Full-Assed Friday: Missionary Position

The tag line to this blog is adventures in half-assed step parenting. Every Friday I share something that I consider to be Full-Assed. It may be funny, awesome, meaningful, or just different. I take suggestions, so if you have an idea or want to be a part of it, email me at accidentalstepmom at gmail dot com.


September, 2006

New Jersey

CC, the kids, and I have all just moved in together. We don’t know if we’re going to get along, or how we’re going to fit in this small rental, or who is going to watch the kids when we go to work at night.

CC, being the friendly person that he is, sees a new neighbor outside and starts talking to him.

Turns out this neighbor is a Christian missionary to Zimbabwe, who, along with his wife and four daughters has just returned to spend a year in New Jersey . Not only do they live next door to us, but the eldest daughter is looking for child care work while she is applying for teaching positions.

I swear, I’m not making this up.

They weren’t the new neighbors, we were; they’d lived in that house for many years- just not all in a row.

This family saved our family. I’m not just speaking of lofty goals of moral fortitude and keeping us from eternal damnation, I mean they saved our asses. These are people who understood exactly how difficult and complicated our lives had suddenly become, and helped us. All of us.

If more people had the love, good intentions, and right actions that these folks have, we’d be living in a different world. I look up to them and am so grateful for them all. They’re my heroes.

This week’s installment of Full-Assed Friday is a chat with Lindsey, the eldest daughter, who was our main babysitter that first tumultuous year. From her I learned to use the phrase try to be a better listener,  how to teach a kid that she’s choosing her own consequences by the behavior she chooses, and how to laugh a little more.

Lindsey was kind enough to come into the familiar chaos of our home and talk to me about growing up a missionary kid in Zimbabwe. Her story is fascinating and she’s passionate about where she grew up, so I’m splitting our talk into a two-parter. We’ll hear from her next Friday too.

When did your parents become missionaries?

In 1984, when I was two. My dad’s parents- my grandparents- were pioneer missionaries in the Zambezi valley– they made bricks out of mud, built their own roads, hunted for their food, that kind of thing. During that time the country was known as Southern Rhodesia, then several other incarnations (Rhodesia, Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, and finally Zimbabwe) up to the civil war. When my dad was a teenager, he helped unload wounded men from helipcopters and carry them to the hospital during the civil war.

My grandparents had every experience imaginable.

The kitchen was a separate hut from their living quarters:

Typical Kitchen Hut

Once they encountered a lion the in the kitchen.

Another time, during the civil war, my grandma and grandpa were separated by an armed band of eight guerrillas. My grandma was coming out of the bath and was wearing just her robe when the knock came on their door. When they threatened her, she looked them in the eye and told them she wasn’t afraid.

Once a man crawled twelve miles to reach my grandma in hopes that she could help his festering ulcer. He had been taken to the local witch doctor but the ulcer ate away his flesh all the way to the bone and no one would help him anymore, so he crawled himself out to my grandma all that way to see if she could help.

A little girl had a snakebite that literally disintegrated her flesh until it fell off and only the bone was left. She came to my grandmother for help when no one else could help her.

There was a woman who came to her with an abscessed tooth. My grandma removed the tooth with a pair of pliers while another woman just held her head, no anesthetic, of course. A few days later my grandma got a magazine in the mail from the US- they took about six months to get there- and on the back cover was a picture of a tooth held in a pair of pliers that said “impossible!” They got a good laugh out of that.

Lindsey's Grandma

Did your father spend any time in the States as a boy?

My dad returned to the States every five years. He came back when he was a senior in high school. Having grown up in the strict British Colonial school system, he was horrified to see students with their feet up on the desks, tilting their chairs back. When the teacher entered the room, he stood at attention and called out the very proper, “Good morning, sir!” and everyone looked at him and laughed.

Does your mother have a missionary background?

