Friday, October 30, 2015

Tanzania Shines

It's been a strange week.

We haven't left our house except to take the kids the quarter mile to and from school.  We anxiously combed the internet for information, hearing reports of tear gas, fires, and unhappy citizens around the country.  Yet, our neighborhood was more silent than usual.  Traffic was light; shops were closed.

Yesterday, we kept the kids home from school.  We heard the presidential results would be released sometime yesterday, and our area is a bit of a hot spot for the opposition.  HOPAC closed early anyway, once it was confirmed that the results really were coming.

So, we spent another day at home.  Gil and the kids prepared games for Josiah's birthday on Saturday.  Twice, military jets flew over, low to the ground.  Everyone looked up in awe, except for Johnny, who ran into the house in fear.  The government's point was clear:  No Messing Around.

It was one of the few times when I wished we had television.  I kept refreshing the news page, over and over, about 67 times.  But in the end, we didn't need the newspaper to tell us the results.  At 4:00 in the afternoon, we heard the cheering all around us, from miles around.  Magufuli had been declared the winner.  Cars honked, people celebrated, for at least the next hour.  The air was electric with excitement.

Not everyone is happy, of course, especially the 40% who voted for the opposition, and I'm still not sure how I would have voted if I had been given the chance.  But with just a few exceptions, it looks like Tanzania successfully pulled off a peaceful election, and that is remarkable.  Was it fair?  Was it lawful?  Did the party leaders behave themselves?  It's hard to know for sure.   The people, however, are to be commended for their dignified conduct.

Tanzania has a lot of problems.  It continues to be one of the poorest countries in the world, and it has its fair share of corruption and infrastructure problems.  But today, I am proud to be a guest in this country.

Tanzania has been one of the only countries in Africa to avoid war or major unrest since it's independence.  It's been one of the only countries in Africa where it is assumed that the president will step down after his term is over.  It's been one of the only countries in Africa to hold peaceful elections, even when the race was tight.

"By the end of the 1980's, not a single African head of state in three decades had allowed himself to be voted out of office.  Of some 150 heads of state who had trodden the African stage, only six had voluntarily relinquished power.  They included...Tanzania's Julius Nyerere [the first president]."
(Martin Meredith, The Fate of Africa)  Nyerere set the foundation for peace, and Tanzanians have steadfastly persisted in that legacy.

Well done, Tanzania.  You have much to be proud of.  And congratulations (and Happy Birthday, ironically!) to Mr. John Magufuli, 5th president of the United Republic of Tanzania.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

We All Wait.

Saturday was filled with an air of anxious anticipation.

Motorcycles raced down the road in packs, with red and blue Chadema flags waving behind them.  Young men crowded into the backs of pick-up trucks, shouting and cheering.  Church parking lots were filled, as many held services on Saturday instead of Sunday.  The grocery store was packed.  The ATM machines were out of money.  There was a line at the gas station, which hardly ever happens here.

Grace asked, "Mommy, one boy in my class says that his dad is hiding his car.  Why would he do that?"  People were excited, but people were nervous.

Sunday was election day.  All was eerily quiet, as no one was working and no one was in church.  Voters waited in long lines, sometimes for a number of hours, but proudly leaving with a purple pinkie finger.

Teachers sent out emails with, "If your child has to stay home this week, here's some work for them to do."  Monday morning, we cautiously re-entered the world and took our kids to school.  Many who live farther away stayed home.

So far, there is peace.  But the presidential results have not yet been announced.

Collectively, the country holds its breath.

(picture from Shelby Rhee)

Wednesday, October 21, 2015


Last week, the wailing crept through our open windows.  I instantly recognized the sound:  Someone nearby had died.

The funeral proceedings, which last for a few days, were set up right outside the wall around our  yard.  A hundred people sat on mats and plastic chairs.  Sometimes they sang.  Sometimes they wailed.  Sometimes they just chatted quietly.

