Monday, 25 February 2013

The Return Home: Part III – Exposed


We were on our way to South Africa, one week after landing back in Zambia. For us, the timing couldn’t have been any better. We were in serious need of a break from Zambia after the disastrous week back from vacation. We relished the opportunity to get back to the Hands Village and reconnect with all our good friends there. We were excited to take advantage of normal restaurants, shopping malls and grocery stores. Materialistic, you say? Perhaps. Probably, in fact. But there were things we wanted to make our stay in Zambia a little more comfortable – a French press (who isn’t in desperate need of a cup of good coffee (i.e., not instant) in the morning?), decent bedsheets and pillowcases (who isn’t in desperate need of a good night’s sleep?), Asian groceries and ingredients (who isn’t in desperate need of comfort food?), and a giant bag of protein powder (who isn’t in desperate need of muscle recovery supplements to help you get shredded?) … OK maybe we could have done without this last one. Most of all, we were looking forward to hashing out our future with Hands.

The Initial Conversation – Some Clarity

The first day in South Africa, we sat down with Lynn and Marc and continued where our Skype conversation left off from a few days earlier. The conversation, from our end, essentially reflected everything we expressed in our previous blog post. “We love Zambia and our team at the Kitwe Service Centre BUT … (insert issue here).” Despite what seemed like us laying a barrage of convincing testimony about how it didn’t seem like Zambia was a great fit for us long-term, Lynn and Marc remained steadfast in their belief that Zambia was where we belonged.

Why Kitwe? And why for so long?

One of the major questions we had was why, from the beginning, we had been assigned to support the Kitwe Service Centre for 6 months, as opposed to the 6 weeks that everyone else in our intake had at their respective Service Centres. This question was even more pressing now that there was the possibility of us staying in Kitwe beyond the 6 months. Our primary concern was that the roles we were in were not utilizing our skills and abilities to the fullest. Again, I want to reiterate that we loved being with our team but we felt that we had more to offer than to simply tag along with whatever they were doing, without defined roles or a clear mandate as to what we should specifically be doing or moving towards.

Lynn and Marc acknowledged our concerns and understood how being at the Service Centre, at times, could have been a struggle for us. Despite this, they helped us realize that that’s a big part of the reason we are there – to help the Service Centre get to a place where there aren’t days wasted sitting around in the office or running around inefficiently. Our team of Blessings, Towela, Clement and Mary possess all the character traits that cannot be taught, the ones that enable them to be so committed as humble servants, to serve the most vulnerable children in the poorest of the poor communities. However, they are doing so with virtually little to no education past high school, with no previous organizational or managerial experience and having grown up in a culture where the prevailing mindset is one of survival, not one of efficiency and optimization. We’re only beginning to understand how vast the dichotomy is between our two cultures.

The Service Centre itself is fairly new, having only started in 2010 (compared with some of our other Service Centres that have been around for 10 years). On top of our team being so green, it is in a period of transition. Blessings is transitioning into the RST and Towela is taking over the role of the Service Centre Coordinator, a role in which she shared with Blessings over the last little while, but in which she more often than not defaulted to Blessings to lead. Clement, our field coordinator in charge of project support, is even newer, having been on board less than a year, and is still in the process of getting comfortable in his role and in the communities. Mary, our bookkeeper, is transitioning out of that role and into a new role of administrator. Throw in a new bookkeeper and field coordinator in charge of care worker support to be added later this year and the need for support in the Service Centre becomes more glaring than ever.

As the discussion continued, Lynn and Marc explained how we should now be transitioning into a much more active role in the Service Centre. As stated before, our pre-Christmas mandate was solely to build relationship which sounded great but led to us feeling unsettled and that we were not accomplishing much else. What we are now beginning to grasp is that it would have been extremely difficult for us to take on more active roles had we not built the level of relationship we currently have with our Service Centre team and the care workers in the various Community Based Organizations (CBOs) our team supports. Without that level of relationship and trust, nothing we say or do is of any value or consequence. Imagine what it would be like for some random foreigners to step into in an African community, not having walked alongside the children and the care workers in that community, not having established any credibility in their eyes, and then having the audacity to think they can step in and play the role of hero. We’re not saying that the 6 weeks we spent in Kitwe pre-Christmas elevated us to savior status but we cannot underestimate the power of the relationships we built and how imperative they are to the work we will be doing. This, coupled with our greater understanding of the operations of the Service Centre, puts us in a much better position to effectively “build capacity” than we were back in October.

