Thursday, October 4, 2018

you didn't fall in love with Africa

Remember that time I accidentally dated Jeremy for two years and then we decided to just do that forever so we got married? Not once did we go out for dinner and a movie. We never even went bowling! We did dine by candlelight, but that’s only because my hut didn’t have electricity.

So I clearly have no idea how modern romance works.

I fell in love in Africa, which, of course, is a very different thing than falling in love with Africa – something that seems to happen quite regularly for other people. I gladly accepted living in Zambia. But I loved Jeremy. And we felt like God had ordained that our work was to continue here. So we stayed. But lovie dovie feelings for the country itself were never really a part of the equation.

my earliest photo of the now husband

I think this is why I’m so intrigued by the number of people who travel abroad – to Africa and elsewhere – for a two week trip and “fall in love.” And sometimes those people who visit for two weeks and vow to return really do make their way back to the continent, which is equally intriguing to me.

For me it begs the question, what does it really mean to love a place?
There are many things I love about Zambia:

I love the fresh air.

I love that there is no such thing as a bad time to visit your neighbor.

I love the way the flying termites come out after the first rain and all the kids and birds run around like crazies trying to catch them.

I love that you will always be invited to dinner even if they hadn’t planned on you.

I love the footprints down every bush path showing big toes and little toes.

I love that the clock controls nobody.

I love that any woman will mother my children like they are her own.

I mean, what's not to love about this picture?

Zambia is an extremely loveable place. It’s easy to understand how someone could come here for a short trip and “fall in love.” But as my story with Jeremy reflects, I’m not exactly the romantic type. I love Zambia for reasons beyond its natural beauty and inherent charm. In fact, I love it despite its flaws – of which there are many.

I love it despite the fact that “I’m coming” does not in fact mean “I’m coming.”

I love it despite the fact that the same roads have been under construction for a decade with no finish in sight.

I love it despite the fact that venomous snakes are constantly watching me with their beady eyes.

I love it despite the fact that people are more concerned with being cursed than of being honest.

I love it despite the smoldering trash heaps lining every road of every town.

I love it despite the fact that no one can tell us the rules of the country, including the rule makers.

I will never love this. Look closely to count the eggs in that snakes belly. That was my breakfast, spawn of Satan.

 And this is how love goes – in marriage and in residence. True love does not put the good and bad on a scale and choose to follow which ever side carries more weight. True love is about choice and commitment which means that Zambia’s virtues and vices are, in many ways, irrelevant to me. I love this place because I have committed to it whether it scintillates my senses or grates on my nerves.

And this is where all the short term missionaries who in two weeks time announce that they’ve “fallen in love” with whatever third world country make me nervous. I see this happen every year as fall arrives and the season of short-term missions comes to an end. In all the reports, the love theme is prolific. From what I gather from most fresh returnees to America, excitement and wonder are captaining the good ship happy-feels and it’s apparently too easy to believe that this is all one needs to know.

This whole scenario probably wouldn’t even catch my attention (I mean, what kind of cynic poo-poos on love?) except for the number of short termers who “fall in love,” vow to return, and then actually act on it. It happens more than you think – we meet them here, and learn about them elsewhere: missionaries who have moved overseas on a long-term basis with their main explanation being, “I spent two weeks here last summer and totally fell in love.” And every time Jeremy and I bump into this story, we take two steps back, fully anticipating the fairy tale to blow up at any moment.

The pitfall is obvious if you borrow from the marriage analogy again. Anyone who dates for two weeks and rushes to the alter would be well advised to slow things down lest they find themselves rushing to divorce court soon after. Of course it works for some, but not for most. There’s a missions equivalent to this too. Short-termers who fall in love and rush to sign up for forever have basically speed dated an exotic country and mistaken infatuation for committed love. And their happy story doesn’t end in divorce, but rather missionary attrition which is helpfully well-documented. The mis-step here is ignorance to the universal law that true love can only be substantiated through the test of time – a luxury that short-term workers do not have. 

One of the hardest parts of our long-term work here is the constant. The constant requests. The constant threats to our work and wellbeing. The constant push to make things happen. The constant barrage of people coupled with the constant feeling of isolation.

When a team or individual comes to partner with us, their experience is categorically different. As good hosts, we’ve dealt with most of the hassle ahead of time so that their work can come off without a hitch. We’ve mitigated risk so that challenges and inconveniences are minimized. We’ve made arrangements that set a team up to complete a successful project in a specific amount of time.

