Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A Housefull of Sick Men

Right now, all three of the males in our household are lying down, and it is 3pm on a Wednesday. In the past four days, all of them have had fevers, ranging from 101 degrees to 103 degrees, and they are all coughing like crazy. The other fun stuff, I will not describe. Needless to say, Joel, Frankie, and Johnny have had a miserable few days.

So far, I have been able to stay healthy and keep track of all the medications. Johnny is on 6 meds right now - some are to be taken twice a day, some three times a day, and one is taken once a day. Frankie is on 3 meds - all to be taken 3 times a day. Fortunately, Joel can keep track of his own pills! It seems the medication is helping; Johnny's fever is finally gone, and he was the first to bring this lovely bug into our house. So, I have every expectation that over the next few days, Frankie and Joel will follow suit.

Our house has never, ever been this quiet, with all of us home. Other than the coughing, the boys are wiped out, and it is odd to have so much silence. I keep praying for their health, praying for God's presence, and praying for people who don't have access to the medicine and the doctors that help us when we are unwell. Having a sick family makes me feel so powerless, but it is a powerful reminder of all the safety nets in our lives.

Since Sunday, we have had 6 people visit our house, to come and pray for Joel and the kids. They simply show up at the door, stay for less than twenty minutes, offer a prayer and words of encouragement, and then leave. This is typical of Zambian compassion, and it is such a powerful way of showing God's love. There is no expectation that I will host them, there is no expectation that the house will be pristine. They just show up, show love, pray, and leave. Our friend Justin has visited our home twice since Sunday; he has lost three of his five children. His two remaining daughters are friends with our boys. When Justin prays for my children, I can't stop thinking of the ones that he has lost.

We have also had many phone calls and messages from Zambian friends, checking on the family, and reminding us of their prayers. In a country where so many people get sick, where children often fall ill and then die, I am overwhelmed by the consistent compassion and concern we receive. Our friend Elizabeth came to pray for Johnny while she was on her way to a funeral. A 30 year old man, the father of two young children, had just died. He was on a waiting list for surgery, and the surgery did not come soon enough. His young widow will now raise the children on her own.

The sickness in our family will pass. It is a pain to remember all the medicines. It is sad to see the boys in pain. It is frustrating when their fevers rise again. But we have every reason to believe that our health will be fine, that the medicine will work, that our doctors know what they are doing. And so, in this quiet time of sick, sleeping boys, I pray for those who have to say good-bye, for those who are desperate for medicine, for those who are terrified that someone they love will not make it. I pray for a world were health care is available to all people, where medicine is a right, where diarrhea and asthma and malaria do not kill anyone. I pray for Justin's children, and Elizabeth's friend, and Nathan's aunt, and Lecton's daughter, and so many, so many people.

But soon, I will get back up, and distribute medicine to my loved ones, and thank God for what we have; I will hug my children and live in hope. Because that is what my Zambian friends do. That is what we all can do. Live in hope, live in love, live in compassion, live in generosity, live in faith.

I know that you can't come into my living room today, knock on our door and walk on in to offer a prayer. But, I do invite you to pray with us anyway, not just for the healing of my family, but for a world where all people have access to the drugs, the care, the doctors they need. So let us pray together...

Friday, September 13, 2013

I Know Where I Am

Yesterday, I was so scared that I started crying. While I was driving. Which is what was scaring me. And so, the tears just compounded the fear, which compounded the tears. Grip the steering wheel, wipe your eyes, and STOP crying, Kari. It is going to be okay. Breathe.

Those who know me very well know that I hate driving. In my first year of having a driver's license, I averaged one accident every two months, which includes hitting gas pumps, rear ending a police officer, and driving down a Lake Michigan boardwalk (I thought it was a parking lot, until people started jumping out of the way...) Even after I was married, I could not keep a side mirror on my car, as I kept hitting things and breaking them off. Joel joked that he needed to order car mirrors in bulk, but really, it was not so much a joke. My in-laws still have a tree that bears the marks of the numerous times that I rammed into it, while backing out of their driveway.

I am careful, really I am, but I have terrible depth perception and I HATE driving. On the plus side, I know I am terrible, so I always drive very, very slow, with the result that while I have injured many an inanimate object, I have never hurt a living being.

So, back to yesterday. I was driving home from my office, which is about a 40 minute drive, and it does terrify me on a regular basis. But yesterday...yesterday is almost impossible to describe. On my way home, I pass an enormous cemetery, and when there are funerals, the road fills up with trucks and mini-buses. But yesterday, there was not one, not two, but three funerals all going on at the same time. And as I was driving away from the cemetery, an enormous number of vehicles, and hundreds of people on foot, were traveling towards it. As I moved forward at a snail's pace, giant trucks and zooming mini-buses passed me, going the opposite direction, on both sides of my car. With vehicles closing me in on both sides, and hundreds of people filling the street, I kept just stopping, waiting, then moving an inch or two forward. Finally, I got completely stuck. A giant water truck was parked in the middle of the street, and had no intention of moving. Other busses and trucks flowed past it, on both sides, straight at me. And there was no way to turn around, because hundreds of people were now surrounding my car.

