Capture the Victories

Author’s Note: This has become a much longer entry than I intended. For those of you who would rather read the short version, here you go: up until yesterday, I had a major writing block ever since landing in Libreville nearly two weeks ago. Lots of little stuff had gone wrong since then that all got resolved, but I was still in a funk. Finally, two nights ago – ten long days later – I had my “aha” moment. The stories I am to write are stories of victory over struggle, of overcoming and praising God. I had put too much pressure on myself to do the work God had assigned me. It just hadn’t seemed right to capture “biographies” of people here. I had missed the key point of it all: capture the victories! Within moments, I was sitting in front of my laptop, the words pouring out of me. The writing block was gone and I was filled with wonder at God’s magnificence.

Have you, for no clear reason, ever not been able to do something you’re really good at? All my life, I’ve been a good writer and have never lacked ideas and subject matter. This trip is going to test me this way, as I will be spending at least two of my four weeks at Bongolo interviewing and gathering stories of what God has and continues to do here. But, for the last ten days, I’ve been in the midst of one of those confusing “slumps”. I’ve felt increasing pressure to produce blogs filled with victorious accounts, but I’ve been stuck, not able to write, something I’ve done well and enjoyed ever since high school. But, I’ve had a block since leaving Libreville, the capital of Gabon, for Bongolo Hospital, a nine and a half hour drive south. I blogged once while there, then nothing since. Friends and colleagues back in the States and other parts of the world expected regular blog and social media updates, but I had nothing for them. Don’t lose hope like I started to. Ten long days and nights later, I finally have answers and breakthroughs, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

If you look at it some of the physical and emotional circumstances of the first ten days of this trip, it makes sense that I wouldn’t be filled with inspiration to write stories about the missionaries, staff and patients here. First, I was exhausted in every way after traveling from Pittsburgh, PA to Bongolo – two days of airports and flying – a six hour difference to adjust to. Second, somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean at about 3:00 am, I got up to stretch my legs – I don’t sleep much on long flights – and accidentally spilled an ounce or two of fizzy orange juice on my all-important laptop. Liquid drained out of the keyboard as well as the vent in the back. It was no surprise it did not turn on. Not good.

Then, there was the one and a half days I spent at Bongolo’s Guest House in Libreville, Gabon’s capital city. I mentioned that I blogged once there, but it was very slow and painful doing so from my cell phone – my laptop was still unresponsive. Upon arriving there, I met up, as expected, with a delightful Dutch couple, Arjo (“Arreeoh”) and Adrie (“Ahdree”), who were making their first trip to Bongolo. They had spent over 30 years as missionaries to various parts of Africa, and I took an instant liking to them. While mutually enjoyable, we were still strangers sharing a small, cramped, hot house. The next day, Arijo and I made some planned, needed repairs and did some food and materials shopping. I simultaneously enjoyed and struggled with the alien-ness of big city, French-speaking Africa, as well as jet lag and sleep deprivation. Even though my French was way better than a year ago, it was painfully obvious how much I didn’t know, as Arjo conversed and joked with literally everyone. He is a true extrovert and I felt like an introvert next to him! I fought envy and competitive impulses. All of this took its toll.

Finally, we made our drive south to Bongolo. This is a 9.5 hour bumpy journey over all kinds of eroded dirt roads and pot-holed concrete stretches. Every once in a while, the roads were smooth and newer. Also, we were all jammed into a small, four-door Toyota sedan. All of our luggage that wasn’t jammed into the trunk was packed around us so tightly we could barely move. On top of that, I experience the first truly difficult African person I’d run across: our driver. The normal Bongolo driver, Phillipe, was not available, so they had hired a Libreville taxi driver. I never caught his name, and after he exhibited dominating, control-freak tendencies, I stopped wanting to know and focused on sleeping as much as possible. Needless to say, the drive took its toll on me.

While it was wonderful to arrive back at my African home - I wish I could bottle the sheer joy on both sides at those first meetings - I also felt the impact of other non-physical blows once here. For example, I felt totally inadequate on the construction front, which wasn’t good, because that is one of the areas I’m exploring as part of my permanent role here. There were four incredibly skilled and experienced American visitors in addition to Arjo, who has an amazing African building background, and my good friend, Paul Davis (Maintenance Director) who I didn’t measure up to technically in the slightest. We all got along fine and they didn’t care that I didn’t know as much as long as I worked hard, but I felt like so inadequate next to them - not a good feeling considering I’m the one here long-term. It took its toll emotionally and physically.

