Bird on a Bare Branch

Attempting to fling a frail song in my little corner of the world

Children Playing January 21, 2012

Filed under: Culture,Teaching — Jen @ 7:59 pm

One of my responsibilities as a teacher is taking my partner teacher’s class and mine outside for recess.  Everywhere I’ve taught, it’s the duty I prefer since it means I get 20 minutes of fresh air and daylight in my otherwise completely enclosed day.  But this year brings me extra joy as I watch my 46 Burmese and Iraqi refugee kids play.


Because these kids actually know how to play.


In my previous five years of recess duties, there would be the handful of kids who ran around with a select group of friends playing tag or racing or jumping rope or playing soccer (usually the Hispanic kids).  Many of the kids would complain about having to walk or run.  Many would hover around me unsure of what to do.  Lots of kids would fight.  Lots of tattling would occur.  Kids would sit by themselves or walk by themselves.  If a kid scraped his knee, he’d be afraid to play again.  Empty fields were the worst recess venues.  Kids would stare at me blankly or ask what they could do.  I’d yell, “Go play!”  They would wander aimlessly across the field.  On those empty field days, I’d organize games of Mother May I, Red Light/Green Light, and What’s the Time Mr. Fox? hoping that they’d take initiative to organize themselves on the days I didn’t organize them.  They never did.


My previous classes always had obese children in them.  (In my class of fourth graders last year, half were obese.)  They could talk endlessly of the video games they were mastering at home, and the horror movies they watched with their older brothers and sisters and parents.  One year, on a Friday, I told a group of first graders that they had homework for the weekend.  I said, “You need to get outside this weekend.  Go to the park.  Go for a walk.  Play tag.  Ride your bike.”  One girl said, “Can you write that down for me so I don’t forget?”



Until now I thought play was a forgotten art among children.  Then I started teaching refugee kids and took them outside for recess.  No one sits.  No one fights.  Every child runs.  Every single one of them.  They play hard.  The big kids play with the little kids, and the girls play with the boys, and the girls play with the girls without being catty.  The groups are big and fluid, and everyone is included.  The Iraqis yell Arabic to each other.  The Burmese yell in their various dialects.  And across the cultural divides, they holler at each other in their limited English.  There’s always the group playing some kind of tag.  Then there’s the group doing gymnastics.  Some of the big boys can do front flips and back flips.  The little kids practice their headstands and are learning cartwheels.  Sometimes they race.  Sometimes one of the Iraqi boys brings an American football, and they organize a game.  The girls like to swing and slide and build things in the sand.  Some of the little girls pick clovers and dandelions and bring them to me.


I love watching them play!  But it makes me sad too because one day they will be mainstreamed into a regular classroom and start learning how to be “American.”.  I fear they will stop playing.  I fear that as they assimilate into this culture that they’ll stop going outside and play more video games and watch more movies.  They’ll stop including everyone and start excluding.  The girls will start being mean, and the boys will be too cool and tough to do their gymnastics or let the girls play with them.  But maybe they will hold onto play.  Maybe they’ll realize it’s more fun.  Maybe their peers will learn from them.


In the evenings when I leave school, there are always groups of Asian adults utilizing the school fields for games of soccer.  Older men walk the dirt path that weaves around the field and playgrounds.  Last night when I left, in addition to the athletes, there was a small group of Asian teenagers in skinny jeans and spiked hair smoking cigarettes in the parking lot.  My kids will have choices to make in their new culture.  They can go either way.  I pray they continue to play.


Photo #84 November 18, 2011

Filed under: Culture,Pictures — Jen @ 9:17 pm

I’ve posted this picture before.  (See here.)  But I’m going to post it again because, well, I just really like it.  And also I should add that I did eventually start drinking coffee.


Because it was so cultural in Sweden, and because at the time I anticipated spending much more time in Sweden, I told myself I needed to learn how to drink coffee.  You know, when in Rome…  So one afternoon in Beira, my housemate and an out of town guest decided to brew a pot.  I piped up, “I’ll have some too.”  I filled my cup with one third coffee and two thirds milk with at least two heaping teaspoons of sugar.  It was actually bearable.  I started doing that every day, slowly weaning myself to half coffee, half milk, then two thirds coffee and one third milk.  Very quickly I learned to not just tolerate coffee but enjoy coffee.  And suddenly I entered an aspect of social life that I had always lived on the outskirts of.


