Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Borders, cows and such

Border Hopping

Today was the day our visitors visas for South Africa expired. They were the usual 3 month visas we have normally been issued with on border crossings over the past 25 years. If we returned shortly before the visa expiry, they’d usually issue a new one. No questions asked.  

But this time was different. We were mistakenly suspected of “border hopping”. That’s where people cross borders while they are (or are not) trying to process proper residence or work visas in one of the countries they hopping between. Border hopping is a common thing here, especially of late since the legal processes for organizations and visa processing have become incredibly complex and much more expensive. 

But that wasn’t our case. We have Mozambican residence permits so clearly didnt need to “hop” anywhere. But the immigration official who stamped our passports made a mistake. Long story short and a trip to his supervisor later, we were no further ahead. We were told we had to exit and re-enter South Africa through a border somewhere half way through our current business trip (annual aircraft maintenance). 

Today was our visa expiry date, so we headed to the  nearest border to us: Bulembu, Swaziland. Note the zigzagging road on the map? It didn’t lie...

What we drove through was rocky, steep hillside after rocky, steep hillside nestled so closely together one would think whoever placed them there hadn’t planned ahead very well!

The hillsides were so steep and yet there were tree plantations. We wondered how you’d harvest on such steep slopes. Apparently getting stuff rolling down was no issue, but stopping it at some point must have been. The road was littered with pine branches and rocks that rolled off cliffs at whim. We also wondered if animals could possibly be farmed there. Turns out, yes, cows. Don’t ask me how an animal as stiff and awkward as a cow can walk those steep slopes without rolling down like the branches and rocks do, but they do. 

At the border, we engaged the gate officer in idle conversation for a few minutes before going inside to deal with the more stressful issue at hand. We talked about the steep rocky hills and the cows. He said sheep lived there too. That wasn’t as surprising to me as the awkward cow scenario. I asked him if there were wild animals up there too? “No. None. Just cows and sheep.” 

Inside, the immigration officer scrutinized our passports and noted our visa expiry date was today. “So I see you are crossing the border the day your visa expires. You will be returning today again I take it?” His look said “border hoppers!” We explained our predicament and what the airport immigration officer had said (as Moz residents we can enter for 30 days for sure and should have been granted that last week. Except for the mistake.). He responded with a drawn out “Hmmmmm, I don’ many days I can give you on your return here later....Maybe 7 days...” There was no justification for only 7 days but hey, he’s the boss here. 

On the Swazi side of the border, the officials were friendly. An official portrait of the king of Swaziland, dressed in his tribal attire, hung on the wall.  It looked to me like he just hung there smiling on everything that transpired there. 

We carried on into the little old settlement of Bulembu. It was nestled in those steep, rocky hills and clearly had been established during the colonial era. We found the Bulembu Lodge restaurant. I think it’s the only one in town, and the dining hall was empty. The waiter welcomed us and ushered us to the table of our choosing. I selected the one with the best view of those steep, rocky hills. We ordered our lunch and ate it while the waiter, in formal style, stood nearby watching us, hands folded behind his back, ever at the ready. The door to the kitchen was to his immediate left. There was a ton of chatter and laughter behind those doors and periodically he would duck inside for a few moments reprieve from watching us eat. Then he would reappear and resume his watch. Dwight read the hot sauce bottle label which declared that there was “chilli’s and no other nonsense inside”. The waiter chuckled along with us. It was heartwarming but also a bit awkward. And that made me think of the cows on the hills. 

When lunch was over, we left the aged little town with its nostalgic and aging structures behind. We now had to face the formidable South African immigration official again. First, though, came the Swazi border with its friendly staff. They love guests from Canada, they said. The portrait of the king smiled down on us as we said goodbye. 

When we arrived at the South African side we took a deep breath and went inside. Like, “Whatever. We will take what comes.” What else, right? To our surprise, the same official who had given us the gears granted us a full 30 day visa back into South Africa. We were relieved and anxious to get back to where we are staying. 

