it will be easy, and it may not always be fun, but you can rejoice that you are not competing with hundreds of other people for the same jobs and trying to reach out to people who are turning their backs on God. You will be counted with the few who have responded to the call to go to the hard place and triumphed through the hardship, living life to the full. I know that can be done in North America, but we have such an easy life there, and ease tends to dull our senses and make us forget our purpose and our need to depend on God. That is something you cannot do in Niger and survive for long. I don't know if you've ever read Theodore Roosevelt's 'Man in the Arena' speech. If you haven't, look it up sometime. It has startling insight and perceptiveness about life and how it should be lived.


Saturday, April 19, 2014

Precious in His Eyes is the Death of His Saints

We had a friend in Tera who was from Ghana. He seems to show up in our pictures starting in 2004.  He came to our little fledgling church and was always faithful.  Looking back on it, we didn't know him that well.  He was quiet and gentle and faithful but never drew attention to himself.  We always enjoyed the chance to speak a little English with him, though he also spoke Songhai well.
Our friend mentioned in this blog is the man with the striped shirt next to me.

He made traditional medicines from local herbs, leaves, and roots.  There wasn't any witchcraft stuff involved....just knowing which plants cured which problems.  He then traveled from market to market in the area selling the medicines.  He made a living, but just barely.

He was single and often asked prayer that God would give him a Christian wife.  In Tera marriages are most often arranged, but there are also marriages where a groom chooses his wife and gets her fathers' and uncles' permission to marry.  This man could have chosen a girl and asked for her hand in marriage, but he would doubtless have had to change his religion to do so.  And he wouldn't do that.  We've been gone from Tera for six years now and as far as I know in that intervening time period he never married.

I was shocked last Friday when our pastor here in Niamey called and asked if I knew this man.  I said yes, and then he told me that he had just died.  I'm not sure how our pastor was contacted.  Our friend had moved to Niamey, but he didn't attend our church.  It may be that his friends knew he was a Christian and called the only church they knew about.  

His body was laid to rest on Tuesday after his family in Ghana had been informed.  He was buried at the Christian cemetery here in Niamey (Muslims and Christians are not buried in the same cemetery.)  I went to the cemetery for the funeral.  About 10-15 of his friends were there.  I was the only white person and the only woman.  Being the only white person wasn't strange as I'm used to that.  But being the only woman felt a little awkward.  Muslim women never go to the burial here in Niger.  I know that and I never went to one in Tera.  I assumed it was different for Christians and so I went.  But then I was the only woman and it was a bit awkward.  Several of the men there were Muslim; some were Christian.  But since he never married, there probably weren't that many Christian women who knew him well.

While we were at the cemetery three men who work with him were telling us what happened.  They were at work together....he had found a job here (construction, maybe?).  Our friend said he didn't feel well and he must have looked pretty bad because they got him on the back of the motorcycle of one of the friends.  He was taking him to the hospital when he died right there on the motorcycle.  He pulled over and gently laid him to the ground and then stopped a taxi to take him to the hospital.  But it was too late.  He had high blood pressure and so I don't know if he had a heart attack or a stroke or what.

I felt sad that we didn't even know he had moved to Niamey and that we had not seen him in the past three years or so.  It was sad that so few people came to the cemetery.  But then he wasn't a man that gathered a lot of friends.  Those he knew he was faithful to, but he was a very private person.
In the center of this picture

But on this Good Friday/Easter weekend it's comforting to remember that Christ died and has the victory over death as shown by His resurrection.  Some day he will give the victory over death to us as well.  It's also comforting to know that our regrets, our short-comings, our guilt over not spending enough time with those we love has also been dealt with on the cross.  I need to learn from this and be willing to spend time with people and to build relationships, but I don't need to harbor guilt over not bothering to look him up and find out how he is doing.  I'm already forgiven, thanks to Jesus' work on the cross.

See you where Death no longer has the victory, my brother and my friend.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Preparing for Easter

Yesterday our church did something a bit different for Palm Sunday.  As far as I know, we've never done anything just like this.  We were told for the past few Sundays that it would be an evangelism Sunday and that we were going to go out on the streets and pass out tracts during the regular church service.

Talking to random people is really not in my comfort zone.  I think especially here, building relationships is the most important and effective way to reach people.  Notice I didn't say the only way.  I thought about not going to church, but felt that that was not what God wanted me to do.  So, I thought, well a flat tire or a dead battery could be my answer, but, nope, neither of those happened!

When we arrived at church we were all given a Gideon New Testament, some tracts, an invitation to the Easter celebration next Sunday, and a sheet specifically for university students to see if there is any interest in doing seminars for them.  Then we pretty much had the normal church service.  After that the pastor explained how it would work, we divided up into groups as assigned and went out on the street.  

