“Prepare yourselves to be treated like royalty,” my team leader said as we climbed out of the van onto sandy ground. I stepped out of the air-conditioned vehicle, and felt the outside humidity like I had passed through a sticky curtain. The group was greeted by several staff who welcomed us to their school with handshakes and smiles. Like other Senegalese people we had met, everyone wanted to shake hands. Beaming with delight, the refugee school director, Toney Biddell, met our group. His dark African skin stood out against his pale green-buttoned shirt and khaki pants. We are so happy to have you visit us today, he announced. I am thankful that you all are here. Toney invited us to join him on a tour of the refugee center.
I followed the group into the building, which led to an open entry area. I noticed some older children on the right, busy with schoolwork. They stared at the seventeen white people who had just entered the building. I returned a smile and waved, and a few of them shyly waved back at me. A little boy dipped a cup in a bucket of water, and sipped from the cup that the school shared. Toney proudly introduced us to his wife and another woman who were preparing lunch. Both women were crouched in the doorway of a closet-sized room, stirring a huge bowl of rice. The women conveyed warm smiles and continued working hard on the meal. Dozens of flies swarmed around a bucket of garbage on the floor. Toney led us through a noisy, narrow hallway. On the immediate left, we saw a dark and cramped classroom. Third and fourth grade children had been discussing English grammar, and our group was a chaotic distraction. Each student stood up from his wobbly wooden bench to shake my hand and say hello.
We continued down the hallway where there were three other small rooms packed with children. One younger class was counting to ten in French. One child called out, “un” and the class enthusiastically recited, “UN! ‘Then “deux” and “DEUX!” came shouting from the crowded room. “Trois,” then “TROIS!” screamed the kids. We walked back to the area where older kids were studying, and then on to the library. What Toney called the library was actually a room full of young children. There was one shelf of books in the corner. The energetic 4 to 6 year old kids smiled as they sang a song. They sang: “Read your Bible, pray every day … and you’ll grow, grow, grow,” with excited voices. They were screaming in unison.
The 5th and 6th grade students were giving us their plastic chairs so we could sit. They moved the chairs to a shady covered area, and I followed. The older kids swept the dusty tile with a short makeshift broom. Then they put several tables together which they covered with bright tablecloths. A few minutes later, we were asked to take our chairs and sit around the table.
I sat down and pulled out a disinfectant wipe to clean my hands. The cooks set a large bowl of white rice at the center of the table. Next to that was the main dish, chicken with dark green stuff. The ladies gave us freshly sliced limes and mangoes. I was given a plastic bowl and spoon, and one of the men from my team offered to pray for the meal. To my right was the room full of little kids talking and singing loudly. On the left, the older kids chatted while they gathered to watch us. A teacher tried to quiet the kids, but the noise did not decrease. We thanked the Lord in prayer for providing an abundance of food.
Each of us took turns dishing up rice. I put some chicken over my rice. The chicken was covered with something dark green that looked like spinach. The ladies brought out tall 1.5 Liter bottles of water for us. Toney said they didn’t have any cups, so we could each drink our own bottle. I decided to share with my sister and another lady, since there was plenty of water. The chicken was very good. The green stuff tasted the way a barn smells. I tried to eat as much as I could. The mangos were not quite ripe, but the flavor was delicious. Toney’s wife gave us apples to enjoy. My sister mentioned that when the children had apples at camp, they ate everything but the seeds.
I looked at the kids who were watching us eat. All the children at the school were refugees from Sierra Leone and Liberia. The children and their families fled their home countries because of war and tribal opposition. Some villages were burned, and while running away from the fires, families would be separated. Then children became unofficially adopted by an adult who escaped with them. Leaving everything behind, people came to Senegal to rebuild their lives. Many people had no contact with their family and did not know where they could be found. Since they could not go back to their home country, and they were not citizens of Senegal, the refugees had no safe place to go. The International Refugee Center of Dakar was founded by compassionate African Christians, many who are refugees. They wanted to help educate children who would otherwise have no hope. They provide a hot meal for students every day. Sometimes their only meals are provided by the refugee center. The refugee adults are usually unemployed, and they don’t have anyone to help them find a job. One girl said her mother cooked for a Senegalese woman, and when she did, she was able to bring the leftovers home.
