Yovo Yovo

*2006*11 months in the US. Back to real jobs and responsibilities, but still no real clue about what I was doing...except that I loved a man thousands of miles away and wanted to marry him. *2005*12 months in Africa. No real job, no real responsibilities, no real clue about what I was doing. Just living life as a Yovo in an African world, enjoying the experiences I was given, and learning many things about this enormous world, the beautiful people in it, my unknown self, and my very real God.

Monday, March 12, 2007

He's coming...for really real!!

I know I said he was coming for real last time, but this time it's for really real! Not only does he have his visa in hand, he also has a plane ticket. He'll be leaving April 1st AND arriving April 1st as well (leaving right after midnight from Togo and getting here in the evening)... less than three weeks! Obviously, we are both super excited and can hardly wait for time to arrive for him to finally step off the plane. Fortunately for both of us, we have a lot of things to get done in the next few weeks, so the time will probably pass extremely fast.

And just so that our adjustment too him being in the States isn't too easy, I've decided (after much deliberation and some bargaining... Africa taught me some very useful skills) to accept a new job starting two weeks after he arrives. Crazy me! Oh, it gets better: the job is teaching 8th grade writing! I know it's a little insane to start teaching junior highers in their last quarter before graduating, not to mention that I've never taught junior high before (except for many days of subbing, which is why the principal thinks I can handle it)! I definitely didn't apply or ask for this job, but somehow it was dropped into my lap (divine provision...or a move of insanity??). Initially I had declined the job offer, but ended up accepting it as I saw that I might potentially be put in that position as a permanent sub anyway (with half the pay and none of the benefits). Although it might make our lives a little more stressful, with Koudjo adjusting to life in the States and with us attempting to plan a wedding (and us just wanting to spend time together after another couple months of separation), but I'm also excited about it and believe it to be a great and unexpected provision for us. I would appreciate your prayers for tremendous amounts of wisdom, patience, and love...maybe sanity as well... as I take on this task.

Can't wait for all of you to meet Koudjo... and for him to meet you!!! Three weeks 'til I see him, three months until you meet him (if you're in Chicago, you'll get to see him next month, too). Just to get your prepared for how cute he is, here's a little picture for you. :)

Thursday, March 08, 2007

He's coming... for real!!!

It finally happened today: Koudjo received his visa, for real this time. On his sixth visit to the U.S. embassy to pick up his visa, he was finally handed a document we applied for 9 months ago. We are both super excited that it is finally official! Tomorrow he'll buy his ticket, and assuming that the one he reserved today is still available tomorrow, he'll leave April 1 (and that's no joke!) and arrive here on the 2nd. He's coming in less than a month!! Yippee!!! And then you'll get to start meeting this mystery man none of you have ever met (with exception of you, Jessica, to whom I owe meeting him in the first place!). Maybe one reason we had to wait through these frustrating few weeks of him not getting his visa was so that he could find out about Royal Air Maroc flying out of Togo. One of the guys waiting for his visa today told him that this airline also flies out of Togo to the U.S. It is MUCH MUCH cheaper than Air France out of Togo or even British Air out of Ghana. So, this way we save a lot of money and he gets to fly out of Togo (instead of Ghana) so that his family can see him off. Worth three weeks of frustration!! (If only we could have known that at the time :)).
Yeah, he's coming...for real!!!!!

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Still no visa

Today Koudjo went to the U.S. embassy again, hoping for the third time to receive his visa. Just as last week, they were told to come back next Tuesday. Supposedly, according to the guards, the machine is broken. For two weeks??? I have my doubts. The U.S. embassy in Togo is mammoth (surprising and probably unnecessary for such a tiny country) , brand new, expensive, everything state-of-the art (it was there that Koudjo had his first experience with automatic flushing of toilets and automatic dispensing of soap and water!!). Their visa machine breaks down for several weeks and no one can fix it??? Hard to believe! Patience is a virtue, one that I obviously haven't mastered yet! Koudjo, on the other hand, although frustrated by all this, focuses more on God's timing and control in all this. I know he's right. He's generally much more patient than I am and often gently reminds me to be patient with him as well. The little "have patience, have patience, don't be in such a hurry" song that one of my friends sings to her daughter comes to mind right now. Good reminder!

Saturday, February 24, 2007

When is he coming??

So, you're wondering when the man will finally get here and what the situation is with his visa? Since some of might not know the entire story and since I'll use this blog to save stories for posterity, I'll give you the long version, from the beginning. For most of you, skimming skills will probably come in handy for this update..or you might just want to skip it entirely. For those of you who I haven't talked to yet or for those of you with poor memories (Oh, wait, that would be me!), you might actually enjoy the details that follow.

I filed for the fiance petition in June 2006 (and submitted 84 pages of evidence, some of it very personal evidence, to prove our relationship!!). Five months later, in November, the petition was approved and the file sent on to the U.S. embassy in Togo. We had hoped to receive a letter from the embassy in December, telling him what to prepare and when to come in for an interview. We waited and waited, wondering why in the world it was taking so long. After getting back from our Christmas/New Year's trip to Togo, we contacted the embassy, which promised to mail another letter to us in Benin (but would not allow us to come and pick it up or tell us what it said). After waiting another week and having only a few days left before we were going to leave to Togo to begin my trip to Ghana in order to fly to London to take another flight to Hungary to catch a van to Romania to visit my parents (yes, a long trip!), we called again and they said we could pick it up! Go figure! And I had hoped the American embassy might operate differently than the typical Beninese or Togolese officials! When we picked up the letter, it gave him a Feb. 6 th interview date, as well as a bunch of forms, instructions for medical exams, and other requirements. It turns out that they had mailed a letter in December with a January interview date, but we never received it (which doesn't really surprise me when the envelope says "official U.S. embassy business" on the outside!). Although all of this was a bit frustrating at the time, considering it would have been nice to still be there with him on his interview date, we both believe this timing was for the best.

On Feb. 6th Koudjo had his interview at the embassy, which according to him lasted less than 12 minutes with only 2 questions. The two questions? They asked him when my birthday was and how we met. It seemed that there were also a couple little side questions (like how we got engaged and whether he had met my parents), but the main interview was just those two questions. We had practiced all sorts of questions I thought they might ask, but at least he was prepared. And he got the answers right :). The kind lady who did the interview was the same lady I had met a couple weeks ago when I had my affidavit of support sworn in. She remembered Koudjo from that time and asked about me as well. Remember those 84 pages of evidence I turned in last June? Well, it turns out they were well worth the time. Koudjo was supposed to present new evidence of our engagement today, but he was never even asked for it. Instead, the woman acknowledged the good work I had done with the first submission of evidence, said we were smart, and ... offered her congratulations!! He was told to come back two weeks later, Feb. 20th at 3:00pm, to pick up the visa.

We expected to celebrate and buy a plane ticket Feb. 20th, but unfortunately he still hasn't received his visa. Not to worry, there doesn't seem to be a problem with his specific visa.. There were 4 or 5 other people waiting with him on Tuesday to receive their visas. After an hour, the guard finally came and told them to come back on Thursday instead. Koudjo called the next day to find out what was going on and they said they would call him when it was ready. Still he went back on Thursday, as did the others, to see if he could get it. Again he and the others waited until they were told to come back Tuesday. This seems typically African, but quite non-American. So, we're both not quite sure what is going on. Since it involves several people, it doesn't really put any worries that there is something wrong with his case. It's just means more waiting and trying to be patient.

I could go ahead and give you our thoughts as to when he'll come to the States and when we'll get married (and I'll become Chrischona Sodji!) , but I'll wait until he gets his visa and we KNOW when he's coming. But it shouldn't be long...

Monday, February 05, 2007

Two wonderful months of vacation, done and over

Snow has fallen, gently covering my surroundings with a soft blanket of whiteness. No, Africa did not receive the surprising snowfall which Arizona received a couple of weeks ago. That would have left Africans quite a bit more bewildered and unprepared than Arizona's inhabitants (what are they called, Arizonans? Arizonians? Kelly, help me out). Here in Romania, where I arrived Saturday night at my parent's place in Cluj, snowfall is really quite common and probably unappreciated, unless you’ve just come from a place with temperatures in the upper 90's and humidity in the upper 80%. Check out the weather forecast for this week in Benin at http://www.wunderground.com/global/stations/65338.html and you'll see 104 degree temperature with 89% humidity! Fortunately, most of December was quite cool, by comparison, due to the harmattan (the northern winds that blow in lots of dry, somewhat cooler air, and daily leave a fresh covering of red dust all over your things). Besides the white blanket of snow, I’m also adjusting to the sea of white faces. I was surprised, however, to meet an African woman at my parents’ church on Sunday, so even Romania is becoming more and more diverse.

