Light for Those in Darkness

Different kinds of darkness and light

Isaiah spoke about spiritual darkness in the famous passage that Christians interpret

Many parts of Africa are beautiful, but dark.

Many parts of Africa are beautiful, but dark.

as pointing to Jesus. But 67% of Africans live in physical darkness, beyond the reach of national power grids.

According to USAID and the Power Africa Initiative, many Africans will never get national electrical service. What is life like for them? Not romantic, like going “off grid”here in the US! Imagine your children sick in the night, and you groping in the darkness to respond. Imagine the cattle in the enclosure next door       becom

We forget that the simplest LED light is a miracle!

We forget that the simplest LED light is a miracle!

ing restless. You go out in the dark to see what’s attacking them—a hyena? A snake? Imagine carrying your cooking, washing and bathing water up steep hillsides, five gallons at a time—40 pounds—because there’s no power for a pump. One power expert titled a Time Magazine article:

Why Energy Poverty is the Worst Kind of Poverty. He wrote, “As long as people remain in the dark they will remain poor.”

Abeza, an elter of the Maji church took me to see the Maji Health Center.

Abeza, an elter of the Maji church took me to see the Maji Health Center.

“Will you help us?”

Church elders in Maji, Ethiopia, where I grew up, met with me last year and asked “Can you bring us a solar panel for our clinic? Our women who come to deliver are suffering.” If the women went into labor at night, they told me, the nurse held a flashlight for the midwife. If both the mother and child needed help, the birth assistants held the flashlights in their mouths.

Solar Lights for Maji Health Center 

I went to Ethiopia in September 2016 to follow up on that request. I met with the solar provider

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Notice the chair on the box . . . simple technology can work.

the first afternoon after arriving in Addis Ababa, paid the downpayment on our vehicle rental, and made arrangements for transport.

I took with me a technician from the solar company. He not only installed the clinic unit, but came back to the guest house and voluntarily put a switch in one room, ran a line and a light and switch to the new latrine, and installed a porch light for security in the guest house.

Four women waiting in the clinic guest dormitory watched the Health Center installation. Everyone on staff, both from the Presbytery and from the Health Center participated. Four lights were hooked up—one each in the delivery room, the examining room, the office, and the women’s dormitory. I was later told that the women were thrilled, and were asking,

“Can this be put on grass roofs? If I had this, I could have light in my

The women didn't miss a minute of the installation process!

The women didn’t miss a minute of the installation process!

house and light in my cattle bier!”

Interestingly, I had a flood of Facebook friend-requests from Ethiopia as a result of posting pictures of this process. I thought I was updating US Facebook friends, and what I received was not only thanks from them, but thanks from Ethiopians.

The Maji Story

The Maji waterfall, where my dad installed a small grain mill and generator in the 1960s.

The Maji waterfall, where my dad installed a small grain mill and generator in the 1960s.

I’ve written about Maji before. Just to reorient you–Maji lies on the southwestern edge of the Ethiopian highlands, 8500 feet high, near the Sudan border. It was once the most remote outpost of the Presbyterian mission. The beauty of Maji’s mountain views,waterfalls, and eye-popping sunsets gave me endless joy as a child growing up in Maji.

The Ethiopian power grid ends 80 miles away. The cost to bring diesel the three day drive from the capital makes generator power unsustainable. Development has stalled. 

For decades, the tiny church in Maji also floundered for lack of leadership. Dad almost left mission work, he was so discouraged. But he had obeyed his call to plant the seeds.

Maji is beautiful, but dark.

In time, as local leadership matured, the church began to grow. It is now strong enough to step forward and serve the community effectively. “Your father brought us the light of the gospel,” the leaders say to me. “Please help us bring the light of electricity to our people!”

I leave on Friday to talk to the women of Maji, to see if they would be interested in starting a co-op to distribute solar home systems (SHS) to families in the county. I have registered a non-for-profit organization to support them. If they are willing to do the work on the ground, I will promise to be a channel for their support from the USA.

