Wednesday, August 30, 2017

my "hard" life in Africa

Social media has been a total game-changer for those of us abroad. Facebook, instagram and the like provide the perfect platform to share life across the distance. Birthdays, anniversaries, a beautiful garden or craft project… With a click of a button our joy goes out to the world and we receive the gift of being known. But it’s not only the good we share. We let loose on the hard too. Social media has made it easy for us to be vulnerable. The brevity of status updates means I don’t have to look you in the eye or answer any questions or let you actually see my tear streaks to let you all know that I’ve had a terrible, horrible, no good very bad day.

Expats are particularly adept at online communication since for most of us, this is THE WAY many of us communicate with our friends and family back home. We use it to supply information, but also to solicit responses. It’s a powerful tool, this sound-bite communication stuff, and truth be told, most missionaries are masterful at milking their daily drama for all its worth.

“I have a cold. In Africa. Colds in Africa are so much worse than the colds in America. I don’t have a neti pot. I will likely suffer for three days and not be able to save anyone’s life during this trying time. In Africa. Life is so hard.”

“My kids are on their last box of imported Cheerios and re-enforcements are not coming for another eight days. The sixteen other kinds of circular cereal in this country obviously weren’t blessed by angels and my fragile, third-culture kids have been asked to sacrifice so much. This is clearly a scheme of the devil. Please pray for us.”

It’s possible I’m exaggerating a bit, but really now – I do run in these circles and I see this blubbery, yet persuasive mess every day. Sometimes I even author it myself! While many of the struggles shared are legit and painful in any context, some of these “terrible” situations are just so run-of-the-mill-part-of-life, that, upon reading, I fully expect to reach the comments and find a steady stream of “suck it up buttercup”… But you know what? Time after time, the comments section EATS IT UP. All the single tear drop emojies. Pity heaped upon pity. Donations to fund the neti pot. People who haven’t prayed in a month are all of a sudden hands to the heavens casting out the demon of deprivation and praying for provision of Cheerios. I have no idea why some budding psychologist hasn’t made a winning PhD thesis out of this crazy. 

It would almost seem as if the folks back home have actually bought into the myth that E.V.E.R.Y.T.H.I.N.G. in in the third world is harder. It’s our own fault, really. When missionaries talk about their life in “the bush” or “the jungle” or on “the islands” without clarifying that that is a geographic marker and not a classification of hardship, we create a suggestive void to be filled by nothing but imagination and worst-case scenarios.

Honestly, misperceptions flow our of our thumbs so easily. When our Provincial grocery store burnt down I’m pretty sure I made it sound like we would all starve to death. I appreciated the solace, at the time. Cheeeeeeese! How will I live without it! But I never did tell you that a few weeks later they opened up a little outlet and lo and behold, we haven’t wasted away. They are even stocking cheese. It’s a selective game, and whether we mean to or not, we all play it.

Admittedly, for those of us overseas, our sharing is often curated to achieve a certain response. This is something I’ve wrestled with a lot. When I read or write posts about the traffic or the tropical diseases or the long waits for absolutely everything, and people react with some variation of “wow you’re amazing and I could never…” the conscientious objector perched on my shoulder whispers, Is our life really harder than theirs?

I’ve been sitting on this question, rolling it around in my head… When I share (whine) about my Zambian problems, am I really any different than my children who are honestly convinced that getting their hair washed is some form of torture? Am I showing my immaturity by failing to balance my problems against those facing truly dark situations?  

To my dear friends in America, let me say this: my life is not harder than yours. How dare I complain about the fact that my children have giardia when I have friends in the states whose children are undergoing heart surgery. How dare I complain about goats eating my begonias when I have friends who have to get in the car and drive to find green space.  How dare I complain that there is no decent ice cream when I have an unlimited supply of avocados for 30 cents a piece. Just. Shut. Up.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat down all attitudinal with my journal and instructed myself – COUNT YOUR BLESSINGS. YOU HAVE NO REASON TO COMPLAIN.

I have the best life ever, actually.

The Zambian bush is the best place ever to raise children. My kids get approximately 6 hours of outdoor nature play every day, all year round. Eat your heart out, Charlotte Mason.

My work allows me to be creative, inspired, sacrificial, inventive, risky and loving which is a character bundle that describes not a single for-profit, 9-5, cubical ever. I am spoiled beyond reason.

I have zero debt and live in a house that is paid for and drive cars that are paid for because home and auto loans aren’t a thing here anyway. This is ridiculous luxury.

We can go on a legitimate African safari for the same price our friends pay for a day at the zoo. We can travel to and hang out at one of the seven wonders of the natural world for the same price our friends pay for a day at the water park.

We can country-hop the way our American friends state-hop. You zip down to Florida, we zip down to South Africa. Such is the nature of regional transportation for us.

I have not seen snow or been cold for over 700 days and counting. (And don’t tell me that some people like being cold. No one likes being cold. People like getting warm after being cold, but that is not the same thing.)