These last two months of vacation have been absolutely wonderful! Yes, I know two months of vacation is unheard of and quite a privilege, and it was well worth the price paid!! However, if termed two months of unemployment, it doesn’t sound quite as exciting, does it? Either way, it was a memorable, much needed, and very appreciated two months together. As expected, those eight weeks with Koudjo flew by. After getting over the short initial adjustment of being together again after eleven months, it felt as if we hadn’t really been apart. Getting used to his height, or lack thereof, which my imagination had conveniently increased by two inches, was probably, and also fortunately, the most difficult of readjustments. By the way, be prepared that due to our strategic positioning in our pictures, you probably have a false mental image of his height as well. You can be the judge of that when you finally meet him face-to-face. J

To finally be together as an engaged couple really did us well. We spent lots of time talking about our future marriage and life together and preparing for it as best as we know how. Besides being able to daily “play house” (cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, going grocery shopping, figuring out finances, working through conflict and disagreements, etc), we also worked through a pre-marriage book together, which was very helpful in guiding some of this preparation for marriage. We also both really enjoyed our daily Advent meditations before Christmas (Koudjo’s first time celebrating Advent). And if all that doesn’t sound fun enough for you (even though it was for us), we also took some time to travel.

Most of the first week I was there was spent traveling from Accra, Ghana, to Aplahoue, Benin, having to stop in both Togo and Benin’s capital for a couple of days to get visas. Except for two days at our one of our favorite beaches (after spending time at a beach in Ghana at the end of my trip, we now have two favorite beaches), we were mainly on the road or at visa offices. We also spent two weeks traveling at Christmas time: one week with Koudjo’s family in Ountivou, his home village, and one week traveling to visit his brothers, sisters, and a friend (remember me learning to drive the motorcycle? That friend.) .

Being in Ountivou this time wasn’t really all that different than other times we’ve been there. Just as last year, I received a very warm welcome from Koudjo’s family and the people at church. Many people also brought gifts for us (to thank us for the school supplies that had been given in the summer): lots of bananas, oranges, yams, corn, chickens, and homebrewed moonshine. Besides telling his family (who already knew about our plans to get married) and the pastor of Koudjo’s church, we didn’t announce our engagement to anyone. Initially that was a bit of a disappointment on my part, but after repeatedly hearing from various family members and the pastor that we need to be careful about telling others, I slowly started to understand. (His oldest brother who lives in Lome really chastised Koudjo because he thought he had announced it to the whole village.) The way it was explained to me is that the Aja people are jealous and vengeful people and the fears were that there would be taunting, especially if it didn’t happen relatively soon, and maybe even worse (such as curses, which don’t really scare me since I believe I have someone much more powerful on my side). However, after we’re married then we can joyfully announce to everyone that we are married. Partly, I think it’s just not the culture to announce it in advance like it is customary in the States. Also, I think there was a fear that if for some reason it didn’t end up working out (either for a visa or if I changed my mind?), that Koudjo would then be faced with a lot of difficulty from others there. His mother , however, was very cute about the whole thing (and if it had been up to her she would have shared it with the entire village): after I had been there a few hours she came to my room and asked me if it was really true that I had agreed to marry her son. She wanted to make sure he hadn’t just made it up. She was very happy when I told her that her son had not lied to her … and she composed a few more songs for me!

We ended our time together with another two weeks of travel: one week to Lomé to work on Koudjo’s visa, and one week traveling in Ghana. Ghana really is a very beautiful country with very beautiful people. We spent a day visiting a couple of the many slave forts that dot the coast of the Gulf of Guinea and reflecting on the horrendous enslavement of Africans, the atrocities committed (one harrowing one was seeing the church that held services right above the male slave dungeon), and the many residual effects even today. Another day in Ghana, while teetering along on a treetop canopy walkway 30-40 meters above the layers of trees that so typify a rainforest, we met an African-American woman who was on a pilgrimage of sorts, tracing her roots and “experiencing the feeling of being in a place where everyone else looks like you”. Ghana seemed much more developed than both Togo and Benin: most roads in the towns and cities were paved and filled with nice cars (and surprisingly hardly any motorcycles!), expensive restaurants and shops could be found all over the city, and the majority of people were dressed in clothes that could be easily found in a crowd of people in any of your neighborhoods (in summer time, of course). Our favorite day in Ghana was probably at Kokrobite, a beach town that draws Rastafarians, African drummer and dancer wanna-bees, and those who want to laze on gorgeous beaches. Just so you know, we fell into the last group of people: we lazed on a gorgeous beach in a small deserted cove, no one else around…except for the construction workers 10 stories up on the skeleton of a mammoth hotel that is 9 stories higher than everything else in the town and will probably ensure that the deserted cove we loved so much will no longer be there for us to enjoy in the future. The price of development.

It’s hard to believe our two wonderful months together are over… and unfortunately ended on a slightly unpleasant note. The night before I left I got sick, vomiting and diarrhea (sometimes at the same time!), and didn’t sleep at all. So instead of ending with all the things we wanted to on our last day like go to the beach, eat at a nice restaurant, walk around Accra, have some last romantic moments together, I ended up laying in bed and feeling miserable. Thankfully our prayers were answered and by the time we went to the airport that evening, my diarrhea and vomiting had both stopped. But even in times of sickness there are some very tender and unforgettable moments that make you wonder if that day would have been as special in health. We are both so very grateful to God for this gift of two months together and now are looking forward to the day when we don’t have to say goodbye anymore.

And when will that day be? I’ll save that exciting news for my next blog, for this one is already much too long. Don’t worry, you won’t have to wait long, for the blog at least.

Friday, November 03, 2006

I'm leaving on a jet plane... but this time I know when I'll be back!

2 months, no blog update. Probably makes you think nothing is going on, that I'm just going about my boring daily business with nothing to report. Really, I probably should have written six entries in the last two months... and so I'll write them all today. If you don't have the time, or don't care, to find out the details of the ups and downs of the last two months, just skip down to "quick update for the lazy" to find out what's going on now.

End of August/Beginning of September: Dear friends and family, I'm going to Ghana until next summer!! Yippee!! I'm probably getting married at Christmas in Kodjo's village!! Yippee!! See, I applied for a teaching position at an international school in Accra. After a couple weeks I believed that I had the job ("All we have left to work out is housing before we are ready to make you a formal offer"), gave up my apartment, gave 2 weeks notice at my waitressing job, quit an educational consulting job I was supposed to start in October, and started packing up my place.

Middle of September: Dear friends and family, I'm still waiting, waiting to receive that formal offer... and it's hard to be patient.

End of September: Dear friends and family, I didn't get the job, I'm not going to Ghana, I have no idea what I'm doing and when I'm going to see Kodjo... and I'm a little depressed about it all!

Middle of October, on a Monday: Dear friends and family, I'm going to Africa! Yippee! I bought a plane ticket to go visit Kodjo for two months. Ironically, I'm actually flying into Ghana (because it's $500 cheaper) and will taxi it over through Togo to Benin. I am so excited to finally have a date, November 29, 2006 when I'll see Kodjo again (after 10 1/2 months)!

Middle of October, the next day, a Tuesday: Dear friends and family, more great news!! Today I called the US embassy in Togo and found out that it should only take 5-6 weeks for him to get a visa for the States ONCE he is notified by the embassy to contact them (assuming there are no problems in the medical exams and interviews). The question is, how long will it be before he is notified. The petition still has to be approved here (which looks like I will happen middle of December, according to the current processing times posted online) and mailed to the embassy in Togo and then a notice mailed to him. But still, it's great news, because we were thinking it could take three months or more!

Middle of October, the next day, a Wednesday: Dear friends and family, even more great news!! An amazing provision! God miraculously brought someone to rent my apartment for four months! I know I'm only going away for two months (actually 2 1/2 because I tacked on a visit to my parents on the way back from Africa), but I am going to stay with friends a month before and a couple weeks after I get back. This way I am saving a lot of money and will actually have money to bring Kodjo to the States when the time comes... and maybe a little leftover for a wedding! It really is a miracle, because how many people are out there that want to rent an apartment for four months, in Lawndale!?! Plus, since this person is just coming to Chicago for four months for a special project, he really needed a furnished place, so I didn't have to pack up my entire place and move it out. I'm still amazed at how God provided this extra confirmation for my two-month trip to visit Kodjo and for His provision beyond what I needed.

End of October: Dear friends and family, even some more great news!! The petition for Alien Fiance (what, I never told you I'm engaged to an alien?) has been approved!! One part down, a couple more steps to go: Now the USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services), former INS, sends it on to the NVC (National Visa Center) who processes it for 2-4W (two to four weeks) - don't really know what they need to do with it- and sends it on to the USEMTO (US embassy in Togo) who then notifies SKE (Sodji Kodjovi Emmanuel) to contact them. How long all this sending here and there will take, we don't really know. However, from the point Kodjo actually receives notification, it could take as little as 5-6 weeks (for medicals and interviews and issuance of the visa). So, there is a SLIGHT chance that Kodjo could actually come back with me!!!!!! But don't let yourself get too excited, I said, SLIGHT chance. Either way, he should be showing his face in the States in not too much time (Feb or March)! And then the wedding is required to happen within 90 days! So, it seems likely that I'll get married before I turn 30!

