Unqualified, But Willing: Unique Opportunities on the Missions Field

Currently in the United States, in order to do anything, you need to be qualified or have experience. I’ve found that this can make it really difficult to actually get the experience people expect you to have. The unique thing about being on the missions field is that they mainly want people to be there and be willing to serve. Willingness and just a little bit of skill is pretty much the only qualification that you need.

I most strongly experienced this while I was in Yaoundé for the week with VISA issues (click to read more about that and what I learned from the experience). I went into the capital city assuming that I would have a lot of down time to read and write while I waited to get my VISA issues sorted out. However, I was hoping to be able to see some other ministries while I was there. I had heard that one of the international schools that a lot of World Team missionary kids attend could use help, but I might not be “qualified” because I didn’t have the correct clearances.

img_0804When I arrived, I found out that they would love to have my help in the library for a day or two. Their librarian was a Cameroonian guy that was so friendly and instantly had me doing all sorts of tasks: restocking books, laminating, putting books into the system, etc. I had always dreamed about being a librarian (fun fact: TOTAL book nerd) and this was my dream come true. In the United States, you need to have a degree to work as a librarian or some sort of experience to even volunteer. In Cameroon, they left me alone and in charge after being there for only a couple of hours!

I showed a willingness to serve and learn something new and that got me an experience that I will cherish moving forward. Also, while at the school, some of the teachers found out that I was a Communications major. Their PR person at the school was a volunteer, so I was able to design a flyer for recruitment and speak at Assembly about what a Communications degree can allow you to do. By speaking up about my passions I was able to use my skills and make the most out of what could have very easily been a very stressful week of waiting.

In addition to this experience applying to me on the missions field, I think you can encounter this while traveling in general. Every culture is unique; so, while traveling, keep an open heart and mind for service. By being in tune with how you can serve people while traveling, you could encounter incredible opportunities. It’s one thing to go to another country and see cool things and leave with really amazing photos; but it’s another thing to be able to leave not only with really cool experiences but also the privilege to say that you impacted someone else’s life.

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Overcoming Trials: VISA Issues

If you have been following my journey in Cameroon outside of just on this blog, you would know that I have been plagued by VISA issues since the very beginning. There have been two major issues in the last four months regarding my VISA and I wanted to share them with you in hopes that you don’t come across the same problems; or, if you do, maybe this will help you navigate them or at least know you aren’t alone.

PROBLEM #1: I only started preparing to come to Cameroon in June, with an expected arrival date in August. This was not a lot of time to get together all of the materials I needed to go and there were many various pieces needed in order to secure my VISA. I would say that we moved through the process as quickly as possible and sent in the application about three weeks before I was supposed to leave. We received a letter back from the Consulate a week later, but found out the application was denied. Actually, there was a sticky note written in French telling us what was wrong; luckily, we were at church where we have a friend who speaks and reads French. So, we fixed the problem (a missing phone number) and resubmitted the VISA application. We should have had enough time to get it back and it was approved in time; but the Consulate decided to send the VISA from Washington, DC to Nashville, TN instead of through Harrisburg, PA or somewhere else closer to us in New Jersey. Because of that, we ended up delaying my flight a of couple days.

PROBLEM #2: About a month ago, I was driving into the nearby city to do some shopping when a teammate asked me when my VISA expired. I pulled out my passport to look…November 18th. Wait a second; that wasn’t right. I looked again to make sure my eyes weren’t deceiving me. Nope, clear as day, November 18th. We went into the immigration office in the city and they told us they couldn’t do anything and we needed to go to the capital. I lost a week of time from being in the rainforest to go into the capital and get everything sorted out. It ended up just being a typo made by the Consulate, but it was a very unfortunate, expensive, and stressful typo for me!

TIP #1: Make the best of a tough situation. When my VISA denied the first time, it could have been very easy to become upset. Instead, I used the extra days in the United States image1 (1)to spend time with my parents and go visit my grandmother. When I had to spend the week in the capital city, Yaoundé, I could have just moped around for the week, but instead I was able to see a new ministry and volunteer at one of the local high schools in the library! It’s all about making sure you make the best of the situation and take advantage of the extra time or new location where you get to spend unexpected time!

