After…

 

darkness

It is dark. I-can’t-see-my-hand-in-front-of-my-face kind of dark.  I-must-be-blind kind of dark. The light has escaped, swallowed up by blackness. My soul writhes, grasping for any flicker or any spark it thinks it sees. Only there are no flickers.  There is only the black hole where my heart used to be.  A vacuum that sucks all life, all hope, everything…into itself.  The bottom of a well, or a never-ending hole. Tomorrow isn’t assured. Yesterday is gone. Today is torture. My soul is weary.  My emotions spent.  My mind numb.

Welcome to the dark night of the soul.

A place where hope wanders away and faith flees. A place so black, I can see no way out.  No doors, windows, or even cracks in the walls.  It is a cave from which there is no exit.  I grope.  I pull myself along the cold damp floor on hands and knees reaching, grasping, feeling for the walls, in hopes they will lead anywhere but here.  Nothing.

Only, inky blackness greets me and scoffs at me trying to find the exit.  This darkness has a presence.  An empty presence that taunts me with silent snickers.  It seems crawling is ineffective, weeping gets me nowhere.  Exhausted, I lie still.  Curled in a ball, trying to shield myself against the chill which has made its way inside of me.  The cold is all encompassing and I tremble.  I wait in the black for something or nothing.  I am utterly alone. Undone.  A prisoner of the darkness.  No longer afraid, I am waiting for death to come and take me. I feel the weight of mortality.  Lying on the hard floor of my prison, I am blind, deaf, and dumb.  My mouth can no longer cry out and my senses have been stolen in the dark. I close my eyes and resign myself to my fate. I release all care for anyone or anything. I have lost myself in the bowels of the cavern and the darkness has won. Still as death, I lie there on the floor.  The mocking presence around me is gleeful.

But then, there is movement. 

As if blindfolded, I strain my ears to attempt to hear.  I am so weak I believe I am imagining things, until I feel it again.  A stirring, not so much in the cave, but in the place my heart used to be.  My eyes are open now trying to see the change, but there is none. My captivity is still complete. Confused, I wait for any indicator of what I feel to make itself manifest.  Another twinge has me sitting up, groping around again on hands and knees.  The jeering silence is fading and my movement banishes the cold in my bones.  I hear a surprised gasp from the presence nearby.

I find my feeble voice and call out, “Who’s there? Is someone there?  Please, help!”

A gentle, soft wind circles the cave, as if in a distant tunnel there has been an opening. Just a slight movement of the air. The staleness of the cave dissipates, or is it my mind playing tricks on me in the dark? A thump in my chest tells me I am not crazy. The black hole vacuum seems to have released my heart to me once again. Something is happening.  I am still not sure what. My grasping hand finds a wall and I run my fingers over the stone. I stand and try to follow it like a blind man looking for a door. I move in the direction I feel the breeze is coming from, until it begins to swirl around and becomes a rushing wind.

Suddenly, I am in a wind storm so powerful I must sit with my back against the wall and cover my head. My heart, that had been missing before, is now pounding out of my chest. In the darkness pressure is building as the wind increases, swirling around in the cave. It is a powerful gust, warm and sweet, but raging.  I move facedown, lying low and flat to keep from being swept away.  Just like my heart, my ears are awake now.  The roar is deafening. The echo of it off the cavernous walls leaves no space for silence. Moments ago, I was resigned to die and now, seconds later, I am clinging to life, shaking with the desire to live.  Trying to survive the wind and the force with which it is gusting. The ground beneath me begins to tremor.  It rolls like waves in the sea.  A deafening crack causes me to cover my ears, and the rumble that follows, sounds as if thunder is over my head. A flash of light blinds my dark-accustomed eyes. I wonder at the phenomenon of cave storms.  Is that even a thing? Is this even real?  Have I completely lost it?

The light goes from repeated flashes, to a steady white light so bright I have to close my eyes to find darkness again, except it is too bright for even that.  My hands must choose between protecting my ears or my eyes. They stay over my ears because it sounds like the world is blowing apart. The fear of the storm causes me to desperately cling to life.  My mind wakes up as I hope for the storm to pass. The thoughts are racing to survive, trying to figure out the safest place to be, but the wind has me pinned. So, without any options I once again resign myself to death, this time by cave storm.

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Just as I am sure I am going to explode or be buried in a collapsing cave, the wall I am lying beside rolls away in one motion.  The prison is open wide and I am free.  The storm blows the wall away, from the inside out.  The darkness is gone. As the dust settles, there is deep laughter surrounding me in the light. It bounces off the remaining walls. It is Christ, my rescuer. Clothed in light, he is belly laughing.  At the sound of him, joy floods my soul. I feel strength surge into me and I join in the amusement, not even sure why.  Laughter pulls me to my feet and as I step out of the cave I realize it is not a cave at all.  It is a tomb; an EMPTY tomb.

