Monday, December 24, 2012

Cameroonian Christmas

So, Christmas at Mbingo. It doesn’t feel like Christmas in the typical, American sense. It’s 80 degrees, the Christmas carols have not been going since Thanksgiving, I haven’t bought a single gift in the past month. And yet there are a couple of things that remind me of “home” this Christmas.

I asked Ben, the guy who works in most of the gardens around here, if he could get me a couple sticks of evergreen off of one of the trees. I was just going to stick them in a vase for my “Christmas tree”. But here came Ben, dragging the entire top of an evergreen. Now it’s no Frasier Fir or Cedar, in fact it has thorns all up and down the branches, but it is green and works well for a Christmas tree look-alike. Since I’ve nothing to put it in (aka – tree stand), I keep it propped up against the wall in an old oatmeal can to keep its water in. I also have no ornaments or lights to decorate with. I considered making a popcorn strand, but then thought that it may draw rodents. So, it is just a naked tree, but it stands (or leans as the case may be) as a reminder of Christmas to me.

The next thing is Christmas carols. They’ve been doing carols in the chapel in the mornings, but I am always rounding during that time and so have not been involved in that. However, last night the missionaries all got together to sing. And this evening, the plan is to carol in the patient wards. That is kind of fun.

Leg after leg coming out of that door - how many legs can a cow have?

But otherwise, Christmas celebrating is just a bit different. Take feasting for instance, it happens all over the world, but this is unlike any Christmas dinner preparation I have ever done. The first thing is the Christmas slaughtering of cows. Some of the hospital cows are butchered and sold. This meat is better than the ordinary beef you can find. Each ward sends around a sign up sheet to tell how much meat you want and which cut (cut meaning first cut, second cut, etc – not like you can order T-bones or ribeyes). Then you go stand in line on your assigned day during the days before Chrstmas. Everyone is gathered and pushing in on one another. They carry the very, very fresh cut meat from the slaughter site over to the next door down, the selling site. There are small piles of meat, with little papers saying who has ordered them. Turns out, you are supposed to bring your own bag. But how was I to know this? So, they were gracious and squeezed a big bunch of meat into a tiny, thin little bag for me. As I walked back toward the house, I cradled the meat to keep the bag from breaking. The blood squished into my shirt.
Now that is fresh meat

Next animal to be killed was the pig. There’s no bacon for sale in Cameroon. No one knows what bacon is. So, when they said they were slaughtering a pig, I thought, “hey, that pigs gotta have some bacon part somewhere on it”. So, I turned in my order, 2 kilograms of bacon. We looked up a diagram of pork parts, and I had to show the man where the bacon part comes from on a diagram. I am learning so much about livestock during all this Christmas celebration.

Now the gross part of this picture is the pig head. The interesting thing is that the man who bought and is now carrying it is a doctor, complete with white coat and stethescope.

And lastly, the chicken. As tomorrow is Christmas Day, I am the supplier of the main course for the missionary dinner. So, a chicken had to die today. I have been wanting to learn to kill one. I mean, you can’t live in Africa and be too wimpy to kill a chicken. So, I asked Ben (the above tree-provider) if he would show me. He agreed. So this morning, we went to the chicken coop, he rounded up a good fat one, and brought it out of the cage. He showed me how you have to hold the feet under your one foot and the wings under the other so that you can use your hands to slice the neck. As he held the chicken down, he started to pray. I found this odd, wondering why in the world he was praying, and wondering if it was for sure to the same God I knew (I’ve seen chickens sacrificed in witchcraft before). So, a bit later I asked him. “Why were you praying before we killed the chicken?” He replied with what I thought was hilarious, “The same reason that you pray before you operate”. That took my mind in a thousand funny places. I’m not hoping for a successful kill with my patients, I’m actually praying for a good outcome. But it made total sense to him. Anyhow, he helped hold the chicken, while I slit its throat. He explained how you must keep holding it down after you kill it so that it doesn’t sling blood all over the yard. I thought that was a good tip. Then came the boiling water. You’ve gotta pour it on the chicken before plucking it to make the feathers come out easily. Then pluck, and pluck, and pluck. Rinse and pluck any small feathers you missed before. Then cut off the head and feet, eviscerate it, and voila – just like a chicken that comes from the grocery store!

Pluck, pluck, pluck
Ready for the oven

So, feasting is part of Christmas in both American and Cameroonian culture. I may be missing out on eggnog and cheesecake and stuffed mushrooms, but as a perk I’m eating the freshest, most hormone-free meat I think I’ve ever had. There are so many differences all around the world in the way we celebrate. But no matter what the celebration looks like, from near and far, we join as God’s children to celebrate His amazing gift of Christ Jesus.  

