Ch. 9: Values (draft)

03-07-2019 14:07

Time to Quit?

by Henny Jane Thormoset

I appointed you to go and produce lasting fruit. —Jesus[1]

Series: Time to Quit?  Book 1: We’re Home! Chapter 9: Values (draft)

For you ignore God’s law and substitute your own tradition. —Jesus[2]

March 1997 Kuma Talla, Yaoundé, Cameroon

Abednego’s wife has put to birth—twins! People are now calling him Tanfar, father-of-twins. Feeling joyful affinity with another Tanfar, he reaches for and holds David’s hand as they walk down the road. Any weirdness Dave feels is set aside by his shared joy and concern for the tiny babies’ survival.

As our time in the village of Kuma Talla is coming to an end, our hearts are full knowing how completely we’ve been accepted by Samuel and his extended family. David has developed a deep bond with the two cousins, Samuel and Abednego, who refer to each other as brothers. Their many conversations covered in-depth discussion on topics ranging from local politics (separatist fervour) , the role of fons (traditional leaders), farming practices, magic and jujus (disguised men wearing masks and costumes who exercise spiritual powers). As a woman, I’m expected to believe that jujus are supernatural beings and must look away when they pass by. The Pidgin we practised at AOC is rarely used—people want us to speak Limbum until we get stuck (sooner for me than for David); then the men switch to English. Even though we’ll soon be leaving Cameroon behind, learning many Limbum greetings and phrases has shown the Wimbum people that we value them and their language.

It feels strange now to be riding away from Ndu in a crowded bush taxi, alone, without Dave and the kids. The 35-kilometer trip to Kumbo takes my breath away, not because of dust, but rather the beauty. The air, so pure and fresh, contrasts with the haze we encountered 3 weeks ago. The horizon’s sharp green contours kiss the blue sky, dotted with puffy clouds prancing along like skittish lambs. The wind must be picking up. I hope today’s downpour will hold off long enough for me to reach Mary’s house at the Baptist Hospital compound before the road turns into slick gumbo. I’m excited to visit a Canadian in her home, a nurse who’s been working here for years, training Cameroonians in dentistry. We’ve met only once, a few years ago at a Baptist church in Richmond that is now also partnering with us.

Stepping into her house is like entering another universe, similar yet different to home. Comfortable! I feel spoiled. Instead of sprinkling myself with cupfuls of water, I get to soak luxuriously in a bathtub of hot water, immersed, while grinning up at the window in the ceiling. Dark clouds and pelting rain now obscure the light even more than the green mold encroaching into the center of the glass from the four edges. I hope we can have a skylight in Zaire.   

When we sit down for supper, along with another guest Mary is hosting, I smile inside, imagining one of Marilyn’s chickens lurching through the open doorway, squawking and flapping before roosting on this fine china and white tablecloth. The meat and gravy and potatoes taste just like home. I ask the other guest to take some photos of Mary and me together which I’ll send to our partnering church: their two missionary ladies, one experienced, one a novice, whose paths briefly cross in Cameroon. 

Early the next morning, I catch up with Dave and the kids at the Kumbo car park, where as we wait for more passengers to fill the bush taxi, he tells me with watery eyes that one of the babies has died. We brood over the family’s loss and pain as the van crawls the 100 kilometers to Bamenda.  

It’s late afternoon when we finally meet up with other AOC participants at the Baptist guest house. Everyone is looking thinner and well tanned. The following morning at breakfast, I notice a sheet of thin poster paper taped along the wall of the long, narrow dining room —a hand-drawn chart with rows of rectangles recording days with or without rainfall. For the past few years, March 15 is coloured in as the first day of rainy season, but not this year.

Bamenda, a smaller city, feels delightfully different than Yaoundé—slower pace, people speak English, and the men don’t bother Sonya as we shop for souvenirs, including Ndu tea and roasted coffee beans. Finding the bus for Yaoundé is easy and the trip home uneventful. We even act and feel like experienced travellers in Makenene. Twenty minutes after clambering out of the bus, when the driver leans on the horn, we rush back on board with armfuls of tasty, safe street food. Once in Yaoundé, we’ve no trouble flagging down two taxis that get us back to AOC with all of our luggage.

“I can’t wait for a hot shower and clean clothes!” Andreas says dumping his green army bag onto the floor next to his bunk. “I’ve been dreaming about this all day.”

“Hurry!” I say. “Lynn told me you won’t want to be late for supper.”   

“I miss the cooler temperatures of the North West!” David says. “Now I have to get used to this sticky heat all over again. It feels even muggier than what I remember.”

The dining room sounds noisier than what I remember. Excited to be back, everyone is talking at once, telling their stories. Some good listening also happens as we savour mouthfuls of lean steak, baked potato and Caesar salad. I look over at Andreas who’s grinning from ear to ear. “I’m in heaven, Mom!” Lynn giggles, pleased to see that her welcome-back meal is a hit.  

“I’m so glad to be back!” Sonya says.

“How did you enjoy village phase?” Lynn asks her.

“I was kind of bored. The little kids were afraid of me! But at least I got way ahead on my school work. I’m all done Grade 6 math.”

