20 November 2013

In the Land of Milk and Honey

Ever since I stepped off the cool, sterile air of the Air France flight into the hot, dusty embrace of Burkina Faso back in 2006, I have heard about the magical land to the south known as Cote d’Ivoire.

“In Cote d’Ivoire, there’s not one, but two rainy seasons!” they say.

“In Cote d’Ivoire, they have electricity everywhere, even in the smallest villages,” they would inform me.

“In Cote d’Ivoire, they have public chocolate fountains just waiting for you to dip your strawberries in!” they exclaimed.

Okay, the last one is a little bit of a stretch, but you get the point.

Translated into “Ivory Coast” in English, Cote d’Ivoire was named because of the once prosperous ivory trade due to its high population of elephants. However, as ivory tends to not lend itself to being a sustainable resource, there’s not so much “ivory” left as there is “coast”. And a bunch of toothless elephants.

Supporting a mild, tropical climate; a thriving economy; and a culture of fun-loving, welcoming people, it served as a popular destination for Francophone tourists. The appropriate amounts of rain and sunshine mixed with the red soil to also create a perfect breeding ground for cacao beans,  allowing it to provide the majority of the world’s chocolate. Ladies, what’s not to love about that?

Living in Burkina Faso, rarely did I meet a Burkinabe who didn’t have at least one relative living down “south”. These stories from the land of milk and honey worked their way north along the old rutted roads to the dry cotton belt of Burkina. Unfortunately, despite living relatively close to the border, I had never had the opportunity to go visit Cote d’Ivoire. Several Burkinabe friends of mine have left to move down and try their hand at farming chocolate, coffee, and rubber, and I’ve long wanted to go visit them.

One of my best friends from my time in the Peace Corps moved down there in 2010. His name is Lassina, but he goes by Nana, even though he is not, in fact, a grandmother, at least not yet.  (You may remember Nana from my story, “A Dirty Cotton-Pickin’ Redneck”.) Both of our travels the last couple years have kept us from being able to visit each other. But regardless of what country I was in, I could always rely on Nana for an out-of-the-blue text message or phone call to remind me that wherever I may be working, there was life outside of my proverbial ‘box’.

Last spring, I got one of those unexpected phone calls from Nana while on a visit to Burkina Faso.
Unfortunately, this phone call was not a pleasant one.


“Hey Cory, it’s Nana.”

“Hey Nana!! How’s it going?”

“It’s not.” The sad tone in his usual upbeat voice betrayed his attempt to be positive.

He was calling to let me know his 4-year old, and middle son, Mohammed, had died the previous afternoon. Late in the morning, Mohammed laid down for a nap and sadly never woke up, apparently succumbing to a form of SIDS. He had been trying to reach me since the day before, but cell phone reception is sketchy at my home in Burkina.

Due to visa and financial restrictions, my condolences and those of his family had to be given via phone call, but since that day I had wanted to go and pay my respects in person, albeit belated.

So last November, I got the visa and the ability to go, and I hopped on a Turkish Airlines flight in Chicago and made my way to Nana’s village. Being there to grieve with my friend was hard but good, and I decided to stay and spend the holidays there. My visit went so well that I decided to hop over for another visit this year while I had a couple months off from work.

So, here I am again, riding on the crowded bus along the black pavement that cuts through the vine-covered jungle like a knife, and I am quickly transformed back into the life of this happy place. I’d left the colorful changing leaves of home behind for the vibrant colors of West African clothing.

You know, every time I come back here, I worry that it will take me a while to get back into the swing of things. Speaking the languages. Adapting to the humidity. How I’m going to get by when I can’t find a good glass of wine to save my life. But getting back into the swing of things has once again proven second nature.

The rhythmic flow of the languages here mix with the latest songs by Celine Dion, Rihanna , and Akon pumping out of homes, cars, and cell phones, quickly drawing me in, and I find that I haven’t forgotten as much French or Jula as I thought. Admittedly, translating the occasional cave tour over the summer and fall definitely helped keep French fresh in my mind.  The weather has been accommodating to me, too, and has even been a little chilly at times. Of course, that is by no means a complaint, as I am hearing of recent snow back home.

As the bus passes through numerous towns, smells of grilling meat, charring plantains, and cocoa slow-roasting in the sun rush in the windows, chasing away the sticky heat that swarms us every time we stop.

I have a couple exciting months ahead of me. I’ll spend Thanksgiving with Nana and his friends and family here in the Ivory Coast, and then I’ll make that long journey north up to Burkina Faso to spend some time with my godsons.  And when I get there, I will undoubtedly have more fish tales of how great things are in the Ivory Coast.