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Greatest Story Yet

None of the plans that God had come up with seemed, from a human perspective, to be working out so well. Made man and woman in the midst of the wonders filling creation –only to watch them find greater pleasures in something else. Led His huge hoard of people along, generation after generation, only to be truly honored and loved by a few rare ones. Offered forgiveness over and over to those who turned away from Him. I mean, what kind of God would keep chasing after people so foolish, obstinate, and self-willed?

And then the culmination of it all was found in God putting on flesh to pursue His people. No longer just to guide them from afar or welcome them back with open arms, but to become “God with us”. A strange plan, seemingly full of flaws. He had everything to lose, they had everything to gain. Too risky for people who have failed time and again. Why give so much for them?

And again it looked like few followed, another plan destined to fail. At first a few wise men. Years later a few fishermen, a couple tax collectors. Sometimes crowds would come to see what this Flesh would awe them with, but most would return home without bearing the name of disciples.

And, as in the past, the plan fails again. They turn on Him, turn from Him. He is mocked, beaten, killed. Was this the amazing Promise? But wait a few days… And beyond our comprehension, life comes out of death. Hope comes out of despair. We stand here justified, when we were condemned before. And then we see, that this Flesh changed everything. We look at the baby, lying beneath that bright star. He no longer is just a glimmer of hope, now He is confirmed as the hope of the nations. We look at the man teaching the crowds and realize that he was not just a great moral character, but was fulfilling righteousness for those who could not achieve it. We look at the torn body, sagging on the cross, and realize that He was saving those who He had been pursuing since time began. We look at the empty tomb and see Him as the conqueror and king. It looks like the plan may be working out.

As the plan continues, it starts to get confusing again. These same people, full of failures, who now He has had to give His life to save, He makes as the ones that will carry His message out. They will image Him into the world. Again, He chooses to make Himself known through flesh, but now the flesh of men. Once again, it appears destined to fail. But He sends His Spirit as a guide, comfort, strength. They go, not as perfect men, strong and wise and composed, but frail, broken, and humbled as they take His name wherever they walk along the course of their lives.

You or I wouldn’t have done it this way. We would’ve quit at the garden. Man wasn’t worth pursuing anyhow. A total let-down. At every step of the way we could have found a hundred reasons to stop loving mankind. And if we had gotten all the way down to a Messiah, he wouldn’t have come as a weak, fussy baby. No, he would have been a fearsome warrior. And then, we certainly wouldn’t have made the people who had let us down over and over and over again our representatives. Nope. But God did. He has been glorified by plans beyond human comprehension. He has been and will be glorified by strange things. Strangely, even by your flesh and mine, against all odds. Praise His name for all that He has done. Give glory to God in the highest, from the broken, frail, and tired down here with our feet still dirty on this dust. And thank Him that He became broken, frail, and tired with dirty feet for us. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The noise

I am a good sleeper. Its one of a handful of things that I am just naturally good at. So, why am I lying here in the dark, finally resorting to grabbing my computer off the floor to type? Well, just like last night, I woke after a few hours of sleep with a strange combination of water pouring out of my nose and the inability to breathe from nasal congestion. Why is that always the combination that comes with upper respiratory illness, clogged up and pouring over? So I blew my nose, rolled over, tried it again. Oh, and then the nurse calls to make sure I knew about a patient (who I had known about since it was very much light outside). The nasal cycle continued until I was having to get up, turn on the light, and go to the bathroom regularly to get more tissue. Finally I just crammed some up my left nostril and laid with that side down so the snot would drain effectively in one direction.

In the midst of this miserable time, longing for rest that would not come, I heard the noise. I knew it. There is something that comes up my shower drain in the night, flips the drain cover off, and then enters freely to enjoy my home. I heard the noise of the plastic cover flipping off. I always liked to imagine it was a lizard. You know, they are kind of solitary, interesting creatures. They aren't really thought of as nasty or germy, though of course they probably are. But as I lay in my bed, it occurred to me that I don't think lizards are nocturnal. I then heard the creature knock over some small item in the kitchen. I couldn't just lay there anymore. Lights on again. Robe on (just in case something jumped on me, I wanted to have an extra layer). I couldn't find him, so I made sure all the cabinets were closed and headed back to bed. On the way, I put the drain cover back on with a heavy bottle of  cleaning solution on top of it so that if it made it out already it would be trapped outside.