I’ll let you know what they say! Stay well!

Having an Agenda

“What is your agenda for Ethiopia this time?” a friend asked me. “Or do you have an agenda?”

I laughed. As my dad would have said, boy-howdy, do I have an agenda! Several agendas, in fact. A friend has invited me to think about how to be more strategic and organized in the work in Ethiopia that keeps coming my way. That will be one of my agendas.

In my suitcase, as I fly out of Portland, I’m carrying a bag of dried apples. I’m taking them

The apple orchard is young, but thriving. Apples have been imported to Ethiopia from Kenya and South Africa at great expense. We want to make Maji famous for its apples.

The apple orchard is young, but thriving. Apples have been imported to Ethiopia from Kenya and South Africa at great expense. We want to make Maji famous for its apples.

to Maji to show the agriculturalist, Ato Markos, who coordinates the Maji apple orchard what a dried apple looks and tastes like. The 1000 apple trees he’s planted aren’t yet bearing more than he can sell locally, but they will! I need to talk with his leadership team about their marketing plan. And if the grid does get to Maji, might they start a fruit-drying endeavor? Why truck the water in the apples all the way, 500 miles, to Addis Ababa?

This young woman is the one nurse serving the Maji clinic.

This young woman is the one nurse serving the Maji clinic. Photo by Maureen Evans

Another major goal for my time in Maji is to get a solar unit installed on the town’s clinic. This came as a request from church leaders, and took me over a year to organize. The clinic is delivering up to thirty babies a month. Night deliveries take place in the dark—the electric grid hasn’t reached Maji yet—and the midwife and nurse sometimes have to hold flashlights in their teeth to have hands free. A simple solar unit will allow for night lighting and charging cell phones. I’ve found a solar supplier in Addis Ababa and he is sending the unit and an installer with me in the vehicle I’ve rented for the trip.

While in Maji, I will also meet with the

Zerihun is the lead translator for the Dizi language. The alphabet he helped develop is being embraced by the church and the local government.

Zerihun is the lead translator for the Dizi language. The alphabet he helped develop is being embraced by the church and the local government. Photo by Maureen Evans

translation team for the Dizi language, the language of the people of Maji. Dizi has been reduced to written form—that’s the technical term for developing a writing system that covers all the sounds of the language. Now the New Testament translation is almost finished. The translation team is meeting with expert linguists in Addis Ababa several times a year to check for consistency (is the same word in Hebrew, Greek or English translated by the same word in Dizi, for example). They are also holding community checking events, reading passages and listening to discussions to see whether the intended meaning of the translation is what was actually communicated.

Try reading Dizi!

Try reading Dizi! Photo by Maureen Evans

I don’t know the Dizi language, but I’ve been supporting the translation team for several years. I  meet with them and listen (in Amharic) as they talk about their progress, frustrations and concerns. I’ll take a report back to donors, and go over the budget for next year’s work. This trip I’ll start to ask questions about a literacy program. We don’t think about this, having so many centuries of written language of our own—but once there is an alphabet and written materials, the next problem is that no one knows how to read!

And then, speaking of literacy, when I get back to Addis I’ll meet with people who helped Janie and me last January as we began creating stories and art for early-reader books for Ethiopian children. Again, we have such a thriving publishing industry in the US, it’s hard to imagine that almost no books are published in Ethiopia, and there is nothing at all for beginning readers. They drill their 241-letter alphabet, and then start the sink-or-swim process of reading text books.

Children, parents, teachers and librarians in Ethiopia and the US have created the

We'd love to be part of creating fun, colorful, culturally appropriate easy readers for Ethiopian children like these cuties!

We’d love to be part of creating fun, colorful, culturally appropriate easy readers for Ethiopian children like these cuties! Photo by Jeri Candor

beginnings of about twenty simple, illustrated stories appropriate to Ethiopian culture. Now we’re looking for help in the translation and design stage. (We haven’t even addressed production yet!) The enthusiasm, the creativity, the goodwill of volunteers is keeping us going in spite of the steep learning curve for this cutting-edge cross-cultural effort.