08 November 2012

The Audacity to Vote

The November chill has taken hold of the military town I grew up in, which still happens to be my voting precinct. Brightly colored campaign signs fill the yards of this working class town, like many other small towns across this big country, providing a distraction from all the “For Sale” signs that have been out so long they are now faded by the sun. The few remaining leaves still cling to the trees as the ever-present November wind fights hard to bring them down.
As I drove to Radcliff Elementary School to vote, gray clouds blanketed the sky above me, betraying the excitement in the hearts of so many voters. As is customary in Kentucky, students had been given the day off. I was thankful for that, as it would have been a little awkward trying to vote in the middle of a dodge ball tournament.  Kentucky kids can be vicious.
As I parked and walked inside, I thought back almost a year when I visited the tomb of one of our most beloved Presidents.
“Four score and seven years ago…” read the weathered bronze plaque in front of me, displaying the words spoken by the bold voice over a century ago. Behind the plaque, a 117-foot obelisk points straight up from the tomb, competing with the surrounding oak trees to stand firm against the wind and cold. Light snowflakes silently fell, creating a shroud of privacy around me. Reading the plaque, I was once again struck by the magnitude of the life whose body now rested yards from where I stood.
                Having spent much of my childhood in Kentucky, I grew up with a bit of hometown pride for Abraham Lincoln. I’d taken countless trips with visiting friends and family to his birthplace in my home county, and now I was standing on the opposite end of his life, in Springfield, Illinois.
                It was a frigid January day, with the wind chill dipping down to a brisk 8 degrees shortly before I arrived, as the radio DJ all-too-joyfully had reminded me. I was on my way back to Kentucky from a visit to friends in Missouri, and decided to make the detour. Whether it was the cold temperatures, or the recent holidays, I was the only one who deemed it a good day to visit Lincoln’s tomb. In fact, I was the only one in the entire cemetery.
                Surrounding the top of the large marble tomb were several bronze statues, the most notable being a statue of Lincoln himself, holding the Emancipation Proclamation. As I looked up at the statue, Lincoln appeared to stare right down at me, daring me to live my life anything short of his expectations of me as an American. Being alone with Lincoln, I felt intimately close to his story, and appreciative of the causes he stood up for, notably the abolition of slavery.
                A persistent wind was blowing, causing me to bury myself further into my layers, and I began to think about how I was already missing the weather of Congo, which I’d left only weeks before. It was kind of ironic, having just left Congo, where many of the slaves in the Americas came from, and now I stood with the man who had such a powerful influence on their becoming free citizens.
                Currently, Congo is in an ongoing struggle. Many call it a Civil War, not unlike our own War Between the States that nearly broke our nation’s spine. However, there are a lot more than two sides fighting in Congo. This messy, complicated war has waged on for decades, and it is widely accepted that this conflict has killed more people, over 7 million, than any other conflict in world history.
                Congo is also a land where it is difficult to express yourself politically. There are ‘democratic’ elections, but are considered by many to be unfair and flawed, leaving the population feeling powerless in their effort to have their voices heard and receive equal representation in their government.
     What is remarkably different about this conflict and ours is the difference in reasons behind it. The fighting in Congo typically goes on between varying rebel groups, fueled by greed for natural resources. What happens more often than not, however, is attacks from rebel groups on innocent civilians. Many of the lives lost in this conflict have not been on the battlefield. Many peace programs have been set up by different parties involved to no avail, but life continues to move on for the millions of Congolese, and there is hope for the future.
                We were truly blessed in this nation to be led by such a wonderful man during our Civil War. President Lincoln was a man driven by principles. He led by his convictions, and at the end of the Gettysburg Address, said, “…this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
                As I continued walking around the memorial, a white caravan pulled into the parking area. A woman with a light jacket on dashes out of the passenger side of the car, runs over, takes a quick picture, and then re-enters her safe and warm vehicle to drive away. She may have passed 30 seconds there, but at least she can now claim to have seen Lincoln’s tomb, and she has the picture to prove it. Maybe she is the smart one, as my limbs are now going numb. Regardless, her actions seem to be disrespectful of the President who gave his life serving his country
Back in the elementary school gymnasium, I handed the election volunteer my ID, signed my  name, and got in line to vote. This election has been referred to by many candidates as “the most important election in our nation’s history.” While I do think every Presidential election is important in this country, it seems a little presumptuous to think it more important than, say, the first election of Abraham Lincoln, or perhaps the third term election of FDR. Regardless, this election is important, and represents a strong nation that rises to the top of every challenge we face, from slavery emancipation to Hurricane Sandy.
I am often asked when I return to this great country, “I bet you appreciate so much of what we have now that you’ve seen some hard places.” The answer to this is an emphatic YES. However, it may not be for the reasons one would assume. It’s true I do enjoy many of the material things our country offers, whether it be my sister-in-law’s enchiladas, Aunt Dianne’s sweet tea,  going to Barnes & Noble, or watching Survivor. But one of the things I have come to appreciate more than others is our system of government, and the fact that I am able to vote in Presidential elections.
Our system is by no means perfect, and one could argue against the effectiveness of a single person’s vote, particularly in this day and age when poll numbers seem to predict the winners before we even vote. But the difference is that our politicians work to earn our votes. It may seem silly to argue about binders full of women or horses and bayonets, but regardless of how you feel about an individual candidate’s politics, you do believe they are running because of their love for this country. Contrast this with governments of so many other countries where politicians try to win in order to dip their hand in the corruptive coffers of their country’s economies, while sitting by and watching their populations scrape along.
So many people around the world would give their lives to be able to have the type of government that represents them. I have lived in places where votes are mysteriously “lost”, candidates suspiciously die right before an election, or where it is illegal to say anything against the President. All of those things make me so grateful to be an American, because I don’t have to face any of those challenges.
We are a country who has weathered many storms, figuratively and literally. We remain engaged in our political system because we can. It’s not only a right, but a responsibility. Ignoring that responsibility to stay educated and involved, in my humble opinion, is regrettable.
After turning in my ballot, I proudly attached my “I Voted!” sticker on my shirt, happy to have done my small part in exercising my rights in these great United States of America. I'm especially excited to be able to vote in person this time, since last time I had to vote by absentee.
            Sitting here writing this, I’m reminded of my final action when walking away from my afternoon with President Lincoln. In front of the tomb stands a large bust of his head. Tradition goes that if you pass in front of the bust, you are to rub his nose for good luck. While this may seem a little silly, it’s just one more quirky thing that makes us uniquely American. So naturally I gave that big nose a good hard rub and headed back to the shelter of my car, proud of my country’s past, and hopeful that we learn from it.