In short, we work hard to buffer short-term visitors from real life. Our ‘constants’ do not phase the short-termers because their time has a liberating end.

I’d be enamored with my life too if it always ran so smoothly. But in reality, it doesn’t. And it can’t. Not on this scale – not for this duration. Dealing with hassle is a default setting. Risk of failure, injury, disappointment and disaster are every single day occurrences. Nothing happens in a two-week time frame. Not. One. Thing. And vacillation between triumph and tragedy is just inherent in moving a ministry forward.

Efyo caba. That’s how it goes.

But in contrast, for those two weeks, everything stays (relatively) golden for our visitors because the time-frame ensures it. When folks walk into an African hut and find it “cozy” and “romantic” that’s because that grass roof hasn’t dripped on you every day for half a year. Truly, a person can sleep anywhere, eat anything, interact with anyone for two weeks. This is not hard and requires no real adjustment. It’s easy enough to hold your breath for a fortnight. But long-termers who too once held their breath have all had to exhale… and then inhale again. Our time-frame ensures it too. The lumpy beds that were comical for two weeks are tortuous after two years. The kids on the porch who ask for sweeties every day are endearing at first but eventually become emotionally draining. The local cuisine is no longer “delectable” once the stash of Cliff Bars has run out. Time will always do its work, and there is no speeding that up.

And how we watch this play out time and time again is that last-summer’s short-termers who come back as newly arrived long-termers typically try to function in ways that are reminiscent of their previous trips. Perfectly understandable, but detrimental still. In most cases, these folks try to live a life that is both unrealistic and unsustainable for long-term work and they burn out so fast. They run full speed through a parallel and imaginary universe where everything is magical until their bodies, minds and souls collapse from disillusionment and unmet expectations. Over the years, our observation is that every last one of them cries out, “this isn’t how it was before!” and then goes home.

And its my compassion for this scenario that underwrites this post. At this time of year, when so many people are still riding on the highs of the trip they took this summer, I pray these words speak a most gentle truth into the swirl of excitement.

For those of you who went on that trip, I know some of you are committed to returning. Your lives were changed and now you feel you need to get back to where you went and this time its going to be forever. I love the passion wrapped up in this. I want success for you. I don’t want you to become an attrition statistic. I want real and lasting joy for your service. And I truly believe that the best way to achieve that is to be brutally honest about the ways that short-lived emotions tell a fabulous and false story.

My challenge to you is to put it all on ice for a while and take the time to assess the source of your confidence. If your desperation to return to your host country is fueled by your love of the people and the warmth of the culture and the inspiration of the work, then stop looking at one way tickets. You are setting yourself up for tears and a demoralizing flight home. Those loving people will eventually sin against you, and the culture will eventually stand on your last nerve and the work will eventually feel overwhelming and then the good feels will be gone.

If, however, you feel like God is asking you to go, then pray into that. Happy feelings alone will always fail you, but a call of the Lord will sustain you in the dark nights. Only God can give you a love for a place teeming with corruption and trash heaps and juju and when he places that kind of love in your heart, you’ll know the peace of living sent.

Seasoned missionaries: Anything you’ve observed that you’d like to add?

Short-termers hoping to return: Anything you’d like to ask? How can we support you better?


  1. Bethany, this is fantastic and so accurate. You have captured all that can be right and wrong around motivations driving people to work overseas. Knowing where you stay as well, I recognize that you don't even have the "hardship post" (e.g., Lusaka), but are right out in the day to day.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing, God bless you and the family, Cheers, Carl

  2. Natasha Sana Bethany :) always appreciate your vulnerability and bravery to share the truth in a way that we can hear it and feel challenged by it. Much love to you and your family and community. Please give banamayo just choshen all my love and greetings.

    1. Banamayo at choshen ** and Charles and Emmanuel as well!

  3. Very well said!! So much truth and wisdom in this post. I would love to say more and share what we’ve seen in Zambia with a few interns we’ve hosted, but will refrain. For sure, long term missionaries are there because God has called. Stress is no joke living outside your passport country and culture differences take their toll in massive ways. The honey moon of short term mission trips is so not reality. Unfortunately if long term missionaries didn’t plan and organize short term trips, most short term participants couldn’t handle the reality of the mission field. If God has not called, burn out happens and all involved are left cleaning up the mess. Thank you for sharing.

  4. I am trying to connect with you and your ministry. I messaged also via facebook. You are a beautiful servant for the Lord!