Tuesday, April 26, 2011


German has a nice guttural sound that reminds me of mountain lions purring. The vocal gymnastics you must do to make the right sounds is fun in a gurgly kind of way.

The low rumble required to spit out works like ‘Danke’ and ‘shpitzel’ is oddly comforting-- like a hug.

All week, I enjoyed the baritone rumbles of this dialect while trying to sound out the ridiculously long words. Consider: ‘Himbeermarmelade’ (aka: raspberry jam). Admittedly, it’s a bit intimidating. My friend often laughed at my mispronunciation; I laughed with her.

The best part of my trip however wasn't the language, but the fact I didn’t need to think.

If anything was in English or French, I would have found myself endlessly reading and translating. However, not speaking more than two words of German, freed me from this burden. Instead, I let my friend organize and plan.

We went on walks, slept in late, and ate like royalty. (Oh, how I love fondue!)

One day we traveled by bus and boat to Lucerne for a walk about the city. Smaller than Zurich, it’s full of brutish swans, sparkling waters, and ancient wooden bridges.

I learned that the bridges there were set on fire a few years back, incinerating most of the countless murals painted in their rafters. In a span of minutes, priceless masterpieces were lost. It was a sad day for Switzerland.

However, not all of the paintings were ruined. Some were rescued, and today testify to the heritage lost -- one side of the painting depict rural Swiss life, while the other side is charred beyond recognition.

Walking around the city, we took our time leafing through books stores, sitting on museum steps, and sunning ourselves in yellow shaded tea gardens.

Then toward the end of the day, we went to the Kunstmuseum Lucern (or the Museum of Art Lucerne) for a quick look around. Normally, I’m not a huge fan of squiggles and splashes-- I tend to prefer a bit of form to my fancy-- but this museum surprised me. 

There were four small exhibits of artists I’ve never heard of before. One artist built a wooden door that looked like bricks which opened to an empty room with another similar door on the opposite end. It was disconcerting being the artwork instead of the art critic, but I liked it and had to laugh.

Another artist disturbingly tried to paint death and hell. It wasn’t so much the images as the somber colors. He looked like he was trying too hard. A third artist was all about taking blurry pictures of herself in store front windows.               --Not a fan.

However, the last exhibit made up for everything.

Her name is Patricia Bucher. She is a Swiss artist in her 30’s who painted a 30-meter circular panoramic of battle scenes since the dawn of time. It’s called the Schlachtenpanorama. (Please don’t ask me what that means... ha ha!)

My Swiss friend tells me that battle panoramics are very common in Switzerland, however, this was my first.

Bucher mixed Aztec Indian warriors with Napoleon's troops; she painted the Indian goddess Shiva among Egyptian hieroglyphics; she placed Star Wars battle troopers against cave men and revolutionary soldiers. It was epic!         --Simply AM-az-ING!

I am now definitely a fan of epic battle panoramics... and Patricia Bucher!

All in all, my time in German-speaking Switzerland was fabulous. I loved seeing my friend. I loved discovering these new places. It was just what this tired midwife needed.

Thank you, MT! I sure do love you!


When I arrived in Zurich, I was greeted with warm hugs and delighted screeches of joy! In a whirlwind of excited chatter, two of my Swiss classmates from Newlife Midwifery School, welcomed me to their picturesque stomping-grounds.

My first time in German-speaking Switzerland, I was glad for personal ‘tour guides and translators’ who expertly walked me through the city’s cobblestoned streets.

Since it was noon, we made our way to a gourmet sandwich shop, joining one friend’s new husband for a pic-nic by the lake. Easy laughter and excited questions continued all afternoon as I slowly realized the privilege of having such friends!

Topics bounced from babies to weddings to life in Sudan. Being surrounded by women willing to talk about the hard stuff, moved me to tears at times. These women know what it’s like to be missionaries. They know the realities of births. Unflappably patient, they took the time to listen. 

They mercilessly asked the hard questions, and then waited for me to find the right words.

Stories, that had become mundane to me, astounded them even though they read this blog. Only then did it occur to me that I only write a fraction of my life in Sudan. There is still so much I struggle to describe-- mostly emotions and impressions.

How do you blog about turmoil? How do you explain a tone of voice? How do you depict loneliness and isolation? These are things that if voiced somehow become real.

Such impressions are the white noise filling the gaps of everyday humdrum. They are the details of life in the mission field. Not everyone is interested in white noise, but these precious women were. They listened to me share, drawing out stories I’ve never shared with anyone. For that... I cannot thank them enough.

That day remains a blur of hugs, sunshine, and compassionate love.

These midwives helped me labor the hardest emotions; they loved me through the transition of culture shock, and even dislodged the mental blocks of debriefing.

For me, they can now add the title of ‘mid-missionary’ to their many degrees!

I love you ladies! Thank you!

The symphony of trains.

I love trains. I have always loved trains.