14 August 2011

Don't Eat the Meat!

Thick, heavy raindrops began slowly hitting the windshield. The sky seemed to be testing the ground before it decided to take its final plunge. I was thankful to be in the protection of the vehicle in case the sky decided the ground was ready for its fury.

“We don’t say this much anymore, but our grandparents used to say when the rain fell in big drops like this, it meant the famine would come,” Herbert, my friendly Ugandan taxi driver pointed out to me. I had just landed at the airport, and was making the 25 mile journey to the capital city, Kampala.

One of my tasks for Samaritan’s Purse is making sure supplies are purchased and sent to the project sites. Unfortunately, we can’t get everything we need where we live, so once about every month or two, I make the one hour flight from where I live to Kampala.

“Big raindrops like this don’t happen very often, so maybe there’s some truth to what our grandparents said,” Herbert continues to tell me. “And this year, it can be pouring hard right here, but up ahead 1 kilometer, it can be sunny!” Herbert adds with a chuckle. It doesn’t seem to matter what we talk about, Herbert has a smile on his face, whether it’s discussing increasing gas prices, government protests, or the weather.

The area of Congo where I live is separated from Uganda by the large Lake Albert, which, the Congolese proudly boast has more fish in it than any other lake in the world. While I try to be open-minded when I’m in new places, I can’t help but be a little skeptical about this—the Burundians said the same thing about Lake Tanganyika when I lived there. As long as I get to enjoy the fruits of this lake, though, it doesn’t really matter to me if Guinness has verified those claims or not.

A lull comfortably interrupts Herbert and my conversation, and my mind starts to think about the differences between the two countries. In the DRC, we receive some of the big raindrops Herbert is telling me about, but there doesn’t seem to be much more in common between the two countries. Immediately crossing into Uganda, from the airplane you notice the roads are covered with pavement, even in smaller towns and villages—giving the impression of healthy veins connecting the countries mountains and valleys to its heart, Kampala. Despite me living in a town of 300,000 people in Congo, the only pavement anywhere around is the tarmac at the airport, although the age spots potted all over it give it more of a nostalgic feel than the impression of being very useful.

In Uganda, the power supply is constant. Whenever our power comes on in Congo, we phone each other to let them know, “Charge your phones!”, or as my friend Zoum says excitedly, “We get to iron!” It doesn’t matter if we have power or not, ironing will never be exciting to me. It’s strange, you get in the mentality of always having to charge things when power comes that it’s hard for me to shake this when I’m in Uganda. As soon as I arrive at the hotel, I think to myself, “Ooooh, there’s power! I better charge my phone, iPod, Kindle, etc. before it goes out!” Then I think to myself, “You’re an idiot. You’re not in Congo anymore and can charge these things whenever you want!”

In addition to good electricity, the water supply is constant and clean. It’s nice being able to turn on the faucet and be able to drink what is coming out. In Congo, we have to boil or filter all of our water (sometimes both), as it can sometimes come out a color better reserved for going into the water supply than coming out. And that’s if it’s working. Ironically, when it rains, our water usually goes out.

Now I’ve never been to Kinshasa (DRC’s capital), which could very well have the luxuries of Kampala. DR Congo is the 12th largest country in the world. Where I live is on one side, and Kinshasa is on the other. Places like Nairobi, Kenya and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, are actually closer and cheaper to get to than our own capital in Congo. But where I live in DR Congo isn’t such a bad place. In fact, I prefer it.

Because of the long civil war, and the sheer size of a country with a barely-functioning government, our area of Congo seems like a step back in time. The stunted development of the country has created a more relaxed and slower pace. And while I’m not a big fan of all the dust kicked up on the dirt roads, it’s better than all the smog and traffic jams in Kampala created by the availability of pavement. The culture is more laid-back and seem to enjoy hanging out more. And I can get Nutella and Quaker Oats anytime I need them in Congo—what more do you need in life really?

