Friday, 17 June 2011

Delightful Cape Town, Difficult journey

Cape Town was a blur of many beautiful memories. We began in Constancia with friends of Bill & Joyce, welcoming the latter with much excitement! After four months we were very happy to be with family again and sped off for lunch on a farm surrounded by pecking chicks. Our stay in Contancia was lovely, and we had some good conversations too.

We hired a car and our next stop was Newlands, staying in a very pretty cottage with the majestic Table Mountain watching over us. We took a very untaxing cable car to the top and witnessed stunning views of the beach below, with seemingly tiny ants sunbathing and moving around in miniscule metal cars. Braving an explosive ocean, we made it to Robben Island which for me was as solemn as it should be, but also inspiring as to what a person’s heart and will can achieve. We also ran around Kirstenbosch and there we drank the sweetest, deepest, thickest hot chocolate on earth.

Cape Town’s other side didn’t hide itself during our trip, for which I am glad. In fact visiting our friend Pete in Manenberg was a sheer delight, painting his house in bright colours and bible verses. Despite much fearful advice from people who look like us saying we mustn’t venture into the infamously dangerous Cape Flats, we met the friendliest Capetonians there and had a lot of fun. We also ate local African food in an informal settlement, met the children in the local nursery and asked ourselves questions. It takes forty minutes to drive on one road from the glossiest of wealth to the very hungry. Why on earth does Cape Town look like this? Why does the world look like this? Who will wade into this dynamic, be unafraid of its mess and love unceasingly? Am I willing to face these questions and not flinch? Are you?

We finished at Fishhoek, one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, perched at the bottom of the earth. Surrounded by sea views, I spent much time snuggled in a rug on our veranda watching waves crash in the wind and drinking coffee. It was delightful to be with Bill and Joyce, who always love us so well and make us laugh. We had real conversations and thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company. It is really these rich days together, full of time and talk and sharing, that make up for the distance.

Our time together came to a close and a long journey north hung in the horizon. We had to make it all the way back to Iris in the Northern Mozambican town of Pemba, our chosen place to settle. Cape Town to Bloemfontein was the first stretch and we arrived at 1am into Bloem. Praying for a safe taxi, we had to trust a stranger with an unmarked car to take us in an unknown city to an unknown hostel. Considering all this, we arrived safely into a dingy warehouse and slept for five hours in a room with things like ‘Chris loves Stacey 2002’ ebbed in black marker pen on the wall.

Regretting our unrefreshing stop and vowing next time to sleep on the bus, we were back on a new bus to Johannesburg. We arrived drained to a perfect and invigorating stay with friends of Bill and Joyce. They looked after us so thoughtfully, fed us delicious food and sent us to Maputo cheered up with a gigantic bag of snacks.

Across the border to Maputo we felt a surprising sense of relief. Relief from what is still a great divide in South African – although there are differences in Mozambique, the stark separation is gone and in its place the warmth of mixture. In Maputo we checked into a backpackers and celebrated Nick eating fish again by going to a smart poolside restaurant and ordering the cheapest fish on the menu.

It was the following day that we realised we were very much behind on bookkeeping. The concerning conclusion was that we barely had enough money to eat, never mind make it to Pemba. Suddenly immeasurably grateful for the big bag of food our friends in Jo’burg gave us, we sat down to the share a little spinach salad in our hostel, and went to bed wondering what on earth we were going to do.

Quickly our imagined beachside amble north to Pemba, stopping in at little lodges to snooze, was forgotten. Our goal was to get to Pemba fast (because fast meant fewer hotel bills). We spent the next day brainstorming in the local bus company’s office. At 3am that night we boarded the bus to Beira, alongside weeping wives waving goodbye to working husbands, and 17 hours later we emerged at Beira utterly exhausted. I’m sure many enjoy their stay in Beira. What we read about it was it was a malaria hotspot and had an unpleasant night scene. What we experienced was a long and hungry day wandering around, with not a lot to eat, hoping someone might hand us a wad of cash. (Before you all start to worry, we are doing much better financially these days, but forget I told you for the moment, so you can really enjoy our tumultuous tale.)

Another middle-of-the-night awakening and another 17-hour bus journey awaited us. By this time we were really having to pull ourselves on the bus, pull ourselves north. The bus was unbearably cold with the AC pulsing freezing jets all night long, so I wore my scarf wrapped around my head for pure warmth and again felt grateful for the nuts and raisins to nibble on through the night. Finally in Nampula, friends of friends kindly took us in and fed us hot bean stew – and I am unsure if I have ever been so thankful for a hot meal! We spent a day resting at their place as I was feeling a bit unwell, and the next day spent seven hours on a bumpy ride up to Pemba. The last seven hours of a much longer trip that took seven months: England, France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, South Africa, southern Mozambique, central Mozambique, northern Mozambique… Pemba. And this time to stay.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

A Playful Month in Zimbabwe

The school finished in dancing, celebration and glory on December 19th, 150 students racing out of Pemba believing they really could do anything. We raced out among them, but we knew we were returning in a month or two to this beautiful little Mozambiquan seaside town. Yes, during our stay God had spoken to us about staying, but more on that later.

