Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Africa: Preach the Gospel Always...

This morning I said goodbye to the village that has been my home for the past two weeks.  Mass was a glorious affair, with drumming and singing and dancing, even though it's obviously not a Sunday.  I will never get over how beautiful He is in the Eucharist in the humble setting of the chapel there in Dafor.  His glory shines all the brighter, His generosity and goodness all the more apparent for the crude surroundings He humbles Himself to visit.  After Mass, Father gave a beautiful talk about the gratitude of the village and the impact our presence had made on them, and I cried.  The women presented us with beads as going away presents, and I cried more.  The children gathered around for a picture, and... I absolutely sobbed.
Father told us that one day, as he was driving, it occurred to him that there are twelve of us, just as there are twelve apostles.  He said that we were just like them, spreading the Gospel to the people of Dafor, yes, occasionally with our words, but more often with our actions. 
Not everyone in Dafor is Catholic, or even Christian.  Many of the men who worked alongside us on the church floor were not.  Our presence there was particularly baffling to them.  We have everything they want; why would we give it all up and actually pay to come work for free in their tiny little village?  How could we toil away at work to which we clearly were unaccustomed, day after day, always with smiles on our faces?  Why would we willingly submit ourselves to manual labor, stirring cement with shovels and carrying sand in pans on our heads?  The answer to these questions could be seen in the schedule we kept throughout our time in the village.  Our lives revolved around prayer: daily Mass, daily Eucharistic Adoration, and praise and worship on some evenings.  Our hunger for the Eucharist and the strength that it gave us to carry on served as a living example for all, a witness to His power and His love. 
Yet how much more exemplary was the generosity and the spirituality of the villagers!  They gave up so much for us to make us feel welcome.  One of the village elders gave up his home so the men would have a place to sleep.  Various parishioners were always bringing us bananas, pineapple, coconuts, or ground nuts (peanuts), and stopping by to greet us during meals and breaks.  When several of us were sick, their concern was apparent at every meeting.  The neighbors around the women's house constantly folded our laundry while we were gone for the day or filled up our water barrels.  Our cook made two meals a day (breakfast was simple most days) for all twelve of us every day, and before we met the Bishop of the Ho Diocese, she made dresses for all seven of us girls in a mere 24 hours!  Then, when the one girl had malaria, she stayed by her side for all five days of her hospital visit, buying food and cooking, leaving her 3-year-old daughter in her mother's care.  And the entire time, she wore a beautiful smile.  There are countless stories of these wonderful men and women giving of themselves completely.  If only I could learn to imitate their generous spirit! 
So perhaps we didn't get the chance to evangelize with words as some of us would have liked.  Perhaps our contribution to the church structure was meager.  Regardless of any disappointments or troubles we may have met along the way, both we and the villagers have benefited greatly from our time with them.
And God, I'm going to miss those kids.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Africa: I Am Still Alive

We have just about reached the halfway point of our adventure here in Ghana.  We're leaving Dafor on Wednesday the 28th, after which we'll be back in Accra with real beds and showers and more frequent access to the internet.  We'll be working the the kids in the slums around the convent of the Missionaries of Charity for a few days and hopefully spending some time with the orphans and AIDS patients that they care for as well.
I had intended to write a longer post than this, but my hour in this internet cafe has slipped away so quickly!  I can only say that I am quite well, though not everyone in our little group can say the same.  One of the girls went to the hospital with malaria yesterday, and there are two other people significantly under the weather.  Everything is ok now, but we are reaching a point when everyone is tired from working so hard every day.  We're not used to having to drink so much during the day, because we don't realize how much we're sweating until we feel the symptoms of dehydration.  Please don't worry; we are all ok, and those who need it have been resting.  We're drinking more and eating lots of bananas and eggs to keep our energy up.  We will all probably be much improved once we reach Accra, where our work is no longer manual labor, there is very low risk of malaria, the food is more substantial, and the accomidations much more comfortable. 
The church is looking good; we finally started laying concrete the other day, so the loads we've been toting are much heavier and the men are completely worn out from mixing cement with shovels.  We probably won't finish the floor, but the foundation we have laid is strong and ready for the next mission trip next summer.  So far we have had to:
- dig trenches for the sleeper walls
- tote sand from various places about the village for concrete
- mix concrete
- fill said trenches with concrete
- make bricks
- lay bricks in trenches
- tote dirt
- fill the spaces created by sleeper walls with dirt
- tote water
- throw water on dirt
- tamp down dirt to make level surface
- mix concrete
- pour concrete onto dirt
And we are doing all this by hand.  It is really insane.  And it looks like we barely did anything. 
Ok, one minute left.  ciao ciao!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Africa: A Day in the Life

