So this is Christmas?

Day Twenty-one.

Three weeks, with no signs of slowing.

Our training complete, we arrived in Tappita on Monday evening, the permanent location of our ETU. Word was that it was getting close to being finished and we were needed to gear up for the opening. The trip was itself fantastic, primarily because we were able the bypass the normal method of transit – a ten-hour car ride fraught with a perpetual red dust-cloud, zero bathrooms and potholes that could be used to collect rainwater for a small village. Somehow we connected with a group offering free helicopter flights to Ebola workers, which took our journey airborne. Gliding over the green forests and brick-red, Liberian soil gives you a new perspective of this place. It really is beautiful here, above the smog of the city and oppressive smell of burning trash. Forehead smashed against the glass of the small cabin, I could see small, wooden huts, lunch stoves burning black smoke, vivid fabrics laid to dry in the sun like confetti, and brilliant headscarves chasing small dots of children around. These people were just living their lives, cooking their meals, building their furniture. Totally oblivious to the bearded nurse in the sky overhead.

i was so focused on taking pictures that they almost took off without me.

i was so focused on taking pictures that they almost took off without me

hovering over the town of tappita

hovering over the town of tappita

We landed in a small, grass field directly in the center of a dirt circle, and were quickly picked up and driven to our home for the next four months. The first thing that grabs your attention is the red dust. It reminded me of being a six-year old, of the sandbox of blush coating the bathroom sink after my grandmother finished aggressively blasting her cheeks with it. It blankets everything out here, so much that it almost feels like buildings and people are made of it. Roadside shops, trees, and the eyelashes of the many motorbike-riders are caked with it. The hospital itself is a sight to behold, out in the middle of nowhere. It rises slowly into view and is woefully out of place: a massive white building, sun glinting off its many windows, wrapped by an iron fence and gilded with what could almost be described as landscaping. Built and staffed by the Chinese six years ago as a gift for Liberia, it was totally abandoned by them shortly after Ebola struck the area. It has remained open with a skeleton staff composed of volunteers and nationals (the only hospital to never close during the outbreak), but even still is the second-best health-care facility in the entire country. It possesses a surgical center, pediatric ward, an emergency department and Liberia’s only CT scanner (currently broken, however).

a jewel in Africa

a jewel in Africa

Directly to the side of the hospital stands our ETU, still under construction. I’ve learned very quickly that the process by which one plans, receives funds, builds and maintains an ETU is a massive undertaking, as slow and annoying as a grandmother in the fastlane. Since the entire thing is funded by a grant from USAID, there can be no quick changes or modifications, regardless of how necessary they are. Take for example, something we discovered yesterday, during one of our tours. I realized our triage area needed another door, as currently the same door used for possibly infected patients would be used by staff. Not only that, but a fence was being built that would block it. And you know, I just don’t feel like getting Ebola. Upon bringing this up to the leadership, they confirmed that yes, this was something they were aware of, but couldn’t yet be fixed. Meanwhile the workers continued to drive the misplaced fenceposts deeper into the ground. I offered to simply go tell them to stop, but apparently it’s not that simple.

It was explained to me that because USAID is providing the funds, a planner in Washington D.C. had designed it, and had the plans approved by someone who wears expensive suits. The schematic was then gifted to the engineer under contract, which we are not allowed to see, nor modify in any way. To request something needing precise calculation and extreme oversight, like say, a hole in the wall you can walk through, we must communicate our request to the engineering staff. This will then be relayed to Washington D.C. who will place a satellite call to the Master Architect on his yacht in the Caymen Islands. After his masseuse is finished and his margarita is taken away, he will dictate to his assistant “maybe, but how wide do they want it?” This is to the best of my understanding, where we are on the great saga that is “The Door that Halted a Nation.” There’s probably enough source material here for a trilogy; someone call Peter Jackson.

working hard with nary a powertool

working hard with nary a powertool

Obviously, it’s a little frustrating to be held up in this way, but even without that the future is still somewhat unclear. Ebola incidences are down from their peak in late-July, and they seem to be moving over to Sierra Leone, so we’re also wondering how much work there will be for us. It’s bittersweet as a healthcare professional because of course, you would hope that a deadly virus ends its vicious devastation of the country. At the same time though, you want to be useful and productive in your time and do the job you came for. Many of us here quit our jobs to work here, so we’re hoping that someone out here can benefit from that. All in all though, we’re staying fairly optimistic, trying to keep busy with training Liberian workers and other things. That is, until I realize that it’s almost Christmas.

