The Turning of a Year

MachambaAround here, they’re tilling their fields. Hoeing open the earth. Breaking up the hard places and turning it fresh. Loosening it all up so that the seeds sprout. Carving holes and piling dirt, and there’s these crooked lines that look like a hundred ant hills.

The clouds build, and the rains are coming. They’ll dump on all this dirt and seed, and life will grow. It’s a rhythm they all know. You have to sow and work and wait until you can harvest. So they rise early and walk to their fields outside of town with a hoe on their head and begin.

And that matters here in a place where you eat only what you grow. The rain and the fields mean they’ll have chance to keep on living.

Sam and I, we’re turning the year and finding center. We’ve been spinning and a little speechless from more change than we’ve ever known and it takes time to know who you are in new place. But slowly, I think, we’re breathing deeper and learning to rest in uncomfortable spaces. There has been so much grace this year.

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I pause when I think of where we were last year, living on the eleventh story in our city of a million. It feels like an age ago. Because, since then, we’ve moved seven times in three countries. And I’m the girl who had lived in the same house until I left for college and has sat on the floor of each new home surrounded by suitcases and told God I don’t think I’m cut out for this.

Machamba2Since then, we’ve finished learning our second language and begun learning our third and we’ve gone to bed tired. Since then, we’ve shed pounds and choices and bits of ourselves and found God to be sufficient in less. Since then, we’ve appreciated simple because we really are okay without running water and places to eat out. Since then, we’ve eaten what’s in season and learned the grace of giving thanks for what is and longing for what’s to come.

Since then, we’ve found more hard places in us than we’d like to admit. It’s funny how so much motion can leave you stale and stubborn. Since then, we’ve asked more questions than we have answers for.

Please hear me. I don’t say all this to complain or to climb a pedestal. Just to tell what this year has been for us. No doubt your year has a story, too. It’s in this year that we’ve learned to know and love God better, and that is always a good thing.

The year ahead is sure to be different than any other. This time, we have four walls of our own and every one of our suitcases unpacked and no more moves planned in the next year. This time, we’ll remain. Put down our roots. Work at relationship because we won’t say goodbye in a few months. And after all our orbiting, it will take some learning to stay.

She read it at team prayer meeting yesterday, and it sounded like God’s voice: He crowns the year with His bounty (Ps. 65:11). And then she counted the ways we have been given God’s bounty. Protection. Meaningful work. Health and healing. Enough light for the next step. Provision.

I looked around at us, all weary from a year, and couldn’t help but agree. We’ve been gifted abundance.

And maybe it’s like that, the turning of years. Tilling the place that’s been hardened and dried by a year of sun and turning over fresh what’s underneath. Beginning again knowing that His bounty is the ending.

Tending and waiting for harvest, which will be full and good and worth it.

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Road Trip Diaries: Nampula/Mocuba

October 4 was “Peace Day” here in Mozambique, a day to remember the peace accords that were signed 23 years ago to officially bring an end to the civil war. We were enjoying a different kind of peace, as we had just rolled back into Balama and could finally rest after a long week-long road trip. Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t a bad trip—but it was the kind that reminded us to think twice before wishing for a break from the daily grind.

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The trip began on Sunday. Our Wycliffe colleagues, John and Susan, had a flight to catch in Nampula, and we were planning to drive their Land Rover back to Balama while we waited for our car to be imported. Now Nampula is about 500 kilometers from here. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, just figure that, time-wise, 1 kilometer of Mozambique travel is equal to about 1 mile of U.S. travel. A trip to Nampula takes all day.

No sooner had we pulled into Montepuez (less than an hour’s drive out of town) than we heard a loud thump and a “bump-bump-bump-bump-bump” sound coming from the front right wheel well. For the second time in as many trips, the part that holds the shock absorber in place had broken at the place where it is bolted down. A little more stress on that thing and it would be shot right through, leaving the car undriveable.

Zacarias, their household employee who was traveling with us, suggested driving to one of the local churches where he knew a mechanic. As it was fifteen minutes till nine o’clock, churchgoers were already pouring in, and we could hear them warming up their voices. We did find the mechanic—and he called a friend who told us he had the part—but as this friend was out of town and only returning in the afternoon, we decided to attend the service while we awaited mechanical assistance.

