Monday, August 18, 2014

This Fragile Mindset

A Saturday afternoon at the beach with a friend and her small boys was a welcome day out for me. I enjoyed having only one small bag and a towel to carry while she wrangled her one and three year old out of the vehicle, balancing sand pails and towels, toys and snacks, with a drink in one hand and her keys in the other. Of course, I helped her after a moment of gratitude that I was so lightly loaded. As we sat on the beach and the boys ran around and chased birds and dug holes, I was reminded of the many times I'd sat on this same beach with my boys, not many quiet moments, no time alone and certainly no use for the books I would always somewhat optimistically bring along. For me, it was one of those "when the boys are bigger..." type days. I could swim alone. I could lay on my towel. I could play and build sandcastles but I didn't have to change sand filled diapers or eat sandy chips or have a juice box squirted down the front of my shirt.

After an afternoon of sand consumption, ice cream and digging, we made our way out to our vehicles. My friend strapped in a sleepy baby boy and seat belted in his wailing brother who wanted nothing to do with leaving the beach.  Her family all secured, I in my quiet car alone, we began the hour long drive back through the country to the city. It's a particularly pretty drive this time of year with the fields nearly ready for harvest. I often turn off the radio and just open the windows and enjoy the ride. Just about 3/4 of the way home, I was coming up on a minivan that had turned onto the highway a few miles ahead of me. As country roads beckon you to, we were both doing at least a few km over the speed limit, which was 80 and then turned to 100 right around where things went sideways. 

I was still about a quarter mile behind the van when I saw a woman fly into the ditch, rolling. I couldn't believe my eyes. I thought that she was a pedestrian who had been hit by the van, who was now pulling to the side of the road. I quickly pulled in front of the van and jumped out and ran towards the ditch. The driver of the van was calling 911 as I ran by him.  After assessing and addressing some of her injuries, and stabilizing her until the ambulance came, it turned into a long conversation with a distraught young mom.  As it turns out, she had made the 'decision' to get out of the van because she and her partner were arguing in front of her three small boys. She was overwhelmed by her physical pain at times but more so by her anguish at having subjected her boys to the trauma of seeing their mother jump out of a moving vehicle. There's not much you can say when you're listening to someone lament their decisions that have affected young children. My friend and her boys sat in their vehicle, just ahead of the accident scene, and I just couldn't imagine what on earth allows one mother to have the kind of afternoon we'd just had at the beach, while another is launching herself out of a vehicle to escape a barrage of accusations that you can't refute. Lying beside her in the ditch, my clothes bloodied and my words inadequate, I wanted to weep with her. I just kept her still and trying to keep her comfortable as possible when lying on the stubbled ground with road rash on every conceivable part of your body.

As the ambulance and police arrived and she was taken to the hospital, I was left with my bloodied clothing, blankets from my vehicle and about another 20 mins till home. I drove carefully, watching the ambulance in my rear view mirror and offered up some disjointed prayers - for her, for her boys, her partner, for the paramedics and for the doctors. And then, for myself. And then I approached the road where I turn off towards home and my friend keeps on straight,  we waved out the window and then I started to cry and shake. I started to cry thinking about how I was going to get in the house with bloody clothing and past my own boys without answering questions. I couldn't figure it out and it felt insurmountable so I texted, while driving, my husband at home to meet me in the driveway in 5 mins. I probably pulled into my driveway around the same time that the ambulance pulled into the ER at the University Hospital. I was met with a hug and concern and care and I hope she received the same.

I don't know that I'll ever know how this young mom made out or which way her life leads her. I do know that her name is embedded in my mind and that she'll remain in my prayers for a long, long time. I choose to be hopeful for her because she wasn't able, in those moments, to muster hope for herself. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Days Go By

