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  March 9 , 2004 -> The Family mission: Tanzania

I shook my head in disbelief as an SUV-full of blond-haired kids pulled into the Mbeya bus station. Four children spilled out of the vehicle and rushed toward us. I knew Mike (my cousin), and his wife Terese very well, but their kids' names and faces were only vaguely familiar. They didn't really know me either, but they politely gave Nori and me big hugs and said, "Hello Uncle Scott!" It is strange enough for an Idahoan to be in Tanzania, and downright bizarre for him to find relatives there.

We squeezed back into the car and headed towards their house. I had to laugh at Mike's new accent. For some reason, all native English speakers acquire a sharp, staccato diction when speaking to black Africans.

"It's OK, Mike," I said, "you can speak English to me normally." Everyone laughed.

One year ago, Mike and Terese had quit their jobs in the US and moved with their children to Mbeya, southern Tanzania. To a cousin like me, who saw them infrequently, their decision came as a shock. But they had been thinking about such a mission for some time, and had visited Tanzania once before to check things out. As with all African ventures, reality turned about to be different from initial expectations. Mike had hoped to do some evangelical work and to teach computer skills. When he arrived, he suddenly found himself the administrator of Grace College - a small institution affiliated with their mission.

The family lived in a mid-sized, two-story house located within the grounds of Grace College. They had hired a local woman - Mama Sikela - as a domestic helper. Mama Sikela cooked meals, cleaned house, did laundry, and brought in relatives when there was extra work to do. This allowed Terese to focus on home-schooling. It was a full-time job that required careful planning and strict adherence to the schedule.

Upstairs, the "classroom" walls were covered with history time lines, sentence breakdowns, and maps. It looked like a great place to learn.

Mike and Terese asked us to give a talk to two groups of their students at Grace College. One group was learning English, another secretarial skills. We told them about our trip around the world, some of places we had visited, and the languages they spoke there etc. They loved hearing about Hong Kong - so many people, so little space, with buildings eighty stories high. The listened intently as Nori gave them examples of Thai, Chinese, and Japanese sentences. But when we told the students that we had saved money for almost eight years to pay for the trip, their eyes bugged out. Eight years! So much of life was lived 'hand-to-mouth' that that kind of financial planning was unfathomable.

African ways of thinking and value systems had taken some getting used to. Petty theft was quite common; if something was left outside or unattended, it usually disappeared. Yet thieves caught with stolen items might be beaten to death by an angry mob. Whites are seen by many blacks as inherently rich. A stream of supplicants came to the Bentons' door. Mike remained polite, but had grown weary of the long-winded preambles to requests for work or money. He had a scrap of paper folded up in his wallet where he kept track of loans and advances. One afternoon, an old man came to the door. After a series of perfunctory questions about Mike's health and family, he got to the point:

"Michael, do you have any work?"

"No," Mike replied "not at the moment."

"Will you have any work in the near-term?"

"Yes."

"Can you give me an advance on that work?"

"Why do you need the money?"

"A relative has died. I need money for the bus fare so I can get to the funeral."

"How much do you need?"

"5,000 Shillings..." It was about US$5, not a large amount of money, but much more than any bus fare. When Mike nodded and headed inside to find the money, the man quickly added, "or 10,000!" I remembered a funny story from a book I had read about the history of Zanzibar. The gist was that as soon as a European hired an African, that African's family started 'dying', one by one, starting with his mother. It was a not-very-original ploy to get money or time off work for the 'funeral.'

When we arrived, the Bentons gave us a few options for excursions around Mbeya: we could visit the beaches on the Tanzanian side of Lake Malawi, or journey to the remote Rukwa Valley to stay with their friends and fellow missionaries, the Ravenolds. The Benton kids desperately wanted to spend time with the Ravenold children, and we were already planning on spending time in Malawi on the beaches, so the decision was easy.

Even Tanzanians consider the Rukwa Valley a very backward place. It is a place of animism and shamans, superstitions and curses. The valley is highly malarial, and suffers from extreme heat in the summer months. As a result, the local population is for the most part ignored by the government: doctors and teachers cannot be convinced to live there, and politicians have no reason to care about the Rukwa's benighted population.