Eventually, I got the story.  A young woman had died.  She was only 32 years old, was married, and had four children.  She lived a bit down the street from our house, but her father and sister live next door to us.  We didn't know her, but her children had played in our yard with our kids.

She died suddenly, of a strange illness that came on very quickly.  They described it to me as "pressure" in her chest.  Her heart?  I asked.  Yes, they said.  I'm not sure what to make of that.  Maybe a heart attack?  But at age 32?  She had been healthy, they said.  They just shook their heads sadly and shrugged their shoulders.

It's a story I've heard over and over again.  The lunch cook at HOPAC died suddenly this past July.  She had only been married two weeks.  A student from our training program lost two baby boys when each was only 9 months old.  A friend lost twin babies.  Another friend lost two sisters within two years.  And on.  And on.  All from strange, unexplained illnesses.

In Swahili, when someone gets better from an illness, you use the expression Amepona.  Since it was always used with illness, I assumed it meant He has recovered.  For example, if your friend was down with a bad cold and misses a couple of days of work, when he comes back, you might ask him how he is doing.  Nimepona, he will respond.  I am better.

One day, Lucy (my language tutor) and I were working on the story of Noah's Ark.  When we got to the part about Noah and his family living through the flood, Lucy said to me, Walipona.

Walipona! I repeated in surprise.  But Noah and his family were not sick!  So I got out my dictionary and looked up kupona.

The literal translation is not to recover.  The literal translation is to survive.

In English when someone is sick, we would only say He survived if we were talking about a victim of cancer or a heart attack.  But when referring to recovery from a common cold, a headache, or the stomach flu, we say, He recovered or He got better.

So what I discovered is that in Swahili, when you recover from any illness, the response is literally translated as I survived.

After living here all these years, after hearing of person after person dropping dead for unknown reasons, listening to the stories of almost every mother losing a child, I am beginning to understand.

Of course, I don't really understand, because I have access to the best health care in Tanzania, and if that doesn't suffice, I have access to better health care anywhere in the world.  I really know nothing of the fear and apprehension of imminent illness and death.

The United States has 2.3 doctors for every 1000 people.
Tanzania has .02 doctors for every 1000 people, one of the lowest ratios in the world.

Once again, I am reminded of how privileged I really am.  Once again, I ask what else God expects of me for blessing me so much.

Today, thank God if you live in a country where recovery is expected and survival is the norm.  And pray for four young children--Vale, Tony, Aaron, and Jackie, who have just lost their mother and may never know why.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

When the Horror Story Doesn't Happen

I'm sure you've all heard adoption horror stories.  You know a cousin's friend's sister who brought home a child who made everyone's lives a living hell.

The stories can be true, and they scare a lot of people away from adoption.

But today, I want to counter those stories with one that is just the opposite.  This is my boy Johnny, who came home just two months ago, and two months shy of his fourth birthday.

Johnny sleeps in his own bed, in the room that he shares with his brother.  He sleeps 11 hours every night and doesn't wake up until morning.

Johnny has an incredible attention span.  He can sit on the floor, by himself, with a 50 piece puzzle, and put it together and take it apart 5 times before he needs something else to do.  He can sit quietly in church or during his siblings' school productions.

Johnny is hysterically funny.  He dances.  He wiggles his hips.  He loves being chased.  He loves being tickled.  He is Mr. Enthusiastic.  When I tell him dinner is ready, you would think he had won the lottery.  When he sees a car come into the driveway, he shouts, "Friends!  Friends are here!" as if it was the president himself.  When he burps, hiccups, or passes gas, he giggles and says, "I'm grumpy!" which has now officially become a part of our family's vocabulary.  When I am gone for 5 hours or 5 minutes, he runs to me and declares, "I missed you!"

Our older kids adore him.  He plays well with them, but he also plays well by himself.  He eats everything on his plate.  He rarely whines.  He rarely gets angry.  Sure, he is not perfect.  When the kid wants to be stubborn, he can be stubborn.  But that's happening less and less as he gets to know us and we get to know him.