TIP #2: Check, check, and check again. Double-check, even triple-check your VISA at all stages of the process. Yes, the Consulate could have moved faster or issued me the correct length VISA, but I also could have caught the problems sooner and prevented a lot of stress. It’s important to be extra careful at all stages of the VISA process and if anything looks even slightly strange, make sure to ask somebody and address the situation.

TIP #3: Expect the worst, but hope for the best. In both situations, when I first heard there was a problem, I took a little bit of time to process all the possible outcomes and make sure I was prepared. When my VISA was about to expire, I booked a flight home just in case (the ticket are to be cancelled and the fee refunded), so I wouldn’t end up getting stuck in the country with an expired VISA. It also helps emotionally to go through each situation, so nothing comes as too big of a shock. All that said, don’t fixate on the worst possible scenario, but try to see the best in each situation so that you can be at peace no matter what happens.

TIP #4: Take deep breaths, it will all be okay. This is the main piece of advice we had to keep giving to my dad throughout both situations. If you make a mistake—it’s in the past; there’s nothing you can do about it now. If you did everything you could do and there’s still a problem—then it’s out of your hands. Ultimately, it will all be okay even if it doesn’t necessarily feel that way at the time. I still made it to Cameroon and I’ve still managed to stay for four months; that’s my proof that it all works out!

Hopefully this post shows you that you aren’t alone with VISA issues and gives you some practical tips on how to avoid VISA issues and how to cope if something does go awry!

Cooking in Cameroon

When you read the title “Cooking in Cameroon” you probably thought that this would be a blog post about different Cameroonian foods that I have had the opportunity to try while being here, but that’s not quite the approach I’m going to take. Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t cook. For example, last year when I moved off-campus, I had to call my boyfriend and have him talk me through scrambling eggs—I really do not cook. In missionary life, it is possible to get away with not cooking by hiring a cook, but it’s definitely not as simple as just going to the closest drive-through and picking up a meal for the family.

One of my goals while being out here was to learn to be able to cook at least a little bit and in some ways, this is the perfect place to try to do that. Cooking isn’t something that relaxes me, so making it simple and easy is really important to me. We’re living with limited means out here. We have a gas stove and oven, so we can’t just frivolously bake all the time and there are no microwaves to easily heat something up. This means that cooking can take way longer than it might in the United States. That’s not even taking into consideration all the work that goes into bleaching fruit and vegetables, ensuring you have clean water, grinding and canning meat, and so on. Since so many meals take so long to cook, most missionaries try to find simple and easy dishes that they can make that still taste good and are satisfying.

The woman I lived with for my last stretch of time, Reda, took me seriously when I said I wanted to learn how to cook and did a great job at holding me accountable. IMG_2265 Mostly all of the vegetables we got were fresh from the market, so that meant that there was also lots of chopping of vegetables to be done. I remember one evening, sitting in my room journaling, when Reda came in and said, “Tonight you’re going to practice chopping vegetables.” Perfect. I am very willing to help chop things, but I always have felt bad because I probably do it at about half speed than most other people. That night, we worked to make stir-fry. I chopped all the vegetables, Reda recommending which knife to use and the best approach to cut things. She also talked to me about different options for the meal—such as, if you don’t have meat, just fry an egg (which I know how to do!) and then cut it into strips so you still have protein in your meal. Stir-fry definitely became a meal that I could now bring back to the States with me. It’s a meal that allows a lot of options and variety based on what’s available and other than the chopping it doesn’t take very long! It was also a way for me to work on basic kitchen skills, like chopping.

My other meal that is definitely going to become a go-to in the States is baked oatmeal. If you have never had baked oatmeal, it’s pretty much just what it sounds like—you take oats and then put in some sugar and milk and then bake it. And it’s absolutely delicious. When I made it at Reda’s, I also made some pumpkin custard (which goes back to the whole utilizing the oven when you’re going to have it on). It was so simple to make. Reda recommended using half brown sugar, half white sugar just because brown sugar isn’t the easiest to get out where we are, but that’s also a good tip for if you’re ever running low on brown sugar at home! Probably my favorite part about baked oatmeal is how well it keeps. You can just save it in the refrigerator and pull it out to have with milk as breakfast or even an afternoon snack. This is really important for me because right now I’m just cooking for myself, so I want to make sure the recipes I’m learning either keep well or can be easily made in small portions. But at the same time, it can feed a lot of people if you want to serve the whole pan at once to guests. HIGHLY recommend!

