Sunday, 24 March 2013

Our Six Month Anniversary!

March 14th – Byron and I’s six month anniversary of being in Africa! I know it is so cliché to say, but time has seriously flown by and I’m finding it hard to believe that we’ve been gone for over six months. What’s even harder to believe is that Byron and I’s one year wedding anniversary is coming up in a couple of months, that my hubby is turning the big 30 in less than two weeks, and that we have both been unemployed freeloaders for almost a year now!

It has truly been a season of change, adaptation and growth for Byron and I. When I look back and reflect on the past year and on the past six months, in particular, it’s amazing to see how far we’ve come – spiritually, emotionally and mentally – and to see how God has led us to this exact place at this exact moment in time. If you’ve followed our blog posts up to this point, you know exactly what our journey has been like so far and have shared in all the ups and downs we’ve experienced since setting foot on African soil. As is the case with anybody sharing their journey through a blog, at the time that we write each post, we share our emotions and thoughts as they are felt right in that moment. Often, during the ‘downs’, Byron and I wonder, “What’s the point of all this?” or why things have to be so difficult. Often, it seemed as though every facet of life in Zambia, as newly-wed volunteers, was testing us in some way, whether it had to do with our work, our dealings with ‘official’ stuff like our car or work permits, or even our relationships (both external and with each other!). But, I can honestly say, it’s only in hindsight and only from the perspective of someone looking back at our journey, that I can see how countless, invaluable lessons were imparted on us all along the way.

Patience. Grace. Sacrifice. Service. Faith. Some more patience … All have taken on new meaning. I have learned more about each one of these in the past six months than I otherwise would have, and in a way that could only have been taught to me by having gone through what we have since being in Africa. Even though six months is a relatively short amount of time, with everything we’ve experienced and learned, I can’t help but feel that these past six months were to prepare us for the six months that lay ahead. As we grow deeper into our respective roles and learn more about African culture, I can so clearly see how these lessons will continue to be so important to us.

My deeper understanding of each of these has resulted from both my dealings with locals at our Service Centre or in the communities that we support, and from experiences in my personal relationships. I think about the times when, after long, difficult and frustrating days at the Service Centre, both Byron and I felt so hopeless and felt as though, despite the effort of Hands to equip and build capacity into the locals, there was no way the people of Africa could ever reach the point where they would able to effectively care for their own. It was during those moments, when I found myself doubting our (both Hands’ and Byron and I’s) impact here and our ability to truly make a lasting difference, that I was reminded of the level of faith and patience we are called to have when doing the work we do. This reality was best described to us recently by someone at Hands who’s been around long enough to know a thing or two about our challenges.

“The key is to remember that our work isn’t racehorse work. Strangely, our work is truly best accomplished through prayer, patience, relationship and very slow, tedious steps. As urgent as this work is, it cannot be rushed.”

As much as we want to produce results and to see the locals we work with transformed into organized, productive little workers, we are learning that the fruits of our labour may not be seen for a long, long time. We are truly learning what it means to have patience and, above all else, learning to remain faithful when things appear to be a disaster! This means remaining confident in our decision to come to Africa to serve the poorest of the poor, and staying true to my personal belief that Byron and I are being used in the exact way, in the exact place, we are meant to be used! And of course, all this is easier said than done, especially for my super A-type, super results-oriented, husband.

This level of faith extends well beyond just the work we are doing but into our personal lives as well. Fears about the future still plague us. I still worry about our future family and when the right time to start one is; whether we’ll stay in Africa after our year is up, go home to Calgary, or begin another journey somewhere else; whether sacrificing time with our families and friends back home is the right thing to do, etc. For both of us (especially for Byron), all our worrying can be exhausting sometimes! What I’ve come to realize in the past six months is that while planning for the future in a thoughtful and intentional way is important, at this stage in our lives, it’s almost impossible. Our emotions and our perspectives change almost daily! The ups and the downs will continue to come and will continue to shape our experience here. It’s definitely going to require a full-on leap of faith to lead us to where we’re supposed to be. In the meantime, we’re just trying to not take for granted all the experiences we go through (as joyful or frustrating as they may be) and to move through life one step at a time.