In Addis Ababa I’ll be following up with young artists and writers to move from the inspiration stage to the revision stage of creating art. I’ll be looking for someone who has design skills and knows Amharic. I’ll meet with some people who have tried their hands at translation—that’s a creative endeavor as well, because our subject-verb sentences trot along using words like building blocks, each in its own place, but Amharic encrusts the verb with not only prefixes and suffixes, but infixes! We wouldn’t know an infix if we heard one!

So that’s my agenda! I’m writing on the plane to Minneapolis, the first of three legs of my journey. I’ve been crazy-busy getting ready for all this. Now wish me well! My jet lag, the possibilities of picking up intestinal bugs, and political unrest in parts of Ethiopia may be greater problems than the inherent challenges of the work. But that’s the way it always is. Our contexts are part of the work.

I’m grateful for the opportunities I have for creativity, spiritual and relational growth as I do this work that keeps coming to me from God. Thanks to all of you who have contributed encouragement, prayer and resource to be my partners!

Ethiopian Odyssey II–Artists

A card by Stephanie from Ethiopia Odyssey I.

A card by Stephanie from Ethiopia Odyssey I.

Ethiopian Odyssey I had taken four artists deep into the Omo region of Ethiopia, capturing the beauty of that land and donating their art to raise money for Ethiopia Reads, the non-profit my sister Janie helped start. Ethiopia Reads plants libraries for children in Ethiopia.

Odyssey II came into my life when Janie told me she wanted to go to our childhood town of Maji, Ethiopia one more time while she was still hale and hearty. “But I’ll only go with you or Chris,” she’d said. Since Chris (who also speaks Amharic) is a full time elementary school teacher, I became the tour guide of choice. Janie’s artist friend, Stephanie, had heard her talk so much about Maji, she suggested this trip become Odyssey II.

“Okay,” I had said, and we settled on January, 2016. At the time it seemed so far away and so unlikely I hardly took it seriously. Finding myself in Ethiopia at the end of January, with a team of eight including Janie and Stephanie, amazement washed over me—we were in Maji, and my new friends were finding SW Ethiopia as beautiful as I do.

As I began to write, the four artists (two Ethiopians and two from the US) were hard at Yacob paintingwork. Yacob, who teaches at the fine arts college in Addis, wore an apron and sat on the ground spread-legged, painting. We dubbed him Mr. Pandora, and enjoying the jazz coming from his Jambox through his phone.

As always in Ethiopia, a small crowd gathered to watch whatever we did. The Ethiopians from Addis were as interesting in Maji as we foreigners!

As always in Ethiopia, a small crowd gathered to watch whatever we did. The Ethiopians from Addis were as interesting in Maji as we foreigners!

Nahom, a full time artist, also from Addis Ababa, finished one painting by sitting against a tree and bracing his canvas-board on a rock. His second piece he started, pinned to the tree. He stood back, reaching at arm-and-paint-brush-handle length to apply the paint, just as I picture painters doing.

Troy, from Connecticut created a

The breeze was stiff that morning, but Troy was resourceful.

The breeze was stiff that morning, but Troy was resourceful.

studio for himself by arranging some pieces of corrugated iron to shelter his easel from the mountain breeze of Maji. The report came back that he had found his zone, so we didn’t disturb him.

And Stephanie took shelter from the wind in the former mission teacher and nurse’s house until mid-afternoon. She produced gorgeous washes of color representing the hills and ridges around us, then gathered everything up and headed back out into the sunshine after lunch.

The other four of us wandered the former mission compound, drinking in the view from the western side, over the valley and through the gap. We marveled at the eucalyptus trees that were big when Janie and I were children fifty years ago, now grown so huge it would take all four of us to reach around them. Janie and I tried to visualize—where was Mom’s circular rose garden? Dad’s shop, which we called the magazine (emphasizing the second syllable as the Italians did when they taught the word to the Ethiopians)? The grove of false-banana trees where we caught the tree frogs Janie tried to toilet train?