Quick update for the lazy: I'm going to visit Kodjo for two months starting at the end of November (and I'm definitely counting down the days after 10 months of having been apart). Because the petition has already been granted and it appears the visa will take less time than originally anticipated, there is a small chance Kodjo would come to the States with me. More likely he will come in March and we'll get married within three months of his arrival.

So, now you are all caught up with my the last two months of my life. I know you would rather like to hear about the play-by-play action while the play is taking place, but I've never been good about keeping up this blog in a timely fashion. I always mean to be better about it and it's been on my list to do since September, but let's face it, it's just one of my weaknesses (no need to go into all the other ones at this point). And it won't get any better while I'm in Africa, because this time I will have no e-mail, except for when I visit the city. The American family who lived across the street from me in Aplahoue is not there now and the two cyber cafes in the next town have unfortunately closed down. But do not despair, you can still have contact with me if you would like to (and I would love it). You can call me on Kodjo's phone! It's only 5 bucks for an hour and it doesn't cost him anything. You can buy the phone cards at www.phonecardsavers.com. The one I have found to work best is Africa Talk (you can buy a $5 or $2 card, but if you spend less than $20 they charge you an extra dollar per card). Occasionally Africa talk isn't available, in which case I would get Cell Calling (which also comes in increments of $2 and $5). Kodjo's number is 011-229-90-04-00-79. Right now there is a 7 hour time difference from Chicago to Benin (GMT +1). Kodjo won't care if you wake him up in the middle on the night (that's usually when I call him), but I'm a grump to talk to if woken up (plus, Kodjo probably wouldn't want to walk across the road in the middle of the night to come get me... and I probably wouldn't wake up to him knocking on the door). You also won't be able to reach me when we are in Togo, which we are hoping to do for a week or so at Christmas. (However, it just came to me that we could buy a Togo SIM card then because we are planning on leaving the phone with Kodjo's family when he comes to the States and they'll need the Togo card to use the phone. I'll let you know a Togo number if that ends up being a possibility). It will be really fun to be presented to Kodjo's family as his future wife. However, they were already so hospitable and accepting of me when I was there before that I can't really imagine them being any friendlier now that they know they will be my in-laws. It will also be really interesting to see how other people we know there react when they find out about us getting married! Except for his family, only a handful of people know! It really will be a fun two-month vacation (vacations in general are fun, two months without work amazing and unheard of, and time with the one you love, priceless. How do I know TV commercials when I don't even own a TV?)! I can hardly wait!

Judging from my history of blogging, I wouldn't count on another update before I leave in 25 days (did I mention I'm counting down?). However, I just might surprise you. But if I don't, Happy Thanksgiving, Merry Christmas (another Christmas without a Christmas tree but another Christmas with my favorite gift of all) and a Happy New Year (and it will be a happy year!)! OK, now I'm slipping into cheesy mode, so I better bring this to a close.

Your Yovo

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Sept. 4th, A Day To Remember

September 4th marks a day I vowed to never forget (although I almost forgot it this year, the first anniversary of the day I vowed to never forget!). September 4, 2005 was the day my life was spared by God. I still remember the feelings quite vividly: the feeling that the sun was so bright even inside the darkness of the hut, the feeling that my brain was somehow being attacked, the feeling of thinking I was dying, the feeling that my end had come... in a village in Togo, a 1 1/2 hour motorbike ride from the nearest hospital. I remember Kodjo's mother praying fervently and trying calm me down when I started pacing. I also remember her crying with me as Kodjo was running around the village to find the nurse. I found out later that Kodjo was also crying, for the first time in his life (ok, maybe that's a slight exaggeration, since I'm sure he cried as a baby. Maybe it was the first time in his adult life). I remember the nurse coming and telling me I would be fine and that he was going to put me to sleep for a little while. I asked him how long I would be asleep, even though I don't think I really expected to wake up. And then I remember waking up, no longer feeling like I was dying, and saying, in somewhat of an astonished voice, "I'm alive". I couldn't stop smiling, weakly I'm sure, but definitely smiling. Kodjo was there; he had been there and stayed there the rest of the day. I remember him fanning me for a very long time because I was so hot in the hut... and couldn't go outside since I was hooked up to some IV fluids. Most people would tire after 5 minutes of waving a piece of cardboard around. Not him, he just kept going and going! I remember beating him at an African card game as bad as you can beat someone... and he claims he did not let me win! I remember repeatedly thanking God for sparing my life and thinking that He must have something important planned for me to give me more time on earth.

And so here I am, one year later, September 4, 2006, thanking God for sparing my life and asking Him what it is He wants me to do with this time He has given me here on earth.

If I figure it out in the next few days, I'll let you know :).
Celebrating the gift of my life,
The Thankful Yovo

This picture was taken 09/05/05, the day after The Day I Almost Died and Will Never Forget. On the "blackboard" on the side of my little hut Kodjo had written "The first IL (Illinoisan) had an IV in a small tepee in Africa."

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Run Chrischona Run

I am very proud to report that I not only finished the Half-Marathon (and without walking!), but did better than I had hoped! According to the official chip time, I finished the over 13-mile run in 2:15:47, averaging 10:22 a mile. However, when I knock off the roughly four minutes I had to stand in line for the port-a-potty (unforunately this isn't Africa and I can't just pee on the side of the road... plus not wearing a skirt would have made modesty an issue), my time comes to 2:12:00 (a wink under 10-minute-miles), bettter than my most idealist goal, which was 2:13:20, an average of 10 minute miles, and far surpassing my realistic goal of finishing in less than 2 1/2 hours. I finished 4911 out of 7411 runners, and 2057 out of 3828 female runners (and that doesn't account for the 4 lost minutes!) Can you tell I'm really proud of myself??

Besides this picture taken after the race with my friend Laura, I don't yet have any pictures from the run. However, since I ran for Team World Vision and I spotted their photographer multiple times along the way (following me and my wonderful run, of course), I'm hoping there might be a few action shots to pass on to you later on. Or, if you are really interested (probably that refers only to my parents... and maybe to Kodjo), you can go to www.runphotos.com and type in my name and you'll see a whole bunch of action photos, particularly my exubberant, victorious sprint to the finish! (Don't be fooled by the clock that reads 2:22:03... with almost 10,000 runners, I started the race six minutes after the official start time).

Ok, enough bragging. (Excluding those of you who have actually run a half-marathon or a marathon, wouldn't you too be bragging if you actually ran for over 2 hours, even if you did have to stop once to pee?? And the moral of that story: it is possible to overhydrate yourself before a run!). It really was a fun experience (looking back, of course) and, if my aging body (I think I'm technically already past the prime of my life. Sad, huh?), partiularly my knees, will allow it, maybe I'll do it again next year.

Two quick thank yous: First, a thank you to my very sweet friend Katharine who came and ran the last mile with me (which kept me from just plain giving up the mile before the finish line when I didn't think I could run any further... a thinking in sharp contrast to the first 10 miles when I thought about going home and signing up for the marathon!) and secondly, a big thank you to those of you who gave money to the people in Ethiopia that this race was not only dedicated to but whose lives will be directly and probably drastically changed because of your donation. (And for those of you who wanted to give but forgot, it's not too late: www.firstgiving.com/runchrischonarun. Or if you were so moved by my inspiring and thrilling story of my run and want to give, you won't be turned down either :)) One more opportunity to throw out there: For those of you who have considered sponsoring a child but just haven't gotten around to it, please let me know and I'll send you info about sponsoring a HopeChild (a child affected by the HIV/AIDS crisis) in the village of Quacha Birra in Ethiopia (or really I would thrilled if you sponsored a child anywhere in the world!).


Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Running (again) for the beautiful people I left

I know some of you are thinking, "Not again! She just ran a couple months ago for those beautiful people and now she's asking for money again!" As I've been training for the half-marathon these last 8 weeks, I've been debating whether to do it through World Vision again or not. I felt bad asking again so soon and felt that people might get a little annoyed. Plus, with fall and another school year approaching, I also want to ask people to consider giving again to the children and youth in Benin and Togo. With less than 4 weeks together, I've decided to ask you again to think about the people in Africa and not worry about whether you feel bothered or annoyed. Why? Because there is still such an incredible need in Africa!! Right now, Africa truly is on the brink of a catastrophic famine, with the risk of it turning out like Ethiopia's famine in 1984 if something isn't done. It's in the news right now, but just not making daily headlines to remind us of it as we sit down to our delicious and plentiful meals everyday. "Drought threatens millions in Horn of Africa." (Reuters) "Drought aid needed for Somalia." (Chicago Tribune) "Hunger leads to deaths in Kenya." (BBC)

And that doesn't even include all the other issues going on in Africa, especially those affecting the children: AIDS, child sex trafficking, child soldiers, lack of clean water and not enough food to eat, lack of proper medical care and education, etc.

I really am not asking you to give for the sake of me raising some money to run. I'm going to run this race regardless of how much I raise. And if you're giving money to help Africa in some way already, don't feel like you need to give to this specific request. However, if you're not currently helping do at least something small to be a part of eradicating extreme poverty and desperate hunger, please consider giving through this channel or another.