I've been a little sad over the past week, simply because my time in Zambia always slips away entirely too quickly. And yet, the days were full - of colour, of love, of family. The stories are just beginning to assemble themselves in some order in my mind and I'm beginning to think clearly about all I heard and saw and experienced....and I'm so hopeful. I'm so very hopeful for this little community that has become such a second home to me. I'm hopeful because the longevity of the work that the care workers are doing in that community is showing such beautiful response. It shows itself in the eyes of a boy who I've seen grow year after year into a kind and smart young man who is ready to lead in his community. It's in the eyes of the care worker who has been welcomed back into the arms of her friends despite several detours in life that left them sharing the responsibility of her children to be cared for. It's in the eyes of a grandmother who can laugh and joke though she and her grandson's only possessions, meagre as they were, were stolen recently and left them with nothing but reliance on the generosity of others who have not much themselves. This is the hope. Community based care. Love in its simplest form. Serving others starting with what you have, however little. It's not alleviating poverty or even suffering but it is an approach that shows humanity in its best form. When someone, a neighbour or even a relative stranger, comes and steps into the pain and suffering with someone, there is suddenly a lightness that comes to the situation. It doesn't always change the outcome of the situation for someone living in poverty or fighting a life threatening illness ... but it alleviates the darkness and loneliness that comes from feeling your on your own in it.  When a mother can lock the door at night and know that in the morning, there will be those care workers who will come and check that she and her young daughter made it through to another day, despite the threats to their security because of their beauty and vulnerability. 

I just wanted to share too, a glimpse of the natural beauty that I saw in Zambia. In the light. And the sun. And even in the dusk as the light was lost for another day. And too, the beauty in the darkness that was a million stars reflecting on the water...too incredible for my untrained eye and camera to capture, but that's okay too. Sometimes the most beautiful things aren't meant to be held anywhere other than in your mind's eye and in your heart. 

This was our last full day in Zambia. We spent it on the Kafue River and just caught up with one another as a team, some of the last conversations we would have about our time together before we disbanded and travelled home. In all of it, there was incredible, untouched beauty...and here's just a sample. Of the light as it  warmed us then left us and even the beauty of the hippos in the dusky water, grunting their unique song as we headed for home. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Snapshots of Mulenga Life

The real truth of what I "do" in Zambia?  I just spend time in Zambia. I don't "do" or "teach" or "train" or "bring" anything substantial. Sure, there are opportunities to take part in things that may, as part of being there spending time, turn into teaching or doing...but for the most part, the best part, I just spend my time with people that have become my family. And I have a lot of family in Mulenga. Even with photos, it's hard to convey the reality of life in Mulenga. It's always just a snapshot of any given moment and I guess there is always a tension I feel that portraying things one way is to write it in stone for many people who have never been or will never go. If anything, life in Mulenga is always in flux. It can be painful and difficult, anxious and consuming with thoughts of how to find food and get food and eat food and share food. It can turn a healthy family into a vulnerable one in just a heartbeat. It can turn from nightmare to security in days. And vice versa. It can be incredible joyful and filled with songs and dancing. It can be incredibly painful and filled with abuses and inconsolable grief.  Sometimes I think life in this little community is much like a game of chance. Some days your odds are good that your little home will be spared and that there will be food and good health and a chance to earn an income to get by. Some days, life is stacked against you. Illness means job loss and loss of food security and even death. A child can get a basic running-down-the-road-tripped-over-a-rock scraped knee that can turn into an infection and suddenly you're dealing with life and death or loss of limb. The rains come. The dry season comes. The fires burn and the smoke lingers. The day to day work of staying alive is always present. And yet, there are moments of laughter and play and friendship and support that can equal the difference between hope and hopelessness.

The beauty of spending time in Mulenga is that the more time I spend, the more glimpses of the "real" life and love and hope I get. Sometimes I can capture them - if I'm quick and no one is looking - and sometimes you just can't. And that's ok, because to be witness to them is often more beneficial that capturing it outright. Like this little moment between friends. Genuine love and laughter between care workers Dorothea and Joyce.
 Yet when I turn the camera on them, it's all African seriousness as quickly as they can! Catching just a HINT of Joyce's smile while Dorothea tries to get serious, makes me laugh because these ladies are just full of joy and laughter but for some reason, Zambians tend to want their photos to be stoic and serious...despite a lot of cajoling to just please smile! It's always a challenge but I love these women too much to let the world think of them as stoic or stern...though let me tell you, if you're thinking of dropping out of school or getting married young or having a baby, you don't want to mess with these ladies. They will grandmother you into recommitting your life to education and the betterment of all people before you even finish your sentence!