Lake Rukwa is a Rift Valley lake. But unlike its massive brothers to the west (Lake Tanganyika) and south (Lake Malawi), it is fairly small and quite shallow; all but the most detailed maps exclude it; in the dry season it often becomes two lakes. It is so isolated that unique genetic mutations have occurred: albino giraffes and polka-dotted zebras have been spotted (pun intended) in the nearby Uwanda Game Reserve. To reach the flat floor of the Rukwa Valley, we had to negotiate a treacherous road that switch-backed down the sheer escarpment.

The Ravenold family had been living, working, and spreading the gospel in the Rukwa Valley for nearly fifteen years. With much local help, they had built a rambling home on a knoll just below the escarpment. When the air was clear, Lake Rukwa was visible as a sheet of silver in the distance. They had a small cement pool, and often invited local children to play in it. The whole Benton family was excited to see them again. The kids were bubbling with excitement. Months of socializing would have to be crammed into a few days of non-stop activity. From dawn to well after dusk, they talked, laughed and played; so happy to be around kids their age. For Mike and Terese, it was a chance to spend time with friends who were 'old hands' at the missionary vocation.

On Sunday, we walked down the hill to the small church in the village. We sat on low benches in the front of the church and listened to the women singing hymns. Three of the four women had babies hanging from their backs. The babies' heads rocked back and forth like 'wobbly-head' dash ornaments as the women danced. When one of the babies started to cry, the mother executed an incredible twisting maneuver that swung the baby around her back, under her arm, and to her waiting breast in less than a second. The mother never broke eye contact with me, almost daring me to flash her a look of disapproval.

Three men were playing guitars that were plugged into a disemboweled amplifier. The electronics had to be fanned constantly to keep the amplifier from overheating, but even so, it emitted shrieks and groans every few minutes. The guitar accompaniment was so loud and off-beat that the singers had trouble keeping the rhythm. But they kept playing, and no one in the congregation complained.

Towards the end of the service, Ted got up and delivered a thundering sermon in rapid-fire Swahili. The locals were as impressed with his fluency as I was. His message was simple: just because something bad happens to you, does not mean you are a bad person. Superstition remained a pervasive part of the villagers' lives. If a man's cow died, he was cursed. Local medicine men (the missionaries called them 'witch-doctors') were employed to dispel the curse; their 'cures' were unorthodox and occasionally injurious.

Ted Ravenold had an energy that bordered on hyperactivity. He spoke rapidly. He had a dozen projects going at once. Africa - with its excess of time, but short attention span - was perfect for him. He was first a missionary, but he had become the village doctor, dentist, civil engineer, social worker, teacher, carpenter and financier. He had planned and helped build a water pipeline to the village from a distant stream. He helped build a school, and was planning on starting a carpentry workshop. He had a plant nursery near his home and was encouraging the locals to diversify their crops. On Wednesdays he pulled teeth.

Nori and I watched as he yanked a decayed molar from a woman's mouth. The woman had walked for days to see him; she was obviously in great pain. The operating table was a chair in Ted's garage. Ted and his assistant (the young missionary staying with them) wore surgical masks and rubber gloves to protect themselves from possible HIV/AIDS exposure. When the extraction was complete, he made sure to return the tooth to her. Rumors had spread that he was using the teeth for sorcery. He was fighting against these superstitions all the time. His garage had a rectangular pit in the center so that he could do undercarriage work. Rumors had spread that he was storing bodies in it.

Three days later, we drove back to Mbeya. It had rained heavily. One of the main bridges at the top of the escarpment had been destroyed in a flash flood. Luckily, the waters had subsided and we were able to rumble across in the 4WD. I had to walk in front of the vehicle several times - through calf-deep water - to make sure there weren't any deep holes that had been gouged out and hidden by the many streams that now flowed across the main road.

It was wonderful to spend a few days with family. Nori and I loved waking up to the smell of fresh-baked banana bread and coffee, rough-housing with the kids, and conversation around the dinner table. We also gained insights on an important aspect of Africa. Our time with the Bentons and the Ravenolds had shown me that my general cynicism towards missionary activity was overdone. These 'wazungus' (foreigners) were making a dramatic difference in local people's' lives. They were living in difficult conditions, but had made long-term commitments to the people. Whether the locals took up Christianity or not, these small-scale missionaries were accomplishing things that huge aid (Christian and secular) agencies with multimillion-dollar budgets were failing to achieve: real, identifiable, positive change.

Scott

 

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