But, no such luck. It was trapped inside. I heard it again in the bathroom, this time trying to get out of the drain. Up again. Robe on. Lights on. Aaaaahhh, a rat! Sick, nasty, disease laden creature. I felt very vulnerable to attack with my bare legs there on the same floor as him. But there was nothing else to do but trap him or kill him. So, with all the wisdom that comes in a groggy, foggy state, I went for the heaviest thing I could find. Someone left a broken hand churn ice cream maker bowl here before I moved in. Those things are stout. Since it was already broken and useless, I grabbed it as a double use instrument of war. I could trap him in the bowl, or if that didn't work, I could bludgeon him to death with the weight of the bowl. But as I timidly approached, he knocked the bottle of cleaning solution off the drain, flipped it off, and was down it once again.

I have complained multiple times to the juvenile appearing plumber at the hospital regarding this now known rat (prior lizard). He looks at me like I'm stupid, says something nice that translated into what he means says "you're stupid", and then turns away to talk to his friends. Well, in my current multi-night sleep deprived state I have come up with some other options. First, between cases today I will go and talk to the maintenance departments boss. If that fails to get some kind of non-removable drain cover, I will change directions and head toward the administration building to see if they can get something done. If this too fails, I am going to find some bush-hunter type Cameroonian man, let him stay in my guest room and eat at my house for free, in exchange for his willingness to be woken up by me whenever I hear that rat start to mess with the drain cover. He will be responsible for killing any creature that crosses the limit of that plastic piece. I saw a man who works in the OR walking down the road just the other day with a gun, heading out to get some bushmeat. Perhaps I will introduce the idea to him when I  get to the OR today. He may be the one.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Christmas Party

The nurses from clinic came to me, excited because they wanted to put on a Christmas party for all the staff at the clinic. I'm okay with that, I can go to a party, sounds good. Only as the plot was further revealed in the days to come did I realize what that actually meant. I was the one putting on the party. My house, which is big enough for me, but not big enough to entertain more than 3 or 4 others, was going to be the spot. So I cleaned the floors and bathroom, went home from work each day to cook and bake, and finally it was party time.

Now, it was at my house, but I wasn't the one coming up with the "program". It is hillarious to me to see how Cameroonians need a program for everything. And how it needs to be read aloud to transition from one activity to the other. This one went something like the following:
1. Opening prayer, 5 minutes - John
2. Greetings and purpose of the meeting, 10 minutes - Christy Lee
3. Worship songs, 5 minutes - Mercy
4. Prayer time, 10 minutes - Elizabeth
5. Christmas carols, 10 minutes - John
6. Eating food, 15 minutes
7. Dance, dance, dance, 10 minutes
8. Closing remarks and prayer, 5 minutes - Mercy
My part only lasted about a minute and a half, which helped get us back on the mandatory schedule. And thankfully during the "dance, dance, dance" portion I was washing dishes. Cameroon isn't ready for my dancing, in fact almost no where in the world is ready for that. It is a rare event.

I've never been to a choreographed party. Nor do most parties I have gone to have so much prayer time scattered throughout. I thought it was going to be sort of corny, but actually it was pretty neat. Though totally written out step by step, we had good, and spontaneous worship together. And as we sang local worship choruses, one person would pray with all of their might for the prayer requests. I've been part of lots of prayer times with all sorts of believers joining together, solemn Baptists throwing in extra "wherefores" and "hithertos", Pentecostals breathing heavily and sweating, folks praying in tongues, children seemingly listing out thanks for every creature and person God ever made. But never have I experienced it like that. It was powerful and moving in a refreshing way. You couldn't actually hear what anyone was praying, but it was like a sweet sounding praise lifting up their prayers all around.

And then finally came the food. There was a bunch, but there could never be enough in Africa. Plenty was left, but then came the napkins. Napkins aren't used to wipe your hands with here, they are instead used to wrap any extra food in to stuff in your purse for later. "For my kids" I kept hearing. One of the guys giving that excuse has kids that live 3 hours away, and he won't see them for another week. I finally broke out the all too valuable ziploc bags to help them shove in more cookies, peanuts, cakes, etc. As they jammed them down into their bags, they said, "We have had dinner in America, we have visited America, and now we will take America back to our families". I had to hide a couple cookies in the kitchen to keep them for myself.

They left to their houses. Surprisingly, I was refreshed, rather than tired. And I was happy to have brought a little "Merry" to their Christmas.

I left in the darkness after the dishes were washed to head back up to the hospital. Pus was waiting to be cleared out of a belly. Sick patients were needing to be checked on one more time. The party is over, back to the grunge of daily life. But that is what Jesus did. There were bright stars, and angels in chorus, and wise men coming from far - spectacular things. But then, after a short-lived celebration of the newborn King, here came Herod, and fleeing to Egypt, and leaving the makeshift home that the stable had been. Back to the paths that shaped His early life, that made His little feet dirty, and left Him sweaty and tired as He grew into a young man. These are the paths that formed Him and shaped Him into what was well-pleasing to the Father.