We weren’t really dressed for church, and we felt a bit sheepish about the fact we had been traveling on Sunday (not a good excuse for skipping church here!), but we dutifully followed the usher to our front-row seat as the congregation continued their singing. Turns out it was some kind of special service. It lasted almost four hours. Afterward, we mingled outside, dripping with sweat in the high noon sun, still awaiting news on the car. To make a long story short, John managed to fix the car, but we didn’t get on the road until more than five more hours had passed. By that time it was 6 p.m., and dusk was already giving way to dark. Oh well. This colleague never was one to observe the conventional wisdom never to drive at night in Africa.

When we finally arrived in Nampula, it was after 1 a.m. We were greeted inside our friends’ house by their pet bush baby—or rather, evidences of their pet bush baby. But we were just happy to be at our destination and to rest for a bit.

After leaving our colleagues at the airport two days later, we picked up a pastor friend (named “Sunday”) and his wife at the bus station and continued south toward a town called Mocuba. We had arranged to attend the Bible school graduation ceremony of Amisse, the pastor of the local church we attend and one of the members of the Makua-Metto translation team. For the past three years, he has been doing a theology program that involves traveling to the school for intensive courses every other month. Since our colleague John wouldn’t be there to represent our organization, we figured this would be a good way for us to invest in our relationship with Pastor Amisse. Turns out there was more opportunity for cultural learning ahead of us than we imagined.

When we arrived after a six-hour drive, saw the school, and greeted Amisse and his wife, the first thing we found out is that the graduation ceremony had been postponed by a day because of a last-minute government-sponsored event involving local pastors and church leaders. So we ended up stuck with nothing to do on Thursday. We were hopeful we could use the time to relax and catch up a bit on e-mail. As it was getting late in the afternoon, we got in the car and Amisse led us to the guest house where we were to stay, sharing a bathroom with Pastor Sunday and his wife. The accommodations—in a former colonial house—were quite nice, equipped even with a fully functional air conditioning unit in the rooms.

One of the stressful things about road-tripping here is that there are no McDonalds! In most towns it is hard to find any restaurant at all. Eating out is not really a “thing” here, and we weren’t sure what our traveling companions would want to do for dinner that night. Fortunately, they had been recommended a restaurant that served plates of local food for about $3. We would end up eating at the same place two other times over our stay.

In the morning we learned over breakfast that Pastor Sunday had already planned a way to make use of the extra time. He had called a meeting of several local pastors and church leaders in the area in order to elect a provincial leader. Churches here tend to be rather hierarchical. Pastor Sunday happens to be the national head of the Missionary Church denomination in Mozambique (the same Missionary Church found in the Midwestern U.S.), which, ironically, is rather decentralized back home.

Being the only one there with a car, I was called upon to pick up these visiting pastors in town and bring them to our guest house. Once there, we weren’t sure whether to stick around for the meeting or not. We knew it would be important to be present long enough to be introduced to them, since this is important when meeting someone for the first time. After that, it felt awkward to just leave, so we ended up staying in our seats as the group of eight elected a provincial pastor. Elizabeth served tea; we both counted ballots.

By the time it was over my services were needed again to drive several people to different places around town. The day filled up quickly, and by the end of it there wasn’t time to even open our e-mail.

Friday was graduation day. The Bible school is on the way out of town, and we arrived with bags packed and car loaded, hoping to still make it back to Nampula before nightfall. It was a beautiful day with blue sky and sunshine. An outdoor pavilion was decorated with colorful banners and white paper chains, and the nine graduates were dressed in what looked like gospel choir robes. Grad1Grad12

We marched in behind them to our seats, as they danced and sang an acapella song. The Zambezi River region in that part of central Mozambique has a wonderful choral music tradition. I wish I had brought a video camera to catch all the gorgeous African harmonies we heard throughout the ceremony—though recordings can never do it justice. One time years ago when I heard a full college choir perform Handel’s Messiah, I closed my eyes and felt I was hearing the angels in heaven. Suffice it to say that the music we heard at the graduation was every bit as angelic in its own way.Grad15Grad13

The service got a little long at the end, when the requisite words of acknowledgement were spoken by and to the government officials and important people in attendance. Afterward, we were fed a huge meal with other pastors in attendance. Eating quickly wasn’t a problem, since people tend not to talk much while they eat here; I guess they are too focused on the task at hand. As we headed to the car, we were approached by Amisse asking us to carry a sack of corn and beans to his family back home. He also asked if we could give a ride to a schoolmate of his. Since we had an open seat in the back, I agreed.

