Saturday, January 7, 2017

America's witchcraft

In the last year or so, we started sharing more stories of our struggles with witchcraft in this region. Like how Bashi Future spent all his money and a year of his life building a house and then immediately vacated it because he dreamed that someone had cursed him out of jealousy. Or how Sam experienced an unexplained palsy and the entire community agreed that he was taken over by an evil spirit after sleeping with a pregnant girl. Or that time Bana Mwansa lost her phone and paid the witch doctor $5 to divine who had taken it and the witch doctor accused a young boy who instantly went mad, hurling himself into fires.

pc: nanga
Our awareness of and encounters with witchcraft (both real and perceived) has grown steadily with our integration. To give an idea of the frequency we're now experiencing, the Chief has come to our village three times this year to address those who are flinging curses, living in fear and dealing in darkness. Ya’ll knock it off, he pleaded. His charge was knowingly simplistic. The animistic world is all encompassing and one cannot simply cease believing it any more than one can stop breathing air.

pc: lusaka voice
The bondage of sorcery and witchcraft translates poorly to the Christian west. Despite all the anecdotes, it's still a mystery for the most part. Not only is there conflict between science and reason – (for example, science tells us that one cannot be protected against seizures by tying a snake fang around one's neck) – but there is also strong disapproval regarding the syncretism between faith and culture. Zambia is, after all, a "Christian nation" and the acceptance of the demonic into every day life registers indefensible. HOW, the Westerners ask, how can a family conclude a Christian funeral, complete with a Christ-centered homily and then transition into a ritual coffin chasing? 

pc: lusaka times. mourners hoist the coffin in the air, letting it direct them to the front door of the "murderer" 
To the culturally removed observer, it all just looks... wrong.

We too feel your angst.

From a ministry perspective, we’ve prayed long and hard about the problem of witchcraft in our communities. The bondage is real and the effects sobering. Over the years, we’ve talked ourselves blue in the face – hashing and re-hashing the scientific, scriptural, rational and theological foundations for rejecting witchcraft outright. The result has been consistent: two versions of reality clash again and again and we are the recipients of the sometimes gracious, sometimes patronizing response: We don’t expect you to understand our culture. My white skin belies me as “other” and I lose my foot to stand on.

A handful of times, usually in frustration, we have blurted out the ultimatum: You CANNOT serve both God and Satan! Period! The response is always and forever the same. No madam, no, we are all Christians here. This is something that our black culture deals with. I bristle at the racial divide, but who am I to argue?

pc: kitwe online

Our burdened sharing draws out sympathy and fervent prayer from folks back home. For a long time, I concurred with the indignant response. Yeah, that’s right. This witchcraft stuff is CRAZY! Inexcusable. Can’t understand it. Pray for them. They are so lost.

It’s easy – too easy – to see another’s blind spots. And that sliver in my own eye grows the size of a tree.

I'm thankful that the ex-pat metamorphosis has been working its magic as of late. The ability to view ones birth culture with a fair and critical eye is a rare and beautiful gift. I don’t know whether "culturally neutral" is a thing, and if it is, I’m not there yet. But I find that each passing year, the distance between the west and myself widens a bit more, and I begin to ***see***.

With greater reflection specifically on America's reaction to the witchcraft of Africa, I've seen more and more of the similarities between the cultures. At one point, somewhere in the muddle of the US election, Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Christmas season, after listening/reading a stream of greedy, snarky, buy, sell, want, must have everythings, I found my lost marbles long enough to yell at Jeremy: OH MY GOODNESS...
                       Materialism is America’s witchcraft. 

He nodded. And I mused. And we both felt a little ashamed.

I know that sounds extreme - maybe even unfounded - and I might be all alone out here in left field, but that's the ex-pat life anyhow. For me, the evidence stacks high enough. I admit that I am strongly influenced by my Zambian neighbors who look on the same evidence with horror and pray (long and hard and publicly, mind you) for us all.

For example...

When American Christians started expressing disdain for rising health costs because of all of the “freeloaders,” our Zambian friends (every last one of which believes that health care is a human right) judged that attitude HARD.

Charitable giving amongst evangelical Christians does not, on average, breach 3%.  And yet, how many times have one of our neighbors emptied their entire savings account to help a friend in need?

The goal to save money for retirement or investment or business or the next big purchase drives Americans to work to the point of neglect and save to the point of stingy. In contrast, just the other day, my friend Carol dropped all the money she has in this life down the pit latrine… and she laughed about it. (Though for what its worth, Carol would like to advise everyone to not tuck all your cash in the fold of your chitenge - especially when using a pit latrine. You're welcome.)