I wrote this for all those who have ever been or are currently in a dark night of the soul. It seems to be an epidemic these days in our culture.  As much as the enemy would want you to believe that you are the only one who has ever been in such a dark place, it is actually a common human experience.  You are not alone in that cave.  Christ, has been there and is there with you now.  The good news is that he also is the Rescuer from the dark place.  He defeated death on that day, so that you and I can find joy and strength in him to walk out of our tombs.  We celebrate this truth on Easter, but the fact is, it is true every day.  After his dark night of the soul when he wrestled darkness and death, he blew out the walls like a cork out of a bottle, so we could have resurrection freedom. If you are in a dark place, do not give up.  He’s there, stirring things, storming things, and setting things free.  Between Good Friday and Easter Sunday is a cave storm that you will not believe, unless you are the one in it and the dust settles …into laughter.

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Dear Teachers

Dear South Sudanese Teachers,

I regret to inform you that we may have to cancel the May teacher conference.  We had planned to come, as you requested, to continue the literacy training we started in January.  I know it is difficult to teach your children to read when you hardly read well yourselves. Keep practicing your letter sounds with the charts you made when we were there.  Those sounds are the building blocks of reading.  Also, continue to use the books we left you.  If you will read one a day to your students they will gain the desire to read.

For those of you who teach upper grades, remember that reading is important in all subjects, so do not forget to use your subject to teach literacy.  I know that South Sudan has one of the highest illiteracy rates in the world because war has disrupted education for 50 years. Do not let that discourage you. Teaching the children to read while you wait to go home is a huge undertaking, but it will change your country.

For the conference in May we had planned to have sessions in phonics, comprehension, and other important foundational information on reading.  However, the most exciting plan was to bring books so we could teach you how to do book studies with your children.  We were going to divide you into groups based on the subjects you teach, and then take the afternoon sessions to let YOU fall in love with reading.  We had picked beginner books (Not novels since you aren’t quite able to do those yet.) for each subject, such as The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind for science.  Our goal was to show how one African boy used reading and knowledge of science to help save his village from starvation. We had lessons planned for each section of the book, to show you how to create active learning activities and critical thinking discussions that can transfer from what you are reading to how you are living.  We had picked books for each subject area so you can begin to use these techniques, not only to learn to read better for yourselves, but also to teach your students how to read.

At this point, though I have the plan and lessons ready to go, I do not have the funds to get there. I realize that you are hungry for more training and that is why you have asked us to come do these conferences multiple times a year while you have breaks between terms.  I have been able to come twice a year, but it seems that this year that may not be true.

Our goal is to raise up nationals to come alongside you to continue these trainings, so the cost will not be so much.  That is why we have Winnie coming to you once a month for a week, but even though she is a national it still costs to get her to you each month.  What we would love to do is to train all of you, and then have you train other teachers throughout the camps.  We want what you are learning to spread to other South Sudanese people in the camp communities. We believe this is the best way for knowledge to spread. I am working on raising the funds to get to you, and to bring resources with me when I come.  I am hoping to have other teachers to come along with me this time so we can do more reading groups.  Please pray with me that God will provide a way.

Sincerely yours,

Michelle

Please help me to AVOID having to send this letter.

To see why I keep going back, please watch www.aschoolcalledhope.com It is worth the time, I promise. It will inspire you.

To give directly to the school go to www.greaterhopeproject.org

To give directly to the teachers who lead the trainings (including me) go to www.advancingleaders.org click on donate and when the drop down menu comes up click on my name to support me, or click on general to support our on ground teacher Winnie 

To give to ME directly, or to GO WITH ME let’s talk!  Email me at michellegunnin@adventures.org

Sisters

cherry tree up closeA year ago, the cherry trees were in full bloom.  We wheeled my Aunt Betty into her front bedroom to see her tree, at her request.  Her question to us was, “Is my tree blooming yet?”  She was enamored with the petals which were frosted in all hues of pink.  The ancient trunk reached toward the windows as if giving her a wave. The light green leaves of early spring were unfurling, and if the wind blew just right, they danced, cheering for the blossoms as they threw themselves into the breeze with abandon. Betty smiled and said, “It was worth it. It was all worth it.”  It was a moment.  It was her last rally before she passed.  There was such joy on her face to see that tree in full bloom, we decided to have cherry blossoms at the memorial service in all the floral arrangements.  I miss Betty.  There is a hole in the family.  Today especially.