Twenty of us jammed in the back of a truck, we left Pemba early in the morning. Zimbabwe – a land birthing stories of unparelled beauty and also pain – awaited us. An uncomfortable seven hours later, we emerged grubby and tired on a stunning farm outside Nampula, a town a little further south in Mozambique. Towering orange mountain rocks encircled us, and we spent a happy day playing in the greenery and running away from unnaturally huge insects. There we met two easygoing Zimbabweans who were driving to Harare the following day, and offered us a lift. Unbelievably helpful for us, we said yes please.

We broke for the night in a delightful guesthouse near the border of Mozambique and Zimbabwe. However the ‘superbugs’ (as we called them) we came across on the Nampula farm paled in comparison to the creatures that surrounded our little room. Great lizards, enormous crickets and cockroaches in the sink all competed for the ‘most alarming’ prize, but our winner was surely the baby scorpion hanging happily on our curtain. We fearfully informed the lady preparing our room, who calmly pinched the curtain with her bare fingers, killing the little intruder in two pinches.

We arrived in Harare and had a strange couple of days. We foolishly accepted a lift from a stranger (I know, I know) and felt a little shaken afterwards, as it brought back some unpleasant feelings from Dar. It felt almost like a ghost city – once a hub of art, life and richness, our snapshot was of countless vacant hotels, slightly sad Christmas lights and angry men. Happy to leave on the bus to Bulawayo we met our wonderful friend Ezra who took us in at his farm for what ended up being a month.

And what a fun month it was! We remember that month full of good conversation round his huge wooden table, long mornings with coffee, worship music always playing on the ipod, lots of delicious food, rambling around the farm with his two enormous puppies, making new friends, jumping on the back of Ez’s pick-up. We enjoying glimpsing Ez’s daily life, visiting ladies outgrowing chickens in his project and meeting some of the Zimbabwean leaders he works with – and even visiting Ebeneezer, a beautiful stretch of land where youth learn to farm in a similar way to how God cares for the land. Seeing the land bursting with food brought hope to our hearts and portrayed a bright alternative to the British media’s desolate depiction of a bleak nation. We absolutely heard horrendous stories during our trip; no doubt many Zimbabweans have witnessed a terrible degree of suffering. But the inspirational people we meet, the crops waving in the breeze and the faith of many stirred us with excitement.

We spent Christmas spotting elephants and hippos, and saw the unspeakably beautiful Victoria Falls. Our first wedding anniversary was celebrated over a veggie lasagne in a cafĂ© – not exactly five star treatment, but full of good conversations, laughter and love – the good things of life! We even got to catch our dear friend Chris before we set out south.

And set out south we did, waving goodbye to our friends from the Bulawayo – Pretoria bus. South Africa here we come! I had never been before and this country of lions and landscapes, famous for countless reasons, held much allure. And it was only a night bus away…

We woke exhausted after a bad night’s sleep on the bus to Pretoria. (Picture it being the middle of the night, having to walk for ages carrying all your luggage. It was at this moment I remember saying to Nick in quite a cross voice ‘Why do we travel like this?’) Anna, our friend, came to collect us and hosted us in her beautiful house for what was an oasis of rest. We were still reeling at any Western food, and loved roaming around Western shopping complexes – we had seen nothing like this for months. Onwards to Cape Town - 24 hours in a train, but absolutely worth it for who awaited us there: the one and only Bill & Joyce Lear!

Saturday, 4 June 2011

The Iris Harvest School, Oct-Dec

Is it possible to sum up two months in a few paragraphs? It is even more of a challenge when those two months are spent intensely, sometimes learning an abundance of new thoughts, sometimes mediating on the beauty of the oldest truths, the heart whizzing through the weeks with barely any time to digest all that is poured in. Does that make any sense?

Let me start with our home. We were given a little concrete house amidst fifteen other houses. In this little house we had a room a little larger than our double bed. We shared our wee kitchen with eight other women (also doing the school). This was to be our community for the next ten weeks. We woke around 6am, to have tea and bread for breakfast, have a quiet time, sometimes hand-washing our clothes until we dripped with sweat, and began class at 8am singing to God and loving him with all our hearts. We sat on the floor for 5 or 6 hours listening to some of the most inspirational people walking the earth share with us – on all manner of things… on love, on being with the poor, on learning a new culture, on miraculous healing and raising the dead, on being intimate with Jesus, knowing the Father’s heart… It was truly shaping and we would always leave for beans at lunch with our heads spinning and our hearts on fire – inspired to be what we heard about.

Afternoons were free, but we would often have meetings, hang around with kids, read our required book list… Yet sometimes Nick and I would escape the crazy schedule and catch up over a soda. It was a deeply beautiful time and we learnt a lot. During those months it felt like my head was full, my heart was full, and I was hungry to see what all of this teaching looked like in practice.