Poignant moments, with a sister and playmate, overlooking the scene that back-lit our play so many years ago.

Poignant moments, with a sister and playmate, overlooking the scene that back-lit our games so many years ago.

And as friends from Maji town met us on the path, the others wandered on, leaving me to shift into Amharic and play that bridging role I love so much.

The stars over us the first night were brilliant in a totally dark sky. The moon rose later, so bright there was no need for flashlights. The peace of that place soothed us all in mind, body and spirit.

Maji Lore

Dorothy has a flashback--she is fourteen years old and learning to drive!

Dorothy has a flashback–she is fourteen years old and learning to drive!

Ah, the lore of Maji! This summer Dorothy Russell Hanson sat in the old yellow Jeep that she remembers learning to drive in—it’s the same Jeep that her parents rolled down an embankment when the grass was too high to see the edge of the road.  Her mother’s pelvis bone broke in the accident, and local people carried her several days on a homemade stretcher into Maji.

Dorothy’s dad, Fred Russell, gathered up the equipment and parts that scattered as they rolled—he found all but the knob of the Jeep’s gear stick.  He offered an Ethiopian Birr for its return (about $0.25), and several weeks later, someone walked into Maji with it and claimed his reward!

Maji on the horizon--the town and mission are on the saddle above this section of the road.

Maji on the horizon–the town and mission are on the saddle above this section of the road.

Two Daughters of Maji and three “grand-daughters of Maji” made a visit in August. There is no hotel or guesthouse in Maji, so Dorothy, Jenny Keefer, Jenny’s three daughters and their husbands traveled from Mizan and back.  It made  a long day of travel and a short visit in Maji, so they weren’t able to get down to the beloved waterfall, where the mission gristmill once ground grain for local families during the day, and ran a generator for a few hours of electricity every night.  But they could hardly believe the good road where once there was only jungle.

Dr. Yshak accompanied them, and took clinic supplies in.  He stayed on for ten days, and reports that he and Ato Marcos gathered people from eight of the ten local churches to pray for peace, as the Dizi and Suri people have both been traumatized by recent inter-ethnic violence and death.  Then they went out as a community, into the orchard, to weed and plant eucalyptus seedlings in the nursery.

Ato Markos with first fruits.

The four hundred apple trees planted last year are growing—some even producing the first, small apples—and the ground has been plowed and holes have been dug for six hundred more.

Dr. Yshak says that the church is assuming ownership of the orchard, and is proud of the project.  The church is packed on Sundays, and people stand outside the windows to hear the sermons and participate in worship.  This is the first time in the 55 years since Presbyterians went to Maji for the Dizi people to feel the winsomeness of Jesus, and to long for God’s presence with them in this way.  I think the church’s prayer, fasting and confession conferences with Dr. Yshak and Ato Markos have broken through some spiritual resistance. Sermon, prayers and singing in the Dizi language may also be allowing the Holy Spirit to enter people’s hearts in new ways, breaking through the self-hatred that was a legacy from years of oppression and slaving.

Worship in the Maji church.

The crowded Maji church.

How exciting to be walking with the Dizi people, giving them something to develop and take hold of to build their own spiritual future!

 

 

 

Longing

“At the center point of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and illusion, a point of pure truth, a point of spark which belongs entirely to God.” Thomas Merton

Wow.  I’m not sure I know what Thomas Merton is talking about—not in my head, anyway.  But in my heart, I hope he’s right.  I hope there is a spark in the center of me that is untouched and belongs entirely to God.

For a long time I’ve had a hymn I like to play on the piano when no one else is home.  It’s an old one, but I grew up with King James style sermons and prayers.  The oldness doesn’t put me off:  “Jesu, priceless treasure . . . Ah, how long I’ve panted, and my heart hath fainted, thirsting Lord for Thee. . . ”

I learned this hymn in ninth grade in a boarding school in Egypt, where we sang three variations in choir.  The longing words stuck with me—priceless treasure; how long; thirsting, Lord . . .

