Have you ever ridden a rollercoaster ride? If you have, close you eyes and try to remember how you felt. For me, it is pure nervousness and mild anxiety (I’m afraid of heights) as the ride slowly and painstakingly clicks up the steep hill. As this climb continues, there are times when I consider my own sanity—why did I think was a good idea again? Is there still time for me to go back and change my mind about riding this? Then, once I reach the peak of the incline, there is a moment—an ever-so-short moment—of pure terror and anticipation. As that fleeting moment passes, the plunge begins. Plummeting down the steep hill, I cling to the safety bar with all my strength. My stomach feels like it has leapt into my throat. Sometimes my fear manages to make its way out of me in the form of a scream, other times I am completely silent. But eventually, the fear turns into pure joy and exhilaration. Usually as the terror subsides, I begin to giggle like a child—and I think, “YES! This is why I chose to ride this ride! This is AMAZING!”
So by now you are probably wondering why I am telling you about a rollercoaster ride—surely, I’m not going to start telling you about the rollercoaster rides in Africa?! Well, to answer you question, yes and no. No, I haven’t ridden an actual rollercoaster ride in Africa, but, yes, I am about to tell you about my incredible ride—that is life as a missionary here in East Africa. You see, transitioning to life as a missionary is one of many, many ups and downs. When I started the journey, I was overjoyed and filled with great excitement and anticipation. January 18, 2016 (the date I left the US to move to Kenya) couldn’t come soon enough! However, as my preparations for moving continued and the days began to fly by, there were times when my anticipation turned into anxiety, fear, worries, and even (at times) pure terror—“What was I thinking? Move to Africa? Leave my family, friends, and job that I love? Who thinks this is a good idea?” During the days leading up to my deployment to the mission field, I thought that I had experienced every possible emotion! Little did I know, the rollercoaster ride was just beginning.
After moving, I excitedly dove into language learning. I enjoyed studying Swahili for around 8 hours a day at a language school in Iringa, Tanzania. Somedays I literally had to pinch myself to see if this was really happening. You see, I was so overwhelmed with the joy that I was in my favorite place on earth, East Africa, to do my favorite thing, show God’s love through nursing. However, as the days passed by, the language became more and more difficult. I suffered from frequent “missionary tummy” issues, and I deeply missed my family, friends, language, & culture. In addition, the internet connection was very poor to nonexistent.
One day I remember feeling on the verge of tears for the entire day. I desperately wanted to talk to my family. However, they were 9 hours behind me, so I was just trying to push through the day until they would be awake and I could call them. Once it was finally a reasonable time, I pulled out my phone and called them—relieved in knowing that I would get to talk to those that I love and miss dearly. However, it was one of those days when the internet wasn’t working and the local cell network was very glitchy. I was able to reach them and say hello, but then I lost the call. I tried multiple times with different methods to reach them again, but each time it was the same—we could exchange about 2 words and then we would lose the call. Eventually, I had no choice but to give up.
I remember getting a text to go through, telling my family that I was sorry that the network was bad. I also distinctly remember saying, “I guess Africa wins again.” For me, saying “Africa wins again” was a way of trying to inject a little humor into a situation that was not the slightest bit funny to me. It was a coping mechanism that I used from time to time as I was adjusting to life here—no power due to rain and thus no hot water? Africa wins again. No water due to lack of power to run the pump? Africa wins again. Sick with stomach issues for the fourth time this week? Africa wins again. Poor cell network and lack of internet? Africa wins again. You get the point. Anyway, after I sent that text, I was also able to receive 1 message from my dear, wise mother. She reminded me that, while it may feel like “Africa wins again,” in reality, it is Christ who wins! The greatest battle has already been waged and won! I know my mom was trying to encourage me, but in continuation of the fantastic pity party I was throwing for myself—I mistakenly thought, “Well, duh mom. I know that Christ wins…..but who cares about that right now?”
