The Spider’s Web

How strange that the unusual life here so quickly becomes regular. I get up. I eat breakfast. I go to work. I return home for lunch. I go out to work. I come home for dinner. I go to sleep. Anyone’s day can be summed into simplicities and necessities. Sometimes I forget that when I look up in my room there is a spider the size of my hand hanging between the ceiling and the divider we call the wall of my room. It’s a large spider.

Imagine a spider the size of about your hand. The usual business on your typical spider: a little hairy, eight legs, cephalothorax and abdomen, spider web, nothing particularly fancy about that. But the longer I look at it the more I see. The way it is colored a deadly black. The kind of black that makes you forget what color was, like a black hole sitting atop a spider’s burning malevolence for anything living. Oh, and then there are the splashes of blood red on its body. It’s a strange thing when you think you’re about to fall into the emptiness that is this spider’s soul when suddenly you see the blood of it’s many victims. The thing that has amazed me most about this spider is the size of its web. I would be willing to say it spans about nine feet with the spider contentedly cushioning itself in the middle of its web, still as death. I love when the wind blows through our house and shakes his web, suddenly he discontentedly claws and scratches at his web, as if irritated it dare move without the notice of newfound prey. I lie below on the flat foam and back breaking boards of my bed, but above me, above me… I am happy below the spider, but what makes me happiest about being below the spider is that the spider is not with me. The fact that he could leap at a moments notice to his ever so courageous prey below is more than slightly disconcerting. I look up at the spider. From my perspective he lies in the middle of not only his web, but our skylight as well. A light shines around him as if he were on fire.

If you cannot recall, let’s go over the details on the specifics of this spider. Deadly black, splashes of blood red cover his body, from my perspective he could be the size of a small beaver, (who knows?) lurking above waiting for his chance to strike, and very possibly literally on fire. But I may be looking into things a bit too much.

The problem however is the fact that often I forget to do this. My walk becomes too normal. My bedroom too boring. My life too life-like.

But a part of me wonders if that isn’t the whole reason that I came to Madagascar. To understand that even a world apart from home (literally), life remains the same. It doesn’t particularly have to be boring but it does need to become, if not normal, life-like. Yes, I can walk 20 minutes and reach the ocean. Yes, I can walk out of my door, see a ripe bunch of bananas and simply pluck one off if I so desire. Yes, I can communicate with people who speak an entirely different language than me. But perhaps the fact that it becomes normal for me means that my life is changing. My view of what life is, is changing. But, of course, I still desire for every moment to remain special.

Thus I walk out my door, smile at the sun, which is already burning the tip of my nose, and start on my way. The walk may become “normal,” but every moment remains special for some reason. It is this balance of life-likeness and extraordinary moments that keep me standing on the edge of sanity and overwhelming ecstaticsism. One moment I’m bored out of my mind, and the next I find my self rapt with such enthusiasm at my situation that I can barely stand to continue my walk and nearly throw myself onto the ground just to fully take in the moment. But then my mind wanders to the spider.

It’s as if he’s woven a web through my mind, allowing me to get stuck in moments and feel the excitement and fear that comes with getting stuck in a spider’s web of time, but equally often I find myself sliding through a hole, a fly greased with massive amounts of menaka (oil), and beurre (butter), being free to simply live without being caught in the galvanizing touch of the spiders web. It shocks me alive, but I’m equally afraid that one touch might be my electric chair. This is what keeps me moving, but it’s also what keeps me stopping.

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Helping

There was blood to be spilt today. Don’t worry, I caught it. Oh, the things we do for family.

Heri enjoying the after effects!

Heri enjoying the after effects!

This morning I was out helping teach an English club. It’s one of the far too few things that I regularly am a part of here in Manakara and being a part of it makes me feel like I’ve actually accomplished something with my day. I never expected people would be so ecstatic and happy to have me help teach a class in English, but apparently the hardest part of speaking English is to be understood, so having a fluent American come and share his less than adequate teaching with them is more than they could ever hope for. After stopping in a local hotely for soup I returned home and my mother greeted me with a wide smile and a request.