Lynn and Marc further explained that the reason we were assigned to Kitwe long-term is because it is a key area of focus and growth for Hands. Currently, Zambia receives the largest amount of donor support amongst the 8 African countries that Hands operates in and Kitwe is one of Hands’ largest Service Centres, partnering with and supporting 9 different CBOs. Hands could not have asked for a better team to lead that Service Centre and investing in each one of them is high on its priority list.

Most importantly, Hands could not emphasize enough how much our team considered us a blessing. Although we doubted how much we really contributed to or built into what they were doing, our team lobbied for us to continue with them long-term and spoke about how invaluable we have been to the Service Centre and how invaluable we will be going forward into the new year. Though we may not have necessarily agreed with their assessment, it meant the world to us.

What about the isolation? The lack of community?

On the issue of our lack of community being in Kitwe, Lynn and Marc explained that Hands is focused on building more into and establishing a larger presence in Zambia, essentially hoping that it will one day serve as a second hub (the main hub being in South Africa). The immediate and long-term plan is to build into Kachele Farm (our main hub in Zambia, just outside of Luanshya) to make it an ideal place to station more long-term international volunteers. Despite this vision for Zambia, there is a severe shortage of people here on the ground. We may be lacking in community but we understand how our presence and support in Zambia is vital at this time. I guess we’ll just have to learn to put up with each other!

What about the car situation?

To be determined. Lynn pledged that I wouldn’t have to deal with this on my own and that, when it gets closer to the expiration of my 6-month permit, and we have a better idea of where we will be long-term, Hands will do everything it can to assist me through the process.

How did we feel after this conversation?

After this initial conversation, we felt somewhat better about the prospects of staying in Zambia. While not all of our concerns were addressed, it helped us gain some much needed clarification about our purpose and roles going forward and why it is so important for us to be there at this time. Having said that, we were still experiencing some anxiety about the possibility of us staying in Zambia long-term.

The Second Conversation – Going Deep

A week went by after our initial conversation, leading us to assume that there was no further discussion to be had, at least until April. Lynn, however, wanted to spend more time with the two of us while we were in South Africa so he invited to take us out for dinner in Nelspruit. With Lynn’s wife out of town, Marc became Lynn’s de facto date and the four of us went into town for some Indian food. (Surprised that there’s Indian food in Africa? It’s more common than you think!)

The dinner was meant to be informal and more of an opportunity for us to hang out and catch up but it didn’t take long for the discussion to revert back to our future when I brought up the issue of my car. The conversation started when I asked if Hands had any insight into how long they envisioned us in Zambia. I was wary of beating a dead horse but, aside from our general curiosity, I needed to have an idea of whether I needed to start thinking about making arrangements to import my vehicle into the country, given that my 6-month temporary permit is set to expire in mid-April. Lynn, almost expecting the question, turned the question around back at us (don’t you hate it when that happens?). Essentially, his response went something like this:

“I think a large part of that answer depends on you guys and where you’re at in your decision of whether you are going back home after the 1-year mark or whether you plan on staying in Africa longer. I know that it’s something you guys have stated you’re open to. The way I see it, if you decide to go home after your year is over, it makes most sense for you to stay in Zambia and continue to build upon everything you’ve already established there, rather than to uproot you guys and place you in entirely new roles in an entirely new country, since it would only be for a few months. On the other hand, if it’s in your plans to stay with Hands past this year, then I think it makes most sense, with your guys’ respective skill sets, to have you back at the Hub in South Africa. So, having said that, where are you guys at with that decision?”

