How We Almost Stayed in Africa

Sunday, July 22nd, 2012 | | No Comments

It’s a lazy Sunday morning in the country.  Eva and I ventured out to the grandparents’ house in Michigan for a week while Jeremy’s out of the country for his new job.  (Job = Yay!  Successful solo roadtrip = Yay!  Grandparents = YAY!!)

Eva “samples” blueberries while we pick them. By which I mean, my pail strangely never seemed to get full…

Eva and “Baba” are taking a mid-morning snooze after watching Grandma rock a 5K race this morning.

Hey, it’s just as hard work to cheer on the racers as it is to race, right?

Normally I’d be snoozing with Eva, but I’m happily caffeinated, thanks to one of the sponsors of the race.

Grandma finished 9th in her division!

So here I am with a perfect opportunity to FINALLY tell the story of how our family almost stayed in Africa.  It’s been almost 3 months since we flew back from Africa to the US, but it feels like a world away.  Probably because it is.

Our travels started out with an 8-hour drive from the hospital in the middle of the country to the capital city of Niamey.  We left around 6 in the morning after packing and cleaning most of the night.  Of course, we had plans of getting everything done beforehand so we could be well-rested before the travel.  However, we didn’t account for playing host for a dozen or so of our Nigerien friends who came to wish us well and see us one last time before we went.  People are more important is one of the lessons that God keeps drilling into me.  Tiredness won’t last forever.  Things won’t last forever.  It’s people that count, so value them!  I promise I’m learning.  It feels tough to do when you’ve already done the dishes several times and would really like to get started with packing, not to mention all the clean up that has to take place, and Eva really ought to have a nap, and and and…  You get the picture.

The car was loaded right around the time the African sun was getting up for the day.

Thankfully, we made the drive with some friends from the hospital who were also flying out the same weekend.  We got into the guesthouse in the capital around mid-afternoon, stopped over at the bakery across the street for a baguette to munch on and made plans for the rest of the day since our flight was scheduled to leave at 3:30 in the morning – yes, IN THE MORNING.

We spent the last of our CFA dollars at some souvenir shops after getting Chinese food takeout.  Being in capital city meant access to restaurants!  Yay for not having to prepare food!!

Eva loved the egg rolls!

We also met up with a young lady studying in the college in Niamey.  She is part of a women’s higher education nonprofit program called “Expanding Lives,” run by a friend of ours in Chicago.

Very smart and sweet young ladies!

After visiting with her and several other people, we had just a couple hours to get a quick snooze in before our airport ride came.

There was quite a bit of action going on in the city as we drove through to the airport.  I guess that’s what happens when everyone takes shelter from the 120 degree midday heat!  Even so, when we arrived at the airport around 1:45AM, it was still hovering around 100 degrees, and humid, too.  We ended up waiting in line behind an entire crew of men working for a Chinese petroleum company, but navigated the lines quite well, thanks to the direction of a seasoned British traveler who had been living in Niger for a couple decades and working on some translating projects.  He was quite helpful!  It took us about an hour and a half to get through the various lines and MIRACULOUSLY Eva slept through it all!  My arms were so tired from holding her up, but it was worth it for her to have the rest.  At one point, a guy who sold artsy touristy products wheeled out this full back leather office type chair for me.  I had never seen a chair like that in the entire country and have no idea where he conjured it up from, but oh! how beautiful it was!

In fact, most everybody was super helpful and considerate of me and the baby.  Go to the front of the line!  Have a seat here!  Let me hold her for you!  Can I have a picture with her?  Foreigners are AWESOME when it comes to dealing with babies.  Unlike us entitled, self-centered Americans who get annoyed at a baby’s cries.  Hello!  We were ALL babies at one point!  [end rant]

We chatted with the young Chinese petroleum workers seated around us for the 3-hour flight to Morocco.  They loved the fact that we were from Chicago and talked about basketball and Michael Jordan.