“Could you help cut down some banana leaves? You’re so tall, so you can get higher than the rest of us.” A simple request with a motivation I thought I understood. Get rid of the banana leaves so they don’t mar the beauty of our home. How wrong I was. I asked for a knife and she came back bearing the knife that we use to cut our vegetables, meats, and other kitchen delicacies that continually needing cutting. Why not trees I guess. I started to chop down leaf after leaf, worried that I’m accidentally pulling off bark with them or that I am somehow going to be responsible for the sure to be forthcoming mistake of killing one of their fruit bearing banana trees; but it all goes off without a hitch. Rodrigue helps me chop them down and soon we’ve got a pile bigger than I know what to do with. Fetra and Heri knew far better than I however and leapt in with total disregard for their own well-being. It incited total excitement within me to see kids in Madagascar doing the same thing with cut down banana leaves that Midwesterners have done year after year when the leaves fall from the trees every autumn. What more beautiful thing is there? It didn’t last long however.

Screams echoed across the forest I call home. Squealing and screeching didn’t belong, not then. Not when I was just starting to see the connections between two worlds that are literally a world apart. But the children kept laughing and playing as I looked around baffled at what was happening. My mother approached me and asked me if I would like to see why I was cutting down all of these leaves as she pulled her two youngest out of the leaves. My lack of a response and baffled appearance was enough for her and I was dragged towards my grandpa, brother, and closely related cousin of sorts. They were holding a young piglet that was tied up, flailing, and shrieking for its life. Rather pointlessly, but as Dylan Thomas once said, “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Before I could get ahold of the situation my grandfather seized the knife, which I was using to cut down banana leaves (how useful kitchen knives are), and plunged it deep within the piglet, right under its gasping shrieking throat. What he was aiming for, I was unsure, but either way the affect was the same. It’s cries stopped, but the writhing continued for quite some time as the blood gushed into a bucket I had somehow come to be holding. Suddenly I became amazingly aware of the fact that I was wearing a recently washed, light, bright white shirt. I leaped back while holding the bucket as still as I could while looking down at myself wondering if I’d contaminated myself. How was I supposed to see the blood coming!? Still clean. I moved forward again wondering what it was that the leaves were for.

While the pig continued to contort itself under the firm grasp of my grandfather a blaze rose behind me. The leaves I had so carefully and pain-stakingly cut down were being lit ablaze by my brother Romus. As the pig started to cease it’s incessant wriggling it was thrown onto the ground and leaves were thrown on top of it, moments later being consumed by the flames. I bound backwards, still clasping the bucket of blood and turned to my mother with a face so confused she immediately began to answer my unspoken question. “They’re burning off the hair,” she responded simply, and promptly turned again to watch the progress of the pig pyre. The initial burn was the longest. Dried leaves don’t take long to burn after all, it’s a fast hot burn followed by ashes and a semi-burnt pig carcass in this case. When the first leaves had burned up knives were distributed (the kitchen knives, believe it or not) and the scraping of the skin commenced. It was an attempt to get the hair off, but not the skin, and apparently this was the best way of going about it; a post-burn shaving. This happened three or four times before we turned to a more typical method of hair removal: water and knives. I’d never felt more like a barber, which was a strange dichotomy against that of a butcher. We grabbed for legs, head, tail, and torso, ensuring that we hit every nook and cranny of that pig. I especially took joy in shaving the juncture between that of leg and torso: lift leg, pour water, slowly and carefully scrape away any remaining hair, and finally let the leg go loose knowing I’ve completed a job well done. Who knew you could find joy in such savage butchery?