We got on the road early afternoon and soon ran into an unexpected adventure. Shortly past Mocuba, a bridge was out. There was a steep gravel bypass that we had taken on our journey south, where a large group of locals had been gathered to watch a recently overturned truck. This time when we arrived, a man motioned me to bypass the bypass and instead go down a steep embankment leading to a shallow creek, where someone had placed enough large rocks to allow a 4×4 vehicle like ours to pass through. Supposing the original bypass was closed, I followed this man’s directive, though I soon began to wonder if I had done the right thing. I was met at the creek by a mob of young guys demanding payment in order to cross. So I continued to the creek passing but stalled on the first attempt up the sandy hill on the other side. On the second attempt I barely succeeded in reaching the top, thanks to a push from the guys who ran alongside the car asking for money afterward. Had I been alone, I would probably have given them what they wanted, but Pastor Sunday was shouting to me from the back seat: “Don’t stop! These guys are trying to cheat you!” So on I went, eventually leaving them in the dust as we continued on our journey.

We didn’t have much time to celebrate the successful crossing, because about this time our extra passenger received a text message on his phone informing him that his older brother had died the night before. We were surprised at how matter-of-factly he reported this information. No tears, no visible signs of grief. It did put a bit of a damper on the rest of the trip, but mainly because we didn’t know if it was OK to make normal conversation again—which is just what the Africans in the car eventually did. It’s not that people don’t grieve here, but premature death seems to be a part of life that people are accustomed to dealing with.

The rest of the journey was uneventful in comparison. We arrived in Nampula at dusk, which was probably about the worst time we could have arrived traffic-wise. Thankfully, we were able to navigate the swarms of pedestrians, motorbikes, trucks, and bicycles on the road. Tired out and thinking we were going straight to our lodging for the night, both Elizabeth and I were surprised when we realized Pastor Sunday had arranged to stop and visit a local friend on the way. So we braved a neighborhood marked by hilly dirt roads and narrow passageways, maneuvering the Land Rover in spaces too close for comfort. But we made it. About 9 p.m. we arrived back at our missionary friends’ house and rested well, aside from a midnight encounter with their bush baby.

One more full day of driving, relatively uneventful and enjoyable, and we arrived back in Balama.

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On Meeting Kings

We met a king today. Sat right on the porch of his adobe brick house across from the well and exchanged greetings and names and pleasantries. It seemed half the village came to watch, although it was probably only fifty or sixty faces pressing in to get a good look.

P1030147As an outsider, I never would have picked him out as a king. You’d never know it to look at him. His traditional cap frays at the edges, mostly covering his age. His smile spans toothless except for a few on top and bottom. His shirt wears stains and gaps from a few missing buttons, a Goodwill cast-off shipped in a clothing brick and sold at the market. He wears sunshine yellow flipflops. And he sleeps under thatch, just like everybody else. But there is an unwritten code with which no one argues, and it says that this man is big stuff.

His role is a shell of what it used to be, before the war. He would have kept peace, administered justice, and even been carried through town on a litter. Now he spends days sitting, watching, knowing the happenings of his kingdom of six thousand, and practicing a dark spirituality that binds this place in mystery.

To tell you the truth, meeting a king wasn’t on our schedule for the week. We’re moving. We’re traveling. We’re trying to learn a new language. Seemed like enough for one week. But then, the week never goes as planned and the dog got sick and three extra people came for lunch and our language helper showed up an hour early. So we said, “Why not meet a king?” It’s as good a week as any.

We don’t have much experience meeting kings, so we’d asked our language helper how one greets a king properly. He smiled and said it wise: the Bible says all are equal before God, and his children treat everyone the same—king or not.

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And it got me thinking. What does it mean to show respect to all those created in the image of God? To the hundred pairs of child eyes staring wide? To the girl who asks to have my shopping bag? To the ten neighbors who each expect us to stop and greet every time we pass? To all the sick and the hungry and the lame whom I can’t rescue?