- Diane

We’ve hit the halfway point! … Or have we?

Calm down, calm down. If we had a Kwacha for every time we’ve been asked some variation of the question, “Do you know when you’re coming home yet?” … well, we’d still be poor … but we’d have a lot of Kwacha! It seems that some of our comments from recent blog posts may have been misinterpreted. All of a sudden, people back home are getting freaked out that we’ve decided to be lifers in Africa. Please let me assure you, especially those with the last name Chan, Nguyen or Hoang, that this decision has not been made. In fact, to be completely honest, we’re no closer to making this decision than we were when we first stepped foot in Africa. I’m not sure where the confusion is coming from, though. From the outset, we communicated in very clear language that there was always a possibility we would stay in Africa with Hands at Work past our one-year term.

Here’s a reminder of what we tried to communicate - what this year DOES NOT represent:
  • A “check one off the bucket list” trip
  • A resume padder
  • A magical cure-all to what ails our spiritual life
  • An exotic one-year honeymoon
  • A mission to bring home an African baby as our first child (well, at least for now … but if we did decide to bring one home, it would definitely be these little guys!)

Johnny (4 years old and the little guy from the dancing video) and Phillip (2). Our favourite brothers from the community of Mulenga!
What this year DOES represent, however, is the first step in how we’ve chosen to live our lives. We always said that we’d commit to Africa for one year MINIMUM, not maximum. It’s not like we have a ticket booked back to Canada on our one-year anniversary of being in Africa. To say that our work would be done here after exactly 365 days, and to have planned one year in advance where we would be and what we would be doing post-Africa, would completely disregard how this journey is shaping the rest of our lives.

Now, again, I reiterate that none of this means that we have made the big decision or that we are even leaning one way or the other. All I’m doing is driving the point home that our mindset now is no different than what it was 6 months ago. We are here now. This is what our focus is on. For those of you badgering us for a return date – leave us alone! Just kidding. It’s nice to know we’re missed. But to definitively answer the question, at least for the next few months, here’s the best we can give you: we have no idea!

Anyways, it’s pretty crazy to think that we’ve already been in Africa for half a year. We’ve also been “unemployed” (read: not receiving a paycheck) for over 10 months now and are 2 months away from our 1-year wedding anniversary. As they say, time flies. I know what hasn’t been flying are my marathon blog posts so I’ll do my best to keep this short (relatively). The best way I could think of summarizing our first 6 months here is to do what we did in our very first blog post and write it in the form of FAQs, even though no one has really asked any of these questions. Just humor me here …

So what have you accomplished in your 6 months there so far? 

In all honesty, it’s impossible to put into measurable terms. And I’m not just saying that as a euphemism for, “absolutely nothing!” (although, admittedly, there are days when it feels that way). As mentioned in one of my previous blog posts, we have a tendency, as a culture, to measure our worth through achievement. We build our identity on what we’ve accomplished and evaluate success or failure on whether we can point to tangible results.

This has been a HUGE challenge for us to overcome. When we set out for Africa, we didn’t have any expectations of performing miracles or being directly responsible for saving a child’s life. We knew what we signed up for – to be a part of something bigger than ourselves and to have faith that God was using us for a very specific purpose, even if we may never fully realize the extent of our impact here. Knowing that has been one thing; accepting it has been another. It’s not always easy. And when we’re going through days where we’re frustrated and struggling, it can be discouraging to wonder what our real purpose and worth is here.