I eventually parted ways from my original motivation for drinking coffee, and I have yet to return to Sweden.  I’ve also realized that when I’m not working – and, therefore, needing the caffeine early in the morning –  I actually prefer to drink tea.  However, I’m still thankful that when I need to or want to, I can say, “Yes, please,” when offered a cup of coffee.



Passion + Relationship + Cultural Understanding + Skill = Success September 27, 2011

Filed under: Culture,Faith — Jen @ 3:36 am

The other night I had the privilege of listening to an Indian woman give a presentation on her work as an aftercare provider for rescued minor girls from sex trafficking and prostitution.  I was impressed with, but not awed by, the intensity of her work and the seeming heroism involved in going on a raid into a brothel and the drama involved with taking the girls to safety, escorting them to the police station, helping them press charges against their perpetrators, and then trying to maintain a safe environment for them in the hours, days, weeks, and months following.  Her life is literally an on-going action/adventure/drama movie.  Her talk was the kind that inspires college students to say they are going to dedicate their lives when they graduate to fighting sex-trafficking in India.


I was impressed but not blown away by that.  What blew me away was the love, the compassion, the dedication, the strength, and above all the cultural, psychological, emotional, and spiritual intuition this woman has for the work she does.  She said it all started as just a job, but after her first raid her heart broke for the enslaved girls.  Since then she has dedicated her life to aftercare.  She now runs an aftercare home, which is a fairly new endeavor.  She said there are many organizations that provide aftercare, but many are lacking the thoroughness with which her organization tries to provide it.  For example, the aftercare providers are physically present with the girls at every moment from the raid to being housed.  They take the girls in a separate car than their perpetrators, who are taken in police cars.  Most of the time both the perpetrators and girls are thrown together in the back of police cars.  Another example, is that counseling is provided in the home.  It seems obvious that this would be offered, but apparently not everyone provides this.  Also, this organization does home studies with the girls’ families to make sure it is safe for girls to return home.  Most of the time it is not since it is often the families who sold them into prostitution in the first place.


It is not an easy job.  She made it very clear how difficult it is to work with these girls, who sometimes don’t want to be rescued, who have been trained to fight, who don’t know how to trust adults, and who are prone to act out.  She stressed how difficult it is to find trained and dedicated staff to work with them.  But she is very committed.  These are her girls, and she will fight for them.  Part of why she knows how to help them is because she is from there.  She knows how the police and the courts work.  She knows how the culture works.  She can communicate with the girls in their own language.  Because she is from there, she has relationships with people in the community.  She can call on local churches to help because she is connected to them.  She is also able to do the work she now does because she had been on staff for five years with an organization who rescues girls.  Her time with them gave her the experience she needed to start the aftercare home.


After she spoke, a local woman invited those in attendance to come to her organization’s kick-off event next month.  She works for a non-profit that is dedicated to training overseas educators well in understanding the culture in which they are going to serve by “applying the valuable methods of cultural anthropology and research and architecting an advanced educational network and support system.”  It’s not just about bringing educational skills to another culture or learning a language but about knowing the people you are going to serve.  I am all about this.  And it was a good piggyback to the woman who had just presented.


THEN a gentleman was introduced who was going to share for a few minutes about an education project in Africa.  Naturally, my ears perked up, and I was excited to know where and what he was doing.  Until he started sharing…  I’ve heard this story too many times:  He had gone on a mission trip to Kenya, had a conversation with a couple boys in a slum who had few educational opportunities and would likely remain in the slum for the rest of their lives, his heartstrings were pulled, and now he’s soliciting help to start a tuition-free school in that community.  He is not an educator.  He has only spent a week or two in Kenya.  He admitted he has no idea what he’s doing, but he’s determined to set up a school for that community.


I talked to him afterwards to try to find out more about his experiences and his connections in Kenya.  I told him that I had done educational development work in Mozambique, but when he found out that I hadn’t actually started a school he didn’t seem that interested to know anything about my experiences.  I encouraged him that his first step should be researching what organizations are already doing educational work in that community since they are the ones who are already established and already know the community.  He didn’t seem that interested in that either.  I encouraged him to find local churches that shared the same passion.  Who are the Kenyans who are equally passionate about providing quality education for their own children?  They are the ones who should be driving this effort.  He agreed he needed to partner with someone on the ground, but he was reluctant to do it with Kenyans because he knows how corrupt they are.