“You see, those cars headed our direction are completely wet, and it’s sunny here,” Herbert says, interrupting my train of thought. It seems we’ve left the cover of the big raindrop clouds and are now in the sun, which seems to enjoy its childish game of hide-and-seek.

I’ve known Herbert now for over 2 years. When I arrived in Uganda back in early 2009 with my good friend Tred to work with Samaritan’s Purse, he was the one who met us at the airport. He’s a rather short fellow with a flat top haircut, but what he lacks in height he makes up in girth. What’s so charming about his size is that he is perfectly round, as if he was simply born that way. Here in Uganda, as well as in most places in sub-Saharan Africa, being large is a good thing. It’s a sign of wealth—if you are large, you have a lot of money to buy food. It’s considered a compliment to say, “Wow, you’ve gotten fatter! You look great. What’s your secret?” To which an appropriate response would be, “Oh stop it, you’re just being nice,” accompanied with a sheepish smile and a slight blush.

Even though my job has now changed, it’s nice having Herbert always pick me up—something constant every time I come back to Uganda. And Herbert always has a story to tell with the notorious sing-songy Ugandan accent. Now that we’ve exhausted the subject of rain, he begins telling me how popular marriage counseling has become in Uganda.

“You know these new marriage counselors—they’re making a lot of money. They get these couples in a room together to talk out their problems. Anybody can do it really,” he begins explaining. “And couples figure it’s cheaper and easier than a divorce, so people are really buying into it.”

“Have you ever tried it?” I ask.

He gives me a strange look and then, with his trademark smile, begins to talk about the rain again, and then food in Congo.

It’s really interesting to me to see the rivalry between eastern DRC and Uganda. When I leave Congo to come to Uganda, my Congolese coworkers and friends tell me, “Be careful of the meat in Uganda, it’s probably monkey.”

After arriving in Uganda, the immigration woman stamping my passport says, “Coming from Congo huh? They didn’t make you eat monkey did they?”

And then when I get back to Congo, I know my friends at the airport will say, as they always do, “Hey, you’ve gotten fatter. Have you been eating monkey meat?”

While both Uganda and Congo have their highlights, they aren’t too terribly different after all. In fact, as I’m typing this, I just realized that the power in my hotel room here in Kampala just went out. I guess nowhere is perfect.

19 March 2011

The Joy of Traveling, Part 2

Now I have to be honest. As much as I’ve moved around and traveled the last few years, I’ve been very fortunate. The only time I lost my luggage was on a flight from New York to Nashville on my way home from Burkina Faso for Christmas in 2008. And they got it to me a couple days later.

Now, I’d been traveling for two days, it’s 4 in the morning local time, and all I have are a backpack and messenger bag with me. I was planning on hopping a cab and heading to the bus station to begin the 9 hour journey to get to my village.

There was a group of about 30 of us who didn’t get their bags, and a line began to form outside the Bag Reclamation office. It took me a while to realize people were immediately lining up, so I was one of the last in line. Apparently in Burkina, the airport authorities handle missing bags, instead of the airlines directly. And this particular airport officer dealing with us didn’t seem too bothered to about our situation. Maybe it’s due to his prolonged exposure to upset customers at 4 in the morning.

Slowly, people began going in and making their claims. We were in a dusty hallway with little ventilation, but we all began talking to each other. Burkinabe French. French French. Canadian French. English. Moore. Jula. There all sorts of languages being spoken by different nationalities stuck in this predicament, and our mutual frustration seemed to erase all our differences as we became one cohesive unit supporting each other. Fatigue and frustration seemed to give way to cooperation and empathy as we realized each other’s predicaments. One young woman was on her way back to Burkina to get married, and all her wedding clothes, gifts, etc., that she brought were somewhere else. I definitely didn’t have it as bad as her. My godsons would be okay without one more sweater, should my bags not arrive in time.

I had to be at the bus station by 6:30 in order to not lose my reservation. The baggage line inched closer and closer to the office, but I’d been waiting 3 hours, and I wasn’t sure I would make my claim before I had to leave and get to the bus station. The apathetic worker wasn’t too motivated to move through these claims too fast.

Finally, with just a few minutes to spare, I made it in, and made my claim with him. I described my bags, and he told me to come back and check the next day. I explained that I was going to a village quite far from the capital, and he said, “What do you expect me to do?”

“I expect you to send my bags to me!” is what I thought. However, I know that while airlines are required by law to do this in America, there is no law to support this in Burkina, so the airline has no motivation to do this. Clearly, even contacting me when my bags arrived wasn’t even gonna happen. It’d been 7 months since I’d seen my two boys, Zoum, and everyone else, and I surely wasn’t gonna wait around for several days to get my bags. I finally talked him into giving me his phone number, which I would call to find out when my bags got in, and then figure something out.