We have been given so much... and much is expected of us! For most of us, we won't even feel the dipping into our pocket that has the potential of helping in such big ways. Here are a few examples of how a little money can go a long way:

$50 can give 30 medicine sets to clinics in Africa
$100 can provide a low interest small business loan for an impoverished mother
$360 can feed a child for a year
$500 provides 20 orphan care kits
$1000 can educate 10 AIDS orphans for one year

By the way, this year, all of the funds raised by Team World Vision athletes in Chicago will support a specific community in Ethiopia called Quacha Birra. Although I spent only a little time in Ethiopia over 8 years ago, it still is very meaningful personally that the money is going to Ethiopia.

So, think about it... although not for too long if you're going to give through this channel, because the race is on August 13th. If you decide to give through World Vision, go to
  • www.firstgiving.com/runchrischonarun

  • A few words by Mother Theresa to mull over:
    "We should learn how to give. But we should not regard giving as an obligation, but as a desire... I ask you one thing: do not tire of giving, but do not give your leftovers. Give until it hurts, until you feel the pain."
    "The less we have, the more we give. Seems absurd, but it's the logic of love... The poor do not need our condescending attitude or our pity. They only neeed our love and our tenderness."
    "Jesus announced which will be the criteria of the final judgment of our lives: we will be judged according to love. Judged according to the love we have shown the poor, with whom God identifies: 'You did it to me' (Matthew 25:40."

    I'll close with one final quote: "I was hungry and you fed me; I was thirsty and you gave me a drink...I'm telling you the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me- you did it to me." Jesus


    P.S. Any questions, feel free to ask. And if you are interested in helping out with some school scholarships for Benin and Togo, please let me know as well. The new school year is quickly approaching and I'm trying to get as many kids and youth to school as possible. It doesn't take much, so whatever you want to give would be great!

    Sunday, July 16, 2006

    Ebony and Ivory....It's official!

    I have some news I was so excited to share with you over two weeks ago, June 29th (my golden birthday) to be precise. No, I wasn't going to write a blog in honor of my birthday (turning 29 wasn't that exciting, even if it did take place on the 29th). So, if this "news" was so exciting two weeks ago, why didn't I write the blog then? Well, I also excited and ready to write it on June 29th, when I figured I should wait just a couple of days before sending it out into the vast phantom world of the blog. And as things happen, a couple of days just turned into a couple a weeks, but not for waning excitement or loss of news. So, the news that really is no longer news and really never was news in the sense of an unexpected event, is... that I am now OFFICIALLY engaged!! I know it's all a matter of technicality and that we were for all practical purposes engaged already, but now it's official.

    Kodjo, who had asked my parents for their blessing a few weeks earlier, called me the morning of June 29th (at 5:40 am to make sure he wouldn't miss me because he knew I had to leave for work early... although not quite that early!) to "humbly ask for my hand in marriage". It was very cute! Unfortunately the phone card he had bought ended up being good for only 2 minutes (he was expecting 8 minutes but it was more expensive to call from Togo than from Benin, where he bought the card), so he had to make it quick! In case you think proposing over the phone is an easy proposal requiring no skill or ingenuity, listen to this little story (makes the 2 minute proposal story a bit longer as well): Kodjo wanted to officially propose on June 29th because it was my golden birthday and he knew it would be a special birthday gift. However, he was going to be home in Togo where his phone doesn't get any reception in Togo. Therefore, he had borrowed the only other cell phone in the village, which unfortunately (maybe to his dismay and utter hopelessness!) had no battery charge left. That may not be a big deal in your mind, but in a village without electricity, a cell phone without a charge is just as useless as a cell phone that gets no reception which is just as useful as having no phone at all. Fortunately, my soon-to-be husband (he, he, he, sounds kind of funny to use the word "husband". Me, I'll have a husband??) is smart and figured out that he could transfer the SIM card from the borrowed phone into his phone. And it worked!!! Like I said, smart man. And I was able to get the birthday gift I was hoping for! (Confession: My real birthday wish had been to have Kodjo here on my golden birthday, but this was an acceptable compensation for the loss of that dream!)

    So, there you have the news that really is no longer news and really never was news because we all knew it was coming. Doesn't change the fact that still I'm excited!

    Engagement Q & A
    People usually ask these questions of newly engaged couples and you may be wondering them about us:
    When will the wedding be?
    Don't know. Sorry.
    Ok, ok, I won't leave it quite at that. Getting married for us is dependent on him getting a visa to the US, because at this point we would like to get married here. However, because we really don't know how long it will be before he gets a visa, we really can't plan a wedding date. Looking at other people's situations and from what an immigration specialist told me, it seems like 6 months is a rough positive estimate. However, it could take longer, 8 months, 10 months, or more. The immigration specialist once saw a case that took 1 1/2 years!! He did say that it was a very complicated situation and wouldn't really expect that for us. God, please no! Then, after he gets a visa, we have 90 days to get married (although we could get married later than that if we at least have a civil wedding during the allotted time... at this point, we're thinking just to get completely married within that time frame. Of course that could change depending on when he comes, school breaks, etc. Need a little help putting all this together? Since we applied the middle of June, probably the earliest he would come is as a Christmas present, which would put 3 months from there sometime in March. However, it could very likely be later than that... and a summer wedding always seemed nice to me (probably due to the fact that I've been on a school calendar for almost 25 years of my life!)

    Where will the wedding be?
    Chicago. At least that's the plan.

    When will you see your fiance (he, he, he I have a fiance!!) next?
    Ok, that is not a typical question people generally ask newly engaged couples, but let's face it, we aren't a typical couple. I'll use it as my replacement question for "What's the engagement ring like?"
    I really am not sure when I'll see Kodjo next. It was 6 months this last week and that is already way too much time. The 6 month marker was a very difficult one to cross and the thought of it being 6 more months (remember the rough POSITIVE estimate would bring him here as a Christmas present) is not a fun one to think about. I had really hoped to be able to meet up in Austria this summer, but that is sadly not working out. Depending on what job I decide to take for the fall (that'll have to wait for another blog and probably will just wait until I've actually decided), I'd really like for us to meet up in Vienna in September. However, that is at this point still only a dream.

    If you have other questions, just ask and you too may make it into my blog! For today's honorable mention, I'd like to mention Ken Kaczmarek, who contributed the title "ebony and ivory". Thank you! It sounds much more refined than my last title of "Salt 'N' Peppa". Speaking of salt and pepper, I have to do a second unplanned honorable mention: my friend Laura Michel gave me a salt and pepper shaker set. They're little people that hug, one black and one white. Right now they're on my kitchen counter, a foot apart, their arms stretched out reaching for the other (Awwww!). Ok, now that I'm on a roll of honorable contributors to this black and white thing Kodjo and I seem to have going on, my mom sent me a clipping from the Romania TV guide. The caption says, "As you can see from the picture, in the dog world, interracial conflict doesn't exist." The photograph is of a black dog and a white dog, standing on their hind legs, arm in arm. I could go on with several other humorous things people have given me, but I'll stop for now.

    Salt N Peppa now
    Salt N Peppa soon

    I look forward to the day I can give you some real news, such as "he's got the visa!!!" But I'll try to write again before that :)

    Thursday, May 25, 2006

    "Out of Africa" or "Salt N Peppa"?

    The time has finally come for another update on my life. Those of you with whom I’ve kept in touch with since being back in Yovo-Yovo land (the “the white country”, which is where some people I met believed that all white people were from), obviously know some or all of this, so you can just ignore this blog update. But for the rest of you with whom I haven’t been very good about staying in touch, this is for you. I’m guessing that if you made it this far to even reading this blog, you care at least slightly about what’s going on in my life. So then, instead of rambling through the entire blog like I did in this intro, let’s get on with it.

    “Boring” news first. I’ve been renting a one-bedroom apartment in a two-story house for the last couple months. It’s located on the Westside of Chicago in the North Lawndale neighborhood, a predominantly African-American neighborhood. Ok, maybe predominant is too vague of a word. If you see another white person walking around you wonder what in the world they’re doing here (although they are most likely working at Lawndale Christian Health Center or, if they are driving a very shiny new expensive car, looking for something frequently sold in this neighborhood). For those of you who want the exact demographics according to the US Census: Black 93.8% Hispanic 4.54% White 0.92% Other 0.65% Asian 0.13%. David K. Fremon, whoever he is, (1998) calls North Lawndale "the embodiment of the urban black ghetto." I live on a quiet (relative, of course) block that dead ends and is supposedly (and I would concur) the nicest block in Lawndale and does not, in my humble opinion, embody the urban black ghetto. However, that is a very subjective and relative statement. The kids are extremely friendly and have helped me feel a bit more at home in my new neighborhood, or more honestly, on the block. My transition here has also been made much easier by one of my closest friends Laura, who lives across the street from, and my very friendly landlords who live upstairs with their kids.