Having said that, we know and have faith in the reasons we are here. We are building into something that is worthwhile and valuable and much, much bigger than ourselves. It requires faith and commitment in the vision of our organization and what we do here. Without that vision – to equip the local community to effectively care for orphaned and vulnerable children and transform their lives – it can gradually become work. Work that is at times frustrating, work that is at times overwhelming and work that at times can feel like … well … work. To remain patient amidst vast cultural and educational divides and stay committed to building into the individuals and communities that will be here long after we are gone requires a deep belief in this mission. Everything we do has long-term sustainability in mind. There can be no short cuts. Admittedly, it’s difficult but, in our minds, it’s the only way we can really be of any value.

So, in short, we can’t tell you exactly what we’ve accomplished. We haven’t built a school or a house with our bare hands. We haven’t “rescued” a child from poverty or AIDS or brokenness. But what I can say is that we are building into ideas, processes and relationships that will make a difference for those very children. We’re building into the local individuals and communities to do this work themselves.

It’s funny – there are times where we, almost instinctively, want to measure the worth or value of our trip by searching for things we can grasp at and point to as measures of success … as if caring for the widowed, the sick, the dying, the orphaned and the vulnerable, to show them that they are loved and valued and that their life matters, is not reason enough to be here.

How has this experience changed you so far?

Another question that is difficult to describe in words and quantify. It’s probably not what you’re expecting, though. It’s definitely not what I was expecting. I think the natural assumption is that being in Africa, working daily with orphans and widows, would give me a whole new perspective on life; that it would make me softer, more compassionate, less of an a**hole. I’m not saying this hasn’t happened. It definitely has … at least I hope it has … (disclaimer: some people may disagree!) But that hasn’t been the big change. I feel like compassion and perspective have always been a part of who I am. In fact, it’s what led me to Africa. So, in essence, it’s more of an enhancement (a rather large, enhancement, mind you) of those very things. Not so much a dramatic, life-altering change.

Rather, the biggest change that the past 6 months has brought within me has been learning to let go. For those of you that know me well, I am an extremely tormented individual. I evaluate and analyze every single decision in my life. Everything I do and commit to requires a painful, calculated, cost-benefit analysis. This applies to anything from the flavour of bubble tea I will drink on any given evening to the direction I want to take my life. Every decision, no matter how small or big, is analyzed to death. I don’t know how I got this way. My family tells me I’ve been like this since I was a little boy. But you can imagine how mentally exhausting it is to be like this and for Diane to put up with someone like this. I blame the Chan gene!

This illusion of control is something I’ve strived for over every aspect of my entire life. Well, it didn’t take long for this illusion to shatter here in Africa. When you are removed from everything you’ve grown up with, everything that’s familiar, everything that you used to build your identity on, you quickly realize that you are far from “in control”. It’s not often that I refer to Scripture when internalizing my struggles but one verse stands out to me in particular and it is a verse that has challenged me deeply since being here:

Then Jesus said to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! Who of you buy worrying can add a single hour to his life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?

- Luke 12:22-34 (NIV)

This has been huge for me. I’m not saying I’ve gotten to the point where my faith is rock solid and that I am now able to release everything to God but I am a lot further along than I used to be. It’s been difficult to come to the realization that all my anxieties, my fears, my worrying is really just my lack of faith manifesting itself. I speak of faith and how I live by it all the time. In all honesty, I’ve never known what it means to rely solely on faith. I’m kidding myself if I say I have. There’s always been provision; a safety net, if you will. But I can honestly say that, ever since I’ve been in Africa, I am learning, daily, what it really means to live by faith and to cede all control to God. I’m slowly, but surely, learning to let go … and that includes what will happen after the next 6 months.

How’s the first year of marriage going?

Like everything else we’ve experienced in Africa, it’s definitely had its ups and downs. The good news is that there have been far more ups than downs. Many people expressed concern over us choosing to embark on this crazy journey as newlyweds. In our mind, there was no better way to start our marriage. We had the opportunity to commit our first year together as a married couple to doing something we were passionate about and to focus on developing our spiritual lives together, both of which would have been incredibly challenging had we stayed in Calgary at our former jobs. We’ve really seen the value in this as it has allowed us to explore a completely different aspect of our relationship. With all of the challenges and adjustments we’ve faced since being here, we have learned to rely tremendously on each other for support. Having gone through so many new experiences and challenges together, our relationship has definitely grown to new heights!

