The chasm of longing

My relentless, restless desire to immerse myself in African culture began during my short but memorable stint on the Africa Mercy Ship while in Port Noire, Republic of Congo. Something inside opened and a seemingly bottomless chasm of curiosity and intrigue lured me to the continent over and over.

Photo Credit: Michelle Murrey;

Recovering a child on Mercy Ship

In the last 3 years I have made the 8000+ mile journey 8 times! That is a staggering number of miles and hours spent in pursuit of a passion to experience the culture and traditions of people from which all earthly existence stems. An astonishing number of hours seated in immovable seats, crunched into submission, yearning for sleep and comfort on the 15+ hour transatlantic flight.

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Beauty from Mercy Ship

I am not sure what has propelled me into this whirlwind of desire and curiosity. Could it be my deepest connection to ancient roots? A desire to serve? Or worst, simply boredom and a need to “find myself”.   I am reminded, “Wherever I go, there I am.”

Until now, I could not explain it nor deny the pull, the intrigue, the curiosity. My assignment in Swaziland ended after 2 months, my choice. Working under a micromanager did not align with my style. My most recent assignment in Kenya I terminated due to family crises after 1 month. During my stay in rural Kenya, I noticed a change in my resolve, my curiosity, my passion for the work and the culture. Other issues and people were calling to me, my family, my partner, my passions for running, animals and relaxing in nature surfaced in a most compelling way.

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Fruits of the rainy season

Restless, irritable and discontent, I ended my assignment after 1 month, both embarrassing and disturbing. I don’t feel good about breaking agreements and bailing after such a short time. But I felt compelled to take care of myself and my family, choosing from a place of joy and vitality vs burden and responsibility. Having invested money, time and emotional energy in my journey to Kenya, it was both with sadness and relief that I let it go, driven by the desire to live a joyful life. I sought counsel and guidance from a new “bestie” in Kenya, Sister Jennifer, a lovely and soulful retired teacher and Sister of Mercy.

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Sister Jennifer

It was easy to chose as a result of her guidance: “God is life and all life is God. God is in everything and a reflection of all we are and do. Chose from what gives you life and vitality. When you waken in the morning, what gives you life?” I already knew what my choice needed to be in order to support my joy and vitality but I believe I needed permission or a nudge in that direction. She complied through her simple guidance and loving presence.

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girl fetching water

Rural Mutomo was a grim experience for me; 70 km from tarmac roads, stricken with severe poverty and a high burden of disease, often leading to orphaning entire families of children.  HIV, TB, diabetes, accidents, and drought left families without safety, security, and food. I was unprepared for the limited sources and variety of food for myself, though fruits and many vegetables were available. In order to procur even the most basic supplies, it was a 2+ hour ride on rutted and often impassible roads. The monotony of the food was challenging. Daily power outages were predictable. Heavy rains made the roads impassible many days.   The quiet and pastoral nature of the land and people were soothing and I enjoyed the cows, goats and chickens that roamed freely through the town’s streets and around my house.

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My friends and neighbors

My role as nurse educator in a newly established nursing school was easy to walk into, working with 2 established faculty members on site. Teaching to a group of 5 incoming students was not what I expected. The dynamics were challenging as I encouraged them to communicate with openness and honesty. Rural African people tend to be shy and culturally it is most appropriate for them to maintain a reserve that is often uncomfortable for me, the ebullient, curious, questioning one.

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Me and Joanna

Upon leaving I am struck dumb by the sudden disappearance of that open and seductive chasm of longing for Africa. I feel a sense of completion, at peace with my decision to return home. Though this sudden absence of longing is disturbing and a surprise,  it is a bit of relief as I am sure it is for my family. I have no idea what is next, both an exciting and daunting challenge.

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My signature meal of kitchari dal

I am ready to sit and eat a cheeseburger, fresh salad and perhaps a piece of carrot cake or gelato….. and stare into the eyes of my loved ones. I am humbled by my guilt, self absorption and focus on my own needs. I wanted to be stronger, to serve the disadvantaged, to explore. Turning 65 tomorrow, perhaps I am entering a new era of brand new exploration and discovery. I am ready to support and care for those I come home to, and await the unfolding of what is next….

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Transitions

Last night as I was falling asleep that familiar feeling crept over me; I haven’t felt this in the last year in the states. It originates deep in my emotional core, an aching recognition of isolation and loneliness from living in a strange place on a continent 8000 miles from home. Washing over me for a minute or two it is enough to jolt me back into the reality of the choice I have made to depart from family, friends, security, and comfort to seek adventure, teach, and explore a new culture.

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Prudence, language and cultural trainer, note the UGGS and winter coat!

For a fragment of time, it gives me pause to doubt my choice yet somehow it passes and I can move forward….