On our way back through those steep, rocky hills, we came across baboons. Huge troops of them scampering away from our curious eyes. So there was wildlife in them there hills after-all! Seeing them reminded us of the orphaned “bad-boon” (as used to call him because there seemed no limit to the mischief he could get up to) that we raised from infant hood until 7 months of age. He was actually a welcome gift to our daughter in law who was visiting Africa for the first time. When she and Russ left, I became his mommy. It was uncanny how human like and adorable he could be, but he could also a real character and could be downright bad! At the right time, we were able to release him into a wildlife reserve just north of the mission. For that trip, there were no border crossings, no suspicions of border hopping, and no portraits of kings smiling on us. It’s actually illegal to transport a wild animal so we had to hide him under a blanket to get him past highway police undetected. It was quite the ordeal but it was the right thing to do. 

There’s a whole lot more to it than that but that’s a story for another day.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The start of 2014

Before I post anything about 2014, I should really close 2013 with a few photos of November/December. We spent a considerable amount of the time traveling between Mozambique and South Africa as well as quite a bit of time being in South Africa on business. We also got hung up for awhile checking up on health issues. I hadn't been feeling well for several weeks and my Dr. wasn't happy with the results of some routine tests, so I was sent for not-so-routine tests/procedures to rule out anything terribly nasty. Preliminary results seem to indicate nothing too nasty, likely "just" a respiratory virus. Just a virus that made me sick for about 2 months--right through our annual holiday and Christmas--nasty enough for me.

One of our stops on one of our trips between SA and Moz was at Messina just south of Zimbabwe. We "climbed" a rock. As you can see, I did it in flip flops so probably can't officially be classified as climbing. It's a unique part of the country and is full of Baobabs and rock outcrops. It's also HOT there.

   We received a container of mostly medical supplies from Sweden, among the items were some wonderful cupboards. Here the health workers and Tome deliver a cupboard to the one health post. I don't know about them, but I smile when I see this picture because I know it meant we could finally take health records/forms/etc. out of the paper boxes we've used for years and put them in a cupboard. Talk about civilized! 

One of the big items to tend to in South Africa (at Mercy Air) was the Cessna's annual maintenance. This doesn't mean just checking under the hood and changing the oil--it  means pulling just about every moving part of the plane off, or open, and looking inside its cavities, examining the wiring, testing this, testing that. I don't even know what all they do but it's a pretty big job. It is absolutely essential though since it's fairly impossible to take a pit stop if something goes wrong when you're 7000 something feet in the air over dense bush.

When the maintenance is done, the plane has to do a test flight or two to make sure everything's working well. Officials from Moz also came through to check the facility and do an aircraft inspection since the Cessna is now Mozambique registered. It was a busy time for the guys, and we were very thankful that everything worked out so we could fly home in time for Christmas.

We stick to as many Christmas traditions as possible out here where there is no snow or other things that are normal signals (for us) that it's Christmas time. And every year, I dutifully pull out one of my old puzzles that I've done and redone many times. This particular scene is a snowy church scene of some place in Germany. Doing this puzzle helped me pass quite a few hours of not-feeling-so-great-but-don't-want to-waste-time-in-bed. But apparently what you define as "bed" depends on whether you're a human or a cat.

To add to our Christmas and New Year's celebrations, we also celebrated the first landing of the Cessna on the mission airstrip. This was the culmination of quite a few years of hard work, money spent, document processing, inspection passing, and so on. So it was truly a joyous event! The plane has already made several "work flights" from this airstrip, one being to take essential supplies to pastors in a remote region north of us.

Moving along here. 2014 so far has been pretty busy and we're not at the end of January yet. There's been gearing up for the beginning of school for the over 300 students in our sponsorship program, making progress on construction projects, preparing budgets for the new year, reports for our AGM in February, etc. And then there's been addressing the crises that seem to pop up regularly.

At lunchtime one day last week, we heard a huge BOOM in the distance. We weren't sure what it was but in short order received a phone call saying there had been an accident between two big trucks on the highway right in front of the mission property. Could we please come quickly! The scene didn't look good, but surprisingly there was only one casualty and he was alive. The health workers who live and work nearby had already made it to the scene and bandaged up the guy's head and checked him over. As quickly as we could, we got him loaded into the mission vehicle (which we have also nicknamed our local ambulance) and took him to hospital.