We have been in the little village of Dafor for about a week now, and our days have fallen into a rhythm of sorts.
5:40am - wake up (the sun and the villagers have already been up for a while by this time)
6:30am - Mass (if Father is in the village)
7:30am - breakfast of bread, ground nut paste (peanut butter), strawberry jam, honey, and tea
8:30am - holy hour, sometimes with the Eucharist exposed, sometimes without
9:30am - work on the church
12:30pm - lunch
2:00pm - various afternoon activities.  could include more work, meeting to discuss the book we're reading together, laundry, naps, etc.
4:00pm - bucket showers: the best part of the day (except Mass, of course)
6:30pm - dinner (it gets dark around this time here)
7:30pm - praise and worship on tuesday, thursday, and saturday
9:30pm - bedtime

All of these times are approximate, because here there is a glorious thing called "Africa time," in which 8 o clock means "anytime in the 8 o clock hour."  Also, people are late for everything and nobody cares.  As long as you're there within the hour, it's ok.  I've stopped looking at watches or clocks because everything is so fluid.  The bell for Mass in the center of the square by the well rings twice for Mass.  The first bell means "Father is here; there will be Mass."  The second means "Mass is starting; you are late."  I think that just about says it all.
My love for this place grows exponentially with each day.  I don't even want to think about leaving.  The people here are so friendly and joyful, and the children are so precious.  They pronounce my name somewhere between "Gin" and "Jen" in their adorable Ewe accents (the language here is Ewe, pronounced EH-weh).  Most of them can't speak a word of English, but smiles are pretty universal, and they certainly know how to do that.  Also they waggle their eyebrows at us to say hello and repeat anything we say in English.  My heart absolutely melts for them. 
Well, there is much more I could say, but the connection in this internet cafe is horrendously slow, and my hour is almost up, so I must cut my ramblings short.  Hope all is well in the States!  I may be coming back to this cafe next week, so stay tuned.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Africa: Day Two

I am at the internet cafe again, but today the computer is running very slowly and the internet connection is poor, so I am struggling to check my email and write this and wait for things to load etc. all in the brief 30-minute time frame I have here.
This morning we explored the marketplace of Accra, which was quite a colorful, noisy, and fragrant experience.  Some of the fragrances were good, others were... not so good.  I would post pictures, but I don't think there's a spot on this computer to plug in an SD card. 
Oh yes, I haven't told you: the leader of our group is letting me borrow his camera for the next month, since he has a video camera that also takes pictures.  Very, very generous of him.  So I popped my SD card in it last night and will take all my pictures home with me no problem.  Praise God.
Anyway, about the market.  We basically just walked through (with a guide, of course).  There was loud, upbeat music playing around every corner; it was all I could do to keep from dancing through the streets! 
Here are the rules of the road in Accra, as far as I can tell:
1. Don't hit anything.
2. The bigger your vehicle, the more right of way you have. 
3. Stay to the right as much as possible. (This is negotiable.)
That's pretty much it.  So as pedestrians, we have no rights to the road.  And there are no sidewalks. 
We passed through the Catholic school here, and it was as though we were in a parade!  All the little kids ran to the windows and waved, smiling, until we waved back.  They made quite a ruckus.  I think their teachers must have hated us for the disruptions we caused in their classrooms.  And the kids LOVE cameras.  As soon as they see one, they run over to pose and push each other to get right to the front of the picture.  Some of the younger ones have never seen white skin before, and they are absolutely captivated by us.  It is really darling.
This afternoon we had the famous Ghanian dish fufu for lunch with a spicy chicken soup.  No one hated it or got sick, so I think we're going to survive the next month.  I personally found it quite good and very filling, which is a good quality for food to have where we're going.
Tomorrow morning we leave for the village on Lake Volta, so you probably won't hear from me again until I get back to Accra.  And I have one minute left, so I really must be going.
Pray for me! :)