So I went outside and realized the sun had already started to rise, revealing the layer of red dust that settled on everything during the night. I went to the airport ATM, got out some money, and hopped on the back of a motorcycle taxi. He said he knew where the bus station was, so we headed out. The fresh morning air felt good after all the hours on airplanes and then in the cramped hallway in the baggage line. Since I didn’t have any baggage, we moved quickly around the early traffic already building up. Men began setting up their street stands of food, ready to serve bread, coffee, and omelets to the many people heading to work around the city. Women in colorful clothes began sweeping off the dust on sidewalks, store fronts, and just about everything else.

I’ve never been a big fan of this crowded, dusty city, but smelling its familiar smells and hearing the familiar sounds got me excited as I thought about that little village I had missed so much and would be sleeping in that night.

Well, it turns out the taxi driver didn’t know where I was going, so we made a few wrong turns before we made it to the bus station just in time. I hopped on the bus, and quickly fell asleep as we headed toward the town of Bobo.

I rustled awake at the rest stop halfway on the trip. I was too tired to get anything to eat, so I stayed on board, and fell quickly asleep again. I woke up as we pulled into the bus station in Bobo, which meant I was getting ever nearer to Serekeni. I got down out of the bus, and shortly after, Zoum showed up. He’d made the 3.5 hour journey from the village that morning to meet me in Bobo and ride with me to the village on the new passenger truck that recently began running between Bobo and Serekeni. Despite the constant bumpiness of the road, I couldn’t stay awake. I didn’t know one could sleep while his head bounced from side to side. Apparently, it’s possible.

We finally pulled into Serekeni as the sun was just setting. I got out, and immediately began greeting the wonderful people of that village, who always make me feel as if I’m the most important person in the world.

I arrived at Zoum’s house, and my oldest godson, Payjay, was is now 3 ½, ran right past me before realizing I’d got there. When he realized I’d arrived, he came right over to me to give me a high five. He hardly left my side for the next couple weeks. Then Zenaibou, Zoum’s wife, came up with Mohamadou, their second born, who is now 11 months. I took his fat little self into my arms, and he immediately began giggling! He’s amazingly already walking like a champ, and actually has been doing so since he was 7 months old!

I spent nearly two and a half weeks relaxing there, including celebrating Christmas and New Year’s with them. While I missed being with my American family during the holidays, I definitely enjoyed the 95 degree weather I was in.

For the first few days, I tried calling the number the baggage man had given me, but it turns out this is not his actual number, so we finally gave up trying to call. Zoum is a good sport, and let me borrow clothes and everything I needed. While he claims he’s ‘much taller’ than me, he’s only about an inch taller, so his pants fit pretty well.

Luckily, Zoum’s brother-in-law works in Ouaga, and so graciously helped me out by continually going to the airport to check if my bags came. Finally, after two weeks, they arrived, and he arranged for them to pass through the many hands, ride on the back of various motorbikes and baggage bin of a bus, and finally make their way to the top of the van that made its way to my village. They arrived a few days before I was supposed to leave, with everything intact. I was finally able to spoil my two boys with everything I’d brought them, including their Christmas presents from my parents. They didn’t seem to care that they were a few days late!

After my time was up, I began the grueling process of saying goodbye, and then had to leave. Zenaibou left with to Ouaga, as she was gonna spend a couple weeks with her brother there. And Zoum came along to keep us company.

It is always hard to leave those people I love so much, but I had a new job in a new country, and I was really excited to be getting to Congo.

I made the long journey to Entebbe, Uganda, where I would be spending a few days before heading into Congo. Little did I know the long night ahead of me.

The Joy of Traveling, Part 1

Robert Louis Stevenson once said, “There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” For anyone who has spent extensive time outside of his or her country, you know this to be very true. This reality of foreign travel can create a sense of selflessness, wonderment, and adventure; or it can cause an instant urge to rush to the safety of the nearest McDonald’s, which, ironically, can be found almost anywhere in the world.

Also regarding traveling, Stevenson said, “For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” For this, however, I couldn’t disagree more.

My flight from Louisville to Chicago had gone just fine. I enjoyed walking around Midway airport, excited about the new job ahead of me. I began thinking about how lucky I was to have experienced all I have in my few years, and what a great opportunity this new job was going to be. I got a little hungry, so I did what all “grown up” men traveling for business are expected to do. I pulled out the peanut butter sandwich my dad made. He even put in a cup of applesauce (and a plastic spoon), and a box of raisins. I finished it off with some wonderful cookies the amazing Marie Stoltzfus gave me for the trip. Sometimes you need to be taken care of. As excited as I was about the new opportunities ahead of me, it is also sad leaving my family behind. That simple supper reminded me people loved me, even if no one knew me in that airport.

Then I flew to New York, and landed at LaGuardia airport. My flight to Casablanca, and ultimately Ouagadougou, wasn’t leaving until the next morning. That flight, however, was leaving out of JFK-11 ½ miles away. I’d planned on taking a $12 bus ride to JFK airport. But my flight had gotten into New York a little late, so unfortunately it was just after 11 pm, and there was no more bus. So the only other option was to take a (much more expensive) taxi. Unfortunately, many other people arriving at LaGuardia decided they needed a taxi at that very same moment as me. Not ever having done this before, I tried to do what I’ve seen in the movies and walked right up to a taxi. Little did I know there was a long line of more than 30 people not ready for some Alabama-born out-of-towner to try to get a taxi ahead of them. So I quickly realized my error, grabbed my luggage, and moved to the back of the line.

