Monday, August 17, 2009

Passing New Jerusalem Big Big Shoe Shine, Part 1: Dave and JJ's Excellent Adventure

It has been over a month since my last blog. I apologize for the lack of communication. Life has moved at lightning speed these past few weeks and I am still catching my breath and collecting my thoughts. Each experience could take pages in a book, like spending an afternoon with Robert Mugabe or exploring Chobe National Park in Botswana or our last two weeks of class, saying goodbye to the class, the wild ride up to Burundi, and the radical change of direction in our efforts here in Burundi. I will attempt to do justice to a dynamic four weeks in this short space. You ready?

Uncle Bob
As I ended my last blog we were heading to a festival put on by the local chief of the region, chief Mukuni. By coincidence, chief Mukuni is the one of the most popular and influential chiefs in all of Africa because of his proximity to Victoria Falls. Annually, he hosts a celebration of culture and history. We heard rumors that the presidents of Zambia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, and the DR Congo were supposed to show up. As it turned out Presidents Mbanda (Zambia) and Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe) were the guests of honor. It was quite the unique experience.
It was like a county fair in rural America only with more reviled dictators. Thousands of people showed up. Each tribe exhibited their own dancing styles and dresses. We made our way to the main tents and were able to maneuver our way not twenty yards from the podium. The ceremonies started by introducing Chief Mukuni, and gave him no less than six titles along the lines of “ the chiefest of chiefs, his honor, his excellency…”
One thing I’ve noticed is that Africans place such importance on titles and have, what I would describe as, a reverence for authority. It’s almost the opposite of life in the west. Leadership puts a target on your back for criticism in America. We have the right to criticize our leaders but frequently (and this is coming from someone who lived in Madison, WI- the “Berkley” of the Midwest) we overstep the line between constructive and destructive dialogue. Its easy to be the critic, much harder to build up. Africans view of authority is a breath of fresh air, if only for its contrast to America’s. Clearly there is a balance between blindly following and blindly criticizing. Where has the balance gone? I digress.
Mugabe finally rose to speak. Introducing him the speaker called him an African of Africans, a true survivor, and a role model. He spoke slowly and deliberately carefully choosing his words. He is an adept politician. He is viewed favorably by some in Zambia but even through his praise of the people I heard some in the crowd snicker under their breath as he spoke.
So that was my afternoon with one of the world’s most hated leaders. I was amazed at the lack of security, or maybe I shouldn’t have been because this is Africa.

