It’s hard to go into a place like Zambia and feel like you can make a difference. Most days, I’d climb back into the van feeling exhausted and defeated. Everywhere I’d look there were a dozen or more (mostly more) little faces looking up at me, hoping that the “rich American lady” would somehow save them….from hunger, from disease, from a future that looks hopelessly like the present. What you have to understand is that to these people, all Americans are rich, even me…even you. I have to tell you, I wanted to save them all. We all did! Which is why, on some level, you have to guard your heart when you’re on a mission trip. Your desire to help can sometimes override your common sense and your available resources. That’s what happened to our team in Chaisa when what started as good intentions turned into utter chaos.
Before you go on a short-term mission trip, Horizon insists that you go through team training. Part of that training is to teach you to be a bridge builder and to respect the culture you are going into. We’re taught not to go into another country as the “all knowing Americans” ready to fix all of the world’s problems the way that we would fix them here. We’re taught to be guest, learners, and servants. To be observers of the culture and to rely on our hosts to tell us what they need and why they do things the way they do. We’re cautioned that trying to do too much can backfire and burn the very bridges we’re trying to build. And we’re taught to ask before we act.
It was day three of our educational sessions when we went back to Chaisa. By this time, we felt like we had a good handle on how the day should go. Kelly, Sarah, Moses, and I were inside the church for the morning sessions with the caregivers and teens, while Steve, Doug, Amanda, Kristy, and Susan were outside with the kids. The plan for each day was the same. Two sessions in the morning, break for lunch, then one session in the afternoon. In Chongwe and Chitemalesa, everything went according to plan. The big difference between the first two villages and Chaisa was the physical environment. Chongwe and Chitemalesa were both in the bush. The churches were tucked away in remote villages, miles from civilization. While the caregivers and teens were in the church, the rest of the team led the kids in activities under the trees. We had rocks for chairs and the hard ground became a table for coloring and crafts. In Chongwe, we had the benefit of a tent that Horizon had donated some time before, and resin chairs that doubled for tables at craft time. We performed skits, sang songs, and told age-old bible stories of Joseph and his coat of many colors and Zacchaeus climbing a tree. We had purchased food in advance for the caregivers and sponsored kids, and a small group of caregivers cooked the meal in large kettles outside. During lunch break, everyone sat outside and enjoyed what was possibly their only meal of the day.
Chaisa was like a different universe. Imagine a small city made of cardboard, sticks, and rusted metal. Houses built by hand from mud formed into bricks and hardened by the sun, with weathered curtains for doors and trash bags for windows. The floors, like the streets, are dirt and dust, littered with garbage of every imaginable and unimaginable kind. Put a picture in your mind of a slum, like one you’ve seen in the movies. Now, remove the fire escapes, streetlights, alleys, and dumpsters. No wait! Take the dumpsters and turn them up side down, letting their contents scatter on the ground. Uneven rows of crowded, dilapidated houses teetering on extinction, one up against the other, separated by a wall of tattered clothes hanging on a makeshift clothesline. The city is surrounded by shallow ravines of stagnant, filthy water. All forms of garbage swim on the surface and squat on the banks. Paper, plastic, metal, maggots, human waste. You can smell it long before you can see it, but no matter what direction you look, its all you see. To get across the ravine, there is a small bridge made of mismatched logs, covered by a flimsy sheet of jagged sheet metal that is contorted and rusted thin. A Tetanus shot waiting to happen. In the middle of the city is a one room church with a dirt floor, a dozen or so long wooden benches for pews, and missing doors and windows that eventually keep the smell out but always let the hot sun in. Welcome to Chaisa.
We had first visited Chaisa that previous Sunday for church service. I spent half of the service fully immersed in the contagious rhythm of the songs they sang for “their friends from America”. Their voices sang out to God with such joy and celebration that I wondered if God even heard me silently asking him what I was doing in (and how to get out of) this rancid and desperate place. We were like visiting royalty and I wanted to run for my life. I was repulsed at the thought of going back there later that week. I wanted to swoop up every child I could find and get them away from that place forever.
At dinner that Sunday evening, I told the team that I was worried about the logistics of where we would play with the kids when we went back for an entire day. After seeing Chaisa, I couldn’t imagine that there was anywhere suitable or safe to host a bunch of kids, a PA system, and a suitcase of craft supplies. Doug, our team leader, wasn’t worried. (He never is — he just goes where God sends him). There was a small concrete slab just outside the church, he said, “we can set up there”. I didn’t remember even seeing that slab when we walked out of Chaisa that first day. With merciful tunnel vision, I had kept my eyes solely on the kids who had surrounded us as we left the church. Just like in the bush, they came running along side us, barefoot and smiling, hungry for affection and any treats we may have stashed in our backpacks.