Our church is along a main road and there are a lot of little shops and businesses along the street.
 The main entrance to the university is also just down the road.  I ended up with three young people who all happened to be students at the air traffic controllers' school.  We went on to the university grounds and found some students out on a grassy area studying, playing games, and drinking tea.  We didn't get into any deep conversations with them, but they accepted the invitations to the Easter celebration next Sunday and were especially eager to receive the New Testaments.  In fact, other groups of students asked for New Testaments and we didn't have any left to give.  Another guy from church came with a stack of them as we were leaving so we told him where to go to hand them out.

While we were out, another group stayed behind to pray.  They were moms with babies, people who can't walk well or can't handle the heat, and people who are designated as intercessors at the church.  

We headed back to the church, very hot and sweaty.  By then it was at least 102 in the shade and we weren't walking in the shade.  The church was pretty hot, too, but at least we had fans.  Thankfully I had brought along a bottle of ice water.  We ended the time with a few testimonies and prayer.

I thought it was a good thing to do for several reasons.  First, it involved the church in one activity all together, youth all the way up to old people.  Secondly, we actually put into practice what we hear every Sunday.  We didn't just sit there, we actually got out and did it.  Thirdly, going in groups gave people who weren't comfortable with it the chance to be supported by others and to learn from them.

Here are a few suggestions for the future or for other churches who might try a similar thing.  First, if you live where it's as hot as it is here, go out at the beginning of the church service.  Our service starts at 9 and we didn't go out until at least 11.  Secondly, I think a role play for instructive purposes at the beginning would have been helpful to show how to handle different problems or questions that might have come up.  And thirdly, have sandwiches for everybody when they get back. :)

I didn't take my camera as I didn't want to have to carry anything other than my water bottle.  All pictures on this blog are from other days.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Hope, No Matter What

Last year I read through the Bible in a year.  I like doing that every three or four years or so.  But I find it hard to have enough time to look more in depth at certain passages when I have to keep up with a Bible-reading schedule.  So in other years I like to study a book, a passage, or even a word in more depth.

Anybody who follows my blog or receives our prayer letters will know that we had a devastating flood on two of our mission campuses in August of 2012.  

This resulted in our ministries on those campuses finding temporary locations as well as the need to find housing for around 54 people.  The year that followed was a year of organizing teams to come out to help with clean-up, hiring local workers to help with clean-up, and building a retaining wall inside our security wall.  It meant another move  from our temporary locations back to campus.

It was a time of discouragement, of desperation, and of despair.  It was also a time of hope, of clinging to our Father's promises, of rebuilding, and of restoration.  The building that was the hardest hit on the Sahel Academy Campus was the dining hall/kitchen/assembly hall building.  As it was cleaned up, restored, remodeled, and moved back into, it was also given a new name:  Hope Hall.

During our Spiritual Life Conference in January, the visiting team had the youth make a puzzle collage focusing on the word "HOPE".

 This got me thinking more about the word as it is used in the Bible.  We tend to think of it as "not likely to happen but I will wish for it to happen...against all odds".  In fact, the Cambridge International Dictionary of English defines hope as "a desire for the future to be as good as you want it to be".

So, I've been looking up verses on HOPE and then looking up the Hebrew or Greek word.  I've found to be a great resource. I'm no Hebrew scholar, but one of the passages I've been looking at is intriguing to me for it's three Hebrew words, all translated HOPE.

Lamentations 3:18-26 uses the word numerous times:
v. 18  So I say, "My splendor is gone and all that I had hoped from the Lord.
v. 21-25  Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope.  Because of the LORD's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.  They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.  I will say to myself, "The LORD is my portion, therefore I will wait for him.  The LORD is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD."

In verse 18 the word is tocheleth and it means "expectation".

In verse 21 (Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope) and verse 24 (I will wait for him) the word is yachal and it simply means "to wait".

In verse 25  (those whose hope is in him) the Hebrew word is qavah and it also means "to wait" but with the added idea of "twisting, stretching, the tension of enduring.

So, my understanding of these verses is that the writer (Jeremiah, who is lamenting the state his people have fallen into and the punishment God is allowing for their sins) is this:
Jeremiah expected certain things from God but through affliction he no longer had them.  Then he finds he can wait for God when he focuses on His love, His mercy, His compassion, and His faithfulness.  Seeking God and waiting for Him brings a certain amount of twisting of the soul, of tightening, of tension.  It results in a firmer faith in God, a dependence on Him no matter what, a clinging to God despite everything falling apart around him.