And it feels really odd spent anywhere but home.

What I really should be doing currently is what I’ve done almost every Christmas since just after the beginning of time: seated on my parent’s cold floor, walls layered with warm, red light from our overburdened Christmas tree, eggnog in-hand (dad offering nutmeg, Steph offering Bailey’s) crumpled piles of wrapping paper zipping by my ear and wondering what I’ll do with an electronic train set or Pokémon toys from my mom (“Hey, you used to love these! It’s a walk down memory lane!”).

Instead, I’m seated on a crusty, plastic chair on the patio of an old, washed-out Liberian hotel. A dim yellow bulb caked with a buzzing, dark insect crust illuminates my keyboard; a diesel generator roars in the background. The engineers under contract to construct our ETU – at the moment partially-obscured by a small mountain of empty Heineken bottles (all the rage here, for some strange reason) live here and allow me to hike over and leech some internet. Sweat beads on my forehead, but I accept the coffee they offer because it’s Folgers and reminds me of my dad. Trying to remember the Christmas music we’d have playing on cassette, all I can think of is the first verse of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” before the tipsy work crew start blasting Liberian hip-hop to stay awake. Why in the world did I come all the way out here?

Then all the things that seemed alright before, suddenly seem a little less alright. You remember that there’s no hot water in your bathroom, you haven’t gotten an email that’s not from Urban Outfitters in two weeks and you’re guarding Nescafe coffee crystal packets the same way you used to guard your credit card numbers. And then you just really miss home.

a fine mist of red dust at the marketplace

a fine mist of red dust at the marketplace

the Liberian preferred mode of transit

the Liberian preferred mode of transit

I was thinking about all this on the way to dinner tonight, trying to put on a good face for my crew. I’d heard that our Liberian cooks were going to put on a big festive, feast for us tonight and noticed that the goat who had been neighing (?) all week was suddenly gone from his little hill. I arrived to see plastic tables and chairs set up, Liberian beer bottles and off in the distance, a cluster of maybe fifteen Liberian women and girls hovering around three crackling fire pits. We were served snapper fish coated in peanut butter (?), roasted chicken and reintroduced to our missing goat friend. It was an emotional and delicious occasion, but not quite enough to get my spirits up to where they usually are.

Let’s not be sad, our friend the goat is in a better place. My stomach. -Dr. Ravi’s euology

As the night was winding down, I decided to go say thanks and “Merry Christmas” to the women who’d worked so hard for us. It was after all, Christmas night for them too and they’d spent it wrapped in dingy aprons working up a vicious sweat. As I made my way over to where they sat fanning themselves, I was thinking of their families, the people of this area, what Christmas-time is like for them. This morning, we saw the Liberian kids who live across from our compound racing out of their house with their gift: belts. It’s hard to put yourself in the place of someone whose life you’ve never lived, but from the little I’ve seen, it’s a pretty difficult existence. And just as I was trying to figure out how to split my inner grief down the middle and share some of it with these women, they broke into song:

Weeeee three kangs the orient ahhh! Berry geeefts we travel thaaa fahhh….!

With an unmistakable Liberian disregard for rhythm or pitch, they pressed on: substituting musicality for effort. And you know, that may be the worst Christmas song ever (tied with “Little Drummer Boy”), and I think some verses from The First Noel got mixed in there, but seeing these women parade around, dance and shout carols to no one in particular, really got to me.

late night culinary delight

late night culinary delight

mariah at work on a snapper

mariah at work on a snapper

Here are women who, in my limited perception of them, have no reason to be happy. They are all poor, feet perpetually dirty, and work on holidays to save enough for their children’s Christmas morning belts. I, at least, will leave that life eventually. This is their existence, probably forever. And yet, in the midst of all they have to battle with, find a reason to be happy, to celebrate, to sing. As I entered the circle of dark skin and colored headwraps, I couldn’t have thanked them if I wanted to, they would have never heard me. I joined them in song, as did the rest of my team – trying to sing harmony with no melody, shouting over the din, attempting to suggest anything but “We Three Kings”. As we danced and “sang” I wanted to retrieve my camera to capture the moment, but I just couldn’t will myself to leave twirling scene of joy and cooked fish. Just as I thought I was making headway towards “White Christmas”, Mariah, lead cook and the biggest, loudest music director of them all clapped her hands like a gunshot,  and the singing stopped. “Awright ladies! It’s time to clean it up!” And just like that, women scattered, laughing. They still had to walk home in the dark.