As we continued the meal, Toney and his co-worker, made an announcement. Toney thanked us again for visiting the center and being so kind and generous. We are thankful, more than you may understand, that you have come here from America to support us. Thank you for praying. Saah asked a boy, named George, to present us with their gift. The little boy toddles from the classroom with a huge bouquet of artificial flowers in his arms. The staff members are paid only ten dollars a week for their work, and I discovered later they had taken up a collection to purchase the flowers.
After lunch, I walked back to the van with a few people and retrieved our gifts for the children. The excitement level rose when we passed out the presents. Each child got a hygiene bag with a toothbrush, toothpaste, washcloth, soap, and comb. The children were more fascinated with the Ziploc bag than the contents inside. I showed a girl how to slide the blue piece across the bag to open it, and back across. Then a dozen other children bombarded me, and wanted me to demonstrate the Ziploc to them. We also gave the students a stuffed animal. These were simply wrapped in white tissue paper. Many children did not unwrap their gifts, but just beamed and hugged the toys closely.
We stayed at the school about thirty minutes longer, visiting with the kids and taking pictures with them. Some of the shy teenage kids approached me to say hello and ask my name. I held a darling little girl named Sarafina in my arms. When we had to leave, I climbed back into the van and waved good-bye to the beautiful refugee children. Dozens of kids surrounded the van and pressed their faces against the glass. Our van backed down the dirt road, and a few kids ran alongside while we slowly drove away. I looked back to get one last glimpse of the children who left their mark on my life.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
“Be joyful always;
give thanks in all circumstances,
for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
For Christmas, my brother got me a subscription to Ready Made magazine. This is a do-it-yourself / design / home project-type of magazine… like to an intensely outrageous degree. I’m having fun imagining what I would do if I had time and skills and funds and that level of commitment to creative expression.
1) What magazines are you subscribed to? (other than this one, I get Parents each month)
2) If you could have one more magazine subscription, what would it be? (probably a cooking mag for me)
“Do not spoil what you have by
desiring what you have not;
remember that what you now have
was once among the things
you only hoped for.”
This morning I was spoiled with a bit of quiet before my girls woke up. It has been 6:00 a.m. or earlier every single day for who-knows-how-long.
I was drinking my coffee and reading my Bible, and came across this phrase, “train yourself to be godly” (I Tim 4:7). I was kind of stunned for a minute, thinking how my tendency is to flutter around from one project to another, and how I get tunnel vision on that “thing” I’ve been working on lately.
– not train for a marathon
– not train myself to cook, garden, knit
– not train for a big career opportunity
Train yourself to be GODLY.
Yup, that’s a big focus, taking discipline and perseverance. Whew!
My crew was assigned to tear down the old barn. We knew it would be a dangerous task, since the roof was starting to cave through in the middle. All of the scratchy, gray wood would need to come down. I helped push open the heavy barn doors, which revealed a mostly empty space. Strands of hay were scattered sparsely over the dirt floor. As we pulled down old lights strung across the inside, I thought about a time when the barn had been full of life.
