catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 2 :: 2009.01.16 — 2009.01.30


A cage of my own

It wasn’t much of a nest, as nests go-human nests, that is, our single story house constructed of locally made brick and roofed with sheets of tin.  Our three kids slept on stretchers suspended on cinderblocks; they were little, so they fit.  My husband and I slept on two metal hospital beds shoved together-very basic metal hospital beds, the white paint chipping off.  Our clothes and linens, five suitcases’ worth, filled up a couple of brick and board bookcases on an inside wall, so they didn’t get wet during the impending rainy season.  A table and six wooden chairs where our children did their schoolwork filled what would have been the living room, and that was about it for furniture.  A functioning shower, hot or cold water depending on the outside temperature, toilet and bathroom sink, but no kitchen.   We took our meals at another missionary’s home where I did the baking, my contribution to our shared living. 

All that separated us from the rest of the world’s view in our little house was IV tubing threaded through a shallow hem stitched into café curtains suspended half way up the screen windows.  From dawn to dusk, curious children circled our house, calling for their playmates-our children, Lisa, Amy and “Zed,” as they called our youngest (to them the end of the line or Z and to us Jimmy, after his father, and yes, the end of the line).

If I didn’t go out and shoo the children away, they would climb on each other’s shoulders, thus lining the café curtains’ upper edges with little round black faces. From sun-up to sun-down.  Privacy was available only in the bathroom, under the window high in the wall to allow in some light, or behind the wall that shielded the showerer from view.  Did I say there was no electricity?  Did I say that the first word I learned in Sara was “li” or snake?  That’s what they told me to yell if I saw one that first night as I led my children down the path to our new living quarters, holding a kerosene lamp out ahead of me to illumine the way.

My husband was still in the capital that first week, stuck there by an attempted coup.  The children and I, piled into a small single engine plane, were flown to this little hospital/mission station at the southern edge of the desert.

It certainly wasn’t much by anyone’s standards, but it had quickly become our home, and a routine lined itself into our day-breakfast, school, baking and school break, lunch, siesta, watch the children play outside, dinner, reading and off to bed at 8 p.m. The 100-degree temperatures wore us out so quickly.

Two months we had been there, visiting other abandoned mission stations and villages that wanted a missionary, seeking a place, a ministry, of our own.  From the beginning we knew this house was temporary, that we would be moving on to our own place with our own kitchen and everything else that goes along with settling into life and ministry in Africa.  We also knew that there was a family coming who would make this house their own, a family who belonged to the medical community here.

So it should have come as no surprise when I overheard the senior doctor say that he had made arrangements for a truck to come and pick up our meager belongings and move them and us to other temporary housing in Sarh where a single missionary lived and where my husband would be involved in the school ministry.  However, I had no way of accounting for the hot tears that spilled from my eyes.  I rationalized that this was what we had worked so hard for all of these years, our own place on the “mission field,” our place to start a new life, so where did these tears come from?  I fled to the bathroom to drench my face under the faucet; it was hot season and the water flowing from the water tower was warm.  As I wiped my face dry, I recognized fear, an unfamiliar emotion.  I recognized a sense of abandonment, of being thrust out of the nest into a world where there were no people like me: no people the same color or who spoke the same language.  There was no grocery store where I could run to buy a quart of milk or loaf of bread and no neighbors who would have that cup of sugar I needed to finish my cake.  We were being moved to a city where the only other missionary was leaving in less than a month for furlough. 

Sure, a bigger house waited for us there, and there was electricity most of the time, and I would have my own kitchen.  However, I hadn’t tested the water there yet, and there would be no one there to catch me if I started to go under.  At least, that’s what I thought at that moment.

No one knew how fearful I was as I packed once again.  No one knew about the sick feeling that soured my stomach as I bought bags of rice and flour and boxes of sugar cubes and cases of oil for my new pantry.  They told me the kitchen was furnished, and there was a great two-burner kerosene stove to cook on.  I remembered how I struggled with the kerosene lamp-was it only eight weeks ago?  And now I was going to cook on a kerosene stove?

Oh, I survived it all.  I have always said that if you gave me a couple of minutes I could get used to anything, and I did get used to living in Sarh.  I got used to mosquito nets and picking bugs out of the rice and filtering the water, but I also never forgot those moments of panic, of feeling thrust out of the nest and the familiar, even if it was not an easy life.  It had become my life and what I was “used to.”

Years later, the guidance counselor at the school my children attended asked me if I was interested in taking a child in, a teenaged girl whose home defined dysfunction: rumors of physical and verbal and maybe sexual abuse, and who knew what else.  “Of course,” I said, “Of course.”  She came with a paper bag of belongings, and we set her up in her own room, clean and light and close to the bathroom.  We treated her like one of our children, calling her to breakfast, asking her to help set the table for meals and checking on her homework.  She never complained and seemed to settle in.  She hadn’t been with us long when she went home for the weekend.  Then the next weekend she went home again.  I noticed after she left that she had taken every one of her belongings back with her.

I called, and she said she was okay at home.  Our place was too quiet, and she was happier at her house.  And I recalled that moment in Africa when I heard we were being moved to Sarh. Sometimes the familiar, no matter how bad it might be, is safer in some bizarre way, is more secure than the new, and if we yield to the known, the safe, as a way of life, we live forever in our own cage.

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