So I stopped. Right in the middle of the road, I simply could not move the car. People began to look at me. I rolled down my window and asked if there was any way forward. They shook their heads and gave me a look of pity. This crazy white woman - what is she doing here?

Some men approached my vehicle. One was holding a jug of shake-shake, a cheap, ubiquitous alcohol in Zambia. I looked around. I was surrounded by hundreds of people, sitting trapped in my vehicle. I knew I was safe, but I was certainly far from comfortable. As yet another mini-bus zoomed past me, rattling my car, I felt the beginning of tears leak from the sides of my eyes. Stop. Breathe. You will get out of here. One of the men tapped on my window. I rolled it down. "I will help you," he said. "You need to turn around." And so, with the help of a few of his companions, he cleared a path for me. He stopped the vehicles flying past on both sides, cleared all the people filling the street, and guided me out, moving around the car, directing me backwards and forwards and sideways, until the path was clear, until I could turn around. I waved my thanks, and drove back to my office.

When I arrived, my boss, the General Secretary of our synod, Rev. Maleka Rabson Kabandama, was just sitting down to lunch. He knew I had been leaving for home; he knew I had to get back for a meeting, and so he was baffled as to why I had returned to the office. He could tell I was shaken and frazzled, and he asked what had happened. When I explained that I was stuck, he looked at me with gentle understanding, and said, "I can get you home." I protested. He was just sitting down to eat! "No," he said. "I will eat when I get back. You can follow me."

I accepted his offer, and began to follow him through twisting backroads, over paths I had never seen, for almost a half hour. Finally, I saw a familiar church, and I knew how to get back. Rev. Kabandama pulled over to the side of the road, and I unrolled my window. "You know where you are now?" he asked. "Yes," I said, trying again not to cry in gratitude. "Now I know where I am."

And so Rev. Kabandama turned back, having taken an hour out of his very busy day and returning to a cold lunch. But he had led me forward, so that I would know where I am.

With Rev. Kabandama in my office
I know where I am now. I am in a place that sometimes scares me, because it is unfamiliar, and I don't always know what to do; this is especially true when it comes to driving. But I am also in a place that exudes grace and kindness and generosity and patience and understanding. I am in a place where a person is more important than a project, where a stranger will clear my path, where a very busy man will leave his food, to take me home. I am in a place where love lives, and I can't believe how blessed I am to live here, too.

I know where I am. I am surrounded by the love of God. That is where I am. Thanks, stranger. Thanks, Rev. K. I see God because of you.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013


Her eyes clouded with tears as she told the story; it happened years ago, but the pain was still strong enough to infect those of us around her. 

“My friend, she got sick. And I asked her to get tested, but she said no. And then she got sicker, and I begged her to get tested, but she said no again. And then she got angry. ‘Do you think I am that type of a person?’ her words were bitter and harsh. ‘Do not ask me about this again. I am not that type of person.’”

“She was married, and I knew her husband was unfaithful. But she did not want anyone to think that she was that type of person. And so she refused the test that would have saved her life. She got sicker and sicker and sicker. And when it was way too late, she finally took the test. It was AIDS by then, and there was nothing anyone could do. She died in June, and I sat with her until the very end.”

“The drugs would have saved her life. Testing would have saved her life. AIDS did not kill my friend. Stigma is what caused her death.”

My Zambian colleagues nodded. For this was not one person’s story. It was story after story after story. “A woman will get beaten if she is positive. It is better not to know.” “A man will get fired if he is positive. It is better not to know.” “A child will be kicked out of school is she is positive. It is better not to know.” So many reasons to avoid testing. If you do not get tested, then no one knows for sure. Then you are safe from the stigma, even though it might cause your death.

And so one pastor stood up. “I get tested every year,” he proclaimed. “And I tell my church to do the same. If we, the leaders of the church, get tested, then other people will, as well.” Another pastor spoke out, “When someone is positive, we must provide support and care. We can form support groups in the churches, so that people will be tested.” By the end of the workshop, pastors and Presbytery leaders were making plans, creating concrete strategies to address stigma in their churches and in their communities. How many lives will be saved when these pastors address stigma? How many people will be tested and treated, when they realize that they will receive support and care? How many children will not become orphans? How many women will not become widows? How many men will live to see their grandchildren?

Shortly after I arrived in Zambia a year ago, I visited the home of Mrs. Nkoswe, an HIV positive woman, who was an active leader in her church. I went along with a group of women, and they were deeply proud of their sister in Christ. There was no shame, no judgment, no fear, only joy - joy that Mrs. Nkoswe was healthy, on medication, and able to raise her two grandchildren, while living with HIV. But not only that, they were proud of her because she was leading her community in addressing HIV. She was public about her health status, and encouraged others to be tested, to be treated, to be healthy, to be open, to be whole. Her Christian faith gave her the strength to live openly with HIV, and to encourage others to get tested and treated. And her sisters in Christ, the women of her Presbyterian church, held her up, supported her, and celebrated her. 

Our partner, the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian, Synod of Zambia, is hosting workshops, addressing stigma, creating change, so that Mrs. Nkoswe’s story is repeated over and over and over again, as more people are tested and treated, as lives are saved, as new infections decrease, as we move towards zero. 

Zero new infections. Zero AIDS related deaths. Zero stigma. With the grace of God, we can get there.