“How about you, Andreas?” Tyler asks.

“I had an extremely interesting time! It was sad saying good-bye to our host family.”

“Do you feel better prepared for enjoying life in Africa,” Tyler asks.

“Definitely,” David says. “We won’t be quite as offensive at every turn. I love that it’s habit now to always use my right hand. Even putting my left hand under my right elbow when receiving something, to show respect, has become second nature.”

“Did you enjoy the cola nuts?”

“I ended up with pocketsful!” I say. Each time we visited people, someone would break off a piece of pink cola nut and expect us to crunch away together. “I’d rather get my caffeine rush from coffee. David, you ate most of mine, right?”

“I like them,” he says. “The bitter taste grows on you, like when you first start drinking coffee.”

“This is my first time eating mango pie,” I say after swallowing my first bite, “and my taste buds are having no trouble at all adjusting.”

“What’s something that really impressed you?” Tyler asks, enjoying the enthusiasm around the table.

“Not what, but who! David says. “The Wimbum women. They walk along balancing enormous loads on their heads while carrying a baby either on their back or nursing at the breast.”

 Nathan stops eating pie for a second to say, “Dad, tell them about the day after the wild fire, when you carried water from . . .”

“You carried water?” Lynn interrupts. “I thought that was women’s work? And what’s this about a wild fire?” she asks, forehead wrinkled with concern.

“Stefan and Nathan should tell you the fire story, when they finish eating.”

“There won’t be any leftovers today!” Lynn says, having watched our boys go back for seconds and thirds of whatever they could find on the serving table. “Christine and Rosalyn are going to have fun trying to fatten you fellows up before you leave. You’re all so skinny!”

“And fitter!” David says. “What an adjustment that was, getting into shape climbing all those hills. Whenever we walked anywhere with Samuel, he’d hear us puffing and say, ‘We’re almost there.’ An hour later, he’d say it again, ‘We’re almost there.’” Everyone around the table laughs knowingly.    

“Getting back to the water story,” David says, “early one morning, before walking to the fields to work, several women went to the creek and each hauled a 30- or 40-liter basin of water back to a construction site. The men later mixed it with dirt to make mud for mortar. They were building a new mud-brick meeting house for the sub-chief. At one point, our host’s cousin said, ‘the women didn’t bring enough water, but since they are now out in the fields, we men will have to do it.’ I offered to go along and took a 30-liter pan, he took the 40-liter one. The stream was more than a half kilometer away, along a narrow path, up and over several small hills. That was my first experience carrying water on my head—I ended up wearing a couple of refreshing sloshes. By the time we got back my arms were killing me from being up for so long! I have great respect for African women!”

Andreas, Stefan, Nathan, and even Sonya take turns interrupting each other to tell their parts of the forest fire story.

As we get up from the table feeling absolutely stuffed, Tyler reminds us to check our mailbox.

“Oh!” I say, handing David my dirty dishes before rushing off, hopeful. “Yes!” I take my little stack of two letters, both from Mom, to our bedroom, close the door and curl up on the bed.

February 13, 1997

Dear Henny,

The Lord’s ways are not our ways. Even with teardrops, we love the Lord and live in His grace. He will lead us on even in the loss of Dad who will be greatly missed by all of us. This morning I read 2 Timothy 4:5. It is too hard to write yet, much love to all of you, Mom XXX. We will not forget 13 March, Love Mom

I hardly notice the spelling mistakes, in much the same way that I don’t hear Mom’s Dutch accent. I quickly flip the pages of my Bible to find the verse, lingering long over endure hardship . . . fulfill your ministry.

Her second letter, in unfamiliar handwriting, she had dictated to a friend.      

Peachland, February 26, 1997

Dear HANDSS,

Thank you for the love you have given me, in prayers and phone calls, letters, you name it.

I love you all very much and miss you a lot. So do I miss Dad, but I must be strong. I do my best to be good, but it is hard to do.

We received many wonderful and encouraging cards from all over B.C.

One word I keep in mind, (sustain you). We have so many promises in the Bible, but I take one word, and repeat it over and over again, till I can go on.

Henny, happy birthday dear, on the 13th of March. David will make you a nice cake! Will you Dave?

Signed off in her own handwriting: Lots of LOVE FROM Mom XXX

My tears have dried by the time David gently cracks open the door and pokes his head through the partial opening. “Are you ready for an email from our director,” he asks, trying to show compassion for my grief, while beaming with excitement.

“Sure!”

Saturday, March 15, 1997

Dear Dave and Henny,

Greetings from Bangui and Brazzaville. As I start this letter, we are in Bangui waiting for our flight this afternoon (March 13th) which will hopefully take us safely to Brazzaville. We have just spent over three weeks in Gemena. All was peaceful. However, with Kisangani about to fall, now is definitely not the time to be there. The unknown factor is always, how will the Zairean soldiers react to such news: mutiny, looting, coup d’état? All or none of these are options. So we are really hoping for something more certain now. I mentioned your plans to church leaders in Gemena. They seemed happy with them and certainly did not think it would be right to have a new family in Gemena at this time. Though they seemed to think it might be possible for Karl – I am writing him separately but feel free to share my letters with each other.