Because some days, when kids stare for minutes of seconds, I feel like an exhibit at the zoo. And when I walk amongst those who don’t have much, I feel like the worst kind of hypocrite for having more. And when it takes three times longer to walk anywhere for all the greetings, I feel like I’m not enough to meet everyone’s expectations. The needs are overwhelming, the requests unending, and I am deeply inadequate.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say it’s easier to keep my distance. Fewer uncomfortable things happen when I hold people at arm’s length. They couldn’t be more different from me in the way they filter their experience, and I don’t usually understand. It’s something I work against almost every time I step out the door. Staying open to the personhood of another. Not seeing them as only their stares or their requests or their poverty, but as creations of the living God. Loved by him, sought by him, seen by him. The ones who bear His mark. I’m not sure how He does it, loving vastly all these masterpieces of flesh and spirit, but He does it nonetheless. And by His Spirit, He equips me to do the same.

Our friend knows it true and lives it simple. Jesus and His people always treat others with respect. They honor the image of God in another. To them, all are kings. And spending my day meeting kings, in name or not, is how I show Him here.P1030159

How Living in Africa Makes the Gospels Come Alive

Living in another culture can bring new perspective to one’s reading of the Bible—especially when living in a culture that is much closer to the Biblical culture than our own. In the short time we’ve been in Africa, we’ve been in a number of situations that brought to mind a passage in one of the four gospels. Here are a few examples…

He came to Jesus at night… (John 3:2)

Have you ever thought about why Nicodemus came to Jesus at night? Some commentators suggest he was scared of the reactions of the other Jewish leaders—and this may well be the case. However, there are other reasons that nighttime is a good time to have a spiritual conversation. For one thing, since everyone goes home to eat, it is the best chance to get time with someone one-on-one. After the daily work responsibilities have ended, people also tend to be more relaxed and talkative. I thought about this story the first time someone approached me here at night. We had just moved in temporarily to the house of a furloughing missionary in town. The first night we were there, the night guard at the house approached me in the dark, sat me down next to him in his little hut outside and asked me about my business in Balama. “Rumor’s going around that you’re a missionary of the X church,” he said. “Is this true?” I didn’t realize right away that he was part of a split-off church from the X church, but I did know that denominationalism was strong here and so this was likely a loaded question. “No,” I replied. “I came to help with the Bible translation project here. We want to work with all the churches.” And a lively conversation ensued, which was no doubt more informative for me than it was for him.

The one who has two coats should give to the one who has none… (Luke 3:11)

Shortly after we arrived at our temporary house, we had an interesting situation arise with one of the night guards. It was a chilly night (believe it or not we do have them here!), and after going outside to greet this skinny man in his tattered short-sleeve shirt, I started to feel a bit sorry for him. “Maybe I should offer him my fleece jacket for the night,” I thought. After all, Elizabeth had already been teasing me for bringing two of them along with us from the States. After consulting with her, she reminded me of an important cultural consideration that I had not thought of. “If you do, you may not get it back.” (Local views on personal property are much less rigid than we are used to in the West.) Thus ensued a brief battle within my own soul; I’m ashamed to say how hard it was for me to release control of my own property. However, this verse kept coming to mind. Finally, I surrendered, went outside, and offered him the jacket. I didn’t tell him he could keep it, but I wasn’t altogether surprised when the jacket didn’t show up the next night. Or the next. Until the next really cold evening, when he showed up wearing my jacket. He’s been wearing it ever since.

Do not take the seat of honor… (Luke 14:8)

The principle of this story makes sense to us in the West, but the figure Jesus used doesn’t exactly strike a chord. However, here in a culture where honor is an important “commodity,” it makes all the sense in the world. Seeking honor through a position of spiritual authority—the specific thing Jesus was counseling against—is a very real danger here. Not that it doesn’t exist in the U.S.—mass media and megachurches can easily breed this kind of hubris at the national scale. However, more than in most places in the West, being a pastor in Africa is a pretty good way to have a position of status in the community. People are also treated differently based on their status. For example, missionaries like us are always ushered to the front row at church services. We may not be entirely comfortable with this, but we have learned to go along with it. When visiting a church, we have to expect to be offered a front row seat and probably asked to preach. It is so much an expectation that we are sometimes surprised when we visit a church and are not offered a seat in the front. At those times, I have remembered this verse—and gladly taken a seat at the back until ushered to the place of honor.

He poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet… (John 13:5)

Do you realize how dusty, gross, and smelly your feet can get when you wear sandals in a dry climate? I hadn’t either, until we moved to Balama. After a few hours of walking in the sandy, dusty roads, I feel like I need a bath. Like most Mozambicans, we shower at night, in large part because I can feel the layer of dirt at the bottom of the sheets when I don’t wash my feet before bed. Frankly, washing even a good friend’s feet isn’t a job I would sign up for. Add to that the honor dynamics mentioned in the above paragraph. There is a sharp division between employers and employees here. Once we gave a cup of tea to the domestic worker at the house where we’re living and offered him a seat with us, but he insisted on going outside and drinking it on his own. Had we pushed too hard for him to conform to our values, I suspect he may have felt as awkward as we did. All of this makes me appreciate the shock of what Jesus did when he washed His disciple feet. For the disciples, it must have just felt so wrong. And for most people doing what Jesus did, it would have felt repugnant.

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother… (Luke 14:26)

This is a hard saying of Jesus—one that I’ve wrestled with quite a bit through the years. I’m finding out that here, where family is one of the strongest forces of opposition to Christian converts, less mental gymnastics is required to make sense of it. A local pastor and leader of the translation project told of how he converted to Christianity after seeing the JESUS Film shown by some traveling missionaries. His life changed drastically, and the whole family began to take notice. However, his maternal uncle (the figurehead of the family in Makua culture) was fiercely opposed and threatened to kick him out of the family. However, this pastor persisted in his faith, and within a few years this uncle died (something which he considers an answer to prayer), opening the door for many more in the family to put their faith in Jesus.

No one can serve two masters… (Matt 6:24)

One of the translators in our town is a pastor who previously was among the leadership of one of the major political parties in this country. This position brought with it plenty of recognition, status, power, and money. However, when he converted to Christianity, he realized that his allegiance needed to change. It was already difficult to maintain a holy lifestyle under the pressures of the political environment; but beyond this, God was calling this man to become pastor of a local church. Deep down, he knew that he couldn’t faithfully do both. The leading pastor of his church denomination in the province laid down the gauntlet: “Either follow politics or follow Christ. You cannot do both.” Stepping down wasn’t easy: it required making a public statement over the radio and fleeing the region to avoid threats on his life. Back in the area five years later, he is content leading a small church in our neighborhood and helping to bring the Scriptures to the Makua-Meetto people.

Our Town

It is approximately 200 kilometers inland. Sixty beyond the nearest small city. Forty kilometers beyond where the pavement ends and the large-rock gravel begins. Thirty past the village with all the coconut trees. Ten kilometers past the nearest village (where they sell the best produce around).

road into balamaOutside of town, near the big mango tree where the police often set up traffic control checkpoints, gravel gives way to red dirt, and you know you are on the way into Balama. If you were to keep going west on this road even a little outside of town on the other side, you would need a 4×4 to navigate the dirt mounds, pits, and narrow passages formed by years of erosion. In the rainy season, don’t even think about it. There are villages out there—we visited one once—that don’t have a church, or very many speakers of Portuguese. Some of the older villagers have never been to Balama.

Here on the drive in, you pass the local mountain of Muape (moo-a-PEH), reminiscent of the Ozarks in size. Locals steer clear of the mountain itself; it is said that a seven-headed snake lives on the summit. Lions roar not far from here, though they stay well clear of the inhabited areas along this main stretch. A vast meadow with huge natural sand pits is one of the few places where we have gone to seek peace and quiet. Just outside of town is a dirt road leading away to the graphite mine, a new industry that has started to bring an influx of new residents—as well as banks, electricity, and crime. Things are changing quickly, they say, but Balama still has a small feel for a town of perhaps 40,000.

