Sunday, May 1, 2011

Deported?

Awad, one of our beloved staff in fatigues.
The flight home was a bit like stepping through the looking glass. I had to keep telling myself, “You are in Switzerland. And now you are in Turkey. And this, my dear Stephanie, is Kenya. You are going home.”

Those who watched me do this mental check at each country must have thought I was nuts. But do I care? No. This is how I handle the changes. This is how I transit through culture shock. Just follow the White Rabbit with the stop-watch! Right?

I know. I know. It’s strange... but it somehow works for me.

However, once semi-settled in Kenya, I realized I didn’t have my Sudanese visa yet, (because one of our staff recently resigned). In the hub-bub, my papers were forgotten or misplaced. The problem was I couldn’t leave without it, and my flight was scheduled early the next morning!

Normally, this sort of thing would have stressed me out to the max. But oddly, I just laughed.

(Here’s the skinny: If I missed my plane, I’d be out a lot of money-- non refundable tickets and all. If I landed in Sudan with no visa, I might be deported, then I’d be out three times the amount of money. Why? Well, I’d have to pay my return ticket... then another flight again later this week when I have the right documentation.)

In a mad flash of texts and long-distant calls, my directors were able to procure the visa I needed in Tonj. The plan was to bring said documents to Rumbek and hand them over when I landed.

But when I arrived at the airport in Kenya the next morning, the flight company wouldn’t let me on the flight. Yep. They didn’t want to risk having issues with the government. But when I pushed them further, it came down to money.         -- lots of things do in Africa.

Plainly put, if they allowed me on the plane and I was deported, they might have to bare the cost. They needed some assurance, I’d pay my plane fare back.

Oh.

Frankly, the idea hadn’t occurred to me. In my mind I thought, 'Of course, I’d be responsible for paying my flight back. It would be my fault and I’m the one taking the flight. Duh!'

When I told the airline employee this, he just looked at me warily under half-slit eye lids. Had he heard this story before?

He wanted me to call my director so he could then present my visa to his director who would then call him, and confirm I could get on the plane. Simple right?         -- Ha ha... only to Kenyans.
There were just a few obstacles to this plan.

One: it was 6:30 am and my director was sound asleep. Two: my director lives more than three hours away from the airport. Three: my plane was to leave in an hour and a half.

I told him I’d be willing to make the call, but couldn’t there be a simpler way?
-- “What if you gave me a blank piece of paper where I write a ‘promise-to-pay’ statement and sign it? You could then sign it, too, as a witness. It would state that I am responsible to pay for my plane ticket back, in the off chance I’m deported. Would that work?” I proposed.

I could see the cogs in his brain slowly turning. This was obviously not how things are done in this country. But did I know that?

Standing there in jeans and a bright red hoody, my sleepy no-make-uped-self smiled with that dogged American optimism (or naive ignorance -- not sure which). I’m guessing he didn’t know what to think of my plan. Perhaps he was trying to decide if I had the funds in my bank account. I certainly wasn’t giving him much proof that I did!

Slow, eager seconds ticked by while he sat there looking at his papers-- probably thinking worst case scenarios in his head.

But honestly, what was the worst thing that could happen? I could miss my flight and the frozen dog food I was hoofing in for the compound mascot would melt? Oh... and the fact, I’d be out hundreds of dollars? That too.

(Yes, flights into Sudan cost the ‘peau de fess’ as the French like to say. There is no easy translation for that.... It literally means it would cost ‘butt skin’. Sounds better in French. Right? Ha ha.)

After taking a few long seconds to pause.... dramatic drum roll please..... he gave me a piece of paper and I wrote a very official sounding paragraph promising to pay for all expenses if deported.

I, Stephanie Williams, promise to incur all financial responsibility for any flights..... yada yada.

After reading it, he smiled wryly and gave a slight nod of approval. He wasn’t convinced they would let me off the plane in Sudan... but at least this way he wouldn’t get in trouble with his boss.