Now, I like to think of myself as a light packer like my Grammie Dot, but you’ll remember I’m moving, and there’s no moving van going to the Congo. So I have over 100 lbs. of luggage, nearly everything I own, squeezed into two duffel bags and a backpack. We slowly move along as each one gets a taxi. I pick up my luggage, move it forward 3 inches, and set it down, over and over and over again.

Finally, I get a taxi, and am glad to get in and warm up. In some strange irony, it’s the same taximan I walked up to 15 minutes before, and he never got anyone else. I guess he really wanted to go to JFK. To my surprise, there was even a TV inside! I’ve taken a lot of taxis in my life, but mostly in third world countries. I’ve never seen one with a TV inside! It was nice tour around the outskirts of the city, all lit up at night. I love New York at night. I tried to keep from looking at the meter, which seemed all too happy to constantly add a dollar to its total, almost taunting my until-recently unemployed self. When the 20 minute ride was over, I owed the guy $30! That’s more than some friends of mine in Burkina make in a year! One expensive tour of New York. I hopefully asked if I could pay in credit card, and he said yes. Say what you want about me, but I tried to hand him my credit card. He looked at me like I was an idiot. He pointed to the little machine beside the TV, which ad all of a sudden turned into a touch screen image of my charges. It even printed a receipt! How was I supposed to know?

So I moved inside Terminal 1 of the airport, beginning what I knew would be one long night. My flight wouldn’t leave until 9:30 am the next morning. So being the cheap (and broke) guy that I am, I had planned on trying to camp out in the airport. As much flying as I’ve done, I’ve been fortunate as I’ve never had to do that before. I figured I could find a nice place to lay down on my bags and get at least a couple hours of sleep.

But I wanted to get a cup of coffee and read for a while, try to get comfortable in the big open room that is Terminal 1 at JFK. I ended up reading some, and watching people. I saw an ambulance rush up, the paramedics rush out, bring the stretcher through security, and then 10 minutes later leave with it empty. I watched Koreans and Korean-Americans line up for the flight to Seoul. I read some more. The book I was reading was enough to keep my interest, but that was about it. It was called Time Scene Investigators: The Gabon Virus. It was about as bad as it sounds, but what do you expect from the bargain books section?

I tried to lay my head down, but couldn’t really settle down enough to sleep. Finally, a guard came up to all of us in the food court area and told us we had to leave.

“Terminal 1 is shutting down for the night. But if you hurry, you can get a good spot at Terminal 4”. So I grabbed all I owned, and quickly made the long trek of escalators, elevators, and train way over to Terminal 4, hoping to get a “good spot” to settle down for the night. I had never been to Terminal 4 before, otherwise I wouldn’t have rushed. I’m not sure what “good” spot the guy was talking about, but there aren’t even chairs in Terminal 4. Needless to say, it was a long night. I ended up stretching out on the floor. But the constant noise of construction, which for some reason they must do at night, and the cold temperature of the linoleum beneath me, kept me from even trying to get the couple of hours of sleep I’d wanted. Luckily though, I had a lot of flight time ahead of me.

Getting ready for the flight, I check in, happy to be relieved of most of my things. I go through security, and then when we line up to board, I begin hearing the familiar languages of West Africa, a tease of the wonderful time I would have ahead of me.

I slept most of that flight, thanks mostly to a travel pillow I inherited from my Grammie Dot. I arrived in Casablanca, and then made my way to the connecting gate. One of my favorite things about the Casablanca airport is the smoking area which is right next to the prayer area. Even though it probably shouldn’t, that always amuses me.

The flight leaves on time, and even though it’s the middle of the night, I can’t sleep. I’m too excited. It’s only a matter of hours before I’ll see my boys! The flight lasts about 3 ½ hours, and we arrive in Ouagadougou. The night before, I landed in the City of Lights. Now, I’m landing in a country with very few. We get off the plane—the familiar smells hitting my nose, instantly flooding my mind with many memories. The night is chilly, but I can’t complain, it was 25 when I left New York. I can handle 65.

The Ouagadougou airport is very small, and it used to be very easy to get through once landing. However, somebody decided to ‘remodel’ it. In Burkina, that means, let’s ask a foreign country to give us money for a project, and then after we’ve started it, the money will magically disappear . Which seems to be what happened. It’s been over 3 years since a simple remodeling began. They’ve torn a lot up, but haven’t done much else. Needless to say, getting out of there is now a challenge.