Slicing the belly open is the easy part, it turns out. After that, things get messy. It’s weird how perfect it all looked when we cut it open. You had your intestines, your lungs, your heart, your liver; a regular smorgasbord of soon to be sakafo (food)! The tough part was getting all of this out without making a mess, which was difficult. This was because under all of these beautiful organs was a nice pool of blood. The thing that struck me was the fact that the carcass was at this point, just a bowl. A nice bowlful of organs and blood. Once we got the organs out, then it was just a bowlful of blood. I enjoyed the simplicity of it, but I was finished with helping at this point.

I took a step back and watched the boys go to work with the rest of the pig. Chopping bones and making pieces of the whole. Blood flew, bones shattered, viscera flung about as if on wings. The meal tonight was especially beautiful.

The boys burning and scraping our meal

The boys burning and scraping our meal

Finding Family Far Away

Walking to church in Madagascar is… different. The preparation is about the same. I wake up early in the morning and quickly tie up my bug net before I glance at my unmade bed and shrug. Rolling out of bed I slip on my flip-flops and take a look at my clothes. Not as many to choose from as I usually have: two dress shirts, a pair of khakis, and a single pair of Malagasy cockroach brown dress shoes (you can about guess how I figured that one out). I pick one of the two shirts and the rest of my outfit puts itself together. When I’m dressed I walk to the bathroom with my water bottle filled with filtered water, wave hello to my family, and give my toothbrush a quick rinse before brushing my teeth. Another quick spritz of water on my toothbrush when I’m finished and I go to put away my things as I start to actually wake up. I walk back out of my room and into the dining room/living room/kitchen/workspace where the whole family is gathered either eating or preparing breakfast.

I ask if I can help in broken Malagasy and my host mother urges me to sit down and eat. She tries her best to stuff me with every type of delicious Malagasy food at her disposal, and she tries even harder to bring me to the brink of bursting. While being chided I’m able to adroitly fend off her complaints about my eating habits and the family returns to the meal.

My host family has a flow to every meal. We begin by a prayer and we end with a prayer, it’s what is in the middle that is lost to me nearly entirely. The meal starts without any real pomp or ceremony, people just start grabbing food and preparing plates. My father, Jona (Zonah/Jon), often starts by grabbing food first. My mother, Tina (this one’s easy), takes her time and gets her food after she’s seen most of the family grab their rice. Ando (Ahn-doo), the oldest daughter at 13, usually has a quick comment or two before going to grab anything. My younger sister Aina (Eye-nah) at 10 usually dances her way to the table before sitting down with the rest of us. My oldest brother Rodrigue (Road-reeg) at 19 is fit as a fiddle and usually gulps down twice the amount of food as the rest of my family. Romus (Roe-moose) at 16 is second oldest, and I’m always surprised at the amount of food that he can stomach. Heri (Hay-ree) at 7 loves to sit next to me, have the same plate as me, and generally loves to follow me around and do as I do; the rascal. My youngest brother Fetra (Fay-cha) at 4 does whatever he pleases at the table, except for eat. The meal usually ends with Jona or Tina helping Fetra finish the rest of his food. At any point towards the end of the meal a member of the family starts to sing. After the first word the whole family joins in, whether their mouth is full or not, and we jump through the two stanzas with ease before finally getting in rhythm and singing our “Amen” in beautiful soaring harmonies. The meal isn’t actually finished after prayer. People might end up sitting at the table for another hour before washing their dishes just to talk or eat or do whatever they please. I love it.

After finishing breakfast I snatch the tiny GNB Bible that Jona lent me, my psalter hymnbook (without any notation), and my water bottle. Church can last up to 4½ hours after all. The family ends up leaving in small groups, people are always rushing to be there earlier or are running late, so I could be leaving with any one of my family. The last person out the door always needs to be sure that the door is locked, a short process once you can remember where the five locks are, and then you’re on your way.

