From December 2, 2012:
Written somewhere over the Atlantic, on our way to Amsterdam on our way to Tanzania, from where we will travel to Uganda in a week.
“No, you can’t have that candy…I’m bringing it to Africa. To give to kids who don’t have candy.”
Is that the best explanation I can give to my children about why I’m going on this trip?
Apparently this morning it was.
In explaining things to my children, as always, I’m explaining things to myself. Of course I want to go to Africa. But being away from them for two weeks just because I want to do something else is completely inadequate, from their point of view. I want them to know there’s a wider purpose. But I also really want to go. And I want them to have some connection to it, so I made them buy the candy with me. To give them a sense that they are also sharing in this.
Someone commented to me about how what I was doing was “good.” To be honest, it has not struck me as having much of a moral component. I am travelling with a suitcase full of candy as well as several containers of bubbles, colored pencils, and construction paper. But I am not travelling thousands of miles to make a delivery on behalf of the iparty store. Partly I’m going to try to get to know Africa first hand, since Christ Church has a partner Ugandan congregation and I want to get to know the culture better. But there’s not a strict agenda.
This time concludes a whole three months of sabbatical that has mostly dwelt in an inchoate space of agenda-less-ness; there have been things I’d planned to do, like sing and write poetry, and I’ve done them. But I chose those two things in particular because they were not particularly goal oriented. “I wish not to be ashamed of my voice” is a pretty unambitious agenda item. So this whole time has been pretty free.
And here we are, hurtling through the air.
With a suitcase full of candy.
I am not joking when I say that it’s taking up more room than my clothes. I put out the call on our parish facebook page and email newsletter this week, and this morning a box set out for that purpose was full. I had to give some of it to a fellow traveller so as not to go over the weight limit. Candy and bubbles. I am arriving in Africa bringing things that are literally useless.
My son, who is in kindergarten and can barely write his name but can count to 100, has no category in his mind for kids who can’t go to school and whose sisters might become somebody’s maid instead of spending all their time knocking down their brothers’ lego towers.
Is there a moral component to this trip, which is costing more than many in the countries I’m visiting will see this year? No. At the same time, is there a moral component to staying home to watch Curious George with my kids and write poems? Yes, and not in a good way.
There’s no clear conscience here. We can’t stay home, but it’s not easy to go, either.
Sitting in our own spaces and fearing to venture out is not the solution. Sweeping in and thinking we can fix all the problems isn’t the solution, either.
When people ask me, “Is it a mission trip?” I race to explain why it’s not. No, we are not traveling to foreign lands to “Spread the Gospel” to those who lack it. It will go both ways. I hope that we travel with a spirit of mutual curiosity and practical giving. The diocese in Tanzania will invite us to tour parishes and a health center that a group of Massachusetts parishes has helped to fund—modest, yes, but, at least, useful. Ultimately, those relationships are the only thing that will keep any of this afloat. The word “mission” to many ears sounds like someone who thinks they know more going to a place where they are sure that the people know less. This IS a mission trip insofar as our mission is to be the church, a community gathered around God and Jesus and sacraments, and to love each other—and everybody else—in God’s name.
My church has not lately had an easy time of that. This morning someone at church asked me whether the Anglican Communion was going to split. “Pretty much,” I said.
[note to non-Episcopalian readers: the Episcopal Church in the US is part of
the worldwide Anglican communion, a family of churches which all have historical ties to the church of England (Anglican=of England). Over the last ten years and more, ties across the communion have been strained after the ordination of an openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. Before Gene, however, there were plenty of places that didn’t like the American church ordaining women. And before that, some churches didn’t like other churches because of their heavy use of candles. Currently we also are proud to include Bishop Mary Glasspool, a lesbian, as a bishop in Los Angeles, as well Tom Shaw, who travels on this trip and is gay, though a longtime monk, and therefore celibate…Anyway, you could say our Anglican heritage has a strong history of conflict]
Still, the parishes funding projects like the one we’ll visit will continue to do so, and we’ll still send Bishop Masereka in Uganda funding for the hospital he’s building. And one of the aims of the Tanzania portion of the trip is for Bp Tom of MA and Bp Mark of Ohio to meet Bp Maimbo, the new bishop of the diocese of Tanga, Tanzania. And for Tanga to see a female priest, since there aren’t any there—yet.
As we spoke about it this morning, my parishioner concluded, “it won’t make much difference to a regular person in the pew. I mean, I’m sad about breaking up, but what difference does it really make?” Yep.
What does make a difference? Continuing to show up for each other, even across oceans, even when it seems like the money could better be spent somewhere else.
Relationships are messy. Reality is messy.
Candy and bubbles are useless to me, but that’s because I have plenty of them.
Interlude: a few fun facts from Wikipedia:
Tanzania is one of the oldest-known inhabited areas on Earth: Human and pre-hominid remains have been found dating back over two million years.
Hasheem Thabeet is a Tanzanian-born NBA player with the Oklahoma City Thunder. He is the first Tanzanian to play in the NBA.
After Zanzibar became independent in 1963, the island merged with mainland Tanganyika (which became independent from Britain in 1961) to form the nation of Tanzania on 26 April 1964.
Tanzania is ecologically significant, being the home of Mt Kilimanjaro, the Africa’s tallest mountain, Serengeti National Park, and Gombe National Park, where Dr. Jane Goodall studied chimps.
As of 2010, the estimated population was 43,188,000, consisting of more than 120 ethnic groups, many of whom are Bantu. Nilotic peoples include the nomadic Maasai and Luo, both of whom are found in greater numbers in neighbouring Kenya. Swahili and English are the official languages.