Since that season a year ago, I have watched my mom’s mind decline.  We knew she was having issues, but when Betty got sick and we were all at the hospital with her, it became clear it was worse than we had realized to that point.  As we were handling Betty’s estate and her affects, Dad decided it was time to move with Mom to a retirement community.  The stress of the last year has taken its toll, and her memory is suffering.  She still knows who we all are, but decision making and short-term memory are fading. The twinkle in her eyes transforms into a blank stare much of the time and communication is difficult.

betty mom and dog

I have been contemplating this contrast of sisters as the one-year anniversary of Betty’s passing has approached. Betty was a renaissance woman, educated in a time when women were expected to stay home.  She stood against injustice by standing up with her African American friends during the Civil Rights Movement. She taught children of all colors how to fall in love with music.

Mom has taken the more traditional route. She married the love of her life young, before she finished college. She has birthed and raised three children, but nurtured so many more through her hospitality. Her take on civil rights back in the 60s was to hire African Americans, in a time when it was scandalous to have them in your ‘white’ home among your children.  To pay them well and to treat them as part of your family was unheard of. Her commitment to her family and her God is remarkable to this day, even with the fading.

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Both strong women, raised by my strong grandmother.  Both have had an impact on the women of the next generation, and the next.  It may look different, but underneath is the same care for others.  The same compassion.  The same love. Different sides of the same coin…sisters.

What Do You Get…

What do you get when you have 8,600 grounded flights, 10,000 feet altitude, and 74 people on a mission trip in Ecuador? A very interesting Parent Vision Trip.

When we were settling into our seats in Atlanta, our pilot came over the intercom saying there was a problem with our plane.  They were going to try to patch a leak, but if that didn’t work we would have to change planes.  Relief came when his voice returned a bit later to explain how to go about changing planes.  Disembarking, traveling about a mile down to another gate, was no problem knowing the aircraft we were loading was safe.  It did, however, put our arrival a couple hours behind and our bedtime at about 3 a.m. Fortunately for us, the parents and racers weren’t set to arrive for another 24 hours, so we slept in before going into preparation mode.

Word came about the grounding of 737 Max flights sometime during the day.  My colleague in the home office, Sarah, was scrambling to find all the parents who were stranded in cities on their way to Ecuador. Our one trip to the airport, an hour away from our lodging, turned into a multiple day, multiple trip affair in an instant.  No problem, we had another couple with us who were training to lead PVTs, so we split up the trips to the airport over the next three days.  Due to the confusion and delays the first pickup with two buses was delayed. (most flights come in at either 10:30 or 11:30 p.m. with delays that moved to 1:30 a.m. plus an hour bus ride.) Once most of the parents arrived and the reunions were finished we hit the bed, again at about 2:30 a.m. For one reason or another this bedtime pattern would continue for the first five days of our trip.

The first day was spent watching racers and parents catch up on the last 6 months of life together, then after lunch, we headed to our first day of ministry. It was an hour ride up a mountain, to 13,000 feet. Eleven acres of views and rolling hills that has been set aside as a refuge for girls 9-17 who are coming out of sex slavery.  The house will see its first residents next month, but there was still much to be done to prepare for their arrival.  Completing a cinderblock wall to prevent pimps from coming to retrieve their “property”, painting the inside of the house, and shoveling dirt into bags to make retaining walls. Hard work when dealing with jetlag and adjusting to altitude, much less the curvy bus ride up and down each time.  Parents were troopers working alongside their Racers, but by day two they were dropping like flies.  Altitude sickness is no joke, so we added a sick bay at the site the second day, and hospital rounds into the rotation between midnight airport runs.

In the meantime, at our lodging site, several parents were without towels and rooms were without hot water.  We scrambled, between all the Uber rides to the airport and hospital, to get those things fixed.  The hosts at the place we stay are always gracious and willing to help, if they can understand what we need.  Unfortunately, this is a language barrier issue which requires waiting on our ministry hosts to explain to the lodging office during the week.  Sunday is not a good time to get things done.

In addition, the pin number for the prepaid card leaders take to the field didn’t work. (I think I forgot to set it. Yikes!)  No problem I had Bill take money out of our account until we could get the other card fixed.  That worked beautifully, until his wallet was left in an Uber car after a trip to the hospital.  We stayed back from ministry on day four to get our cards cancelled and the prepaid card fixed, as well as the water/towel issues resolved…and a nap to try to get back on schedule sleep wise.

By day five of the seven, we had all the parents retrieved from the airport, all the sick ones healed up, the water/towel issues resolved, and the bank card fixed. Yet, in the midst of all of this crazy logistical stuff, parents and Racers were having a wonderful time together. They had some serious talks, and some funny ones.  The parents were amazed at the growth in their Racers.  They were moved by the ministries and their work.  Camp Hope a ministry for special needs kids was painted. COVI a ministry for before and after school care for at risk students was cleaned and the garden weeded.  Pan De Veda an urban ministry and soup kitchen was cleaned and painted.  This time, all of the ministries needed labor.  Other times, our participants are working with the kids. Our main partner ministry Inca Link, got a new stove and funds for a new security wall to protect the teenage mothers they work with at Elizabeth House.