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Africa: First Impressions

Hello from Ghana!!
I am pleased to announce that we made it here with no trouble; no one lost their baggage or got sick or got stopped at customs.  I am surprised how much I love it here already.  I can't really explain to you what happened in my heart when I stepped out of the airplane, but I feel like I am home.  Praise God; He knew all along how well and how quickly I would find a place here, even when I had my doubts during preparation.
Things of Note:
- Although the weather is not much hotter now than the weather in Pittsburgh, there is no air conditioning.  So I'm just getting used to being a little sweaty.  No biggie.  Everyone kind of is.
- The showers in the guesthouse are cool.  Surprising at first, but quite refreshing once I got used to it.
- When I got out of the shower and put on clean clothes, they felt like they had just been fluffed in the dryer. 
- I have not slept more than 5 or 6 hours in the past 48 hours, and all in little 1- and 2-hour pieces.  The night before we left I could not sleep for nerves and excitement, and trying to sleep in the plane was like living purgatory on Earth.  Very uncomfortable.  The plane ride was a little over 10 hours long, and I only got up once.  But I watched 2 1/2 movies.  Yay for individual seat back televisions.
- When I got off the plane I pulled out my camera to take pictures of the airport.  (I know, very touristy haha)  My lens was jammed.  I just paid $115 to repair the lens.  So now I have no camera.  I am not sure how I feel about this.  On one hand, I would like to have some pictures, but on the other hand I hate taking them.  So.  I just keep saying "Jesus, I trust in You" over and over.  And I may be looking for a cheap camera here in Accra.
- My first Ghanian meal was breakfast: 2 slices of white bread, each about 3/4 inches thick, toasted and cut diagonally, with butter, marmalade, and hot tea.  That's all.

I will not pretend that I am not tempted to feel anxious about many things, especially after waking up disoriented from a nap this afternoon.  But any fears I may have are calmed by the thought of going to Mass tonight after dinner.  How I love the Eucharist!  And He is the same everywhere.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Happy List

Lately, I've been noticing that a lot of things are making me smile and even laugh as I prepare to leave for Ghana.  Here are a few:

- the Eucharist - I mean, seriously, what would a happy list be without the source of our happiness??
- the smell of tanning oil - mmmm, summer... and... banana popsicles?*
- trying on leather jackets in the store while my little sister reminds me again that I don't own a motorcycle
- the way my hair looks when it curls just right, like it did today  (sigh, why am i soooo vaaaain...)
- headbands with flowers on them (i just bought a bunch! :D)
- getting packages in the mail (even if it's just boring stuff for Africa, like hand sanitizer)
- teaching my little sister how to walk in heels**
- dancing along to the radio while I pack
- hanging out in my bikini after sunbathing
- the pink lace that I use as a bookmark for my copy of "The Imitation of Christ"
- gold toenail polish
- getting to know St. Therese as I read Story of a Soul***
- looking up the weather forecast for Ghana, clicking on "10 day" and realizing that I'm going to be there during some of that weather!!! gah, it's so crazy.  I can't even think about it or I might explode.

And now, since a few of these have touched on topics I've been meaning to write about for some time now, I will elaborate in these blogs within a blog:

* Adventures in Tanning
I have never laid in the sun for the sole purpose of getting tan before.  It always just happened after a day at the pool or a week of camping or whatever.  So when I started, I had a bit of a time figuring out what to do.  I've been meaning to chronicle them here so that those of you who have never tanned but thought about it could learn from my mistakes and those of you who are experienced tanners could laugh at me.
The first day, I went outside and tried to lay on my back for half an hour without moving.  I never realized what a fidgety person I am until I attempted this stunt.  I barely made it through the half hour without jumping up and running around.  Then I had to lay on my stomach for half an hour.  Torture.  And on top of that, I set up my towel right next to a giant ant hill, which explains the numerous ants crawling on me while I lay there.  I'm not really creeped out by bugs, but it was super annoying.  I said a rosary and a chaplet of Divine Mercy and offered everything up for the mission.
The next day, I managed to get my little sister to lay out with me (in a different spot) so I wouldn't get so incredibly bored.  But it was still hot and uncomfortable.  We didn't make it the whole hour.  And I didn't look tan at all, because I only had lain out around 3pm and 4pm to avoid the hottest part of the day, which I had always been taught to do to avoid sunburn.
On Sunday, though, I went out at 1pm.  It was so incredibly hot, I was watching the sweat bead up on my arms and roll off.  By then, though, I had figured out that it was better to do 3 10-minute sessions on each side so as to avoid the torture of laying still for so long.  So in between the first four and last two sessions of the hour, I ran inside to get a popsicle.  Oh man, frozen juice has never tasted so good.  And I got super tan.  Yaay!
Since then, I've used the 6 10- minute session format almost every day, and my tan is deepening nicely.  I have even grown to enjoy my time sunbathing, and I've been able to relax enough to doze sleepily in the sun.  The weather has been so nice and breezy the past few days, too. And I've said a lot of rosaries.  When I'm done with my hour for the day, I step inside and lay on the couch to watch TV for a little while in my bikini, enjoying the way my skin feels all warm from the sun and smells so delicious from the tanning oil.  Sigh. This may be a new summer tradition for me.  Maybe.