If you've read this blog for any length of time, you know I don't sugarcoat things.  I try to tell it as it is, while still trying to keep my kids' privacy.  So let me assure you that I'm not exaggerating.  Johnny fit into our family like one of those puzzle pieces he loves to put together.  It's only been two months, but it's like he's always been here.

Sure, the first few weeks were tough.  But I have been blown away by how quickly he has settled in, especially considering his history.  He has adapted much faster, actually, than some of our other children who came home much younger than he did.

Older child adoption can be tricky, and if you are considering it, you've got to keep your eyes wide open and prepare yourself for the worst.  But it also could be the best thing that's ever happened to your family.  Because that's how Johnny feels to all of us.

We celebrated Johnny's fourth birthday yesterday.  It's pretty special to celebrate with a kid who has never had a birthday party of his own, and never opened a present he could keep.

Personally, I think Johnny's pretty happy being a son.  And we're pretty happy to make him one.

Johnny's new bike was definitely a highlight of his day!

Celebrating at Water World

Johnny and his buddy Danny.  Danny and Johnny are almost the same age, and Danny was adopted from Forever Angels just three months before Johnny.  Danny's mom and I are friends, so we were really excited when we realized that the boys definitely remember each other, and are so happy any time they are together.  

FIVE kids adopted out of Forever Angels!

This is the kind of stuff you get to do when there are no rules at the water park.

And this:  Four kids and a Dad on one tube.  

Friday, October 16, 2015

You Can Ice Skate in Tropical Africa....Or Maybe You Can't.

A local mall started advertising that they had an ice skating rink.

Seriously?  In a city that rarely goes below 80 degrees?

And, um, often has no electricity?

But as soon as our girls saw the large banner of the Olympic skater gracefully gliding on ice, they knew they had to go.  So, we gave them a goal to work toward, and they finally earned it.  This week was mid-term break, so we headed over to become the next Olympic ice skaters.

You would think, however, that ice skating required, uh, ice.  Silly us.  Apparently it doesn't.

It was white.  It was hard.  But it was definitely not ice.  Why is it called "ice skating," you ask?  Well, apparently "plastic skating" just doesn't have the same ring to it.

At least we had the whole place to ourselves....

....well, except for the polar bears.  The only ones you'll ever see in Tanzania.

Yes, Johnny, what are we subjecting you to?

He just wasn't too into this skating thing.  But he did like being pushed.

If you ever see a Tanzanian Olympic ice skater, you'll know where she got her start.  Right here on the plastic.  

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Sometimes Africa Scares Me

Africa and me, we have trust issues.  I love this continent, but sometimes it scares me.

When I was 13, rebels took over the government of Liberia and started a civil war.  My family was on home assignment at the time, but all the other missionaries were evacuated.  Our house was looted, the mission station was bombed, and I never got to say good-bye.

We relocated to Ethiopia, and I went to boarding school in Kenya.  I was fourteen.  The students were told to keep a bag packed of essentials; something that we could carry for at least a mile in case of an evacuation.  I don't even remember why we were told this; I think it had something to do with the Gulf War.

While I was in Kenya, a revolution started in Ethiopia.  My mom and my brother were evacuated.  My dad stayed behind, and spent his nights sleeping with some other men in a windowless hallway.  One day in our apartment, he watched a stray bullet come through the roof.

Now we've been 11 years in Tanzania.  It's one of the only countries in Africa which has been peaceful since it's independence--over 50 years now.  For about 20 years, it had a socialist government, but in the mid-80's, it became a democracy.  However, since then, it's been primarily a one-party government.  During past elections, there's only ever been one viable candidate for president.  Makes the voting process pretty simple.

Until this year.  For the first time in Tanzania's history, two candidates are running for president.  (Interestingly, one of them happens to be the grandfather of one of Grace's best friends.)  This is the third election cycle we've witnessed, and it's strange to see two faces plastered on billboards instead of one.

Because of this, people are nervous.  Will this election mirror other African countries?  Will there be rioting and violence?  Just a few years ago, 1000 people were killed in election violence in Kenya, our neighbor to the north.