A question Heidi often posed to us was “what does love look like?” To the widow, to the orphan, to the rich banker, to your sister, to the lonely? And I felt my heart enlarge… She shared from her depths, pleading with us to stop with compassion for the one in front of us, and also inviting us to stop to spend time with God, to let him be a Daddy to us, to cover us with his love. Often we would spend time singing to him, talking to him after someone had taught, and it was in these times that I felt him open my eyes to new things – like, for example, I felt a huge joy that I had been forgiven. Often people tell you in church “oh you are forgiven through Jesus” and we are supposed to be happy about it, but sometimes we are pretending because we don’t know what that really means. One day after Rolland shared about Jesus saving us I felt so happy, so delighted, so grateful I was in tears.

The Iris Harvest School is an incredible opportunity to grow in your faith. For us, it was like someone holding our hand as we had ventured out of our home countries into Africa, following a sense of God’s call to work with children in need, but with no home or place to go. Some of you may have been to church conferences or church weekends and experienced God in a new and more powerful way. The school was a bit like that, but tenfold. People had come from all over the world to experience God and that itself bought a really exciting feel to the group of 150 or so students. On the other hand most of us found being outside of our comfort zones pretty tough – lack of personal space in the houses and out and about, the soaring temperatures, the basic diet (oops, we’re now responsible for that diet!) – and that meant it was pretty difficult at times. Also, for me it was stretching to hear so much about miracles and the supernatural and to be with a group that was quite as loud as this one was in the meetings. At times some would scream and laugh and cry and fall over when they were experiencing God in some way. It’s always tempting to judge people for doing this and want to feel like they are looking for attention, but I tried to fight this as hard as I could and just focus on my response to what we were learning about.

By far and away the most inspirational teaching came from Heidi Baker who started the ministry with her husband. I have never heard teaching with the heart that she has and with real life action to back it up. The only reason Iris is here in Mozambique at all is because 15 years ago she started going to a rubbish dump and telling them about Jesus, and then started taking in kids to their home when they found orphans who’d been left to fend for themselves. Rolland Baker too brought excellent teaching, bringing a lot of wisdom and balance to the more fiery visiting speakers. And fiery ones there were! From the USA, from Singapore, from Brazil, from Mozambique… people Heidi thought would inspire us and who were walking the walk too. Some of the major themes were taking risks, expecting miracles, being compassionate to the one person in front of you when surrounded by so much need, coming to a new culture humbly and from a place of service and bringing in the kingdom of God through preaching the gospel and praying for the sick. Iris Pemba has an incredible commitment to send out teams every weekend week in week out to visit villages in the bush to show the Jesus film, preach the gospel and pray for the sick.

I think this last thing was the thing that impacted me most on the school. I think for a long time I have drifted from the commitment I had in my 20’s to enable people to hear of the wonderful grace that is available to them in Jesus. He has absolutely transformed my life and continues to do so, and I want to live and speak in a way that brings people to God. I think for a long time, under the cover of sensitivity or feeling like I was too hypocritical to preach any message, I have long ceased to live like that. I felt like a weight lifted off me on the school. I think it helps stepping out of the UK and being in a different culture – it helped me see more clearly what my life had become. I was also spending a lot of my time and energy focusing on issues of the environment and of the institutional church. These are still areas I am passionate about, but they had become far too dominant for me. Jesus’ first disciples had a pretty simple message on their minds when they travelled village to village.

For me, the school was not only a beautiful walk but a wrestle. “What does love look like?” is a challenging question, and I found myself constantly probing myself. Is it ok to have a coke? Should I live in a mud hut? It is easy to say “no, no, don’t be too extreme” to these kind of questions, but I think there is beauty in loving the poor so much that they become my family, and it is difficult to see huge gulfs of wealth between me and my family. But there is also a beauty in letting God be Daddy and letting him treat me, nurture me, look after me, and that might mean a coke! Throughout the school I wrestled a fair bit, and occasionally drifted into the arid lands of pushing myself towards a simplicity of lifestyle that I could not achieve – nor one Daddy was asking of me. I found the food tough too and found myself longing for a feta salad like never before.

Despite all this, I was ringing with joy from so many different wonderful experiences. With hindsight now I see a lot of beautiful thoughts were carved into my heart during that time… But, really, life is more beautiful now we are actually living it (more about this later). Yes it harder now. Yes we have to engineer our own spiritual input rather than pitching up to six hours of teaching and singing. Yes now people can be really mean and a lot of people during the school was amazingly sweet. Yes we slept more then than we do now. Yes, then, we were free to go to the beach whenever we wanted, and now we have to hand out plates of beans and deal with terrible conflicts. But I found learning about love was absolutely not what I crave. I crave to live a life of love. A life that spends hours receiving the beautiful love of my saviour, and a life that pours out, like wine, unceasing, full of compassion for the one who fights, full of healing for the one who hurts, overflowing and pouring, redeeming and changing. Why only learn about the most beautiful thing on earth when one can really become it?