So this blog post may not have been on Cameroonian food, but it definitely touches on some of the differences in cooking in the United States versus cooking where resources are more limited. I’ve learned about how to find meals that are adaptable, simple, and keep well. I think finding foods that keep well has also become more important here because food waste is put into perspective. Our neighbors often spend nights where they don’t have enough food to feed their family, so I want to make sure what I’m making will last and be nutritious.

I’ve learned that practice makes perfect (especially when chopping vegetables), cooking can actually be enjoyable, and it’s all about finding simple ingredients to make delicious food!

Helping Not Hurting: Lesson 2

Last week I talked about how in the West, when preparing to go do service abroad, we forget that long-term change does not happen by coming in and “fixing” problems in a week or two. I then talked about some of my experiences in Cameroon thus far and how this struggle between long-term and short-term change manifests within our ministry. If you didn’t get a chance to read that post, you can check it out here. Today, I want to go into the second lesson I have learned regarding how to help in the long-term. The interesting part about this lesson is that it actually does touch on short-term service and how that can be effective.

Lesson #2: Short-term service is effective ONLY when relationships are already in place.

Short-term service can be effective when there are already people within the culture we are trying to help. If there are people there who have already established relationships and will continue those relationships way past the time we leave, change can take place. This point came up recently during an orientation talk with some field visitors that would be potentially taking up long-term positions in Cameroon. As our field director talked about how any of the work that could now be implemented was solely because of all the work of people serving before us, I was brought back to my mission’s trip to Mexico (LINK) in Summer 2017.

I had the opportunity to go to Mexico and work with an organization called Doxa to build houses for families in the slums of Tiajuana. I found this to be one of the most impactful short-term missions trips I have ever been on because it felt like we were making a difference. The way Doxa works is that people who want us to build a house for them have to apply. Within the application process, they have to prove that they have a plot of land that we can build on and they also have to show some sort of proof of employment. This shows that the family will be able to maintain the house moving forward. I thought this was so smart because it ensures that the house isn’t just going to fall apart again after we leave.

IMG_0792Beyond that, Doxa has also been working in the same community for almost its entire time. One day, I was working on the roof of the house and I looked out and saw other Doxa houses that had the same bright colors and build. We were impacting this community, not just giving a temporary solution to this one family. Our Doxa representative who was working with us knew so many people in the neighborhood. As we drove through to our worksites people would wave and ask him how he was doing. The specific teams that were coming to Mexico may have been changing, but the project and the presence was ongoing.

It was because of the relationships that had been built through past groups coming and the Doxa workers that we were welcomed into the community and able to be effective.

I want to encourage everyone to find ways to serve and hope that this series does not discourage you. It’s important to do your research when finding organizations to work with to make sure that you’re leaving a lasting impact. It’s about finding ways that your resources and talents will go the furthest. That could mean sponsoring a child through Compassion or partnering with an organization like Doxa for a short-term trip or even committing your life to long-term work with missions like World Team. It’s not just about doing something to help; it’s about being effective in the ways we help.

Helping Not Hurting: Lesson 1

One of my goals when preparing to travel to Cameroon was to learn more about what it meant to be a long-term missionary. What was it like to live with a people group different from your own? What did it mean to stay with a people group long enough to see them fully evolve, to see their hearts soften to the gospel, and to see their community grow in Christ? Obviously, I knew that even my four months in the country wasn’t long enough to see a lot of this stuff and I still was not a long-term missionary. However, I was living with three families all of whom had been in country for over 10 years. Their testament would prove to be quite helpful in forming a picture of the answers to these questions. Even with five weeks left, I have already learned so much about what it means to create long-term change in a country and how people are able to go and generate short-term change.

