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Thursday, December 18, 2014

A Gift From All of Us

Note: I’ve been on a long pause while writing a memoir of my first term living and working in Africa as a blind missionary. I will soon resume the chronology of my twenties here, but I wanted to share a Christmas memory with you from those jungle days in my forties. The story happened eighteen months before I lost my eyesight. I do hope you’ll enjoy it. Please, feel free to send me stories of a special Christmas in your past. Read on for “A Gift From All of Us.”
The overnight essentials bulging our daypacks, we slipped out the back door and skirted the path around our jungle village. Walking into the early-morning December African sun reddened our faces. How we longed to be helping our families decorate for Christmas, large, fluffy snowflakes falling in time to the lively Christmas tunes.
In fact, the desire for home nearly crippled my attempts to plan another holiday so far from my family. Letters from home came in stacks of several weeks’ collection, so the news of my aunt’s passing in July only reached me late September. By October the news of my father’s newly-diagnosed brain tumor and pending surgery heaped a load of desperation into my homebound desires. I just had to get home.
“Why do you keep speaking about making it home for Christmas this year? I’d love to spend the holidays with my family, too, but don’t really see how. Even if we did have the money, we need at least one week to get to the capital where we can buy the plane tickets; not to mention the weeks it would take to get the proper exit and re-entry visas, which we can’t even apply for until we have the plane tickets. Still, it would be nice, wouldn’t it?” My colleague, ever the realist, spoke the truth, but my heart screamed louder.
“Maybe when we call home today, one of us will have news from our folks that travel money has been added to the account.”
“Wouldn’t that be great; but, this time, money isn’t the only issue. We might have enough for the holiday rate, but we’d have only one week to get from the jungle to the seat on that plane, including turning the check into that much local currency. One week! We’d need more than one miracle, but God’s in the miracle-making business, so maybe.”  
Sinking deeper into my thoughts shortened my stride over the sandy path. “Well, you just never know,” I called to my colleague as I ran to catch up. “God just might surprise us!”
After the five-mile trek over the rugged path, we reached what passed for a highway in Africa. We sat on the splintery roadside bench, singing Christmas songs while waiting for a passing taxi-truck with enough room for two.
Two hours later we threw a leg up and over the rear of the truck, assisted by friendly co-passengers yanking us in by a free arm. My silent pleas for a Christmas miracle so distracted me that the worm-seeking chickens had untied both of my shoes without me noticing, until time to climb out of the truck.
Perseverance in trying to connect with our folks paid off. I hadn’t heard the lovely voices of my parents since April, but late that Sunday evening, after exchanging Christmas greetings, Dad shared the news of additional money in the travel account. It might be enough; now, how to turn that into local currency.
“Yes, it’s wonderful to have the money to go, but we need to be realistic here. How can we get everything done in time?” Anne-Lise reminded me.
“Nothing is impossible with God. We just need to do our part, you know?”
Unavoidable delays completing our business resulted in a return trip facing the beastly-hot late-afternoon sun. The grueling five miles from the inter-city road to home was draining us, necessitating a first-ever rest-stop. Naturally, as we sat on the boulders and let the tiny spot of roadside shade refresh us, conversation centered on the Christmas calls home.
“Yes, I know how impossible it seems for us to get home for Christmas; but if we do all we can, maybe—“
“And, if we exhaust ourselves doing all we need to leave the jungle for three weeks; ride a taxi-truck for ten hours to the capital city;  only to discover we don’t have enough money, or can’t get a seat on the plane this late? Oh, it’d be fantastic to be home for Christmas, wouldn’t it?”
“I can’t think of anything else. I know it’s a stretch and all that work might be in vain, but at least, we’ll have tried,” I pleaded.
By the following day, Anne-Lise joined me in singing “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” agreeing the joy of the possibility merited our best efforts. Our concerns about the tribal response proved unfounded as our family-oriented patients and staff rejoiced with us over our upcoming holiday travel. Once all seventy-eight patients had been treated, we turned our energies to setting things up for those whose medication would need to be renewed in our absence.
Household preparations such as defrosting the kerosene refrigerator came next. Packing-away items used inside the house to protect personal things from jungle critters took most of Wednesday’s light, with only half an hour left for throwing clothing into a suitcase.
Thursday morning, we started our walk back to the highway. Our legs found it harder to traverse the five miles a third time in four days. Our national workers carried our suitcases out on their heads, but they beat us to the highway by a long shot.
Another extended roadside wait, belting out Christmas carols; two hours being jostled and bumped over the rugged terrain in the back of a taxi-truck; and finally, we arrived back at our Kamsar friend’s house.
During breakfast Friday morning, Greg listened to our dilemma over turning a check into local currency, and offered the help of his buddies in the various offices of the mining company. Greg ping-ponged from one office-back to his house where we counted each little stash of currency he brought. Once Greg had the figure of how much we still needed, off he zoomed to another office to collect a bit more. It takes a lot of banknotes when the local currency doesn’t offer more than about seventy cents for their largest denomination, and we needed cash to buy two round-trip plane tickets home.
By the time we had all the local currency in exchange for the American check, we’d missed the last taxi-truck to Conakry, the capital city where the tickets must be purchased in person.
Once again, Greg picked up the internal phone for the mining company and pleaded for his desperate “bush bunny” friends. Success!
Late that afternoon, we slipped into our seats on the special employee-only commuter flight to the capital city. We had a bundle of local banknotes, but would it be enough? Would we get a seat on the flight just days away? Could we actually get those mandatory exit and re-entry visas in time? No doubt about it; we needed a miracle or two if this wouldn’t end up being our only flight this December.
****Conclusion: A Gift from All of Us…coming tomorrow


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