Things have also gotten much better ever since we’ve been assigned to separate roles. With us no longer spending 24/7 together (which we were for the first few months) we’re no longer constantly at each other’s throats! Space is a good thing sometimes!

Our very first Christmas as husband and wife

What do you miss most about home?

I know the question says MOST but there are several things that would rank pretty highly:
  1. Babies – I’m resigned to Skype and picture/video updates from my two sisters for all things Tyson, Reese and Teddy. Technology is nice but nothing can replace my sensory urges to hold them, nuzzle them and bite them.
  2. Family – Our parents are deathly afraid of us staying any longer than a year. We can understand. We miss them dearly. In all honesty, family (including thoughts of starting our own) is the strongest thing pulling us back. The nice thing, though, is that my relationship with my sisters has grown and evolved a lot since being here.
  3. Friends – An incredible blessing in my life. Always has been, always will be. The encouragement and support we have received from some of our friends back home has been amazing. Being here has definitely revealed some true friendships.
  4. Bubble tea – Not one to be found anywhere on the continent. Je suis going through some serious withdrawal. Don’t laugh. It’s not funny.
  5. Pho (and, really, all delicious Asian food) – Being in Africa has not curbed my fat man cravings or appetite. In fact, it has made me long for food even more. Don’t get me wrong, Diane’s cooking is great and she actually made some decent pho here in her very first attempt (see pictures below!), but I am hurting for some soul food (that includes your cooking, Mama Chan and Mama Nguyen!). Diane and I shudder when we think of how shameless and disgusting I would be if I were to step foot in Hong Kong right now.
  6. Watching sports – Of course, the year I leave for Africa is the year the 49ers make it to the Super Bowl! Fortunately, I found a way to watch the game. Unfortunately, it was the saddest day of my life (OK, not really, but pretty close …) With my luck, the Celtics and the Blue Jays will be in the big dance this year as well. At the very least, I can always rely on the good ol’ Flames being the worst team in all of professional sports.
  7. Weather that doesn’t make me leak out of every pore of my body at all times – it’s probably better that I don’t elaborate …
Diane's first attempt at pho! I knew I married a Vietnamese girl for a reason!
Salad rolls ... also very delicious
Me watching the Super Bowl (start time 1:30 am) with my main man, George, in South Africa!

How is your hair looking?

Sexier than ever. It’s actually growing out painfully slow; a lot slower than I expected. But the good(?) news is that I now can tuck my hair behind my ears and semi-grease it back! The bad news is that my hair is as thick as a Korean’s calves which, combined with the constant, blistering heat, makes me sweat like a fat man (think: my brother-in-law, Roger) more than I was already prone to before. All in all, the new coif can be summed up in one word: heinous. See for yourself ...

Those sideburns (or lack thereof) are particularly heinous
So thick all around ... except when it comes to the rat tail in the back
Nevertheless, I shall continue the good fight. Soon enough, I will pull this off (minus the facial hair, of course):

I think I'm better looking ...

When are you coming home?

Are you serious? I’ll beat you.

Why did you trick me into believing that this was going to be a short blog post?

Sorry. But, really, you should know better by now. Does this mean that you’re actually still reading? Very impressive! In all seriousness, thank you, from the bottom of our hearts, to those that are following along in our journey. We hope that you’ll continue to think of us and pray for us as we enter the next 6 months!

- Byron

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Back to Work and In the Community

After a long and heavy, three-part post, we thought it best to keep things light for this next post. In case you’ve been wondering how we’ve been doing lately, the answer is … great! Coming to grips with everything that we mentioned in our most recent blog post really helped shape our perspective and allowed us to get back to the heart of the reason why we came to Africa in the first place. It has been humbling and challenging but we are very grateful to have the support of our friends at Hands, as well as all of you back home. Thank you for your prayers!

