Although I grew up in a third-world country, I had never seen flies swarming around children’s eyes until I visited Ethiopia in 2006.
At the last minute (a few weeks before the team was leaving), one of the girls who was planning to go with a group from my church found out she was pregnant and didn’t want to risk her pregnancy for 10 days in Africa. I couldn’t blame her, although I also knew I would be getting the better end of the deal: I was able to take her spot in the group as well as use the funds she had raised. I just needed to raise a bit more and I was on my way.
At that point in my life, I had been to several countries in Europe and Asia, but the Dark Continent was still a mystery to me. Wrapped up in that mystery was, as usual, a boy. A very articulate one, at that, who had followed the siren call to Africa during a time when going there instead of finding a regular job after college was as trendy as pumpkin spice lattes and skinny jeans. He, obviously, was not as shallow as the rest, although perhaps I was. Thrilled to be heading to a new continent just one country over from the one where HE was, I went.
Now, this was a missions trip, complete with everything missions trips entail. Team meetings, early wake-up calls, and (at least in this case) hut-to-hut evangelism in intense African sunshine. If anything can burn away all but the altruistic motives in me, it’s the early wake-up calls. Although I was thinking about The Boy more than I should have, I was also all there. Eating spaghetti in a dusty “motel,” because everything on the menu was American copy-cat food. Walking down dirt roads, past ancient cannons. Holding little black hands and smiling back at their Crest-bright smiles. I took hundreds of pictures. I told strangers about Jesus. I told new friends on the team about the deep-stirring desires of my heart.
One man on the team in particular will always hold a special place in my heart. He was middle-aged, athletic, father of two daughters around my age, and told stories of running up mountains back home in California with his dog for hours at a time. I had been a runner in college, but this was clearly out of my league. I ran with him and a few others from our team one foggy morning as the chickens were waking up. Over streams, past women carrying produce to or from a market. I could hardly keep up, but I wanted to be strong, so I did.
Something that particularly impressed me about this man was the way he was drawn into the stories of the people around him. I was trained from infancy (not on purpose, of course) in the fine art of caring about people’s needs as long as I’m around them, but returning to Life As Usual as soon as I step foot in my home. Not him. He met a man during one of our day-trips who needed help with a condition in his eye. My teammate, the Compassionate One, spent the evening tracking down medicated eye drops and finding a sure way to get them to the man who needed them. Now, since I have third-world-country “sea legs,” people have often mistaken me for being a good fit to go the extra mile in uncomfortable cross-cultural situations. I guess in some ways, I am. But there’s a difference between not puking at the burning smell of urine on every naked baby and actually caring about those little ones. The ability to chew and swallow inedible foreign food and stomach the smell of cow manure inside a hut should not be confused with compassion. But since I had a nice camera (to take pictures of people’s medical conditions for doctors in the US) and an iron stomach, I was asked to join one of this compassionate man’s side trips. I desperately wanted to be that person, the one they thought I was, so I went. Plus, someone needed to take the pictures.
I can’t remember many details about the medical issues people had (this was years before nursing school for me, and only vaguely interesting at that point). I only remember lots of people crowding in, lots of flies gathering at the corners of dark eyes. In one hut, three little girls sat near me and I smiled at them. We couldn’t understand each other, but I had in my backpack a piece of universal little girl currency: fingernail polish. At the limit of what smiling can communicate, I began to paint their nails. They were delighted. I’m not talking about a little bit happy or just not too shy to let me; they were thrilled to have mint green nails. And I was thrilled to find growing in my heart a type of caring for these little girls. I wanted good things for them. I wanted that nail polish to last weeks for them, because it made them so happy. I wanted Jesus for them, through me, to them.
Like the Grinch, I think my heart grew a few sizes that day. It never did capture the Traveler (that’s a story for another day), but it grew.