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.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

what your missionaries really need when they come home

I’ve wanted to write a post like this for a long time, but it always felt weird. I’ve always thought about it right before a trip to the states, but I never wanted to post it then, because that seemed… I don’t know, bossy or annoying or demanding. But I’m thinking about the topic this week in particular because our partners, the Suells, are about to fly out for their first trip to the states. So I’m just going to borrow some inspiration from our friends’ upcoming US visit to share what I’ve always wanted to share about what missionaries really need when we come “home.”  

For your information, entertainment and revelation, I give you THE NEEDS (in no particular order):

Acknowledgement that home is now ambiguous
            After a time, we started calling Zambia home, and yet America is home too, and that can be confusing and weird and put our stomach in knots as we are both glad to be home and miss home and don’t want to leave home and can’t wait to go home all at the same time. Be patient. This is hard.

emoting the hard

Cultural latitude to be weird
            In the mean while, we’ve gotten too used to the fun(ny) Zam hand shake and awkwardly giggling and dancing at (in)appropriate times. These habits are hard to shake and so if we invade your personal bubble or forget that time is important to some people or don’t know what’s going on with Game of Thrones, forgive us. We will be henceforth be weird and hope you will love us anyway.

Time reserved for immediate family
            No one – even our most beloved, faithful, supporters – misses us as much as our families. Or, at the very least, Grandma and Grandpa miss their babies and once they have us in their arms, they never ever want to let us go. The schedule of a church-visiting trip can be quite demanding and while we want to see everyone, we need to reserve time for the mom and dad who raised us to be the missionaries we are today and without whose support, work on the field would be so very hard.

the last time they were together, that "baby" was  10 weeks old

            Despite all of the dreaming we do about chocolate chip cookies and chicken casserole and mmmm… just… all the delicious things… if you eat “special” (ie, rich, delicious, spoil me and I don’t care about the consequences food) three meals a day for weeks on end, it actually starts to sit pretty heavy. Too much of a good thing is still too much and sometimes a nice full bowl of ruffage is exactly what the body needs. So thank you for the sixteenth bowl of ice cream this week… we’ll get to that right after this heap of spinach.

Early bed times
            Whether it be jet lag or travel fatigue or talking to people all day every day, trips home are crazy exhausting. And with kids? Multiply that cranky-tired by about a thousand. We clearly want to laugh and talk late into the night, but please kick us out at 8pm and tell us to go sleep. Somewhere in the world it is 2am and our bodies hate us and our children are on the verge of one massive come-apart lest we put them to bed at a decent hour. Please and thank you.

more tired than a college student is apparently a thing

Opportunities to talk about work
            Since these trips to the states are largely about connecting with those supporting the ministry, we want to share absolutely everything that God is doing in this place. We want to share in large groups and small groups and up front and out back. Setting up these meetings and audiences can be more work thank climbing Kilimanjaro for lack of a personal secretary and the need to coordinate approximately 60 other people’s schedules. Be merciful. Schedule early and schedule often.

To talk about something other than work
            While we never actually tire of talking about our work (because it’s clearly awesome), we do like to know what’s going on in other people’s lives! What’s new in your family? WHAT ON EARTH IS GOING ON IN AMERICA! Mama needs her girl-friends and Dad needs man-time and after 748 consecutive days of being the fish in the fish bowl, its important to just let your hair down and fit in and hang out for a while… which is easier to do when you are not the center of attention in a presentation context. Games, movies, feeding the ducks… these things feed souls.

geese are scary, but ducks are the best

            Consider stepping off of a plane into another country with only that which fits in a suitcase. You don’t have a car… or a hair dryer… or really anything useful. It is a gift straight from heaven for individuals to loan out these items.

Marriage Counseling
            Life on the mission field is hard on marriages. It just is. Not all people are qualified to be actual marriage counselors, but those who are older and closer to the couple, please ask the question, “How are YOU TWO as a couple doing.” The strength of the marriage is vital to longevity on the field.

we tend to display our best selves professionally. this is not always the truth. 

Alone Time
            Jeremy and I were apart from our daughter for the first time ever when she was TWO AND A HALF. Bless Grandma’s heart for watching her so we could have our first real date in literally forever. As much fun as it is schlepping kids around to different cities and different churches and different homes… its not. Sometimes we need to get rid of our offspring so we can talk about something other than how much we need to get rid of them. If you are good with littles, bless your soul.