I'll try to wind things up with one last photo that everyone will be fine with. But this is your heads up that the ones to follow are the "bug section" which I always try to put at the end of my posts so the more sensitive readers can stop scrolling down in time :)

We currently have a group of students from Prairie who are spending a few weeks at the mission ministering to needs and relating cross culturally. Last Sunday after an animated church service, we were all invited to the pastor's home (above) to enjoy a lunch of Massa & Caril (stiff maize porridge that you dip into a stewed chicken sauce). This is served hot off the stove and eaten with the fingers. We north Americans know how to eat with our fingers, but handling piping hot food that way takes a bit of practice and a very light touch. It was delicious though!

It's summer here which means it's very hot, humid and rainy. This weather summons creatures of all varieties and sizes out from hiding (or wherever they were) and into our house. I'm sure they go other places too, but I especially notice the ones that come inside. Especially when they're oversized.

 This first one is a huge centipede. These guys pack a nasty sting, though I've never been on the receiving end. Thank goodness!

 The fork's sole purpose here is for comparison. Just clarifying.

Next is a cute chameleon. This one didn't come inside because they hate being inside, but we often find them in our yard busy hunting and eating insects. Good! :)

The one below came inside and even went so far as to crawl up and get  all snuggled into a fold in our mosquito net.  A scorpion in one's mosquito net is not a nice visual to wake up to. Thankfully he didn't decide to come snuggle in our sheets instead.
 He's semi-lifeless here. I have since discovered 2 others in the house :O

The stick on the wall below is actually a stick bug. It is rather disconcerting to spot a live and moving stick on the wall outside one's bathroom! Although they don't bite people, obviously they can bite and eat their prey (smaller insects...good!). I think this is the largest stick bug we've seen to date. This is a KAOS radio station pen from Fort McMurray, btw, where it's -28C right now.

And then there's the tarantula type spider. Actually, we've spotted several of these, one of which was crawling up a big window in our front room.  I should have taken a photo of it but I was too distracted at the time.

And to everyone's great relief, that's all I will post for now. All the best to you this 2014!

PS: There's lots more news at

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Stepping over cracks


When we were kids and walking along a sidewalk, one of us would invariably pipe up with, "Step on a crack, break your mother's back; step on a nail, put your father in jail." At this, we would adjust our stride and nimbly step over any pavement cracks or nail heads in boardwalks, all the while keeping a beady eye on the steps of others lest they slip up. If you did accidentally step on a crack, a chorus would rise, "Aha! You broke your mother's back!" or "You put your father in jail!" It was fierce but fun competition, and anyway, we were looking out for our parents' welfare! Thankfully, even though I probably slipped up many times in the game, neither calamity came upon my parents :-)

The cracked pavement above, which I think is actually quite pretty, is one of many on the veranda floor of the getaway beach spot we are at for just over a week. We have been coming here once a year for about 10 years, and each visit is unique in itself. One year, we arrived to discover that the wind had eroded the sand to the point where several thatched installations had collapsed and their reconstruction in a new location was underway. Another year, it was so stiflingly hot we could hardly bear the heat. The next year it was so unseasonably cold and windy we could hardly enjoy the hammocks on the veranda. Then there were the years where we had to deal with rat infestations, and the year where an arsonist almost burned the entire place to the ground. Yes, there are many stories to be told!

I wish I could say that this year's story is just about sand erosion, rats, or the weather. But it's not. This year's uniqueness has to do with recent political turmoil that has disrupted life in some way for just about everyone living in Mozambique. There have been many repercussions for us too. One of these was that we needed to take an alternate route south for this trip rather than take the in-country main highway where the military convoy has been the target of recent attacks. 

We took the convoy less than 2 months ago while on a business trip to South Africa. It was safe then, but things have since deteriorated and shootings and attacks are common. So we made the decision to get to our southern Mozambican destination via our neighbouring countries Zimbabwe and South Africa. Talk about taking the long way though. It was a 3 day trip as opposed to a 9 or 10 hour drive.

It has been a long time since we have been to Zimbabwe, and after paying $75/person for single entry visas, not counting other border costs, it's no wonder. There are now also several toll charges of USD $1 each to drive the main road south.

