Sunday, February 10, 2008

Potholes, Chickens and Life Lesssons

I enjoy meetings about as much as I enjoy having my hand shut in a car door. And so, this past week it was with less than exuberant anticipation that I looked forward to what was sure to be an all day-er.

I left Livingstone a little after 7 am and headed north toward Lusaka on the aptly (if not so creatively) named “Lusaka Road.” The first 70 km of the road (about 45 miles or so) is riddled with potholes of the apocalyptic sort. These potholes are not your run of the mill potholes, wherein a thin layer of asphalt has broken away. No, these potholes are ones that I am sure are the work of the devil himself. Some of them span the length of a car and I am almost certain that at one point I saw an elderly woman swimming laps in one.

Not only are the potholes roughly the size of Lake Michigan, but there are more of them than there is of the road and when driving north you spend as much time going east and west as you do in the direction of your destination as you swerve back and forth trying not to plunge headlong into the abyss. And so, a trip that ought to take about 45 minutes takes an hour and half and leaves you with a new found envy for those with larger and thus more cushioned posteriors.
Along the way, you encounter a handful of industrious Zambians trying to earn some cash in this land deplete of jobs. They appear at random along the roadside diligently shoveling dirt and rocks into the craters so as to make them passable. As you pass, they stick out their hands hoping you will be grateful and give an offering. I was very grateful, and so stopped to give at which point I was rear-ended by an apparently less grateful driver who had no intention of stopping at all. He got out of the car, looked at me, looked at the road and said, “Ahhh,” (which in the local dialect means “don’t blame me I am just a victim of these horribly unkempt roads that should have been fixed with some of the billions of dollars in foreign aid that has instead gone into the pockets of our illustrious and esteemed politicians”). We surveyed the two vehicles, and seeing that there was no damage, shook hands, and said in unison – “Ahhh.”

We (me and two pastors traveling with me) arrived just in time for the meeting (so we thought) as it was about 9:50 when we pulled up to the church. The meeting was scheduled to start at 10. We were the only ones there. In fact, we remained the only ones there, with the exception of a young pastor from a small town just down the road, for the next hour and I started to get a little agitated. Ever since serving in the military, I have tended to be a time oriented person because in the military it is constantly drilled into your brain that tardiness is akin to flag burning and your being late for anything could lead to the downfall of western civilization . And so, being concerned for the well being of western civilization and opposed to flag burning, I generally try to keep to tight a schedule.

But in Zambia, schedules are not so much a certainty as they are a loose and suggested course of events. And my inclination is to think “what is wrong with these people that they would show up two hours late for an important meeting. Don’t they care about western civilization!” But with a little thought, and likely the leading of the Holy Spirit, I was reminded of the challenges faced by Zambian pastors when it comes to traveling. They don’t have expensive 4x4’s like we are blessed to have. Instead they are at the mercy of Zambian buses which is sort of like having Pee Wee Herman as a spiritual advisor. Its just not what you might call ideal. Not only that, but there is also the very African concept that the most pressing need is the most present need. And if an African encounters a friend in need on the way to a meeting, he or she would never say, “Ahhh (which as you recall means…).” No. they would stop what their doing, interrupt their plans, and help out anyway they could. After all the meeting is then – and the need is now. It’s a hard concept for us westerners to grasp. My wife does much better at it than I do. She tends to stop and greet and talk to folks, while I inch impatiently toward the car looking at my watch every 30 seconds hoping she will see me looking at it and take note of my impending irritation at our looming tardiness.

The meeting finally started about 12, and it was in every way just like a pastors meeting in America might be except that for most of the meeting there was a chicken standing in the doorway. The minutes of the last meeting were read, new agenda items were discussed and I delighted in hearing the members of this former British colony say the word “shhedule” instead of “schedule.”

In the final minutes of the meeting, a pastor stood to give a report on the churches in his area. He was from a rural area and he talked about the difficulty in getting basic necessities due to the heavy rains. A bag of maize meal, which is a staple of the Zambian diet, has risen from 25,000 kwatcha (about $7) to 70,000 kwatch (almost $20!) he said. People are having to pay .50 cents each to be carried across the high creeks on someone’s back when they need to go to town or school because the bridges have washed out. Farmer’s entire fields of maize are ruined as the fields have become swamps and the plants are simply rotting in the standing water. He watched in horror one afternoon as he saw one man trying to cross a flooded creek on his own only to get swept away and disappear beneath the water.

And as I listened I was reminded once again of the fact that life in Zambia is hard, and especially hard for Zambians. However many challenges there may be for us as missionaries, like bad, pothole riddled roads – there are hardships multiplied a hundred times over for Zambians who have to walk and wade and pay to be carried across the obstacles that threaten their very existence. And, for a moment I completely forgot about my own silly shhedule.

Then the chicken squawked and I looked at my watch and remembered – western civilization is depending on me!

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