Whammo! We weren’t expecting this discussion to happen so soon but, yet, here we were, face to face with the million dollar question that has been the source of much inner anxiety and conflict ever since we’ve been here. The discussion that followed exposed much … maybe a little too much … about where our hearts were at.

Warning … This is going to get philosophical ... And potentially may not make sense to everyone. Regardless, I’ll try my best to reproduce what we got out of the conversation and how it spoke so deeply into our hearts. (*Kudos to Lynn Chotowetz and Chris Wiersma for a lot of the ideas behind the following mish-mash of thoughts*)

As North Americans, as Westerners, we are born into a culture where our identity is based on a myriad of things, most of which do not actually define who we really are as a person. Most often, our identity is based on our profession, our chosen line of work. Do I define myself as a lawyer? I really hope not. I may have been young as a fourth-year lawyer but I’m not going to deceive anyone to believe that I was ever going to be seen as a rising star in the legal field. Is my identity based in my family – in my role as a husband, a son, a brother? What does that even mean? Are my defining characteristics a product of my interests, skills or talents, most of which revolve around sports? Does that make me who I am?

Along the same vein, we have an ingrained mindset to assess our value and our worth primarily on three factors: performance, achievement and comparison. We take a highly detailed view of performance and achievement and work backwards from that to gain insight to what we are worth, who we are and how we rank in the grand pecking order of things. We look to things such as the figure on our paycheck or bank account, the size of the house we own, the type of car we drive, the brand of clothing that we wear, etc. We have an innate tendency to view our peers as measures of comparison, associating positive things to those who have more and negative things to those who have less. The measure of success is often based on how much we have to be proud of.

Therein lies the question both of us have had to wrestle with since we arrived here: “Who am I? Who am I in Africa? What is my identity here?” All of the things I’ve built myself upon my whole life – all of the indicators of my value, my worth, my level of success – count for jack all. That’s not to say that my education and experience are not important or that my family and relationships have no significance in my life. But when looking to the factors of performance, achievement and comparison in trying to determine what my identity is here in Africa, I am utterly lost, because they mean absolutely nothing. All of the things that I felt made me valuable and worthwhile all fall by the wayside.

It is in this identity crisis that I think a lot of our struggles have been rooted. Inherently, we long to feel appreciated, to feel valued. We think that, by virtue of our education and experience, we are entitled to something, that we are “overqualified” to be here and that we have sacrificed so much more than most. When we sit idly with our team, it is an abomination of our precious time, a waste of our abundance of talent and skill. We yearn to be constantly validated by what we do, what we achieve, and it was humbling to think that we had yet to, or at least feel like we had yet to, make so much as a dent. It’s ugly, I know, and it’s tough to admit and come to grips with. But, really … who do we think we are? When we set out to come to Africa, we wanted to eliminate this very mindset, knowing full well the inherit dangers in it and how it could potentially hinder what God could accomplish through us during our time here. We said all the right things and maintained a happy face, all the while allowing those sentiments to creep slowly into our hearts.

The idea that we can form our identity by looking at God reaching out to us instead of how we are performing in our lives is incredible. An identity based on God’s decision to show us grace in light of all our shortcomings, our faults and our failures provides us with immeasurably more than performance, achievement or comparison ever could. The fact that we have “sacrificed so much” and abandoned our lives back home to become missionaries in Africa does not mean we are in need of any less grace or more deserving of His favour than anyone else. We are nothing but for His grace. We desperately needed to be reminded of that and live our lives accordingly, rather than validate our existence through chasing things that, ultimately, will always fall short.