Hoping in God is not something that's always easy to do.  Sometimes we question God, especially during hard times.  There is a tension to it, a twisting of our hearts and souls.  It is something that can only happen when we focus on God.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

ABC's of Me

Back in February Suzanne did a fun post on "The ABC's of Me".  Since nothing terribly exciting has been happening in my life (busy, yes; exciting, no), I thought I'd do a similar post.

Age:  All I’ll admit to is that I’m in the 2nd half century of my life.
My birthday is in May.  Here's a picture from a few years back.  We were in the US that year.  May is one of my favorite months in the US.  Notice I am wearing a sweater and look fresh and alive.  Now, here is a picture of me celebrating my birthday in Niger.  I look like something the cat dragged in.  Let me tell you, May is my least favorite month in Niger and it's a terrible month to have a birthday.  One word to describe May in Niger would have to be SWEAT.  

Bed size:  Double.  I don’t think anything bigger would fit in our room. 
Thankfully neither of us are big people and we’re very comfortable in our bed!  Except in May when the power goes off, then we're like, "Don't touch me!"

Chore I dislike:  Dishes.  Definitely dishes.  I have to admit I do have somebody who comes in and does the floors, dusting, and ironing twice a week.  And yes, dishes.  Monday nights and Thursday nights are our favorites because we know he’s coming to wash the dishes the next day!  And I really shouldn’t complain because John does the dishes on Sunday, Tuesday, and Friday and I do them on Wednesday and usually on Saturday.  Sometimes there aren’t many dishes on Friday, so he’ll help me do them on Saturday instead.

Dogs or cats:  I really prefer dogs, but John doesn’t like dogs at all.  Plus, people around here are really afraid of dogs, so we don’t have one.  When Daniel was three, a neighbor gave him a kitten which lived for 16 years.  Now we have another cat that neighbors gave us.

Essential daily item:  Food?  Clothes?  Those are kind of essential.  I guess because of my work I try to always have my phone with me.

Favorite color:  Purple. Very definitely purple.

Gold or silver:  Definitely silver.  Even my wedding and engagement rings are white gold.  I do have one “gold” set of earrings and necklace, but other than that I don’t wear gold.

Height:  5’2” and probably as my mom always says, “and shrinking”.

Instrument playing:  You’d think after six years of piano lessons I’d be pretty good at it.  But I’m not.  I only play for my own enjoyment.

Job title:  Personnel coordinator.  I love my job, but it definitely keeps me busy. 

Kids:  Two, a son and a daughter.  No, make that four:  a daughter-in-law and a son-in-law, too.

Live:  In west Africa.  I have lived more of my life in Africa than in America.

Mom’s name:  Betty Louise Gay Hall.  The “Hall” came when she married my dad.  Betty is not short for Elizabeth or anything else, just Betty.  My mom is amazing, by the way.

Names I have:  Nancy Evelyn, Hannatu, Anasara, Honey, Giwa and NannyGlo which only my dad is allowed to call me, so don’t even try it.  My grandpa always called his grandkids “Widget”.  Little did he know it would become a computer term.

Operations:  Tonsillectomy when I was three.  An operation to repair the messed up episiotomy and other damage sustained during Daniel’s birth. 

Pet Peeves:  People standing behind my chair when I'm working and making it turn or making me feel like they’re looking over my shoulder.  By brain immediately freezes up and I can no longer do whatever I was working on.  People chewing loudly.  Crazy drivers who think they own the road.

Quotes from a movie:  “The husband is the head of the family.  But the woman is the neck.  She turns the head wherever she wants it to go.” (My Big Fat Greek Wedding)  “As you wish.”  (Princess Bride)  I don’t really remember lines from movies.

Right or left:  Right

Siblings:  Two brothers and one sister.  My brothers were twins and one of them died in Ghana of malaria before I was born.  My brother is five years older than me and my sister is 14 months younger than me.  (That's me in the pink.)

Tune: Boy, I don't know.  Right now coming up on Easter my mind goes often to In Christ Alone.  

University:  Cedarville University.  Only back then it was Cedarville College.  I graduated with a degree in what was then referred to simply as El Ed or Elementary Education.

Veggie Dish:  Recently I made a baked zucchini casserole that was delicious!  I like most vegetables with the exceptions of Brussels sprouts and peas.  But frozen peas are ok. 

Why I am late:  Because when people say, “It’s time to go”, I think that means, “It’s time to get ready to go.”  Because I have no concept of time.  Because I get busy and forget that I need to go.  I hate leaving tasks I am in the middle of.

X-rays:  I slammed my toe into the wall and it hurt so bad and was so bruised I went to have it x-rayed.  But it wasn’t broken.

Yummy food:  Home-made pizza.  Anything chicken.

Zoo animal:  I love watching the otters at the zoo.