Feel Like It’s All On You? Thoughts From Madagascar. 

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 know.”

“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. 

Life In the Restoration Business

Did I tell you guys I’m leaving for Africa in ten days? Well technically, I’m leaving for Madagascar – the island nation off the southeast side of the continent, near Mozambique. We’re leading a team of 10 to the Africa Mercy. They’ll stay for years, I’ll be back at the end of March.

Here’s what Madagascar looks like through the lens of our amazing ship photographer Ruben Plomp.

Reuben 2

I know. Torture. Right? Photo Credit: Ruben Plomp

As some of you know, I work for Mercy Ships an organization that runs the largest, non-governmental hospital ship in the world. Since last fall, the ship has been docked in Madagascar providing free surgeries – orthopedics, cleft palate, fistula repair and tumor removal – for people who lack access to such care. We’re in the restoration business and here’s just one of the amazing stories that came off the ship last week.

tumorCan you imagine the shame and rejection that comes with being a little boy with a huge cyst? Zakael can.

A few weeks ago, a guy named Mr. Sambany came to us with a 16 lb. tumor on his head and neck that he’d carried for almost 20 years. He walked three days to get to the ship. While our surgeons reviewed with him the dangers of removing such a large tumor, Mr. Sambany said he knew he might die, but he was already a “dead man” for the way he is treated.

Here he is post surgery.

Sambany We’re in the restoration business.

The surgeons, nurses, cooks, physical therapists, engineers, teachers who work on the ship are not just volunteers, they actually pay Mercy Ships to donate their time and skills. Most ask their communities for financial support to do it. What’s cool about that is, you can stay home and support someone working in Madagascar.  You can bring hope and healing to Mr. Sambany and Zakael from Kansas.

But when Christmas day looks like this in Madagascar, why would you stay in Kansas? If you want to help us in person. You can do that too.

reuben's Christmas

Crew in Santa hats! Photo Credit: Ruben Plomp

But if you decide to volunteer on the Africa Mercy long term, ten months or more, you get to come to Texas first for training.

And that’s where you will run into me.

They call me The Meddler.

They call me The Meddler.

Because it’s hardly just people with tumors and burns and birth defects that need hope and healing. There is so much broken in all of us, and where else in your life does anybody look you in the face and say:

“Do you realize your mouth is working against you?”

“Are you aware that what you heard as a child, contradicts what Jesus says about you?”

“Don’t you know who you are as a child of God? You are beloved, redeemed, precious, alive, whole, seated with Him, hidden in Him.

As a Jesus follower, I’m staking my life on this information, and the result has been radical and interesting. Stay tuned for the next month or so, and I’ll show you what I mean.

In Haiti last July, one of my team members asked what I get out of being away from Sam so much and traveling to hot, hard, sometimes dirty places with Christians who are in one moment really holy and in another totally freaking out.

“I get to watch God change your lives,” I said. I get to be in the restoration business too.