My first time riding the railways, I was 11 years old. My father got tickets for my older brother and I to go from Las Vegas to Vermont on the Transcontinental railways. The three day journey took us on rickety tracks that switched back and forth through the Rockies, only to rocket through the Midwest planes. I remember going to sleep with views of corn fields and waking 8 hours later to views of corn fields. It was amazing.

When I got a bit older and came to Europe, I reveled in traveling everywhere on trains. Here it’s the easiest way to travel, unlike in the States.

In Europe trains leave on time. They are timed with such precision that if you are not paying attention you can miss it by seconds. More than once, I have found myself running breathlessly to catch a train as the last whistle blows. Boarding microseconds before the doors slide shut with an air-pressured ‘whhoosh’, I smile in solidarity at all the other passengers sweating and grinning breathlessly, like me.

It’s intoxicating! 

Plus, you get to people-watch! I love people-watching.

Staring at strangers is not impolite in France. My American-ness resisted the urge at first, thinking it was rude, but a year in Paris cured me of that. Now I love it.

I love to stare. I love trains. I love staring on trains.

So this week, as I boarded the train for Zurich, I excitedly found my way to the upper level (Yes! It was a double-decker train!). Wandering around a bit trying to decide where to sit, I stumbled across the dining car.

Each table was neatly set with a bright, linen table cloth with burnt-orange leather chairs. Even though every table was occupied, there were still a few empty chairs. Smiling inwardly, I remembered that in Europe you can share public tables with strangers where seating is limited. Scanning the small car for the best place to sit, I found a large table with an elderly gentleman reading the paper.

-- ‘Do you mind if I sit with you?’ I asked in French.
-- ‘Not at all,’ he said with a smile, and slowly inched his newspaper out of my way.

He had a neatly trimmed beard that was graying in all the right places. His finely tailored suit screamed ‘business-exec’, and his sparkly watch flashed money. I guessed banker. Small thin-rimmed glasses perched on his flawless face, hid the smile tucked in the corner of his eyes.

He ordered tea which was served in a loose-leaf tea bag, on real china! DE-luxe!

Behind him sat two men in their thirties, drinking espressos. One kept glancing over at me with interest, perhaps trying to figure out why this jean-sporting-backpack-carrying woman was in first class. Or perhaps, he was just people-watching, too.

The view from my lofty seat revealed acres of newly-budding grape vines on tightly-wound wire frames, stretching for miles. Behind them, as the hills melted into mounts, the vines were replaced by spots of tan and red with brightly colored shutters.

Even further beyond, sharp, rocky cliffs jutted from seemingly nowhere, pointing to the snow-capped peaks above. The flashes of whites, browns, and greens blurred by as I tried to take it all in.

What world is this?

Pulling my thoughts back to the train-car at hand, I continued to look around. The clink of metal spoons stirring coffee, the whirring of the espresso maker brewing sludge, and the gentle voices of distant lands collided to make me swoon with delight. I had to close my eyes to get a grip.

Coming back into focus, my eyes glanced sideways at the petite woman to my right ordering an espresso with a German accent. The couple behind me read the paper-- one engrossed in the financial times, the other skimming cartoons and looking bored.

Mellow, accented voices floated passed, keeping time with the tickety-tac of the train. It was a symphony of indulgences and sensory delights.

“Un autre espresso, S’il vous plait, M’dam,” I ordered from the server walking passed.

... the second act was just beginning.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Labor of Love April 2011 ~ Newsletter

Happy Easter!
This is my most recent newsletter. It's a tad bit late since I've been off frolicking in Europe. Please enjoy. It's mostly my attempt to describe culture shock... ha ha. As I've had lots this month.

But when I think of the culture shock Jesus must have had when He stepped down from heaven, the perplexing emotions I feel, just don't seem that big anymore. Thank you for following me on these grand adventures!
Labor of Love April 2011 ~ Newsletter
If you have trouble reading the link above, try here.

Labor of Love April 2011

Monday, April 18, 2011

A glimpse of Heaven~

One of the last outings together in France, my French Parents and I strapped on hiking boots and packed a sac lunch for a walk in the woods. They live in the Pre-Alps region of south-western France and have the luck of being a ten-minutes-drive from some of the most jaw-dropping, rustic views.

We decided to go on a 10 kilometer hike around one of the mountain peaks, right outside the village of Beauregard (which in French means ‘beautiful view’). It’s a fairly simple trek once you make it up the 400 meter incline!

I had to stop more than once to catch my breath... but once on top, it took my breath away!

This time of year in France is magic.

Spring, in all her glory, bursts on the scene with lime-greened nuanced buds intermingled with emerald boughs and leafy jades. The freshness of her youth, accentuated by the pinks and yellows of bloom, takes you by storm and forces you to gawk in scintillated delight.

The well worn path we trekked took us through peaks and valleys.

The peaks, with rugged, scraggy edges, pushed their stoney teeth skyward in worship. The grass, laced in dandelions and wild violets, bounced back undaunted by our steps. The gentle afternoon light of Spring, back lit the scene, casting purple shadows and white highlights on all it touched -- even us. 