    As far as work, I ended up getting a permanent substitute teaching position at a school about a mile away. This means that I’m at the same school every day (although in different grades, pre-K to 8th with much of my time in 7th and 8th, , and more recently in the dreaded 6th grade), which makes subbing so much easier because not only am I guaranteed work every day, I also am getting to know the teachers and students. After subbing two days at the school three blocks from my house and knowing I wouldn’t survive there three months as a sub (since I barely survived two day: when a child throws a chair twice across the room and you call for security three times with not a soul ever coming, you just aren’t sure how long you’ll survive), I sought out schools south of the tracks in the predominately-Hispanic neighborhood of South Lawndale. The first school that contacted me ended up hiring me full-time and I have been very happy there since. The teachers and students are very friendly and respectful (for the most part: to have 100% respect of an 8th grade class would take a miracle anywhere!).

    What about a job for the future? Well, I’m not entirely sure. Although I really was hoping to find a job that really interested me in an area other than teaching, I have not yet figured out what that would be. Being back in the classroom has made me consider going back as a regular classroom teacher, because I’m reminded of how much I do enjoy teaching (I just don’t like all the other stuff that comes with it). The question in my mind, should I decide to teach, is which side of the tracks do I want to teach on? I’m more passionate about the people on my side of the tracks and want to develop the community in which I live, but am wondering if I want to jump straight into that kind of stress or maybe teach a year on the south side of the tracks to get my feet wet again. I’m waiting and praying for some sort of directions as to what I’ll be doing come June 14th. Somehow God usually likes to make me wait until the last minute… you know, build trust, strengthen faith, stuff that is supposed to be good for me, but it sure would be easier to know already what it is I’ll be doing.

    If you’ve made it this far, congratulations, because I know it was long and boring. Hopefully you’re a fast reader. Now, to the exciting news!! I could start from the beginning and make you wonder until the end, like an action-packed, page-turning mystery novel… but I won’t. I’m just going to lay it out up front (the picture already gives away something anyway!): I’m getting married!! What in the world, some of you are thinking while rereading that very short sentence. For those of you who don’t know, I’ve been dating Kodjo, who you heard much about if you read my blogs from Africa, for more than a year now. I know, I know, I never wrote about the dating, only about the friendship, "a gift from God"…and how he helped save my life. Well, initially I kind of wanted to see how things developed and then I guess I was waiting until things were more serious and after that maybe I was just lazy and felt sheepish for waiting so long and then I just waited until I had some final news to present to you. So, now I present the final news that I’m getting married… sometime. That’s right. Although we know we want to get married, we don’t know when, because I am here and he is there. It has come down to the fact that the only possibility for him to come here, in the somewhat near future, is through a fiancée visa. So, although we haven’t had an official engagement (which we’d like to have in person), we are applying for a fiancée visa and so we are technically engaged (or, you could state it as, we’ve decided we want to spend the rest of our lives together by getting married, thus making us technically engaged, which is why we are applying for a fiancée visa). You could call us “pre-engaged” (coined by one of my friends) and call him my “pre-fi” (short for pre-fiance, coined by my mother), or you can just call him Kodjo. But regardless of what you want to call him or our situation, we are planning for him to come here and get married. On a fiancée visa you must get married within 90 days, so we’ll be getting married fairly quickly when he comes. However, we have no idea how long it will take for him to get a fiancée visa. According to different people who have been through this it could be anywhere between 4 and 8 months. I’m hoping he’ll be here by my golden birthday (29 on the 29th of June!!)… obviously a fanciful dream, not a realistic expectation!

    Considering this blog update has, as always, gotten to be very long, I’m going to stop (although it's definitely a self-imposed forced stop because I have a lot to write about this topic!), but otherwise I’ll never get it posted. However, SOON (yeah right, you’re thinking) I plan on posting an addendum that I intended to include in this blog update, maybe titled “The Story of Us”, “Out of Africa”, “Salt N Peppa”, or just “Love Story from Africa” for those of you who want to know the entire story (ok, not the entire story, because that will come out in book format, but the synopsis of the entire story) or for those who just want some of those warm fuzzy feelings you get when reading love stories. Well, I can’t promise warm fuzzy feelings for you, but it definitely is a story of love! That way you can get to know him a bit before he comes (although June 29th isn’t all that long to wait ☺ … but 8 more months??? It’s already been more than four!) and understand why it is I love someone who lives on the other side of the world (and for myself I'll document our relationship in black and white -no pun intended- for our kids to read someday... and because I have a terrible memory and am bound to forget the details of even this most wonderful, unexpected, and life-changing gift). I'll give you glimpses into how incredibly kind and thoughtful and funny and godly and and and he is. Plus, I'll add some great pictures of us, too (he's a real cutie...with the biggest smile and friendliest eyes)!

    Until SOON,
    With love (and full of love and in love),
    your Yovo

    Monday, March 20, 2006

    Good-bye, Africa!

    I've been planning on writing one final blog ever since I left Africa 2 months ago, but it's only now that I've finally accepted the fact that it's just not happening (or maybe it still will...so I admit, I haven't completely accepted it, but at least enough to write this short entry). Instead of continuing to wait to send my pictures out until I've written my final blog entry, I've decided to give it to you before you've completely forgotten about the fact that I went to Africa for a year and could care less about seeing my pictures. I created a tiny little webpage to house all my pictures, so hopefully that will make it easier to view them all. I've organized them into categories so you don't have to look at all one thousand (or however many there are) at once, but could break them into sittings...or just do it at once and get it over with...or don't look at them at all. Your choice!
    Go to www.kodakgallery.com/chrischona to view my pictures.

    Until my final blog entry really happens,
    Your Yovo

    Thursday, December 15, 2005

    Almost done...is that good or bad?

    It's hard for me to believe that my time here in Africa is almost up. I remember those first few days when I couldn't imagine staying a whole year...and now I've even extended my stay by a month, finding it hard to leave. If only Africa was a little closer and I knew I could visit here a couple weeks every year, I wouldn't find leaving here as hard. But whether or not I will ever return here is a big question that only God knows the answer to. So as I leave this place I carry many memories with me:

    Things I will miss and remember with fondness:
    Eating $.30 meals at roadside "restaurants". Delicious Pat and Sauce. Mangos, papaya, mangoes, bananas, mangoes, pineapples, mangoes, oranges. (Can you tell I love mangoes??). Fried bread balls. Fufu (pounded yams)... one of my favorites! 25 cent frozen yogurt-like yummy stuff. Most everything being cheap. Going to the market and greeting my tomato lady, my peanut oil lady, my bread lady, my onion lady... ok, ok, I know you get the picture. Never having to wear to a jacket. Being able to wear sandals, especially flip-flops, everyday. Riding the motorbike taxis with the wind blowing in my hair. Driving a motorcyle!! (Yes, I learned how to drive a motorcycle a few weeks ago, a wish I was hoping would be fulfilled before I left. In just a couple hours I had mastered the basics and could come to a stop or go through little ditches without the engine dying. Last week I had the chance to drive 8 km between two villages on a road with bumps and sand... and I succeeded. Oh, the thrill!! :)). Popping popcorn over an open fire and watching the excitement of the kids. Dancing in church. Showers, or more correctly bucket baths, by starlight (when I'm in Ountivou). People stopping by to visit. Little Kaka following me around everywhere, watching my every move, "working" (scribbling on paper) while I work. My "grandmother" worrying when I come home too late, asking me the next morning where I was. People's amazement in seeing their pictures on the digital camera (or better yet on the TV screen!) Going to villages and observing community development in action. Reading Bible stories in Aja with a barber who's never been to school but can now read. "Coaching" 30 children who have never even seen a basketball. The little kids at Gohomey calling out happily "Madame, madame" when I arrive. Teaching students to read their own language and then listening to them read a Bible passage in church. A Fon (another people group with an Aja-related language) woman, who had lost both her twin babies to AIDS, learning to read Aja because that's all I know and witnessing her joy when she received a Fon Bible. The giving and receiving of gifts in Ountivou during my month stay. Having the means to help those who are truly struggling to meet basic needs. Being able to be a middleman for your generosity... and the many blessings that were spoken over me because of you. Life seeming less complicated (or at least my year here being less complicated than I make my life in the States). Time...or rather the non-issue of time of the people around me. The importance and priority placed on people. My dear friend Koudjo.

    Things I will not miss:
    Using a latrine (or the bush when I'm in Ountivou). Cooking with a little kerosene stove. Washing dishes on a bucket on the floor. Not having a refrigerator. Lack of fresh vegetables...here it's tomatoes, onions, tomatoes, onions, green leafy vegetables. Exotic disease that aren't quite so exotic when you have them: typhoid fever, malaria, malaria, malaria, malaria, parasites and worms, Montezuma's Revenge. Mosquitoes. Mice. Roaches. Unknow insects of the flying and creeping type. Being squished into taxis with 8 other people and goats and chickens, too. Goats and their carrying on at night (although I got used to it pretty quickly). Loud music at night, especially during the dry season when people have time to have ceremonies. The Yovo Yovo chant I hear many times a day. Being treated like a celebrity just because of my skin color. People asking for money. Not being able to help everyone. Not knowing who to completely trust. Not being able to communicate. Not understanding everything that's going on. Not being able to express myself adequately. Difficulty of finding time to myself. Not feeling like I belong... being a stranger and not being able to hide it. Not being able to pick up a phone to call you. Not seeing your babies, those of you who have them, grow up this last year. Not seeing you.