Lesson #1: Fixing problems in the short-term does NOT generate long-term change. This goes along-the-lines with the familiar saying, “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach him how to fish and you feed him for a life-time.” Despite most of us knowing this saying, we tend to do the opposite. We want to go into someplace and fix all of the “problems”s so WE can feel good about ourselves. Then, we leave, never knowing whether or not our two weeks did anything substantial. However, by teaching the people how to care for themselves, we generate change that is not dependent on our presence. I have found this illustrated well by the way our medical team in Baka land approach medical situations.

The other day, we were out in town when a couple came by with their young child who, as one neighbor told us, “looked as though he was going to die.” Where we are, the sad reality of the situation is that many people have seen enough children die that they know what this looks like. Anyway, since we weren’t there, they were told to come back the following day, which also happened to be a medical day. Around late afternoon the next day, I was meeting with the nurse for prayer time when she shared that the child had not yet showed up. This created a dilemma for her that I think we can all learn a lot from.

She wished she could just go to help the family and give the child the medication or care needed. And technically, she could. The family lived in the village only 3km pexels-photo-1327217.jpgaway; however, if she went there, that doesn’t help the family take care of that child in the future. Within the Baka society, over time there has been a great lack of initiative that has developed. In order to see lasting change for the people, they need (1) Jesus and (2) to understand that there are consequences for their actions (or lack of action). Our medical team is already providing a service that would be unprecedented in most other places. They provide a FREE consultation and will see you without money up-front. Then, if you need medication, you will pay a discounted price for it.

If they could just go door-to-door in the village helping every single sick person for two weeks straight, that would be great. They would probably leave Cameroon after that feeling as though they really did a lot to make a difference, but as soon as they left, the people would be back where they started. Creating lasting change requires making sacrifices and it is not going to be easy, but in the long run, it will be worth it.

Next week read Helping Not Hurting: Lesson 2 and learn how and why short-term service or missions CAN be effective. SPOILER: it has nothing to do with what you are doing!

A Time-Oriented Person in an Event-Oriented Culture

Traveling requires a balance between having a plan and being flexible. This balance is typically hard to find and accept, especially depending on your personality. If you are a planner, despite knowing that you need to be willing to adapt, it still probably pains you at least a little when things don’t go according to plan- especially when events don’t fall into plans A, B, C, OR D! If you aren’t a planner, it may be really easy to assume, “Well, whatever happens, happens” and then you find yourself in a situation that would be really easy to handle had you thought about it even a little! Trying to find a balance is even more difficult in event-oriented cultures (like the Baka) versus time-oriented cultures (like the United States).

Based on the Baka people’s environment and lifestyle, it makes sense that they are an event-oriented society. For one, not that many people have watches and clocks just lying around and so with such a loose aspect of time, it is hard to be time-oriented. Also, the majority of their life is centered on simply surviving. The focus is on getting food in order to feed their family. The day starts when the sun comes up and they either go to work in the fields or go into the forest and then the day end when it gets dark. Otherwise, there is a very loose concept of time. Let me use an example to illustrate this.

Our church doesn’t have a start time or an end time. We typically leave our camp around 8:15 AM to head to Mayos and then when we arrive, the concept of time goes out the window. Our arrival in the town typically signifies that church will be relatively soon for the members of the community. We then go around and greet people in the village, this could take 10 minutes or it could take 30 depending on the week. Slowly, but surely people start trickling into the church. Church “officially” starts when the drums show up and the worship begins. Then, following our worship time, there is a time of sharing. This could again be really brief or go on for a very long time. In one church service since I’ve been here, two women addressed their personal conflict at church! Depending on the deacon who is preaching, the service could last a long time or no time at all. Then, when we are all done, everyone disperses. The whole aspect of it is very non-Western and very event-oriented.

I am definitely a planner, so there were adjustments to be made. Anyone who meets me probably knows that within the first hour or so of talking to me. My planner is color-coded depending on the type of event. Beyond just my planner I also have a variety of other methods of organizing my day—sticky notes, daily planners, to-do lists, all of it. That being said, I know that pursuing a life in the mission field requires the ability to be flexible and adapt. I have found ways to cope and figure out how to exist in an event-oriented culture.