But even more, I remember the piercingly sweet moment when, on the last line, the tenors float up to land for half a beat with the sopranos on middle F.  The men and women’s voices blend but don’t unite; the center of the chord is wide open, like a lover’s heart; and then suddenly the moment is gone, the tenors drop down an octave and the chord fills in.  Maybe I felt in that moment the longing heart of Johann Sebastian Bach set to music.

This is the longing I felt all of my life.  A longing to live in more than just the material world. A longing to experience spiritual transformation.  Sometimes I felt frustrated, sometimes resigned.   The year after I sang “Jesu, Priceless Treasure,” I read Brother Lawrence’s booklet, The Practice of the Presence of God.  I tried to practice, but I was only fifteen.  I had no monastery, no spiritual director, no one to teach me prayer disciplines that might open my heart to sensing God’s presence.

It was a lonely practice, and I came up empty.   My experience was more like one of William Wordsworth’s poems, quoted in a book of very King’s James-ish prayers I had been reading every night before bed: “The world is too much with us, late and soon; getting and spending we lay waste our powers.”

The camera caught me and Mark, my high school boyfriend and my future husband, in an unguarded moment. I don’t have on the cheerful smiled I usually wore to cover the longing.

There’s lots of anguish these days about the shrinking of the church in the United States.  I wonder if my experience of dryness in spiritual practice is one of the reasons people have given up on the church.  A friend named Donna Winship, now on the team of Jesus in the Qur’an, tells of her early frustration in a Muslim nation, and how she asked for advice from a colleague whose healing ministry was thriving.  “Donna,” the older woman told her, “You can’t give away what you don’t have.”  Donna says she had been to seminary, she had attended dozens of Bible studies—she had led Bible studies, for goodness sake!  But God was theory and theology to her still, not present in her life.  And she couldn’t share his presence with anyone because she had such a tenuous hold on it herself.

Many Ethiopian churches are like this one–standing room only. Why?

When I speak in churches about the partnership opportunities in Africa, people ask me why the African churches in are growing and ours are shrinking.  Their questions drove me to read and attend conferences looking for something to tell them.  I discovered people who are talking about the “missional” church, which doesn’t assume missions are just far away, but who act like “sent ones” (that’s what missionary means) with their neighbors and co-workers.

The problem is, if we are like Donna was, we can’t give away what we don’t have.  If we are still in a state of longing ourselves, we don’t have anything to share.

Thank you to the many people who, after my last posting, shared what keeps them coming back to church. But clearly, for this generation, the things that have drawn previous generations to church aren’t working any more.  For this moment in culture, for this time in our history, the formula we used to organize our worship and Christian fellowship is expiring.  Like missionaries, we need to study the culture and figure out how to share what we have with people are searching for meaning and identity (see the ad in the last posting for an example of what materialism offers).  Then we have to make sure we actually have something to give away.  Something to fill people’s longings today, not just offering them heaven when they die.

Maybe the problem is, as GK Chesterton, an essayist and theologian said, “Christianity isn’t a failure; it just hasn’t been tried yet.”

Angel Voices in the Dizi Language

"Mish kids" borrow from the culture around them! I was about this age when I made my Dizi language dictionary.

I grew up hearing people “sing” to each other from the hillsides around Maji.  Their language is a tonal language, and common conversation has a musical quality to it.  When people walked from market home, or spent the day out with the cattle on the hillsides, they called to each other,  mellow and sweet.  Or they played gourd flutes with five tones, and the flutes sounded much like their calling.