Alone in this valley of dandelioned-dotted paradise we marched on and on -- giggling, snapping pictures left and right, and marveling at God’s astounding artistry!

It was so much more than a breath of fresh air... it was a glimpse of heaven.

Thank God for afternoon walks in the French countryside!

One of my favorite pictures I took that day is this one... my French Mom and I giggled like school girls while catching our silhouettes on film.    -- a very sweet memory.

Une Vie de Reve!

Years ago, I came to France to study a year abroad. The first family to receive me didn’t work out, and by Christmas I was packing my bags to go home. However, the student exchange directors encouraged me to give it a second chance. They told me about a kind couple who lived in the South. Would I consider meeting them before hopping on that plane?

Having nothing to lose but a few weeks, I told them I’d give it a chance.

The week I spent with them was a bit tense. I thought they’d be just like the first family (who considered me a nanny/house help), but they surprised me.

The couple was also a bit leery; they were so disappointed in their first exchange student. Later they would tell me that they were looking at me in suspicion, as well. Would I rebel or cause trouble like the last one?

After our allotted week, we had a conversation.
“Do you want to stay?” they asked.
Shrugging my shoulders in teenage nonchalance: “Why not?’” Then a bit more hesitantly, I asked in turn: “Do you want me to stay?”
They looked at each other and nodded.        
            -- I guess it was settled.

At that moment, something clicked inside. We had only 6 months together, but we all fell in love. In that short time, they spoiled me like nobodies business, we traveled extensively all over Europe on my school breaks, and I continued my studies.

That was 17 years ago.

I won’t bore you with the details.... suffice it to know, they are more than friends. They are my ‘French Parents’. I’m never a guest in their home. When I’m with them, it’s family.

So in coming to France for my break, in essence, I was coming home. Sigh.

It has been a whirlwind of AM-AZ-ING food, laughter, reminiscing, and hugs. I cannot tell you how delightful it has been.

In this short week, I’ve gorged myself on ‘all things culture’. We’ve listened to opera practically non-stop while discussing the finer qualities of Verdi, Donazetti, and Puccini.

We visited two fabulous museums and delighted ourselves in modern dance productions, movies, and monuments. We’ve talked of Mozart, Chopin, Chagal and Soulange while nibbling chocolate and sipping espresso. (There is no pretense in France, this is really how they live!)          -- I loved it!

Years of ‘cultural drought’ have brought a ‘renaissance’ of desire. I want to write poetry, sing opera, dance ballet, and paint the walls in yellows and reds!

Oh... and the food! I don’t think I can describe the array of culinary delights without making you all so very jealous, that you refuse to read on! Suffice it to know, I’ve gained a few well deserved kilos... and loved every bite! 

It’s been heaven!

However, one of the finest moments came not in activity but silence. As I sprawled out on the lawn and breathed in the aromas of spring, I could feel the garden yawn beneath me. Stretching out each flower laden branch of pinks and whites, it stirred languidly from its wintery slumber, intoxicating me with scents of honey and wet earth.

Tenderly caressing my skin, the westerly sun lulled me to sleep where I dreamed of nothing-- absolutely nothing. Distant lands of harsh winds and blistering suns, were so far away as to seem unimaginable; my brain strained to remember them.

Unbelievable even to me, my memories seemed foreign. Could there really be a land of spear-carrying giants that spit? Or did I dream it?

Succumbing to my lotus-eating ways, I forgot everything and slept. Divine!


However, my ‘French Dream’ has come to a bleary-eyed end; I rub my eyes and stretch as I slowly wake. Although sad to say goodbye, I’m excited for what’s to come.

Today, I’m off to Switzerland. During this last half of my trip, I’ll be able to catch up with family and friends in the land of chocolate and cheese!     --Woohoo!

Who knows, I might even get to see the Matterhorn this time.

A girl can hope, right?

Baffling Silence.

For those who are part of my newsletter list or friends on Facebook, my silence has not come as a surprise. However, for those who only know me by this blog, my silence must have been a bit baffling. Sorry for that.

I’m new to blogging. I wasn’t aware of what my silence would do to my faithful readers. I get that now. Please forgive my blunder and let me explain.

The work I do in Sudan is taxing. It is 24/7 of unrelenting pouring out. In wisdom and concern, my directors told me before coming, I’d need to leave Sudan every 3 to 4 months for a little R&R.

After 12 years of living and working in Sudan, they knew that taking a break would help me maintain perspective. At first, I thought it was a bit excessive, but now I see the wisdom of it all.

Living in the Sticks doesn’t facilitate a weekend away. In order to get the needed rest, I have to fly to Kenya (our base country). But since there is only one flight in and out each month, I often have to leave for a month at a time.

My first R&R was last September. I spent my time getting used to my new setting and meeting other missionaries in the area. It was refreshing but VERY expensive.