Show extra love/grace/kindness to the kids
            While little kids are extremely resilient, going “home” can be very stressful. Bronwyn had no experience with church nurseries and she had no indoor voice and she was used to spitting things on the ground. I got enough side-eye’s from strangers that I wanted to cry. Bless the angels who loved on my girl and gave her a little extra attention and took pictures of her for us and told her she was just beautiful and loveable and fine. Bless.

the aunties that came out of no where while we were holding microphones were in fact angels

            The third goal of any home visit, after visiting family and communicating the mission, is to raise financial support. This probably goes without saying, but if you want to lift a burden off of your missionaries’ shoulders, you’ll write them checks and set up those recurring paypal and give verbal promise of more to come. All missionaries know that finances and hearts go together – and so when God’s people come forth with the financial support, we are encouraged, knowing we’re taking your love with us as well.

Words of Affirmation
            When all is said and done, “Well done, good and faithful,” is the ultimate affirmation we all long to hear. If that sounds too end times Jesus-like, equally encouraging sentiments are, 

“You guys are doing a good job.” 
“We are proud of you.” 
“It’s our honor to be a part of this work.” 
“Keep it up.”  
“Thank you for your faithfulness to your call.” “
Bless you both.” 
"We pray for you every day.”

            Verbal affirmation is a gift from the Lord. Get all sappy and don’t hold back. We’ll treasure those words for the next 836 days.

Missionaries who are well cared for at home are more effective while on the field,  and I just have to say thank you to everyone who has helped sustain us and advance us to where we are today.

Missionaries: anything I've forgotten?

Monday, June 27, 2016

dear orphans, we're sorry

We announced some time back that we were in the process of adopting. Sweetest little Zam-fetus you’ve ever seen, isn’t it?

Adoption is a curious thing.

Because our child is “out there” and not kicking me in the ribs, I find myself constantly wondering where he is, what he’s doing and whom he is with. Who’s feeding him? Who’s playing with him? IS HE BEING LOVED??? These questions can be all consuming at times and when I think about the range of possibilities (realistically, he certainly could be hungry, alone, or hurting), I find myself blinking back tears out of nowhere. Our child could be almost any orphan in this place and the vagaries of that are worse than all the morning sickness in the world.

The only thing that has helped me cope with the uncertainty and feel like I’m actively caring for my child is to go to bat for all orphans everywhere. Last week we had the opportunity to attend a workshop with 20 or so other adoptive families in Zambia. As the only non-Zambians in the room, we did more listening than speaking and generally reveled in the atmosphere of other child-loving, justice minded souls. Many times during those few days, I had to hold myself back from standing and delivering a slow clap for the good words that were spoken regarding orphan care, first families and the healing in adoption. 

There was one point, however, when I had no choice but to hang my head in shame. “You see friends,” he began, “the white people came to us many years ago and brought us this idea of orphanages. We thought it was brilliant and we accepted it though it was against our cultural norm. We allowed our children to be swept into institutions and now we know what a horrible idea that was. It is our charge to undo the wrong, and start caring for our children.”

If you can’t say amen, you’ve got to say ouch. Our facilitator was gracious in not lumping Jeremy and I into the white box, even though guilt by association would have been valid. White people are obviously not the only players in the game here, but they stand out as the largest. The ramifications of that involvement offer up a hard pill to swallow.

Once upon a time, when there were no orphanages in Zambia at all, there were basically no orphans. Children in need were absorbed into extended family. The presence of orphanages introduced not only a new option, but also a new ethic.  It became socially acceptable to drop children off at a gate and let someone else raise them, all in the name of providing for the child a better life.

While Zambia’s track record with orphanages is better than many other African countries, it still has 190 orphan institutions containing more than 8,000 children. Those are not small numbers – Zambia is not that big. The vast majority are classified as poverty orphans, meaning their families simply didn’t have the resources to care for them. The acceptance of poverty orphans is so pervasive in Zambia that it is estimated that only 5% of orphans in Zambia are truly abandoned. The rest have families out there, mourning their loss, but comforted in knowing that their child is at least being fed. Numerically, roughly 7,600 children in orphanages across Zambia really probably shouldn’t be there. Shameful doesn’t even cut it. Furthermore, a group of pastors and social workers are finally starting to realize what the global orphan-care community has known for a while: that not only are these institutions not ideal, they are actually incredibly destructive.

After decades of social science research with an African cultural background, it has been determined that in this context, growing up poor but with one’s family is less emotionally destructive than growing up well fed in an institution – even those done relatively well.