No. Her father didn’t attend church, but her mother and siblings did, and they went to church regularly. A visiting missionary- not from Africa, but from somewhere else- came to her church when my mom was ten and it was a pivotal moment for her. She decided right then, at age ten, that she wanted to be a missionary in Africa.

She went on a couple dates with my dad in college but then kept turning him down when he asked her out because she had “too much fun with him”. She kept saying, “I’m not here to get my MRS degree!”

Somehow through winning a bet on a football game, my dad ended up with a free steak dinner for two and she couldn’t say no to that. And the rest, they say, is history.

After my mom brought my dad home for dinner to meet her parents while they were just dating, her father said to him, “No daughter of mine is ever going to Africa!” She was mortified. Years later, he did in fact come out to visit them there.

You spoke of the civil war happening when your father was a boy. Can you give a brief synopsis of Zimbabwe’s political history?

Okay, but this is greatly simplified because it’s very complex. Before the Civil War, there were two opposing tribes: the Shona and the Ndebele. They gained independence in 1980. There was a transitional government with a British Prime Minister, which was passed off to a white minority government under Ian Smith. Then at independence there was President Banana. Yes, that’s his actual name. Years later he was accused and convicted of sodomy. Mugabe was Prime Minister with President Banana but later became the president. Everyone was hopeful, and Mugabe seemed to be a true leader of the people.

After all, Zimbabwe is rich with coal, chrome, diamonds, tobacco, not to mention natural beauty that draws tourists like Victoria Falls, and it seemed like things could really turn around.

Victoria Falls

But since then there are accusations that the elections were fixed and Mugabe is said to have massacred 30,000 of the opposition. There is mass corruption and a 90% unemployment rate. When I was last living there, the life expectancy for women was expected to reach 27 years old. Currently the life expectancy is closer to 34. When I was there about 40% of the people were HIV positive, although the current infection rate is closer to 18%. There are few social services because historically it has been the extended family who took care of the orphans, the widows, the elderly. Now that they’re switching to a more urban way of living, there are few services in place to help everything that is falling through the cracks.

Largely it is aid organizations that are holding Zimbabwe together, but in many ways it can be debilitating. Without knowing the cultural dynamics of the country, the best intentions can be misplaced or misdirected. For instance, there was an aid organization with a generous personal donor who gave money for a well, including a pump, for an orphanage in Mozambique. But there’s this understanding there that if you have and we don’t, we take. So a well-intended donation- water for orphans- became a source of community conflict.

Zimbabwe is a very patriarchal society. Women are often viewed as less than second-class citizens and at times are treated as property. Elders are revered in traditional culture. But the economic situation is so bad that I personally have had more than one older man look me in the eye and beg for food for his family. This is something that under normal circumstances would never, never happen- an older man would never ask a young woman for anything. But people are starving. We keep a pretty big vegetable garden, so that we can always have something to give anyone who asks.

Vegetable garden

I remember starting in the 90’s we began having to wait in long lines for fuel. When word got out that a certain petrol station had fuel, they would release us from classes so we could go wait in line. There was a person whose full time job at times was seeking out and waiting for fuel for the missionary vehicles.

Zimbabwe had the highest inflation rate ever of any country not at war. The money was worth less than the paper it was printed on, and so people began trading and bypassing the use of money. Money would literally be blowing around the street and no one would bother to pick it up because it was worthless. Then they went to the US dollar but at first it was hard to translate the value of things. Like, a box of cereal would cost $14 but a candy bar was $22. And this, with an average monthly salary of $40.

Although there are well-educated and successful individuals in Zimbabwe, many of the unemployed people survive on subsistence farming, begging, or theft, because it’s the only way they can survive and feed their families.

We had many break-ins at our house. Ironically, they stole things like my Bible, my contemporary Christian music cassettes, my school uniforms.

Next Friday: Lindsey’s scariest moment in Zimbabwe, wild animal encounters, and works of the mission. Oh, and elephant farts.

photos by David Lagan