When I complain to my Kenyan friends that Nairobi is expensive, they often try to disagree with me. For Kenyans Nairobi is pricy but not exorbitant, but for Mozungus, it’s outrageous.

Perhaps my reference points were all twisted during my time in the Philippines (where you can eat a meal for 50 cents), but I find Kenya to be a tourist trap of outrageous price-gorging and luxury.


So, as my second R&R approached, I felt conflicted. I knew I needed to rest --- my brain was fuzzy with fatigue-- but I also dreaded the idea of spending so much money in Kenya’s capital.

Sharing my dilemma with friends in Europe, they instantly suggested I come to spend my time with them.

At first I laughed. There would be no way I could go to Europe for cheaper than staying in Kenya. But when I looked into it, I was surprised to find out I could.

That is how I’ve found my way to Europe.

As I sit in this chilly cafe, techno music drowning out the espresso machine, I can’t tell you how far away Africa feels.

Was it all a dream to which I’ve woken with a start?

As I shake off the sleepy confusion of these crowded few weeks in Europe, I find myself trapped in a mire of culture shock. Sigh.

I’ve never felt more disoriented. I’ve never felt more unnatural. I’ve never felt more at home.

An illegal alien, but one adept in dissimulation and mimicry, I’ve slipped into my European cloak. No one suspects me for the intruder I am.

Here, I’m not a Mozungu. Here, no one calls me Kowaja. Here I’m a faceless number in the crowd-- a short smile that passes by in scarf and jeans, unworthy of note.

It has been a time of forgetfulness and escape. I’ve lost myself in this crowd. It’s been oddly comforting.

Thank you for praying for me to have this restful break. Thank you for making this trip possible. Thank you for loving me so well and caring for me so dearly. I’m unwinding... but there are still a few persistent knots.

Please pray with me as I slowly unravel them. They are tricky knots soaked in tears and confusion. Please also pray for my personal Bible study time, it’s more of a chore then ever to read His precious words. Pray I can take my knots to Him and find rest. Thanks.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Man in Green.

Sudanese pipe commonly smoked in the region.
Last week, as the day of my departure approached, I felt an increasing pressure to find souvenirs for family and friends. For over a month, I had tried to purchase Sudanese spears for my nephew, but in true African style, it was always put off for another day.

As the end of my final week approached, I found myself transformed into a broken record --obnoxious even to myself. Nagging is not an effective means of producing results in any language, but I didn’t see any other choice. I wanted so much to have gifts to give.

Unfortunately, no one was able to produce the spears I so dearly desired. It seems that nothing is made in Sudan that isn’t used. Every time I offered a man money for his spears, he’d politely refuse by asking: “What will I hunt with if I sell them?” Sigh.
Raw tobacco.

However, in that short time, I was able to track down a few hand-carved pipes. (I have several friends that smoke, and thought they’d enjoy this unique treasure.) I was also able to obtain a few tobacco pots --gourds hollowed out with a cork as a lid-- to go with them.

Buying the tobacco, however, was a bit more complicated.

Maguak, one of our clinic guards, agreed to be my translator and bodyguard while I ventured out the compound gates for a quick shopping spree. There were only four things on my list: spears, cloth, beads, and tobacco.

Simple, right?         -- not always.

Gourd, pipe and tobacco.
The first market didn’t have anything I needed. Its limited stock carried only the cheap imported items. The Arabs, that left right before the referendum in January, had not returned. The venders that remained no longer carried the black and white Dinka beads or the colorful cloths, but they had plastic wrist watches for my shopping pleasure. How would I like a shiny new nail clipper or perhaps some shoes?         -- Humm.... not today. 

It was quickly apparent there was nothing I needed at this market, so we moved to the second one. Walking past mud huts bustling with activity, Maguak fielded questions from friends. He kept telling everyone I was his sister. No one believed him, but I think that was code for, ‘she’s not my girlfriend but don’t get fresh.’

The second market was were I’d find good tobacco, he assured me.

As we walked there, more than one drunk stumbled passed us. After the third one, it finally occurred to me why. It was the last day of the month-- payday for the soldiers. When pockets jingle with coins, it’s not long before bellies belch with beer.

Fortunately, it was still early enough not to be too bad... but they still found me.

Maguak, standing at an easy 6’5”, reminded me of a tree trunk as I hid behind him. Stretching out his arms like branches to encompass the two drunken, old men pressing in for a closer look, he spoke to them in a soft but determined voice. No, they couldn’t play with the Kowaja. All of the sudden, hands groped blindly behind the tree trunk, and I moved.

It was harmless teasing-- they just wanted to frighten me a bit. I’m told they like to scare the foreigners for laughs.

However, these men were disappointed twice. Maguak didn’t let them get close enough to do any real harm, and I didn’t respond to their antics.

Ignoring them completely, I walked off to the tobacco stalls just up the road. They called after me, and one even hustled passed me to stand in my path and greet me properly. (I think it was his way of apologizing.)