Walking out the door I see clothes lines, spider webs, trash littering the sides of the paths, fruit trees of all kinds; banana, jackfruit, coconut, leechy fruit, and mangos, all within the small patch of land my family owns. The spiders are huge, but we leave them be so they can help take care of the mosquitos. There are usually five little dogs playing on the yard: my family’s pets (quite unusual for a Malagasy home) and when I walk out the door every one of them greets me with a happy hello. I turn down a side path with my family, push a few banana tree leaves out of my way and I’m on my way.

An immense field opens up to my right, and the path we’re trotting along slowly starts to turn into a winding slithering snake trail. Roots, mounds, loose rope, clothes lines going for my neck, branches, but most of all roots. Roots that mean to entangle me, attempting to drag me down ensuring that I’m never able to make the trudging journey to church again. My family easily lead me along as if all were okay in the world. Here I sit assaulted by the very elements of nature themselves turning against me and my family leads me along as a baby bumbling its first steps through a path littered in snakes! But it’s fine. Houses in various stages of disarray and humble beauty lie before me all jumbled together with trees and clothes lines and fences and as I walk towards them they move in towards me. I start to feel larger than I ought to be. The houses seem too small to be lived in, made of wood and roofed with leaves bound together by small straps of hemp rope. Their size makes it easier for them to squeeze me, let me know that I don’t belong. But Fetra grabs my hand and reminds me that I’m supposedly leading him along. We pop out of the tightly clumped houses and make it to the road; better than the path, but I’ve always been known for my generous title denoting. To be filled with puddles or small hillsides in the middle of the road is not unusual, but it’s an entirely different retinue than that of the path we were just on. We walk along, Fetra and Heri arguing amongst themselves about who gets to hold my hand and my family flying along in Malagasy, of which I can’t understand a word (well maybe one or two). We start to hear the choir singing and the bells booming and we’ve made it. WE made it to church.

Initial Impressions

I’ve arrived.

            The trip was arduous to say the least. A short trip from Sioux Falls to Atlanta to Chicago seemed like the bat of an eyelash in comparison with the trip to Antananarivo, Madagascar. A quick eight-hour flight from Chicago to London went smoothly, but it was a bit peculiar to suddenly be seven hours ahead from my previous life. Unfortunately a delay made our flight from London to Johannesburg (a 12 hour endeavor) a bit rushed. The second our plane hit the ground we were up and running to the front in an attempt to make our next flight. After a mad dash through the airport lugging only our most beloved possessions we encountered nothing but futility and despair as we realized we wouldn’t make it. As anxiety and worry about what we would do next was dawning upon the group the South African YAGM team came to our rescue and picked us up at the airport. After a short stay in Johannesburg we finally made our flight to Madagascar; the adventure has only begun.

            Walking the streets of Ansirabe has been one of the most enlightening things that I have ever done. The first day we arrived we began our 20-minute jaunt across the streets of Ansirabe. Luckily we had our handy-dandy country coordinators, Pastora(Pastor) Austin and Ramatoa(Pastor’s wife) Tanya Propst, to lead the way for the first day.

 

            Strapping on my Chacos was the first part of my journey. The Z-strap winding across my feet in a zigzagging array of confusion, much like I was about to see on the streets below. We are staying in a compound of sorts, a facility that harkens back to the Norwegian Mission Society that had a firm foothold in Madagascar nearly a hundred years ago, and the second I walked out the door I was assaulted with sights, smells, and beauty abounding. It’s winter here in Ansirabe. The city isn’t even green yet. It couldn’t matter less. But I had no idea how to see that yet.

