Full-Assed Friday: Missionary Position Part 2

For this week’s installment of Full-Assed Friday, we’re back with Lindsey, my former babysitter who grew up a missionary kid in Zimbabwe. To read the first half of our interview, click here.

Baobab tree. Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

What is the main goal of the mission?

Ultimately to spread the gospel of Jesus, but it’s also humanitarian. There’s so much need.

My mom tells the story of when they first came over and were attending a local church. She was insisting that they weren’t going to hire a maid and gardener. Because you know, in the US, that’s a serious luxury, and she was coming from the position of not wanting to spend the money that donors had pledged for the mission on taking care of the home when she was fully capable of doing it herself. But a local man stood up to her and said, “You selfish woman! Do you think they will listen to you when you won’t give them a job?” That was the start of her new perspective.

How much of your childhood did you spend in Zimbabwe?

We first moved there when I was two. I spent the rest of my childhood there except for second grade and ninth grade, plus two other three-month trips. Then I went to college in Ohio.

What was the town like that you grew up in?

First my dad started a church in an area where there were lots of farmers and farm workers. The church was in the Shona language, which he grew up speaking. Because of the immersion, I could speak it too. Later he also started a church in English.

There are two completely different cultures in Zimbabwe. The first place we lived was a small town, and though I wasn’t entirely aware of it at the time, I was the only white kid in my school. I remember everyone always touched my hair. It was the old style British schooling there, but there were gaps in the education that my mom, who was a teacher, would fill in for me afterwards. She was always teaching me things. We stayed there until I was in fourth grade.

Then we moved to the capitol city of Harare. The school was super strict. I got in trouble early on for responding to the teacher once with “what” instead of “pardon me”. Sports were mandatory.

Describe a typical day when you were a kid.

If I were going to use one word to describe my childhood, it would be “idyllic”. The days were long and happy, school was hard work but not a struggle, I made friends easily, we had a yard to play in, we had pets.

Even though we would go out and meet with people in the villages, I was largely unaware, or maybe uncomprehending, of the political and economic angst in the country. Then I started to become aware of the prejudices. Like, I had white friends and I had black friends, and knew only the warm and wonderful sides of both. Then I would hear a white friend refer in a derogatory tone to “that cook boy” or worse, another derogatory word. Inherited prejudices take time to fade from the “Old Boys Club”.

(Lindsey’s accent goes back and forth between North Jersey and South African during this part of the interview, which makes me happy.)

Now, white people make up only 0.5% of the population, but when I was growing up, they were almost always the upper middle class. All the actual workers- maid, gardener, servers in bars or restaurants, any manual laborers- were always black. Racism has begun to fade through the generations, but the whites have maintained many advantages. It’s very difficult to break that down.

Even though our livelihood was solely dependant upon sponsors and pledges from people in the States supporting the missionary work, we were considered part of the rich white people.

How does the pledging work?

In the years that they come back to the US, my parents spend a lot of time connecting with the people and churches that sponsor their work. A lot of it is just being accountable: saying, here’s what we did at the hospital, this is the drought relief program we’re implementing, this is our AIDS education, here’s what’s happening in the Bible College. They do always try to reach out to new people who might be interested in furthering their work.

Did you help with or participate in any of the programs your parents worked on?

I went with my mom to a lot of kids’ Bible camps, kind of the equivalent of VBS here. I remember one place we went was on one of those giant ant hills. It was so big that they had carved steps into it. Those were the bleachers. The entire elementary school sat there. You probably could have put about two hundred kids sitting on that ant hill, it was so big. We would sing songs and play games.

One of my scariest moments came at this camp: the Nyau dancers arrived. They’re a secret society- no one is supposed to know who they are. They wear stilts and grotesque masks and represent spirits passed on. They are said to channel these spirits and therefore they’re granted immunity for any actions they perform while in this guise. Many rumors surround them, that they may have people beaten or even killed for not showing them the proper respect. It’s obviously a very different set of beliefs from Christianity, so when they came through during one of our Bible camp meetings, everyone was scared to be there, scared of what they would do. People ran off, even the teachers.

What contributed to your decision to stay in the US instead of returning to Zimbabwe?