At the care point, this is a lot of what I "do" in Zambia. I sit. In the company of some of the most incredibly selfless people I've ever heard of. Sitting in the shade of the care point, waiting for the kids to arrive for their lunch, there is a lot of beauty on one cement ledge. These women share their lives so deeply that you can not help but want to just soak it in. Sometimes I sit for over an hour, listening to them chatter in Bemba, catching only 1/3 of what is being said but taking in all the laughter and love and concern that is being transferred between them. This particular group of care workers have been exemplary in how they care not only for the vulnerable in their community, but for each other, in times that are difficult, embarrassing, humbling and that I dare say, that if we could only learn from, our world would be a much safer place to mess up and recover. 

These care workers practice selfless love every single day. By the minute at times. With each other. With those they are responsible for.  For those that don't deserve it. For those who can least repay it. 

If that, only that, was what I take time and energy and money to sit and take is more than worth it on my end. And yet, what is it worth to them? There's that always-with-me-nagging-thought that perhaps just sending a cheque for the equivalent of the airfare would be more useful and valuable than showing up once a year or year and a half and stumbling through my inadequate Bemba and cultural differences to walk through their community with them. Please hear this...if all I was doing was showing up and being an observer and then coming home and going back to my daily life as usual, then yes, it would be more valuable to cut them a cheque and stay out of their way and let them be continue to shine in the work that they are doing in their community.  There is only value in going and bringing others, when there is something on this end of the trip. Advocacy. Change. Education. Involvement. It's about fostering that relationship and standing together,  in spite of the distance. 

Spending time in communities like these can be so fulfilling and enriching that we forget to tell the reality of the story to others. Yes, the children are joyful and willing to play but they also go home at night,  having had only one meal that day. The mornings we woke in our beds with blankets and mosquito nets, it was chilly to get up and going, yet these little ones that greet us slept on cement, without mosquito nets and get up in the same clothes they wore the day before and before that.  Sometimes, it's difficult to imagine that the children that play with such tireless energy are sick or exposed to abuses we can't see. On this past trip, many of our home visits were pretty encouraging. Kids were doing well in the program, benefitting from the meals they were given, and being cared for and visited by care workers regularly. And yet, as good as that is, I think perhaps this team saw a bit less of the vulnerability of the families we visited. One home visit we went on was the home of an older grandma who was caring for 6 children, all her grandchildren and great grandchildren. She had buried 9 out of her own 10 children. We asked if we could help her with chores, though the one room they lived in was spotless, there wasn't much to mess up. We asked if she needed help with laundry and she smiled, though sadly, and told us that they were wearing all that they owned. Does that get by anybody? That everything that 6 children and an elderly grandmother own are the rags on their body. That there is not more than three plates on the cupboard and a few threadbare blankets folded beside them. This family sleeps on the floor, huddled together in a space where 4 or 5 of us were crouched knee to knee, because the only bedroom is rented out so that they can make a small income of less than $20 USD a month. Vulnerability looks like an aging grandmother eking out a living by renting the only bedroom in her house so she can feed her grandchildren. 

And then this beautiful girl, Lana*, and her aunty. She is living in a small home by herself for months on end. Her parents were married and raising 8 children together when they both became ill and passed away. Each of the parents' siblings took a child, spreading the brothers and sisters out across Zambia from Lusaka to Kitwe and beyond. Imagine the grief of a girl like Lana, about aged 6, coming from a family of 10 to becoming the only child of an elderly uncle she'd likely never met before. She arrived in Mulenga and her uncle has to leave her alone because he walks for miles into the bush to make and carry charcoal back to Mulenga for sale. He is in his 70's, raising a young girl and working that hard to make an income. The care workers provide him with some much needed peace of mind that when a nearby aunty can't care for Lana, that they provide her with a daily meal and visits to ensure she is less vulnerable. Decreasing vulnerability for a girl who sleeps along behind a padlocked door every night, unable to go outside to use the bathroom because it's far too dangerous - it looks like care workers visiting and sitting with Lana almost daily so that those that would prey on her know that she is being care for and watched by adults who take responsibility for her.  I can't imagine the loneliness that Lana has experienced in her few years. Grief. Separation. Long, dark nights alone in a strange house in a foreign community. 