(Mental Note: When flying to Sudan, dress better so you don’t have to write a financial promise-to-pay statement at the airport. Better yet, get a visa on time!)

Boarding the plane an hour or so later, I was given a small paper bag with my ‘in flight meal’ of unsalted peanuts and a bottle of water. Oh... and don’t forget the peppermint candy tucked in the bottom!

There were about a dozen passengers, most of which deplaned in Loki, our first stop. Loki is the Northern-most city in Kenya. It’s a dusty stretch of land tucked in between a few mountain ranges. Not much can be said of it, really.

It’s home, however, to a handful of NGOs with large warehouses near the landing strip, a few mud huts, and one overpriced concession stand.

Since we were running late, the lay-over there wasn’t long. The second leg of my flight would take me to Rumbek where I planned to meet my director.... and my visa.

Climbing back on board, I found a seat quickly, and waited for the rest of the passengers. Two other heavy set men boarded with me and made their way to the very back. One was talking loudly on his cell phone.              --Annoying.

But then, the pilots boarded and closed the plane door. Huh? There were only three passengers on this leg?

The pilot (who doubled as a flight attendant) asked the loud Kenyan on his phone to hang up because ANY form of frequency would interfere with the flight. Somehow I believed him. We couldn’t leave until he hung up. He had to ask three times before acknowledged, and then a fourth time, before he actually obeyed.

Looking around I was a bit taken aback by the plane. Empty. Old. Dirty. Packed with boxes marked ‘unattended’ where people should be sitting. This is not your typical commercial flight.

Plus, my outside window pane was chipped in numerous places; I imagined it shattering causing this metal bird to plummet to a crinkly, mangled death. Tragic. At least there would be only 5 reported deaths... the two pilots, me, Mr. Cell Phone and his friend. Would we be missed?

Laughing at my overactive brain, I finished off my peanuts and tried to sleep.

Once we landed, they searched my bags (definitely a first in Sudan), and asked for my paperwork. Fortunately my director, Sabet (who is referred to by his wife Suzy as ‘the King of Rumbek’) met me with the right papers.
A view of Rumbek from behind.
He argued on my behalf, and I quietly left to wait in the truck with Albino and Awad (pronounced OW-wad) --two of my favorite staff members. (They had come because we needed to pick up groceries for the compound on the way home.)

Awad greeted me in his fancy blue military fatigues. He even proudly pointed out his new AK47 resting haphazardly in the back of the truck. It seems like every time I see him these days, he’s decked out in some new military outfit. 

After all the proper hellos and handshakes, I asked them how things had been lately at the clinic. Awad, always the talker said: “Oh, so busy. Busy-busy. You know, the pregnants is waiting for you. You will see, on Monday there will be sixty coming to see you!”
-- “Sixty! How will I see so many?” I laughed to hide my apprehension. (I was sure he was right. They told me they’d be waiting for me.)
-- “Yes, the clinic so busy. Margaret so tired. Everyday many many patients. So many. You will see. The women they say, ‘Go to this clinic. There is no cost. You can have free medicine. You can deliver no cost. That is why they come from East Tonj... they even come from Thiet.”

As he spoke, I realized I was walking back into the craziest season of my time here. (I don’t know if I should be afraid or excited.)

Not long afterward, my director Sabet joined us in the truck. The customs officers wanted me to pay a large sum for not having the right papers, but The King of Rumbek talked his way out of it.  New papers will be arranged this week, but fortunately... I won’t be deported.

At least not this time.

So thank you all for praying for my time off, and for my flights home. I’m back enjoying the hot humid afternoon rains.

But please pray for the clinic and staff. There is more work than ever. Pray for laborers. Pray for midwives. Pray for nurses. Pray for doctors. Pray for missions-minded hearts to serve... starting with me.

I’m also told we are going to be desperately short-staffed this summer as our Kenyan staff takes their much-deserved breaks. Please pray that I would not be overcome by all the need, or spread myself too thin. I don’t want to burn out. Pray that I would find rest in Him alone, and that He would be my strength and song. Thanks.