Everyone who hangs around the evangelical world long enough knows youth hang out in youth groups and those very youth groups send them out in groups to do "missions" in the summer. Some of them are supposedly "life-changing"...but most are simply excuses to hang out in some exotic places. (There are some exceptions... our church has made it clear that the youth who participate in missions are to be called and are to be prepared to serve and work hard!)
We did something different.
Instead of sending the children off with a leader and a bunch of other children, we took them with us to visit friends who are missionaries...to Africa! We lived in their home and experienced their life. We were extremely blessed by them, and were hopefully blessings and encouragements to them. They allowed us to see the culture of West African city life through their eyes and to experience it first-hand. Below are some musings about our experience:
1) While the country is officially about 95% Islamic, most seem to practice it the way most Americans practice Christianity: culturally.
2) The people take time for relationship and for community! This was probably the most encouraging thing in my mind and illustrated just what we've lost here in the States. "To Do" lists come in a distant second to spending time with people. One illustration was when Mustafa, the rent collector, came to the house. In the US, he'd probably stay outside, or maybe step just inside the door. We'd give him the check, say something about the weather, and he'd be on his way. In Africa, Mustafa came in the house and sat at the dining room table. While he was served a cold drink, he and my hosts spoke of each other's families and of the daily rolling electrical blackouts. It was a good twenty minutes before they got around to the rent check!
3) Partially because of number 2 above, things move s-l-o-w-l-y. Nothing happens at a fast pace, to include construction! It takes forever to build anything! The roads in the middle-class neighborhood were pot-holed dirt! If you have to drive somewhere, you'd best not be in a hurry. In fact, the patience of Job would be an asset!!! Another friend who had visited Africa related that a local said the following to him: "In America, you have watches and no time; in Africa we have no watches, and lots of time!" How very true.
4) We take so much for granted. The lights come on every time we throw the switch. The house is cool in the summer and warm in the winter. There is water every time you open the spigot. The mosquitoes, while the size of small birds in my part of the US, don't carry malaria. One doesn't fear the doctor here. You know when the garbage collector is going to come...and he actually picks it up himself from your particular driveway! There isn't any sewage in the streets. We don't have to filter our water before we drink it. We don't bleach our fruits and vegetables before using them. We don't have to wash feces off our eggs before bringing them home. People obey the traffic rules.
5) Our conveniences separate us from our neighbors. Air conditioned cars result in rolled up windows. Garages (especially those with electric openers) keep us from going outside. Air conditioned houses keep the windows and doors shut.
6) When you must spend time at home preparing food for the family without the benefit of modern conveniences, by necessity your family pitches in, resulting in increased closeness as well as learned responsibility.
7) When there aren't a thousand and one activities for the kids, they spend time at home with each other and with their parents. Games are played, relationships are deepened, and love is grown.
8) Being a typical monolingual American, I was frustrated at not being able to communicate with the locals...all of whom were incredibly friendly and kind.
9) A person in that country who holds hands with another of the same gender is communicating: You are my friend and I respect you! There is nothing that is sexual about it at all!!!
10) The elderly are respected and honored. We witnessed an elderly man trying unsuccessfully to cross a busy street. A strapping young man happened along and noted his situation. Without hesitation he spoke with the gentleman, let him take his arm, and led him across the street. With a word and a wave, he was on his way.
11) Ropes courses through baobab trees are a blast!!!!!!
12) Near-equator sun is extremely strong when at the beach...even on tanned, sunscreened skin!
We all got to experience the culture first-hand, with its wonders and its trials. With our hosts interpreting for us, we interacted with the locals. All in all, we had a marvelous time and bring back a very different perspective on our own culture, both its positives and the things we would like to see changed.
Now the trick is to see how we can integrate those changes into our personal lives....