The word I got this trip was Big Vision.  Every ministry we work with while we are on these trips has a big vision. The needs are huge, but these missionaries trust that God will provide for his work.  They are right.  Their level of trust is through the roof.  I am always amazed to see parents and Racers catch the vision of what is at stake.  It is such a different view than what I see here in the States.  All are working together to help the kids.  There are no territories, only teamwork between all the ministries.

I can tell you this was a crazier than usual PVT.  The logistical challenges were constant, yet they got resolved, as they always do.  This group of parents truly understands the flexibility it takes to be World Racers and to follow where God leads in the midst of crazy circumstances beyond your control. These parents and racers have stories to tell, of how God used the circumstances to put them in places where they were needed.

I had the opportunity to hug and pray with a woman in the ER waiting room who was weeping.  I have no idea what happened to this family, but they came in together, all crying.  My trainee mom, Robin, offered tissue to them and somehow, despite the language barrier, our eyes conveyed mutual understanding of human grief.  The mom, received my hug and prayers with a look of gratefulness.  The family nodded their thanks to Robin for the tissue. We were all united in sorrow beyond words. No language is needed to express compassion. There will be more stories like this one from this trip I am sure. It was a wonderful chance to experience the World Race…but must say I am glad to be home.

A Collaborative

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Collaborative– involving two or more people working together for a special purpose.

The dictionary says the word collaborative is an adjective, but the Greater Hope Project uses it as a noun.  It is people, a place, and a thing.  Numbers of organizations coming together for a common purpose, to help the South Sudanese refugees.  It seems that God has stirred hearts from various places around the world to participate in the collaborative we call the Greater Hope Project.

It started as one Nigerian man’s vision and call.  Uche heard God say, ‘Go.’  He went, not knowing what was ahead of him.  He heard, he followed.  Simple obedience. For years, he and his wife Sola worked with the people of South Sudan, in the world’s newest country. When war broke out, the couple moved their efforts to the refugee camps of Northern Uganda outside of Arua. The atrocities of war traumatized the people who had fled.  They went from having everything to nothing. Many lost their homes and family members in dramatic unimaginable ways. The size of the crisis was overwhelming, the largest refugee crisis since WWII.

Uche asked Adventures in Missions if they would partner with him to help empower the refugees. As they wait to return to their country, why not create a community with hope? Why not develop skills which will be useful when the war is over?  A team was formed made up of people from different fields of study, who brought their unique skills to the table.

In the meantime, a group of refugees determined they wanted education for their children.  Led by a man named Alfred, they began a community school…under a tree.  With no resources, they got creative and began to build a structure with posts they made from trees. When the Alfred and Uche met their visions combined, and began a collaborative effort which continues to grow as time moves forward.  Each organization that comes alongside brings a specific piece of the vision to life. Rather than Uche and Alfred to have to develop all these pieces themselves, God is bringing those who are specialists in each area of need.  It is amazing to watch it come together. Look at what has happened to this point.

  • The Department of Education of the Anglican Church of Uganda in Arua caught the vision and partnered with Uche to enable him to access the camps under their umbrella.
  • The Office of the Prime Minister made a way for the team to work within the camps, including giving permission for the filming of a documentary to raise awareness of the crisis.
  • Adventures in Missions (AIM) brought together a team, called the Citizens of Refuge, to live in the camp for 3 months to create the film. They gathered footage and brought it back to begin the editing process on the movie titled A School of Hope. It was a huge project that took many months to be completed.
  • The Greater Hope Project began to fundraise for items the refugees determined they needed, such as the materials for the roof of the school and other construction projects, as well as books for the students. They started a feeding program at the school, and since there is no secondary school (Hope Primary is kindergarten through 7thgrade) they began a scholarship program for students who score well enough on the secondary school entrance exam. They also started a micro business grant program for the teachers, since they do not receive a salary.  This is to create financial resources to provide for their families, so they can continue to teach.
  • While the film crew and GHP were engaged in their creative efforts, a ministry of teacher trainers, Advancing Leaders International (ALI), collaborated with those on the ground involved with Hope Primary School to host teacher conferences. These ongoing conferences focus on helping the teachers, who are mostly untrained, to learn teaching practices they can use to create a learning environment in refugee schools. Teachers helping teachers. ALI supplies knowledge and also books and other supplies for the teachers.
  • In addition to teaching techniques, teachers needed to be aware of signs and symptoms of trauma, not only for their students, but for themselves as well. Parakletis, a ministry of trauma trainers, became another organization who brought a specific skill set to the project by training teachers and others in the community how to recognize and deal with trauma.
  • As the refugees learn about forgiveness of their enemies as a step to healing their trauma, they realize they cannot give away what they do not have. Many have come to know the Lord of Grace as the healer of broken hearts. Creating a need for discipleship, which the organization His Sickles, led by Uche, has addressed by creating small groups of teachers who lift one another up as they study more about the love of God for them and their students.
  • Other organizations are catching the vision these refugees want for their children. The Meraki Workshop is using art to teach the students the cultural traditions of South Sudan, so they will not be lost.  They will sell these art projects to create a source of revenue for the school.