Well, I haven’t really decided not to become a missionary, it’s more about that this is the right place for me to be right now. I finished school, I got married, I began teaching. . . I have student loans to pay off and that wouldn’t be possible were I to become a missionary right now, even though I do have a standing job offer to teach where I went to school over there. I may decide to do it one day.

Gold light hour at Kariba Dam

What do you miss about Zimbabwe?

Open sky. . . it’s just not the same here in New Jersey. Also the pretty sunsets, clear stars, the smell after it rains- that smell is different than it is here. I miss my favorite places in the entire world: Kariba at Kariba Dam, the Zambezi Valley, where there are elephants and it’s beautiful and wild. There was this strange feeling that’s hard to describe, of being a third culture kid- of relating and belonging. I grew up there. People are really warm in Zimbabwe. It’s pretty much the opposite of New Jersey, where people flick you off for not turning fast enough out of your driveway. I can’t think of two more opposing cultures than Zimbabwe and New Jersey.

Twilight

What’s your favorite Zimbabwe tradition?

Tea time. Even though it was originally a British tradition it’s been fully adopted by everyone. If you go over to someone’s house, you’re expected to have two cups. The only thing is that a lot of people like to drink the Rooibos tea, which I don’t really like, but you still have to drink two cups. I just love the whole idea that everyone stops and takes time out, and just has tea, and spends time with their friends and family- every day.

What’s your favorite Zimbabwe food?

I have two. One is Biltong– it’s kind of like a beef jerky, but not. It’s made with beef but also game, and I know it has coriander in it. The other is Boerwors, a type of sausage that you have at a South African Braai, which is like our barbeque. Sadly, I haven’t been able to get either of these here. There are only two South African groceries that I know of. One is in Atlanta, and the other is in South Carolina.

Did you ever have any animals around your house that we would consider exotic?

 Mostly snakes. Spitting cobras, Green Mamba, Boomslang. We had dogs that went with us everywhere and looked out for snakes.

I remember helping cut the heads off of chickens when I was about five. My dad had helped our gardener start a business with chickens and eggs and I would help hold while he chopped, and then I’d watch it run around without the head. I never thought anything of it.

I’ve been in a car that was being chased by an elephant.

I’ve been in the back of an open truck with a lion less than twenty feet away.

When I was about thirteen, I was sulking in the tent while we were camping because my mom wanted me to get up and I thought it was too early. My mom made me get up anyhow. Right after that, a hippo came through, and he stepped on the tent exactly where my head had been on my pillow moments before. I was scared of animal encounters every time we went camping.

Another time camping I thought I heard something. I was always thinking I heard something though so no one ever paid attention when I said I heard something. Everyone told me to be quiet and go to sleep. This time though, sure enough, when we woke up in the morning there were new elephant tracks not fifteen feet from where we were sleeping.

We were staying at a type of hotel once. Well, first we got there and there was a hippo in the driveway and we had to wait for it to move. Then we went in and outside one of the bedrooms we could see a tree moving. It turned out there was an elephant right there eating from the tree, so close I could have reached out and touched it. So we all crowded into the room, about eleven of us, and the elephant started farting. It was so loud! It went on for like half an hour, and we were all in there the entire time just laughing and laughing, listening to this elephant fart. I laughed until my eyes were out of tears.

My dad has had nearly every wild animal encounter you can imagine. He’s been treed by a rhino, chased by a hippo, had to kill a rogue buffalo. . .

Do you ever run into any other missionaries there, like competition? Ever see any Mormons?

Well, I did run into a Mormon on the plane to Zimbabwe once. He was just heading over for his two-year mission. It was after finals week, so I was already fried, and my mom had sent me a list of things to bring home, like sugar and cinnamon. I had been sleepless from finals and then I was up all night packing and shopping and he ended up being seated right next to me. He talked a lot. The entire flight, actually. It. . . was interesting.

But you don’t have mission territories like the Avon lady? If you meet a Mormon on the street there you don’t have to rumble?

 No.

That’s good.

(at this point we received a string of interruptions from children and dogs, indicating our time was up)

Any final stories to tell?

One time we heard a gunshot near our house and called the police. After an hour and a half, a policeman arrived at our house on a bicycle and asked if we had a gun he could borrow. That was different.

all photos by David Lagan

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.

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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
Stove

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