Our new roles are really beginning to take shape now. Diane has been super busy ever since we returned from South Africa. For the first 2 weeks back in Zambia, Marc essentially gave her a crash course on all things finance – what Hands financial procedures currently are and the processes they are moving towards. Diane has now been tasked with the responsibility of helping to implement a new finance system for the Zambia Regional Support Team (RST) and Service Centres, which is critical, given that Zambia receives the largest amount of donor support amongst the 8 African countries and the current finance system in Zambia is, for lack of a better word, a disaster. Her new role requires her to travel from Kitwe to Luanshya (a 50 minute car ride, a 1.5 hour bus ride) 2 or 3 times a week to support the bookkeepers at the RST and the Luanshya Service Centre. The days that she isn’t traveling, she’s with me supporting the Kitwe Service Centre.

As for my role, I’ve been tasked with the responsibility of shoring up our legal registrations in each of the 8 African countries that Hands operates in and ensuring that each is in compliance with local laws governing non-profit organizations. With no knowledge of African law, a serious language barrier (French for the DRC, Portuguese for Mozambique, broken English for all other countries) and local Hands volunteers not really understanding the law, it has proved to be quite the endeavor. Nevertheless, it has been quite interesting and undoubtedly will provide me with great experience going forward. While neither of us were expecting to be doing things so closely related to our previous jobs, we are happy that we are able to utilize our skills and experience to serve needs within the organization.

My legal responsibilities are quite sporadic and, as such, do not demand the regular time commitment that Diane’s finance responsibilities do. This works out well because it allows me to spend most of my time investing and building into the Kitwe Service Centre. As previously mentioned, now that we have been with and built great relationships with our team in Kitwe over the past few months, and have a greater understanding of the operations and duties of the Kitwe Service Centre, we feel we are in a much better position to build capacity in our team. The past couple weeks, I have seen a HUGE need for support in the Kitwe Service Centre, particularly as it pertains to planning, being organized and working efficiently. Even simple things such as clear processes and effective communication are currently lacking which lead to various issues down the road.  With all of the things we have planned for 2013 (teams visiting, conducting training sessions at our various Community Based Organizations (CBOs), budgets and project proposals, etc.), there shouldn’t be any more concern about us sitting around, feeling useless and doing nothing anymore. It’s going to be a busy year!

Despite all our previous complaining, I couldn’t be more thrilled with my new split-role. In one role, I am able to use my legal skills in a practical way to fill a need in the organization and, in my other role, I have the opportunity to go into community and visit our CBOs and care workers. Most importantly, I get to see and interact with the children. I count that as a huge blessing because many of the roles that long-term international volunteers take on make it difficult for them to go into community on a regular basis. I love being in community and I feel it is where I thrive. Seeing the children on a regular basis keeps me grounded and will serve as a constant reminder of the whole reason that we are here.

Where our roles will take us past April, we have yet to find out. But for now, we are thoroughly enjoying the ride and everything that God is showing and teaching us along the way.

Some pictures and videos from some recent trips to our various CBOs … Enjoy!


Cutest little dance moves we've ever seen

Ipepeta! The kids love this game!

Children praying before their meal
Lining up for their food, from shortest to tallest!
Nafiwama! (Bemba for delicious!)
The CBO school in Mulenga
Papa Nkosi, a blind care worker. Such an inspiration!
James (a volunteer from BC that is a dairy farmer) giving Ruben (a care worker) some ideas for the CBO garden (the income generating activity for Mulenga CBO)


Kids chowing down
One of the classrooms. Notice the lack of anything, much less proper chairs! (That didn't prevent some of the little ones in front from falling asleep!)
Another classroom. 3 kids to a desk!


One of the care workers' kids. He's one of my favourites!
Byron attempting to teach the multiplication table 


The children in front of the almost-completed school


The welcoming committee!

Kachele Farm

Byron with Towanga (the daughter of local Hands volunteers). She's such a sweetheart!