This is the third time I have edited this blog due to time slipping away so quickly. The last forty days have been packed full of more trials than we have experienced in the previous eleven months. We have had sickness and death visited upon Neema House and our own house. It has definitely been an all out attack of Satan upon our ministry and minds. I apologize for the lateness of this post. I really wanted to get it out on December 13th, our one year anniversary, but here it is already the 6th of January! My love to you all for understanding.
I am very excited to report that we survived our first year living in Africa. I wish that I could sit down and talk to each of you about the events of our year, because writing about it could fill a memoir. (Actually, I would really LOVE to sit down and talk, we will be back in the States January 23 – February 27th!) How do you summarize 365 days of living? This task seems especially daunting when you have had a year like our family has had. I would certainly hope that in our lifetime, this last year will stand out as the most difficult year of all time. Not difficult because it was bad, in fact very much the opposite, but difficult because it held so much change and adjustment and joy and sadness and growth. Growth is good, but never easy. I have been thinking about writing this blog ever since I totally failed in my own personal goal of writing a similar summary at the six month mark. I have had a bit of writers block coupled with a very difficult December for Neema House with the death of one of our precious babies. This blog is debuting a few weeks later than I had hoped. Here goes…
I am going to write about the year of both my girls separately, but first I want to say that I could not be more proud or more thankful for anything than I am of how my girls have handled this transition. My throat gets tight and my eyes fill with tears at reflecting, with such gratitude, about how they have just rolled with EVERYTHING. There are circumstances about our living here coupled with Matt and my commitment to Neema House that make their life so different. They have to share us with 35 babies and 31 staff, 6 days a week, yet they have handled this with grace and ease. We have tried really hard, at the suggestion of just about everyone who knows our situation, to put our family first. We endeavor to make sure the girls know that their needs and feelings are valuable. They really are our most important ministry, not our only ministry, but our most important. We have tried to get them involved with Neema House. They do like to go there, but neither one is too excited about being with the babies, and that is okay. Just as we have had to struggle with adjusting to culture, they too have had to handle aspects of culture that are really difficult for a four and six year old. The local children do not play with them. They laugh at them and touch them and run from them. That part has broken my heart, but I trust that there will come a time when the girls are able to bridge this divide. The girls are an inseparable duo. Yahweh knew what He was doing when He gave us these two so close in age. Everyday they play and play and play together. It is rare that they fight or tire of each others company. Really, I could not be more thankful.
When we left Texas, Tabitha was exactly one year post corrective surgery for bladder reflux. I often see this as something that Yahweh did to prepare the way, even when we had not made the decision to come. Even at a year of being infection free, I still made it a point early on to let the pediatrician know that she had had serious surgery. He was fine with the information and let me know that if she had a kidney infection he would treat it very seriously. With great praise I can report that Tabitha has had no kidney infections and I feel at rest that she is healed. In fact, Tabitha has not been sick a single day of our year. I praise God for this and I am sure it has much to do with those of you praying for us. Keep it up. He hears and answers. Tabitha made the trip from America to Tanzania like a champ, and she slept a good part of the way. One of her clearest memories of the past year is of arriving at Neema House for the first time and being swept into the arms of one of the nannies and carried around. It took her many months to feel comfortable at Neema House. She is very introverted and had a hard time with all the greetings that are required in this culture. After much practice, she has mastered the greetings and does a great job at initiating her own greetings. She turned four years old in May. We celebrated her birthday with friends God provide that have girls the exact same age as Camille and Tabitha. Tabitha loves school. I home school my girls and she has always wanted to ‘do school’ just like Camille. I try to let her go at her own pace, but she is a fast learner, and is already half way through kindergarten math and phonics. She has loved going on safari when my parents were here. Her favorite animal is an elephant. When we went on safari with my parents, she said she wanted to see a baby elephant and was blessed with seeing a ‘tiny’ one, of only a few months age, mere feet from the car. One of the joys of living here has been teaching my girls, and learning myself, the impact of our shopping dollar on the economy. We buy our produce from the farmer, our eggs from the egg lady and our clothes from the used clothing market. We have a rule that we only buy from women, and my girls have learned to search out venders, make friends and return for more purchases. They know that when we spend money, we are helping a women support her family. It is such a good lesson to know. One of Tabitha’s favorite experiences has been going to the snake park. The snake park is just like it sounds, a park full of snakes (in cages), crocodiles, lizards and birds. She loves holding the snakes and I have had to tell her over and over again that if she sees a snake NOT at the snake park, she is to back away slowly. When we killed a snake in our bushes, she cried and cried that it could not be released into the wild. Tabitha definitely has a heart turned toward spiritual things. She will know and understand things from scripture that surprise both Matt and me. She is frequently asking questions about things of a spiritual nature that let us know that her brain and heart are processing more than we could imagine.