The Last weeks of class and Chobe
We finished up our last weeks of class with a wilderness EMT course and studied basic ‘missionary’ medicine and tropical diseases. It was a world class course and made me want to go to medical school again. We learned how to set broken bones, diagnose the usual worms and parasites encountered in the tropics, and what medicines to prescribe in certain situations. As our instructor told us, medicine isn’t challenging because of the material but because of the volume of material you need to know and the very similar symptoms that present for such a wide range of problems. Nearly every disease has some sort of stomach ache or fever. I have decided that if I am ever back in the States living around mountains I will look into joining a mountain rescue squad or emergency medical team.
One of the last weekends of class we packed up the truck and headed into Botswana to tour around the world famous Chobe National Park. I have been in different game parks in Zambia and Tanzania, but the amount of game that we saw in Chobe was like nothing I have experienced before. Giraffes, zebras, hippos, impalas, kudus, baboons, and elephants were so numerous that after a few hours people got bored of them (not really but you get the point). We camped on the river that separates Chobe from the Caprivi strip in Namibia. Only 50 yards away hundreds of elephants and buffalo grazed. At dusk they all started heading in to the shore and came right around our campsite! We stood watching these huge beasts lumber surprisingly silently past our tents. At one point a mom turned who had her calf, flared her ears and stomped at us. Apparently I was the only one perturbed by this as I attempted to get the rest of our team to back away silently, while most of them kept on watching.
That night I stayed up late around the fire and obsessed over the bright haze of stars. Every now and again an elephant would snap a tree or a buffalo would stomp on the hard dirt. Through my tent window I half expected to see lion walk through our camp site during the night. No such luck.
We passed back into Zambia the following day.
Our team made one last excursion into the bush. This is what you would call our final exam as it was up to us, the students, to coordinate all aspects of travel and ministry. I won’t forget our last time in the bush. We forgot all plates, silverware, and cups and our first aid kit. But relying on our most important strength, we improvised.
At one meeting in the Sumwatachela kingdom we had over 600 people attend, including 80 headmen. I was able to speak to a group of them and enjoyed the experience. I appreciate public speaking, but even more so when I can offer a life changing message.
This trip differed in others because many villagers had come from miles around to spend the weekend for the event. So we camped with the villagers and had a greater opportunity to connect with them over the camp fires at night.
We spent hours dancing around the fire with a group of old women. I had an opportunity to hop in the middle of the circle and participate while they sang a song one of our team members taught them. When all was said and done I grinded with a toothless eighty year old woman. At the end everyone shouted ‘hallelujah!’ Had we done this in a church in America the police would have been called.
A great life lesson I learned here: how to be content in the dirt and in a suit. Paul says he learned the secret to be content in any situation, whether in want or in plenty. More plainly put, contentment is not dictated by your circumstances if it comes from within. Praise the Lord I am picking up on this!
An image I will never forget are the kids that herd the cattle. They can’t be older than seven, not half the height of a cow’s leg, but they run behind the massive animals with sticks and throw stones and screaming at them without fear. They move the cattle as deftly as any adult, only cuter.
Frequently, we ended our days by making the short walk down to the dam near our campsite. Watching the sun burn out below the horizon we discussed the day, discussed where we were headed after AMT, and generally made light of the cultural differences we encountered that day. I really enjoyed the time with guys. It’s the simple things that impact you the most in life.
It was a memorable time as the chief of the region gave us goats for dinner and even stayed to hear us speak, a considerable honor. We were able to fill out a number of village assessment forms and laid the groundwork for future projects to be carried out long term. I was also rather proud that our driver asked me to help him out with the truck maintenance, which amounted to me refilling fluids and making sure the tires were still attached, but still I feel more like a man. At the end of the trip my Leatherman was covered in motor oil and goats blood. I’m almost positive I grew more chest hair.
Au revoir…
As in everything, time slipped by faster than what seemed possible. I remember talking about AMT with my friends in Madison and Chicago like it was some mythical event, not actually going to take place. Then we arrived and settled into the rhythm of class and killing down time with ridiculous banter. As soon as we began to feel numbed by the repetition we had our return tickets in our hands.
I remember distinctly a rush of emotions hitting me the day prior to departure. The sum of leaving good friends, leaving the comfort of familiarity, and heading into the unknown left a solid lump in my throat I managed to choke down. I will miss the community AMT provided, but I am grateful for the new beginnings. I know we were all brought to Zambia for a specific purpose at that specific time in each of our lives, the fruit of which will be born years down the road. Perhaps not to be seen, but positive fruit none the less.
And so began our push for Burundi and a new chapter in my life.