It’s strange how closed off we become with the world. I walked outside seeing nothing but those around me, the ground below me, and myself. Speaking lightly with them about our concerns for the coming year, the excitements and failures that we saw coming in our future, and not a word about those around us. Closed to the world. Then I saw it. A single large snaking plant, holding tightly to the building it was slowly coalescing with. The branches themselves were brown and thin, though plentiful. Every branch was either grabbing for another branch, grasping for an opening on the wall, or flailing wildly in the wind having nothing to keep from falling. As the plant slithered upward past brick, mortar, and stone holding the wall in place it started to combine and become a single writhing mass of vine like branches. At the very top a single bloom opened up into a flower the likes of which I had never seen before. It unmistakably reminded me of a Japanese cherry tree in bloom and at the sight of it I had to stop in my tracks and notice all else that surrounded it:

A father walking side by side with his son through the crowded streets, small shopkeepers on every street corner giving hopeful looks to those who pass by, children playing in a nearby park with parents keeping a close eye on their every movement, a beggar saying in Malagasy, French, and English, “no money, I have no money,” smiles shining from the recesses of a heavy crowd, a man walking down the street in a heavy wool suit jacket and trousers in eighty degree weather, reproachful gazes reaching you from the relative safety of under a heavy brow, a child shyly looking all around them with curiosity and interest, a single white man sporting a fetching beard and clothes that look like they’ve seen every ocean, sea, and land this this every shrinking world contains, a mother breastfeeding her child while simultaneously bartering for food, two girls walking while whispering secrets between one another.

People. People of every kind. Just like you. Just like me. We’re all people. Together.

 

I don’t know what God has planned for me in this coming year, but I’m here now and I know that no matter what it is that God has planned for me I will attempt to make the best of it in every way, shape, and form possible. Whether that means walking, talking, sharing, laughing, yelling, singing, screaming, shouting, running, jumping, praising God and saying Glory to God in the highest peace on earth to whom his favor rests ALL OF IT. I want to do it all. And I want to do it with the people of Madagascar. My (prayerfully) future friends.

 

Walking Through Invisible Walls

I’m still here. But I’m learning to leave.

The process of exiting one’s homeland isn’t quite as simple as you would imagine, especially for those with the intent of being a missionary of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA). Although my heart is pure and my body is willing, the ELCA believes, and likely for good reason, that my mind is weak; I wouldn’t disagree with them. I arrived in Chicago on Wednesday, the 13th of August. Thankfully it wasn’t a Friday and my flight to Chicago went well and thus I made it to the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) where I would be spending my time making myself vulnerable to every experience to come and inclusive so that I can build relationships across boundaries that undeniably exclude and divide people. I was learning to walk.

            Walking with people sounds so simple. You would think that it would be as simple as going to another location, walking around for 10-15 minutes, and then walking away a newly formed man with various experiences and ideas all made within the span of walking a few blocks away from your home. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Accompaniment is the model that the ELCA likes to work with. Their particular definition is that accompaniment is, “walking together in a solidarity that practices interdependence and mutuality.” I like to think of it as, “Putting your awesome together with their awesome and letting alchemy do its work.”

            It’s strange how something so easy can be so profoundly difficult. Sharing together. Experiencing with one another. Walking in their shoes. It’s empathy in action. It’s something we teach our children to do everyday. Yet here I sit having been through nearly a whole week of three to four hour-long sessions on how not to be an absolute meanie-pants and I have learned SO MUCH! It’s amazing! Walking with people has never seemed so important. Sharing dialogue suddenly becomes a chance to demolish invisible walls that people never even knew existed.

            I guess that’s the real reason that I’m going. I’m going to find these walls that I never noticed. I probably won’t be able to do much about them by myself, but maybe, with a lot of help, I can try. In Madagascar I’ll be in a culture so totally foreign that I’ll feel uncomfortable literally going to the bathroom, but throughout the course of the year these cultural barriers will become more and more clear. I’ll start to see it’s cracks, it’s weaknesses, it’s structural fragility, and with this newfound sight I’ll be able to inform others of what I see; perhaps through this very blog. The ELCA is sending me to Madagascar to find these invisible walls of injustice and inequity, and they hope that when I return I can share what I see and become a real leader in the church. I just hope I can live up to ANY of their expectations.

The Madagascar YAGM Group in front of Wrigley Field.