Camille was the one I was really worried about when we pointed ourselves toward Africa. She and her grandma were (are) so close. She loves parties and people and going, going, going. I knew when we visited in August before moving here that we were going to have to home school due to lack of international schools close enough to where we live. I worried how I would fulfill her need for social interaction with our commitment to Neema House. I will be honest and say that it has not been perfect, but God has provided. We have made several good friends who we try to see at least once per week, plus we have gotten plugged into a wonderful church that has classes that the girls love. Camille has especially liked all of the volunteers that come stay at Neema. She feels an ownership of our ministry, and when people come and volunteer with the babies, they are her instant family and friends. Many of the volunteers have come to our home and stayed with the girls while Matt and I get some much needed ‘us’ time. This can be a bittersweet relationship, as all the volunteers leave at some point, and my girls, Camille especially, experience small broken hearts over the exits. Camille has also loved our pets. We have a dog named Donyo, which means mountain in Masai, and a tortoise named Shelly, which means… well, she has a shell. We are also frequently visited by chameleons and hedgehogs, and have resident geckos. Camille’s school has gone better than I could have ever dreamed. We have a basic curriculum covering the fundamentals, then we let her interest lead us on what extra things we do and study. We have researched and done projects on dolphins, tortoises, plants, volcanoes and chameleons. We also try to do many crafts, cooking and nature activities. Twice Camille has traveled with us to Masai land. What a school experience that has been. My heart has nearly burst with pride as I watched her bravely go into the bomas, eat goat off a stick and be led by the hand in a large group of children. Camille and Tabitha both have goats that have been gifted to them by the families that we minister to in the Masai village. The trips to the village have led to very interesting conversations about the way people live and how it is possible for some to live so differently than others. I described Tabitha as having a heart that leans into spiritual things. Camille does too, but her spiritual self is much more into questioning and discovering and thinking about the whys and hows of being God’s people. She continues to ask question after question, and I just pray that Matt and I are given the wisdom to answer with our words and with our lives.
If writing for the girls was hard, writing for Matt and myself is compounded a hundred times. I have told the story of how we ended up here in Arusha working for Neema House an thousand times, as everyone who comes through Neema and meets us wants to know how we came to be the directors of a baby orphanage in Tanzania. I will say that even with repetition the story has not become any less fantastic in my own mind. As we approach (and passed) our one year anniversary, I still am in total awe that God has seen it fit to place us here. Often times people tell us we are wonderful, that we are doing something great and that they could not do what we are doing. I never know what to say to that, because I am just totally and completely humbled beyond belief that God would LET us do this. I feel like I am living a dream. Sometimes it is a very hard dream with bumps and bruises, but still the dream I have dreamed since childhood. I love telling people that God put this plan on our hearts in 2006, before we had even met Dorris and Micheal. He led us down a path of things I thought I would never do: have children, move to Texas, go to another Church of Christ, but this was the plan He had for our lives. We could have resisted, and we would be able to serve Him and bring glory on another road, but I definitely believe that this was His desired idea for our family. That is a thought I have clung to like a life line in an ocean of cultural struggle, of language struggle, of watching my kids spend another day without seeing friends. I have written on the blog before about our struggle with cultural shock, but no amount of writing can do the experience justice. I do praise God that he has allowed Matt and I to be on different waves of high and low. It seems that right as I am feeling like Tanzania is in my blood, Matt is ready to pack his bags, and vise versa. My most treasured moments have been the ones where I just felt connected. It has been when I realized that Mama Musa and I were going to be friends. It was when I felt ok in my own spirit to know that the staff listened to Matt because he was male, and ignored me because I was female. It was when I was able to help a few of the staff with health issues and gained their trust. It was when my heart wrapped itself all the way around Elisha and Theresia