During our 6 hour layover in Casablanca we leisurely wandered around the shops, ate lunch and enjoyed people watching.  Soon it was time for a little rest.

Daddy-Daughter nap time.

Jeremy took a snooze, too, then set off for some last minute shopping while I stayed with the sleeping babe.  Everything was going well until Jeremy came sprinting back to us, hurriedly stuffing things back into our luggage and telling me that we needed to go RIGHT NOW because our flight was ABOUT TO TAKE OFF!

Thankfully, we made it – and we weren’t even the last people on the plane!  We were the second to last.  Had we missed the flight we would have had to stay for several days in Casablanca until the next New York-bound flight, unless of course we changed our minds and just decided to stay in Africa.

Once we were comfortably on board and the plane had departed, we set about trying to figure out what had happened.  We had of course been vigilantly watching the time during our layover.  How could we have come so close to missing our flight?  Life lesson (please learn from us and don’t make this same mistake):

Do NOT travel the day of Daylight Savings Time.  Especially if the airport you are in does not adjust the time on its monitors.


By the way, we have written and will soon mail out our post-Africa trip letter, including a financial update.  If you received a letter in the mail before our trip keep your eyes open for this one in the next week or so!  If you didn’t receive a letter before our trip but would like to receive this second one, please email us your mailing address and we will be sure to keep in touch with you!

Mama Bear, Part II

Sunday, June 3rd, 2012 | | No Comments

Remember about 2 years ago when I was freshly pregnant with baby Sprinkle and nearly decapitated a man for letting his large, black (and truth be told, friendly) dog walk around the neighborhood without a leash?  It was an early unleashing of the Mama Bear in me, and this last week it was reactivated a thousand times over.

We were driving in busy city traffic, stopping for the 10th time in the same half block, when all of a sudden: ka-BOOM! from the car behind us.  It totally caught me by surprise, but the shock wore off almost immediately as I dissolved into:

Enraged Mama Bear!!!!

For goodness sake, MY BABY IS IN THE CAR!!  We have one of those fashionable “Baby On Board” window decals and everything — CAN’T THIS IDIOT SEE WHERE HE’S GOING?!?!

Jeremy jumped out of the car right then and there (I mean, traffic wasn’t moving anyways) to talk to the guy.  I watched in the rear view mirror as all evidence seemed to point to Jeremy making light of the situation and – is he joking with the guy?  WHERE IS THE CARNAGE?!?!

So Jeremy came back with the guy’s business card (not his head?!), explaining how there wasn’t any visible damage to the car, and I was like, “Rooooaaarrrrr!!  Is that ALL?!?!”  So Jeremy went back to get the guy’s insurance information while puffs of steam from my growling mouth dissipated out the car window.

When he came back, he gently suggested that I go to get the card back from the guy so that he could apologize to me as well.  ”Grraaawwwrrr!!!” I replied, “I can’t talk to him!  I’ll kick his —!!!”  Reluctantly, I got out of the car as the other guy opened his door to return the business card with the newly added insurance info.

Life is complicated.

See, this guy had two deformed hands, bent at about 170 degree angles toward his wrists.  Darn it.  There I was, face to face with my own judginess, and not liking it one bit.

People are complex.  You never know the whole story.  Listen to me, future Erin: do yourself a favor and withhold judgment.  I’m not saying that Mama Bear doesn’t have a place at all, but maybe just let her rest for a few minutes before the unleashing.

p.s.  I’m still going to post about how we almost ended up staying in Africa.  Stay tuned!

A Better Gift

Sunday, May 13th, 2012 | | No Comments

Back in the US is:

  • haircut (just wait, Jenny, it is even more fabulous than you imagine!)
  • take-out
  • climate-controlled living space
  • massage — hey, it is mother’s day after all!

Mostly, though, being back is being immensely grateful for our time there, and humbled by the people we loved and who loved us.

Friends! We love our friends!