    I am sure that there many more things I'm forgetting to put on the lists, especially many more fond memories that I want to remember for many years to come. But for now, that list will have to suffice. As you can see, I have many many fond memories that I will carry with me when I leave this place. However, I want this year to be more than just an accumulation of exciting experiences and interesting stories. I want this year to affect the way I live the rest of my life, to make me look at life through slightly different lenses. When my year here is completely over and I've left African soil, I'll hopefully reflect a little more on what I learned and gained from this year, whether my goals and purposes were met, what I think I might have learned and how maybe I've changed. My initial thought and feeling is that I really haven't changed that much, that I'm really the same as before I left. I'm hoping, however, that with a little reflection and probing, I'll find that some changes have taken place in me. But I'll save those musing for after I leave... since I've already started to revert back into my old mindset of "There just isn't enough time and there's too much to be done." So for now, I'll just say that I am so incredibly thankful to God for giving me this year here in Africa, for the experiences, for the friendships, for many things I've gained.

    Here's the little run-down of what's left for me here (which is pretty close to the tentative schedule I wrote about in the last blog entry):
    Today until Dec. 19: Start packing up, getting things done, hanging out with people in Benin
    Dec. 19- Dec. 31: Basketball camp in Ountivou, Togo, celebrating Christmas
    Dec. 31- Jan. 5: Traveling around Togo and Benin, hopefully going to Penjari Game Park in the north of Benin
    Jan. 6-9: Final packing, saying good-byes and giving away my things to people in Benin (I'm planning a good-bye/Christmas/New Years party for about 40 people who live around me. They're upset I'm celebrating the holidays in Togo instead of with them).
    Jan. 10-11: Go to Cotonou, depart shortly after midnight (which is really already the 12th.
    Jan 12-27: Spend time with my parents in Romania
    Jan. 28: Fly to the good ol' US of A

    I want to thank you for faithfully reading my blogs, staying in touch, and praying for me this past year (thank you for whichever one of those you fit into, although some of you fit into all three categories). It is because of your love for me and your support in my life that I was even able to come here. I appreciate and cherish each one of you. And now, how timely, they just cut the electricity (as frequently happens here... something I won't miss :)). Since this computer battery has major problems it will want to shut down in a few minutes so I better stop.

    I love you all and am excited to see (or at least talk to on the phone) each one of you very soon.

    Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!! (Sorry no cards this year :)). (And I'll have to tell you about Christmas here next time, which is probably better anyway; that way I can write from personal experience rather than just what people say about it).

    With much love,
    Your Yovo

    Monday, October 31, 2005

    October 31... Halloween costume??

    Oct. 31, 2005
    Writing the date, I'm realizing that in the States one is celebrating Halloween today. It was wonderful not being reminded of Halloween every day for a month or two with advertisements trying to get me to buy costumes, cards, and candy. Not that it isn't fun for kids to dress up in some bizarre costume, but I don't miss this crazy celebration one bit. When I got dressed this morning in my African Gbomba, I didn't consider that fact that if I wear the same outfit next Oct. 31st, people will think I've dressed up for Halloween. :) Maybe I'll commemorate a more important day today... my 9 month anniversary of being in Benin. 9 months= 3/4 of a year; less than 1/4 left. As I sat down this weekend to figure out my remaining weeks, I can hardly believe how fast the time is flying by!! Here are my TENTATIVE plans for the time left:

    Weeks of Oct.31-Nov. 20 /The next three weeks: Continue working at Plan Benin, Gohomey, and tutoring students.
    Week of Nov. 21-27 Travel around the south of Benin and Togo for 4 or 5 days
    Week of Nov. 28-Dec. 4 Good-byes at Plan Benin and Gohomey
    Week of Dec. 5-Dec. 11 Annual "retreat/meeting" of Baptist Association in Togo
    Week of Dec. 12-18 Pack up, close-up house, etc.
    Weeks of Dec 19-Jan. 1 Another basketball camp in Ountivou, Togo during the Christmas holidays; celebrate Christmas in Ountivou
    Week of Jan. 2-6 Travel around the north of Benin and Togo, hopefully going to a game park (I'd like to see more than just goats, sheep, pigs,lizards, mice, and a plethora of insects during my time in Africa. The one "exotic" animal I've seen was a very bright green snake, which I recently saw INSIDE my house!)
    Jan. 7-10 Final good-byes in Benin
    Jan 10 or 11th Deportation... I mean departation... I mean departure, whatever it's called
    Then I'm planning on visiting my parents for a couple of weeks in Romania plus maybe one other stop in Europe, finally stepping foot on American soil approximately one year after departure, around Jan. 31, 2006, three months from today. I know three months sounds like a reasonably long time, but I know it's just going to fly by at astronomical speeds, especially with the various trips I'm hoping to make. I'll be excited to see all of you, but it will be very hard to leave my life here. But as in my last e-mail, I don't want to touch that subject quite yet... I'll save it for my final blog :).

    I have no exciting news or stories to tell about the last month, since returning from Togo. But for those of you curious about the not-so exciting, how I spend my time kind of news, here's the brief update. Since being back, I started up again at Plan Benin and Gohomey. However, after not being there for 6 weeks, I already felt a little detached and sensed the same from those I work with. The women at Gohomey were busily involved in a project of making hundreds of necklaces (which the founder of the center was going to take back with her to Germany) and so didn't want to or didn't have time to work on Aja or French. Supposedly this week they want to start with me again. Even though I was a little disappointed to "waste" a couple weeks without really "doing" anything, there was a positive side as well: I learned how to make necklaces from them and was able to provide them with a little entertainment when I sang for (and with) them the Aja songs I've learned at church. Many of the same songs are sung at all the churches, regardless of denomination. Those who attend the Catholic, Pentacostal, and Church of Christ churches all knew the songs I've been learning at the Baptist churches. (Speaking of church, a little side note: Since being back in Benin, I've started visiting a very young church, started just this year. There are three or four women, 8 or so young men, and maybe 10 kids. It was started by two people from one of the two Baptist churches in Azove that I still go to every other week. Although those two people teach the Sunday school and preach the sermon, it is a dynmic boy of maybe 13 or 14 who is leading the church. This church is meeting during the week for prayer and Bible study, and they also go out Sunday afternoons to witness to others in the village. Even though I hardly understand any of the teaching and preaching (it being in Aja), their excitement for God has drawn me to go there every other week. As I mentioned earlier, the other weeks I go to the "mother" church in Azove, which is conducted in Aja and Yoruba and where a woman kindly translates the sermon into French for me.) Back to what I've been up to. At Plan Benin too, there were a couple of weeks were I was sitting around most of the time without really doing anything. And at the Association for people with AIDS (where I had been going Thursdays), the funding had stopped and the one person I had been working with moved away. I was even beginning to question my decision to stay until January... but I really would like to experience Christmas in Africa and do another basketball camp during school break as well. Plus, I just don't feel ready to leave. This last week I ended up being extremely busy, working long days at Plan Benin organizing school supplies for 19 villages (over 12, 000 kids). The person in charge was at a training in Cotonou all week, but a driver had already been hired to distribute the supplies. So, fortunately for me (fortunately because I love detail, organizational kind of work and also because it felt nice to be useful) they let me take over. The school year here started a couple weeks ago and so I've also enjoyed starting the tutoring as well. Besides, it's been nice to have the students back in Aplahoue, because without them it is extremely quiet and calm, too quiet and calm.

    Having a lot more time this past month, I've enjoyed finally taking time to read some of the many books I brought with me. For those of you who've forgotten, I brought over 30 books with me, but up until the end of September had only read 8. This last month I've been on an Africa/poverty/social justice "kick" and have read five very interesting and recommendable books. The one I recommend most and challenge everyone of you who call yourself a Christian to read is Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger by Ronald Sider. It is a statistic-packed, thought-provoking, well-writtenbook about poverty and what can and should be done about it. Most people would probably rather not read it, out of fear of being made to feel guilty or fear of having to change. But it is incredibly important, so I really encourage you to read it. Yes, yes, I know some of you are probably thinking that this kind of reading is fine for me because I chose to come to Africa and learn a bit about poverty, but it really isn't up your alley. I assure you that it is equally as important for you. Ok, maybe I should start begging you to read it, on behalf of the one billion very hungry poor neighbors that we share this earth with (two more billion are considered poor). I'll close this paragraph with a quote by Dr. Charles Brick "The rich must live more simply, that the poor may simply live."