Thursday came and for the first three hours I was holed up inside the church, explaining to grown up people, assisted by an interpreter, that you don’t get HIV from drinking after someone, and you can’t get rid of it by having sex with a virgin. (Yes, that is what some believed). I had no idea that outside, a group of forty or fifty kids had now grown to a crowd of over two hundred. Doug and the team had hooked up the PA and were throwing a block party for God on that cement slab and every kid in earshot was now under the tent. Many adults had begun to gather as well. Those who didn’t go to the church wanted to see what the Americans were doing. We, of course, were doing what we always do – loving on kids, singing and dancing, telling stories, coloring pictures…but this time, we were doing it in their “neighborhood”.
The plan had always been to provide lunch for the caregivers and teens that we were training and the children who accompanied them. In an area like Chongwe, this was not a problem. The Regional Coordinators from Horizon and the church pastors had notified the caregivers in advance about the training. We knew approximately how many to expect to feed based on the number of children sponsored in the area and the distance they would have to travel to get to the church. But Chaisa is different. It is so densely populated that if you sang the first verse of a song, a hundred people could join in the chorus and not miss a beat. By the time we broke for lunch, word had traveled around Chaisa that food was cooking and the Americans were serving. We were prepared to serve 100 kids. The closest we ever got to a moving head count was 212.
When it became time for lunch, there was little disagreement that we had to switch to Plan B. We knew that we didn’t have enough food for all of them, but we couldn’t turn hungry kids away! That’s when we broke the cardinal role of a mission team…We forgot our role as guest in their culture. We came to serve and we ended up circumventing. We became “elephants” to their “ants” and we just took over. None of us bothered to ask the local organizers, pastors, or caregivers how best to handle the situation within the context of their culture. We didn’t understand the logistics, the people, or the conflict that this might cause. We acted like Americans with all the answers without bothering to ask any of the questions. What resulted was mass chaos!
Each day we packed our team lunch and ate it in the van, as our stomachs were not accustomed to Zambian food, and several of our team had already been sick that week. That day, like several others, our menu was made up of bread, peanut butter, jelly, and apples. So we did what any parent would do. We started making peanut butter sandwiches… by the dozens. We sent Moses, to a market to buy six more loaves of bread and more peanut butter. While three of us kept the kids entertained with music and dance, the rest of the team formed an assembly line of sandwich makers in the van, slapping peanut butter between two slices and cutting them into fours, filling the empty bread bags with tiny sandwiches. When the first several bags were full, we crossed the bridge ready to play Jesus to the masses. (Isn’t that, after all, WJWD?)
As soon as the kids saw the food, they rushed to us like a litter of hungry puppies around a milk bowl, shoving and pushing, falling all over one another to get to the front of the pile. The more we tried to organize them, the less control we had. We were surrounded by dirty hands and desperate faces. The team in the van tried to make the peanut butter go as far as it could so they could fill more bags and help satisfy what had become a stampede of kids, some just toddlers. We were up to our elbows with hungry children, and their faces and hands began to blend together. We tried to be fair, to see that every child received a sandwich. In shock and frustration, we were now yelling over the crowd in English, pleading with them to sit single file along the edge of the concrete slab, promising that everyone would get to eat. But they didn’t understand. All they understood was that they were hungry and we had food. I caught myself several times, chastising those who greedily stuffed a sandwich in their mouth and then shoved their hand back in the pile for another, swatting away the hand of a smaller child. I felt horrible. I knew they didn’t understand. It was every man for himself. We had lost all control of the situation, and helplessness overwhelmed us. At one point, we tried to get them to just sit on the ground so that we could move freely between them and so no one else would get hurt. I tried to motion with my hands for them to sit down, as I pulled one child off another. I thought if I sat down, they might do the same, but as I lowered myself to the ground, I began to be swallowed up by the group. One of my teammates quickly pulled me back up, seeing that many of the children were close to my size and fearing that I would become trampled beneath them.
In the middle of the feeding frenzy, I glanced over at the entryway to the church where the caregivers and Chaisa residents stood watching the mayhem unfold. I was angry that they weren’t coming to our rescue. “Couldn’t they see that we were trying to help? Why weren’t they translating for us? Couldn’t they make the children understand that there was enough for everyone? You’d have thought no one had ever made these kids a sandwich before!” (Stupid American!) I hated myself at that moment! In my entire life, I have never felt so completely humbled and helpless. Hunger will make even the meekest child brazen and the smallest child a bully. You and I have never felt that kind of hunger.
What we learned that day can be summed up in a cautionary tale that was a part of our team training, but sadly, we all forgot. It’s called Dancing with Elephants:
Elephant and Mouse became best friends. One day Elephant said, “Mouse, lets have a party!”
Elephant didn’t ask his friend the mouse, he just told him.
Animals gathered from far and near. They ate, and drank, and sang, and danced. And nobody celebrated more exuberantly than the Elephant.
After it was over, Elephant exclaimed, “Mouse, did you ever go to a better party?”
But Mouse didn’t answer
“Where are you?” Elephant called. Then he shrank back in horror. There at his feet lay the Mouse, his body ground into the dirt – smashed by the exuberance of his friend, the Elephant.