Where there used to be a moving baggage belt, there is now a zig-zagging line of plywood stacks. The room is very small, and cannot accommodate all the people that just got off the flight. After a couple minutes, the baggage guys bring in some of the baggage on a wheeled cart (I’ve seen donkeys carry more), and begin unloading the bags. There is not enough room for all the bags, and there’s not enough room for everyone to see the bags. So there becomes this big scramble of everyone trying to move to the front to see the bags, and then move down the zig-zag to see all of them. With this chaos, it takes a while for everyone to see if their bags are there, and then to remove them, to make way for the second round. Only about ¼ of the people get their bags in this first load, so after about 15 minutes, the second load comes. This happens 3 times.

Finally, when all the bags have come out, and all have been removed, there’s still about 30 of us waiting for our bags. We ask the guys who’ve been carrying in the bags this whole time. They say that’s all there was. It’s dusty and crowded, I’m exhausted, and I just found out I don’t have clean clothes for tomorrow…

10 January 2011

Lots to be Thankful For

The day had been a pretty one, one of the warmest Thanksgivings on record. As night set, the air quickly dropped more than 30 degrees, though, quickly preparing to greet the season’s first snow.

But I was warm. And my belly was full of the wonderful Southern Thanksgiving food I had enjoyed in Nashville at my cousin Julie’s house. I now sat down to watch the annual Heroes program on CNN, a program they do annually to honor 10 people who have made a huge difference in the world. It’s a program I enjoy every year I can—the perfect mix of tragedy and bravery, destruction and compassion, hand-served to the viewer with a large measure of hope to help us remain optimistic that the world isn’t always such a terrible place after all.

The first honoree was a Scottish man who oversees a feeding program for starving children around the world. And by ‘starving’ I mean literally dying of hunger, not what I feel when my lunch break starts late. This man most recently has been feeding thousands of children in Haiti. He’d been working in Haiti before the earthquake, and the tragedy just exacerbated the problem. Tears formed in my eyes as I watched his story, my heart heavy with sadness at the plight of these children, but also joyful at the work the Scotsman was doing. I usually make it to the 3rd or 4th honoree before I let my emotions get the best of me, but CNN started with a full hand this year.

Later in the program, they honored another honoree—a woman from Mississippi who spear-headed a campaign to reduce her community’s obesity rates. She’s started work-out clubs, helped change restaurant menus, and worked with local officials to help people get healthier in the nation’s unhealthiest state. Her story was very inspiring, and her example is one that will hopefully catch on in many communities around the country.

After the program finished, and the first huge snowflakes began to fall and erase the now-frozen ground, I thought of the irony between these two honorees. One was being honored for helping feed children, and one was being honored for helping children (and adults) eat less. And strangely, neither is more or less challenging than the other. This world we live in is very complex. And as my parents often told me growing up (I am the middle child, of course), life isn’t fair.

This is a personal struggle I have inside of me anywhere that I go. It’s the curse, and blessing, of bouncing between two extremes. I am from America, land of excess. But I often live and work in areas of the world where there is much need. I’ve never been good at reconciling those two differences.

This year has been a challenging one for America and its economy, and me as well. I began the year working in Burundi at a rural clinic—seeing lives hang in the balance every single day. But that job unfortunately didn’t last long, and I was soon back in America, contributing to the country’s unemployment rate, like several of my friends. I ended up back with my parents, and got a temporary job working at a wireless company call center in Bardstown, where the job requirements were a high school diploma, or GED equivalent, and “no more than three misdemeanors.” While this was not what I had in mind when I shook President Ransdell’s hand at my college graduation, it was better than the alternative—no work or paycheck. (Working overseas renders me exempt from unemployment benefits.) While the job itself wasn’t that exciting, I got to meet some really wonderful people. It was a wonderful opportunity to get to know the real side of Kentucky—all of its charm, beauty, and culture. This may sound strange, having grown up in Kentucky. But I grew up in a military community, which often has a very different personality than the areas surrounding it.

That was only a temporary job, so after a few months, I was back to being the wrong statistic again. About two months ago, I got the opportunity to start filling in part-time as Christmas help at a local Christian bookstore I’d worked at in high school. Although it’s not the most lucrative of jobs, I’ve gotten to reconnect with some old friends, something that is always wonderful. I have also gotten to meet a lot of new people and made new friends. The products have changed quite a bit since I last worked there—instead of the Bible on cassette we now sell pre-loaded Bible mp3 players. And we also have singing cards—nothing says Happy Birthday like a jazzed-up version of Amazing Grace!

As wonderful as this job has been, it has also been feeding my personal struggle to reconcile America with poorer regions of the world. We have so much excess in this country, and every day many customers come in and by things that will lie unused on a shelf for years. Or they’ll expensive candy because of the convenience of it, all the while children lie hungry in many places all around the world. Even me, or my unemployed friends, have never gone hungry, always have a warm bed at night, and most of the time even have internet and cable.

Don’t get me wrong, there is much need in this country as well. But regardless of one’s situation, there is always help. That is one of my favorite things about this country, our sense to help others.

Just a few days ago, I found out that I would once again be going back to a place where there is much need. I will soon be moving to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), formerly Zaire, to work with Samaritan’s Purse. You may remember I worked with them in Uganda last year. This is a humanitarian organization headed by Billy Graham’s son, Franklin Graham. I will be working in logistics, helping the supply chain run a little more smoothly.

