Grandma Eddie

A week ago my grandmother passed away. Unfortunately I was not able to attend the funeral, but I was able to write the following reflections on her life, her legacy and her impact on me. My grandma Eddie meant so much to so many people – she is already missed and will be missed even more going forward.

An edited version of the following was read by my sister at the funeral:

Grandma Eddie lived a deeply spiritual life, and was in constant prayer. That is not just a platitude, it is literally true. She prayed to God all the time and everywhere. She did not stop to pray because she was already praying. She would pray while cooking, while cleaning, while driving, while watching movies (in those rare moments when she actually sat still long enough to watch a movie). She was always talking to God, even while she was talking to others, and if you shared something with her, you didn’t need to ask her for prayer, she automatically added it to her ever-growing list of topics she spoke about with God.

She prayed for others but she also prayed for herself, and through prayer achieved great heights of spiritual connection to God and deep, transformative peace. She didn’t talk a lot about it because she was humble and aware that not everyone shared her beliefs. But her communion with God shaped who she was and how she interacted with the world. Prayer was one of the themes of her life, and she even printed out stickers with the reminder (as if she needed a reminder) to pray and put them all over her house. Putting stickers and post-its everywhere was also a theme in her life. True, it could seem a bit messy and cluttered, but it was also a mosaic of her spiritual life, of her hopes and fears and shopping lists.

Her constant prayer also took another form for she a recognized a great truth: that life itself is a form of prayer, and any action taken, any work great or small can be an act of worship. In God in Search of Man, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Worship and living are not two separate realms. Unless living is a form of worship, our worship has no life.” Grandma Eddie’s life was worship and prayer. She not only sang songs of praise, she was a song, and she made no distinction between the holy and the ho-hum. Heschel also wrote, “The highest peak of spiritual living is not necessarily reached in rare moments of ecstasy; the highest peak lies wherever we are and may be ascended in a common deed.”

Grandma Eddie was no stranger to the common deed. I have never seen anyone attack work the way she did. She cleaned with reckless abandon and was always scrubbing and dusting and polishing and brushing, and she did it all with joy. While others might despair when faced with a daunting task, like cleaning every toilet in every cabin at Cleftrock because a big group was on their way, she was cheerful and even exuberant. She worked long into the night most nights, and her purpose was always the same – the serve others and to offer hospitality.

You would not be far off in thinking that she was obsessive about cleaning, and sometimes it seemed as though she would not stop cleaning until all of the world’s dirt and grime had been washed away. It was as though she was trying to sweep away all dust and all filth and all crime and injustice and evil, locally and globally. Her vision was always directed outwards, towards others. She knew that she could not clean the entire world, but she would clean what she could clean and she would help those she could help. She worked tirelessly for others and would not rest, and yet she found rest and peace in a world that is devoid of both because she understood another great truth: true joy comes from serving others.

Heschel wrote, “The way to purify the self is to avoid dwelling upon the self and to concentrate upon the task.” There could not be a more fitting description of Grandma Eddie.

Pray with Grandma Eddie

Me and Grandma Eddie with “Pray” stickers!

I remember throughout my childhood that Grandma Eddie would always organize tea parties for us, which were fun but also instructive. She always tried to teach us proper etiquette, and the table always had to be set the right way. This seemed pointless to me, especially when we were the only ones eating, with no visitors or guests. But she would say that everything has to be ready for a visit from the Queen. We would say, “But the Queen is not coming,” and she would say, “You never know.”

It took me a long time to understand why she insisted on this. Then I read The Guide for the Perplexed by Maimonides. He explains that people always act differently when they are at home than they would if they were in the presence of royalty. He writes, “We do not sit, move, and occupy ourselves when we are alone and at home, in the same manner as we do in the presence of a great king; we speak and open our mouth as we please when we are with the people of our own household and with our relatives, but not so when we are in a royal assembly.”

But the truth of the matter, as Maimonides points out, is that God, the great King is always with us, and we should be what we have been called to be in every situation and in all of life’s circumstances. That is the definition of integrity, and that too is a good description of Grandma Eddie. She was authentic and authentically herself no matter where she went and no matter who she was with. Sometimes you kind of wished that she would tone it down! But she couldn’t because she was who she was, and she cared about everyone and was curious about everything. So if she decided to tell the waitress at Cracker Barrel her entire life story and pray for her, all before even ordering her meal, she was going to do it. It might have been embarrassing, but it was also beautiful and it was her. She couldn’t talk to someone without making, or at least trying to make a deep and meaningful connection. And, of course, praying for them. I am sure that if she ever did meet the Queen, she would have prayed for her as well.

Grandma Eddie was consistent in the way she lived her life – she was always ready to meet the Queen, and now she is with the great King.

I also remember that she was always singing a song that is from the Book of Lamentations – “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. His mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning. Great is thy faithfulness. The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.”

I heard her sing this song my whole life, but it wasn’t until much later that I actually realized that this comes from Lamentations. This cheerful, hopeful song seems out of place in the book of Lamentations. It is not a lament at all, but a call to remember God’s faithfulness, even in the midst of sorrow, suffering and grief. That is also who she was. She was full of joy, even in her suffering, and her hope was a strong weapon against despair and tragedy. She faced all that life had to offer, the good and the bad, the happy and the tragic, and she never stopped singing.

I came across a poem by Annie Johnson Flint based on this verse in Lamentations, and it reminded me of Grandma Eddie, and the pain of losing her but also the joy in having had her in my life. It is called New Every Morning:

Yea, “new every morning,” though we may awake,
Our hearts with old sorrow beginning to ache;
With old work unfinished when night stayed our hand,
With new duties waiting, unknown and unplanned;
With old care still pressing, to fret and to vex,
With new problems rising, ours minds to perplex;
In ways long familiar, in paths yet untrod,
Oh, new every morning the mercies of God!
His faithfulness fails not; it meets each new day
With guidance for every new step of the way;
New grace for new trials, new trust for old fears,
New patience for bearing the wrongs of the years,
New strength for new burdens, new courage for old,
New faith for whatever the day may unfold;
As fresh for each need as the dew on the sod;
Oh, new every morning the mercies of God!

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My Year in Reading – 2017

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As always, I have enjoyed reading the different A Year in Reading entries at The Millions. Unfortunately it has been awhile (4 years!) since I wrote about my year in reading, but life gets in the way, etc.

I didn’t read as much as I would have liked to this year, but I still managed to read quite a bit, and I still managed to read some books and some passages that will stay with me long after 2017 ends. Here are some highlights:

I read God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism, and I loved it, just like I have loved everything I have ever read by Abraham Joshua Heschel. A couple of years ago I went on a Heschel tear, but then I slowed down because I didn’t want to finish reading his whole oeuvre so quickly. I started spacing them out, and I had been looking forward to this one for a while. The Prophets is cued up for 2018 – goodie!

There is so much that could be said about this work, but I will content myself to sharing some of the golden nuggets that I unearthed from this rich wisdom-mine.

On reading the Bible too literally: “there is a type of reader who, when you talk to him of Jacob’s ladder, would ask the number of steps.” – Ouch.

On how to read the Bible: “The Bible is to be understood by the spirit that grows with it, wrestles with it, and prays with it. – Yes!

On how to read the Bible (and any book actually): “One must be inspired to understand inspiration.”

On life: “There is a task, a law, and a way: the task is redemption, the law, to do justice, to love mercy, and the way is the secret of being human and holy.” – Emphasis original, as is the lyrical tenacity.

On how to fix the world: “The world is torn by conflicts, by folly, by hatred. Our task is to cleanse, to illumine, to repair. Every deed is either a clash or an aid in the effort of redemption.” – Amen.

I also read Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari this year, which was one of the most interesting and most terrifying books I have ever read. I mean that as a compliment. Good books should unsettle us and take us outside of our comfort zone, and this books left me thoroughly unsettled. There are many things I could say about it, but I think that is best reserved for another setting. However, I will say this – one of the things that scared me was the casual dismissal of any notion of free will. I hate to over-simplify what Harari is saying, but I will. Basically we act the way we do because of algorithms and free will is a myth and we are who we are because we are biologically determined to be who we are.

Afterwards, and not intentionally, I read something that served to counter this vision of who we are. Anarchy and Christianity by Jacques Ellul was a sort of palate-cleanser after reading Harari, especially when he writes about an inherited concept of God as the omnipotent and all powerful mover and shaker that is shaped more by Greek philosophy and monarchists in the 16th and 17th century than by anything found in the Bible. In this way, he reclaims God’s freedom, but also the idea of free will. He writes, “There is no providence in the Bible, no God who distributes blessings, sicknesses, wealth, or happiness. Is God a giant computer function according to a program? There is nothing biblical about an idea of that kind. In the Bible there is a God who is with us, who accompanies us in our ventures. This God can at times intervene but not according to set laws or dictatorial caprice.”

I didn’t read as much fiction as I should have in 2017, but I did read Precious Bane by Mary Webb, which was so good. I was especially interested in this novel because the main character Prue Sarn has a cleft lip (which was of particular interest to me since we treat many patients with cleft lips in our hospital). I really didn’t know what to expect (although any book that takes its name from Milton is ok with me). I was happy to be surprised by the (bitter)sweet story, the heart-break and the happy ending.

It is a story about the dichotomy between greed and giving, and this is illustrated in a stunning passage on farming (and life): “For reaping…is a grutching and a grabbing thing compared with sowing. You must lean out to it and sweep it in to you, and hold it to your bosom, jealous, and grasp it and take it. There is ever a greediness in reaping with the sickle…But reaping is all greed, just as sowing is all giving. For there you go, up and down the wide fields, bearing that which you have saved with so much care, winnowing it from the chaff, and treasuring it for this hour. And though it is all you have, you care not, but take it in great handfuls and cast it abroad, with no thought of holding back any. On you go, straight forrard, and the bigger your hand the better pleased you are, and you cast it away on this side and on that, till one not learned in country ways would say, here is a mad person.”

Also, this is how Webb describes the scent of corn, once it is ready to be harvested: “What other scent is like it? There is so much in it beyond other sweets. There is summer in it, and frost. There is water in it, and the heart of the flint which the corn has taken up into its hallow stalks. There is bread in it, and life for man and beast.” – Swoon.

In 2017 I also read Letters and Papers from Prison by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which was great. In writing to and about the people that were missing in his life while in prison, Bonhoeffer (naturally) had a lot to say about what it is like to have people missing from your life.

He writes, “nothing can make up for the absence of someone whom we love, and it would be wrong to try and find a substitute; we must simply hold out and see it through. That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time it is a great consolation, for the gap, as long as it remains unfilled, preserves the bonds between us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap; he doesn’t fill it, but on the contrary, he keeps it empty and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain.”

Also, “There is hardly anything that can make one happier than to feel that one counts for something with other people. What matters here is not numbers, but intensity. In the long run, human relationships are the most important thing in life; the modern ‘efficient’ man can do nothing to change this, nor can the demigods and lunatics who know nothing about human relationships. God uses us in his dealing with others. Everything else is very close to hubris.”

Obviously, we are not in a Nazi prison or concentration camp, but we are far away from many of the people that matter in our lives, and these beautiful words resonate.

Bonhoeffer also wrote poignantly about the true meaning of Christmas – “Life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent; one waits, hopes, and does this, that, or the other – things that are really of no consequence – the door is shut, and can be opened only from the outside.

And, “From the Christian point of view there is no special problem about Christmas in a prison cell. For many people in this building it will probably be a more sincere and genuine occasion than in places where nothing but the name is kept. That misery, suffering, poverty, loneliness, helplessness, and guilt mean something quite different in the eyes of God from what they mean in the judgement of man, that God will approach where men turn away, that Christ was born in a stable because there was no room for him in the inn – these are things that a prisoner can understand better than other people”.

