Furaha na amani! Joy and peace!
Greetings from Mwanza. It’s good to be home. I’ve been on the road most of this month and will be so again next month. For the past few days I’ve been resting and catching up on desk-work from the quiet of my own desk in my own office. It’s a gentle pleasure.
As I plan for November, I’m also processing the events of the past several weeks. I’d like to tell you about what’s been going on.
On Wednesday, 5th October 2011 the Holy Archdiocese of Mwanza received our very first OCMC Medical Team. This was the culmination of months of preparation and planning by His Eminence Metropolitan Jeronymos, the OCMC Teams Department, the clergy and faithful of Mwanza Region, and all four OCMC Missionaries in Tanzania. It was brand-new for me. Although we’d never seen a short-term medical team in operation before, OCMC Missionary Michael Pagedas and I found ourselves responsible for logistics. The communities we were interfacing with had also never seen a medical team before.
Thank God, we had good counsel. Missionaries Felice Stewart and Maria Roeber provided insight from medical teams in other countries, and I was able to consult with folks who have facilitated medical teams for other groups in Mwanza Region. The team leader, Dr Cheryl Johnson from Nashville, had a good sense of necessary medicines, so we were able to put together a program that looked lovely on paper.
But no matter how pretty the model is you don’t know what it will be until you start. It was a whirlwind.
The team was first-rate. Dr Cheryl worked with Dr Michael Datch from Baltimore, Dr David Balyegwera from Bukoba, and Theresa ‘Doctor Fupi’ Mellas- a physicians’ assistant from Buffalo- to provide care for thousands of patients over the course of eight daily clinics, each in a different community. Many patients came with serious and even life-threatening ailments, but even more came with minor complaints such as backaches or poor vision. So the nurses- Meagan Homsey from Oklahoma City, Stephanie Pappas from Cheyenne, and Daphne Cunningham from Vancouver, BC- spent nearly every day doing triage on the “front lines,” assessing patients under the guidance of the physicians to provide immediate treatment for those with simple complaints, and identifying the seriously ill to be seen by a physician.
I used to think that a pharmacist was the guy who sold me cough syrup at CVS. Was I wrong. Our pharmacist, Andrew Bersu from St Augustine, quickly proved to be the center of the whole operation. Along with Maria Miller from Austin and Missionary Maria Roeber, Andrew worked diligently to provide each patient with medicines prescribed them by the physicians. Even when crowds started to thin out at triage or in the physicians’ waiting areas, the pharmacy was always packed. For several days Andrew worked without any rest or reprieve, but kept a joyful countenance and sincere love for every patient he met.
Sarah Edquist, a nurse’s assistant from Milwaukee, managed wound care. We saw patients with major wounds that had been infected sometimes for months. Along with the nurses, Sarah cleaned and dressed these wounds and lovingly taught the patients how to continue cleaning and dressing them on their own. The team had brought funds to rush the worst cases to the nearest hospital. For many people, the cost of transportation to the nearest hospital is more money than a family might see in a month. So this assistance was of critical value, and probably saved a few lives.
Pons Materum from San Francisco and Evan Bernick from Chicago served their teammates by getting them food and water, by managing crowds, and by interfacing with local leadership and assistants to bring order to the clinics. They were always available to do any sort of work that would help the team do their jobs better. Evan’s and Pons’ hard work, good insight, brilliant ideas, and humble approach were invaluable to Michael Pagedas and me as we four worked together on daily logistical issues.
And then there were the locals. Missionaries Maria Roeber and Felice Stewart organized the daily packing, counted heads on the bus, prepared medicines, and counseled team members as they confronted new and unexpected things about Tanzanian life every day. Translators Alfred, Laurence, Tambua, Sosthenes, Michael Pagedas and myself worked hard to facilitate good interaction between Kiswahili-speaking patients and English-speaking nurses and providers.
Translation was a stretching experience for me, as I’m sure it also was for Michael. On the second day of clinics, I translated outdoors in triage with Meagan. Several times a patient would describe a complaint to me and I’d look at Meagan in terror. “I can’t do this. I don’t understand him.” But there was the need, and there I was. I couldn’t just flee. So I’d question the patients carefully in my best Kiswahili, using lots of gestures, until I was confident that I got their meaning. Then I’d jot down the new vocabulary on a note card and use it with the next patient. Meagan needed to know whether each woman was pregnant, so that she could give the correct worm medicine. Again, I panicked. I didn’t know the word for pregnant! So I asked these poor mamas, “Do you have a child in your belly?” And they would laugh, and all the women around them would laugh, and then they would say “Yes, I have a child in my belly,” or “No, I don’t have a child in my belly.” That night, I looked up the vocabulary for “pregnant,” and now the query “Una mimba?” is burned forever into my brain.
The team was great. They all worked sacrificially, stretching themselves far beyond their limits and depending on God to sustain them. It was a rare treat to just hang out with people from my own culture. Greater still was working together with my fellow long-term missionaries in support of such a good project. But, with apologies to these fourteen amazing folks, my favorite part was the communities.
Many of these were communities from which we had drawn participants for our 2010 youth camp in Geita. So every time we pulled up to a church in a village where I’d never been, I found myself greeted by familiar faces. I got to meet our good priests and see them in their full pastoral roles, guiding their faithful and their neighbors through a strange and unavoidably complicated process. In some communities there was no infrastructure other than the shade provided by a few trees and maybe a tarp. But the faithful gave everything they had and more to ensure the team had as much support and comfort as possible. In moments of downtime, I was able to visit with the priests, to hear their stories of their faithful and of their outreach. Watching our Church’s leaders in action, and learning from their words and deeds… nothing cooler than that!
Now I get about ten days at home to work on budgets, reports, proposals, correspondence, paperwork. This will include three days of retreat. Thank God! Then I’m off to Bukoba to spend time with my teammates, and by early November plan to head onwards to Kenya for almost a full month. My leadership at OCMC has asked me to visit our Orthodox Church in Turkana, an immense semi-arid region of northwestern Kenya where the Orthodox Christian faith is expanding rapidly among nomadic and pastoral communities who had previously practiced traditional religion. I grew up in a different part of Northern Kenya (called Marsabit), and have great love for the people, traditions, and landscape of this beautiful but difficult region. I don’t know what to expect. But I’m excited. I ask for your prayers.
Thank you for your prayers. Thank you for your love, friendship, correspondence and encouragement. These past days have been straining and exhausting. I am all tuckered out. But I have experienced joy beyond measure, and suspect I have found relationships that may prove to last a lifetime. Thank you also for your faithful, sacrificial and consistent financial gifts which allow me to work out my salvation in this place of joy and peace. I am here because of you.
By your prayers in Christ,