After our long, drawn out trip, we were weary and very happy to arrive at our destination! As I write this, we are concerned for Mozambique and her people. After 20 years of peace and development, the country has recently been plagued with hot spots of  civil unrest, fighting, and increasing violent crime.  There is a serious breakdown in communication and goodwill between the ruling and opposition parties, and much like our childhood's crack in the pavement, it is bringing calamity and pain to people. The country, especially youth, agonizes over events as they unfold. Just when things were going so well! Municipal elections are being held in less than 2 weeks and this does little to ease tensions, of course. We are keeping abreast as possible of the situation and so far in our area, things have been quiet and life goes on as usual. We do trust that once elections are over, things will settle for everyone and that this December will be one in tune with the season--that of renewed peace and hope.

Otherwise, for me, life has been a blur with the busyness of things. A key staff member left to pursue his career further north recently and it landed a heap of student photo taking and data collecting in my lap. I am training one of the health workers to take on most of this, but first he has to learn to type. So yes, there is much learning to be done yet! All in all, about 400 records needed to be updated (current student info, photo, and letter), but we have now completed that so we are rejoicing. I am so thankful for the enthusiasm of all those who work alongside us. 

This is what my desk and life have been occupied with primarily for the last few months. Reading the students' letters to their sponsors has been heart warming though.I love the attention and detail they put into their artwork...what a great avenue for creativity and expression it is. Like the mirror of one's heart. 

                       "Me taking pictures of students taking pictures of me." Fair's fair. 

For now though, let me sign off. There is a break I must enjoy :) 

Take care, and keep Mozambique in your thoughts and prayers.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

A boy, a mouse burrow, and a snake


Last night, right after supper, I got a call. It was one of the health workers. Someone had come to his home and asked if he would give a 9 year old child with a snakebite an injection.  The bite was 3 days old and the first shot had been administered at a hospital. Knowing he lived too far to come back each day for subsequent shots, they sent the vial home with instructions to find a health person to administer them. He hadn't received yesterday's shot and had cried from pain all the previous night, so they were desperate. Since health workers aren't trained to give injections, they called me. 

It was dark already so I picked up one of our guards to accompany me along with the health worker who received the call. We drove along a wide dirt path that wound through the huts in the local community. After taking several left, then right, then left again turns along the path, and where the trail by then was very narrow, we stopped.  From there we walked to the home where the child was. The guys with me used their cell phones to light their way. I had brought my MAG light and in a community that has no electricity and is very dark at night, I was the brightest beacon for miles around.

When we reached the child's home we found the family in the yard huddled around a small fire. This is customary here. The fire in one's yard is central to all evening activity since it provides both heat and light. This is where food is prepared, then eaten, and where evening socializing occurs until bedtime. 

We greeted the adults then called for the child with the snakebite. He got up from amid the group and walked slowly toward us. All eyes were on us from the darkness as we worked in the beam of my bright light.

The boy's hand was very swollen from the wrist to the fingertips and he had a draining gash on the bitten finger. Apparently he had been out hunting field mice so he could have some meat in his stew. (Meat is an absolute luxury in these parts.)  He found a mouse's burrow but when he put his hand in to grab the mouse, discovered a snake instead (which was probably there because it had eaten the mouse).  

 I asked why his finger had a gash instead of puncture holes from a snake. I was told that per tradition, the puncture site had been cut open to remove possible fangs left behind by the snake. I know about this tradition, actually. So I launched into my usual explanation that the chance of a fang being left behind is very, very low while the chance of the wound becoming infected is very, very high. Rather just leave it alone. But I know letting go of long-held traditions and beliefs is difficult. I have some myself. We all do. And even though my explanation is received with subtle skepticism, I give it anyway. I am convinced that things can change over time if we are patient yet consistent.

Anyway, to wrap things up... We decided on the best course of treatment, gave him medicine to help bring the inflammation down, and prayed for him. Today, the boy and his uncle stopped by for a check up. The boy reportedly had slept soundly and his hand was visibly less swollen. He was in much better spirits and chattered away with me while I cleaned and bandaged his finger. 

We'll closely follow his recovery and trust we can keep damage to a minimum. When they left, I told him that next time he's out mouse hunting for meat for his "caril" (stew), rather probe the holes with a stick than his hand. And I couldn't help but restate the part about not cutting a snakebite open to search for fangs. He's young, and impressionable, and I hope he remembers. I also hope that when he tells his friends his story, he includes that and the part about using a stick to probe the burrow instead. Maybe we can save someone else needless injury and pain.