I pretended he wasn’t there and refused to shake his hand. He laughed good-naturedly at my composure and moved on. I’d somehow passed the test, I think.

Approaching the tobacco sellers, Maguak directed me to the one in the middle. His wares were no different than all his buddies. They all sold strong-smelling chewing tobacco tied in small plastic bags and crumbly chunks of pipe tobacco stacked in a pile.

It reminded me more of cow dung than tobacco, but then again... I wasn’t going to smoke it!

Images of me getting nicked by the airport security for trafficking drugs flashed through my head. How would I explain it’s just some mashed, fermented leaves from the sticks of Sudan? Would they believe me? Do drug sniffing dogs know the difference? I hope so.

Picking out my favorite chunks of cow dung, I paid with three, crumpled, Sudanese pounds that I pulled from my bra. Then I shook hands with the vendor, who smiled timidly at all the attention. Believe me, a Kowaja buying tobacco draws a crowd. Why 20 people needed to press in close to watch the exchange, baffles me, but it no longer surprises me.

After an hour of wandering the brick-red, dusty streets, I had only succeeded in finding one item on my list.

Determined to help me find beads, Maguak even tried to buy some off one woman’s neck. But the minute she understood they were for me, she wanted to charge an outrageous sum. Instantly offended, Maguak refused to even negotiate with her. He turned and walked away without a word.

When he told me the price, I laughed in disbelief. Fifty US dollars for three strands of plastic beads, is a bit excessive in my book, too.

However, as we walked on, we crossed paths with two men in their late 50s. One wore a dark green Jalibia (a one piece man-dress) and had a thick salt and pepper beard. He was of evident wealth, carrying both a spear and shield.

His friend, lean and wispy, wore white. Around his neck flowed colorful beads and when he laughed his whole body fluttered, reminiscent of a thin tree overcome by the southern winds. He laughed often, as I recall.

I told Maguak that I’d be interested in buying his shield. Did he think he’d be willing to sell it? Maguak stopped, turned about-face, and signaled for the man to return. I don’t know what was said, but the Man in Green seemed offended at the idea, and started to walk off.

So, I asked Maguak to translate for me: “Please tell him that I’m sorry I offended him for suggesting he sell me his prized shield.” At the translation of it, he squared his shoulders forward and looked at me straight on, contemplating this stranger before him.

“I only dared ask you to sell it because I have no gifts to give my father,” I explained. “I would love to have a shield to offer him.” He softened at my words and smiled back at me.

The well used shield hung from his shoulder by a strap of cotton twine. Taking it off, he explained that the hand piece was broken, but if I wanted it badly enough, we could discuss a price.

Thrilled beyond words, I informed Maguak to give him an offer of 40 pounds. Surprised at such a generous offer, he refused, sure he could get it for less. I let him do his thing, but trying to look disinterested was hard.
Maguak, my translator and the shield I purchased.
I’ve wanted a shield for months.

Last fall, I saw a man carrying a shield at the cow festival. It was so unusual, I ask him what it was. He allowed me to hold it and then displayed his fighting prowess by simulating a mock battle with one of his friends.

His friend danced toward him with a spear while he expertly blocked each blow. Plus, the Dinka shield is MUCH more than just a shield. It doubles as chair and pillow, depending on the need.

Oblong and tubular, it looks more like a giant, wooden cigar covered in cow hide. It’s feather-light, with a small handle on the backside which allows for easy maneuvering. It was the handle that was broken, then re-enforced with a inch wide strip of cloth.

Maguak got him down to 25 pounds, but he didn’t haggle long. I’m sure it was a high price, but I would have happily paid twice that.

As I fished out the money in my bra, I turned my back to them for privacy. This produced hearty laughs among the men. Why was I hiding my breasts? It’s not a secret that I have them... ha ha. It reminded me of my western-prudishness, and I joined them in the joke. Nevertheless, I had no intention of showing them anything.

After counting out the price in sweat-soaked bills and handing them over, I reached for my new treasure. Just before handing it over, the Man in Green hesitated. Smiling kindly, he lifted up the shield and spit on it.

I laughed happily, recognizing this as a blessing it was meant to be. (Yes, in Sudan, you spit on people and things as a blessing!) We jovially shook hands and I turned to go my way.

But then all of a sudden, the Friend in White asked to see it, as well. Not to be out done, he spit on it too, and then shook my hand enthusiastically. We all laughed.

Blessings upon blessings!

Walking away, it finally dawned on me: I’m not in the States anymore. I might not even be on earth. This raw and rugged land is run by towering men in charcoal suits. They laugh and grope. They spit and bless.

Is my life for real?

In the end, I was able to acquire more blisters than souvenirs, but I loved every minute of it. I only wish that I had thought to bring my camera.... next time!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Circumcision & Tradition

Recently, we had a score of botched circumcisions to fix at the clinic. Men old and young were limping in for help. I’m not sure what started it all, perhaps a traveling circumciser was passing through town, and the deal was too good to pass up. All I know is, you get what you pay for.