The orphan ‘continuum of care’ is able to represent the spectrum of care options. Ideally, an orphaned child is able to remain with biological family. In the face of parental loss, this familial arrangement is shown to produce the best outcomes in terms of mental and emotional health. Next in line is an adoptive family of the same race/culture, followed by an adoptive family of a different race/culture. Significantly less ideal is long term foster care with any number of families, and finally, in DEAD LAST PLACE, (just short of the child fending for himself,) are orphanages.

In other words, institutional care is the worst possible choice for orphan care in this region… and yet… Americans LOVE THEM. Motivations for starting and partnering with orphanages obviously vary, but it would at least appear that “benefit to the donor/partner” (makes us feel good, it’s a great summer missions trip…) ranks near the top. One of the pastors attending the workshop with us referenced a conversation he had had with an American church regarding their involvement with the church’s local orphanage. The Lusaka pastor was asking for a reallocation of financial resources to re-integrate children into families to which the Americans replied, “Ummm, No. We enjoy packing the container and sending our teams to work with the orphanage. We are going to keep doing that.”

The cynic running the control panel in my brain couldn’t help but interpret that story through any lens other than white savior complex. But then I think, where did we get off thinking we were doing any kind of saving? Studies report that children who grow up in orphanages, even those with family-like structure, are significantly more likely to have attachment disorders, developmental delays and lower IQ’s contributing to a host of undesirable behaviors ranging from stealing to obsession with fire to sexual deviance.

The irony is steep. America got rid of institutional care long ago, (except for medically complex or otherwise special cases,) having discovered the detrimental effects… And yet?  We’re delighted to launch hobby orphanages left and right across the ocean.

I’ve ridden on the airplanes, the ones with the spunky youth groups and the homely mamas who are just so excited to “go love on little black babies.”  Their hearts are sincere, no doubt. But these short-term “missionaries” seem to have forgotten one important thing: babies grow up. It seems rather noble to travel half way around the world to play with and love all the sweet little orphans without considering the emotional disorders brewing underneath the skin… until those cute little babies we cuddled on our summer vacation grow up to be highly dysfunctional 18 year olds in need of trauma therapy (which doesn’t exist here) to help them navigate a challenging life in the “real world.”

Years ago, we helped some Peace Corps Volunteers help an orphanage work towards self-sustainability by setting up a chicken project. This little girl is probably 13 years old now, and I've often wondered how she's doing...

Humanitarian workers consent that in times of crisis, it’s acceptable to shelve the higher level needs of mental and emotional health for the sake of base needs of food and shelter. And maybe that’s where we went wrong. We labeled these real live humans generically as “the orphan crisis” and we swooped in to provide crisis level needs … and just kept doing that… for two decades straight.

I’ve heard the argument of “a kid’s gotta eat,” and such, and I’ve long grown weary of the lazy problem solving. If you are able to mobilize the financial resources to feed and clothe and educate that child inside of your institution then you are able to mobilize the resources to feed and clothe and educate that child in the context of his own family. Period.

Even now, I hear the words of Sebastian, who often forgets I’m technically still white and speaks truth even when I’m culpable: “The white people messed up. These orphanages are shameful to our society.”

Messed up, past tense; but messing up still as I’d wager that at least three quarters of orphanages across Zambia are sustained by foreign (American) involvement – not because it’s the best option, but because it’s the most convenient. We air-mail our good intentions to a land far away because our bleeding hearts and bulging wallets just MUST DO SOMETHING… and then we get in so deep that we are incapable of un-biased evaluation… even when all the smart people in that field are crying out “this is not gooooood!”  

Practically, the orphan care community across this region agrees that setting it right would mean stopping at nothing to reintegrate and support every poverty orphan at community level, and to find adoptive families, locally first, and abroad second, for every other child.

Realistically, it would also mean that the holders of the purse strings set it right in our own hearts too, by doing the hard work of considering, “what if those were my kids?” It’s easy for adoptive parents to go down that path since the kiddos sitting in orphanages are our kids. But for everyone else, we must appeal to an extreme empathy, asking, if you were the deceased, what would you want for your children who remain behind…  And if “institutional care, of course!” isn’t the first thing that comes to mind? Well…

We have a moral – and biblical – obligation to do unto other kids what we would have done unto ours. When it comes to children, “better than nothing” is not an acceptable answer. The orphan-care community in Zambia has started to see the light, believing that they can do better. The question is, will we?