A hand is far too high a price to pay for a bit meat.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

A Family Wedding and a whole lot more!

The last 8 weeks or so have been very busy for us as we went to Canada to attend primarily our son's wedding and just got back home to Moz a few days ago. As always, there were plenty of other things to attend to besides wedding activities, so I'll try to give you the nutshell version in photos.

The weekend we arrived back was a great time to connect with our family and kids and their significant others. 
Turns out it also was a great time to stay up until 3 a.m. catching up on lost chat time! We enjoyed every minute we had with our kids. Their lives are very busy too-our daughter is a full-time high school teacher, and our son is just finishing his Master's in Biomedical Engineering. 

 Our son's at-the-time fiancee was participating in a Ukranian Traditional dance festival so we enjoyed the colorful sights and sounds of the day. The sunshine was wonderful although there were so many mosquitoes we feared we may be carried away. Thankfully someone remembered to bring repellent, thankfully also (even more so) these mosquitoes don't transmit malaria. :)

We set a week aside to visit our daughter who is now a full-fledged highschool math/chem/science teacher. It was an awesome week. 
And do you spot a proud dad pointing out his daughter's name on the sign?

The end of a busy school day, the classroom is cleared and made ready for the next day's classes.

Fort McMurray is an oil boom town with big "trucks", and lots of them. Construction also abounds.

Although we were not on furlough, we took the invitation to share with the church in Fort Mac on Sunday since we were in the area. They are key partners of the work of the mission, and their generous offering that Sunday topped the project funds we needed to purchase a truck (pick up) to serve the school, orphan, and clinic work in Mozambique. We were so honoured and so thankful!

Week 3-ish: participating in SAM Ministries' strategic planning meeting.

Part of the activities during the meeting included jotting down our thoughts/vision on poster paper. 
It was a good day of looking back at where we came from, and projecting forward to where we want to be.

During our time at home, we also took in the SAM Ministries annual banquet and Global Care a Thon walk. In the photo below taken at the banquet, Carole Argo describes the quilt that she made to the winning couple (the wife is blind).

 Moving along to the wedding...

Weddings are a time of great excitement, family gatherings, but also of lots of work and planning. It's impossible to capture everything, so the above photo of us decorating the wedding arch at the church will have to do to represent all the other preparatory activities that took place, many of which took place before we even landed. The bride's family did an absolutely amazing job and things turned out so well! I was also privileged to prepare the wedding slideshow which was great fun to work on despite the hours of sifting through and organizing photos and music!

The bridal party right after the ceremony. 
The weather cooperated wonderfully and we had a nice and cool but sunny day where everyone felt comfortable, even the guys in suits.

Russell and Melodie

Stealing a quick shot while the photographer was otherwise engaged.

Amanda and Russell (our kids)

 With my mom and mom-in-law. What a wonderful chance to be together and celebrate such an awesome occasion!

Jon and Amanda, pleased at winning both the bouquet and garter toss :)

 Me with my mom and sister and our daughters.

The Lagore side of the family several days after the wedding. Missing a few members but it's hard to get everyone together!

The week following the wedding was a time of sad family goodbyes and fevered packing to return to Moz. We are now back home in the bush recovering from jet lag and preparing for intensive seminar which starts tomorrow. I'll do my best to keep posting here!

Friday, May 24, 2013

Dirty Letters

Written last week, before leaving for Canada to attend our son's wedding, SAM Ministries' annual banquet, etc.:

After a considerable degree of effort, the teachers at the school and I managed to get the kids to fill in letters to their sponsors. These letters aren't complicated or lengthy. Mostly, they're a drawn or colored picture. Maybe a circled or written word or words, depending on what grade they're in. Depending on their level of ability.

It can be very hard to connect this world with other worlds. This world is rather basic. We have bugs and dirt and low-end technology (when it works). Other worlds are super-hygienic, bug-free (a luxury where, as my daughter put it, is to ask oneself "how did that bug get inside??") and have high speed internet. I'd like to say that the term "high speed" in Moz is used in some capacity, but that's not characteristic of most of life here. That's not good or bad. It's just different. Where we live, it is buggy, dirty, and has slow-end technology. It's a part of the world that tugs at your heart. It's a tough place to live, but I love it.