I am featuring Zoey in this blog; she is with me every moment and I miss her every day.  She gave me the ultimate gift of complete freedom….and I am so grateful, but my heart still aches over the loss of her beautiful spirit.

Our abbreviated training in Swaziland started on the 15th after spending 10 days in DC in training. We have been immersed in language and cultural training, safety and security, Swazi nursing practice and education, and PC policy and procedures. Housed temporarily in a training site, dorm style, we were all anxious to move to our permanent housing and settle in where we can cook for ourselves and have some privacy.

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my kitchen

I have eaten enough fried chicken and fish now for a decade. Our meals have been prepared daily (wonderful luxury) and they are plentiful and overall pretty healthy. LOTS of veggies, rice, potatoes and usually chicken or fish for dinner, eggs and oatmeal for breakfast, and lunch a mix of things. We take our meals together and classes together so we are pretty tired of each other but all in all our group gets along well. Age range is 28-70 and there are 2 trailing spouses, 9 volunteer nurse educators.

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Sworn in !

Our housing is at University of Swaziland (UNISWA) though I work at Southern Africa Nazarene University, about a 10-15 minute drive.  There are 6 of us at this housing site which makes it nice as we can share transportation and play games at night.  No tv or wifi, but the wifi was installed yesterday and we are keeping our fingers crossed that it works tomorrow.  Using the phone as a hot spot works as long as there is 3G network, but very unpredictable.

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View of the Swazi mountains from campus

Swaziland, nestled in the northeast corner of South Africa, has a pretty good infrastructure in terms of roads, power, and water supply and is fairly modern compared to Malawi where I was for 2015-16. However, the country was devastated by the HIV/AIDS epidemic and is still recovering. Here are a few statistics:

  • Population roughly 1.14 million
  • 17, 000 square km
  • 35-45% is HIV + (age and sex dependent)
  • new infections have decreased by 44%
  • average life span for female is 56, male 49
  • US gave $68 million in PEPFAR funding for HIV/AIDS in Swazi in 2017
  • Average annual income is $3135 (World Bank 2015)
  • 5% unemployment
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frig gone for repairs

With that background, the seemingly up to date infrastructure takes on a new meaning…..things are not what they seem. This country has one of the few remaining monarchies. King Mswati III was crowned at 18 and has been ruling ever since. He is 49 and has been King since 1986.

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Polygamy has been widely accepted on the African continent since the beginning of time. To that end, King Mswati has recently chosen his 16th wife and he has 32 children. The king is chosen on the death of the ruling king when he is the only son of one of the king’s wives, regardless of age.

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Time for dinner and more fried chicken! One of the bonuses here is returning home from a long day and picking up some chicken to go at a local BBQ stand. They call it chicken dust because of the dust collecting on the cooking chicken as it deposits from passing road traffic. Gotta have a sense of humor!!!

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kettles galore, tea is BIG here

Full Out!

Like so many other things I pick up and then put down in my life, yoga seems to have disappeared from my practice in the last year. The relaxation, physical flexibility, and insights gained from regular practice are necessary for me to live more peacefully and with ease. I hadn’t acknowledged just how stressed, tense, and anxious I have been for the last three months until settling into my Kripalu retreat with Kate at this wonderful sanctuary. The center is dedicated to the spiritual practices of yoga, meditation, mindfulness and promotes principles of ayurvedic healing and food preparation.

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Kate at Kripalu

The food is MARVELOUS, and though we are staying in a “dorm” with 6 other women, it is quiet, the beds (bunk) are VERY comfy, and all the amenities are available. Breakfast is taken in silence and cell phones are prohibited in all public areas so it is magically quiet and serene.

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Carter, Jackson, and Holt

For the last several months I have been juggling several balls in the air, not knowing if, when, or where I was going with Peace Corps. This was frustrating to say the least after the rigors of medical and security clearance that also took months.  Though I had an inkling I would be assigned to Swaziland, it had not been officially confirmed and then we were notified that the funding had not been released so we were uncertain if the program would move forward.

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Suz and Bentley

I have been living out of suitcases and boxes for the last three years since I sold my home in Reading. Since my return from Malawi last July I have had 4 different addresses, living no more than 2-4 months in any one place. This has been a logistical nightmare in terms of receiving mail in a timely way as well as really never feeling “at home” anywhere. My nesting instincts have become increasingly acute though I have stripped my belongings down to the bare minimum, at least what I move around with. I still have over 4500 pounds in storage so I have not made as much progress in that department as I had hoped.

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Carrie in Boca

We received confirmation that the program had been fully funded a week ago, just in the nick of time. If delayed another week, they would have cancelled the program for the year due to logistics etc. While all the uncertainty had been building over the last few months, I was faced with the added challenge of choosing a path that was most in alignment with my highest good. That is a challenge on a normal day but the Universe had served up some additional distractions and opportunities that began confusing and tempting me.