The Madagascar YAGM Group in front of Wrigley Field.

            Finding people to walk with me won’t be easy. Finding these walls will be even harder (they are invisible after all). For the first time I’m realizing that I will truly need (like NEED, need) God to be able to do this at all. Either way though, I’ve never felt more prepared.

The Beginning.

It just happened. I read an e-mail and it has become real.

It’s weird how I’ve known for months now that I would be going to Madagascar, but the second I hear the name of an actual location in Madagascar my heart rate soars. I’ve spent the last few months preparing what it is I need to get done while I’m still here: getting visas, passport photos, immunizations, sending letters and raising support; but the thing that I do to get ready to go mentally and spiritually? Check Google maps and look at Madagascar. Maybe read a book about what to do when I’m there, or maybe my flimsy attempt at learning any paltry amount of Malagasy. But the second I hear a name of a place in Madagascar I can finally zoom in and look at a real place. There are houses and buildings and water and rivers and everything. It’s like I’ve been looking at the same person for months from a distance and now I’ve finally picked up the courage to walk towards them and really SEE them. The way the land curves like a gentle cheekbone and the watery depths of their eyes like the sea.

Manakara.

What will I be able to accomplish an a place with as awesome a name as Manakara!? It seems impossible to me that I’ll be able to distinguish anything that I do as “helpful.” Apparently there’s an English club and an elementary school, but how am I going to teach these people anything when I feel like I barely have the strength of mind to remember when it is that I’m actually leaving the country? There’s a home with people who are filled with people struggling mentally, spiritually, and physically, and apparently they think that I have the skills to work with people such as this, but how will I have the patience and fortitude to stay strong with these people when sometimes I feel like I’m going to murder the boys that I work with over the summer who have special needs? There’s even an Agriculture Center in Manakara. I’m an Iowa boy; I should be able to work the green thumb magic that my entire state seems to have an excess of, but over the summer my mother has asked me to water her plants, and even though typically I may remember, when I don’t I see wilting flowers all around me.

I’m afraid that everything I touch while I’m in Madagascar is going to wilt. How am I going to be able to stand perkily on the edge of my stem and wait to be shined on by the people around me when I’m terrified of even leaving the house sometimes? The fears of becoming a self indulged American individual comes to the forefront when looking at pictures of the streets and thinking about the people who are going to be walking through them. The language barrier and the literal glaring flaw of my starch white skin are all going to be on the very forefront of every interaction that I have. What preparation can I do to suddenly learn an entirely new language, change my pale pallor to something at least adequately touched by sun, and become an outgoing, young, interesting individual who has something to, if not say, at least attempt to communicate somehow? The full-time job seemed like such a good idea in the spring when Madagascar was, at least literally, 9922.5 miles away. But now, at least metaphorically, I swear that it’s sitting on me! That’s right, the entirety of Manakara, Madagascar is lying on my chest, making it difficult for me to breathe, sleep, think, work, let alone prepare to actually go to the damn place!

You can tell the tension is mounting when I, usually such a well-mannered and intellectual young man, devolve into such execrations. But, if I wanted to, I could blurt out a page of expletives without blinking twice. Yet here I sit, intent to leave for Manakara, Madagascar as a missionary, in the eyes of the church at least, nonetheless. The fact that I was born an impure soul gives me comfort in times like this. It’s what reminds me of my humanity. No matter how I claw and scratch and yearn, I’ll never be perfect; I’ll never be that missionary sitting on a hill breaking bread for the thousands below me. Instead I’ll probably be cursing under my breath at something so paltry it wouldn’t bother even the most crotchety hermit. But even with all of the self-loathing, degrading, and disgusting fear, I’m going to leave my comfortable life here in the Midwest for Manakara, Madagascar. I love the alliteration but I loathe the loss of friends and family alike.

Here I sit, on the couch in my living room, ready and waiting for the adventure to come. Here we go.