He was a pleasant man, and I appreciate his passion and his drive to do something to help.  I wish more people were as eager as he is.  I often wish I were as eager as he is.  But the conversation with him was such a contrast to what we had just heard from the previous two women who had shared.  Yes, I’m sure that community could greatly benefit from a free school.  I would say every community in Africa could.  But it will fail if it is based on American idealism alone with a complete lack of professional expertise plus cultural ignorance.


From the Archives: Am I a Missionary? September 23, 2011

Filed under: Culture,Faith — Jen @ 9:24 pm

Wow – I just found some writing I did in high school and college!  It’s hard for me to remember what my 17- and 18-year-old self was like, and these offer a little insight.  I’m not sure why I have these particular pieces and not others.  I know there were many more school essays and college application essays that were also printed out and filed away somewhere.  I’m just not sure where.


I think this is something I wrote for Brio, a Focus on the Family magazine for teenage girls.  I don’t think it was ever published, and I’m not sure what prompted me to write it in the first place.  It’s dated August 16, 1995.  I love how knowledgeable I thought I was about missions. 🙂



One of the churches in the U.S. that supports us sends us a regular “care package”, which is a box usually containing chocolate chips, angel food cake mixes, and Jello and pudding mixes which are all things we have trouble finding here and really appreciate.  However, we have also received swatches of cloth, thread, toothpaste, and even a box of dates (we can get fresh dates by picking them off the trees in our yard).  Examining the contents of these “care packages” gives us an idea of how people back home view missionaries.  They see us as living in a mud hut with no running water, having to know Arabic to communicate with people, and riding on camels to schools.  My life is quite the opposite.  I live in a modern house with three bathrooms and air-conditioning.  I nly know a few words of Arabic, yet I can still communicate with the locals because they all speak English.  In fact, I am studying French at the America school that I get to by car.  After school I might get some frozen yogurt at TCBY, and on the weekends I might stop at McDonald’s with my friends for a bite to eat.  In the evenings, I’ll watch an American TV show on television, or I might call one of my friends on the cordless phone to make plans to see an English movie at the cinema or go ice-skating at the indoor rink.  It sounds like I’m living in the U.S.  Am I no longer a missionary?  On the contrary.


When I was 13 and living in Muscat, which is much the same as Bahrain, an elderly American woman, who had been a missionary in oman during World War II, came back on one of her frequent visits to the Gulf.  She had been what our supporting churches would have called a “real” missionary since she had been a nurse working with the bedouin (desert nomads) in Oman.  On this particular trip to Muscat, this lady was going into the desert to visit some of the bedouin families that she used to work with, and she wanted my family to join her.


We drove through the desert in our four-wheel drive for a couple hours until we came across a group of makeshift houses in a cluster.  Our friend got out of the car and immediately greeted the owners of one of the “houses” with a warm Arabic greeting.  She then introduced our family.  My father, who speaks Arabic, was able to communicate while the rest of us simply nodded and smiled while we shook hands.  We were all invited into the “house” for traditional Arabic coffee and fresh dates.  This is what my mother, my brother, and I concentrated on while my father and our friend carried on  a conversation with our hosts.


We were informed that there would be a wedding there that night.  A celebration would be held in this “village” with singing, dancing, and the sacrifice of a goat for the 17-year-old bride and her husband-to-be, who was mostly likely in his late twenties.  It was actually an unusual marriage:  the bridge had been kept in her parents’ house for too long, and the only man who was willing to take her at such an old age was one who had already been married and divorced.  Girls are usually between 12 and 14 years of age when they marry.  In fact, the bedouin men asked my father where my husband was.  He told them that I was not married.  They said, “But she will marry soon?”  My father then explained that I had to finish secondary school, then I would go on to university, and perhaps after that I would get married.  They were shocked because by that age, their girls were beginning to plan their daughters’ weddings. The men felt sorry for me and were very kind:  they offered to find me a husband!