 Sagu, one of the school boys who worked for Mom to earn enough for school clothes and notebooks and pencils, loved to teach us girls words in his language.  I “nationalized” a tiny spiral notebook and started a dictionary when I was about eight.  Listening to sermons in the two to three languages of every Sunday morning in Maji (English sometimes, Amharic Sagu, right, with Dad and Mom and the Maji health department head (I think). Sagu went from the Maji school to end up with two Masters degrees!always, Dizi always) I grabbed a word in English or Amharic that was repeated, then listened for some repeated word in the Dizi translation, and wrote it down.  I dreamed that I would someday be the only white person to speak the language of the people of Maji.

 

When I was in Maji this January, a small choir came up from the town of Tum to sing in church.  We guests all stayed in one of the old mission houses; I woke on Sunday morning before light to soft voices singing and the sound of soft picking on the traditional instrument called the krar.  It was Ethiopian Christmas morning, and in my half-dream state, I thought at first I was hearing angel voices.  When one sang, the others respond over and around and with her melody.  I lay and prayed while the Dizi choir from Tum practiced in the next room.

It turned out that the lead singer (right, below) had been a shaman.  They told me she had been possessed by twelve evil spirits until Jesus set her free.  Her daughter (left) plays the krar, and  her husband is a skilled drummer.

Ethiopian Christmas morning in the Maji church--praises in the Dizi language and musical style

This woman is composing songs in the Dizi spiritual tradition.  She is composing the kinds of songs she used to sing to the chief, or in honor of the spirits she served.  These are the kinds of songs the Dizi people grow up singing when they try to appease the spirits and guard against the evil eye, only now she sings in praise of a God who showed his face in Jesus, and who is stronger than all the spirits who have haunted her people.

The choir sang three songs that day.  One was much like Psalm 106, an ancient Hebrew hymn of remembrance, praising all the mighty works of God.  But it was her last song that made the hairs on my arms stand up.  The packed church was completely silent as she sang to the krar accompaniment.  She looked down, swayed from side to side and sang in a high, reedy voice.  At the end of every line she let her voice trail off.  She was almost wailing, and she added a tremulo, something I have never heard the likes of.  I knew I was hearing a song deep in the spiritual traditions of the Dizi people, from a place foreigners had never been allowed into.

People listen intently to "cultural" music in church

People listen intently to “cultural” music in church

I knew I was seeing deep contextualization taking place–people taking their experience with Jesus and pulling it into the continuity of their lives and cultures, making it their own.  They don’t have to move into anyone else’s culture, they don’t have to use anyone else’s hymns or praise songs, they know their own style of worship can be turned in the direction of Jesus and used to praise God.  When this happens, we know that the Spirit of God is working with them and will help them communicate their experiences in such a way that their message truly is good news to those who hear.

It’s been over sixty years since Presbyterian missionaries Fred and Daisy Russell first went  to Maji, and now it looks as though the good Kingdom of God, the Shalom of the Beatitudes and of Jesus’ introduction of his ministry–to heal people, to loose the bonds of the captives, and set the prisoners free–will begin at last to come to the Dizi people.

Dreaming Big in Maji

On the warm Sunday afternoon I was in Maji, we walked down to visit the forestry-seedling nursery.  It lies along the path that ends up at the waterfall, where I ran with my sisters and my teddy bear (named Teddy), trying to keep up with Dad who was headed down to fix the generator.  Several hundred eucalyptus seedlings have now been planted on the grassy hillside.

Ato Marcos could "see" just where the trees and the vegetables will be growing soon.

The idea for this whole project came from Ato Marcos himself.  He told me about it–when he was in college getting his diploma in agriculture, he visited a church that was growing fruit and vegetables for the local community.  Back in Maji, he watched their church’s huge piece of land lying fallow, and remembered what he’d seen.  If he, with his ag training, could put that land to use, might it support him (so he could leave his government job) and also bring income to the church?  He’s a man with vision, eager to learn more, full of plans and dreams.  He’s the kind of partner we all want to have–and to be.

A posed photo is always a formal moment in Ethiopia. L to R: Dr. Yshak, Ato Marcos, the guard and a gardener.