So, we are expecting you to appear at Brazzaville airport; do you have the date and time now? I assume that it could be any time from around 29th March onward. (We have arrived safely in Brazzaville now, Sat. Mar. 15!)

Getting you settled into Impfondo will not be easy, but I am encouraged to think that you like a simple life style, are flexible and easy going, and take challenges in your stride. Those are my genuine impressions of you so far. On the other hand, you are going to be home-schooling four kids! How will you manage in reality? Let me encourage you to think of your time in Impfondo as another African adventure; it will, I trust, be a good time to look back on, as I hope will be AOC. Think of it as a camping adventure in Africa.

Let me share my thoughts as they are so far: When you arrive here in Brazzaville, we will put you either in SIL Center accommodation or if this is too tight into a hotel, clean and not too expensive, which is about 500 metres away from the SIL center. The hotel accommodation I understand would be a single room! (I think hotel accommodation is 16,000F cfa per room; at SIL it is about US $6.00 per person per night.)

On April 2nd, we will fly with David to Impfondo to look for accommodation for you all. Options are very limited. We might be able to find a house without too much difficulty. It will likely have no water supply and no screens on the windows. It will not be furnished with anything! Dave, are you a handy man? Would you be able to set screens up? I believe screening can be purchased in the town.

If we are lucky, we will find somewhere with access to a well. Otherwise we may be able to rig something up for catching rain water (rainy season will just be starting!) You may also have to haul water from the river. (Employ someone to do this who can also double as yard worker, clothes washer?)

We may be able to beg some bed frames from people; probably have to buy foam mattresses—expensive and not that good; have one or two beds made locally, plus other basic furniture. Buy a kerosene stove, pots, buckets, plates etc.—some of these things you may be able to airfreight up to Impfondo, they being cheaper in Brazzaville. However?? Normally it is best to send by boat, but this could take months! One-way air ticket BZV-Impfondo about 50,000F cfa (US $100) and airfreight about 500F cfa (US $1) per kilo.

Now I am not trying to discourage you; I am trying to be realistic. We have a challenge here; do you think you can take it on? My number one concern is that you stay healthy; secondly that you are emotionally and spiritually ‘vital’; thirdly that ‘ANSS’ get the schooling they need; and fourthly, wouldn’t it be wonderful if you learnt some Lingala too?

I am thinking that you would stay in Impfondo till the end of August? You might want to take a break in Brazzaville at some time, but expense is an issue of course. You do have the right to say ‘no I can’t handle this’ and we will take you out of Impfondo. I have to say though that I cannot promise you anything better. I believe you could make a go of this. I think early days are going to be more bewildering than one would wish, but we are here to help and I believe you can do this. Well this is just to say that we have very far from forgotten you all; indeed, are thinking a lot about you and I must say by now also looking forward very much to finally meeting you!

With love, S & S

Over the coming days, we spend our free time reading and responding to emails sent during our 3-week absence. We also try piecing together a picture of the current situation in central Africa. Most nights at 11 o’clock, David listens to The World at Six on Radio Canada International with our little short-wave radio. He also gleans information from VOA, Voice of America and the BBC, British Broadcasting Corporation. None of the news is particularly encouraging.

In CAR, the Central African Republic, March 20th is the agreed date that rebels in Bangui will start to hand over their arms. They’re not expected to comply, making travel unsafe.

Looting and violence is expected in Gemena if or when Kisangani falls to Laurent Kabila and his band of Tutsi rebels gradually taking over Zaire. Some optimists expect Gemena to remain calm. The uncertainty is hard on everyone. In Kinshasa, anti-American and -British sentiment is exacerbated by their governments’ veto of France’s suggestion to send intervening UN forces. Is France propping up Mobutu against the wishes of the United States and United Kingdom? Conflict and chaos are expected to continue as long as this 32-year military dictator and president remains on the scene. Some missions and cities formerly under the central government in Kinshasa now find themselves under the rule of the Tutsi-backed authority.

I can’t imagine the tension that missionaries are feeling amid the well-armed Tutsi troops and/or the undisciplined retreating Zairean soldiers, especially if they’re perceived to be on the wrong side of the switching sides. This is what my dad would have feared for us. Some friends have written, expressing relief that we have so far stayed out of Zaire.  

Our third evening back, the AOC dining room is eerily quiet. Stefan is in bed with a fever and laryngitis; one participant has chicken pox, another a clear diagnosis of malaria. Many others are suffering from nagging headaches, diarrhea and vomiting. Jaap is in the hospital on standby for medical evacuation depending on whether his condition improves or deteriorates over the next few hours. I’d rather the high decibels of noise than all these empty seats.

“Peter wrote us,” David says, interrupting the morose silence at our half-empty table. “Apparently Alberta Health will cover us for up to 4 years of working outside the province. That cuts our foreign medical costs in half, down to CAN $80 a month. The other good news is that Peter’s church has started supporting them at $150 a month.”