When we had all finished our food and drink, our missionary friend informed us that she would be putting medicine in some of the children’s eyes since many of them had conjunctivitis.  She asked us to help her.  We pulled the tailgate of a pickup truck down to act as a hospital bed.  children and their mothers gathered around us for their eye drops.  Most of them were quite calm, but one little girls was screaming and crying and kicking; she refused to remain still.  The nurse asked me to hold her head still while she dropped the medicine in the girls’ infected eyes.  I felt very important, assisting by holding the screaming girl’s head tight with both hands.


There I was being a “real” missionary.  This is the work that many churches in the United States associate with overseas missionaries.  However, that was the only experience of its kind that anyone in my family has ever had in the nine years that we’ve been in the Gulf.  That is the missionary work that our friend had been called to many years ago, but our calling is much different.  We were called to work with the English-speaking expatriates, who are here from other countries working as doctors, lawyers, bankers, teachers, engineers, maids, company managers, etc.  This does not make us less missionaries than our friend working with the bedouin.


This past year I found myself being a good example of a missionary.  I was sitting in the classroom of a teacher that I was an aide for, chatting with a friend of mine who’s half American, half Kuwaiti and was an aide for the same teacher.  It was the end of the day, and I happened to mention something about going to youth group that night.  She didn’t know what i was talking about and asked what youth group was.  When I explained it to her, she became very interested and asked if she could come.  Of course I told her that she could, and I was excited when she showed up one night.  Unfortunately, with her busy school schedule, she never made it to another meeting.  However, recently this same friend stopped me in the hall after class and asked when and where my father preached.  I told her that we had a service in Manama on Sunday nights at 6:30 and another service in Awali on Friday mornings at 11:00.  She told me that she’d see me on Friday morning.  That Friday, she showed up at the service with her mother, who probably hasn’t been to church since before she got married.  I was worried that after sitting through the service, neither of them would want to return, but afterwards my friend gave me a hug and told me she felt really good.  I said, “Great, so you’ll be back.”  She enthusiastically replied, “Definitely!”  She has managed to make it to as many services as she can since then, and her mother has been attending regularly since that first Friday!


This situation could have occurred anywhere in the world, and it doesn’t taken an overseas missionary to make it happen.  Being a missionary does not only mean learning a foreign language and bringing medical supplies and Bible translations into other countries, although this is a very important kind of missionary work.  I was being a missionary with the bedouin, but more importantly I was being a missionary in my American high school.  I would encourage other teenagers to look into overseas mission if that’s what they feel led to do, but don’t be discouraged if that’s not what God has in mind of you.  There are just as many mission opportunities close to home.  As long as you’re spreading the word of God and the love of Jesus, it does not matter if you’re preaching in a foreign language half way around the globe or if you’re inviting a friend to youth group in your hometown.


We’re Not Dying Like Chickens, But They Are…What’s Our Response? September 19, 2011

Filed under: Culture,Faith — Jen @ 2:35 am

I have mentioned my friend Dara before.  She is an American friend, who I first met in Mozambique when I lived there when she was on her way back to the US after a stint in a town a few hours away from Beira.  I reconnected with her last summer when I was visiting Moz because she is now back there trying to adopt a little girl.

I was chatting with her on skype last week and was reminded of how hard life in Mozambique is.  It’s hard to pinpoint because it’s not a country at war or recently post-war or in any kind of political turmoil.  It is generally safe and is hailed internationally as an economic success story based on the growth it has made since its civil war.  Yet daily life is SO hard.  There is an oppression there, a darkness that hangs over the country.  There is a general lack of motivation to work, to find ways to thrive.  Despite the supposed economic growth, there is extreme poverty throughout the country.  There is disease and corruption and lack of education and lack of decent infrastructure.  Did I mentioned the disease and the corruption?

Dara’s latest blog post nails it on the head.  Any one of us who has spent time in Mozambique could have written this post.  It’s daily life there.  She captures both the financial and spiritual poverty that pervades the culture.

Her last paragraphs hit me hard.  I lived there!  I’m aware.  Yet I’ve quickly become caught up in my culture here where I skim the news online, go for my daily run, take my shower with guaranteed water pressure and hot water in my air-conditioned apartment, eat whatever I fancy, and hop in my car to buy more of whatever I fancy.  I can’t remember the last person I’ve known here who’s died.  I don’t know anyone who is sick.  Yes, drought is destroying livelihoods, and fires are destroying houses.  But not every day, all year, to every community in the state.  It’s not drought and fire in Mozambique, but it just as well could be.  Every day.  Every year.  To every community.  What is my response to thatWhat is your response to that?  What is the Church’s response to that?

