It is so hard to believe that yesterday marked the day of our arrival in Arusha, Tanzania two years ago! The time has simply flown by and we continue to be so blessed with the opportunity to continue to serve at Neema House. The task of writing about the 2015 is even more daunting than it was the year before, mostly because it has been six months (aggh!) since my last blog and so much has gone undocumented. I have come to realize that there are many skills that make a good missionary. I have several, but good communication and picture taking are not among my strengths. I am thankful for those of you who have not forgotten us and continue to pray and support us. I know many of you follow Neema House on Facebook and can see that there is so much going on here in Arusha. We are so excited about our accomplishments over the last year, and even more excited about what the next year holds. I am confident that when I write next year’s update, with many blogs planned between now and then, we will have made the transition from Neema House to Neema Village. Our goal is to move into the completed facility by the end of February 2016!
The fact that the dream of Neema Village is well on it’s way to becoming a reality is a testament to the commitment and support of so many people from around the world. My family is humbled and honored to be a part of such a great adventure, here is our year in review:
Camille and Tabitha continue to astound Matt and me with their ability to thrive in our crazy life. I read back over last years anniversary blog and I can say again this year that they have blown me away with their strength and grace in all circumstances. They continue to be each others best friend and playmate. Both girls have a very developed imagination. This year we have been reading the “Little House on the Prairie” series and this has birthed fantastic story lines in their playtime of being Mary and Laura Ingels out on the Prairie. They both still love barbies and horses and all types of animals. I love listening to the stories they weave in their playtime.
We have continued to home school and both girls have done fantastic in their work. Camille is now in second grade and Tabitha is in what we are calling Kinder-first, since she is in between both grades. This year we hired a teacher to work with the girls in the afternoon. This decision has been completely life changing for our family. For me it eases the burden of trying to get all their schoolwork squeezed into the morning hours so that I can then rush off to Neema House by noon. For the girls, it introduces another loving adult who can have valued input into their lives. Our teacher, Tumi, is a young Tanzanian woman who actually graduated from the Compassion program. She teaches preschool for the kids at Neema House in the mornings and then walks to our house and teaches the girls from noon until 4pm. This arrangement has been an answer to one of my deepest prayers. I was so grieved every time I had to leave the girls in the afternoons. Although I know that Maria, our house sister, loved them and kept them safe, she did not interact with them much. I felt that I was essentially leaving my kids unsupervised for hours per day, six days per week, while I was at Neema House. Tumi has been such a lovely solution to this problem and addition to our family. So now I teach the girls Bible, science, reading and literature in the mornings and then Tumi comes and teaches math, spelling, language arts, handwriting, arts/crafts and Swahili. It has been fantastic knowing that I can leave the house and the girls are getting quality education from a loving teacher and not just being left to their own devices.
My word for the year has been ‘sustainable’. I realize this is a word thrown around a lot lately, but in our circumstance, sustainable means making the the necessary changes and arrangements to where we are able to function as the directors of Neema House for the long term. For the first year here, our schooling arrangement for the girls was not sustainable for the long-term. Now, with Tumi and myself co-teaching, home schooling has become a sustainable arrangement for the long term. This does not mean that sometime in the future we may choose to explore other options. I continue to ask God to direct me to a good school for the girls. Only time will tell if He will choose to answer that prayer in a way that is different than home schooling.
Another great addition has been dance class, which the girls go to every Saturday. The class is taught by a married couple, the wife is from Belgium and the husband from Tanzania. The woman is a classically trained ballerina and the man teaches African dance. It has been the highlight of the girls week to go and learn all sorts of dance and movement. We have also continued to go to the Vineyard Church. This church has been such a blessing for our family. Both girls moved up to new classes and are enjoying the change. They do not go to class together, which is great because it gives them a time to be their own person instead of the unit which they so often are. I love this time because it is an opportunity for other adult Christians to pour into their lives.
This year, sadly, has been a year filled with goodbyes. I know, from reading and researching into the effects of a life overseas on children, one of the most talked about downsides is having to say goodbye to friends so frequently as expats and missionaries transition on and off ‘the field’. Just this year we have said goodbye to three families who we felt the closest as they have moved back to their home country or gone on extended furlough. This. Is. Tough. It is tough on the girls as they face losing friends and struggling over being lonely. It is tough on Matt and I, as we also lose friends, and have to watch our little girls struggle with big feelings. The nature of expat and missionary life is just so transitory. People come for a time and then go back ‘home’, but for those of us who have made the foreign country ‘home’, it is a painful cycle of making connection and then saying goodbye. I covet your prayers for all of us in this area, but especially for the girls, who crave close friendships and are wounded by goodbyes. This is one reason why I am so very thankful that they have each other and are such good friends. I do not know how we would handle it if they did not have the close relationship between each other.