The peoplerefugees and organizations…are working in a placea refugee camp school…to bring a thingHOPE.  See? The Greater Hope Project. A noun. A Collaborative.

www.aschoolcalledhope.com  (Go to this page to watch the film.)

www.greaterhopeproject.org(Go to this page to find out more about the project.)

Other organizations who work on the project.

www.adventures.org

www.advancingleaders.org

www.uche.myadventures.org

www.themerakiproject.co

 

 

 

 

 

Cleansing Tears

I was in Africa when Bill’s Alive Day came around this year.  It seemed a bit odd to be so far away of marking such a significant event in our lives.  We celebrate the day each year on Feb. 2nd, when 31 years ago the accident that should have killed my husband, didn’t.  It was a miracle, and I chose then to reflect on it each year, lest we forget that God works unexplained, unearned miracles every day.

I shared the short version of the story with my teammates over dinner the night before.  Afterwards, I called Bill to hear his voice.  My heart was a little homesick.  I could feel the emotion welling up just under the surface.  It is more of a memory for me than for him.  He knows the date, but doesn’t really remember much about it, other than the cards I give him. For me it is always a tenderhearted day.

The next morning, we got a call that one of our Ugandan team members had been in a bota bota accident.  He was injured, but at home so we went to check on him and to pray for him.  I was not prepared for the flood of emotion that hit me.  I guess they call it secondary trauma for a reason, it can be triggered in the oddest places in completely different circumstances.  My voice left me and my tears overflowed as we prayed.  He had bandages on his head, face, and arm.  He was alert and could tell us what happened…so no head injury, thank God.  The bandages were applied by first responders, and he planned to go to the hospital later on for further treatment.  His wife and children were gathered around with solemn faces.  The youngest baby was crying.

Once we were on our way to the teacher’s conference, my tears continued to flow in the front seat of the van. I tried to squelch them to no avail.  At some point, I felt the Lord’s gentle whisper, “Let them out.  They are cleansing tears.” I did just that.  It wasn’t sobbing.  It wasn’t really sorrow for our colleague, I knew he was going to recover.  It was just a welling up of emotion that needed an outlet.  By the time we reached the camp, they had run out.   I wiped my face and continued with my day.

Later that evening, a church nearby our hotel had a worship time.  Their voices floated over the garden wall to my ears.  I Exalt Thee, rang out in loud harmonies. It was beautiful. Once again, the tears came.  That specific song, was the only one Bill would listen to after his accident.  All others got tossed to the floor, in the trash, or shattered with a fist.  Put on I Exalt Thee and peace flooded the room.  Calm came.  Needless to say, I put it on repeat.  Every time I hear it, to this day, it takes me back into the peace that passes understanding.

Here I was in Uganda, far away from home, and still God brought cleansing, healing tears to my heart.  I needed them.  He knew it, so he provided. It’s been 31 years, and we still walk the road of brain injury, but God has always been and will always be with us on this journey.

Shake, Rattle, and Roll

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As far as I can tell there are not many traffic laws in Uganda.  It seems to me, the walkers have the outer edges of the roadway, then the bikes are right beside them.  Just inside the bikes are the bota botas (motorbikes), and next to them the cars.  The closest to the middle of the road are the vans, lorries (trucks), and buses.  On a normal road that would be five separate lanes on each side of the middle line, in Africa however, there is no middle line, nor are there any lanes.  It appears that if someone, say on a bike, wants to pass a slower bike they simply swerve into the bota bota line to go around.  No signal, just the swerve.  The same holds true for any vehicle along the roadway. When you want to go around, swerve, then back into your line of traffic.  The weaving and bobbing across the roadways creates a maddening chaotic pattern in which I feel as if I am about to be tossed into oncoming traffic at every moment. It is best not to watch this ballet.  Instead, I prefer to close my eyes, or turn and talk to my companions in the back seat.

It usually takes me a bit after I arrive in country to adjust to being on the “wrong” side of the road.  Right turns are the hard ones, left are easy.  Roundabouts always take me off guard since they go the opposite direction than what I am used to.  I am continually bracing myself for the lean as we enter. Trying to get the vehicle in and then get into position to get out at the right time, reminds me of standing in line as a kid waiting for the jump rope to hit just right, so you could jump into the middle without tripping. As if this were not enough, on the way to the camps we go off the tarmac roadway onto a dirt road.  This is where the fun really begins.