My planner functions as my overview with the times for events as a marker for “in an ideal world, team meeting will start at 4:00 PM.” Therefore, at 4:00 PM, I am ready for team meeting. Even if team meeting doesn’t start because of a medical emergency or some other event, it’s still on my mind and I remember that is an event that is taking place probably today and probably soon. Beyond that, my to-do list is more of an “if-I-had-all-the-time-and-focus-in-the-world-this-is-everything-I-would-do” list. It helps me see all of the different tasks I am working on (which is actually quite a bit because of all the different roles I fill here) and prioritize the ones that are most important. Then, I try not to put too much pressure on myself and just get done as much as possible in a day.

All of that said, I think it is important to schedule time for your non-negotiables. Non-negotiables can differ based on the person, but for me, they’re my Bible reading and journaling. Setting aside a definitive time for doing these things each day helps me have a sense of control, especially on chaotic days when a million things are happening at once. Even a planner, time-oriented planner can exist well and thrive in an event-oriented culture with just a few adjustments.

 

Same Generation, Different Culture

This past weekend I had an opportunity to travel to a nearby Baka camp where another World Team missionary family is currently serving. While there, I participated in the youth group that they had started with some of the local Baka teens. I was incredibly grateful for the experience; although, it was a very bittersweet experience. Typically, on Sunday nights back in Delaware I would be with my junior higher students at our youth group gathering (called “All-Access” for future reference). Spending this cool Sunday night with the Baka youth was an amazing experience, but definitely had me thinking about my home ministry even more than usual. While I was thinking about All-Access sitting on this wooden bench in the rainforest of Cameroon surrounded by youth speaking French and Baka, I was struck both by the congruence of here and at home in Delaware and by the striking cultural differences.

Distractions. This fact is something that all youth group leaders are painfully aware of and try to combat. The reality of the situation is that there’s only so much you can control and teenagers are distracted by something as simple as their own fingernails—especially junior highers! In the United States, the most common distraction is without a doubt technology. Whether it’s showing your friends pictures of your weekend, getting someone’s Instagram handle, or beating the next level of the newest game, technology is a constant in the lives of many students. We can try to stop this by asking students to turn in their phones, but you can only do so much. The main distraction for our Baka students was the fact that Peanut, the pet monkey, kept on terrorizing the dogs. It would jump near the three dogs sitting on the covered porch and then scurry away while the dogs freaked out spinning around. At one point, everyone was too busy laughing at the scene in front of them to realize that we had finished reading the passage in Luke that we were studying. Same generation, completely different culture.

Roles. Arguably all youth group attendees in the United States share the role of student. The way this role looks may vary from student to student, but they are all students. A typical question when meeting someone new in an American youth group setting is, “Where do you go to school?” Roles in Cameroon amongst youth group attendees definitely are more variable. Student is definitely a role some Baka youth hold, but not all of 27971859_2085358338156099_6997083648192866618_nthem. The closest school is a couple of villages away down a road on which many pedestrians have been killed. Sending a child to school is a risk, not a right. Also, some of the youth may be too busy holding other roles. One of these roles is mother. One of the young women at youth group on Sunday night was breastfeeding her child during the message. This is not out of the ordinary in any way; it was just a role for a young girl that is very different than one most youth group age girls in the United States would hold. Same generation, completely different culture.

Icebreakers. At the end of youth group Sunday night we did the human knot and I instantly had flashbacks of being all tangled up with my friends at camp while waiting for our lunch to be ready. Icebreaker games are a pretty consistent feature of youth groups everywhere because they break down barriers and allows kids to get to know each other, laugh, and have a great time. Prior to youth group, I had been asked if I knew any good icebreaker games and while I was thinking I was struck with how much waste we generate through icebreaker games in the United States– such as something as simple as the mummy game, where you have to wrap up a brave participant in toilet paper. For many people here, that would be wasteful because that could be used! The other night the missionary leading the youth group passed out paper at one point as part of the lesson. Many of the youth wanted to keep their paper for school rather than using it on the lesson… we wouldn’t have even thought twice. Same generation, completely different culture.

As Christians, we are linked. We are all part of the body of Christ and that is such a great similarity to celebrate! Many traditions, even things as simple as youth groups, may seem similar in name or on paper; however, as you really truly experience other people’s cultures you can celebrate not only the similarities but also the differences.