One of the major things that threw me when I got here, to Africa, was not even being remotely prepared for the awkward situations I would be in. I’m a fan of awkward usually. The Office is one of my favourite shows and I thrive on making people’s faces go red. This kind of awkward is different though.
Home Based Care is awkward. Imagine walking into a home, where everyone is usually scrambling to get you some sort of mat to sit on. The home’s floor is usually created out of hardened cow manure, the walls out of rocks and sticks and the roof out of grass. The home is no bigger than 10×15 feet and you are sitting on the floor. The baby chickens are pecking at your feet, the flies are everywhere. There is a deep odour, one that you know they don’t smell anymore but it is just so strong you can’t ignore it. You arrived either by yourself along with three or four other volunteers, all who barely speak English or you are there with three of your friends and one lady who will translate.
The home is dark, so you have trouble seeing who you are talking to. There is an older lady speaking in a language and you can’t make out a word, and then someone who is deathly ill lying either on the ground or a makeshift mattress. They probably have AIDS, or TB, or a few of a hundred other diseases that people get here. The same kind of diseases we don’t know about because we cured it. The one lady explains what is wrong, and how sick this person is and you only know that because someone is translating here and there when they feel like it. Then comes the silence. Not sure what is ever happening but we all just sit there, and you feel like people are waiting for you to say something. After all, you are the tourist, the one just visiting from another country, a white, rich country at that. The volunteer you arrived with looks at you and says “you can say something now.”
What do you say? Jesus loves you? I hope you feel better? I’m praying for you? Words don’t work here it feels like. They barely understand your words anyway. Yet there you are, with all eyes on you and they want you to say something.
I found myself in this situation almost every day that I’ve been here. Some people that were sick were sitting up and engaging in eye contact while others haven’t looked someone in the eyes for over 5 years. Four year old granddaughters taking care of their grandmas with no one else around. Grandma’s taking care of orphaned children because the entire generation between 25 and 50 have mostly died. Most were getting sicker because they couldn’t afford medicine, never mind the bus to take them into town to buy the medicine.
I have nothing to say. I feel sick to my stomach that I live in a world where we allow people to suffer like this. I feel even sicker that I’m being served by these people and sitting in their huts while they suffer. I have nothing to give. So I fumble out a few useless words, something about grace and being thankful that they’ve kept a good spirit thus far. I’m not even sure anymore and I’m sure they don’t remember.
Something happens always though towards the end. I say a prayer and people start humming and hawing like they did back home to my prayer. Then they look up at me and are so thankful. They are thankful that I came from my country just to visit them, they are thankful that I would pray for them and that I believe in them. A few of them gave us gifts when we left because they were so thankful. They were giving us something, after all of that. I graciously accept their gifts and fifteen minutes after I stepped foot in their home I am leaving wondering how my presence could bring them so much happiness. I leave feeling more broken then when I arrived, yet with a glimmer of hope knowing that they have something that I don’t have. The awkwardness stays with me for each visit and some are rougher than others.
These however, are the people that I am called to be with. These people are the ones that Christ came to free and deliver. These are the people that Jesus wants to comfort and bring love to and bring purpose to. These are the most vulnerable and broken and poor people in the entire world. I have learned that it is in this awkwardness that I am learning what that exactly means. I have started to see why Jesus spent so much time with these people when he was on earth. How far I have come from where I’m supposed to be when I can’t even look someone that’s poor in the eye. How far I am from the heart of Jesus when normal people are my preference because it’s easy and comfortable.
If I can’t be around people that make me feel awkward than I can’t be around those that I’m called to be around. So whatever it is that makes us feel awkward whether it be compassion, sadness, curiosity, difference, language, hygiene or personality let us learn to embrace it because most likely underneath it all is exactly where we are called to be.