Behind the men in the photo left, the bright green leaves you see is the corch tree fence.  When you put their papery-, thorny-barked branches into the ground they grow, making a fence goats and cows can’t penetrate.  The eucalyptus aren’t any more fun for cattle to eat than they would be for us, but the apple seedlings might have been highly sought-after forage.  This is a great example of indigenous solutions–who needs barbed wire when you have corch?
From the fence, to the cleared land, to Ato Marcos’s vision of where vegetables will go (among the trees during their dormant season so that working with the vegetables will also keep weeds down around the trees), to his care in planting them (in holes eighteen inches wide by eighteen inches deep), to the eager look on his face as he talked about the training courses in pruning and grafting coming up, I could see this project is in great hands.
Later, as we drove back to Jimma to catch my plane, I got a brainstorm of my own.  I saw it in a flash–an apple drying operation . . . Maji dried apples famous all over Ethiopia . . . why not?  When you have a great partner, your brain dares to dream big!  I hope I can be an equally inspiring partner, along with others on this side of the world, sharing our efforts and our resources to make something happen that is, really, unimaginable.

Soul-mates in Maji

Ato Marcos in front of the "old garden" where my dad hired Maji school boys to help grow the vegetables I grew up on--now to be a vegetable nursery for the community.

I first met Ato (Mr.) Marcos in a formal meeting.  He looked very young and very serious, sitting behind his desk with its desk-sized flag of the new Republic of Ethiopia. Maji church leaders had asked for my help getting the former mission compound back, and Ato Marcos was the district administrator.

Last month (this must be about eight years later) he met me at the airport in Jimma, to host me and drive with me to Maji.  Later, he and the synod driver told me they had talked together about how to set me at ease, and how to entertain me on the long drive.  Neither of them spoke English well enough, and Ethiopians take hospitality very seriously.   I had not spoken during that meeting years before, and they didn’t know I  was excited that I would be visiting Maji without any other Americans I needed to translate for.  “Well, I can always use sign language,” Ato Marcos had said.

Even later, I told the Maji group in that I had met Ato Marcos before, but had never seen his teeth. He looked at me, confused, until I said that I had not seen him smile or laugh.  I see that I also did not get a picture of him smiling on this trip–Ethiopians often treat photo ops as serious, formal business, and Ato Marcos is intense and takes his work seriously.  But I assure you, he has one of the warmest smiles in the world.

I saw it first when I greeted him in Amharic, there at the Jimma airport.   I’m sure his smile was particularly happy because he heard me speaking Amharic.  And mine must have been wide and happy too–I was feeling almost ebullient, because my suitcase, which had gotten checked through from Malawi to Jimma while I stayed in Addis in the same clothes for two days (wondering if I dared trust that clean clothes would meet me in Jimma), had in fact showed up!

Left to right: Zerihun the driver, the guard, Ato Marcos's children, and Ato Marcos.

 

From there, things among the three of us–Ato Marcos, Zerihun the synod driver and me–warmed right up.

 

 

 

 

 

Last year's rainy season washed out the roadbed completely.  This year they're cutting into the mountain further to . . . well, I don't know!  Maybe it will work . . .

Last year's rainy season washed out the roadbed completely. This year they're cutting into the mountain further to . . . well, I don't know! Maybe it will work . . .

We spent two days on the road, going about 350 miles.  I ‘m not complaining–only  a few years ago you couldn’t drive to Maji at all, and now the Chinese and Korean crews have good road beds started up to the last seventeen steep miles.  Those last miles took us an hour–in the battle between Maji Mountain and the road, Maji Mountain is still winning.

I have never enjoyed a road trip more.  The three of us talked politics (Ethiopian and US), we talked economics and nutrition, we talked about fruit trees and gardens, we talked about faith, we told jokes–well, the jokes  started in ernest when Dr. Yishak joined us on the trip back to Jimma.

You can see a glimpse of Dr. Yshak's sense of humor in this photo!