When someone starts wasting an American's time, the first thought is (say it with me now,) TIME IS MONEY, (of course). Our Zam neighbors admire the inherent ambition there but but reject the motive and prefer a higher principle which is that time is relational and not to be monetized.

Corporate greed. Widening class divide. Emphasis on individual responsibility over community care. Shopping, shopping, shopping. More, more, more. $$$$$$$$$$$$$$.

It's the American way all right. I could paint broad strokes and list examples for days but I think most Americans already know its true, deep down. Freedom and capitalism are basically synonyms and my RIGHT to consume and hoard and buy and own is the good life, says the culture. 

I'm mindful of the fact that this is all so poignant now more so than at other times because we have just exited the Christmas season – the time of year that displays America’s spirit of materialism with all the flourish of a billion twinkle lights.

You know, I used to think that Zambians didn’t celebrate Christmas, and then I realized that it's just that they don’t give each other presents as if that were the purpose of the holiday in the first place.

The Zambian Christians get a whiff of our adulterated Christmas culture and are all like, wait, who the baby-Jesus-cradling hay is Santa?

Witch. Craft.

That the buying of material things has competed for and won the spotlight on the day we celebrate God With Us demonstrates an unredeemed worldview, akin to the evils of animism.



That’s what the villagers say about their coffin chasings.

No, no, this is different, American Christians say.

Feel free to make your case, though I am not your judge. BUT, from an African cultural view point, in the timespan between Thanksgiving to Christmas in America, syncretism is spelled R E T A I L.

BUT, (the justification comes flying at me with a tail of tinsel trailing behind,) we give gifts because Jesus is the greatest gift! It’s symbolic.

I love giving gifts for this reason! But that excuse is as tacky as the above gif. (SO. TACKY.) Tell me, how many American kids wake up at the crack of dawn on December 25th and cry out GIVE ME JESUS!!! Four years now of MK training and mine don't! Our culture has failed our theological convictions something awful.

Many Christian families have just stopped trying. Christmas is a cultural construct emphasizing  socially acceptable, albeit unnecessary and exessive material accumulation, and we read the Christmas story too and go to church on Christmas Eve (but never Christmas morning, because, hello… presents…) and somehow that’s all ok. I know it shows the depths of my cultural deviance, but as I see all the Christian parents on facebook facilitating Santa, my Zam side comes out and I can only think, “What manner of juju is this!?!”

But its different, they say. It’s just a holiday, they say. Jesus is the reason for the season! We keep our gift giving (euphemism for materialism) in check! … Kind of like the money our neighbors give as an offering to a chief to "bless" the land, or the necklace around the baby’s neck to “protect” her… That too is “just tradition.”

The ultimatums I've declared to the animists reverberate in my head though they sound different this time...

You cannot serve both God and Mammon 

The Good Book says it straight, if we have ears to hear.

So… really now, we’re going to pray spiritual freedom over this: 

pc: lusaka times

but not this:

Not all culture and tradition is evil, obviously, and the antidote to cynicism is identifying and amplifying the aspects of culture that disclose their heavenly DNA. Like so many things, this too integrity and introspection; parceling out what is “mere tradition” vs. straight idolatry is not as easy as I wish it could be.

But I check myself often with a word of caution, lest I assume that I am on the straight and narrow. As the old proverb goes, "a fish doesn't know it's wet."

I don’t think I would have ever been able to criticize my own culture minus having immersed myself in another. I see fallen aspects of Zambian culture much more readily than my fellow Zambians do because I don’t swim fully in that water. And perhaps I see America's fallenness more sharply now too because I don't swim fully in that water either.

Few readily accept being told that they are idolaters, and conviction only truly comes from above. But I still maintain: America needs African missionaries. The same West that sees clear as day the evils of witchcraft desperately needs non-American, prophetic voices decrying our worship of material things. We mustn't forget, America does a disproportionate amount of sending not because we need the least amount of cultural renewal, but because we have the financial resources to do the sending whereas many other's don't.

As for me, I haven’t backed off of witchcraft due to my rising convictions that, well, America is evil too… but I have grown in my empathy in the struggle for right perspective, and I’ve doubled down my efforts to weed out my cultural presuppositions and make them as answerable to scripture as I expect animism to be.

Anyone else want to join me?

Sunday, October 9, 2016

the mission of motherhood… all you need is love?