and I knew that these babies were OUR ministry, OUR way of bringing the love of God to the needy. This is the feeling side of me, the one that rises and crashes with the wind or exhaustion. The thinking part of me also sees that we have made great strides in the year. Our position has been an interesting one, because it is so undefined. We had 36 hours to learn the ropes with Rebecca Fortson, who had been the director for four months total. We realized that we were walking into an organization with very little actual organization (none of which was Rebecca’s fault). Some things ran well, some things not at all. I feel so proud, as I look at everything we have managed to accomplish over the year. We were able to get the financial side under control and on the books, raise the standard of care, and implement a homemade formula for the babies that is better for them and much cheaper. We also started the process of providing continuing education for the nannies, and managed to uphold Neema House’s primary goal, which is to have the babies into safe and loving families by the age of three. I am so excited about the families that have been made through adoption and the families that have been able to take their orphaned babies back home once the support system was in place. We consistently have visitors come into Neema House and tell us it is the best place they have visited in all of Arusha, and that makes our hearts swell. I tell them, it is only up from here, come see us in another year, and it will be the best place in all of Tanzania!
I could not even get the words typed before the tears came. I want you to know that my husband is awesome, he is beyond awesome, think of whatever word is beyond awesome and that is what he is. The character that I saw growing in him the eight years before we came to Tanzania has made him the best man for this job. The dreams he tried and felt that he failed at and the way he would pick himself up with lessons learned. All of the pain and trial has honed him into a fantastic leader. He learned from years of doing his own business ventures how to keep excellent financial records and has been able to pull Neema House from disarray into beautiful order. Because of this order, we are excited about doing an internal audit sometime in the near future, which will allow us to apply for grants. With his calm personality and wisdom in not speaking too rashly (the opposite of me!), he has been able to formulate relationship with officials and social workers. This has been particularly difficult when corruption has been at play, but I will say that he has done a wonderful job of navigating somewhat turbulent situations, and keeping Neema House in the good graces of all without compromising our standards. He has worked and made relationship with the staff of Neema House, so that it is clear that he is the decision maker, and he carries this burden with grace. Through all of this he has been an amazingly loving father and husband. I am probably going way over the top, but I just want you to know that our success in this ministry is 87% Matt and that 100% because God has prepared him for this time. Matt is still very involved in some of his hobbies that he loved back in the states. He was able to ship some of his weightlifting equipment in our crate, and continues to do weightlifting, although now it is in our bedroom instead of the garage. He just recently welded together a squat rack and is back to his favorite exercise. He is looking forward to being able to do more building projects once the construction starts on the new facility. He has definitely missed using those skills on a regular basis.
Overall, I would say that our year has been a great success. We have built relationships, learned so much about what it means to live and work as foreigners in a foreign land. Yahweh has revealed so much spiritual truth over the years about what it means to be a servant and what it means to follow Yahshua as we live in a land that does not receive or recognize us. Both Matt and I feel more convinced now that we are exactly where we are supposed to be, doing the job that was prepared for us in advance. We praise Him for allowing us this opportunity, and we thank you for making it possible.
A Year in Review
Miles traveled: 8,809 miles from Texas to Arusha
Date Arrived: December 13, 2013
Blogs posted: 47
National Parks visited: Arusha National Park, Tarengiri National Park, Ngorongoro National Park, Kilimanjaro National Park
Tabitha’s Favorite Place: Snake Park
Camille’s Favorite Place: Swimming pool in Moshi, Tanzanai
Kelly’s Favorite Place: Our front Porch
Matt’s Favorite Place: Taj Indian Food
Safari (in the Western sense): 2 (both with visitors)
Safari (in the Tanzanian sense): 577? “I’ve been everywhere man”
Fender benders: 2
Times stopped by police: 7432 (estimated)
Weight gained from stressing eating: 6 pounds
Babies rescued: 24
Land purchased: 9 acres
Doctor visits: 3243 (estimated)