The beauty of this girl's life is that she has care workers and teachers at the community school who stand up in the community and say, "This girl is ours. She is with us." which makes her vulnerability decrease substantially among her peers in similar living situations. 

When we asked her what she liked to do, she said, "Reading." She reads and reads and reads, whatever she can get her hands on, repeatedly.  Her aunt spoke up excitedly when Lana said this, and explained that wherever they are, if there are words, Lana reads them and explains them. "She reads signs and billboards and plastics (shopping bags)...she's always reading," she said proudly. We asked Lana what she would like to be when she gets older and her answered surprised us. "A princess", she said.  Oh, this girl can read. And dream. And imagine. And that's exactly what the love and support that she is getting from her care workers and teachers is enabling her to do. 

Lana and her proud aunty, who lives nearby and checks on her when she is alone. 

*name changed

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Upon Return

...and just like that, I'm back. In my office, high above the manicured gardens of the Bess, with the South Saskatchewan flowing quietly by, I have been sitting here for a while staring at the photos on my wall of the kids in Mulenga and marvelling how lovely it was to see them growing and thriving and playing. Some have passed on and that's always hard, to see the gaps or walk by the homes where children or adults you've known have lived out their last days.

Five years is a long time in the life of a community in which there are so many, many needs. On my first trip to Zambia, at the same time of year, the country was new to me. So, too, were the kinds of poverty and vulnerability that I would witness as I walked through a community I had only read about and known from a distance.

Distance is tricky. It can still stir empathy and compassion, but when you walk the uneven paths, strewn with garbage and sewage, carefully placing each step one in front of the other, you get a different perspective. The smells and the sounds of a community deepen the understanding of the type of lives that you can possibly live here. A good roof. A lock on the door. Some piece work to provide an income for the day's meal. Those are the things that people strive for in a place such as this. It's not an easy setting but the first time I stepped into those streets and the homes of children and their care givers living there, I knew I was being called to something.

Over the years, there is no less sense of calling when I walk through Mulenga. Though there are so many hopeful and amazing stories of lives being absolutely transformed by the love and selflessness of a group of men and women who have chosen to serve those who need it the most, Mulenga remains a very challenging place to live and grow and survive. While the economy of Zambia and the stability of government have brought improvement to many lives in Zambia, it has yet to trickle down to the poorest, living still in communities such as this, communities that lack infrastructure and services to make living a lot healthier and more sustainable. It's when I return that I become increasingly aware of what sacrifice and commitment the care workers who volunteer in this community have. It's so humbling. I have nothing that compares - even to those I love the most - that would match the kind of love they are living out daily - every day of the five years since I first met them and beyond.

I'm often humbled by their friendship and their love for me. It feels undeserved and somewhat wrong that they would assume that I too, exhibit that type of selflessness and love to others. That's what challenged me the most on this particular trip. That Elizabeth and Sylvia and Beauty are daily making nshima, no small feat in itself, for 150 kids while I'm here, in an office and coming and going to my comfortable home, knowing the homes they sleep in are no better than the ones of the children they serve. I know too, that often their own homes provide shelter for children in need of security, or comfort when they are lonely or sick. How often do I provide that sort of shelter though there are many in my community that could use it?  I know that we live in a different economy but it's not an excuse. I'm not going to be a martyr here and beat myself black and blue, but I am going to sit in this discomfort for at long as I can, until I find the calling in the challenges and can see a way to act on it.

Regardless of the beauty of our friendship, I want to stand with my friends and know that I have not only learned from them, but acted upon it. Not that they need that for them to love me as they do...but  it will allow me to accept that type of unconditional love that they so generously give to me.

Dorothea and Joyce


Immanuel and Esther

The teachers in Mulenga - (l-r) Catherine, Jacqueline, Immanel, Alice and Reuben (front)
The beautiful care workers of Mulenga.
(l-r front) Esnaut (field coordinator - red tshirt) Elizabeth, Cynthia, Immanuel, Jacqueline (teacher), Mildred and her son Tawonga, Sylvia, Alice (teacher) and Reuben in front.
(l-r back) Joyce, Cleopatra and her little Mathilda, Catherine, Esther, Dorothea, Flora, Loveness, Gytness, and Beauty.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

May, June, lucky am I?