A full year has passed since this conversation took place. I have experienced the incredible high of providing Christlike care to hundreds of patients in just one day! I have enjoyed the opportunity of praying with and for many of these patients. I have worked alongside local nurses and doctors—learning from and appreciating one another. I have felt the sting of joyful tears burning in my eyes as I listen to (and even understand!) our brothers and sisters in Christ worshiping in Swahili. I have been tackled, hugged, and loved by the children of my fellow missionaries after not seeing them for some time. The highs and joys of missionary life are indescribable.
On the other hand, I have experienced the gut-wrenching pain of missing out on the wedding of a very dear friend, the funeral of an extended family member, multiple birthdays, and even some holidays. I have been a very sick patient myself, and on more than one occasion required intravenous fluids for rehydration. I have struggled desperately to communicate clearly in a language that is still foreign to me. I have witnessed my family cry, grieving our time together, knowing that this pain is caused by my choice to follow God’s calling. I have wept over a 16 year-old patient of mine who died of a curable disease because her family did not want further treatment. The lows and woes of missionary life are equally indescribable.
Because I have now officially lived in East Africa for over a year I, very foolishly, thought that all the extreme ups & downs of missionary life had evened out and I was in for a more smooth ride. Early this week, I remember thinking, “It is so nice to be through all of the CONSTANT ups and downs.” And then BAM—I was humbled again.
During one of my daily 3-hour sessions with my Swahili tutor this week, I struggled and, to be quite frank, basically failed at translating an elementary level story from English into Swahili. I was frustrated beyond explanation. I complained later to a coworker, “I have been studying Swahili for over a year now. If I can’t even translate a basic elementary-level story, what am I doing?!” During that tutoring session, I felt incredibly upset with myself—which, by the way, when I get emotional, it definitely doesn’t improve my language skills…in fact, I get much, much worse! After taking a short break from the lesson, I returned to my office where my tutor was ready to proceed. She could tell that I had really been struggling and wasn’t very happy. In order to change the subject and move onto something a little easier, she pointed to my calendar, noticing my dad’s birthday written on it. She asked if I had called him. Out of the blue, I burst into tears. I didn’t realize how much I had been missing my dad until that moment—I had fallen into the trap of thinking I was “past the hard stuff.” I can honestly say, this was one of my most humbling moments. My poor, wonderful teacher didn’t quite know how to respond to me. I profusely apologized, telling her that I just really missed my family and asked if we could talk about something else.
Later that day, I went home and called my family. For the first time in a very long time, I sobbed. I was embarrassed, but the reality was that, I desperately missed them. The pain was real, gut-wrenching. It was a 9/10 on that silly pain scale we nurses use. Fortunately, this time I was able to speak freely with my family and received some words of great comfort, love, and encouragement from them.
The following day, I was dreading my Swahili lesson. The time came and my teacher arrived with a gracious smile on her face. We began our lesson as we typically do—chatting about daily activities in Swahili. Eventually, the conversation turned and we began to discuss matters of health. I found myself explaining to her in fluent Swahili why it is important to avoid salt if you have high blood pressure. As I was explicitly describing the physiology of how salt affects blood pressure—BAM—I was suddenly hit with emotion again. Except this time, it was a feeling of elation. I was overjoyed with the realization that I had just taught about health in a foreign language! Wow—God is truly good!
As you are probably beginning to realize, life as a missionary is filled with constant ups and downs. Sometimes it is like you are on the little kiddie rollercoaster—the ups and downs are gradual. Other times, it reminds me of the Mamba (the tallest rollercoaster at Worlds of Fun in Kansas City)—the highs and lows are extreme—the ride sometimes terrifying, sometimes exhilarating. Through all of these, I can take comfort in one thing—that thing which my mom reminded me of a year ago: Christ wins, every time! 1 Corinthians 15:55-58 gives us this assurance: “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? The sing of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work for the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”
In the highs, lows, joys, & woes of missionary life, I cling to this promise: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” Hebrews 13:8.