I read Camus’ The Plague this year, and it was of course very different from Bonhoeffer, but dealt with a lot of similar themes. In Camus’ novel, the allegorical plague which seizes the city (a stand-in for the fascist occupation) separates many people from their loved ones. Camus also talks about Christmas under oppressive circumstances. He writes, “Christmas that year had none of its old-time associations; it smacked of hell rather than of heaven. Empty, unlighted shops, dummy chocolates or empty boxes in the confectioners’ windows, streetcars laden with listless, dispirited passengers – all was as unlike Christmastides as it well could be. In the past all the townspeople, rich and poor alike, indulged in seasonable festivity; now only a privileged few, those with money to burn, could do so, and they caroused in shamefaced solitude in a dingy back shop or a private room. In the churches there were more supplications than carols.”

Unlike Bonhoeffer, what Camus failed to understand is that Christmas is about supplications. It is about crying out through suffering, through fear and through faith. If you listen carefully to the words of the carols, they speak of redemption, of liberation and of hope. The window-dressing that he rightly associates with Christmas is just that, but the true meaning of Christmas is salvation. True, that is a word that gets tossed around a lot, but it is a word that has real, weighty meaning for those who are enslaved in one way or another.

It is interesting to note, however, that in spite of his jaded views on Christmas (and Christianity), he still chose Christmas as the turning point in the novel, when the plague starts to abate and the end comes within sight. True, the symbol of salvation in this particular case is the reappearance of rats all over the city (absent since the beginning of the plague). But hope is hope, and as Camus himself writes, “once the faintest stirrings of hope became possible, the dominion of the plague was ended.”

Also, on a completely unrelated note, Camus wrote this, which is probably the most French diss ever penned, “Even before you knew what his employment was, you had a feeling that he’d been brought into the world for the sole purpose of performing the discreet but needful duties of a temporary assistant municipal clerk on a salary of sixty-two francs, thirty centimes a day.” – Ouch.

Finally, I read Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity by Primo Levi this year, and it was a game-changer. I feel a Levi tear coming on in 2018, and I have a few of his books already on deck. His dispassionate but searing testimony about his experiences in the Nazi Lager system were deeply troubling, but also full of insight.

In many ways, 2017 was a political year. Many people started following the news and sharing political opinions, even if they never really did before. It seems like across the board, across the political spectrum and around the world, people have felt like more is now at stake. I usually refrain from getting into political debates and discussions, at least online. I don’t feel like it is the best forum for real and meaningful interactions, even though it almost doesn’t matter anymore since life is now being lived online, like it or not (I don’t).

So I am not interested in stirring up debate (unless it is in person, then I have no problems!), but I want to end with a quote from Levi, in the Author’s Preface. It is not a political statement, but given the current state of things in the world right now, it kind of is:

“Many people – many nations – can find themselves holding, more or less wittingly, that ‘every stranger is an enemy.’ For the most part this conviction lies deep down like some latent infection; it betrays itself only in random, disconnected acts, and does not lie at the base of a system of reason. But when this does come about, when the unspoken dogma becomes the major premise in a syllogism, then, at the end of the chain, there is the Lager. Here is the product of a conception of the world carried rigorously to its logical conclusion; so long as the conception subsists, the conclusion remains to threaten us. The story of the death camps should be understood by everyone as a sinister alarm-signal.”

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Brokenness

The World is Broken

Each month at the hospital we take one of CURE International’s values and spend time thinking about it and trying to tease out what it means during our morning devotions. In the month of October we looked at CURE’s fourth value, which is Restoring the Broken, and as a result we have spent the past month thinking about the idea of brokenness, which has been a very interesting exercise. I also read a blog post on brokenness written by a friend on the Paxology Peace Heroes Curriculum blog – highly recommended. So it has been on my mind a lot recently, and I learned a lot from what everyone had to share.

The world is broken. That, at least, is pretty much beyond dispute. We might never agree on what causes the brokenness in the world, or what the solution is, but the fact that it is broken is pretty evident to anyone who is paying attention. There are examples of brokenness no matter where you look: sickness, hunger, poverty, racism and hate, violence, terrorism and war. Here in Niger we have seen some tragic displays of brokenness over the past few weeks. First there was a terrorist attack earlier in the month which left a number of American and Nigerien military personnel killed (and has been the source of political tension and turmoil in the United States). Then, last weekend there was another attack in the town of Ayarou on the border with Mali, and 13 Nigerien gendarmes were killed, including a close family member of one of our nurses.

Brokenness is everywhere, and we see it whenever a child comes to our hospital with a cleft lip or a clubfoot, or some other condition that prevents them from doing what they want to do or being what they want to be. We see brokenness whenever we look at something and think, “That is not right.” Somehow, something inside of us can tell when something is not right or when something is off. It feels wrong, even if we don’t exactly know why. We may not be able to put our finger on it, but we get the definite sensation that things are not the way they are supposed to be.

I don’t think that is a coincidence. In my opinion, this disjointed feeling that we experience is due to the fact that things are not the way they are supposed to be. In the first chapter of Genesis, we see that God created the world, and after every thing that was created, God said, “It is good.” The world was good because it was created the way God intended for it to be created – it was, even if only for a short time, the way it was supposed to be. But then everything changed. Sin came into the world, and with it came deceit, shame, guilt and ultimately death. Brokenness came into the world and we have been living in a broken world ever since.

Ousseina 1.7 5

The work of the Kingdom of God is the work of addressing this brokenness. In Judaism, there is a concept called Tikkun Olam, which means fixing or repairing the world. This is an ambitious project of course, but when the brokenness is global in scale, the restoration must be equally far-reaching. However, it can be very daunting to look out on all the brokenness and to consider all of the healing that needs to take place. Where do we even start? This can easily lead to discouragement as well, and we might easily ask the question, “What difference can I make? After all, I am only one person.” From there, it is an easy step into complacency, when we choose to do nothing since we can’t do everything.

I understand this thinking, and I recognize it all too often in myself, especially living here in Niger. With so many needs all around, pressing in on you from every side, it is easy to say, “Where do I even start.”