Anyway, back to the letters. Lots of them were soiled by the hands of children who don't have running water in their school yet. I had thought to pack plastic basins, water, soap and towels, but forgot since my time was taken up with packing food to keep tummies filled, sight words for the next week, medicine for the school clinic, etc. Sending dirt-smudged letters is never our intention, but it seems an inevitable and normal part of life in Africa. The dirt is as hard to avoid as the oxygen we breathe.

Tomorrow is my last day here before I head for a different world with the luxury of running water, fast internet, and being shocked to see a bug or dirt anywhere but outdoors where they belong. But part of me is sad to leave the "real" world behind. There is so much humanity and value in a hand written note, though it's smudged with dirt and erased misspellings. Those are the elements that shout, "Real people with real needs live here!"

I would like to keep these letters before me as a constant reminder that the fast, developed world is good, but there is another world that calls my name. It's the world that is still struggling to develop; the one that suffers hunger, poverty, and death from treatable illnesses--things I don't want to experience, but others must. Lives I can impact as long as I don't shrink back.

This is why these dirty letters mean what they do to me. Each one represents a sweet face, a unique personality with its own quirks, mischief, and vulnerability. A loving heart, and a life full of potential, still "under development", that hopes for change. Most importantly, a life that can be changed.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

In honor of my mom on Mother's Day

I thought I'd post a few pictures of my mom. These are taken during my childhood and are the few I have with me here in Africa.

This one was taken, I believe, before our lives got crazy (aka we moved to Dallas, Texas, then later to Brazil).

Here, we were your average Canadian family at a family picnic. My mom comes from a big German family of 14 surviving children, so I think our picnics pretty much took over the entire park :) When I was young, I thought all normal families consisted of 100-ish people... Anyway, this is us. My older sister, our sweet younger brother, mom, dad, and me (the tow-head at the back, left).

This photo is of my 11th birthday (I think). It was my first birthday in Recife, Brazil.

 It had been a very difficult year for us as a family adjusting to a drastically different country and culture. If someone had handed us return fares during the first year, I think my parents would have happily hopped on a plane to return to their normal world! That option didn't exist right then, and oddly enough even when the opportunity eventually did roll around, they decided God had called them there to stay and fulfill the calling on their hearts: care for abandoned and needy children. So even though there wasn't much "feel-good"factor in those early years, they stayed. I don't even know how to place a value on the impact parents have on their kids when they don't quit--when they refuse to run away from difficulty--when they stick through the tough times.

Back to the party though, there was a good mix of my American and Brazilian friends at my birthday party. I recall that my mom really knocked herself out to make this birthday a huge smash. She even did my hair in an up-do (yep, that's the back of my head). It's pretty sweet how my little brother is looking at me and smiling and clapping his hands :)

This last photo was taken several years later, after much adjustment and assimilation. After our lives and family grew to accommodate a number of children who had no family and who needed to be sheltered and loved. I remember the names of over half these kids. They were my first "additional" sisters and brothers. I like to tell Mozambicans that I have black brothers in Brazil. :)

The little girl in the front had health issues and her spine was fused when she was very small (you can tell by her posture). She came to stay in our home for awhile and was she sharp as a whip! That was an interesting adjustment. I was about 17 at the time and she loved to snoop through my drawers and test my make-up and chew the Wriggley's gum sent to me especially from Canada. After I left home to study nursing in Canada, she and my little brother became good friends and thick as thieves. It was cool that they had each other, and that together they kept our parents on their toes. Several years after that, my brother (in striped pants on right, above) got sick and, sadly, lost his life. Later on, the little girl did too due to complications from her condition.

In a perfect world, children should not be abandoned and suffer the break-up of their families, and they should not die. But this world is not perfect. It is made a better, however, by the love and self-sacrifice of moms who are willing to love their own, and to love those of others as well.  

Thank you, mom, for the love you shared and for the example you were to not only me but to the many children who are and were part of our lives and family as well. My prayer is that this legacy will be passed on many times over. May the generation to come be a big one with hundreds in the family.

That is normal after-all :)

I love you, Mom. Happy mother's day!