People who visit Africa from other places will tell you, Africa has a smell. Certainly Africa has many smells, but when you finally stand on the Tarmac in Brazzaville, Nairobi, or Lusaka, after one million hours in the air, the thing you smell is smoke – charcoal smoke.
It won’t register on your first visit to the continent; the overwhelm is too great. You notice it the second time, when someone turns to you and says, “it smells like Africa,” and you know what they mean.
I’m enjoying that smell afresh tonight, sitting on my bed in Antananarivo, Madagascar, because I’m wearing the same pants I put on five days ago in Texas. I’m the gal who boldly proclaims, while still on the airplane, that certainly all of our team’s 30 checked bags are snug in the cargo hold beneath us. Imagine my happy/sad face when that proved 98% true. One team member suggested I proclaim more specifically in the future. Good note.
So I wear the same thing, and as each day passes I care less and less. My new Malagasy friends do it and it’s actually sort of freeing. When and if my bag does arrive, I suspect it will be like Christmas. Or maybe I won’t care.
When leading a team into a foreign country, even when they are fairly experienced Mercy Shippers, it’s hard not to think its all on me and the other team leader. Because when a question is asked we’re expected to answer it, even if we don’t know, which is usually the case. So we ignore our jet lag and bob and weave like crazy, and in that it’s easy to forget, it’s not all on us.
On our first morning in Madagascar, I sat in the little gazebo on the hill watching the rain soak the flowers, the ducks and the green valley below, and I totally panicked.
I knew Stefan had to leave early to hustle a thousand supplies in the muddy street markets and I’d be left to begin the day, not just with my team but with the 30 Malagasys who showed up to work with us.
And you know people don’t want to admit this, but it’s hard to make new friends, especially as adults, especially in a foreign country with at least four foreign languages, jet lag and 100% humidity. It’s awkward and terrifying and I knew my team and the 30 or so locals would look to me to say something meaningful, unifying, inspiring, motivating and holy to start the day.
“Jesus, help! You know I’m inadequate for this,” I prayed in my gazebo as the school kids ran by giggling and chirping “Bonjour Madame.”
“I don’t know how to lead all these people.”
“Why don’t you just bring them to me and let me lead them?”
“Oh. Ok, that’s a good idea.”
So that morning I quit believing it’s all on me and I laid it all on Him. Five minutes later we were singing together, first in English and then Malagasy, and the rivers of awkward began to run off us. Then someone on my team produced an inflatable globe. One by one we tossed it around, pointing out where we live: Madagascar, The Netherlands, The US, Switzerland, and everybody shared, through a wonderful Malagasy translator, one thing each of us loves.
Malagasys, by the way, love to sing and play music. At this moment, there is a wedding outside my window where they are doing just that.
Maybe this doesn’t sound like a big deal, but for the thousandth time since I came to Mercy Ships I was in over my head, and the God I serve extended his righteous right hand and pulled me out. He promises to do that for anyone who asks, but if we remain hermetically sealed inside a world we can easily handle, we never give him the chance to prove it.
Later today we’ll walk up the hill, through the muddy markets and chaos to Akany Avoko, a home for abandoned, abused and homeless girls. We’re going with our pockets full of fingernail polish.
And maybe we’re not saving the world here in Madagascar, but maybe nobody asked us to. Perhaps God is just asking us to engage the world in a way that’s way over our heads, so we have to keep reaching for him.