The crowd exploded in laughter when my dad came on stage. Dressed up as “Dr. Whacko,” he had the perfect way of captivating the attention of 200 junior high kids. I came to the evening meetings in the barn just to see my dad entertain the group. The summer sky was midnight blue as I walked from my family’s ranch-style home to the barn. All the kids crammed in close together on the floor, which was blanketed in hay. The string of bright bulbs illuminated the place, and moths fluttered toward the light. At this camp meeting, my dad was entertaining the crowd with his favorite magic trick. Dr. Whacko had two black-and-white wooden rabbits that would “hop” from one wooden stand to another. While my dad pointed the crowd’s attention to the back of the barn, he turned the rabbits around to reveal that the black rabbit traded places with the white rabbit! As he repeated the hopping rabbit trick, the kids squirmed on the hay-covered floor, wanting to yell out the solution. After switching the black and white rabbit for the third time, my dad pointed toward the forest and announced, “Look at that deer!” This time when he turned over the black and white rabbits, he revealed one red and one yellow rabbit! The young teens murmured to each other, surprised at the unusual finale, and wished they could figure out how Dr. Whacko had performed the trick. The barn was a special setting for Dr. Whacko’s magic.
Dr. Whacko also performed fake surgeries in front of the crowd. His “medical crew” would make it look like they had opened up the stomach of the person lying on the table. Then Dr. Whacko would start pulling things out of the patient’s stomach (at least, it appeared that way). He exposed a golf ball, a jump rope, and even ketchup and mustard squeeze bottles, which he didn’t hesitate to squirt into the disgusted audience. My dad could certainly entertain a crowd of teens. He wouldn’t bore the kids by making them sit swatting at mosquitoes the whole time. He had crazy active games planned as well.
One big hit was an activity using group participation and a thin camp mattress. A courageous volunteer from the audience would “crowd surf” using the mattress as transportation. All the kids sat on the ground and raised both hands high in the air. The camper who volunteered for the activity would spread out flat on the mattress and let the crowd direct him to the front of the barn, racing against another camper. The excitement didn’t last long for him, because he fell off and had to give up the crowd surfing honor to another kid. Now my crew found a few mattresses piled on two insecure rafters. We moved these and several bales of hay into the camp truck and then began the difficult process of removing the roof. In an effort to lighten up a dangerous and risky situation, my fellow staff member began singing an out-of-season and off-tune, “Jingle Bells.” This prompted me to share a memory of old times in the barn.
The barn once hosted the singing of summertime Christmas carols! My dad sparked a great competition, splitting all the kids into two groups. Some were sitting on bales of hay toward one side of the barn, and more kids were gathered around the beams holding up the other side. The two teams huddled, brainstorming Christmas carols. Then the fun began. The camp leader pointed to group one, and they began singing, “Deck the Halls.” After five seconds of this song, the spotlight moved to group two. The object was for each team to be ready with another Christmas carol at their turn. The second group immediately sang “Silent Night” in unison. Again, only five seconds went by, and the next group started “We Wish you a Merry Christmas.” This game continued for many rounds, until one group failed to rebound a song to the other team. While I recalled this story, the guy up on the roof grinned, also remembering the fun times he had as a camper.
As I got older, the barn wasn’t used as much. Except, when I was in sixth grade, my dad helped me plan a surprise party to be held in the barn. My twelve year-old friends enjoyed a great party! My creative dad thought of some games for the other girls and me to play, and every game involved eggs. We played an egg toss right in front of the barn, and if one of us missed the throw, the egg fell back into the trees. An egg relay kept us busy; we tried to balance an egg on a spoon while racing toward a big tree. The grassy ground sloped down and back up, leading to the tree, which made a good challenge. The third event was an egg throw. We enjoyed this game most, because we got to throw eggs at a poster of Barney! Tacked up against the barn door was a picture of the character that all our younger siblings watched faithfully, and we were overjoyed to take aim at his big purple head. Later, when the games settled down and the cake was gone, we snuggled into sleeping bags and slept inside the barn on the hay.
Not long after that party, my family decided to move away from the camp I had known as home for eleven years. This was a huge transition in my life, and it didn’t take long for me to realize how many changes would happen as I entered my teenage years. At the age of sixteen, I returned to camp on summer staff. We tore down the walls and foundation of the barn to accommodate new programs and more activities at camp. My life was developing a new stage in much the same way. As my crew finished a productive day of tearing down the roof and one wall, we jumped into the bed of the truck and held on, ready to encounter the next project.