I have zero commute. I have survived the traffic in NY, LA and DC and NO THANK YOU. I am blessed and highly favored that I walk a dirt path to all my jobs and pass zero cars on the way.

I shave my legs approximately 3 times a year and strap on a bra approximately never because Zambain women are not oppressed in these Western ways and thank heavens Jeremy is basically Zambian and just lets me live.

Mango season is a thing here and there are so many mangos that they are rotting on the ground before they can all be eaten. Never will we pay 2 for $5 at an American Safeway. That is heresy.

But here’s the thing: I still struggle. A lot. I’ve spent a really long time trying to process how, with full awareness of all this awesomeness (and so much more), how I can still find life here to be hard more often than not.

What in the blazes is wrong with me? It’s like I have a gratitude processing disorder or something.

I was actually starting to be really hard on my self until I finally went on a mental health hunt to figure out why the impressive list of good was not compensating for the modest list of bad.

And finally, it took having someone with special letters after her name to explain it to me to stop feeling guilty about feeling the way that I do.

When you move overseas, you take your First World expectations with you. Slowly those expectations do melt away, but the memories and habit of comparing and contrasting, do not. While I no longer **expect** the clinic to have the medicine for my children on hand, the automatic recall of, “but in the States, they would” can often introduce a surprising angst over what feels like unnecessary pain.

The First World butting up against the Third creates dozens of little moments each day in which we are keenly aware that it doesn’t have to be this way… and all the mangos and warmth and creative inspiration of the village doesn’t blot out these thoughts.

Two of our neighbor babies are in the hospital, slowly dying under a heat lamp because the hospital does not do alternative feeding. (But if we were in America…)

We’re being hounded by the ZRA, RTSA, the ABCDEFG, choose an acronym it doesn’t matter, we’re being hounded because we are white and these offices want money. (But if we were in America…)

My husband lost half a finger because the closest surgeon to reattach it was 12 ours away and we were told it wasn’t worth it. (But if we were in America…)

My third born child sat in an institution for 400 days for no other reason than because a few people were too busy to sign a paper. (But if we were in America…)

We have forfeited a bazillion kwacha (hyperbole) to every shop in town because no one ever has change and pleasing the customer is not a thing. (But if we were in America…)

It took a month to figure out that our kids had giardia because the hospital held onto lab results only to report back to us that they didn’t have the reagent. (But if we were in America…)

And its not that these things are hard-er than any of the trials that our friends in the US are facing. As much as I sometimes want it, I don’t deserve that pity party. However, to be fair to my own emotions, I have to admit that most of these things are hard-different – a byproduct of life as a foreigner and the admission that, if we were in America, these things would likely play out differently.   

I’m willing to stick around a few more decades to find out for sure, but I have a suspicion that no amount of integration or cultural acquisition lets you turn off pre-recorded message in your brain that says, “This dysfunction and/or different value system is causing unnecessary trauma…” And having to process that recoding, day after day, makes the hard-different a unique kind of burden. 

I’m bothered by things that my neighbors don’t think twice about because I have had a different set of experiences. Everything from how families operate to customer service to health care has been colored from my earliest upbringing. And realistically, most people around me carry on just fine because they’ve never encountered a different reality.

It absolutely blows my mind that my daughter’s best friends go to bed hungry two or three nights a week because their parents just didn’t collect food for them. (But that’s the way things are…)

It drives me bonkers that I have to debate with the post-master to give me my mail just because it is addressed to Bethany and Jeremy Colvin. (But that’s the way things are…)

I have to take actual deep breaths when life-saving drugs are only provided on certain days and on certain times. (But that’s the way things are…)

My face gets hot when my paperwork is delayed because they think I’ve falsified my age. “You can’t be that old, you don’t have enough kids.” (But that’s the way things are…)

It kind of makes me want to quit every committee I’m on when rules are made but never enforced and development shoots itself in the foot over and over again… (But that’s the way things are…)

And the balance must exist – to not whine and carry on about it like a five year old, but to create space in my own head to recognize why it all takes a few extra seconds to process and put all the junk away.

And sometimes, in those crucial few seconds, I grab my phone and Mark Zuckerberg does his magic and brings you into my brain-space and it comes out in the form of my life is harder than yours… and for that, I am so sorry. I will continue to count my blessings, as we all should. I SHALL REMEMBER THE MANGOS, FRIENDS. But the next time I post a picture of a snake in my house – please know that I’m not suggesting that the snake is hard-er than your frozen pipes or the flu or cracked iphone screen. It’s just hard-different – for whatever that’s worth.


  1. Oh, Bethany! THANK YOU for sharing - but I disagree...having a snake in your house IS harder than most things I've encountered. I would burn the house down. Good stuff :)

  2. Bethany, I cherish your insight, and I am glad you are giving yourself some grace. Life is hard in Zambia. Life is always harder for someone, but that doesn't mean your hardships aren't valid. You are sacrificing to help people. There are many beauties in the way you live, and we all know you appreciate them. Stay strong and I am sending love your way. Namifuluka Sana! Shalenipo mukwai...


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