promeettoThe translation office sits on the main road in the exact middle of town. A small but proud-looking building with a picture of an open book and the word “Promeetto” written across the front. It is a play on words with the local language Meetto and the Portuguese word prometo (‘I promise’). Our Wycliffe colleagues—soon to be our neighbors here—built the place when they arrived over a decade ago, back when this half of town was still mato (bush). Now, this stretch of the “concrete” bairro is populated by a handful of government offices and residences, a police station, the two-story mayor’s mansion, a primary school, and the new secondary school, which sits at the back of a large bamboo-enclosed field directly across the street. Students come from miles around, decked in white button-up shirts and navy slacks or skirts, to attend classes in rotating morning, afternoon, and evening shifts. A grade-twelve education is still a precious commodity here, and besides adolescents, you will find many hard-working adults striving for the honor.

marketcapulanaIf you keep on the main road traveling west, you hit the market area—a bustling area of about 3-4 city “blocks.” It boasts a handful of small convenience stores—mostly owned by Indians, Arabs, or Somalians—where necessities such as rice, beans, tomato paste, laundry detergent, and instant coffee can be bought in bulk. Turning down a narrow alley into the main market, a row of open-air shops offers all manner of China-made goods, from flashlights to frying pans. The rest is all barracas—small bamboo shelters or thatch mats spread on the ground where locals sell fresh produce, brilliant capulana skirts, second-(or third-)hand American clothing, or replacement bicycle parts. There is a welding hut, a copy shop, and several beauty salons. One pensão (motel) with another under construction. A bar, a store that sells frozen fish and chicken, and a Movitel store (the local cell phone operator) where cell phones can be bought for less than 20 USD. Bread sells for 5 meticais (about 12 cents) per roll; it is tasty, though during the dry season you should expect to bite into occasional small clumps of sand. A tailor in a traditional Muslim cap sits peacefully at his sewing machine all day long on the veranda of one of the convenience stores, while a dozen or more teenage boys in bright red or yellow vests wander the streets, hawking cell phone credit vouchers. Old run-down vans called chapas circle up and down the main stretch, as long as it takes them to fill well past maximum capacity, before taking off for the cities of Montepuez or Pemba. Just past the market is a small, overcrowded medical clinic, where a bed can be had for 5 meticais.

 
community wellThe rest of the town is residential—a sea of square adobe walls and thatched roofs in all directions. The quintal—the dirt yard between every home’s cooking, sleeping, and bath houses—serves the function of living room. Those with means put up bamboo fences around the outside; those less fortunate simply live out in the open. A number of hand-pumped communal wells peppered throughout the bairros keep citizens supplied with clean water. Fetching water in 25-liter plastic cooking oil jugs is a daily ritual for kids and mamas. During the heat of the day, most people are out working (all but the few government workers and tradesmen are cultivating small cash crops in their machambas), but on any given stroll through the bairro one is sure to meet dozens of neighbors. Kids roam the neighborhood as if it were all one big quintal.

 

old makua womanThe roads are marked by bicycle tracks. Not a single one is paved; few are passable by car. Off the main via, there is scarcely a light to be found after dark, except for a few solitary cooking fires yet to die out. At dawn and dusk, every family is fixing their meal of beans and xima (a mixture of corn meal and water), giving the air a fresh smoky quality. It is not exactly a quiet town: the hum of a hundred conversations can be heard at certain hours of the day, and a bad mixture of African beats and Brazilian pop music may be heard well into the night. Foot is still by far the most common means of transportation (the name of the local language Meetto is based on the local word for “legs”), but there are enough bikes and motos around that you have to keep your head up when you walk.

Though a majority of residents belong to another ancient faith, there is a young yet faithful group of Christian irmãos. Depending on who’s counting, there are about 8-10 churches, mostly family-size congregations of 20-30 members. At the Catholic church—tucked behind the translation office—live four pleasant, retirement-age nuns from all over Europe and Latin America. The oldest evangelical church—one of four separate “Assemblies of God” denominations in town—dates back not twenty years. One or two churches still meet in the pastor’s home, though all aspire for a visible templo.church

This is where we live, but it may be a while before it really feels like “our town.” Though we’ve grown accustomed to our new surroundings in many ways, there is a deeper world going on here than meets our foreign eye. Occasionally, we are awakened at night by the sound of drumbeats and voices signaling some kind of traditional procession, no doubt tied to a host of animistic beliefs we’ve only heard about second hand. One day, we hope to understand well enough to speak God’s truth into life here. Progress is slow like the pace of life itself, but as we advance in our study of the Meetto language, little by little we are gaining ways to talk with our friends about this strange new world. Somehow, our simply being here and learning their world is an encouragement to the friends, pastors, and neighbors we see each day.