“I’m so glad their church values home staff. Imagine if we didn’t have administrators in the home office taking care of our insurance and taxes or sending us money every month!” I say. “That reminds me, I walked over to the SIL Health office for more anti-malarials. The receipt is in the tax folder in your computer bag. Can I use the computer tonight, to work on my final assignment?”

“Sure. I’m happy to procrastinate. Besides, I’ll be in the kitchen, washing up. That should be fun tonight with half a team and no running water.”

Ashia,” I say.  Sorry. Everything takes longer when the city water is off. We have to scoop water out of the rain barrels and heat it on the stove. “At least you’ll have fewer dishes to wash up.”

“Always looking on the bright side! I wonder how long before the water comes back on.”

“Hopefully before we run out of clean underwear!”

“You should read Mac’s Loops while you’re on the computer.”

“If you insist,” I say, slowly getting up from the table.

“There’s also one reminding us about nominations for the Wycliffe Canada Board and Advisory Committee.

“How exciting.”

David grins at my sarcasm. I don’t know or much care what happens at board or committee meetings. I picture a bunch of old men sitting around the table, bored, discussing trivia that makes little difference to my day-to-day concerns.

“Ahhaa!” I say later while skimming the nominations email and out jumps the sentence: we suggest that there should be more women on the board. This sounds important, but bylaw changes removing any limits to the number of consecutive terms one can serve? What difference does it make? I could not care less, yet. At this point in my life, I don’t even know the difference between bylaws and constitutions. One day I will know that bylaws are simply rules. They stipulate who can become members of an organization or its board and how decisions are made. Bylaws may not contradict the constitution which states the organization’s purpose and underlying ethos.

“Mom!” Sonya says, rushing in from outside. “There’s no water left in the barrels to flush the toilet.”

“Already? The water has only been off for a day.” She shrugs her shoulders as I step away from the computer. “You know not to flush every time, right?

“Yes, Mom, I know. ‘If it’s yellow, let it mellow.’ It’s not yellow!”  

I help her fill a bucket from another rain barrel on the compound. The smell in the washroom explains the problem—extra necessary flushing due to diarrhea and vomiting.

“How are you feeling?” I ask Stefan, crouching beside him after coming back into our suite.

“Lousy,” he whispers. I check his forehead—time for another acetaminophen and some coaxing to get him to drink more.

I struggle to get my head into the right frame of mind for Mac’s Loops. As Wycliffe Canada’s director, he’s trying to motivate the Church to engage more in the process of sending their own members into mission service. Some church folk who’ve gone to visit the field and help out have returned home feeling resented, as if the missionaries considered their presence more bother than worth. That’s sad, I tell myself, but with some understanding. I certainly felt useless in Kuma Talla—more like a hindrance than a help—to Samuel and Marilyn. One mission, however, reported that a high percentage of their new recruits had had a successful, short-term, cross-cultural mission experience. That I get too. Our time in the village was positive, illuminating not just the local people’s needs, but ours as well for their gracious acceptance, insights, resourcefulness and strength.

Replaying the last three weeks and thinking about our new friends in Wimbum puts me into the mood, despite my weariness, to work on my final AOC assignment. It might as well be tonight while the computer is all mine.

“Mom, can I write an email to Clay?”

 “You’re kidding me!” I mutter under my breath. “No!” I don’t even try to hide my frustration.

“It won’t take me long. I just want to tell him about the package I’m planning to send, so he can look forward to it for a long time. I’m not going to write what’s inside though—that’s a surprise.”

“How nice. I love anticipation too, but it’ll have to wait another day. I need to get started on this anthropology assignment. Could you sit in here with me and finish up your drawings of the brick wall and construction site, for Dad’s assignment? That way Stefan can sleep with the light off.”

Andreas complies, keeping me company for the next two hours, both of us doing what we love even though the later it gets the more it feels like hard work. He finishes the sketches while I finish typing and fleshing out my handwritten notes describing everything that I had observed at two Corn Beer Society Meetings. Women bring coins to these weekly gatherings to save money toward buying kitchen items, such as a food thermos, utensils, plates or spoons.

I was pretty nervous the first time, not knowing what to expect. At 9:30 a.m., I followed Marilyn through the back door of a house on market street, cup in hand, just like the four women ahead of us. We walked down the hallway, past lace curtains hanging the full length down, facing three closed doors on the right and one on the left. Through the lace of an open doorway at the end of the hall, I could see men sitting on couches. We entered a room with the walls painted green, the gray floor swept clean, no cobwebs hanging from the ceiling, only an empty single-light-bulb fixture. The one barred window had horizontal glass plates in the closed position. I already felt hot and sweaty. The wooden door had a key hole and a bolt lock. The meeting room was bare of furniture except for 16 straight-backed wooden chairs pushed back against the walls and a wooden coffee table holding coins, two notebooks, a Bic-type pen and a plastic bag of cola nuts. Too bad there’s no coffee pot, I thought. Instead, a large metal pot of fresh, unalcoholized corn beer crowned the center of the room, next to another pot, one-third full of water.

I sat down near the door, beside Marilyn. Most of the ladies greeted me with a murmur and handshake, either before or after sitting down. Most had a baby strapped to their back; some also had a small child who sat on an empty chair, or wedged between two women, or stood. Babies were held on laps, nursed and sometimes passed to another woman.