Later that night the staff had a white elephant gift exchange around our Charlie Brown tree. I carved a chubby, white elephant out of a block of soap I’d purchased at the market for some poor fellow nurse and received three tennis balls for my efforts. Someone broke out the M&Ms, which made things really rowdy. It was uproariously fun, but I kept thinking about those women and their songs. Man, that was just really fun. Then the thought hit me.

That wasn’t just fun. That was Christmas.

misty mornings are every morning here

misty mornings are every morning here

You can read the Christmas story a million times (as I have) and know it so well, that sometimes you lose the gravity. The skin and bones of it. It gets shuffled up with pumpkin-spice lattes and candlelight services and the realization that you’re going to have to find another home for another electric train set this year and the holiday monster just bites down so hard that December 26th is almost more of a holiday than the 25th. And I’m as guilty of that as anyone, even out here on this dusty continent with not a strand of tinsel for a million miles. I always seem to forget the simplicity that lies at the very center of this towering, holiday avalanche.

Jesus came here to be with us. He didn’t have to, we didn’t know we needed him to and we’d made our world into a pretty awful place to be, but he did it anyway. When he did that, he brought people hope: hope that this world that can be so horrible, won’t always be that way. Hope that our lives mean more than the sum of our parts. Hope that beyond the cold, unforgiving earth flows a current of love running underneath and breaking out in small pools of beautiful things. I think that’s what I saw dancing with those women: a reminder of that current, a reminder of the hope that was brought to us in Christmas. And while I don’t know fully what it all means for me, I learned a little bit more standing in that circle, listening to the shouts of happy women who shouldn’t be.

our tree, fashioned with ETU waste, balloons and love

our tree, fashioned with ETU scraps, balloons and love

For one thing, it means a wealthy, white, privileged man can dance awkwardly alongside the dusty feet of impoverished African women with nothing in common, except for gift that they share.

Merry Christmas everyone. May you discover anew the worth of what you’ve been given.

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6 responses to So this is Christmas?

  1. Tara Truitt

    I resonated with so much of this. The dust on dust on dust on dust. The awe of joyfully singing African women. African hiphop lullabies. Peanut butter goes with anything. Lamb chop goes missing. The gut level realization of Jesus and the warming sense of gods love. I’m missing the bright fabrics and bright singing/dance parties!!! Keep pressing on!! So much treasure in these words you share with us.

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  2. Rhonda Carlson

    Zach. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed reading this…every word. You hear about the area and the disease, but forget that there are living, breathing people there who are simply living their lives. You are the kind of representative we want, that we need overseas. What a beautiful gift you are giving them, but also what a beautiful gift you are giving us as well. Thank you. Thinking of you this Christmas season. Lots of people are, I’m sure. You’re the kind of guy who makes a lasting and wonderful impression. (Do they know what a great singer and actor you are as well? Maybe you should start the Tappita Players Dinner Theatre….in your spare time.) Lots of love and prayers to you and the wonderful staff you are working with.

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  3. Bernice Rebein

    Thinking of you. Your X-mas rocked! Hugges and kisses your way. Keep up the good work and stay safe.

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  4. Kathy Allen

    Another amazing post from one of the best, most clever and talented writers I’ve hac the pleasure of reading…keep em coming. Amazing stories!!!

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  5. Lisa Awbrey

    Thank you for sharing your stories. We in America do need to realize how much we’ve been given and be willing to share with others. We take so much for granted that the rest of the world can only dream about. May we all be as self-less as you to those we see in need. I will be praying that the bureaucratic eggheads with the USAID organization will open their eyes and make the necessary changes to the door situation quickly, although so much of our country is shut down the week between Christmas and New Year’s. I’m sure it’s frustrating waiting day after day for urgent changes like this to be made. May God richly bless your efforts and those of your team as well.

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