As close as the girls are, it is also good for you to know how they have grown individually over the year. Tabitha is still our sweet, quiet, STUBBORN girl. She has been learning to read this year and is doing extremely well. I have changed my approach and have focused more strongly on phonics instruction instead of just jumping into reading books like I did with Camille. I think this has really benefited her and I expect her reading will explode as she is able to confidently sound out words. As much as Tabitha likes reading, she is a powerhouse in math. She is half way through first grade math and refuses to use manipulative, as she is so fast at calculating in her head. I have had to tell Tumi that she can only do two days work at a time, as she would sail through a weeks worth of work if she could. Tabitha also loves to do art work. She is incredibly meticulous and will sit and work on one project for hours. She still loves mud and getting dirty and climbing trees. She continues to surprise Matt and I about the deep questions she asks regarding spiritual matters and she is not at all afraid of talking to anyone about what she believes. She still does not like to play with the babies at Neema House, but she has gotten much more confident about interacting with the staff. Tabitha’s favorite animal is a snake, her favorite food is chicken and her favorite color is purple. She is a vicious game player with unnatural luck, much to her sister’s despair.
Camille has exploded in her reading. She is now reading through the Magic Tree House series and the Mandie series and any other chapter book she can get her hand on. She reads very, very fast. So fast that I thought she was only scanning through the pages until I decided to ask her questions about books she had just finished and found that she was reading with good comprehension. Because books are not easy to get over here, she tends to read a book two or three times. She started complaining of headaches with reading and that she could not read the words to songs when we were at church, so we got her eyes checked and she came home wearing the cutest pair of pink glasses. Although, the optometrist let us know that she has severe astigmatism and that she will need her prescription strengthened after six months, when her eyes adjust to wearing glasses. Camille has loved doing our science program this year. Science fits so well with her natural curiosity and she has loved digging into biology. She has been the one to struggle the most with the ebb and flow of friendships. She loves intensely and grieves deeply when friends move away. Camille’s favorite color is pink, pink, pink and sparkles. Her favorite food is green chicken curry, favorite activity is swimming and favorite book is Mandie mysteries.
This has been a year of change and growth for me. Following our brief trip to the US in January/February I transitioned from being the medical director at Neema House to being over the volunteer program. I will admit that this was a very difficult transition for me to make. It was complicated by the fact that Rebekah Fortson, who came to be the medical director, broke her leg in April and was unable to take over the medical area for several months as she recovered. I love all things medical. I have grieved giving up my occupational therapy practice, so I probably did not hand over the reigns as graciously as I could have when Rebekah was up and getting around again.
It took me a while to ‘come into my own’ with the volunteer program. I do really love volunteers and we have had so many fabulous ones come through our program. However, my heart just was not in it for a while. I do not know when, or how it changed, but I have been able to truly commit myself to this important part of our mission, and with that has come joy. I love seeing people’s excitement and hearing their stories of how God provided for them to come to Africa and meet the babies they have been supporting from afar. We have welcomed volunteers from over 15 different countries. We have welcomed young children and people in the 80’s as volunteers. I do love taking people out to the building site and sharing the vision we have for Neema Village and the outreach that will take place there. Part of the struggle, I think, was just my lack of confidence in my own ability to be what I thought it takes to make volunteers feel welcome. I am an introvert and everyone has always told me I am intimidating. However, God has definitely provided his strength, peace and unexpected joy in this position.
In addition to working with the volunteers I have been heavily involved in staff development. We now employee 38 Tanzanians. There are days when I feel that working with the staff is just as much a part of the outreach of Neema House as working for the babies. We are committed to these 38 people and so blessed by their efforts for the kids that they work for. It is not always smooth and easy, but we have made so much progress in training up a team of individuals to be the best staff for Neema House. I have been personally committed to making sure that I am a part of the staff’s life through being aware and involved with their health as well as being present for things like funerals of family members, baptisms of children and celebrations of new babies. I have been able to combine the volunteer program and staff development this year by asking the past volunteers to raise funds for the staff’s Christmas bonus. This has been extremely successful and I am looking forward to blessing our staff with a sizable bonus on December 20th.
Besides staff and the volunteer program, I make sure that I am spending time with each kid multiple times per week. I just want to really, truly know them and for them to know me. Neema kids love visitors, but I want them to know that Mama Camille (what they call me) is not just a visitor, she is a caregiver and an integral part of their life. I make sure that the shifts are running smoothly and that nothing is being missed or overlooked. This is a growing job, as we now have 46 children!!! Of course I have help in all of this, I could not do it without Mama Musa our manager and Kelly Gilbert, our only long term volunteer. It is just so important to spend time just being with the kids and knowing them. That is the joy of this work for sure.