First, I need to start with myself. We learned this month that in order to help restore others, we must first be restored ourselves. We have to first address the brokenness in our own lives before we move out towards others. We have to take care of ourselves. We also have to take care of our families, and eventually our communities as well. We are restored to restore others. This makes me think of a cup that is cracked. It cannot hold water and anything poured into it will just leak out and the cup will be just as empty as before. This is a cup that is useless. However, if the cup has been repaired and restored, you can pour into it and even fill it up. This is a cup that is useful. In Psalms 23, we see a cup used as an image of God’s blessings being poured into our lives – our cup, cracked but restored is filled and even overflowing. Then the blessings poured into us will spill over and splash on those around us in our families and communities. When we are restored, blessings can flow from God to us and through us. This is always the direction of the flow; start in Jerusalem, then move on to Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the broken earth. The blessings must emanate from me, but in order to restore others we must first be restored ourselves.

To repair the whole world is a task that is too big for us (in Niger we would say, “Ça me dépasse”). Thankfully, it is not our task – only god can restore the whole world. But we have to do our part, and that entails taking care of ourselves and those around us. If we start with that, we will already be on the right path.

 

Physical and Spiritual Brokenness

Usually, we think of Ezra and Nehemiah as two separate books, but that was not always the case. Origen (A.D. 185-253) was the first writer known to have distinguished between the two books (he called them I Ezra and II Ezra). In all of the earliest manuscripts Ezra and Nehemiah were two parts of one book, which makes sense because they are actually telling two parts of the same story. Though separate they were a part of the same project, which was a project of restoration.

The people of Israel had suffered through defeat, destruction, exile and slavery. They were broken both physically and spiritually; for not only were they bound in chains and not only were their homes and cities destroyed, but their Temple was also left in ruins. The Temple that represented the very presence of God on earth was no more. There is no more potent symbol for being totally and completely abandoned by God than seeing Jerusalem reduced to “a heap of ruins, a haunt of jackals” (Jer. 9:11).

Eventually though, the people of Israel were able to return and to rebuild – first with Ezra and then with Nehemiah. They had separate tasks – Ezra set about rebuilding the Temple and Nehemiah began rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, but in truth they were addressing two aspects of the same problem: the problem of brokenness. It was clear that there were physical and spiritual dimensions to the brokenness, and therefore both the walls and the Temple were needed. A Temple without walls would have been impractical just as walls without a Temple would have been hallow and meaningless. Both had been broken and both needed to be restored.

This is also the mission of CURE International, which seeks to bring physical and spiritual healing to the brokenness around us. The physical healing is usually the most obvious, after all we have a hospital, and we have the privilege of seeing daily miracles when children walk for the first time, or have a smile repaired. On this level, the broken is literally restored as hand and feet, arms and legs are set and reset and made whole. Although it may not always be as visible, the spiritual aspect of healing is just as present, just as important and just a miraculous. It is true that bones which were broken are restored, but we also see broken lives, broken families and broken communities restored and made whole.

It is also interesting to note the many similarities between the physical and spiritual aspects of healing. Here are just a few quick examples:

Twisted  – We often see patients that come to the hospital with an arm or a leg that is completely twisted or bent (in the wrong direction). Often these patients had a standard fracture, which was either untreated or treated by a traditional healer that did not know what he was doing. Sometimes bones are reset, but set wrong. The wound heals, but it heals wrong, and often the appendage is left twisted and useless. In these cases, there is only one solution – you have to re-brake the bone in order to set it right. Spiritually, something similar can happen if we do not deal appropriately with the emotional trauma that life deals us. The world is a broken place, and you cannot go through life without experiencing some of that brokenness. Often we avoid dealing with it because it can be painful – as painful as having a bone reset. But unless we do confront this pain in our lives, we will never be healed. The open wound may go away with time, but we will still have something twisted on the inside. We have to deal with it, and the sooner the better. Great practical advice: “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry” (Eph. 4:26).

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Immobilize – With a lot of the orthopedic cases that we treat, one of the best weapons in the surgeon’s arsenal is simply time. The surgery involves a lot of cutting, sawing, chipping and chiseling away. It is pretty destructive, but it has to be, and sometimes almost everything has to be rearranged. This is necessary, but this isn’t actually healing. The real healing happens with time. The surgeons do what they can to put things in the right place, but then they have to wait for God to do the rest. That is why casts are often used. It helps hold everything in place and allows for time to heal. The human body is amazing – if it is kept clean and immobilized, the wounds heal, the bones grow back together and restoration occurs. God prescribed the same treatment for a broken heart in Isaiah’s beautiful prophecy in chapter 61, “He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted”. When your world has been shattered, nothing can bind you up like the embrace of a friend. Sometimes that is all we need; someone to come alongside us, hold us in an embrace and tell us that they are with us. In Niger anytime anything bad happens, people say, “On est ensemble,” which means, we are together. They might not have any solutions to offer, and often have nothing to offer at all except their presence, their solidarity and their understanding.

 

Called to Brokenness

We should never glorify suffering, and it is only natural to try to avoid it. But it is of course, unavoidable. We all experience suffering, we are all broken and we are all in need of restoration. I read a book recently called Don’t Waste Your Sorrows by Paul Billheimer, and it discussed some of the uses of suffering. I didn’t agree with everything the book had to say, but there were some very interesting ideas, and it argues that if we are open to learning and growing from our suffering, then it is not wasted.

In the book the image of the vine is used in this context, based on when Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” (John 15:2). This is why the vine is cut back, so that it can grow back even more. That is why we prune and trim. The branch has to be broken and has to face the knife in order to grow. There is no healing and no growth without pain.

Billheimer also quotes Annie Johnson Flint’s (awesome) poem, Much Fruit:

It is the branch that bears the fruit,
That feels the knife
To prune it for a larger growth,
A fuller life;

Though every budding twig be lopped,
And every grace
Of swaying tendril, springing leaf,
Be lost a space.