Our last few days in Africa were filled with visiting and good-byes – SO many people! – and packing, packing, packing in between.  It’s traditional to give gifts of appreciation to friends, so I spent considerable time thinking about an appropriate gift for Mama A, to show her how much she meant to our family.  I picked out a bolt of new fabric that I bought at the market, with help from Mama Y, the wife of Dr. Sanoussi who herself works in the HIV prevention program.

Who wouldn't love mango season. We bought $2 worth, which ended up being 20 mangoes - plus 3 extra thrown in for the baby.

I felt pretty pleased with the final choice, and then… I was considerably one-upped by Mama A’s gift to me.  She henna-d my feet in the traditional manner, completely black on the sole.  I learned that this is traditional for women before they get married, then each subsequent foot henna treatment is supposed to remind the women of their wedding.  Isn’t that sweet?  Oh goodness, it was such a treat!  It felt like going to the spa.  By the time Mama A was finished pampering my feet, nearly all traces of the 3 months of sand and heat had disappeared.  Dry skin?  Callouses?  Nada, thank you very much!  To top it off, her 14-year old daughter drew pretty designs over my hands and feet.  Oh my, I felt so loved and so full of love!

Commence hour of pampering. Thank you, Mama A!

Then, just because cross-cultural relationships can’t be completely devoid of misunderstanding, Mama A asked me (as translated from Hausa into French by her daughter) if I could buy her a cell phone from America and send it to her.  It took me awhile to realize what she was asking, and even longer to try to tell her (in whatever French I remember from high school *cough* 12 years ago *cough, cough*) that American cell phones wouldn’t work in Africa.

So I felt full of awkwardness in addition to feeling full of warm feelings for our friends.  Which appropriately sums up trying to live in a different culture, I think.

Oh yeah, Eva got one of her feet done, too. It was super cute! And also a miracle that we got her to stay still long enough to do it. :)

More thoughts to come as we continue to digest the 3 months experience in West Africa, and stay tuned also for the story of how we almost missed our flight out of Africa – yikes!  For everybody who has been praying for us: Thank you so much!  Keep it coming as we adjust to life back in the US and as we continue to remember our friends who continue to live and serve in Niger.  Our lives will never be the same because of you!

Joyful Noise!

Saturday, April 21st, 2012 | | No Comments

Though the sorrow may last for the night, JOY comes in the morning!!

Sheep crossing as we head back from church. We had a sheep living with us on the campus for a few days. The kids were quite fond of him and named him "Easter Dinner"... which he was. (BTW, this is not a suddenly enormous Hawaa riding on my back. This is another little kiddo whose feet were hurting too much to walk back from church.)

We spent a very hot Easter morning celebrating in town with the two local churches who joined up for the occasion.  There were about a dozen or so prepared songs that different groups of people performed during the morning.  I didn’t know the words, but there was no disguising the emotion the songs conveyed.  Jeremy caught a snippet of one of the songs on video:



Doesn't that just have you dancing in your seat?!

The ex-patriot staff at the hospital were also invited to sing a song.  Guess who they asked to plan and lead it?  Mr. Jeremy Schneider, himself!  Of course, the ex-patriot staff come from cultures that are generally less-demonstrative (aka whiter) than the Nigériens here.  But Jeremy successfully rallied the group to perform an upbeat, rhythmic, joy-filled song.  In parts!  With movements!  The sight of seeing these doctors and their families singing and dancing warranted hoots and shouts and trills and claps and smiles and laughter from all the Nigériens.  What fun!

What a privilege to celebrate with Nigerien brothers and sisters!

We learned afterward from a couple of the long-term workers at the hospital that the crowd’s reaction to (or rather, participation in) the song was not insignificant.  Unbeknownst to us, there had been some long-standing tensions between the hospital and the churches.  I don’t know what the story is.  My guess is that some people interacted and misunderstood each other and — wait, am I talking about dinner last night?

Hawaa and her friend Gracie take in the celebration!