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dearest Mom

In May, I met John…blind date, Denver. We have been inseparable ever since. How is it possible that I am offered this amazing man during a time of potential separation by 9775 miles? John is a former Peace Corps Volunteer (Brazil 1973) so he understands the desire, the service, the adventure. He has fully supported me, aligned with the spirit of the program, and has expressed his own desire and interest in joining me for much of the year and finding his own niche there.

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Me and Johnnie

The principle of aligning with our soul’s purpose and carrying that forward in the world has never been more present in my life. From a story in the Bhagavad Gita,

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Crested Butte, LOVE!

Considering your dharma, you should not vacillate,” Krishna instructed Arjuna. The vacillating mind is the split mind. The vacillating mind is the doubting mind—the mind at war with itself. “The ignorant, indecisive and lacking in faith, waste their lives,” says Krishna. “They can never be happy in this world or any other. Acting in unity with your purpose itself creates unification. Actions that consciously support dharma have the power to begin to gather our energy. These outward actions, step by step, shape us inwardly. Find your dharma and do it. And in the process of doing it, energy begins to gather itself into a laser beam of effectiveness.

Krishna quickly adds: Do not worry about the outcome. Success or failure are not your concern. It is better to fail at your own dharma than to succeed at the dharma of another. Your task is only to bring as much life force as you can muster to the execution of your dharma.”

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Biking in Colorado

The decision to depart, despite this loving partnership, has been agonizing to say the least.   In the end, I had to listen to my soul and make a choice from a place of the deepest loyalty to my self, my spirit, my heart and trust that the rest would align with that.

This month is filled with travel….Kripalu, Denver, Florida, VT and ultimately to DC on the 5th of September for a week of training before departing for Swaziland on the 14th. I am relying on the generosity of the Universe to line things up behind me in the swirling vortex of the unknown that will manifest as a result of this choice!

I will be engaging full out!!!

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This is who I want to be when I grow up

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Viktor Frankl

 

https://kripalu.org/resources/second-pillar-do-it-full-out

 

 

Staggering Statistics

 

Graduation

Graduation

Our 10 days of training here in Washington culminated in our graduation ceremony yesterday! Having survived 7 days of lectures, interactive role-playing, and panel discussions, we received our lab coats, pins and a handshake to send us on our way to Africa tomorrow.   The talks have covered topics from parasites and tropical dermatology, diarrhea, medical and nursing education in Africa, resiliency and coping in service overseas, to effective lecture preparation and developing test questions for our students’ exams.

Our speakers have been engaging and very passionate about their subjects. By far the most disturbing visuals have been the topics covering parasites, diarrhea, and tropical diseases. OMG! Having heard and seen the potential there for what I may encounter personally as a traveler and living in the community, I have changed my expectations accordingly:

*No swimming in freshwater, EVER (schistosomiasis)

*No flipflops or barefeet, EVER (even fleas make homes in the   soles of your feet)

*Hanging wash on the line outside is taboo unless you iron it after it’s dry (fly eggs hatch and burrow in your skin)

*Do not snuggle or touch the dogs (rabies is endemic)

*Sleep with your mosquito net and wear color-coordinated clothing according to parasites in your area! (different colors attract different types of flying insects)

 As one presenter stated:

Don’t get bit…Don’t get hit…Don’t’ get lit…Don’t “do” it…Don’t eat shit…  OK, so we are all medical people here.

Oh yay! I have lost my appetite and my enthusiasm for outdoor recreation… I do not want to get sick, and here’s why:

For every 100,000 people in Malawi, there”s MD and 20 RNs

Compare that with the US, 293 MDs and 975 RNs per 100,000

One in every 10 people in Malawi has HIV/AIDS

1 in 9 children die of malaria before their 5th birthday

 200 people die from rabies annually in Malawi

 Life expectancy of males is 58, women 60

Despite those statistics, we as Peace Corps volunteers receive medical care from our own in country MDs and nurses and are medevacced to Pretoria South Africa in case of emergency. Okay, I feel better now….

My final evening was spent gorging on ribs and roasted veggies at Whole Foods, my last frozen yogurt, doing laundry, packing and weighing my bags. Our bus picks us up at 0300 for Dulles and a flight to NY, then a 15 hour flight to Johannesburg, then another 2 hours to Lilongwe, Malawi. UGH!

This would not be complete without saying, with so much love and gratitude, thank you to Kate and Carrie for loving and supporting me on this journey, for setting me free.

I will write again during my 2 week orientation “in-country” Until then, mugone bwino (goodnight in Chichewa)

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