Personally it has been a year of ups and downs. Like I said before, we have said goodbye to our closest friends and I have experienced a good dose of expat loneliness. There is nothing like missing people and being 9,000 miles and ten time zones away. I have not dealt with the stress so well and it is showing in weight gain. Sustainable is my word, and my coping mechanisms have been the opposite of that. I am definitely working on how to handle the stress of life in a better way. I have started working out again, doing yoga and swinging the kettlebell that my brilliant husband made for me. I have a lot of personal goals for this year: learning more swahili, writing blogs, cultivating friendships, increasing my time in the Word, and improving my yoga practice. However, my over-arching goal for the year is consistency. In every small goal that I make, be it working towards a perfect yoga push up or a weekly blog, my first goal is to be consistent in the effort. I am so over starting and stopping. You will know how I am doing by the consistency of my blog posts. Risky business putting that out there!!
I always try to get Matt to write something on here, but to say writing is not his favorite activity is putting it mildly. He is also not so fond of talking about all he does every day, so it is my honor to tell you about his year. Matt is a busy, busy, busy man. The building on the new facility started strong in May and he is involved in every aspect of the new process. We do have a fantastic project manager who is the head in charge, Chandu. Matt works with Chandu in making all the decisions. He is out at the building site almost everyday. One of the big tasks that he has accomplished is getting to know the village council and working with them on drilling our well and running the water line up to the property. Each little area has its own local government, and navigating the power structure can be a nightmare. Everyone wants you to think they are in charge, so it takes some detective work and many meetings to figure out who can actually get important jobs done. Through it all, Matt has really enjoyed seeing the project come to life. He loves taking people out to the site and lights up when he talks about how the project is progressing and what are future dreams are for the property.
Matt is still working on managing all the finances. We have made the switch from Quicken to Quick Books for the book keeping, which has made the book keeping much better, but was quite the learning curve and data entry process. He also tries to spend as much time as he can with the kids. The call him Matty and they beg him to through them in the air. He has taken on the job of trying to be a father figure to the older kids, especially some of the boys who really need loving male input. We both spend a lot of time working with the families of our kids making plans for their futures. It is especially difficult to come up with a satisfactory plan when we have Maasai kids from far out in the villages. The families want their children to come back and know them, but they also realize that they want them to be educated and have a brighter future than the village life can offer. We have navigated meeting after meeting, trying to decide with the family how and what to do when their kids are able to transition from Neema House. It is tricky, because we want to make suggestions, but we have to be very careful, because any suggestion can be taken as an offer to take their child and support them through highschool.
I just wish I could attach a GoPro to Matt for a week so that everyone could see how much he does. He goes from being the maintenance man to the banker to the father figure to the staff mediator, and that is just at Neema house. The only thing that man does not do is cook (at Neema, he cooks often at home!) We have also been much more involved in outreach, which is something that Matt has spent much time coordinating. We now have four families in Maasai land who we are providing food. Matt went out to Maasai land and decided that we would personally buy a goat heard for two families to manage. The herd is ours, but the offspring are theirs to keep and grown their own herd. We have two widows who we are working with to provide food and medical care. One is an AIDs widow, herself HIV positive. The second is a women whose husband killed himself and left her with four young children. It has been a very busy year.
Personally, Matt has continued to grow in leading our family spiritually. We are now practicing Hebrew Roots believers. Meaning that we follow the Hebrew calendar for feast and keep a weekly Sabbath. He is very involved in some theological forums and it spurs him on to deeper study of the Word. During Passover this year we were able to share the slaughtering and cooking of two lambs with the staff of Neema House, which was a very special event. Matt also continues to do weight lifting. He has had to improvise and has welded together a squat stand. He has struggled with knee problems for years and has spent this year rehabbing his knees through stretching and strengthening accessory muscles. It has payed off and he is able to lift more than ever.
As you can tell, our year has been full of joys and challenges. The word that has rang through my mind for our ministry and family is Sustainable. We are in process of being sustainable in our ministry and home life because we plan to be here for a long time. We continue to believe, more now than even a year ago, that we are called and created for the work we are doing here at Neema House in Arusha, Tanzania. This conviction has extended into more than just work, as we connect on a deeper level in both the missionary/expat community and the local community. We are very much looking forward to making the move to Neema Village and seeing how this improves and expands the ministry we are able to provide to orphans, widows and vulnerable women in our area. I am excited to cultivate deeper friendships with the women I have grown to love, both Tanzanian and those who are serving here from all over the world. We are excited to see how our girls grow and change in this environment. We are hoping to be rooted here for a long time and are investing ourselves with the vision of many more years of ministry with Neema House.