At 9:45, a large metal plate was slid into the open doorway which some ladies ignored or stepped around. It’s purpose, I would learn later, was for catching coins—fines—from the latecomers.

Whenever a lady arrived and sat down, the serving lady would leave her seat behind the coffee table, go to the center of the room and slosh her right hand around in the pot of water. She’d then use her left hand to remove and hold the lid covering the corn beer and then retrieve the half-immersed plastic pitcher with her right hand, topping it up. The lid was held under the pitcher to catch any drips as she walked over and served the new arrival. She waited for the lady to drink the entire cupful, then poured her a second before going on to serve the next lady or to return the pitcher and lid. She would then go back to serve the ladies a cola nut. If the ladies being served were not holding a baby, they would touch their left hand to their right arm or elbow.

Mothers shared the corn beer and cola nuts with their eager children. I’d like them too, I suppose, if I had started at their age. Surprisingly, not once did the women or children knock over the half-empty cups resting on the floor. As the meeting wore on, the preschoolers became more active and whiney. Some went down the hall to play on the back steps, from where I could hear their voices. 

Shortly after all the women had been served, one at a time each handed coins (sometimes unravelling them from a corner of her wrapper) to the collection lady who spoke in hushed tones with the bookkeeper sitting next to her behind the coffee table. Everyone else chatted more loudly, sometimes pointing at the coins. Near the end of the meeting, a list of names and numbers was quietly read out. I heard 120, 50, 55 and 180. Marilyn had given 50, roughly 10 cents. I knew because the numbers were spoken in English, everything else in Limbum.

All the ladies wore head coverings, except for a younger one who hadn’t come with a child. Marilyn explained that a woman can choose if she wants to wear a head covering. Perhaps she wanted to put me at ease. I felt conspicuous with my naked head. Before leaving for the meeting, Marilyn had changed into a clean blouse, different wrapper, and dress shoes. A few ladies had bare feet. I had seen flip-flops at the house entrance or outside the room in the hallway. Marilyn told me that slippers cannot be worn to meetings; bare feet show more respect than slippers. At least I had done something right.

Some of the ladies wore dangling earrings or no earrings at all. Two wore bangles for bracelets. I didn’t see any rings on fingers. Only the bookkeeper wore a watch. At the second meeting, the husband of one of the members did the bookkeeping; he too was wearing a watch. He had come to town for his wife, to mill corn into corn flour while she stayed home to work on the farm. I wrote down questions that came to mind, such as, how do they decide who will be the money counter, the bookkeeper and the server? Marilyn never volunteered an explanation of what was happening unless I asked a specific question. She said the ladies take turns preparing and supplying the corn beer.

Throughout the 90 minutes, it seemed ladies were constantly entering or leaving the room—momentarily or permanently. No one ever had to stay standing, though at times three women would squish together across two chairs. Everyone participated in conversation, except at the second meeting; a lady sitting beside the door said nothing, nor was she addressed. I was rarely spoken to. Once, the female bookkeeper asked me in Limbum how I was doing. “Why did they laugh?” I asked, feeling embarrassed. “You gave the correct response,” Marilyn replied with a smile.

Near the end of the second meeting, all but one-third of a large sack of salt purchased in Ndu with society money was emptied into a metal cooking pot. Marilyn had come prepared with a little pot the previous time, thinking salt would then be shared. Leaving 2½ year-old Yvette behind, she rushed home for plastic bags. Ladies took turns handing their container to the woman who sat resting on her haunches beside the salt pot. Using her right hand, she measured salt to the rim of a clear glass tumbler, then topped it with an extra handful, letting the excess slide down off the peak. Most of the ladies had brought just one container and received either one or two glassfuls. Marilyn initially received one. Later, after everyone had been served, she and others were served one or two more glassfuls. Why? What would be done with the remaining salt in the bag? The gentleman doing the bookkeeping was told in English the number to record. When the pot was empty, he stood to leave but was called back for another cup of corn beer. A few ladies then started handing coins to the collection lady which he recorded before finally leaving. We also left then, my notebook full of notes and questions which Marilyn couldn’t understand well enough to provide an answer that made sense.

I learned more later from Samuel. Each woman tells the group what she plans to buy. After withdrawing her savings, the husband is to accompany her to the market to make sure the item is purchased. To further ensure that the money is not wasted, she is expected to show the ladies her purchase at the next meeting—this didn’t happen at either of the two meetings I attended. About 30 ladies belong to this savings society; only about half attend at the end of dry season, the others have gone to prepare their fields for planting.

I felt quite pleased back there in the village doing real participant observation, just like we were taught at university. But now, sitting next to Andreas, reading through my first draft, I feel overwhelmed. How will I ever learn an African language and culture well enough to actually be a help rather than a hindrance? The fact that it’s midnight feeds my negative perspective.

After a few hours of sleep, we’re jolted awake by a loud thunder clap. David bolts out of bed to unplug the computer before the next lightening strike. I watch the blades of the fan gradually slowing down before they come to a complete stop.