Language Learning Unedited

We recently began lessons in the local Makhuwa-Meetto language, and we have been blessed with several people here who are very interested in helping us learn.

When you try learning to speak a new language, one of the things you quickly discover is that that linguistics degree you worked so hard to earn doesn’t get you very far. Thought you might enjoy this sound byte that gives a window into the frustrations (joys? challenges?) of language learning.

Can you hear the difference?

Road Trip Diaries: Tete, May 4-9

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The city of Tete, located on the historic Zambezi River

Monday, May 4

A full day today. Sat in on a meeting of the Nyungwe Bible translation team, made up of three local pastors working together with Swedish Wycliffe missionary Mikael. They are an impressive group – fun guys who seem to work well together. In talking with Mikael and Pastor Semo, the team leader, we learned a little bit more about the translation process. Sometimes the biggest challenges aren’t what you would think. One of the biggest hurdles the team has had to overcome is the difficulty of distributing translated Scripture portions. There are about 20,000 Nyungwe copies of the gospel of Matthew sitting in a closet in Nampula right now – hundreds of kilometers away from the Nyungwe language area. Shipping costs into Tete are prohibitive, and since the trip takes full two days, there are very few missionaries who make that trek and could rent trunk space. Even once the booklets make it, the job is not done. The people who need them the most live outside the city, scattered about in small, often hard-to-get-to villages. In the city, where the team has a greater network, pastors tend to be non-Nyungwe speakers, using either Portuguese or another regional language called Chewa.

Spent part of the afternoon in town, getting to know the city. Experienced one of those “we live in Africa” moments that you feel you just have to share with someone. We walked into a local coffee shop, and I wanted to buy two small notebooks for about 30 cents. Since I wasn’t carrying any small change, the store worker went outside to try to find the change from a friend at the store next door (a common practice here, since change often seems hard to come by). Meanwhile, we waited inside. It was a small, cramped space, yet I counted five young men who either ran the place or were friends of the guys who did. The one behind the counter, who seemed to be in charge, shouted over my head at his buddy near the window: “Get that big [computer] printer down from the top shelf.”

“That big printer” was wedged snugly between four smaller printers in a corner on the top shelf, which must have been upwards of eight feet high. To get up there, the friend had to climb up onto the lower shelves, which appeared to be rather weakly supported by a few removable braces, all the while supporting a good portion of his weight on one or both of two big expensive copy machines that sat along the other wall. I laughed to myself, though nervous that he could come crashing down at any moment – with all the printers – on top of the copier. What was I afraid of? He managed to come back down unscathed, printer in hand. The other guy never did find me change but told me to take the notebooks anyway.

Elizabeth makes friends

Elizabeth is a natural with kids of any language!

Mikael’s wife Jeni drove us up a scenic local mountain in the afternoon on the way to pick up her kids from school. She is piloting a project for an organization called Little Zebra, which aims to publish and distribute books in the mother tongue. She keeps a supply of books handy in her glove compartment, and whenever asked for money she gives out books instead. Driving back down the mountain, she pulled over to talk with a group of kids on their way home from school. As if on cue, Elizabeth also rolled down her window and began pointing at pictures of local animals and sounding out the Nyungwe word for the kids. It seemed so natural for her to be doing this, that for a minute I forgot that she just arrived in Africa and doesn’t even speak Nyungwe! You could see the smiles starting to form on the kids’ faces as they saw their own language written, likely for the very first time. Whether we end up in Tete or elsewhere working with a different language, we would love to be able to do this sort of literacy promotion on the side.

Tuesday, May 5

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The director poses in front of the brand new provincial library

Visited the provincial library with Jeni. As she met with the director to plan reading events for kids, I made a friend with one of the librarians, a young man who seemed proud to show me that his country has accomplished authors. In the afternoon, we watched the sunset on the Zambezi River over tea with a missionary couple from South Africa. I made a brief conversation with their Nyungwe-speaking house helper named Christmas. When I mentioned we had copies of the book of Matthew in his language, he asked if he could have one, then seemed very excited once the Bible was in his hands.