7 days, 4 busses, 1 packed car, and a billion miles of dirt roads
The events on this trip are nearly unbelievable. Nearly. I will begin with a quick outline of our route to give you a perspective: Livingstone, Zambia to Lusaka, Zambia (6 hours); Lusaka, Zambia to Nakonde/Tulunda, Tanzania (15 hours); Tulunda to Sumbawanga, Tanzania (10 hours); Sumbawanga to Mpanda, Tanzania (5 hours); Mpanda to Mabanda, Burundi (12 hours); Mabanda to Bujumbura (3 hours).
Our route followed a red ribbon of dirt road diagonally across Zambia, North through Tanzania along the coast of Lake Tanganyika, and then following the lake in Burundi to Bujumbura.
My friend JJ and I said goodbye to my brother Dan and his wife Rachel in Lusaka. The bus traveled through the night and arrived in Lusaka early in the morning. I was not enthusiastic about waiting around the bus station early in the morning but we managed without much of a hassle from the lurking characters that generally frequent bus stations.
Lusaka was a haven. After months in the bush the modern conveniences of the city took us back. We saw a movie, ate multiple different types of cuisine, sampled coffee and tea, and bought books. A wonderful travel tip: if you are looking for cheap, clean, and inviting places to stay look up churches or missions in African cities. They are usually plentiful and hospitable.
We found “Senor Africa” bus lines when looking for a ride to the border. Imagine if Lil’Wayne and the Wu Tang Clan started a bus company and you can picture the special bunch of individuals that ran Senor Africa. When we pulled up the “manager” greeted our cab with a brandy snifter filled with some sort of piss colored malt liquor and had beads around his neck. I asked him if he was the driver and he told me ‘no way! Drivers aren’t allowed to drink!’ Oh, stupid me for asking! I was impressed at how legible his handwriting was on our ticket and luggage claims despite an inability to form a coherent sentence or stand straight up without wavering back and forth. But it ended up well. The drivers were indeed sober, and I am convinced that African bus drivers are some of the most skilled in the world. We rode on a bus the same size and shape as a greyhound (only with 40 more people than is legally allowed) at fantastic speeds. I’m positive you could find better roads on the cratered surface of the moon but that didn’t slow down our drivers from weaving around semis and other busses. With only one tire blow out we made the drive to Nakonde, on the border of Tanzania and Zambia in 15 hours.
As I’ve mentioned before, bus stations in any part of the world attract colorful characters, most of them just looking for anyway to make/extract cash from you. And also border towns are just magnets for seedier elements of society. Combine them and then add in the Africa factor and you get Nakonde, the border town of Zambia and Tanzania. Nakonde is much how I imagine the outer circles of hell to be like.
I was half dozing and saw out the window as we passed ‘Bureau du Exchange’ after exchange place with little snack huts in between. “Crap”, I thought. As the bus slowed to a stop a crowd of ‘baggage handlers’ (those young go getters who will do anything to carry your bag for a small fortune) ran after the bus.
When it stopped, the crowd encircled the bus, yelling and shoving each other. There was a guy swinging an axe handle to clear a space near the door so passengers could depart. He was also tossing water on the crowd to push them back. It was early in the morning but most in the crowd was already drunk. Not many things make me nervous, but I admit I was feeling uneasy knowing that we had so many heavy bags to look after in the midst of such a volatile atmosphere. When you mix desperate poverty with a chance to make money with alcohol and drugs things get scary quick.
So there we were, getting ready to step off into the middle of the crowd, not knowing where to go or who to talk to about catching another bus, and not speaking the local language. I mentally checked all the places I had money hidden on my body and the amounts. I felt like a martyr in ancient Rome walking into the Coliseum as the crowd screamed and pushed each other. And then our guardian angel stepped on the bus.
Even before we could get out this young woman managed to walk on and sit quietly in front of us. She smiled pleasantly and asked if we needed help. Oh heck yes we needed help! We told her where we needed to go and she said she could help us. She led us off the bus and we waded into the midst of the vultures below. She secured our bags as JJ and I pushed our way through the crowd. I picked up the largest bag I had and five different pairs of hands grabbed onto the handle wanting to help. I said as politely as I could that I did not need help and thanked them. I made a break for an opening to follow this lady and one drunk teenager decided he was going to see the contents of my bag. I ripped it out of his hands as I felt another hand reach into my back pocket for my wallet. I spun around and managed to free the bag and knock away the hand. For a split second I thought I made a mistake and angered the drunk kid too much. Adrenaline coursed through my body as I turned to meet whatever was coming at me, but the crowd just laughed at the spastic white guy in their midst. “Fine, laugh at me” I thought. At least I have my bags and am in one piece.
Our guardian angel, Molita, brought us through the crowd like Moses parting the Red Sea. She yelled at the hordes clawing our bags and guided us to the border to get our visas to enter Tanzania. Another quirk of Africa is that they don’t take US bills older than a certain date, and that date differs wherever you go. And wouldn’t you know it the one $100 bill we had of our own was out of date. Our saving grace came when we realized that a generous friend had slipped us a hundred before we left. It turned out that was the only thing that got us across the border, there being no ATM for fifty miles.
Entering Tanzania, I noticed a distinct shift in culture. East Africa is colorful, it’s dirty, reggae music blares from most small shops that sell Coke. I loved it.
Molita figured out a route for us to take north, up the coast, rather than heading all the way to Dar es Salaam on a bus that was scheduled to leave in five minutes. We exchanged money as we walked to the bus, loaded our luggage on board, and rushed onto a colorful and fully packed bus playing Bob Marley music. We got the last two seats in the back. I collapsed into the seat trying to comprehend all that happened. All told we got off the other bus, crossed the border, and changed money in under a half hour. I mentally prepared myself for another marathon bus ride.
We were tired, dirty, hungry, and not sure where we were going, but we were no our way somewhere, bouncing around on a wooden bench in the back of some bus in the middle of Africa. Little did we know the greatest obstacles remained ahead of us…..

Keep checking in for Part II of this little African adventure!