So I've been doing a little travelling...a week a month for the past few, to be exact. It's never easy to be away from family but at the same time, on each of these trips, I've been surrounded by some incredible women. I was just thinking on it the past few days, as I've been sort of rumbling around here, wondering why I'm so out of sorts....and then I figured it out. I've been surrounded by greatness. In real life. Not the stuff that movies are made of but the stuff that life forges in people. Women who've been overwhelmed by life and overcome it. Women who I am forever indebted to for the incredible way they've allowed their stories to encompass mine and vice versa. Women that breathe absolute life into me, leaving me, an introvert, dying for more of their company and wisdom. Young women. Older women. Women of my age that fall in between those categories. Mothers, daughters, sisters, career women, life savers and life givers. If all I am known for is the company I keep, I'm going to be remembered well. 

This is just a small sampling of the lovely faces I get to have around me. When I'm with them, I'm my best self. There are more. There are high school friends and confidantes, women willing to drive for a couple hours just for a dinner together and making it altogether memorable. There is a new baby girl in the home of one of my dearest friends here in Saskatoon. There are hard times in the lives of others. Separations. Sickness. Sadness. And yet, friendship - true friendship - isn't diminished by time or distance. I've learned that now. 

I had a moment (think...extended dance mix length moment) at the wedding of a young woman who I've known since she was just a junior high kid with a southern accent and the loudest laugh I've ever heard...a moment in which I had the audacity to feel gypped of time together - of all we'd missed. And then, I realized, none of us are promised any time at all, and I went back to celebrating. At least, until I had to say goodbye again and then it was 10 miles of tears through the Tahoe National Forest with Robin at the wheel.  8 years ago tomorrow, and I do still mark the day, it was two state lines from NV to CA to OR before I ran out of tears and came up for air. So, that's progress. And you know, the beauty of it is, that though I've had to grieve the losses, I'm grateful for the friendships. 

It's been an amazing couple of months, reconnecting and feeling refreshed by it all. As I look forward in the next couple of weeks, I see a trip that fills me with such excitement as well, as Aidan and I head back to Zambia to reconnect with our friends and loved ones there. I know that there are lots of people who think it's giving up something to go to Zambia in the middle of the best months of summer in Saskatchewan. It's not. In fact, it's the most anticipated weeks of my year. I can't wait.

May with some really great women from my good. 
These two. A cabin. Non stop laughter. Tears. 

June -These are two of the women I look up to most in life. Absolute love. 

June -This southern girl

June -This beautiful girl and her new husband

July-Book Club Ladies

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Our Aidan.

In just about a month, Aidan (my eldest) and I are going back to Zambia with Hands at Work. Since returning from Zambia as a family, I had often wondered if my kids would want to go back. I knew that they loved people there and made friends but I wasn't sure in the end, if it was really their passion or if they just loved it because they are boys and always up for adventure. So, I was really happy (and not so secretly proud) that Aidan passed up a couple of opportunities that came his way in order to be part of the team that I'm taking to Zambia in July. At first, I wasn't sure if he understood the commitment but I am happy to say that over the past few months, this kid has seriously amazed me. 

I've said it before, that if our kids were just regular guys in our youth groups in the past, we would adore them and brag about them and just be their biggest fans. So, bear with me, because I'm going to do just that. Setting aside the fact that he is my child, and remarkably loved by me, he really is a very interesting and cool kid. On hearing that he needed to come up with about $4000 to take part in the trip, he took it upon himself to go and get a job refereeing at our local ball hockey league. It took a Saturday and an evening class to get certified and a small output for a helmet and cage (cause he apparently didn't feel that his goalie mask was appropriate...), and he did it. So, he's been refereeing games and being super responsible about scheduling and all those adult things he probably didn't inherit from us. Then he signed up for a paper route which he's been doing three times a week. Today, and on other Saturdays, he finds people that have bottles to return and takes them to Sarcan for recycling and gets the deposits. He's hustling. I love that he knows what the payoff is. 