    Speaking of rich people in an age of hunger, thank you very very very much to those of you who have sent money for various people here. Because of you, students are able to attend school this year (even public schools cost money here), have supplies to do their school work, and eat breakfast. Because of you, an orphan was able to plant peanuts and beans (sadly, the rains didn't come at the right time and they haven't grown as they should) and buy a goat (which when it has kids can be sold to help buy school supplies in the future). Because of you, kids have basketballs to play with (a hoop was given to the church by missionaries who have since left that region). Because of you, a one-legged man will soon have his own tools to have a bicycle repair "shop" (and no longer have to be an apprentice, at age35 or so because he can't afford the five basic tools needed). Because of you, 8 women have goats to raise, providing income in the future. Because of you, micro-loans have been made. Because of you, four new children in Benin have sponsors. And I'm still deciding on how to use some of the money! Thank you very much for your generosity! I wish you could have been here yourself to give your gifts and received these people's gratitude and blessings personally. I will try to equally lavish all the blessings that were spoken to me on you when I write you personally, but I doubt I'll be able to do justice. Also, some people have given me thank you letters to send to you and I've taken some pictures for you as well. I'll try to get these things sent to you soon. (Note: This is not to guilt those of you who haven't given, but if you still are interested, it isn't too late. You can see one of the previous blogs for specific information.)

    The power just went off (due to a much needed rain storm... well, really it's been going off almost every day lately and we haven't had real rain for two weeks), so I need to bring this to a close (the battery doesn't last for long). (Note about the weather: We recently started the second dry season, which means it's hot again. Here's a quick little climate info: Feb, March, and April were very hot and humid (and not just because I came from the freezing cold of Chicago and my body wasn't accustomed to it), May and June were better, July through September the weather was wonderfully nice, and then October started getting hot again. In a few weeks the dry dust storms should start, which will last on and off until January. I've been told that it's both hot and cold, though I haven't quite figured out what that means or how that's possible. I'll let you know.

    One final thing, I'm hoping to soon get a second batch of pictures sent out to you, of my life here in Benin (my friends, my house, the market, everyday kinds of things like that). It's ironic you're not getting to see them until close to the end of my time here...but just think, if it weren't for technology, you wouldn't see them until I after I returned. :)

    Hope all you are doing well. Thank you very much your continued love and prayers for me!!

    With much love,

    P.S. FYI, You'll be glad to know that I've been very healthy for the last few weeks!! Akpe non Mawu! Dieu merci! Thanks be to God! (A phrase you hear very frequently here, and something I want to remember to do daily and in all situations, healthy or not!)

    Wednesday, September 21, 2005

    Ountivou, TOGO.... Round 3

    First visit, three days. Second visit, a week. Round three...nearly a
    month! And what an amazing month it was! If my sole reason for coming to
    Africa was for the privilege and opportunity of experiencing this past
    month, that would suffice. Not only have I finally felt I had something to
    give, something to contribute, I also received so much during my month in
    Togo. One of the things I received was many unforgettable experiences:

    *Experience 1: Coaching a basketball camp. Although I love shooting hoops,
    I never dreamed I would lead a three week basketball camp
    with about 25 kids. (A few days we had close to 40 kids; a few days there
    were only 10. Since the rains finally came while we were there, much later
    than normal, many kids had to go work in the fields their last few weeks of
    summer vacation. Considering the field work, it's amazing that 25 kids
    still were able to come consistently... and it was a much more manageable
    number for us!) On a dirt and sand "court", with one hoop and a few balls,
    these kids learned how to dribble, pass, shoot, rebound, defend, and a few
    offensive plays. During each practice, Koudjo told the players, and the
    many people spectating the practices (often numbering more than the
    players), a Bible story with a short lesson. It was amazing how silent a
    large crowd of kids can get when their listening to stories! It was fun to
    see these young players, most of them ages 10 to 14, go from never having
    seen a basketball to be able to handle a ball- well, some of them-, score a
    few points, and work as a team. Three weeks is definitely not enough time
    to make them into proficient ball players, but we at least made a start. If
    any of you (and you know who you are!) play basketball, you should seriously
    start preparing for a mission's trip to Ountivou for another basketball
    camp. These kids are very eager to learn more... and maybe by then we'll
    have found someone to finance the cementing of a court; the church already
    has the land.

    *Experience 2: Teaching an Aja literacy course. I feel very privileged to
    have had the opportunity of helping 20 kids learn how to read their own
    language!! These kids, who ranged from 1st grade to high school, plus one
    sole adult, are now able to read the Bible story books we gave them as
    prizes for attendance and winners of a reading competition we hosted at the
    end. Expecting to work with illiterate women, I was surprised the first day
    of class when it was 30 school-attending kids who showed up at the school.
    It's a lot more realistic teaching Aja in three weeks to kids who already
    read French...my hope is that maybe some of these students will teach their
    illiterate mothers and fathers to read as well. As with basketball, our
    numbers dropped from over 30 down to 20 when the rains came, but these 20
    were fairly dedicated in coming consistently, even when it meant hurrying
    back from field work a little early in order to attend class. How many
    American kids would choose to come to school during summer vacation,
    especially after many hours of hard field work??

    *Experience 3: The giving of school supplies... and receiving of many gifts
    in return. Koudjo had asked me many months ago about the possibility of
    helping the kids in his church and his family with school supplies. It is a
    big hardship on these poor subsistent farmers to be able to buy the
    necessary supplies for their kids, so much so that it deters some from
    sending their kids to school. So, we purchased a lot of notebooks,
    chalkboards, chalk, pens, pencils, coloring pencils, and geometry kits
    (rulers, compasses, etc) and distributed them to the kids at church and his
    family. What an incredible experience!! The joy these 91 kids (more than
    2/3 of them are from Koudjo's extended family!), and their parents,
    exhibited from receiving a couple dollars worth of school supplies will
    forever be imprinted in my mind. And the responses of the people will never
    be forgotten as well. There were so many visits of people who came by to
    thank us and speak God's blessings and rewards upon us, since they
    themselves had nothing to give. But there were also many many visits of
    people who came by to thank us, bearing gifts for us...and you wouldn't
    believe the gifts I received in return!! Here's a list of all the gifts we
    were given: basin after basin of dried corn kernels, the staple of life here
    (I brought back one huge bag of corn to give to people in Benin and eat
    myself and left another huge bag of corn with Koudjo's mom); 30 ears of
    fresh corn; 12 large yams (not like the yams I knew before coming to the
    Africa. These are huge, some the size of my calf, others the size of my
    thigh, and are used to make fufu, probably my most favorite African dish.
    Sadly, the people of Benin don't eat much fufu, but while in Togo I enjoyed
    many many good meals of fufu); 10 cassava; 5 roosters; 2 bottles of
    homebrewn moonshine; 1 bottle of peanut oil; bananas, oranges, and sweet
    fried bread balls. People just kept coming and coming with gifts during our
    entire time there. Just when I thought there couldn't possibly be any more,
    another person would stop by with gifts for us, even up to the day before we
    left Togo. One Sunday before church, Koudjo's uncles and their wives and
    children came and had a little thank you ceremony for us. Koudjo's dad
    thanked the ancestors with water and homebrewn moonshine, which was then
    also consumed by all those still alive and walking the earth. Koudjo's
    mother sang songs of praise to God and danced...and somehow got me to dance
    as well! I am still completely amazed at the people's generosity,
    hospitality, and kindness to me during our time in Ountivou. They have so
    little and yet they gave so generously from the little they had. And now I
    definitely know many more people in Togo than I do here in Benin!

    *Experience 4: Visiting a family a few evenings each week in order to tell
    Bible stories. There is a non-Christian family that Koudjo wanted to visit
    in order to tell them about God. So every couple evenings we would visit
    them. After a little bit of small talk with my tiny bit of Aja (and Koujdo
    translating whatever I didn't understand), Koudjo would read or tell them a
    Bible story and talk about it. Many times, people passing by would stop as
    well to listen and ask questions. These evening visits, although I didn't
    understand most of what was said, definitely count among the unforgettable
    experiences of my time in Africa. The father especially asked many
    good questions and there is definitely an interest and a thirst. The father
    thanked us for the interest we were showing in their lives and asked us to
    pray that one day he and his family would go to church and know God.