Back before I had a life overseas, I attended a missions conference during which the speaker stood on the stage and told us to anticipate three profound keys to making a difference in a person’s life, a region, and the world. His three points were, (1) Relationship, (2) Relationship, and (3) Relationship. When I joined the Peace Corps, we were forbidden from doing any “work” for three full months with our one and only job being to build relationships. Recently, I had a conversation with a local counterpart about how to remedy a sticky situation and over the course of our thirty-minute discussion, I heard the word relationship at least seven times.

Relationship, it seems, is crucial, not just because it makes us feel warm and fuzzy but because relational connection is essential to effecting change. That sing-song phrase – people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care – it’s annoyingly overused because it’s true. In the realm of community development, progress comes hard, and often, not at all, unless whole people are engaged, hearts are connected and friendships are born.

We spend time regularly taking our relational temperature within our community. And spoiler alert, it has nothing to do with dollars spent. We understand that how much we do for people is altogether separate from how well we connect with them. For this reason, we routinely ask for feedback on how well we are loving people. Recently, a friend told us that some of our habits are culturally awkward. “Stop having people over for dinner,” he said. “It’s American and it’s weird. Just go sit with them in the afternoons. Watch football. Shoot the breeze. Love your neighbors the way they love each other.” It’s awkward to be awkward, but we learn. We adjust. If we want to make a difference, this love thing is a non-negotiable. Sometimes I walk around and hum to myself, (especially if I’m hitting a brick wall in a particular area)… All you need is love, love. Love is all you need.

I’m thankful for the lessons community development has taught me. My pre-kid life gave me lots of practice in the realm of behavior change and connecting across a divide, which are PHD level skills in mommyhood. After all, we are charged with transforming tantrum throwers with no frontal lobe who can’t even wipe their own bottoms into productive members of society. No small task. I’ve noticed how the relational compass we’ve adopted for the village has also done a good work in guiding our home. I often gaze down at my kiddos while they sleep – all still and for once not talking, and as I pray over their delicate selves, my most constant request is that they would know how much I love them.

There is a common fear amongst ex-pat and missionary parents – we are neurotic about not screwing our kids up. We know too many TCK’s and MK’s who have gone off the deep end, and it’s terrifying. I have googled all the articles, read all the blogs, searching for answers, wondering what I need to do to assure that my children turn out globally-awesome and not wholly-dysfunctional. I’ve made it my duty to ask this question of every parent I know who has raised their children overseas. The data for this topic in my head is fathoms deep and all the answers basically say the same thing: kids need to know that they are loved. Who would have guessed?

It makes sense that loving my kids would look different than loving the lady next door, and thankfully, many wise people have contributed to fleshing out what this special brand of third-culture-love looks like. There are many ways to do this well, but a common theme that arises over and over focuses on this: making sure our kiddos know that they are more important than the work. They need the security to know that they are not second to the mission. They are not extra luggage. They are loved more than all the other things. They are not missionary kids they are Colvin kids. Family comes first because these precious short people matter.

The other day I was playing “phone” with Bronwyn. It’s a good chance to work on her conversational skills, and for me to quiz her on details. What’s your name? (Bronwyn Colvin Bupe) How old are you? (4) Where do you live? (Center Zambia) What are your parents names? (Bashi Winnie Jeremy Colvin and Bana Winnie Bethany Colvin) Who are your siblings? (Beauty, Michael, Timo and Leonie.) (Beauty, Michael and Timo are not her siblings, but I let it go because it’s too cute to argue with.) I held my breath a little when she answered my last question – a stretch for her, I knew. What do your parents do for a living? I asked, and waited while she thought. Her answer went like this:

“Well, you cook my supper… and read me all the books… and walk me to preschool… and… do whatever I ask you!”

My first two thoughts were, (1) remind me to never make her the key-note speaker at a Choshen fundraiser, and, (2) good grief, I sound whipped.

But in the same heartbeat I registered, she thinks my job is to meet her needs… I love that. Maybe it’s my uncompromising, attachment-parent self that is amplifying my ex-pat mom anxieties… but that my daughter identifies that my job is to be responsive is the highest compliment.

Truth is, team Jeremy and Bethany works its collective tush off to be productive human beings, using our gifts and talents for the good of humanity while at the same time raising little people in the knowledge and security that they are more important than all the good things we could ever do. For Bronwyn, that means all the physical affection and book time on the couch that her little soul can handle. For Leonie, it means on-demand nursing and a strict “if she cries bring her to me” policy. It means limited use of the words “I’m busy,” and if I truly am busy, it means communicating how soon my attention will be freed up. It will surely mean different things as they grow older, but it will always imply, “you are the most important thing in my world.”

I can consider it a gold star to hear that my kids don’t know how much “work” I do – not because I don’t work hard but because my hard work is clearly not in competition with my demonstration of love for them.