In the Bible, Jesus says there will always be the poor. While I’ve not always incredibly enjoyed this verse, I do recognize its truth. However, that doesn’t keep me from trying to rebel against it. As an American, helping the less fortunate is infused in my blood. And, just like Jesus did in the Bible, we can all work together to make sure there are as few poor as possible.

I will be sad to be leaving my family here in the States again. But on my way to the Congo, I will be making a pit stop in Burkina Faso to visit my second family and spend time with my two godsons, Payjay and Mahamadou. That’s the one thing that we all seem to have in common, rich or poor, hungry or well-fed—family, and the sense of sticking together no matter what life throws your way.

This is an exciting opportunity for me, and I know it will bring many exciting stories I will be able to share with you.

As I sit writing this, snow is falling once again—nature’s attempt at an apology for the cold weather. Realizing how blessed I am, I give in to its request, and will enjoy the beautiful snow the rest of my short time here in Kentucky.

27 August 2010

With Two Kids and a Smile

Her big black eyes stared straight up at me, smiling—the one thing she wouldn’t let anyone take away from her. The gratitude in those eyes pierced me with that smile, making me uncomfortable. I kept thinking to myself, “She should be angry at how her life turned out, angry at God, angry at man, angry at something.” But there was no anger at all in her stare. Just peace.

She had come to the clinic for a sore on her foot. With a small baby boy and young daughter in tow, she hiked all the way up the mountain to the clinic. She had almost no hope. She went through the process of getting her vitals taken, waiting with 75 other sick people for her turn to see a nurse or a doctor, and then finally being admitted to the children’s malnutrition ward—no room left in the main ward.

Now, after the long day, I had gone with Brad, one of the volunteer nurses, in to check on this woman and clean her wounds. She had waited patiently all day, carefully tending to her baby’s and daughter’s needs. She did so with so much organization and care you’d think she was at home. Maybe for her, she was.

For reasons unknown to me, this relatively young mother’s husband had left her and her children to fend for themselves. Now, she was left with nothing.

Sadly, this woman had more than just a foot wound to tend to. She was also in the final stages of breast cancer. Where once lie a source of nourishment for her children, now lie tough piece of resembling the texture of an orange peel, with an hollowed-out wound the size of a baseball. Her baby boy only had one breast to drink from.

In this country ravaged by civil war and lack of health infrastructure, there were no health professionals advising her to do a monthly breast exam, no uncomfortable mammogram to test for any lumps, and now no chemotherapy to treat this awful disease. All we could do was treat the flesh wound and make her as comfortable as possible. Literally a band-aid solution for a much deeper wound.

In America, we have so many opportunities for prevention and treatment of so many things. It seems there’s always a commercial for a new drug for a new malady—restless legs syndrome, for example—sometimes I think we make up sicknesses just to have something else to talk about, or for drug companies to make some more dollars.

Healthcare in America has become a hot topic in the last couple of years. We still have so far to go in advancing healthcare and curing diseases in this country and all over the world. And there are many valid concerns that have been raised by people on all sides of the issue. Regardless of how one feels, it does seem in this highly politicized discussion that we as a society have gotten a little carried away with how we think of ourselves. I’ve even heard some Americans argue in this debate that healthcare is a privilege, not a right. I don’t think any of those saying that have ever been in this woman’s position. If they had, they might have a different perspective.

We need to constantly be trying to advance healthcare in our country and improve it, but we also need to be thankful for how much we already have. If anyone had asked this woman how she felt about what the cost of healthcare should be, she’d probably say it was worth a two day hike up a mountain with a hurt foot. With all the problems and issues and opinions we have, I cannot help but be in awe at how wonderful it is to know that we have come so far in healthcare in our country in the last 100 years.

Just 60 years ago, for example, most premature babies died in our country for lack of treatment. That is almost unheard of today in our country. And while there are still places in the world that haven’t been as fortunate as we have to have access to so much technology and knowledge, I know they one day will. If corrupt and greedy politics got out of the way in so much of the world and let justice into people’s lives, many more people would have access to what we do in America.

I stood there holding the gauze and ointment for Brad as he helped to bring dignity and comfort to this woman, listening to the constant hum of crickets in the background and the cries of the few babies who had not yet fallen asleep. As I watched Brad do his magic, I was almost overcome with pity for this woman. But with her bright eyes and grateful spirit, she wouldn’t let me pity her. She would let me help her, but not pity her. What would my pity do, and who am I to think she needs my pity? Funny how those who deserve pity don’t actually want it. I’m not sure what it is about people who have been through great suffering, but they always make me feel like everything will be ok.

I, like so many of you, have been personally affected by breast cancer. I am so thankful that for those that I love who have had, or are still battling, this terrible pink ribbon disease, there has been treatment to comfort and often heal them. And I’m even more thankful they didn’t have to hike up a mountain in the rainy season to get a band-aid.

My hope is that one day, when this woman’s soon-to-be orphaned daughter grows up, she will have the privilege of complaining about having to go get another uncomfortable mammogram.