If your van has air conditioning, you are one of the lucky ones who get to avoid the dust by keeping your windows rolled up.  If your van does not have air conditioning, there are choices you must make all along the way. Do I want to die of heat stroke, or dust inhalation? When the windows are down the wind blows through my hair along with the dust, but when we pass another vehicle the cloud becomes unbearable, so the windows go up, and immediately the temperature climbs 10 degrees.  It feels much like being cooked in an oven might feel, stagnant air and high heat.  Once the other vehicle has passed, and just when I think I might faint, the windows are opened again.

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Along this road there is much rocky ground, big ditches, and crevasses which must be avoided…by swerving. Sometimes when the ground on the opposite side of the road is smoother, the driver goes over to ride in the grooves left by previous vehicles.  If there is an oncoming car or truck, using the same grooves, there will be what I like to call a game of African Chicken. Both vehicles want to wait until the last minute to dodge out of each other’s way, so as to use the “smooth” tracks the longest. Never mind, that our driver is actually driving on the opposite side of the road he is supposed to be on, and to get back to our side will require avoiding the walkers, bikes, and bota botas.

We are coming face to face with the oncoming lorry, often filled with bags of some kind, on top of which are a hundred or more people all hanging off the top and sides of the truck.  As we make our swerve back to the proper side of the road, the passengers hanging onto the truck wave at us as if nothing has happened. At the same time, there is a near miss of a bota bota.  There is a child in front of the man driving it, and a woman with a baby strapped to her back behind him.  She also has a bucket on her head of what looks like greens of some kind…maybe to take to market to sell? A cute little family precariously perched onto this motorcycle as if it is the most normal thing in the world to be missed by mere inches.  The people in the back seat of our van are saying, “Too close, too close!” which our driver ignores and continues on the way.

If you are in the back of the van, the bumps cause your head to hit the ceiling fairly often.  It is not for the easily motion sick to ride back there, you must be strong of stomach and will. In the middle seat, you will be squished together, and someone will be sitting on the crack between seats.  The swerves assure that you will know your neighbor very well by the end of the trip. In the front, you must ride with eyes closed to avoid a heart attack.

The van is quite used to the trip.  It shakes, rattles, and rolls loudly enough conversation has to be yelled or avoided all together.  The music the driver plays over the top of the rattling can range from country to African rap to reggae.  No matter the genre, it adds to the general feeling that my ears will explode along the way somewhere.

It often feels as if the van will fall apart at any moment, something you do NOT want to happen on this road.  The only thing hotter than this ride would be standing on the side of the road waiting for another van to come to the rescue.  One day our engine overheated.  We had to keep the windows down the whole way back.  Our driver slowed to a snail’s pace, which at any other time I would have welcomed.  However, knowing our van was limping towards the finish line had us all praying we could make it back to the tarmac road.  Somehow, once we arrived there each day it felt like an accomplishment.

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This is the regular daily commute to the camps, for 1 ½ hours one way.  Then after teaching at the conference all day we repeat it all for another 1 ½ hours back to the hotel. On the last day when we hit the tarmac, there was great celebration of the fact we had survived approximately 24 hours of total travel time on that road over the course of our conference.  If nothing else, it was an achievement for this American.  I cannot tell you how rides like this one make me appreciate highways with rules, lanes, lines, pavement, and even orderly traffic.  There is no place like home.

The Children Are Watching

How do you lead a literacy conference without books?  That was our question going into our second teacher workshop at Hope Primary School.  Last year’s conference brought with it evidence that the teachers themselves were not very strong readers. In fact, the illiteracy rate in South Sudan is over 80%.  Remember, most of these conference participants are not actually trained teachers; they are parents who volunteered to teach because they didn’t want their children to go without education.  Add to that fact the reality that they are mostly English language learners and it puts them quite a bit behind the curve.  They speak English and they teach in English, however, reading and writing it are another level altogether. Yet, they persist to teach, still without pay, in order to bring a better future for their kids.

So how do we teach them to teach reading if they cannot read very well themselves?  How do they learn the foundations of the English language as sometimes their 3rdor 4thlanguage? What is the answer?  By reading of course.  In order to be a teacher of reading, you must read yourself.

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We decided to go all the way back to the basics, with a twist…teach them to fall in love with reading first. We believe the desire to read is built within all of us.  We are created curious, so a good story draws us into it.  We carefully selected a book of the day.  Each morning, one of our team, Winnie, who is from Uganda, read a picture book.  Her accent was not an issue as ours would have been.

Being a teacher of small children, her delivery was just what was needed. Inflection, expression, voices, and perfected page turning combined to draw the teachers into each story.  They were mesmerized.  Their eyes glued to each picture and their ears open for every word.  Before long, the children who curiously gathered each day to see what we were doing, began to gather outside the windows to listen.  They would carefully peek to see the pictures, and then draw back into the shadows to hear the next page.  Their heads were bobbing around trying to follow the stories being told, without being “caught.”