Here’s my favorite Dr. Yshak joke:  An Ethiopian goes to the States and gets a job, but he he gets fired because he isn’t used to working so hard .  He searches and searches for a new job until finally he hears that they’re hiring at the zoo.  The zoo-keeper says, “Welcome–the baboon just died!  Put on this suit and you can be the baboon.”  The guy puts on the suit and prances around making baboon noises, loving his new job, until one day someone leaves the back door to his cage open and a lion comes roaring in.  The guy says, “Archangel Michael, save me!”  The lion says, “Roar!  Roar!  Don’t worry, I’m an Ethiopian, too!”

We started laughing when the guy got fired.  We were busting out of our seat belts at the word zoo.  When Dr. Yshak said baboon, I don’t know how Zerihun stayed on the road.  I’m not sure I ever laughed harder at a joke.

Okay, it’s a cute joke, but there had to have been something else going on as well.  Don’t we hunger to connect with other travelers as we spin through space on our earthly adventures, often wondering what this trip is really about and are we alone?  When we find fellow travelers, the relief makes us giddy–we link pinkies, make brother- or sister-hood blood vows, swear we are Best Friends Forever, fall in love.  And when what we are reaching across included geography, culture and language . . . the relief and joy is even more transporting.

That is what I think happened in the car on the road between Maji and Jimma last month.  Ato Marcos, Zerihun and Dr. Yshak will be my best friends forever, and I would bet they feel the same about me.

 

 

 

Rattled

I’m rattled for a few weeks after I come home from a trip to Ethiopia. Thrown into confusion about who I am and where I belong. An Ethiopian friend once tried to convince me to buy land and build myself a home in Addis Ababa. “You speak Amharic,” she said. “You belong here. You need to come home every summer, and then retire here.” And I come back to the US feeling the same: I speak Amharic, don’t I belong there?

This trip was particularly rattling because I visited the town of Maji, in SW Ethiopia, where I grew up. I slept and ate and met with Maji church leaders in the former mission compound. I stood in the living room of my childhood home, so clear in my memory—the Franklin stove where we melted crayon bits on the sly, because the drops of shiny color

The house I grew up in--it used to look so much bigger!

The house I grew up in–it used to look so much bigger!

were like jewels; the funky green rug; the platform rocker Mom and Dad took with them from Portland, Oregon; bookshelves lining every wall. It sits empty now, as the church folks try to figure out how to use the space to serve the community somehow. One of their ideas is to start a literacy center for Dizi children—they do much better in school if they learn to read first in their own language.

In what used to be our dining room sits a hand pump wrapped in burlap. Bags of cement lie in the corner, bundles of pipe along the wall under the window, where the dining table used to sit. The pump has been donated, a new well has been dug, and they will plaster the sides with cement and install the pump this spring. I hand carried the donation they needed to get the job finished, and it sat on the table in flickering candle light as we talked together about plans.

The electric and water systems my dad installed were destroyed decades ago in the fever of “Yankee-go-home” socialism. Every other time I’ve visited I’ve had to remind the church leaders that missionaries from the US won’t be coming back with their mechanical know-how and lots of cash from headquarters to back them up. It seems to have sunk in: the church leaders know they will have to come up with their own, locally sustainable systems now. The hand pump will be a good first step.

A woman who brought her sick baby to the clinic

A woman who brought her sick baby to the clinic

Another encouraging sign—the old mission clinic is back in service and was crowded the weekend I was there. A few months ago the church held a fund raiser and people donated cash, quintals of grain, sheep, whatever they had, and hired a nurse. He looks about eighteen. I was thrilled to learn he’s a Dizi himself.

 

 

 

 

And now, here I am back in Oregon, thinking of Maji. I can’t seem to shake it, the love I have for those hills, that sunset sky, eucalyptus smoke in the air, the lilting musical

Looking from the new apple orchard toward the old mission compound.

Looking from the new apple orchard toward the old mission compound.

language, wooden cowbells going tonk with every step the cows take, grazing on the hillsides across from the mission. I’ll be rattled for a few more weeks before I get my heart all the way back home.