O thou, whose life of joy seems reft
Of beauty – shorn;
Whose aspirations lie in dust,
All bruised and torn,

Rejoice! Tho’ each desire, each dream,
Each hope of thine
Shall fall and fade; it is the hand
Of Love Divine

That holds the knife, that cuts and breaks
With tenderest touch,
That thou, whose life has borne some fruit
May’st now bear much.[1]

It is true that being broken can be of use, but there is more. For anyone who claims to be a follower of Jesus, being broken is a calling. Jesus made this very clear when he said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). This could not be any more explicit. The cross has become a symbol of the Church and it is worn on necklaces and on t-shirts, but how often is it really taken up? It is easy to forget what the cross stands for. The cross is suffering. The cross is death. The cross is brokenness.

If you are to follow Jesus you are called to brokenness. However, you are also called to restoration. The purpose of the brokenness is to be restored. God told Jeremiah to go to the potter’s house and to watch the potter work. The potter worked the clay on the wheel and made it up into a vessel, but sometimes the vessel did not turn out right, and it had to be smashed back down into mush. But when it is smashed down, it is only so that it can be built back up, better and stronger than before. The message was clear – we are the clay in God’s hands. He wants to make us into a vessel that is useful for this purpose; a vessel that is useful for the Kingdom of God. We are formed and shaped and smashed down and brought back up. We are the cup that was cracked and restored, and out of which pours God’s blessings.

Saadatou Illa

We are restored in order to restore others, but it is a painful process. To take on the brokenness of the world, we must be willing to face brokenness in our own lives. This is what Jesus did when he took the bread and said, “This is my body, broken for you.”

Though we may be broken, we will never be alone, for God is with us even when we are broken. “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” (Ps. 34:18)

[1] Billheimer, Paul E., Don’t Waste Your Sorrows, A Study in Sainthood and Suffering (Fort Washington, Pennsylvania: Christian Literature Crusade, 1977), p. 49.

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Bookshelf Biography

My grandfather lived a life that was full of movement. He was always very active, a hard worker, and seemed to have endless amounts of physical energy. I remember watching him work as a child, fascinated by his strength. His tools and tool shed took on totemic value for me. He did plumbing and masonry, electric wiring and landscaping. He built his own house (with the help of many conscripted volunteers – he was also an excellent motivator/recruiter). He drove trucks and tractors. He was always in motion, even very late in life. He was always chopping or sawing or hauling or lifting. And yet, through all the movement, there was also stillness. In all the chopping and hauling, there was also a great deal of reading. He lived a life that was rich and full. It was full of friends, accomplishments and experiences, and it was also full of books.

He was born and raised in a small town in rural Appalachia, all forests and tobacco fields. To a certain extent he embraced that identity wholeheartedly. But he didn’t stay there. He left to study, after that he left the country. He was not running away, but he was running. He lived and worked in Israel for many years, and throughout the Middle East. He eventually came back to the small town of his youth. Robert became “Bobby” once more. You cannot escape where you are from, and he didn’t really want to (although “Bobby” did make him wince a little). He came back willingly. He knew no other home.

No, you cannot escape where you are from, but you also cannot help but be changed by leaving it. He was different, and couldn’t help it. He loved fishing, but he also loved art museums. He loved country cooking, but could also discuss the merits of Moroccan couscous. He loved sports and poetry and beauty. He was about as globally conscious as a person could be, but still rooted to a very particular piece of earth. Literally rooted. He bought land and started a tree farm, preaching the gospel of sustainable development. He also preached the gospel of Jesus. He was an anomaly; in other words, he was a person.

Throughout his life and travels he amassed a lot of books. When he passed away I took some time to go through his library. It was a time of parsing. Not that anyone was itching to throw all his old books away, but some order did need to be made. Plus, I knew it was a task I would enjoy. As I considered each book, the question I tried to ask myself was: do we really need this? As it turns out, the answer was almost always yes.

Yes, we really do need my grandfather’s worn-out old copy of Bruno Bettelheim’s Children of the Dream, because to throw it away is perhaps to forget that he had more than a passing interest in communal living and intentional communities (the 70s happened to everyone). Yes, we do need an old copy of Yigal Yadin’s book on Masada. It helps us remember that he was actually a volunteer on that dig, and that he had a great interest in archeology (I kind of think an interest in archeology was a requirement for everyone who lived in Israel in the 60s – needless to say, James A. Michener’s The Source was in his library as well).

Yes! We do need these books, we need his library. For although not everyone goes for the crumbling library aesthetic, to take it away would be to take away a vital part of his memory. In some ways his library was like a wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling monument to his life. A bookshelf biography.

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Some scavenged gems!

My goal was not to select which books to get rid of (I could never do that!), but I did pick out a few that we should absolutely keep. Ultimately, I am sure my selection says more about me than about him. But that is just as true of the memories we store in our minds as it is of the books we store on the shelf – we choose which to keep and which to toss.

Naturally, I gravitated to the books that I found interesting. But I was also drawn to the books that had connected us in some way. They were all his books, but the ones that we had discussed, or argued about, or even recommended to each other were special. If the library represented his whole life, these books were moments we spent together. Three of them stuck out especially to me because of the memories they revived.


 

I found Exile and the Kingdom by Albert Camus – Vintage edition, 1965. Seeing it reminded me of another time I went through his library, while he was alive. I found it, took it off the shelf and started reading it. After awhile he came in and saw what I was reading and asked me a few questions about it. We talked about Camus for a while, and I don’t remember much of what he said, but he did make a comment that I remember. He said, “That is what people used to call avant-garde in my day.” I loved two things about this.

First, I loved that he knew Albert Camus is no longer avant-garde. When he said avant garde, he meant, I think, something that is cutting edge and experimental. But he also meant something else, which I suppose is inevitably connected to the cutting edge and the experimental – something that is scandalous.

He knew that Camus is no longer avant-garde in either sense of the word. I loved this because it is not a given. We all tend to think that whatever was new and cool and made parents angry when we were young stays that way. Somehow the things that scandalized or outraged the world in our youth remain forever scandalous or outrageous. It is as though people find a point in time and decide to stop there, forgetting that the rest of the world moves on. I guess it makes sense, we all need a point of reference. But that is why his observation struck me. How many of us are aware of our own point of reference?