“So now we’re also out of power,” David says, “but the computer battery is fully charged. I’ll try write a few emails this morning and get started on my assignment.”

The kids are awake in the other bedroom, arguing about something.

“I love that sound,” David says.

“The kids bickering?” I ask, pretending to look confused.

“No! That drives me nuts! The sound of the coming rain.” From miles off we can hear sheets of rain racing across the city’s metal rooftops, getting increasingly louder until its pounding overhead in a deafening roar.

“Bicker all you want, kids. No one can hear you!” I shout. I picture the rain barrels full again and wonder what it would be like to shampoo and rinse my hair in a torrential downpour. The storm gallops away as quickly as it came, leaving the air cool and fresh, granting a brief reprieve before the sun beats down again from a blue sky. The birds sound happier than our kids as we’re getting dressed.

“What is all the squawking about?” I ask, marching into the kids’ room.

“I was trying to sleep in a bit,” Andreas says grumpily, “but couldn’t because Nathan wouldn’t stop impersonating Donald Duck!” Stefan is still giggling silently under the covers, making them jiggle. I guess he’s on the mend.

“Seriously, Andreas? How could anyone possibly sleep through all that thunder and pounding rain? Come on you guys, hang in there, and be nice to each other. We’ve almost passed the AOC test and will soon . . .  

Sonya interrupts wide-eyed. “You still have to write a test?”

“No, well, sort of. The staff and director have been meeting to assess how they think we did and our potential for handling challenges. Dad and I also need to do a personal self-assessment, answering a bunch of questions.”

“What kind of questions?” Sonya asks just as David walks through the door.

“Questions like, what were your biggest stressors and how well do you think you handled them?” David says.

“I bet I can guess yours, Dad,” Nathan says. “The heat, riding in a taxi with fifteen goats, and screaming babies in the dining room.”  

“Almost. I thought the goat ride was a cheap thrill—just US $8 for the whole round trip. Bickering kids stress me out way more than a carload of baby goats! ”

“Very funny, Dad!” Stefan says.

When I ask Stefan what his biggest stressor has been, he replies, “Being sick, four times!” I’m surprised at the number, ashamed to not know. It seems like at least one of us is always sick. I’ve lost track.

“How about you, Nathan?” David asks.

“Sand in my tent at Kribi. It bugged me sleeping in sandy sheets.” I’m just as surprised by his answer.

“And you, Sonya?” I ask.

“Marriage proposals! They give me the creeps.” That’s no surprise.

“Andreas?”

“Not having my own room!”

“Me too!” Sonya says.

We’re all startled by a sudden knock on the door. It’s too early for good news.  

“Good morning,” I say cautiously after opening the door.

“Ahh, good morning all. Henny, aren’t you on breakfast duty?”

“Oh my, yes, of course! It’s Thursday!” My heart is pounding as I rush to the kitchen.

The rest of the day is a blur of activity. David goes into town to reserve and pay for the six of us to fly out of Douala to Brazzaville on March 28. We’ve a lot to do over the next eight days, but when I see two letters from Netty in our mailbox, I sneak away to a quiet place, inside the gazebo. The birthday card shows two sad-faced girls, a younger blond, like I used to be, looking up to an older brunette. The text says: “We have shared each other’s gladness and wept each other’s tears.”—Charles Jeffreys. “Thanks for being someone I care so much about.” She’s so good at finding just the right card, ones worth keeping. Adjusting to her new life in Calgary sounds oddly familiar, yet different.

March 2, 1997

Dear Henny & Dave & the children,

It’s already been 2 months since you left—seems like such a long time. Before I forget, I’ve been enjoying your coffee grinder. Thanks! We’ve been getting more snow in Calgary but it’s not too cold. The heat in Cameroon is probably hard for you. I can’t imagine making as many changes and adapting as much as you have. Waiting for my hubby and kids to join me and starting a new job is enough of a challenge!

So far at work, I’m still learning the ropes, putting in long hours and getting over my fear of cold calling. Next week I’m on my own when making presentations. Finding the address and parking worries me more than selling. . .

I never thought losing Dad would hurt as much as it is. Quite often he’s part of my dreams. I’m still very upset with Dad’s doctor for not diagnosing properly; three times he didn’t do his job and then when Dad had the heart attack, he didn’t even show up for many days! Everyone was shocked about Dad’s passing as he looked so robust and was so young. Jake said that even as a young boy, Dad was very gentle and kind, a favourite brother.

L. has been very good to Mom, helping her sort out all the paperwork for pension income and other details. A very interesting thing happened while I was with Mom for the two weeks. It was as if she wasn’t the same person—very sane, easy to be around, not dominating. I’m not sure yet what caused the dramatic change. Perhaps shock or the mild sedative she was taking. Who knows? It’s actually given me hope for perhaps a different relationship. Others noticed the difference too . . .

The past few days have been hard—chest infection, then a stomach flu and struggling with my emotions. There are always so many questions in life . . . Today, I realize that part of my struggle is the result of losing Dad, losing you guys, along with not having my hubby and kids here yet. I’m sure you can relate! It’s at times like this that we can turn to our Maker who is our hope, our strength . . .