At the very least if you are reading this, please say a prayer for Dara.  Say a prayer for the mothers who lose their babies.  Say a prayer for those whose houses are so easily destroyed by hail or wind.  Say a prayer for the guard and those who believe that their lives are worth nothing more than chickens.


T.I.M. July 15, 2010

Filed under: Culture,Pictures — Jen @ 11:30 pm

Let me describe a chapa for you.  Imagine a 13 passenger mini-bus:  three benches with a fold-down seat each and one bench across in the back.  With a sliding side door.


Now imagine this bus with a sliding door that sometimes falls off the hinges, with a spider-web crack in the windshield right where the front passenger’s head would hit should there be a very sudden stop or impact, with seats that may or may not be completed upholstered, with fold-down seats that may or may not have backs, and with an interior light that is hanging by a wire.  Also imagine each of the rows holding not three but four passengers as well as not one but two passengers up front.  There is a driver, who may or may not have a license, who may or may not have been drinking, who may or may not turn around completely in his seat to carry on a heated conversation with the cobredor.  The cobredor is the guy who somehow balances himself over the overcrowded first row of passengers (remember four, not three), collects fares, and opens and closes the sliding door to let passengers in and out.


You must also imagine no bus stops.  A passenger can hail a chapa at any point along the route, sometimes 20 meters from the last stop.  When the cobredor notices a passenger on the side of the road, he taps the inside of the door with a coin for the driver to stop.  When a passenger inside wants to get out, he or she calls out, “Paragem!” and the cobredor taps again for the driver to stop.  When a passenger in the back wants to get out, all the people in the fold-down seats need to get out first.  Because bodies physically fill every space in a chapa, getting in and out involves a lot of squeezing and/or climbing over people.  It’s helpful to be a short, skinny person on a chapa.


I took a chapa back to Beira yesterday from a crossroads 160km away.  The journey there by bus had taken two hours.  The journey back took three and a half.


I had forgotten to give myself ‘break-down’ time coming back.  How quickly one forgets these things living in an efficient society for a year.  I figured if we left at 2:30, I would easily be home by dark.  I would have too, just barely, had we not run out of gas.


We had just stopped in a town for snacks – boys walking around the vehicle thrusting Fizz (a brightly colored, sugary, carbonated drink) and cookies and bags of chips in passenger windows – and just outside the next town we chugga-chugga-chugged to a stop.


Then this is where I get confused:  Not so much that the driver ran out of gas  (I mean, the lack of planning beyond the very, very immediate moment will always amaze me about Mozambique) but that no one really complained.  A few people grumbled that they had to get out, but mostly people accepted the inconvenience.  Yet Mozambicans will yell – yes, yell – at cobredors if they don’t stop the minute they call out “paragem” or if the music isn’t quite right.


And here is where I became even more confused.  After half of the male passengers push-started the chapa to run a little further on fumes, the driver took off down the road rather than pull into the gas station that was 50 meters from us.  So we walked, our motley crew of bum-sore passengers, along the main road for about ten minutes, hoping the driver would find some gas and return for us.  Indeed he did, although he drove right past us at first.


Finally we all piled back in, again with no grumbling, and continued our journey with many more stops, although fortunately not gasoline-related.  We finally arrived in Beira well after the sun set.


This Is Mozambique.


Small Town Rodeo March 7, 2010

Filed under: Culture — Jen @ 8:22 pm

Last night I joined a group of friends on a little road trip south of Houston to the Matagorda County Rodeo in Bay City (pop. 18,000).  Yes, the Houston Rodeo is going on.  Yes, people at the small town rodeo wondered why we trekked all the way down there for a local rodeo when we’ve got the country’s biggest rodeo in our backyard.  Well, because the small town rodeo is authentic.  It’s not about Keith Urban or Black Eyed Peas in concert or sitting in the nosebleed section of Reliant Stadium, straining to see the action down below.  It’s about buying a hamburger from the the local church ladies and sitting only a few rows back from all the mud-slinging action.  It’s about seeing events that the Houston Rodeo doesn’t include, like wild cow saddling: