Thursday, January 28, 2010

My first drives through Lome...what did I see? What did I learn?

My first drive into town from our hotel was an adventure of its own. It was early afternoon, we had time for a 30 minute nap, followed by a long lunch near the sea shore. Our mini bus pulled out onto the main road, and I immediately began to take pictures out the window. My thoughts were captured by the elegance of the women balancing their purchases or wares upon their heads. Each one, carried their load with strength, grace and confidence.

I noticed the smells, of once burning plastics, or was it oils, I was not sure. The grounds were covered with small fire embers, piled to the sides or in the middle of some of the smaller roads. I really did not notice piles of garbage, or the huge over crowding I found regularly in Calcutta, India, many years ago. I saw lots of goats; big goats, small goats, momma goats, the whole shebang. So though there was poverty, there did seem to be a sense of order about the town.

Why the goats? Why the little embers? Both these tools tackled the same problem...garbage. Yes, the people of Lome, burned the garbage in small piles every night; this accounted for the smokey smell about the city. The goats roamed free to take care of the remainder of the garbage. It was an interesting way to deal with an issue that could wreak havoc in a city where I saw no garbage collectors.
I also learned the basics of sales and store ownership through our minibus window. Have you noticed the picture of the outdoor lean-to with the hanging shoes? Yes you guessed it, the local shoe store. That store owner provided quite a display of his wares; other vendors had far fewer shoes to sell. Attaching items to poles, or letting them hang was the official style of display.

Would you like a little gas to run that motorcycle, or Moped for the day? How about a bottle of petrol? The roadside gas stop. It was a table with a variety of bottles filled with oil, or gasoline, or whatever made your engine go. It is sold in small alliquots, just what you need for the day. The new 'just-in-time' lifestyle. You purchased what you would have used for the day. This concept extended to everyday items of food and spices. In the opposite picture you see a stand, selling sugar by the cup or less, or even tablespoons of salt.  Note the pre-measured cans of charcoal, just the right amount for the days cooking. In reality, just-in-time becomes, just enough.

Shopping for a little food everyday, or if you happen to be among the poor, you are shopping only on the days you have a little money. It is a hard life here in Lome, Togo, for those with materially little. There is no refrigeration, nor running water at your home. Your home may only be a 6 by 8 foot steel shack with steel rooftop. Imagine that as your 'castle' for your family of six. Oh, did I mention the temperature was up to 95 degrees and the humidity was above 70%? The floor was pounded dirt, and a bench was hidden inside. The treasures of the family were stored neatly up the side of the walls inside your home. This was the picture of the simple steel shack you saw in this post. This really was the home of Liza, my sponsored child. Their reality, they will not have food every day, and her stove/oven was the size of bucket. In fact the clay oven was formed in a bucket, I could see the imprints of the bucket seams on the side. There was a tree just outside the front door, a place where the neighbors and family members would sit to keep out of the heat of the day. It was a house like this, and many others which were hidden behind the tall walls lining the streets of Lome. If we had never been behind the walls, I would not have known or seen this poverty. Lome, the city of 'poverty hidden'.

But within these hidden areas, there was also a richness and wonder to life, that did not escape my notice.  But for this next adventure, it really meant, getting out of the bus, moving beyond the window panes, and learning the 'more' lived out by those with so much less...all discovered when meeting my families in Africa. 

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Lome, Togo, it only took us 3-days to get there....

Joy Standing guard over the 15 bags at SFO, the start of our adventure.
It was Friday, we arrived at the airport excited, all four of us. My husband drove us, Rod, and Timothy, the two others who were part of our group, leaving for Togo West Africa. Peter, our guide and leader extraordinaire was to meet us at the airport in San Francisco. It had already been decided we should arrive around noon, to ensure we made it through the new and improved TSA screening process, and catch our plane. We were the first to arrive, eventually followed by Peter, our Compassion leader for the trip. Then the others started to arrive. We were all assembled, and now in line to check in, however, no Air France employee was there to meet the already long line of passengers waiting for service.. Our 15 bags to check in were piled in a spot taking up quite a bit of square footage of the terminal floor. And so we waited. Hurry up and wait best describes the first 3 days of our trip! Then the light on the flight board started to flash, Delayed….Delayed is all it said, and we knew we most likely would not arrive in Lome, Togo for quite a bit longer.

Four countries, three days and two nights later is when we actually arrived at the Lome airport. Was I tired? Yes, did I have a clue as to the day of the week when we arrived? No, not really. In the midst of those three very long days, I was already quickly becoming the group’s French / English translator. It did not matter I think my French level was that of a 4th grader, and I gave myself a lot of extra pats on the back to even say that. But let’s go backward a day or two, and learn together about adversity, flexibility and the making of a team. Why? We became a team during those first three days of travel together.

I need to tell you about Peter first. He was our guide/leader provided by Compassion International to lead our team. I wonder what he thought of us upon seeing our group. Once getting through security and ending up at the gate to wait, everyone pulled out i-phone, macs, laptops etc…to get connected one last time while here in the USA. We did not talk much one to another, but dealt with our own insular worlds, reading magazines and even a book or two. An hour into waiting at the gate, Peter stands up and says, “ok, I am ready to talk with you and let you know a bit about the trip.” We gather about him, sitting on the two rows of chairs at the gate, and we wait. “I was a compassion boy,” he states, and then begins to share a little of his own background with poverty and coming out of it because of Compassion International. Peter was from Uganda, Africa, so he was familiar with the people we were about to visit, their customs, and perceptions of the spoken word.

“Flexibility, our middle name was to become flexibility,” Peter stated. “Yes there is an itinerary, but, if we are engaged with a group or a family we will stay and listen and give them the time. The trip is not about the itinerary, it is about the children, the families we will meet. Listen,” he says, “Listen,” Peter said again. “Ask questions; discover the issues or complexities of their needs at hand. Do NOT, I repeat DONOT offer solutions. Not even the brainstorming we American’s like to do! In fact do not discuss the possibility of a solution in earshot of those we are visiting.” Why, you might ask? Because we all had that same question on our lips. Peter’s answer came as a little story about coffee. “When I came to America, and my friends would say, let’s get together for coffee sometime, I really thought they meant it. I was so hurt when we did not go for coffee; I took them at their word.” All of this to say, if we mentioned the possibility of solving the problem, or ideas how to expand the work, it was now an instant promise of help…It was the ‘done deal’. Here in Africa, what you say is what you do, or what you mean.
There is a hierarchy in Africa, the man is tops, followed by the woman and then last of all, the children. For Peter, this meant “I was never able to speak to my father eye to eye, until I was 24 years old.” Later during the trip, we would learn more of Peter and his life growing up, how he was sponsored by the director of Compassion in Uganda, How he learned the value of his life, and other children, his education which is vast, and the door of opportunity opened to him, because one person, one family cared for him through Compassion.
Peter continues in his discussion, “The men and women will watch how we interact with the children. The fun we have with them, the love we have for them, the care we exercise towards them. Something happens in their observation and suddenly they too want to participate with their own children in the same fashion.” It is Peter’s final comment from that first discussion in the airport which ruminates with me throughout the initial days of travel, “Prepare to be loved,” he says, “prepare to be loved.” “You will have 6 or 10 kids hanging off of your arms and hands as you walk through the centers. You will be the mother or father to your own sponsored child, not because their mother or father are not there or do not care, but because the concept of family is so broad and engaging in Africa.”

Flexibility training, I now believe with all my heart, missing a plane, traveling all night, not once but twice, encountering food allergies, and colds, among a group of 10, was the perfect preparation for our trip. And so, the story of our fist three days continues…

Peter, Rod and Timothy, wait for the bus in the sleet, while we wait inside the airport at Paris.

We arrived in Paris on Saturday morning, and we literally ran to the next gate, all 10 of us, thinking, or wildly hoping they held the plane for us. But that was not the case. We soon learned traveling to Lome, Togo was literally not an every day occurrence, and the earliest we could leave would be Sunday afternoon. During this run to the new gate, Rod dropped his passport. And yes, for about 30 minutes, we wondered if he would be leaving much later, assuming a visit to the US embassy was needed. So imagine for the moment, Rod is being walked around everywhere we had passed, since the most recent security station, with the police officer at his side. Another group, containing John and a few others, went off on their own to look for Rod’s passport. They could go anywhere because they had their passports and tickets. And yes we had already gone through all 10 plus carry-on’s, just in case his passport got slipped into one of our bags. In the midst of this, Peter was discussing with Air France, about what to do with the Americans.

In the end we were sent to the IBIS hotel, about 10 minutes from the airport, with a ticket ensuring we all would eat dinner and breakfast over the next 12 hours. In the midst of this we also had an opportunity to sleep. I am guessing I slept a total of 4 hours before arising at 4 AM Sunday morning. My roommate was also awake, so we just chatted. There was the hope of trying to get to Paris and see the Eifel tower, but it was freezing, and I only had a light summer jacket. Useless for this weather, in fact, I lasted about 5 minutes when trying to walk outside the hotel to get a look around France. We ate a wonderful buffet, and the sounds of French being spoken everywhere was wonderful to me. I felt at home, not that I grew up in France or Quebec, but because my parents did, and they spoke French to us when we were young. So yes, hearing the language, weather I understood it all or not, always touched my heart.

In the morning, taking a roll call of sorts, or really taking stock in our health, the situation looked interesting to say the least. Sherry was covered in welts, that itched, and Dan’s cold seemed to be getting worse. So back to the Charles De Gaul Airport to check in to our new flight schedule tour destination, via Casablanca, Morocco, Agra, Ghana, and then last but not least, Lome Togo. Peter sent all the others to the gate, except Sherry and me. We headed out to find the medical clinic. You see those welts did not look so much like bug bites, but some type of allergic reaction to food. Now I really had to try and speak French and communicate to the pharmacist the symptoms of Sherry. The pharmacist, took a look and gathered the prescribed medicines with directions for Sherry, including she is not allowed to eat any tomatoes or eggs or drink wine for the rest of the trip. She had relief from the symptoms almost instantaneously once she consumed the medicine. I was relieved her issues had been addressed. I was feeling a bit bolder with my French, so I started to explain the cold symptoms of Dan, which seemed to be getting worse. I love saying the word for cold in French, it sounds just like, ‘room’, and then there is another description that sounds like ‘grip’. Using both those words, learning about the sore throat, no fever etc…another set of medicines was provided. The instructions reviewed and written down one last time to ensure I knew what to tell Dan. I just could not imagine flying on the plane with the ears, and sinus all plugged up, so I brought the medicines to Dan and instructed him on their taking. I was pleasantly surprised to see him acquiesce and take the meds. We were just starting day three of the trip, and we had many packed days set before us, so health was very important.  Some slept wherever they could, a row of chairs at the airport seemed safe.

The plane took off and landed in Morocco. I loved the airport in Morocco, it has a sign welcoming us to Casablanca, and of course I am only thinking about the movie and the line, “play it again Sam.” By now I am almost done with a book Victoria gave to me to read, oh my goodness, I was crying like a baby starting with chapter one. Why? Because it was a book describing the life of a man in the US who had it all, realizes it is nothing, and he reaches out to a man who has nothing, and then realizes he has everything. I think the title was “A lot like Me,” and now my heart was being prepared for the trip. Three hours in the airport at Casablanca was enough time to find some Moroccan sandwiches’ and a final discussion with Peter to hear his story. The next flight was to Agra, Ghana, here we did not need to leave the plane, and then our arrival in Lome, Togo.

We made it easily through customs, but Peter was being harassed for a bribe of some sort, which he totally refused to partake in. We started gathering and counting the bags, 1, 2, 3 all they way up to 14, were assembled. Oh, oh, one was missing, the big black one, with precious presents for our children. Hmm, I digress, but I need to let you know, this trip was organized through our church; collectively we sponsor 49 children in Togo, whom we were going to visit, bearing gifts of course. Well, some of the gifts were in that big black bag. So I went off with Timothy to the baggage service area, to explain the situation. It took a while, in fact most of the team had passed through the customs, which was not much to discuss. We had the paperwork in hand; a telephone number to call, and now joined the group on to the bus. You must realize it was now six or seven in the morning of Monday!

Flexible, didn’t I tell you our middle name was to become flexible. It was decided, once at the hotel, we could sleep or rest or do whatever for the next two hours, and then it was time to eat lunch, and the start of our very busy first day. Let’s see, we have been traveling for about 72 hours or so, with a small break in between at the IBIS hotel. Now we have two hours, before the program starts…I am not sure what day of the week it is either, I just plan to go with the flow. In the midst of it all, we became a team, so yes, that was worth the extra time, I think.

Friday, January 22, 2010

What works to fight poverty and is set up to affect thousands in Haiti?

Group picture of all 53 children we support as a church,  Woman walking along the road, Me enjoying our two children we sponsor as a family. 

I just returned from Togo, West Africa this past Sunday afternoon. It was an amazing trip, and I learned much about fighting poverty in very real tangible ways. These are methods that provide a true reality of integrity and honor to the giver and the receiver. The responsibility was shared among the donors, (hopefully you and me), the Compassion Workers and Volunteers, the Children Center partners, and the children and their families. That's right, not only do the children participate in the process of combating poverty in their own lives, but their families step up to provide the emotional support, and time it takes to participate in the program. Compassion International has been around well over 40 years, combating poverty one child at a time. They only recently opened Children Development Centers in Togo, during the past 6 months. I visited the centers and the children, and even several families. I was totally impressed with their approach, and what they have accomplished in such a short few months. In Togo, their work is very young, but they have had a presence in Haiti for over 40 years.
This means, a full generation of children has graduated from the program with their families and are living more fruitful lives. It also means the program is reaching out to over 77,000 at risk children and their families today even before the devastating earthquake struck last week.

Tim Glenn, who works with Compassion international says, in his blog titled, It’s Time to Start Over in Haiti:

 "At the border of the Dominican Republic and Haiti, I saw a couple of relief supply trucks that had been turned into makeshift storefronts. People were trying to sell the food, water and clothing inside. Another example of how important it is for you to make sure you partner with an organization that has established distribution channels.  Many organizations can get stuff here, but don’t know how to distribute it. Parking a truck on the side of the road can cause mayhem. We don’t know exactly how many of our kids are affected. Getting to them all is terribly difficult. Many families fled when the quake hit. Many are sleeping on the streets. Rounding them up is tough. Perhaps one of the most inspiring things I’ve seen is our Haiti staff here. Keep in mind, many of them lost everything in the quake. They lost homes, possessions and sadly, some of them lost loved ones. Yet here they are, working at our makeshift camp every day, trying to help others. Serving in the midst of their pain. Amazing! Please continue to pray for them. They are heroes of the faith. Compassion partners with established local churches in Haiti. We have for more than 40 years. They know us. We know them. And shouldn’t the church be the distribution channel for relief in times of hurt anyway? You are providing for tons of supplies to make it into Haiti. Our first planeload is expected to arrive Friday in the Dominican Republic. It will be transported into Haiti on Saturday. We’ll be able to provide two weeks’ worth of basic necessities to more than 77,000 people"
Please donate using the button above, and become a part of getting another two week kit worth of basic necessities to these 77,000 people, already known by Compassion. I know first hand what Compassion has done in Togo in such a short time, I know they excel in integrity and targeted success. So please support this work in Haiti, as they touch those burdened by loss and death, including their own aid workers.

Thank you,


Wednesday, January 6, 2010

I’m leaving on a jet plane…..West Africa!

No it is not a Safari, nor will I be travelling with my better half, or my precious little Margo. I am heading off to Togo West Africa with a small group from Twin Oaks Church. We will be joining a group leader from Compassion International, and begin a visit to the children we each sponsor. It so happens our little church sponsors about 50 children in all from the same area; meaning we will have a gathering of all 49 kids. We are packing gift packs of toys, pens, paper, clothes, and even a few wooden spoons here or there, to deliver to each of our little charges. What is the goal? My goal is to learn as much as I can, about poverty and successful ways of combating the situation. The purpose is to learn more about what Compassion International really does to help each child we sponsor. Their motto evolves around, saving children from poverty, “one child at a time”.

More than once in the past few months, my own heart has been tugged at, about our local poverty. Our local poverty is different from what I will see in Togo. I am also thinking the method of combating poverty in Togo, will have a better sense of self esteem, and growth for those children going through the Compassion International program, than for those suffering homelessness over here. I am not an expert in any area of poverty, understanding poverty, or even trying to combat poverty. There have been more than a few times I have looked the other way when asked for a handout from someone on the street.

But this year, and the last few months of last year, I have been learning engagement. Actually, even before last year, the concept of engaging the poor and broken has been tugging at my own heart. Sometimes it has been as simple as looking into the eyes of the homeless person, talking to herself, pushing her carriage, as I ran across the bridge. In that simple moment, I was saying, “I see you, I know you are here.” Other occasions it involved listening to their story of job loss and travel to find work. Grabbing them a bowl of soup, and wondering why can’t I do something more permanent? I left him by shaking his hand, wishing him well, and inviting him to my church when he comes to my city. All of that felt still feels so empty.

My next step was to purchase a bag of food for a homeless family. The dad was asking for money outside the Lucky grocery store, explaining, “I have no food to feed my daughter and pregnant fiancĂ©e, we just fell into hard times, things will get better when my fiancĂ© completes her studies next year…” I wanted to close my eyes to him too, but I kept feeling a nudging, so I invited him into the store with me to purchase a bag of groceries for his family. I did not feel ‘better’, only conflicted. I engaged in conversation with him, and learned about the past two years of looking for work, and then him finding help because someone negotiated a better rate at the hotel on his behalf. Then I recognized him, it was Damien, he attends church with us on Sundays. Now I was starting to become engaged.

Most recently, I sent a letter to our sponsored child. Why, you might ask? I want to encourage her, to complete her studies, and enjoy the life about her. To let her know, we are her family, over on the other side of the world. Simply put, I need to start a conversation with her and discover her life. So now, I leave for Togo, this Friday, January 8th. This day will most likely keep me moving forward on my journey to understand poverty, and perhaps learn ways to keep it at bay. I hope and pray I am changed for the better.

I hope to write this blog from Togo, so expect to read something soon about this 10 day adventure. See you all when I return on the 17th of January. Love, Mommy Max