A few weeks ago, our house worker asked me, "Will you stay in Tanzania in October?"

"Of course," I answered.  But her question made me anxious.

All universities are closed until November.  We cancelled our training classes for this month.  We've been carefully reading news updates and memos from outside agencies.  One of them suggested, "Pack a bag of essentials."  It feels all too familiar.

The elections are two weeks from today.  But what can we do?  We stock our pantries; we fill up our gas tanks.  And we pray:  for peace, and for a government with integrity.  We pray for safety but remember that's not always the most important thing.  Instead, that the gospel might go forth, no matter what.

The king's heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.  

Thy will be done; on earth as it is in heaven.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Fifteen Years of Gil and Amy

Our story was an unusual one.  Good friends for two years, dated for a month, engaged for 5 months, and then 9 months after we were married, we were off to Tanzania.  If you didn't read the long version I wrote on our 10th Anniversary, I invite you to read it today.

Since then, we've spent 11 out of 15 years in Tanzania.  We've lived in 8 different houses and traveled across the Atlantic Ocean way too many times to count.  We've had one miscarriage and adopted four children and 6 dogs (the children are all still with us; all the dogs are not.)  We've worked together in five different ministries.  

I thought about whether I had something profound to say about marriage after 15 years.  But I don't think I do, because our marriage is still a teenager.  And what do teenagers really understand about life?  

I know if I were to talk to my 23-year-old self in October of 2000, I would give her some advice.  Forgive a lot more quickly.  Find your wholeness in God, not in Gil.  Look for, and focus on, the strengths that go along with your husband's weaknesses. And my mantra for wives?  Let it go.  Let it go.  Let it go.  (Sing with me now!)  There's very little in a marriage that's worth griping or fighting over.  

But the truth is?  I knew those things 15 years ago, in my head at least.  We had great mentors.  I read all the great books.  I just had to learn them for myself.  And perhaps the hardest lesson of all?  That I was not, or never would be, the perfect wife I thought I was.  We're smiling in all the pictures below.  Of course, you don't take selfies when you are not speaking to each other, but that doesn't mean it didn't happen.  

"Marriage by its very nature has the 'power of truth'--the power to show you the truth about who you are.  People are appalled when they get sharp, far-reaching criticisms from their spouses.  They immediately begin to think they married the wrong person.  But you must realize that it isn't ultimately your spouse who is exposing the sinfulness of your heart--it is marriage itself.  Marriage does not so much bring you into confrontation with your spouse as confront you with yourself." (Tim Keller)

But what I most wished I had known 15 years ago?  Persevere.  It might get harder before it gets better.  But it does get better.  The last five years have been the best of all.

I have no regrets.  Gil is still my very best friend, and he leads me so well.  He gives me wise advice; he makes me laugh; he respects my thinking; he pushes me to do more, to be more, to love Jesus more.  He is the very best Daddy a kid could ask for.  There is nothing I have done to deserve this gift.  

"To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial.  To be known and not loved is our greatest fear.  But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God.  It is what we need more than anything.  It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us." (Tim Keller)

2000, during our (very) brief period of dating
October 7, 2000
honeymoon in Oahu

our first time in Zanzibar, 2001
Tanzania, 2002
London, on our way home from Tanzania, 2003
Disneyland, 2004
California, 2004
2005:  Gil gets some sort of delight out of forcing me onto roller coasters and then taking pictures of me.  Enough said.
California, 2005
Seminary graduation, 2005
Our fifth anniversary in Mikumi Game Reserve, 2005
When the dogs were our babies, Tanzania 2006
Our first Christmas with Grace, Tanzania 2006
Youth Group Heroes Night, 2009
California, 2010
In Zanzibar for our 10th Anniversary, 2010
Tanzania, 2010
Bringing Lily home, 2011
Tanzania, 2012
Tanzania, 2013
California, 2013
San Francisco, 2014
Seattle, 2014
Monterey Bay, California, 2014