Many people were touched by the words you wrote to Dad . . . Henny, I sure wish you could have been with us but we have to leave this in God’s hand. Pity those who have no hope in God as they struggle through life. That’s why He has called each of us to be disciples to give the message of Jesus Christ.

Trust all went well in your three-week excursion.

Love and prayers, Netty and family

Indeed, it did. In the evening, I enjoy reflecting back on our time in the village as I proofread David’s final assignment, especially the part addressing our earlier question about so many unfinished buildings:

“The sub-chief makes occasional comments and jokes while sitting in the courtyard watching the men build his new meeting house. As Samuel is mixing more mortar, he says “You can cook a pig in the fat of a pig.” Seeing my puzzled expression, he explains that bricks are made from the same soil used to mix the mud that will hold those bricks together.

“When I asked Samuel about all the half-finished buildings throughout the community, he said the owners are waiting to collect the money to buy roofing materials. He never hinted at shame or disdain for this practice. On the contrary, he said that any man unwilling to start building the walls is a lazy man. The water and soil for the bricks, and eucalyptus trees for the wooden doors, windows and roof frame are readily available off the land—there is no reason to postpone that part of the building process. ‘Where there is a will, there must be a way,’ he said, citing the example of his own brothers who worked together sharing resources and manpower over several years until each one had his own house completed.  

Samuel’s interpretation of the situation will have significant implications for the Limbum translation of Luke 14:28-29: ‘But don’t begin until you count the cost. For who would begin construction of a building without first calculating the cost to see if there is enough money to finish it? Otherwise, you might complete only the foundation before running out of money, and then everyone would laugh at you.’” 

Friday morning starts with an air of expectation and celebration. By now, we’ve all had a turn telling our stories about how God brought us to Cameroon. So for this last devotional, the director has invited a Nigerian pastor from the Assemblies of God Church that he attends in Yaoundé to be our closing speaker. Several of us who attend Pentecostal churches in our home countries appreciate his challenge to walk in the Holy Spirit’s power while in Africa. Taking notes in shorthand, I’m barely able to keep up with his fiery preaching. “You cannot expect Satan to stand still while you translate God’s Word for people who have never had it available. He will attack you! If you do not have the power and protection from the infilling of the Holy Spirit, you will not stand, people around you will not be convinced of God’s power, and you might as well have stayed home!” Strong words that will come back to haunt us.

 Next Friday we’ll be bumped out of this cozy nest. I’m going to miss these people. I pull Rosalyn aside at morning coffee break, so just the two of us can talk. She seems a bit down but brightens as we talk about her little boy and our time in Wimbum. She laughs when I tell her about Marilyn’s strong reaction to David’s suggestion of putting salt in corn fufu.

“No, no! That can never happen!” she says. The fact that David enjoys eating fufu, regardless, pleases her immensely.     

“What’s it like for you,” I ask, “nearing the end of another AOC?”

“It’s really hard,” she says softly, her eyes moistening. “So many people have come and gone. A few do stay and work in Cameroon and that’s nice. But most leave and we never hear from them again.”

“Do you get tired of it, so many good-byes?”

“Yes,” she says nodding. “It hurts, but you get used to it.”

Ashia,” I say. Sorry. “Is it tempting sometimes to hold back because you know the friendships are short-term?”

“Sometimes, but I don’t want to miss out on good times with people like you, Manfar!” she says. Mother of twins.

Switching topics, I ask if there’s been any improvement in her relationship with Christina. Apparently not. In the village and here in the city, as we’ve chatted with Christians from different churches, David and I have been disappointed, though not necessarily surprised, with the degree of legalism and denominational superiority. I admit to Rosalyn that we picked up similar attitudes as kids and wonder aloud if Cameroonian church leaders and their congregations inherited this from western missionaries. I feel a sense of shared responsibility for this and want to apologize, but don’t. Break is over. Time for Rosalyn to get back to the hot kitchen, to finish preparing lunch alongside Christina, with Lynn as their arbitrator. She expects them to work at resolving their differences.

After siesta, David goes into town with Andreas to pick up our photos from the Korean photo lab. We need to choose the best ones and get them in the mail, for the printing of our first snail-mail newsletter from Africa. Andreas is anxious to send off the promised parcel to his cousin, especially since hearing that Clay crashed into a tree, breaking both his ankle and snowboard.  

I force myself to sit down at the computer and read the SIL Western Zaire Group minutes of the Executive Committee Meeting, Feb. 27. That subject line itself is enough to make me want to quit reading, but I commit to at least a quick scan. I immediately wonder, what’s the difference between an executive committee and a board? The minutes describe a number of one-off types of decisions, like buying a satellite phone, proposing a pay scale for local translators, writing a policy on loans for local employees, not fixing the computer, but selling its parts. There’s general agreement on the constitution that the director has been drafting. It sounds like a lot of work which I’m glad others are willing to do. In the moment, the idea of becoming a governance coach 20 years down the road is unthinkable. But one day, I will care and ask questions like, did you articulate the stable values underpinning the management decisions you just made? What could be the benefit of expressing those values in written policies? 