When we made the decision to come to Africa, we did so out of faith and obedience to God’s calling in our hearts. We did not come for an adventure or an experience, to check one off the proverbial bucket list. We wanted to avoid coming to seek a cure to all that ailed our spiritual lives or to alleviate the increasing burden of attempting to live our lives for Christ while also trying to keep up in the rat race of the material world. Rather, we wanted to come for the “right” reasons. We sought to humble ourselves and asked that God use us in whatever way He desired, not in the way where we would feel most fulfilled. We pledged to put our faith in Him, to trust in His purpose for us being in Africa and that we would not let our own personal desires or selfish ambitions interfere. How quickly things changed …

Through all our complaining, all the focus on our recent misfortunes, all the self-pitying, we realized that we had all of a sudden, somehow, made everything about “we”. WE are not being utilized properly. WE are lacking community. WE are getting screwed with our car. WE have nothing to do, no restaurants to eat at, no ability to buy what we feel we need. WE don’t like our home. WE are uncomfortable. Wah wah wah … As our whining and complaining replayed over in our heads, we wanted to tell ourselves: “Go cry about it … you pathetic LOSERS!” OK, that might be a bit harsh but you get the point. Everything became about us and how we’re so hard done by, without even the slightest hint of perspective, which is shocking, given where we live, the work we do and who we’re surrounded by. There was not even any contemplation of where God fit into all of this or what His plan was through all of this. It was only about Diane and Byron. Byron and Diane. That was all that mattered. Needless to say, we couldn’t have been more disappointed in ourselves.

I don’t know how or why we expected any different. We did not make this life-altering decision simply because we thought we would enjoy our time in Africa. We are not delusional to the point that we thought we would live comfortably here. We knew full well that we’d miss our family, our friends, the comforts of home, etc. Do we enjoy being in Africa? Sure … to a certain extent. But, also to a certain extent … not that much. If our main focus was to enjoy life, then Africa is probably the last place we would be. It’s not like we convinced ourselves that being complete outsiders, in 40 degree heat, in a foreign, third-world country was in any way more desirable than kicking it back at home, downing a delicious bowl of pho and a delicious bubble tea, while bouncing my niece or nephews on my lap. It’s not as if we thought to ourselves that making zero income for the next year and having to step out in faith and humbly rely on friends and family to support us was the key to happiness in life. Don’t get me wrong, there are aspects of being in Africa that we love – the community, the level of spirituality, the work we’re doing – but we’re not here simply because we enjoy it.

Nor are we here because we have some grand illusions that we will “save” Africa in our brief time here . A one-year commitment is nothing to sneeze at, for sure, but we are very aware that the problems here are cultural and systemic, have lingered for generation upon generation and are beyond what any one (or two) person(s) can do to solve it in their lifetime.

Putting it simply, using the logic of the world to assess the pros and cons of being in Africa, doing what we’re doing, living how we’re living, would result in a one-way ticket back home. But, at the risk of sounding cliché, we are here because we are called to be. And we will continue to be here for as long as God calls us to be here. There was and is something very deep that is pulling at every fibre of our being to be here in the midst of everything else that doesn’t make sense about it. Somewhere along the way, we lost sight of that. We lost insight and perspective on the only thing that really matters and the only reason behind everything we seek to do with our lives.

For those of you that are skeptical or concerned that our idea of following God means that we have to give up everything we glean any personal pleasure from and, instead, suffer, let us assure you that this is not how we feel. We realize that there tends to be a bias towards thinking we need to live like martyrs before we are truly living our lives for God. However, we do not subscribe to that ideology, nor is it our intention to live that way. We said it from the beginning and we will continue to believe it – one can serve God and serve others no matter where they are and regardless of what they are doing (subject to certain limitations, of course). Not everyone plays the same part or is blessed with the same gifts. But we are all called to be a part of the body of Christ. We do not feel compelled to be in Africa or to stay in Africa simply because we equate serving orphaned and vulnerable children in the poorest of the poor communities as the only way to serve God with our lives. Granted, it’s hard to think of a more worthwhile cause to devote ourselves to at this point in our lives, which is why we are here, but it does not necessarily mean that God has called us to be here forever.

For now, we need to get back to the heart of why we are here – to serve God and to serve His people in the way that He has called us to in this moment – and have faith that God will take care of the rest, whether or not we ever come to see or realize the fruits of our labour. Everything else is just noise.

*For those of you that have stuck with us and supported us throughout this journey (particularly through this verbal diarrhea masquerading as a three-part blog post), please continue to extend us grace and pray for us (see the updated prayer request section of this blog). Thank you!*


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