Saturday, December 8, 2012


It's been a frustrating couple weeks. I wouldn't call myself a "control freak", I mean, especially compared to people with "real" control issues. But I do get annoyed, mostly about the things beyond my ability to change. Seems pretty constant for the past little while. Circumstances let me down. Things I thought would be awesome turned out to really stink. And then the little things. They turn into big things when they keep coming one after the other. It's like an ant bite - one is bothersome, but if you accidentally find your foot in the ant hill, 25 of them are almost all consuming. The small things add up.

Like the OR. No appropriate instruments. I keep asking for them. But nobody is moving to even look for them. I had a small tantrum this week, broke sterility, untied my gown, dropped it, and went to look for the instruments myself. Did I find them? No. Technically it was a useless moment, but somehow it made me feel like something was actually happening.

And the same day, I asked the staff to call the last case of the day in for her surgery. It was 2 pm. But, no, anesthesia says they can't take the case back because it just passed 2 o'clock and the staff will soon be low. Really? I told them to go tell the patient that because I was too ashamed to tell her something that sounded so dumb. They just laughed and said no. So, I have to walk into the ward to give her the news. "You'll have to wait another day." She wants to know why, but heck, I don't know - I don't understand it a bit. She's got to pile onto the next day, so make that six cases tomorrow instead of five.

Oh, and just as I was closing the belly of the patient before her, frustrated by the news that they wouldn't bring the next patient, I see a spot bleeding. I want to use the instrument called the bovie to make the bleeding stop. It kind of makes a small burn in order to stop little areas of bleeding. I look, but it's already been thrown off onto the floor. I always ask to keep it on until I'm finished, but its gone every time. So, I ask for another one to be put out. It's plugged in, I push the button, here the "neeeeeeeee" that means its working. A millisecond of feeling less frustrated, at least I have another one ready to use now. Then I feel the intense burning through my gloved hand. Yep, its on fire. Not just a little touch of heat, an actual full blaze in my hand. I threw it on the floor and removed my glove. Turns out that the "cleaning solution" that they are soaking those in is alcohol, which is highly flammable, of course. Coupling the fierce burn in my right pinky finger with the now mountain-like mound of frustrations, I held back the tear that wanted to come. It wasn't a sad tear, it was anger and lack of control and a unmet hope for things that could, and should, be different.

That's a few moments in one day. And some days there are similar moments one after the next after the next. I could write a book on technologic frustrations. Nobody wants to read about that, so I won't. Or I could show you the chapters in my specialty books, that no matter how many times I read, I just cannot get everything out of that I should be able to. But, since I can't understand them and think they are boring, you wouldn't like to hear any more about them either. The list goes on...

And then once in a while something awesome will happen. Like the day following the one described above. I knew that there were more cases than I could do. I knew that there wouldn't be much help. I knew from the moment I awoke that the day had lots of potential to be frustrating and overwhelming. But then, the general surgery attending just showed up. I mean, it was wonderful. He sent all of his available residents to help get the C-sections done, and he even helped assist me on a hysterectomy himself. During the case I asked, "Don't you guys have two cases today? Don't you need to be doing those?" That actually triggered his mind that yes, they did have cases, and he had forgotten them because he was trying hard to help get mine done. I was, and still am, suspicious. See, he is my neighbor. Like the kind of neighbor that I can hear talking in their house. Don't know what they are saying, but its close enough to hear something. I wondered if he heard me praying the night before or that morning. Had he heard me so frustrated and sad before the Lord. Or, had he been peeking in my window the night before? Because that was the only time since I've been here that I have shed a self-pity tear. But I talked to my family and it pushed me over the edge. I had to let a few tears fall as I was drifting off to sleep. I mean the man is a nice fellow, but something must have pushed his compassion button a little harder to help so much that day.

Or maybe, it is just that God sometimes reminds us of how much He loves us. When we get so consumed by the frustrations - often real, valid things that should frustrate us - it is so easy to lose our sight of Him. Carrying burdens so heavy often leaves me feeling restrained in my worship, and even my love toward Him. My prayers are pitiful. I'm too tired to invest in Him. Too mentally drained to focus. My spirit just wants to rest. He doesn't get my best. But He loves us even then. Sometimes He relieves the burdens, sometimes he refreshes us while we carry them. But He never leaves us. We never walk the paths alone.