These guys paid in pain.

I happened to be passing by when Dennis was working hard to fix one of them-- A two year old in a tremendous amount of pain, was screaming and flailing about. I asked what was wrong, and they explained his circumcision had not worked. Apparently, his family decided to tie off the foreskin instead of cutting it. The precipice became swollen and could no longer retract. It was ugly.


The boy was so small, we had to carefully calculate the dose of sedatives we gave him. But after the first dose, he continued to wrestle and fight. Sedating him twice worked like a charm. His mother held his shoulders and two adult men held his legs, until the medicine took effect. Then he slept through the procedure.

Poor thing. He probably had no idea what was happening.

As Dennis snipped and sutured, a conversation flowed easily around the room. Circumcision is a hot topic among African males, I’ve determined.

How and when it is done differs drastically depending on the culture. Tradition plays a strong role; men don’t have a choice. It is made for them my the social mores and traditions of their clan.

-- “Wow, that looks painful,” I said, trying to muster more indignation than I really felt. I asked Dennis to explain how he was going to fix the enlarged and swollen glans.

-- “It’s not hard, we just have to snip here,” he said while indicating the anterior flop of foreskin, “Then it’ll expand, allowing the glans to slip back into place.”

Honestly, as I watched him work I was impressed at how quickly things improved.

Manual, one of the translators, asked me if men are circumcised in the States.
-- “Yes, but it’s commonly done when the child is very young. It’s rare to have a man do it later in life.” I added with more conviction then I felt.

An interloper and fraud, what right did I have to talk of foreskins? What do know about circumcision trends in the US?

But did it stop me? No.
Dennis, our Kenyan clinic officer, explained that in Kenya, it’s commonly done at 15 years old or later. He explained that a man MUST be cut or he isn’t a man. It’s a rite of passage. “They even invite women to come and watch,” he added, “because that way the men cannot cry.”

Cruel but effective, if you ask me.

Both Manual and Gabriel, two of our Sudanese translators, explained that it’s normally done in the early teens in Sudan. It’s done without anesthesia, and is, also, for all the world to see.

-- “So, is every Dinka circumcised?” I asked them.
-- “No. Some regions of Southern Sudan don’t do it.” explained Manual. “But men have to do it here,” he added, “If not, the women will think they are funny and won’t have sex with them.”
-- “Oh....” I nodded as if I understood.

Easy laughter rose from the room. This was a topic worthy of discussion. It was no more private than asking the football scores of a recent game.

Laughing, Gabriel continued: “Here if a man is a guest in the house and uses your basin to wash in, and you see he is not circumcised, the basin becomes defiled and you must break it into little pieces immediately after he’s finished.”

Manual agreed but added: “But if you go to Rumbek (a town 5 hrs drive away where it’s also predominantly Dinka), if a man is circumcised, they will tease him and call him names. They may even chase him from town.”

Surprised that it’s not culturally across the board for the Dinka, I asked them to elaborate.  Basically, he who is cut is laughed at by he who isn’t and vis-versa.

“What about the women?” I ask, trying not to sound too interested.

“Oh, some women get circumcised around here, if they are Arabic. Dinka women do not,” Manual said confidently, “We don’t do that.” 

I thought so... but it was good to hear all the same, especially from this very Sudanese man.

Later on, I asked Sabet and one of our Ugandan workers about it. Sabet agreed with what Manual and Gabriel said. It varies widely here in the South.

But Abraham, a Ugandan pastor working on staff, surprised me the most. He explained: “A man doesn’t have a choice in Uganda. It’s done publicly. Plus, if they see a man has not been circumcised, they will do it for him by force.” My eyes widen at the thought of 10 men holding another down and going at his jewels with a knife. It sounded barbaric.

Laughingly he added: “And they don’t care how old you are. They’ll even do it once your dead.”

I have to admit, I have a hard time imagining a corpse getting trimmed about the edges in order to be worthy of burial... but who am I to comment?

Tradition. Tradition is a powerful thing. And circumcision... well, that’s not as private a thing as I once believed.

By the way, the little boy got his proper snip and stitch, and left in a lot less pain than he arrived. I’m sure in time, he’ll make sure his boys are snipped and stitched as well.

It’s tradition! 

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Making Friends.

Kids in Tonj, before taking off. I didn't take Ajon's picture.
Friday I woke up early to get everything ready for my flight. There was no risk of missing it, since I was one of only two passengers, but I was ready to go. Mentally ready. “Get me on that plane now!” kind of ready. Ready-ready!

I’m not sure if it’s been the heat, the fatigue, or just a deep desire to get a bit of perspective, but I knew the only way that’d happen...  was hopping on that plane.

I was ready. 

The small 4-seater looked solid enough; nevertheless, I watched in satisfaction as the pilot meticulously checked every latch and flap. If we were going up, we needed to stay up. Right?