Statistics of religious observance vary widely; Christians are reported to be either 62% or 30%, depending on whether you ask the US State Dep’t or the CIA. 35% are said to be Muslim and the other 30% varying degrees of indigenous African belief and/or Christian. Christians are mostly Roman Catholic, with strong Lutheran and Moravian (thanks to German colonialism) as well as Anglican (yay, Anglican!).
The literacy rate in Tanzania is estimated to be 73%. Education is compulsory for seven years, until children reach age 15, but most children do not attend school until this age, and some do not attend at all. As of 2006, 87.2% of children who started primary school were likely to reach grade 5
Child labour is common, particularly girls working as domestic servants. Sexual trafficking exploitation of children, though, illegal, is a problem.
The under-five mortality rate in 2010 is estimated to be 76 out of 1,000. Life expectancy at birth is estimated to be 53 years in 2012.
The prevalence of HIV/AIDS is estimated to be 5.6% of the adult population, 30 % of whom are in treatment, 7% below the average for the continent.
2006 data show that 55% of the population had sustainable access to improved drinking water sources and 33% had sustainable access to improved sanitation.
From December 4
And… we’re here.
Plane ride Amsterdam-Mt Kilimanjaro was uneventful; late with de-icing of the plane but otherwise fine. And long—it was nine hours. I read and watched movies: Marshall Ganz’ Why David Sometimes Wins: Leadership, Organization, and Strategy in the California Farm Worker Movement is the first book listed in the kindle someone lent me, so I began with that.
Ganz talks about why social movements succeed or fail—but also points out that even when David wins, that’s not the end. David needs to stay David. But that can be hard if David trades resourcefulness for the control of resources—institution over mission. Hello, institutional church?
I also watched Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, about a boy at a scout camp and a disgruntled twelve year old girl who run away together on the faraway island where her family inexplicably lives. Like all Wes Anderson films, it was visually stunning and logically vacuous. But delightful!
Finally, despite being warned that the remaining time of the flight was less than the running time of the film, I also watched Beasts of the Southern Wild, which was amazing. I wish I had more internet to read more about it. I wish I had been able to finish it. What I saw of the movie was transcendent, but also a little troubling. I’m always a teensy bit nervous with “the mystical negro” trope--the black character who serves as a stand in for all that is truthful and beautiful even in the midst of chaos and fear. The protagonist, a five-year-old girl called Hushpuppy, veers toward that type. Her drunk and dying father is not, but the relationship between the two of them is striking, particularly watching it while hurtling through space away from my own children. Throughout the film Hushpuppy talks about how the world is all falling apart, but if you fix a piece you can fix the whole. Then wildebeasts race across the screen, which you have to see to understand. Apparently they are prehistoric aurochs. What’s hard about the movie is that it veers into this romantic vision of Bayou poverty in which a child heats up a can of cat food for her dinner and we think it’s lovely. But it’s awful. Hushpuppy and her neighbors are violently evacuated into a hurricane shelter after surviving the storm’s onslaught, and much as you root for them to get back to their real life in “the bathtub,” you kind of wish they’d had another hot meal first. Anyway, see it and let me know what you think. I’ll finish it and figure it out myself. bell hooks says it’s a vision of pornographic violence and the New York Times says it’s the best movie at Sundance in the last 20 years.
End of flight. Then, drive and night at the lovely Kia airport lodge, all of our individual traditional style huts plus air conditioning and hot water, a drink at the bar in view of Mt Kilimanjaro (invisible—it was dark). Morning was breakfast, drive to Moshe for shopping where I bought some Tingatinga paintings (personalized for Adah and Isaiah!), a shoulder bag, and a wooden game played with little beads called bao.
Back to the car for an occasionally harrowing ride to Korogwe with our drivers, Raymond and Shadrach, where we’ll spend our time here getting to know Bishop Maimbo and the Diocese of Tanga. The road was paved for most of the way (it’s the road to Kenya), but with only two lanes and trucks, livestock, buses, and our substantially rickety jeep competing for speed, there were a few dicey moments.
BUT IT IS SO BEAUTIFUL HERE. Yes, that needed to be shouted.
Mountains, valleys, red dirt, green plants, trees with purple, red, orange flowers. Thatched huts clustered on the countryside. The Obama Salon for family hairstyles. I think we even saw a stork at the airport. At the same time, there’s also the same thing with the movie I watched on the plane—thatched huts with colorful cloth hanging outside are darling, much like the irrepressible spirit of marginalized people is inspiring, but may not be great places to live for real. Again, life is messy. Everybody’s. (Speaking of which, I miss my family a lot but also would not want to see my kids riding around in this traffic!).
Finally, check in and rest at the White Parrot Hotel. I came down to dinner wearing the same thing I’d worn all day and found the clergy had their collars on—two bishops and one priest—so I said I was going back upstairs to change. “Oh, yeah, one of the other travelers said, I forgot you’re one of the collars.” Exactly. So I bounced back down looking appropriately clerical. Dinner of goat, rice, chicken soup, vegetable curry, greens. Delicious. We were joined by Bishop Maimbo, the dean of the Korogwe Cathedral, head of the Mother’s Union, one of the bishop’s staff people, and Sam Bonsey, the son of one of the canons at the Cathedral in Boston who’s helping to run an NGO called Two Seeds. Colin, a retired professor of veterinary medicine who’s also on the trip, introduced me to everyone as “Mama Padre Sara.”
That’s going on my nametag at home.
[later-editing note: I learned today that mama padre is also a term used for the priest’s wife, which is a little awkward]
One of the diocesan folks at dinner was very curious about me being a woman priest and wanted to know how I was accepted in my parish. He said that there were women priests “around,” but none ordained by the Diocese of . What is it like? Well, I said, my church has had a lot of time to get used to me. The head of the whole Episcopal Church is a woman.
But it’s easy to forget I’m one of the collars. Which is why I put it on.