An impending rain storm brings my weak resolve to catch up on emails to a welcome end as I reach to unplug the computer. Unfortunately, it was already unpluggedonly 4% battery power remaining. I decide to lie down again to wait out the storm and the return of the kids, totally covered in orange mud from playing soccer. I should hand them soap and shampoo and let them try showering in the rain.   

The mood in the evening is festive. Everyone is almost back to full health, even Jaap, without ever being evacuated. After coke and pizza topped with imported Dutch Edam cheese, I laugh harder than I have in months. To celebrate both the end of AOC and the beginning of mango season, Tyler and Rick race to finish eating a small bucketful of ripe mangoes, each the shape of a teardrop about the size of my fist. With one hand tied behind their backs, they can use only their teeth to bite the green skin, peeling it off in strips to get at the delicious flesh. Sticky orange-yellow juice is running down their forearms and dripping from their elbows and chins as we shout and cheer and laugh until our sides ache. I hope Congo has mangoes. I could easily eat six or more in one sitting, though not at this crazy pace. I feel sorry for the people who discover they’re allergic to mangoes, when their lips and mouths start to itch and burn.  

I giggle through the next creative act. One female participant recites a poem while another enacts a myriad of uses for the common wrapper, including skirt, baby holder, nose wiper, money pouch, shawl, blanket, beach or bath towel, bathrobe, carrying container, curtain . . . 

Later in bed, I can tell by David’s breathing that he’s taking longer than his usual 60 seconds to fall asleep. “What are you thinking about, Dave?”

He turns to face me. “I’m worried about the kids. Are we setting ourselves up for unrealistic expectations? Have you noticed the students from Rain Forest International School? They remind me of the peer-driven fashion slaves of North America. I know, that sounds harsh, but honestly, I thought this bunch of kids would be different. What really makes me sad is they don’t seem to have relationships with Africans. Am I being too idealistic? They speak English, some French, and live in a little America transplanted to Africa. Many of their families attend the expatriate church at the Hilton Hotel with business people and diplomats. Is that what we want for our kids?” 

“No, but that seems pretty unlikely in Impfondo, don’t you think?”

“But what if we have to wait another year for Zaire to quiet down, and you end up teaching at the American school in Brazzaville?”

“From what the director said, even if I did teach there, we still couldn’t afford the kids’ tuition. Would you homeschool them?”

“I want to help Africans do linguistics and translation. That’s the whole reason for our coming, so that more people are hearing Jesus’ teaching in a language they understand well.”

“Not at the expense of our children.”

“It’s not an either or. Both matter.”

“Equally?”

“No. The kids are our top priority.”

“I’m glad to hear you say that. So you didn’t come to Africa to homeschool our kids? But they’re so well behaved and polite,” I say kissing Dave’s stubbly chin between each word. It’s too dark for him to see me grinning. “That’s exactly what those sweet ladies in Victoria just wrote. I remember almost word for word. What a treat to have the Thormoset kids visit. They are lovely children and we pray for them often.’”

“You conveniently skipped what they wrote about parenting being an ongoing challenge. In other words, don’t be cocky!”

“Okay, okay. We’re very lucky, I mean fortunate, no, blessed, that so many people are praying for them. For us! Kidding aside, I’m sure that’s why we got such a positive written assessment this afternoon. I loved the last sentence.”

“What was that?” David murmurs sleepily.

“‘We joyfully commend you to the work in Zaire.’ Do you think that’s prophetic?”

“Pathetic?”

Seconds later, he’s breathing heavily, sound asleep.

****

Wednesday, March 26, 1997

Heyo Clayo! Right now, we are sitting in our little room, packing all our stuff and waiting out the downpour outside. I’ve spent the day trying to decide what I can leave behind and what I can take because I have way too much stuff!

The reason I am writing is to let you know just where I’ll be in the next little while. The day after tomorrow, we will get on a bush taxi and drive up to the city of Douala and from there take off in a plane to Brazzaville, Congo. We will stay there for 3 or 4 days as my dad and maybe me go to the town of Impfondo to fix up a house to live in. We will be living without electricity, running water, or plumbing. At first, I didn’t think I would be able to handle that for 5 months but now I’m looking forward to it. I really am hoping that there will be some place where I can buy chocolate!

I’m not sure if you’ve already heard some of this info but if you have, just ignore it. Also, emails are going to take a lot longer to get to you and back! We will probably go back to using the satellite phone to send and receive email, but it’s expensive so we’ll probably only do that once every two weeks.

I guess it’s going to be just one big adventure!

Andreas T.

P.S. Just because the emails take longer to get here doesn’t mean you have to write any less!

****

Questions for Reflection or Discussion

1. When you hear or read words such as board, executive committee, minutes, constitution, bylaws, or governance policies, how do you tend to react? Why do you think that’s the case

2. Have your reactions to these words changed over time? Why or why not?

3. In what ways could it be helpful for a busy board to ask itself:

a) What are the stable underlying values that led to the management decision(s) we just made?

b) What could be the long-term benefits of capturing those values in written policies?


[1] John 15:8 NLT

[2] Mark 7:8 NLT

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