Second, I love that he read Camus when it was avant-garde. Or at least kind of. True, by the mid 1960s reading Camus was not really that new or exciting or scandalous anymore. He had already won his Nobel Prize and died in a car accident by then. He was mainstream, but that didn’t make him any less scandalous in my grandfather’s particular milieu, which was very religious and very conservative. It’s not like he was reading Sartre or anything (heaven forbid!), but still, he grew up where dancing and movies were considered morally wrong – a lot closer to Paris Kentucky than Paris France. I am sure my grandfather raised some eyebrows in reading that book. He didn’t say that he did, but it seemed implied in the way he said avant-garde. He said it with mischief.

Actually, I do remember one other thing he said about Camus. Something about his work “lacking hope.” But he didn’t say it in a mean-spirited way. He said it with empathy and understanding. And he wasn’t really wrong. That was kind of the point Camus was making through the Absurd. Yes, there is in his work a kind of frail, human hope that is actually more courage to face the hopelessness than it is real hope. Yes, Sisyphus does get to pause for a moment on the top of the mountain before heading back down to head back up. But that is a far cry from authentic hope. My grandfather was a believer, very much so. He had hope. But he also understood that hope is absurd in the face of all that life brings. He believed in the truth, but was not afraid of questions, even difficult questions, since the truth, if it is true, will not be destroyed by questions.


 

One of the books in my grandfather’s library is a hardcover edition of James B. Pritchard’s Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, a classic sourcebook, used by multiple generations of students studying the ancient Near East. I remember we talked about it one time, since I was taking a course on ancient Egypt and we were assigned another book by the same author in that class. We discussed the value of first hand sources, and how things are inevitably lost in translation (the translation through language, but also through time).

He showed me his book, which was damaged, and told me that it was one of his most prized possessions. I didn’t understand what he meant at first, but then he told me the story of how he came to buy it. He lived in Israel when Jerusalem was divided, and had made a few trips over into East Jerusalem, which at the time was a part of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. He said that there was a bookstore on Saladin Street that he visited every time he crossed over, and that this book was on display in the window of the store. Every time he went to the store he would stare longingly at the book, but it was too expensive, so he never bought it. Then the Six-Day War happened, and East Jerusalem was united with West Jerusalem.

The next time he went to Saladin Street, he didn’t have to go through a checkpoint, or through no-man’s land, but he found it much changed. During the fighting, the street had been dotted with mortar fire every 100 meters or so, making it impassable for cars. One of the mortars fell right in front of the bookstore, and obviously shattered the front window. Pritchard had taken a direct hit. A huge hole had been bored through the front cover, and through the first half of the book’s pages. Because of the damage, the book was considered worthless, but he still wanted it, now more than ever, so he bought it for next to nothing.

He slowly flipped through some of the pages to show me, and there were still flecks of shrapnel in it, almost 40 years later. Some of them were so small they looked like metal dust. Looking at it made me shiver. If this kind of damage was done to a thick, hardcover book, imagine what it would do to human flesh.

The story behind the book reminded me of the Linear B tablets left by the Mycenaeans, which archeologists discovered in places like Knossos and Pylos. Unlike other ancient texts, written on papyrus (which preserves surprisingly well in low-humidity), or carved into stone or Steele, the Linear B tablets were written in soft clay, so the writing was not usually preserved. But when the Mycenaeans were attacked their clay tablets were baked in the fires that burned their sacked cities. Through destruction they were saved, and even though the Bronze Age did not endure, these tablets did.

I brought up this similarity in our conversation, since I had just learned about Linear B and the Mycenaeans. Of course I didn’t say that I had just learned about it. I had that unfortunate, and yet not at all uncommon trait, often found among certain excruciatingly learned college students, that make them take on all the ugly characteristics of the nouveau riche. I was falling over myself to show off my flashy and newly acquired wealth of knowledge.

He was patient with me. He was always encouraging and never condescending, even though I probably said horrible things like, “Have you ever heard of the Minoans?” He probably forgot more about ancient history than I will ever know, but in spite of that, he always engaged me in conversation and treated me like an equal, even though he probably shouldn’t have. It might have contributed to this pretentious streak in me.

He managed to show me that he was older and wiser without having to say so. He showed me by example. He was well-educated, well-read and well-travelled, but he was also very humble. He was able to interact with anyone, on pretty much any level. I remember watching him talk to people with very little education. They asked him a question that seemed ridiculous to me. I sneered. He answered with respect. Even though I was at a point in my life where I was kind of looking for things to sneer at, this made a big impression on me. Having knowledge is not the same thing as having wisdom. He had both.

Side note – this book, and the story behind it does notch one small, and perhaps meaningless victory on the side of real books in their struggle against their younger, electronic brethren. Even if you think that e-books are the way of the future, it is hard to argue against this equation:

Shrapnel in a hardcover = family heirloom.

Shrapnel in a Kindle = trash.

You do the math.


 

On a separate bookshelf my grandfather also had just about everything ever published by Wendell Berry. Often multiple copies (he gave them away). They were not with the rest of the library. No, these books he kept in his bedroom. When he was very sick near the end of his life, my mother bought him some of Berry’s novels on audio-book. He was too weak to sit up and read them but he still enjoyed listening to them.

Wendell Berry was my grandfather’s favorite author, that much is certain, but he was also a major influence on his life and personal philosophy. They shared a lot of similarities: they were both roughly the same age, both from Kentucky, both concerned with environmental issues and both champions of the woods. My grandfather saw it as his personal mission to ensure the protection of trees, since trees are growth and trees are life and future, and trees are everywhere in danger. This was why he turned his 500 acre plot of land into a tree farm, and Wendell Berry’s influence was very evident in all of this. My grandfather was certainly able to think for himself, but he also gratefully and graciously acknowledged his intellectual debts, and gave credit where credit was due. For him, part of this acknowledgement was encouraging me (and just about everyone else he talked with) to read Wendell Berry books as well.