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It was quite amazing to watch.  Between sessions during the day, we put the books out on a table for the participants to look at.  Our excitement grew as some of them began to take them back to their seats to try to read for themselves, giving up their snack break to read instead.  Our plan was working, but how to give them the ability to teach it was still a mystery.

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Our sessions were divided into phonics, fluency, and comprehension. The very first one we did was phonics, and once again Winnie taught, since their phonics are different from ours.  She showed them the sound chart and expressed how they need to teach the letter sounds before teaching the letter names.  A simple concept, but light bulbs were going on all over the place. It seems most of the teachers didn’t know the letter sounds at all.  They wanted to keep going, so we played an I-have-who-has game with letter sounds.  We segmented words into sounds and blended the sounds back together into words.  We played hide and seek with sounds.  The participation was excellent, and being mostly men, we were surprised at their willingness to admit they didn’t know these sounds.

When we had our make and take session, they made the sound chart to use in their classrooms.  One man, who learned to speak English in his late 30s, told us he was taking his chart home to practice the sounds, so that 30 years after he learned to speak the language, he could finally understand how to read the words.

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The readers theater scripts we brought to teach fluency, were a big hit. Written on a third-grade level, they were a challenge for some teachers, however, the over and over rehearsal showed them how to make reading practice fun.  They even began to act the parts, creating much laughter and quite a bit of silliness. The Fox Without a Tail had the chairman of the School Management Committee delivering his lines as if he was on Broadway.

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In the comprehension session, Why Mosquitos Buzz in People’s Ears, was a big hit.  Mosquitos are a pesky problem in Africa, as they bring Malaria, so the story was relevant but also funny.  They predicted by playing four corners.  They answered questions from all levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. They created a Somebody-wanted-but-so-then summary. They learned how to clarify words that were unfamiliar and self-monitor for understanding as they read.  It was all new to them, but exciting to see them catch the ideas.

 

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My favorite part was when we went back the next week to see the kids.  We had the opportunity to read a story to several classes.  I am not sure they completely followed our accents, but they were sitting with their mouths hanging open, completely engaged in the pictures.  Once again, the windows and doors were filled with children’s heads, who were no longer hiding between pages, but stood openly straining to see the pictures.  They were falling in love with books.  Even though they couldn’t read them yet, they wanted more.  It was the same day we delivered our 500 lbs of supplies, including many picture books donated for us to take, as well as some leveled readers we brought along for small groups. While we were there we also ordered $3,000 worth of textbooks, which is about half of what one school needs.  However, they were ecstatic at the idea that they would soon have books enough for 3 or 4 children to share.

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Creating a literacy rich environment is difficult when you have to remove everything from your classroom each day so it won’t be used for fire starters. Having to lock the books up each night will be a challenge, but otherwise the termites will eat the pages. Creating charts of everything you teach to hang, so that students can see what you are teaching, is time consuming to say the least.  It is a harsh environment, but these teachers are slowly making steps towards literacy. When they do, they are taking the children with them because…the children are watching.

Our next conference is going to be in May, where we will continue to focus on literacy. We hope to take more books, and more teachers in an effort to build a library of resources for the refugee teachers to use for their students.  Message me if you are interested in more details.

Humble Prayers

There is something about hearing a refugee pray which humbles my heart.  Their prayers are so genuine, so heartfelt, that sometimes my eyes tear up.  I doubt that if I was in their place I could be as grateful as they are.  They thank God for their safety, and I wonder if they are safe in this place, what must it have been like in the “unsafe” environment they came from.  They thank God for the school they have started, and I wonder how you can be thankful for a school without resources.  And when they thank him for the food before we eat, they are not sure when they will be eating again once we leave.  Theirs are gentle, and humble prayers born out of hardship. They are connected to the heart of God in ways I cannot relate to in the least.  There is a dependence which is rooted in faith that God will come through…because he has to.

Not all of them believe, but they all bow their head in respect for those who do. Some are bitter, or discouraged at their circumstances, and I would bet that they feel altogether abandoned by God.  It is a harsh place they are living.  Being there for the few days I am there is the limit of what I can handle.  The climate alone, sucks the life out of me.  Heat, dust, and the absence of any creature comforts at all makes the hopelessness in the camp heavy, like a wet blanket.  It smothers the sparks of hope and vision.  If opportunity springs up at any point, it goes unrecognized, or fades away when the first step towards it cannot be accomplished.  If the heat itself isn’t enough, the continual beating down of ideas which are not possible, creates a why-even-try mindset.