All you need is love? 

I'm sold.


Thursday, August 25, 2016

on weaning one who is not my own

When Bana Mukobe and Bana Jasper walked up to my house, I knew it was time to face the music. I had taken a break from pumping milk for Jasper during our recent trip to Lusaka and despite the fact that we had been home for almost a week, I still hadn’t resumed pumping and in my heart, I knew I was done. Jasper was now definitely old enough to manage without breastmilk, and his satisfying chub and walking and talking, smart little self proved that it was ok for him to wean.

the story of all my days for a long time. it was the greatest and most exhausting thing ever
When the ladies sat and asked me what my thoughts were, and I said it was up to them and they said it was up to me, I dropped my head to my knees and began to cry. “I don’t want to disappoint you,” I said, "but I think I’m just worn out and I don’t think I can pump any more." Bana Jasper (Jasper's mama) began to cry as well. Perhaps she was crying just because I was, or maybe it was because she still remembers the painful time when she too decided to wean. “You’ve done so much for him, she said.” Having gone back to school eight months ago, she knew that she had cut off his milk too soon but had done so anyway for the sake of continuing her education. For the next several minutes Jasper's mother and grandmother shared all of the ways they knew that her child had thrived because of the milk he had received.

I blubbered some things back and forth with the family about how I was thankful for them and eventually Leonie waddled out and we watched the two babes toddle around enough other in their effortlessly cute way. Looking at those two together I saw it as the closest I may ever get to “tandem” nursing. Though the one only ever received my milk from a cup – I still reveled at watching Jasper and Leonie together, knowing how I had helped grow both of them.

My slow leak of tears continued through the evening, night and next morning until I sat down and thought things through a bit better. For the love, its just breast milk, so WHY WAS I CRYING??? It was just that day after day, every 2-4 hours, the constancy and the literal draining of all my reserves for months on end had worn me thin and I was exhausted... but that didn't mean I wanted it to end. So I decided to write a letter to Jasper’s mother, fleshing out my tears for my own sake, (and maybe a bit for hers.)

I wrote, “Bana Jasper…”

I want to thank you again for coming to my house last night. I’m sorry I fell apart crying like that. I didn’t think it would be so emotional for me to stop pumping for Jasper, but it clearly is. Jasper will always be your son, but this process of providing milk for him has made me love him like one of my own. For the last eight months, I have thought about him as much as I’ve thought about my own baby. I would wake up each morning and start the process of scheduling milk time for both babies. I would pump for Jasper and then feed Leonie, head to preschool and come home early to pump more milk for Jasper before Leonie would need me again. I would steal away from meetings and send Leonie off with kids and pray that she would sleep longer all so I could fit in a few more pumping sessions. I changed my diet to increase my milk supply, and I worried if I didn’t produce what I felt was enough. Truly, I gave of my own body, my heart of hearts, to see both of these babies grow and develop properly. When I see Jasper now, fat and happy, I’m just so blessed. I can say that being able to share my milk with your son has been one of the greatest privileges of motherhood for me so far. What an incredible gift that God gives us as mothers to feed and nourish another human. And you, Bana Jasper, gave me the chance to do that for your child and I will forever be grateful to you for allowing me into your lives in this special way.
It’s true that it has been a long, hard, eight months. Nursing one baby and pumping for another has taken a lot of mental and physical energy, and I can’t deny that I really do need this break now. My tears fell last night because I knew I needed to stop providing extra milk… but it still made me sad to do so, as if I were weaning my own child. Sometimes the hard and tiring things in life are at the same time our biggest blessings and this has been so true of my nursing/pumping relationship with you and Jasper.
I will always hold this season close to my heart, and all I can say is thank you, thank you again and again for having given me this honor.   

I sent Bana Jasper my letter and dried those remaining tears and said much of the same thing to God as I had to my young friend. “Thanks for the privilege of being a woman and a mother and a milk maker. What a sweet, sweet gift." 

I may be given this gift again – in fact, I pray for it often. But in the mean time, I’ll continue to treasure these fearfully and wonderfully made moments I still have as I anticipate a new season to come; after all, there’s more than one way to nourish another human…

Saturday, July 16, 2016

orphan professors: how five kids have shaped my view of orphan care

We’ve talked to many people who have a passion for orphan care – their hearts blaze afire when they see the statistics of orphan children and read those scriptures telling us to serve. But one thing we’ve noticed is that even amongst the passionate ones, many people think of orphans almost exclusively in the context of the orphanage institutions that house and feed them.

