Swaziland

The Ugly Part of Me

Admittance to the World Race came with a suggested packing list. And while it was long, it was hardly exhaustive. It soon became apparent to me that in addition to the thousands of dollars I’d need to raise in order to finish the Race, there would be many other hefty expenses I hadn’t really considered. So I spent the summer before I left slowly accumulating the gear I would need. Among the new items that began to take up residence in the corner of my bedroom was a Nalgene bottle. Blue and white, 32 fluid ounces, with ‘UCONN’ written down the side (a reminder of home, and my life-long loyalty to the UConn Huskies). It cost maybe $15.00. Honestly, I can’t remember.

Fast forward to two months after leaving home and I am in Swaziland living on top of a mountain. The scenery is gorgeous and the weather has surprised us all and turned clear and warm. All I want to do is go for a walk in the mountains with some people I enjoy. Because sunny walks with people you enjoy are pretty effective soul-medicine and I have been traveling just long enough to start to feel homesickness settling in.

So off we go, my friends and I. Our destination is a particular rock with a stunning view of the valley, the river far below us and the fields slowly burning in the distance to keep the grasses from growing too high. I am forgetting homesickness and our fast-approaching travel day to Mozambique as I am again filled with gratitude to be right where I am in this moment. We make an attempt to capture it with a photo, but it does the view no justice.

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We have to return in time for chapel, so we begin to head back. We take off running though the fields, past the carcass of a dead cow, to the dirt road that leads to the gates of the children’s home. We are nearly to the road and are walking to catch our breath when we see a little boy running to catch up with us. We stop and wait for him and when he speaks to us it is in Siswati, the local language. One of the girls with us has lived in Swaziland long enough to piece together what he’s saying. He is saying the word for water and it occurs to us that he is asking for a drink.

The boy is maybe seven. He is wearing well-worn, ill-fitting clothes and is barefoot. But not only am I face to face with this thirsty little boy – I am face to face with the Ugly Part of Me. I am afraid to give this little boy a drink from my Nalgene bottle. My brain is saying, “You can’t let him drink from your bottle. He might have HIV. That’s spread through bodily fluids. So he can’t have your water. You’ll have to throw out your bottle. It won’t be safe.” I hesitate as he continues to ask for a sip, unable to properly form words that express my concern. He repeats his plea again and again and I am frozen.

Finally, after what seems like forever, Amanda opens her bottle, tilts his little head back and pours water into his mouth. And I watch as gratitude sweeps over him; he is clearly incredibly thirsty and I have denied him a drink. He gulps and gulps and catches his breath before leaning back and opening up wide for more. I am full of guilt as I realize how thirsty he was. I missed my opportunity to bless him and all I can do is stand and look on as God provides for him in another way. I have failed to serve this boy and I have failed to serve Jesus.

He downs as much as he can before smiling to thank us and continuing on. We finish our walk back and I have nothing to say; all I feel is regret. “What would Jesus do?” I ask myself. Of course he would give the boy the water. He’d give the boy the whole bottle.

Later I find Amanda at the kitchen sink, liberally applying dish soap and scrubbing her bottle. I feel pretty stupid for not thinking of this. She tells me she was worried, but figures it’ll be fine. I figure it’ll be fine, too. I hear the Ugly Part of Me start to say, “You’re in the country with the highest rate of HIV in the world. Most people would applaud you for saying no.” But the sting of regret is still fresh. And I sit there and resolve not to let fear rob me of another chance to bless someone.

I lost my Nalgene three months later at a hostel in Kuala Lumpur after using it as a vase for some flowers. By that point, it smelled so bad I didn’t even miss it. And Amanda still doesn’t have HIV. And I’d forgotten about that little boy entirely until about a week ago when I was approached by a woman asking for money for a train ticket.

It was 1:30 on a Wednesday in downtown New Haven and I’d just come from lunch with a friend. She had an elaborate story about her boyfriend driving off with her purse in the car after they got into a fight. I’ll never know if it was true or not. But what I could perceive for certain was the great deal of shame she was carrying. Shame for asking a stranger for money and probably for a lot more. As she spoke to me, I prayed and asked God what I should do. He said, “Five dollars.” And as I reached and found the bill in my coat pocket, the Ugly Part of Me was saying something, but I couldn’t really make it out.