In addition, my first four days of working with them were entirely inside the dungeon-like shell of the new eye center we had erected last winter. Back then, before the cement block walls and interior rooms went up, it was a wonderfully open, airy two-structure to work on. But now, it felt like a jail. I don’t like dark, confined spaces, yet there I was. Fortunately, I had brought a head-band flashlight and I made the best of it. But, four days of repetitively wiring 220 and 110 outlets and switches in a dank, dark, dirty confined space also took its toll on me.

Once at Bongolo, my technology struggles continued. I quickly discovered that the microphone for the expensive video camera I’d borrowed from church needed a small, round battery not available here. I searched the case inside and out, looking for the secret compartment I’d missed before. Nothing. Then, I found that it required a specialty cord to download video to a laptop. Geesh! How can I interview people without a microphone? How much capacity does the hard drive have? How can I back up video against loss or – God help me – another accident? Would I be able to complete my mission to gather stories and video to take back with me? This was really discouraging. Speaking of video interviewing, I had no idea how this would actually happen or if I would be good at it. I was scared to I would be seen as intrusive and in peoples’ faces with a First World camera, not to mention possibly running afoul of spiritual ideas that I would take someone’s soul with my camera!

Oh… and speaking of downloading to a laptop, that problem got bigger a few days after arriving at Bongolo. A well-meaning new friend and his wife (they were on home stay in America last year, so we had not met each other until now), were attempting to dry out my laptop in their oven – yes, oven! The pilot light produces low, dry heat nearly unheard of in the jungle and this had worked for them in the past. About two days into drying out - you guessed it – she forgot about it and accidently cooked it, along with some brownies. Needless to say, it was fried – literally! My heart sank, again. I was an emotional roller coaster over this – I wanted to be gracious, yet I was furious! I wanted to forgive them, shrug my shoulders and tell them, “It’s just a thing” and mean it. After all, I was the one who had spilled juice on it in the first place! Yet, I was filled with anger at such a foolish and irresponsible accident. I resolved to talk with them after I’d cooled down, but my imagination went crazy thinking up all of the ways this could become a true, long-term conflict.

That’s a pretty big list, eh? Believe me, it felt like it. But, before you get too far in thinking that I’m just complaining, not praying and giving up, I want to assure you the opposite was true, both during those times of testing and afterwards. I was fighting off these effects as best I could. It took about a week for my sleep pattern to gradually adjust to the 6-hour time zone difference, but I’ve been sleeping normally the last few nights and feel pretty rested. On the long drive from Libreville to Bongolo, we had air conditioning which worked nearly well enough to keep from sweating most of the drive. I napped at least half of the trip, and was grateful for fairly regular stretch breaks. And, the driver, while not the easiest guy to be with, proved to have a good heart and he relaxed some as he got to know us.

Also, God provided solutions to all of the technology problems within a day or two of them happening. I kept asking around about the battery, and found that one of the doctors stockpiles the exact same battery for her use at the hospital, and graciously gave me two. I discovered a method of transferring video from the camera’s hard drive to the removable memory card. And, incredibly, I have the use of a laptop. More amazing, it is my old one that I donated last year, and no one was using it at the moment! Also, my next-morning conversation with the husband and wife went as well as it could have. They were apologetic and repentant, and I was authentic, yet gracious. God showed up and, as we prayed together at the end of our meeting, I had hope this would be the start of a true friendship. We wondered together how God would use the “laptop incident” moving forward.

In each of these situations, and others not mentioned here (such as days of relentless itching from bug bites covering my arms and torso), I chose to surrender and trust God as has become my habit. Yet, even with good outcomes, I still struggled emotionally and spiritually. Perhaps, it was the piling on and I was worn down? I knew I was being attacked by both my flesh and by Satan, but knowing wasn’t enough to dig out. I was in a funk. Days went by.

Finally, two nights ago – ten long days later – I had my “aha” moment. The stories I am to write are stories of victory over struggle, of overcoming and praising God. I had put too much pressure on myself to do the work God had assigned me. It just hadn’t seemed right to capture “biographies” of people here. I had missed the key point of it all: capture the victories! Within moments, I was sitting in front of my laptop. The writing block was gone and I was filled with wonder at God’s magnificence.