Our first stop was Akot, a small village in Southern Sudan, for fuel. This required someone driving up from the local hospital to unlock the container where dozens of barrel drums baked in the heat. Next, one of the Texaco-stamped drums was tipped on its side with a clank, then pushed out the door.  Mud and dirt collected, as it was rolled over to the plane.

By now a dozen or so locals gathered to watch the ‘action’. What they could find of interest still bewilders me, since this must be a regular sight by now. But without fail, they come to greet us and watch the show. We are unwitting actors in some WAY off-Broadway production piece.

One of the crowd happened to be a little girl wearing a gauzlin cloth around her waist as a skirt and a well-worn, pink top. She was beautiful. Discrete dimples framed her smile, catching my eye every time I looked her way.

She was the older sister (I think) to the chocolate waif with the bloated belly. He, too, had the familial dimples, but one was masked by a large sore on his cheek. He watched intently as we hand-pumped the sea-green liquid, first in one wing and then in the other.

Tan, plastic, sandals on his feet, and a strand of sturdy beads about his neck and ankle, served to accent his chocolate-covered nakedness all the more.

As we smiled at one another, a flash of bright, wet, pink poked out of his mouth every few seconds to play with the sore on his cheek. In stark contrast to the solid, chocolate-colored canvas of his face, it mesmerized me. I found myself counting the times it poked out, studying the sore.

This imp was all boy. Adorable.

Older ones gathered, as well, to practice their English with the Kowaja. They were happy to hear me mutter my Dinka phrases, and laughed at my thick accent.

At one point, I turned to find my dimpled shadow standing to my right. She had to crank her neck to look up into my face, but she didn’t seem to mind.

What she saw I can only imagine.
    -- A pale, flightless, bird with hair instead of feathers and a funny accented song.

I’m so accustom to their barefoot, beaded ways, I forget I’m the exotic bird -- not them!

As we stood staring at one another’s plumage, the girl at my side again smiled. I decided to test out the ways I see others make friends on her; I took her hand.

Uncomfortable at first, as it made a scene, she stood awkwardly, not sure what to do. Why was the Kowaja holding her hand? As understanding dawned, she relaxed.

Only friends -- good friends at that-- hold hands. I was basically telling her that I wanted to be friends.

A few minutes later, I was needed elsewhere so I dropped her hand, thinking nothing of it. But, my dimpled shadow followed me.

Squaring her shoulders and looking at me straight on, she told me in no uncertain terms she had something to say. (This is the Dinka way of addressing a person respectfully.) The protocol is to wait until acknowledged, however long that might be.

Once I recognized she was addressing me, I nodded for her to speak, and even bent in half to hear her better.

Smiling, she whispered in Dinka: “Jabber Jabber Jabber Friend. Jabber Jabber.” (Okay my Dinka needs lots of help!) Even though, I didn’t understand the sentence, I totally understood the intent. She was asking me to be her friend.

My heart melted as I took her hand in mine to do the extensive ‘Friend Greeting’ which requires repeating ad infinitim the words ‘Friend. Friend. Friend. Friend....” while repetitiously shaking hands. The longer you do this, the closer you are.

After greeting my new friend, we had a little conversation. It went like this...
-- Call yourself what? (aka: What’s your name?)
-- Me call Ajon. (aka: My name is Ajon.)
-- How did you rise, Ajon? Me call Akuac. (Good morning, Ajon. My name is Black & White spotted cow with even horns.)
-- Age how many? (aka: How old are you?)
-- Ten.

As we talked I couldn’t help but smile. It’s been AGES since someone asked to be my friend. I think the last time was when I was ten!

Why don’t we do that anymore? Why can’t we go up to strangers or semi-strangers and ask, “Jabber Jabber Friend?”

I miss those days.

A few minutes later, I had to board the plane and wave goodbye to my new friend. She watched us start the engines, and even bounced a bit in excitement when we taxied down the dirt runway. Waving goodbye was sweet. I wonder if I’ll see her again....

The rest of the flight and connections went without incident.

I wish everyday I could meet a friend like Ajon. I wish we all could be ten again, and make friends while fueling our planes...

Will you be my friend?

Twins: Waiting to push?

Mary was expecting twins. We were able to confirm it a few months back with two little heads, two different heartbeats and a mega-large fundal height. Not having an ultrasound machine, we were as confident as we could be that there were two... but I’m never one-hundred percent certain.

Since her estimated due date was in May, I was a bit concerned when she came in this week. Her belly was large, but if we were right on the EDD, then she was preterm.

However when I did the vaginal exam, it was too late to stop contractions (not that we have the medicines for that anyway, ha ha!). She was 9 cm and stretchy. The babies were happy. Both appeared to be cephalic (head down), but then again... I wasn’t positive.

Since their heads were small (another sign of prematurity), I informed the rest of the staff we had a possible preterm twin delivery on our hands that could go any minute.

Setting up the room, I sent my translator to send all my prenatal ladies home. Mary was the second labor to arrive in less than an hour that particular morning; Margaret and I were maxed out.