Wednesday, May 6

Walked all over town on a “scavenger hunt” to get to know the city of Tete. Confidence is key to getting along in Africa (and most places, I suppose). People enjoy conversation and human interaction, but they notice if you look uncomfortable and will often adjust their response accordingly. Yesterday we acted like we didn’t know what was going on – walking up very tentatively to store counters, feeling insecure about how badly we stood out. Today, we practiced being assertive. What that meant was walking right up to whoever looked like they were in charge, and asking my question – no matter how dumb it may have sounded. One of the things Jeni had jotted on our to-do list was to check the price of “contraplacada fina.” I didn’t know what that was, but it kind of sounded like a special cut of meat. So at the supermarket, I found the guy at the meat counter and asked for contraplacada fina. He looked a bit confused, yet matter-of-factly told me to follow him as he exited the store. Thinking we were only going next door, I didn’t bother telling Elizabeth, who was thoroughly engrossed in the toothpaste aisle at the time. We walked. And walked. My new friend – his name was “Risk” – scooted quickly, and I struggled to keep up. We turned the corner and traversed two full city blocks, finally crossing the street and entering a construction supplies store. Never would have guessed that I was actually asking about a type of signboard.

After that, we got locked in the park. We had been tired from walking all over town in the late morning sun, so we found a little park by the bridge and had a seat on a bench. A few schoolkids were also hanging out there when we went in. Next thing we knew, the chain link gate was closed and padlocked behind us. And the city park worker kept on moseying about, watering the plants, as if nothing had changed. She unlocked the gate for us when it was time to go. Must be something they do over the lunch hour, was all we could figure.

Thursday, May 7

Sat in again on the Nyungwe translation team in action. Got a little bored by the end of it. Maybe because most of the discussion was in Nyungwe and I wasn’t really sure what details they were discussing. As they discussed whether the translation of 2 Corinthians would be understood by Nyungwe people, it occurred to me that I don’t really understand 2 Corinthians either. Imagine trying to translate a complicated letter of Paul for a culture without study Bibles, commentaries, or YouTube preachers. Paul’s writing style is complex, and his message rooted in particular historical circumstances – more so for this letter than for others. No, 2 Corinthians definitely isn’t where I’d start if I was going to translate the Bible. Still, you can’t avoid it because it’s in there, and in between Paul’s talk of commending himself and boasting foolishly and proving his superiority to the super-apostles, there are gems about walking by faith and reconciliation and new creation. Quite an interesting book, actually. I think I’ll study it again.

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This baobab tree is a landmark along one of the major city roads

Friday, May 8

I bought a shirt by accident at the market today. The guy was selling polos, and since I didn’t bring a large wardrobe with me to Africa, I was eyeing the designs to see if there were any I might like. I asked the price just out of curiosity. My first mistake was not walking away just then but instead continuing to show interest. The vendor noticed this and insisted that I pick a shirt and try it on. There is a reason I try to avoid store workers when I go shopping back home. They are far readier to help me than I am to decide what I want help with. Next thing I knew, I was being asked to make an offer. What he actually said was, “How much do you have to spend?” I hemmed and hawed but eventually answered the question. Truth is, I really didn’t want to buy the shirt even at the price I stated. He tried to up my “offer,” but I said no, not today, and turned to walk away. Next thing I knew, he was putting the shirt in a bag. “For 500 meticais?” I asked (the price I had offered). He nodded. We had made a deal.

Turns out I must have what it takes to be a good bargain shopper: indecision. As I stand there and think and make excuses, I’m not trying to drive the price down; I’m really just trying to make up my mind whether I want the product or not. The longer I stand motionless, the further the price drops. The rub is that it’s not very polite to barter with a vendor and then walk away. At a certain point, your interest signals that you want what he’s selling, and if he’s willing to cut a reasonable deal then the onus is on you to accept it. Maybe one day I’ll be relaxed enough to enjoy interacting with market vendors. Until then, I’d better practice saying no and make lists of what I want before leaving home.

Saturday, May 9

Had an amazing opportunity to visit a Scripture “community testing” session. This one deserves a post all to itself so we can include more pictures.