The Great West EuroAfrican Adventure: Returning into the Dust of the Earth (Part 3 of 3)

(Blogger’s note: This is the third in a three part series introducing you to this blog, myself, and my upcoming trip. Sorry for the verbosity and self-centered focus, this place should be more narrative and cinched down storylines in the future)

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A Fulani shepherd boy coaxes his flock near Illela, Gaya Department, Niger on a dusty day

My mom has a way of pointing out things that I could never have pointed out myself. For instance, she pointed out that the name of this blog and its subtitle are out of order – “Shouldn’t it be a Midwestern and Sahelian Calling?” But that is just the point, isn’t it? This isn’t a one-way journey upon which I am embarking. As you know by now, this isn’t a blog about this journey, it is about The Journey. Whether or not I have the opportunity to go back and forth multiple times between the Sahel and the Midwest isn’t really relevant, it is about returning into the earth having left on it a tiny morsel of Good. The question is how to find that Good.My mom also mentioned a couple weeks ago that when I leave for the airport at noon tomorrow, it will be on Ascension Day – May 9th. Going up into the air on Ascension Day, how fitting. When I arrived in Niger in 2009, I wrote about arriving on the “Red Planet,” as the landscape was so dusty and red. This time, when I come down from my earthly ascension, I will be arriving on the verge of rainy season, at the point where the desert hits the Atlantic Ocean at Africa’s westernmost point – Dakar.

I could make this entry a rundown of my itinerary, but that probably wouldn’t be the safest thing to do for a variety of reasons. Essentially, I will leave Detroit tomorrow and arrive in Dakar the next day. From there, I will head eastward. I hope to spend the majority of my time in Kankan, Guinea, studying the Malinke language. After this I will continue on towards the place where I “grew up” in Africa – Niger. From there I will be returning south and west, before heading up to Europe, then westward towards home.

A Life in 24 Hours

Speaking of home, I have been spending the past couple days at home, in the house I grew up in since 1993, when I was five and half. In the span of 24 hours, though, I had elements of my whole life sidle by my eyes right here in Dexter, Michigan.

  • After having Peace Corps friends over for dinner on Monday night, we drove up and played board games in a farmhouse located on a dirt road that I had run on as a high school cross country runner.
  • Having coffee on main street in Dexter yesterday morning, where I haven’t spent more than a couple hours at once since 2005, I ran into a high school classmate who I hadn’t seen since graduation day eight years ago. She had also ended up a French major in college and studied France, next to us was a lady whose kids had taken Spanish from a woman whose kids had grown up with my siblings and I since age zero. In walked my former scoutmaster’s wife (he’s 88 and change and is still planning on hiking in Canada this summer!), all in the span of thirty minutes.
  • Yesterday afternoon I met a Nigerien (a Muslim from a very dry land), who I’d never met before, less than 1000 yards from where I learned to waterski, and less than 10 miles from where I first professed the Christian faith as a 3rd grader. He also happened to be good friends with a Nigerien in Belgium who I’d met 11 months ago, but with whom had been unable to maintain contact. His wife grew up in the market town less than 20 miles from where I grew up in Niger.
  • From there I picked up a man from rural Arkansas who now works for as a counselor for a local municipality here in SE Michigan, but who put me in contact, via New York City, to at least a half dozen people in Kankan, Guinea.
  • Last night I had dinner with that man; a couple who knew both my parents since before I was born (before directing a boarding school in Dakar that I plan to visit this weekend); the pastor who helped grow me in the faith through childhood and his wife; and my parents.

The point is that I couldn’t have planned it that well if I’d tried. At one point in that whole 24 hours, the word karma came up. You might use serendipity, luck, fortune, irony, or a whole host of other terms to try to explain what just happened. They all get at the idea, but they all bounce around it too – using “tit for tat” good works, random chance, or other ideas to explain something very pointed, very purposeful…very providential. Aha, Providence, that might be it! If you split down the word, you find roots of “pro” and “vision.” And that, my friends, is what this trip is all about. It is about the vision – the calling or the vocation. It is also about the mission – going forward, compelled.

Before the rain comes the dust…

Getting back to the theme of water, I was emailing a friend in South Sudan, who had mentioned recent dust storms coming in and coating her entire living space. This reminded me of my first night in Niger in 2009, when a huge dust storm woke all of us trainees in fits and starts. Little did we know what was to come – rain, and lots of it. A whole month’s worth, as Niger was beginning one of its most trying rainy seasons in decades without a month of rain.

As I look forward to my imminent departure for West Africa and Western Europe, I am both scared and excited. But I have already been tried to my very core. I probably had some of the worst time sleeping in my life. And if any of you have had this problem, it is worse than other physical ailments in that it often has no ready cure. Lack of sleep acts as an apple corer; paring away one’s shiny exterior to reveal with great precision whether an apple’s seeds are rotten or ready to ripen. And the apple cannot do a whit to combat the corer.