The preggos understood immediately, and wished us luck for the births. So sweet.

As, Mary walked about the clinic, I prayed. I wasn’t feeling the stress of twins like I did last year. I felt at ease. Monitoring them regularly, I tried to stay as ‘hands off’ as possible.

After about an hour, Mary started pushing. She wasn’t doing it very well; it looked strained and artificial. So, I asked her if she had an urge to push at all. She didn’t. So, I asked her to push only when she had an urge.         -- ha ha. But that time never came.

One hour flowed into two. Two hours flowed in to four. By four hours, I was nervous. What was wrong? Was there some kind of compound presentation? Could they be interlocked? Why hadn’t she delivered yet?

I did another vaginal exam.

She was fully with the head at a +2 station, so I encouraged her to push. Pushing should have been simple. It should have been straight forward and quick, but it wasn’t. She pushed externally but couldn’t figure out how to do so internally.

It was odd.

Could it be possible she didn’t know how? I tried to instruct her how to push, but she categorically refused. Round and round we went. I explained how to push and why. She would pretend to push then give up.

Mind you it had been close to 5 hours since she arrive. It had been at least four hours since she was fully. The babies where small; her pelvis was more than adequate. All she had to do was push, and the birth would be over.

But instead, she delayed.

Why she preferred the hours of contractions to pushing, is still a mystery to me.

Begging her to push, I explained that I needed to make sure there wasn’t a major problem, but she ignored me. I was racing the clock.

As I watched the sun settle lower on the horizon, I honestly worried. What if something was seriously wrong, and I couldn’t get her to Wau in time.

Nervous. Uneasy. Confused.

Tired of begging fruitlessly, I left the room in frustration. I needed a minute alone to pray. Was there an emergency, Lord? Or was I just being impatient?

Did we have a “labor problem” or a “midwife problem”? Which was it?

Another hour went by.

Finally, I had had enough. If she was still unwilling to push, then she needed to go to Wau. Only then did she get serious. I hated having to threaten her with Wau, but I was genuinely concerned. I told her that she had the option of pushing, letting me use the vacuum extractor, or going to Wau.

Unwilling to push, or go to Wau. She chose the vacuum.

Surprised she’d choose the vacuum over pushing, I didn’t argue. Instead, I did another vaginal exam. Not only was she fully, but the head was at a +4 station. All she had to do was push once or twice and her babies would be born.

“Won’t you just push once, Mary?” I asked pleadingly.
“No. I don’t want to,” she said and stiffly lay down on the bed.

Grudgingly, I put the vacuum in place. I didn’t want to use it. I wanted her to push. But... that wasn’t going to happen.

The next contraction, I pulled. She pretended to push. The baby was born!

Mary screamed uncontrollably as the baby emerged. Strange. She continued to scream long after the baby was out. Bizarre.

Her precious little girl screamed with her, as I wiped her down. She was perfect... and term. (I guess we were wrong on the due dates! ha.) It was so easy... so simple. Sigh. 

We waited a few minutes, then double clamped the cord. One baby down. One baby to go.

I ruptured the second baby’s membranes, and fluid slowly leaked out. Reaching in to guide things along, I was expecting a head, but got a sweet, little buttock instead.

Mary continued to push, a bit more effectively this time, but screamed once again. One boney butt emerged, followed by belly and then arms. Then the head slipped out with ease.

They were born 10 minutes apart.

Once the placenta was born, it was pretty obvious that they were identical. Even though they had separate placentas (two distinct sets of cotyledons), they shared a chorion. (But I don’t think they shared the amnion.)

Plus, they weighed almost the same. The first was 2.1 kg while the second was 2 kg, exactly.

Afterward, we had a nice time hugging on the babies. There was laughter and joy as the family gathered around to celebrate these two perfect little ladies.

It was so great... once she pushed. Ha!

Placenta Pictures:
For those of you out there that love this sort of thing... and yes, I know you are out there! I cannot be the only one. Here is her placenta. Cool huh?!

Funny side note:
Afterward, we took tons of pictures. In almost all of them, Mary was shirtless. I tried getting pictures that were more discrete (for this blog), but it was an exercise in futility. Toplessness is not shameful here.

At one point, I instructed my translator to have her hold the baby up higher, so as to hide her breasts. He cocked his head to the side and asked why.
-- “Well. In America, it’s not proper to show a woman’s breasts.”
-- “Don’t the men in America know what breasts look like?” he asked innocently.
-- “Yes. I know it’s silly to you, but the men in America ... well, it’s just best not to show them.”
-- “Okay,” he laughed, a bit confused. I couldn’t help laughing with him.

Culture. Culture is a powerful thing.

And perhaps there are too few men reading this blog to care if breasts are in every photo, but out of respect for you all with Western cultural backgrounds, I don't. I hope you realized how hard it is to get a ‘decent picture’ around here. Ha Ha!

I don’t know what is attractive to Dinka men, but it’s certainly not breasts.

Oh Sudan!