We might have too, once upon a time. But outside of that institutional “box” are real humans – and five of these beautiful people in particular have dramatically shaped our view of orphan care. It would be my pleasure to introduce them to you now.

1. Meet Mulenga

Mulenga is a single orphan, his mother having passed away seven years ago. His father has struggled off and on to take care of Mulenga and his two other siblings, but extended family has banded together to make ends meet. One day Mulenga came home and told his dad that an NGO representative had pulled him out of class to take his picture. The father followed up on the action and discovered that this NGO was pulling orphans out of class to take their pictures for marketing purposes. They needed some “authentic orphans” to spice up their fundraising campaigns. Mulenga’s dad was furious. His rampage, a mixture of Bemba and English, roughly translated to “don’t exploit my kid and don’t patronize me.” I would feel hypocritical including a picture of Mulenga in my own write-up, except that we are not the typical fly-by-night NGO workers. Mulenga is one of our favorite people. Ever. We have dozens of pictures of him, not because we’ve sought to exploit his orphan status, but because he’s in our house every day and we clearly love him so much!

Mulenga’s lesson for us: Orphans and their families are worthy of dignity and respect. 

2. Meet Maggie

Maggie’s mother died of when she was just one year old. After the maternal death, the village wondered whether Maggie would be abandoned, assuming no one would want anything to do with the “illegitimate” child of a known prostitute. Immediately however, a grandmother, two aunts and a cousin stepped in to claim Maggie as their own. They came to us for help as she had lost considerable weight when her supply of breast milk was taken away. The family made sacrifices to care for this child, worrying extensively about her healthy and wellbeing. Their involvement in Maggie’s life made us take note; the western concept of family makes us often assume that children would be unwanted by anyone other than the bio parents. “Not my kid, not my problem.” – is more of how Westerners would think about iis a western ethic. But the tribal concept of family gives greater grace. Extended families swallow up children with the same duty and conviction as if they had birthed them themselves.

Maggie’s lesson for us: Extended families are ready and willing to care for orphans to prevent them from being institutionalized.

3. Meet Mwewa

Mwewa is a unique case. Both of his parents are technically alive, but his mother is absent due to mental illness and his father struggles both with alcohol and mental health, landing Mwewa firmly on the community’s vulnerable child list. Despite his crazy rough family life, Mwewa is one of the most relaxed, well-adjusted, fun loving kids. It actually makes no sense, and we have wondered why he’s not in a corner rocking himself. Our answer? He is constantly surrounded by his friends and their families. Mwewa sleeps in his father’s home, but is otherwise almost always found in the company of his pals – eating all meals with them, goofing off with them, playing a hearty game of soccer with them. The adults of the community look out for his needs: school uniforms and shoes and toiletries. (And yes, we are a big part of that.) On paper, everything says this kid belongs in an orphanage where he would receive “proper care”, but we can see that this is exactly where he needs to be.

Mwewa’s lesson for us: Kids thrive in a place where they feel they belong.

4. Meet Asa

Asa’s mother died while birthing her. The clinic staff was afraid that the child would be abandoned and die if there was no one to nurse her. The sister to the deceased mother came forward and announced that she could take the baby, at least for a while. She was still nursing her then 14 month old and thought she could “spare some milk” for the helpless infant. We met with the mother and asked her what she felt she needed to help the newborn thrive. Nutrition, soap and some baby socks were the items on her list. For the next year we took the family extra food, talked to the aunt about milk supply and when to wean her older biological child, and helped her see that with a bit of support, she could care for this child and honor her sister. That baby is now almost four and she is fat and happy and an integrated member of the family that took her in. Her aunt no longer needs our help and she is more than proud of her “daughter.” Some food, soap and socks were all it took to give her aunt the confidence to raise her and keep her from being institutionalized.

Asa’s lesson for us: Sometimes just getting a family over a hump is all that is needed.

5. Meet Matobwe

I had known Matobwe for years before I found out that both of her parents had passed away. She has always called Ireen “mommy” and as far as I knew, she was just one of Ireen’s biological children. Come to find out, Matobwe is actually Ireen’s youngest sister. Ireen was already a married woman when Matobwe was born, and when their mother died, Ireen took her in as her own. Matobwe grew for years never knowing anything different, until she was mature enough to find out that “Mommy” was really “sister” – but after a decade and a half of care, that difference seemed trivial. Ireen stayed mommy and probably always will. Safe and secure, this child has parents who love her, even if they are technically her siblings.

Matobwe’s lesson for us: An orphaned child absorbed into extended family rarely feels orphaned at all.

Dignity. Respect. Family. Belonging. Thanks kiddos. You’ve taught me well.