Naturally, I thought of all this when I saw my grandfather’s Wendell Berry books. I thought of the many Wendell Berry books he gave me over the years that remained unread on my bookshelf, and I thought of the many walks through his woods that my grandfather wanted to take with me. I usually turned down the offer. I had more important things to do. If I went, I went unwillingly; usually preoccupied with everything else that was going on in my life. Too preoccupied to simply look and listen and enjoy the quiet that isn’t really quiet, and to hear the birds and the wind and the other sounds of the woods. He saw something in the woods that I didn’t see (mostly because I was unwilling to look). But he wanted me to see it. He wanted everyone to see it.

I thought of the time my grandfather took me to Wendell Berry’s farm for a seminar/workshop on trees. I didn’t want to go. I had not read any of Wendell Berry’s books, and spending a morning sitting outside, talking about trees did not seem like much fun to me at all. But he insisted. “Trust me,” he said, “you will enjoy it.” At first, I didn’t really enjoy it. It was exactly as I thought it would be. Sitting outside, listening to a lecture about trees. But then I started to actually listen, and realized that this was not just a lecture about trees. Mr. Berry started talking about invasive species, and from there he went on to philosophy, and from there to politics, in the abstract, and from there deeper into politics in a very real and tangible way. He started talking about American foreign policy and the war in Iraq. I was shocked – from trees to Iraq in a few deft, fascinating steps. And this was before everyone was talking about the war in Iraq, or at least before they were talking about it in this way. And this was on a farm in Kentucky, not in New York City or in San Francisco.

My grandfather was right – I did enjoy it.

Soon after that my grandfather bought me a copy of A Timbered Choir, and this time I actually read it. I discovered that my grandfather knew what he was talking about, and I wished, as with so many other things, I had listened to him earlier. Now I see what he saw in the woods, but now I cannot walk through the trees with him. Now I can only walk alone. Still, there are many things that help me remember him, whether walking through the leafy trees, or leafing through the books in his library, and I am thankful for them all.

“We have walked so many times, my boy,

over these old fields given up

to thicket, have thought

and spoken of their possibilities,

theirs and ours, ours and theirs the same,

so many times, that now when I walk here

alone, the thought of you goes with me;

my mind reaches toward yours

across the distance and through time.”[1]

[1] Berry, Wendell. ‘We have walked so many times, my boy.’ From A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997. (New York: Counterpoint, 1998), 45.

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Our Playground is Finished!

Our playground is finished!

We have recently finished work on the playground for our hospital here in Niger, and it looks great. The kids at the hospital had to learn how to use some of the equipment (I don’t think any of them had ever been on a slide before, and some of them even looked pretty suspiciously at the steps!), but now they love it and are already spending as much time at the playground as possible.

The idea for this playground came from our sister hospital Beit CURE Malawi – a few years ago they opened up a playground with a renovated/renewed ambulance, and when I saw the pictures I knew that we needed to do something similar here in Niger. After all, we are a children’s hospital and children need a place to play. At that time, I had an intern here from Gordon College, Zoey Meyer-Jens, learning about art therapy, and we worked together on the project proposal. We even went together to the junkyard and scoped out an old Mercedes van and brought it back to the hospital to be the playground “ambulance.”

After coming up with a design, I was able to work together with Paul McIver and Charles Corbin and Paul’s team of Nigerien welders (from Niger Vocational Training School) to bring the playground to life! They worked long and hard on this project, and essentially had to custom-make everything in the playground except the van (and even the van had to basically be totally rebuilt). In the end, the results speak for themselves! The playground is a beautiful addition to our hospital that will provide our patients with room to play, to have fun, to use their imaginations and to express themselves.

In addition to support from CURE International, this project was funded by Amy King, a friend of Maureen Sloan who has been a passionate advocate and source of encouragement to CURE Niger since our hospital opened. This project has also funded by the Gordon in Orvieto program, directed by my brother-in-law Matt Doll. The students of the program did multiple art exhibits, and the proceeds were given towards this playground.

Thanks to everyone who took part in providing these kids with a place to play!

“The streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets.” Zechariah 8:5

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My Arms

Leon is still trying to figure out his story. Although we talk openly about how we got him when he was just a little baby, every once in a while he will ask if he came from my belly. We always tell him that he didn’t come from my belly but we prayed for a baby and God gave him to us. Last night at dinner, he asked, “Did God put me in your belly?” I said no and before I had time to explain any further, he said, “Oh! God put me in your arms!” With tears welling up in my eyes, I said “exactly! And I was the luckiest mama because God specifically chose to give you to me!”

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Crutches

A few weeks ago, I started seeing this video about crutches pop up all over the place:

 

In this video we see an exciting new redesign for crutches, which basically haven’t changed much or been improved upon since the American Civil War, 150 years ago.

It was interesting to see this redesign, since we see a lot of crutches here at the hospital, and in fact, we started collecting them. So I wanted to share some pictures of crutches that we have picked up from our patients. They have left them behind, either because they have been healed and no longer need crutches, or because we have given them nice new (although not redesigned) crutches to use.

It is sobering, in my opinion, to consider these crutches, and to remember that these are all real crutches used by our patients when they came to our hospital. These are not antiques from the Civil War era. These crutches are not 150 years old. These crutches and others just like them are being used in Niger right now, in 2016.

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Pair #1

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Pair #2

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Padding detail on Pair #2

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Pair #3

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Padding detail on Pair #3

We keep these crutches in our office because they are a great reminder of the healing and transformation that takes place at the CURE hospital. We have seen patients literally throw these crutches off, just like the child in the CURE logo. They throw them off because they no longer need them. They can walk, they have been healed.

But we also like to keep these crutches around, not only as a reminder of the healing that takes place, but also as a reminder of where our patients are coming from. These are hand-made crutches, crafted out of necessity and need. They are worn down from use and in many cases have been repaired multiple times.