Their reaction to one activity we did in our training was a surprise to us.  We grouped the teachers into groups of 3, gave them 2 pieces of paper, 2 paperclips, and a 12-inch-long piece of masking tape. They were to create the tallest structure that could stand on its own for 15 seconds. We gave them 20 minutes to complete the task.  This activity was designed to stimulate higher level thinking, and collaboration.  In about 10 minutes, they were all finished. We continued to let the timer run, but it didn’t seem to occur to them that they could continue once they had made their tower.  If we looked around the room it was obvious there were only two towers that were close in height.  All the rest were shorter, yet they didn’t attempt to rebuild or redesign their towers, even though there was an excess of time.  One group didn’t even use all their materials. Afterwards, we reflected with them.

We asked, ‘Knowing you were beat, why didn’t you continue trying?’  Their answers taught us much about their thought processes.

‘We didn’t think there was time.’

‘We didn’t know what else to do.’

‘We needed more materials.’

‘It was no use, we were beat.’

This why-try mindset was common, and though it surprised us, it really shouldn’t have.  We are quite American in our ways of thinking, and they are not. Refugees are in survival mode.  Many of them have given up trying new things and just wait for organizations to give them what they need rather than try themselves to get it.  One of the reasons Hope Primary School is such a unique place is that the refugees started it themselves.  They saw a need and they moved to meet it without waiting on outside help.  They knew their children couldn’t wait.

When we asked them, ‘What would have happened if you had opened up the paper clip and put it on the top of your tower?’, or ‘What if you had used the tape to tape it to the desk so it wouldn’t fall over?’, they were surprised.  To think in ways like that gave them new eyes. There were some ah-ha moments. If we had had the time to do the activity again, I know they would be thinking differently the next time.  The lessons they learned, that they can share with their students, were invaluable.

Despite their limitations in thinking because of their circumstances, their hearts are open. Their reliance on God is a requirement for survival.  Their prayers are a sweet-smelling sacrifice.  Somehow, when they pray, I feel the need to get on my knees.  The dusty dry ground becomes a holy place in which communion with God is felt rather than seen. The hot breeze feels like the stirrings of grace, and the little mudded classroom becomes a cathedral.  The tears their broken hearts have shed are stored in bottles beside the throne of God, I am sure of it because humble prayers like these are precious gems.

Why Have You Come?

My eyes are wide and deep as pools. When you look at me they are the first thing you see.   They have wisdom beyond my years, because I have seen much in my short life.  They have seen more than I can understand. War makes no sense to me, only running from war. Now I stand in this new land where everything is unfamiliar to me.  I look out of my eyes trying to make sense of this place and these people.  My neighbors are gone, my friends ran one way and we ran another.  I do not know if they made it.

I stay home with my mother to help her with her chores, which are many.  My father and brothers go out to make bricks.  They leave early in the morning before the heat gets too bad. My mother ties my sister to her back and puts the laundry upon her head.  I get the water jug and carry it.  I walk beside her to the borehole.  It is a long way. It was not like this at home.

We gather around with the other women and their little ones to await our turn.  I am beginning to know some of the other girls my age.  We see each other often, but I am wary.  I am shy.  I stand at a distance as they play, because I am the new girl in camp.  I do not join in, I only watch with my wide eyes. When it is our turn, we fill my water can. It is heavy now, but I can still carry it because I am strong.  I help my mother fill the laundry tub and we begin to wash the clothes with soap and scrubbing.  Then we rinse and wring them out.  It is hard work because the sun is getting higher in the sky.  We will carry them the long way home and hang them on lines to dry.

It is a hard life we have now, but we make the best of it.  We do not know how long it will be before we will go home.  We only know it is not safe and there is no food to eat there. Here, I see Khawaja riding down the road in cars.  Every day they come while we are walking to do our chores. I do not understand, but I watch with my wide eyes.  I wonder, but only in my head.

Why have you come here Khawaja? When you look at me as you drive by, can you see my soul?  Can you see my pain? Do you feel pity for me? Do you know I am a person, just like you?

When you see my mother carrying laundry on her head and my sister on her back do you think it is cute, or novel?  When my brothers are in the fields making bricks do you see how strong they are? Do you see me with my Gerry can walking to the borehole to get water and snap a picture to show your friends at home?

Why do you come Khawaja? Am I an attraction for you to enjoy? Does it make you feel good to come, to get away from your ordinary life? Is going to Africa to see the way we live on your bucket list?  Am I an item for you to check off?

Or maybe you are to rescue me from my life?  I should tell you that just because my life is hard doesn’t mean it isn’t good. I am not sure I need rescuing exactly…I only want to go home.  Can you get me home, Khawaja? I am watching you with my wide eyes. I am trying to understand, why you are here?  If it is for me, or if it is for you?  If I tried to speak to you, would you listen?  Or do you already know the answers for me?

I try to look into your eyes as you ride past. I wonder if I can see your motives, your reasons for coming? Will you look into my wide deep eyes Khawaja, so that I can see your soul?