People hurt each other, with or without intention, even when they’ve committed to love and honor each other for life (sorry, honey, for past and future misunderstandings).  Tack on the inherent differences in communication between different cultures and the potential for hurt increases all the more.  So that’s my best guess as to the back story behind the church-hospital tensions.  At any rate, God brought about significant steps toward reconciliation on Easter through a song and dance.  Doesn’t that just seem like a God thing to do?  I love it!

Grief and Hope

Wednesday, April 4th, 2012 | | 1 Comment

“I have never seen so many sick and dying patients in my life.”

“Of the last 10 c-sections I performed, there were only 2 live babies.”

“None of the patients I admitted this week have made it.”

“Almost every morning when I get to the hospital to see the kids I admitted the day before, I find an empty bed.”

A mama and her baby(ies?) at the hospital. From the hospital website:

There are good doctors here.  These doctors work tirelessly, many of them having left their home countries to make a small dent in the medical field of an extremely poor country with very few doctors.  But the pain, diseases and suffering that they see here is orders of magnitude beyond what these doctors have previously experienced.  By the time patients arrive at the hospital, they are already critically ill with multiple diseases and complications.  The most-experienced physicians and the best-equipped hospitals couldn’t be expected to halt the cascade of debilitating cause-and-effects.

Children and women are the most vulnerable.  The doctors treat babies born with malaria, HIV, sepsis, or all of the above — and those are the live ones.  Pregnant women come in after being in hard labor for a week, or with a baby that hasn’t moved for several days.  I’ve learned that this year the hospital has seen an inordinately high number of pregnant women with a ruptured uterus, the dead baby floating in the mother’s abdomen.  Niger has the highest fertility rate in the world, with over 7 1/2 babies born for each woman.  Most women that I’ve met here have around 9 kids, though that number doesn’t indicate the actual number of pregnancies.  Pregnancies are complicated by the young age of many of the mothers, lack of adequate nutrition and consistent prenatal care, and the hard manual work that is demanded of women.

"A third of obstructed births in Ethiopia result in the mother's death. Many who don't die wish they had." ~ from A Walk to Beautiful

The other day I saw the film, A Walk to Beautiful, a documentary about treating obstetric fistula in Ethiopia.  A fistula is an “unnatural opening”, and in the case of obstetric fistula, it refers to a hole created between the birth canal and the bladder and/or rectum.  This happens when labor is obstructed and the baby’s head is continually pushed against the bones of the pelvis, cutting off blood supply to the tissue of the mother that is trapped between her pelvic bones and the baby.  The tissue dies because of the lack of blood, and a hole forms.  As if a long, obstructed labor and probable dead baby weren’t enough, the creation of the fistula means that the woman now continually leaks urine or feces or both.  She is ostracized from her community, hated and shunned even by her family.

The film highlights a fistula hospital in Ethiopia where women can get treatment and their lives back.  If they know about it and if they can get there.  For one of the women in the film it was a 6-hour walk to the nearest road and then a 17-hour bus ride to the capital city where the hospital is located.  Watching the film sparked a peculiar mix of emotions: outrage, sorrow, hope, joy.  But mostly I was thinking throughout the movie, These are my sisters.

Grateful for new life! (This image is also from the film, A Walk to Beautiful)

Fistula patients are treated at the hospital here, but several weeks back we were able to attend the opening ceremonies of a fistula hospital in Danja, another small town in Niger that’s a 7-hour, very bumpy drive from here.  I’m so grateful that women in the country (as opposed to just in the capital city) have access to such a life-restoring service.


Speaking of sisters…

It’s been a few days since I have been able to work on writing this post.  Today, I found out that the mother of the woman who helps me in the house has died.  I don’t know any details but Jeremy and Eva and I will visit the family tomorrow morning to spend some time with them while they grieve.

Mama A frequently carries Eva on her back. With 10 children (including one who died as a young child), Mama A has lots of babywearing experience!

Please pray for our time with them, that we would be a source of encouragement and comfort for their family.

Papa M and 6 of his 7 boys (boy #6 is taking the photo)

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