After I offered her the money, she threw her arms around me and gave me a huge hug, thanking me profusely. I told her not to be embarrassed. I asked her for her name. She asked me to pray for her. I did. I don’t know what she used the money for, but I do know that fear didn’t rob me of another chance to serve Jesus. And as I walked back to my car, I rejoiced at the realization that the Ugly Part of Me has less influence now that it did last October.

You are worth loving.

I’ve been trying to put this into words for the last two weeks with much difficulty. The day I left Swaziland was the hardest day of my entire trip by far – harder than leaving my family for nearly a year, and harder than saying goodbye to my friends I’d lived and traveled with when we finally reached the end. And to be honest, I never really let myself revisit it until now. Later that same day we jumped right into ministry in Mozambique and other responsibilities became more pressing. But so many nights since I’ve returned, I have been kept awake for hours replaying my time spent in this beautiful country. Swaziland, more than any other place I visited, holds a special place in my heart. If you’d like to hear more, it would be my joy to share it with you face-to-face. Unfortunately, though, it’s proving especially difficult for me to put into writing.

I woke coated in a fine layer of dust. For the few hours I’d been able to sleep, the torrential rain knocked every bit of dirt from the tin roof onto me in the bunk below, while the furious winds blew even more in through the cracks. As soon as I regained consciousness, the heaviness of what was coming flooded back to me. At the foot of the bed, my pack stood leaning against the wall full of everything I had with me. I began this day the same way I had every day this month: wishing I could have more time there on top of the mountain. But my time had run out.

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Three days prior, sitting on a rock overlooking the entire valley below us, I felt my heart breaking. The thought of leaving El Shaddai, the orphanage we’d lived and worked at for our second month, hung over me like a shadow. The stories of the abuses and atrocities committed against each child before he or she was brought to the orphanage replayed through my mind. For weeks I had entertained the idea of refusing to leave, but I knew God would not let me stay. I never expected to learn a lesson in commitment while spending the entire year being shuffled from one country to another. But continuing on with the World Race at that point took all the self-control I could muster.

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I rushed to get out of bed and up to the gate to see the children one last time before they went to school. I walked the same path I had repeatedly taken that month, and recalled all the times I had suddenly felt a pair of soft brown hands covering my eyes from behind and a voice in my ear, “Guess who I am!” (It was always Nozipho.) As the children trickled out of the dormitories in their navy and red school uniforms, I waited outside for my girls, the ones I’d been loving and had been loved by all month. One by one, they emerged into the sunlight and wrapped their arms around me, sure it would be the last time.

What stung the most about these goodbyes was how unaffected the girls seemed to be. I didn’t need them to miss me in order to feel important, neither did I want them to be heartbroken over the inevitable. But it seemed as though each one of them had steeled her heart for this moment, refusing to show emotion or to let herself admit she’d truly miss me. Not a tear was shed that day by any of them, at least not in my presence. The hugs were genuine but quick, and then they were gone. I again recalled some of their stories, the ways in which those they’d loved had left them before. While it made sense why this farewell wasn’t earth-shattering to them, at the same time it wrecked me to witness the ways these beautiful children had already developed callouses on their hearts in subconscious acts of self-preservation.

Finally, out came my Lindo, notoriously on the late side. That month, we’d each been paired with a child to intentionally spend time with each afternoon, and God told me to partner with her. But all month, she’d been running from me, just to see if I was committed enough to chase her. The first time we sat and talked, she asked, “You’re my buddy? When are you leaving me?” She, more than any child I met that month, assumed that I wouldn’t bother to pursue her. Each afternoon in chapel, she refused to sit with me, despite my invitation. Each evening when I had to go eat dinner, she would lie to me, “I’m leaving this weekend. I’m going back with my family. I will not see you again.” She was already skilled in the art of manipulation, but I soon learned this was just a trick to get more of my time and attention. However, to her surprise, I would not abandon the chase, and each extra hour spent with Lindo was one in which I saw the walls she’d constructed fall down as she realized no act of rebellion or indifference could deter me. She held on a little longer than the others that morning, long enough for me to speak over her, “You are smart. You are beautiful. You are worth loving.”

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After reluctantly packing up our chapas to head down the mountain, we said the rest of our goodbyes and crowded inside. We pulled out of the gate and down the dirt road past the school. As we rounded the corner, all the children in the schoolyard began dancing and waving for us as we departed, lined up along the fence. In the back row of seats, I sat and wept more heavily than I ever had, hoping God would eventually bring me back.