It's never easy to raise a large amount of money when life has so many other ideas of how you should be spending it. Today, as I watched him come home in the pouring rain after doing all three of these jobs...I am so thankful again that we took the time to take our kids to South Africa and Zimbabwe and Zambia. I am grateful that they want to go back. And I'm more than happy to take them. I can't wait. 

Friday, June 13, 2014

On Being Human

I spent the better part of an afternoon yesterday sitting with my neighbour, Deb, on her deck in the gorgeous sunshine. Just to be clear, this is Saskatoon and so as much as I moan about the length and depth of our winters, I will try to paint an equal and accurate picture of the absolute beauty of our summers. Though all too fleeting, there are days when the weather just dictates you work as fast as you can and escape early to get out and enjoy it.

So, yesterday, Deb and I were catching up after a few weeks of her working all too much for my liking. I mean, seriously, she should consult my social schedule before booking on for so much work but I guess, she is in the business of saving lives so sometimes, I suppose that takes priority.

Regardless, in the course of just an afternoon on the deck, we discuss all manner of things and pretty much try to squeak as much life out of summer as we possibly can plan. Paddle boarding and roller blading remain at the top of our to do lists with regular deck sitting and backyard campfires thrown in for good measure. Impromptu bbq's and dinners take place with amazing regularity and there can be any number of friends and family and coworkers invited in with just a text message.

We were talking about how lucky we are, and we know it, that we live with neighbours who've become family around us.  It's something that Jason and I don't take for granted, having moved many times, and it's probably the number one reason we stay where we are. So, mid winter when it turns from credit to blame, the reasons remain the same. Good neighbours. Good friends. Knowing that these are hard to replicate...though we've been lucky over the years, we aren't going to chance it for the sake of moving.

The other night, Deb had been working out of town, our across the street neighbour, Bobby, just pulled in from his work out of town and suddenly, the driveway became an impromptu party. Deb described it as being "the exact place she needed to be, regardless of not having a formal invitation, and she knew that if we moved the party inside or to the backyard, that too, was where she needed to be."

I can't think of a better picture of community. Knowing that we have all become this little haven of family in the midst of suburbia. We live well amongst each other and we have each others' backs. A few weeks ago, Bobby went all stealth on a truck that was parked in front of our house for an unusual amount of time with two guys sort of just staring at the place. Seriously, neighbourhood watch should have this guy as their poster boy. He not only was just about to go out and confront them, he took note of the vehicle and told us right away when we got home that night.  Our yard is often filled with kids other than our own who come and jump on the trampoline, bring their dogs to play with ours, and just generally run in and out of the yards in our neighbourhood as if they were all their own. Some people would hate that, and I can probably include our back fence neighbour in that, for he has to put up with all the noise and chaos, but I love being the house on the street that kids can hang out at and feel at home.

So, this week, as I read the news of a horrific attack on Marlene Bird in Prince Albert this week, I feel sick. And guilty. And some hopelessness. For all the beauty of community, if it only stays in the suburbs or includes our closest friends and neighbours, it's not enough. We start with that and move it into the reach of all we share our city with. We take what we learn about loving one another and sharing with each other and standing up for each other and we need to spread it into our respective circles and cities.  As much as our amazing little community fills a space in each of our lives, we also go into our city and are able to give to others out of what we've been given.  I'm not saying we've perfected it or that we are always intentional, sometimes it just grows out of having a safe and secure place to land. Marlene Bird needed that place of safety and security in its simplest forms and she wasn't afforded it. Please notice I didn't say she couldn't afford it...the onus is on us to be community to those around us.

Marlene's community has let her down. Not just the homeless community or social agencies in watching out for her, as some would like to blame, but the greater community of humanity - those that recognize her on the street, those that know of her from her long presence in the city, those who give her help occasionally, and those that drive by her and try to ignore her and those she represents. Marlene is a woman, a fellow human, someone who hasn't hurt or invited this sort of pain into her life. She is now fighting an incredibly painful fight for her life. As part of her community, we need to support her and others in vulnerable positions, as though our very lives depend on it. For in reality, our lives may not, but our humanity certainly does.