This lack of control is an extremely challenging thing to swallow. While Africa is known as a trying place, people have been telling me, “You can do it!” I honestly ask myself if I can. But then, I know it isn’t me that can. A friend of mine posted a prayer from a saint from centuries ago that included the words, “Wave upon wave of grace.” While he probably had in mind the seas surrounding the British Isles, it conjured images of a Nigerien rainfall, a rain so powerful that it hems you in, pins you to a place. It gives much needed life, but you can’t do a whit to speed it up or slow it down.

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An onrushing storm puzzles the blogger near Guecheme, Niger

Rolling with the punches along the Milo River

Whether on the Huron, the Loire, or the Jordan, some of my most fruitful life experiences have taken place while living along a river. I grew up along the Sirba River in Niger, but in my second village I had no river. It was a very trying time, but a good one. During my imminent return to West Africa, I will have no Peace Corps “safety net,” no one setting up a bank account, giving me free medicine, or sending me a car if anything drastic should happen. I may have no organization to hold me above water, but I do have have safety of dozens of human clay pots strung out in a line across thousands of miles. Most these people I’ve never met, but they are expecting me nonetheless. Yes I’ll be mainly in cities, which have more amenities than my Peace Corps village, and I’ll be living along the River Milo. But a string of clay pots a safety net is not. I know that I have the world’s best Safety Net – and He’s so much more. At the same time, death is never something too far away. While this may come as an odd thing to say, given my ripe old age of 25 and change, I have seen death face to face a few times before. These are not meant in any way as a boast, rather as a statement of thanks in the face of my own feebleness:

  • Hanging by my thigh for hours in between two tree trunks in 20 degree weather in uninhabited wilderness a couple miles behind my house in Dexter, Michigan, before being cut down by a music professor walking his dog, someone I’ve never seen again, before or since.
  • On the banks of the Seine facing the Notre Dame Cathedral on the night after Bastille Day, surrounded by a group of young ruffians stealing the 21 days worth of rocks out of my backpack that constituted some of my only souvenirs on a trip that had taken me through six other nights without a bed to sleep on. This might not have been possible if I hadn’t been forcibly put into debt by plainclothes transport security officers in Zurich…another story there…
  • In Santa Rosa de Copan in northern Honduras, where I was unable to connect with a Peace Corps Volunteer living further south. With nightfall approaching in a city that (unbeknownst to me at the time) has known drug-cartel related violence in recent years, I was compelled to stay with a random stranger who I chose simply because he was the only young man without greasy hair on my chicken bus. Turns out he was a Christian – we slept on the same bed in his one-room (not bedroom, just room) apartment, head and toes going opposite ways and my wallet tucked securely under my abdomen.

The closest I’ve come to death this far was in my Nigerien hometown, when the worst of my double-digit gastrointestinal visitors came to visit. Recently evacuated from my Nigerien childhood home of Larba Birno, where my med kit still lay (with its Oral Rehydration Salts), I had just grown beyond a lick of Hausa ability in my first month there. The only people I talked to with any regularity at this point were a pair of stolid school directors who rarely made forays into the town from their compounds on the outskirts. I’d never seen them within five hundred yards of my house….

…I sat in my latrine (i.e. barrel in the ground with a cement top), my own stomach acid painted on the walls around and the earth below. Unable to keep down water, I literally baked in the hot Sahelian sun. I dared not move, so as not to dislodge what tiny morsel of nutrition was left in my body. I didn’t have cell phone reception except on the hill by the marketplace a half-mile distant. For a brief moment, maybe a minute, maybe an hour, I actually was urging death on. I wanted it, and I wanted it now…. But I learned, as I’ve been learning recently, that you can’t force things. The Lord has his perfect timing…. A knock came at the door – it was not one, but both school directors! My host family had heard my loud noises and called for them to figure out what was wrong. They wobbled me down to the local health hut (where I shouldn’t technically have gone as a Volunteer) and procured Oral Rehydration Salts to get me through the night and onto the bush taxi the next morning to the regional capital.

So that, my friends, is why I am so very THANKFUL to be alive. I surely didn’t deserve any of these years. I’ve done a lot of stupid things in my past ones, and will surely do some more before I pass from this earth. But I know that as long as I am alive, I am alive for a reason.

We are called (a calling is a mission) 

To conclude this long rambling prologue, let us return once more to water. My scoutmaster used to use Longfellow’s quote about “footprints on the sands of time,” to explain life in a nutshell. But I know from growing up on the beach on Lake Michigan that footprints are washed away and the sand itself can be overtaken by rising water level. But the Lake has been there a very long time, and might very well stay until the end of time.

That is why I am returning to the analogy of water, and borrowing from another poet friend. To paraphrase her, we all can have the “The effect of a ripple” throughout our lives. In the still of a Saturday morning on Lake Michigan, an offshore breeze flattens the waves, making the Lake like a dim mirror of glassy calm. Almost on cue, a whisper of a wind descends gently and summons the water to action. It kisses the surface of the Lake, sending ripples glancing off, not in one straight line, but not scattered about at random either. It sends them all in a definite direction – towards shore. This is my calling; it is a calling to a home not on this earth, but in Heaven.

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Wind on Lake Michigan near Grand Haven, Mich. around Labor Day 2012

I will leave you with this verse that my childhood pastor gave me last night, “He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place” (Acts 17:26). See you in a couple weeks, Lord willing.

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