** 5 Golden Rules for Walking in Heels
1. Keep your weight on the balls of your feet as much as possible.  Putting weight on the heel causes wobbling, slipping, and heal breakage.
2. Pick your feet up to at least ankle height during your stride.  This will help you avoid what I like to call "heel farts," when your heel scrapes loudly and embarrassingly against the surface on which you are walking, a dead giveaway that you are dragging your feet.
3. Walk as though you are walking a parking lot line, one foot in front of the other.  There's no need to cross over dramatically, but keeping your footsteps close to lined up will give your hips a lovely, natural swing as you walk.
4.  Confidence!  Keep your chin and eyes up, shoulders slightly back and lengthen your neck.  Imagine stretching the muscles under your ears that connect your head to your shoulders.  And smile a bit, like you know a secret.  Here's the secret:  you are amazing!! Look at you in those heels! ;D
5.  Use all your muscles, especially your abs, glutes, and calves to steady yourself.

Oh, and here's a bonus tip:  keep your walk heel-toe, heel-toe or else you're stride will show that you're inexperienced in heels.  But remember rule #1.  The "heel" of heel-toe should be the briefest touch until your toe comes firmly down to push off again.
If you are walking in heels for the first time (like my sister was) it's probably best to start with wedges and work your way to a smaller and higher heel.  But as I also told her, if you practice walking around on your tiptoes, those muscles that you need for walking in heels will strengthen and you'll be ready for anything!

***  My Confirmation Saint
I've always had a special connection to St. Therese, since I was a very little girl.  I just always knew that she'd be my confirmation saint.  It really was as though she chose me rather than the other way around.  When I was little, I loved her child-like faith and the novena asking her for roses.  That tangible sign from heaven was so encouraging for me when I was young, and still is.  Back then I used to say that novena all the time for every little thing.
As I grew up, though, I fell away from her, especially as I grew in my faith and discovered other amazing saints.  Whenever I would tell people that she was my confirmation saint, they would always ask if I'd read The Story of a Soul, but of course I hadn't because I had written it off as too dense for me.
In Peoria in the spring of '09, I had a long talk with one of the nuns, during which she exclaimed, "It is so easy to tell that St. Therese is your confirmation saint; everything you are saying sounds just like her!"  And then she asked if I had read Story of a Soul, which I still hadn't, but now I was legitimately curious about it.
It wasn't until the spring of this year, when I was in Peoria again for spring break that I bought the book for myself.  We were visiting the museum of Bishop Fulton Sheen (who is a native of Peoria; who knew?) and I was wandering through the gift shop when the glossy little book caught my eye.  I don't know why I hesitated before I bought it, but eventually I did.
I started reading it when I got home, and was immediately struck by how similar St. Therese and I are!  Her stories of her childhood in the beginning of the book were just so inexplicably familiar, and I identified with her so deeply.  I took a break from the book for a few weeks during finals etc., but I picked it up again fairly recently and was again surprised by how alike we are.  We could be sisters, really!  I don't mean to elevate myself by identifying with such a great saint; I just mean that her way of thinking and mine are very similar, that her natural reactions to things are often the same as mine, though in her great holiness she usually overcomes these.  I understand her perfectly, and I love her so dearly, more than I ever have.  How blessed I am to have such a wonderful person chose me as her little sister of sorts!
I think it no coincidence that I have rediscovered her during preparations for my trip to Africa; she is the patron saint of missionaries!  Although she never left the Carmel, she spiritually adopted many missionaries and dreamed of being able to spread our Lord's love to people the world over.  So, St. Therese, pray for me and my fellow missionaries!  I am starting to get majorly freaked out about this whole thing.

Ok, that is all.  This post makes me seem really worldly, materialistic, and vain...  I guess I am.  :p  Maybe my trip to Ghana will cure me of those unfortunate personality traits.  Part of me hopes so and part of me... just really likes pretty things!! If I ever met myself, I don't know if I would like me very much.  I might hate me.  I might be seriously concerned for my soul.  Or I might get along with myself very well, because we were delighted by all the same things. hahaha