 

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Singular crutch

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Crutch handle

Some people say that religion is a crutch. They claim that the idea of God is something that weak people need to lean on because they are unable to face the harsh realities of life. The assumption is that if you are strong, you don’t need a crutch, because you can stand on your own strength, or face the difficulty of limping through life on your own. This type of superman or (dare I say it) übermensch, is hobbled but not humble, broken but unbowed.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but in my experience, I haven’t met many people like that. The people I know (myself included) are weak, wounded and hurting. We need help to stand, and we are glad to have a crutch to lean on when the alternative is falling down.

Is God a crutch? Yes. But a crutch is a welcome sight when you cannot walk on your own.

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Pair #4

 

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Happy Easter from CURE Niger

This week, our spiritual director has been telling the story of Easter during our morning devotion time. Each day, she has added a piece to the story, which has been great because she’s such a good story teller and the kids (and mothers) have been listening attentively all week, leaning in towards the end of each meeting as the suspense builds, in order to better hear what might come next.

For one of our group art therapy sessions this week we talked a little bit more about the meaning of the Easter story and the kids worked on a craft together. We talked about how Jesus died for our sins so that we could live, and it brought up some great conversation amongst the kids.

After our group session, the kids were talking about how they wanted to go back to their rooms and hang their pictures on their wall. Then one of them suggested they put all the pictures together on the same wall because that way they could enjoy them together. They decided to put them in one of the rooms at the patient guesthouse that is a typical hang out spot for all the kids.

The communal artwork often bleeds over into the communal living space at the hospital, and adds color, beauty and joy to the lives of these children, which are often filled with darkness, suffering and pain. That juxtaposition is one they are familiar with, and one that is seen in the Easter story. Maybe that is why the story resonates with them so much. They understand the agony of crucifixion, and the celebration of resurrection; the nearness of death, and the significance of its defeat. They have seen their arms and their legs enclosed and entombed in white plaster casts, and have had them cut off and cast aside. They have endured the sacrifice of physical therapy and taken the first stumbling steps of freedom. They have tasted bitter fear but now see sweet salvation.

“Il est ressuscité!”

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Cast your nets

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Hannatou teaching in devotions.

Last week, our Spiritual Director Hannatou shared about the miracles of Jesus in our morning devotions. She spoke about the encounter between Jesus and Simon (Peter) in Luke 5, focusing especially on faith and obedience, and it was really encouraging. Simon had been out all night fishing, as he probably did most nights, since he was a fisherman. He came back to shore in the morning, physically exhausted, but also discouraged, because even though he had been out all night, he hadn’t caught anything. Then Jesus came to him, and told him to go out and try again. “Cast your nets into the deep.”

You can almost picture Simon rolling his eyes – who was this stranger, telling him how to do his job. He was a fisherman, he knew how to catch fish, and he knew that what Jesus wanted him to do wouldn’t work. He had just spent all night trying to catch fish, and there were none to be caught, and anyway, who in their right mind would go out fishing in the hot sun?

Simon knew that it wouldn’t work, but for some reason, he did it anyway. He knew it wouldn’t work, but he heard the voice of Jesus and for some reason he decided to obey. He went out and he cast his nets, and there were so many fish that the nets started to break!

This is a story that we can all relate to. Sometimes in our work, in our relationships with others, or just in life, we feel like we are coming up empty. We are putting in the effort, but not seeing any results. When we are in that type of situation, if God calls us to cast our nets, we might be tempted to say no. We are too tired and worn out and unappreciated and we just can’t and we don’t feel like it and we shouldn’t have to put up with this and why should we try anyway when we know it isn’t going to work. We know it isn’t going to work. We are 100% sure…

 

Cast your nets.

God will surprise you.

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My walk to the hospital

One thing I love to do is figure out distances to and from things, especially in relation to where I live. We moved to a new house last year. Our new house is only a 4 minute drive from the hospital, which is so great! Our old house was about a 15 minute drive from the hospital. Ever since we moved in, I’ve been saying I want to walk to the hospital from our house, but the thing is, there are only very few months in the year where this is possible because it’s SO HOT.

January is one of the months where walking is doable, but don’t get me wrong, even in January you can work up a sweat taking a casual stroll through the neighborhood. The sun is bright and beaming all year long, no matter what the temperature. So the other day I decided that I needed to take a walk to the hospital from our house because I was curious to see how long it would take. I also thought it would be fun to take pictures along the way to so that you all could get an idea of what our ‘hood is like.

It took 45 minutes. Way longer than it should have because #1 Leon is three years old. #2 I was stopping and taking lots of pictures along the way, and #3 we were walking through sand. Enjoy!

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This is the main road right next to our house. It was just paved (they’re actually not finished paving it yet). Leon was especially excited about the “bumpy road” getting “fixed.”

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Straw mats and bails of hay, and a straw house (far left side of the picture).

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Gas station.

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Toilets and sinks and pipes for sale.

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Magaggi (our guard and one of Leon’s favorite people in the world) graciously obliged Leon’s request to join us for our walk. They’re holding their walking sticks that Leon picked out.

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Tire shop (with a creepy, hunched over, hand-drawn Michelin man).

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Meat grilling and chopping (and eating) shop.

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After a while of walking through the sand, Leon got tired and Magaggi offered to give him a ride.

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Our favorite bakery!

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A shopping cart : A cart you shop at. You can get almost anything there, including extension cords, mosquito nets, bouncy balls and TV antennas. This list is obviously not exhaustive. These carts are everywhere.

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Pumpkins and sugar cane. This is sugar cane season. Sugar cane is EVERYWHERE.

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Just like walking at the beach.

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Donkey carts.

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Why not transport people on top of transported goods? Two in one.

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Fruit and vegetable stand

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Tupperware shop?

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Furniture store. Namely couches and doors.

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As I said, sugar cane everywhere!

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Another fruit and vegetable stand, right in front of a mosque.

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Cows rummaging through a trash heap by the hospital.

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A couple kids taking a break from pushing a wheelbarrow down the sandy road (not easy going through sand!) The CURE hospital is up ahead on the right.

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Final destination: CURE Hospital. My favorite place in Niger!

 

 

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