    *Experience 5: Almost dying... or at least thinking I was dying. Don't
    worry, I'm still alive (obviously!) and in very good health. But from now
    on, September 4th will be a day I commerate each year for the rest of my
    life. For on that day I thought I was going to die, but God chose to give
    me life instead. Unfortunately I became sick again while in Ountivou. At
    first I thought it was another round of malaria, but the medicine didn't
    seem to help. When, after a few days, I started throwing up and having
    severe diarrhea as well, I though maybe I had typhoid fever again. At that
    point I went to the nurse (there is one nurse and a dispensary in Ountivou, which
    serves Ountivou and 42 surrounding villages!), who gave me more malaria
    medicine and parasite medicine as well. I felt a bit better for two days,
    until Sunday afternoon after church. We had gone by motorbike to the
    nearest small town to make a phonecall. Even though it was a cloudy day, my
    eyes felt like they were being blinded by the sun. I couldn't wait to get
    back to my room and be in semi-darkness. But once we got back, my eyes still
    felt strange, feeling worse when I closed them to block out what felt like
    extremely bright light in a rather dark room. It kept getting worse and I
    started feeling the
    strangest sensations, like something was attacking my brain (but not pain
    like a headache). At that point I starting thinking I was dying. I
    completely lack words to describe how I felt, but I started crying and
    feeling like my brain was dying. Koudjo was ready to take me either back to
    Aplahoue (a two hour motorbike) or to the nearest hospital in Togo (a two
    hour motorbike ride in the other direction). I didn't think I would make it
    two hours, so he ran all over the village trying to find the nurse. When
    the nurse came, he gave me an IV and put me to sleep. When I woke up an
    hour later, I remember smiling and saying, "I'm still alive." I was so
    surprised, so incredibly thankful and grateful to God, to still be alive. I
    can't put into words the feelings and thoughts of that day...if you've ever
    had a near-death experience you understand. To feel like you've been given
    life when it was about to be taken away is incredible and humbling. The
    fact that your life is not your own is imprinted in your mind. God must
    have big plans for my life!!! After two days (and a total of 12 hours) of
    being hooked-up to an IV, I walked around looking at everything through
    slightly different lenses. Of course some of the gratitude and enjoyment
    and amazement of life has already worn-off, but I believe that this
    experience will never be forgotten.

    *Experience 6: Eating, eating, eating. After the previous heavy experience
    of dying, I feel the need for a lighter topic. I was so spoiled during my
    month in Ountivou: Koudjo's mom prepared so much delicious food for us to
    eat... and I didn't have to cook for a month!! I was afraid I would get
    tired of
    eating only African food for a whole month, but she fixed so many different
    and yummy things, that I'm not looking forward to being back and having to
    cook for myself again. She of course made lots of "Pate" (French,
    pronounced pot) or Ame (Aja, pronounced with long a, short e sounds), which
    is a thick hardened porridge made from ground corn flour. You break off a
    piece and dip it into a sauce. It is the staple food both in Benin and
    Togo. I've heard it said that if you haven't eaten "Pate" in a day, it's as
    if you haven't eaten. Although I like it and I make it for myself, I
    personally don't want to eat it every day. Fortuntately for me, Koudjo's
    mom made lots of other things as well. I already mentioned my favorite
    dish, Fufu
    (pounded yams, that become like thick mashed potatoes. As with Pate, you
    pinch some off and dip it into a delicious sauce. We also ate lots of
    beans, rice, cassava, fried yams, fried sweet potatoes, egblen (another dish
    from corn which is dipped into a sauce), and sometimes a sweet porridge and
    fried bread balls for breakfast. Oh, and we also ate lots of rooster!!
    With all the food I ate, I think it's only due to the fact that I was sick
    for a week that I didn't gain weight.

    *Experience 7: Village life for a month. I am happy to be able to say that
    I survived a month in a villagewithout running water, electricity, or a
    latrine (I already live
    without a toilet) ...and really it wasn't all that hard. I
    won't miss having to walk out to the bush, finding a spot hidden behind
    trees and bushes, trying to avoid stepping in other people's excrement, in
    order to "use the bathroom". But I really didn't mind having to draw water
    out of the cystern for my bath or to do laundry. And I actually prefer the
    ambiance of eating dinner by the light of a kerosene lantern rather than a
    dull electric lightbulb. During my month in Ountivou, I got attached to my
    little one-room mudhouse, still standing after 25 years. Although I gladly
    accept my real matress here in Benin in exchange for the straw one I used in
    Ountivou, I have to say that it didn't impede my sleep at all. I also really
    enjoyed the community feel of village life. I love how after each visit,
    and there's lots of visiting that's done, you walk the visitor back towards
    their homes. Somedays we would visit someone and they accompanied us home,
    and then later in the day they would return the visit and we would accompany
    them home. The week we went to Ountivou for "vacation" (before doing the
    camps), we spent the majority of our time going around paying visits or
    being at home receiving visitors. This neat community feel is desperately
    lost in towns and cities, both here and definitely in the States. (I've
    never lived in a small town in the States, so I don't really know how that
    compares.) Speaking of visitors, one morning we already had visitors at 6
    am. There you get up at the crack of dawn, 5am. Catholic mass starts at
    5:30 in the morning. One morning we were in the field planting peanuts
    before it was 6.

    *Experience 8: Planting the pastor's field with the entire church. Since
    the members of the church don't have much money to pay the pastor (most
    people seem to give between 2 and 10 cents tithe a week), they instead
    organize a day here and there to work in his fields. Fortunately for me, it
    was one of the days I was in town (during our week visit), for it was quite
    a memorable experience. After walking the 3 km out to the pastor's field
    the men and boys starting hoeing inbetween the corn stalks. The women and
    girls then followed by sowing three or so peanuts into each hole and
    covering them with soil using their feet. The feel of freshly hoed soil is
    almost velvety to the feet... cleaning toenails afterwards it another
    matter. For much of the time I worked in an area with a couple of the
    younger girls. Even young children, ages 3 and 4, help in the fields-
    no one is left out. When people started finishing the different sections
    they were working on, everyone ended up working together in one area: a big
    swarm of 30 some people descending on the land at once, some sowing peanuts,
    the rest closing the holes with their feet. It was amazing how quickly the
    work was finished... plus with all the talking, laughter, and competition,
    it was a ton of fun. The pastor's entire field was finished shortly after
    noon (we left the house around 6)! After eating a big meal of Pate and
    Sauce in the field, the men and boys took theirs off to another part of the
    field to eat, leaving the women and children to eat together. After another
    3km brisk walk home, we had finished a good day's work, all before 2:30 pm.
    Another day we went to plant peanuts in Koudjo's father's field. Leaving
    before it was even 5:30, we took off on one bike with a hoe and a big bag of
    peanuts, to sow, not to eat! Soon the reinforcement of others in his family
    arrived: his mom, his brother, his brother's very pregnant wife, and 4 or 5
    kids. I think we finished the small field in a little over an hour. Then
    Koudjo took me for a grand tour of his father's fields... and his father has
    A LOT of fields, with A TON of palm trees. What surprises me is that he
    doesn't cut some down to make money (i.e. to make into palm wine or
    moonshine) to help his children and grandchildren. But, as is typically the
    case here, the men don't see it as their responsibility. His one son needs
    money to go to technical school, but it is Koudjo who is supporting him.
    Another son has health problems with his hip. He himself has problems with
    his foot, but says he doesn't have money to go to the clinic. All of his
    children struggle to pay for school fees and supplies for their children.
    And yet he has these numerous fields (people don't sell land in the
    villages) and hundreds of palm trees (which although the majority aren't
    full grown, he has plenty that he could sell). However, if he does cut some
    he is going to use the money to finish a new house he has starting building.
    It's hard for me to understand...

    *Miscellaneous random experiences: Popping popcorn over an open fire one
    night for the kids in Koudjo's family and telling Bible stories and folk
    legends, learning to make botokue (tasty fried bread balls), going to school
    the first day of school, playing in one of the many torrential downpours,
    having a slide show one night for his family of the pictures we had taking
    (we had borrowed a missionary's laptop) and their amazement at seeing
    themselves on a screen!

    What a month! I am so extremely grateful for having had this time in
    Ountivou. Thank you for your prayers! God is definitely at work in that
    village, and I feel privileged to have been used by Him. Please continue
    praying for the people who heard the Bible stories: the kids from the camps,
    Koudjo's family, and the family we went to visit in the evenings. (One
    Sunday there were 10 new kids at church, both from the literacy and
    basketball camps, as well as kids from Koudjo's family.) Speaking of God
    being at work, here are a couple other random things He did for us: We lost
    an important key
    and looked all over for it. We were finally reminded to pray...and no more
    than 30 seconds later we found the key, in a spot that we thought we had
    already looked!!! Another day I was having major diarrhea problems and was
    worried about going to Aja class and basketball camp. Knowing that God had
    answered other prayers, such as not letting me die, Koudjo prayed for me and
    that was the end of my intestinal problems... for the rest of our time in
    Ountivou. If only I can remember to bring things to God in the future! I
    have promised to
    come back to Ountivou at least one more time before I quit Africa
    completely. I think I'm more attached to Ountivou than to Benin!!
    Ok, this very very long blog has got to come to an end. If you made it all
    the way through in one sitting, congratulations.
    Love you all,

    P.S. Some of you have asked how to send money for some of the things I
    listed in the last blog. You can make out a check to me and send to my
    Laura who will deposit it in my bank account. I can draw the money out
    using an ATM when I go to Cotonou, which I do about once a month or so.
    Here's the address:
    Laura Michel
    2235 S. Avers
    Chicago, IL 60623

    P.P.S. Since I finally received the long-awaited camera cable and since
    I've taken hundreds of pictures, you will soon have a much better picture of
    things I've tried to describe in words. I'm hoping this Sunday or next to
    be able to get them online. When I do so, I'll send out en e-mail with the
    address where you can view them at your leisure :).