Mamajojo's Muse

"Is this not the kind of fasting I have chosen: To loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter- when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and He will say; here am I.
If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.
Isaiah 58: 6-11

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Come for Dinner! ( malaria op-ed)

“Come for dinner!”

With a table that seated twenty, my house in Mtwara, Tanzania was often filled with visitors from around the world. Attached to our home, the mission guesthouse on Shangani beach welcomed German and Dutch missionaries, English and American volunteer builders, Australian and Korean travelers, and a wealth of Tanzanian church elders, youth workers, and guest preachers.

Stories and laughter floated above the hand-planed wood and out the screened windows, lifted by the Indian Ocean breezes up to the waiting stars. Our table heard songs of thanks in a chorus of languages, and offered up steaming rice and beans, tiny finger bananas, long canoe-shaped papaya strips and golden mangoes, cross-hatched and flipped inside out, a sweet libation to drip down our chins.

Now back in the United States, we seldom entertain unexpected visitors. Our children, who absorbed fluent Swahili, a smattering of German, a collection of hilarious British idioms, and an eclectic wisdom from our guests, have taken off on their own adventures. Our memories of conversational “iron sharpening iron” grow wistful, as my husband and I now exchange hectic schedules via email and squeeze in “date night,” trying to stay awake over burgers long enough for genuine dialogue. Tanzania is poor in cash, but taught us to value the wealth of human contact.

I still have physical memories of salt-scented air, a golden halo of lantern light, and sudden silence when the generator was stilled. My ankles remember the itch.

As we shared meal after meal with friends, anopheles mosquitoes discreetly met under our welcoming table for a feast of their own. Guests were cautioned to wear long clothing and socks, to spray any vulnerable exposed skin before dusk, and to join the ritual of swallowing bitter anti-malaria tablets, but as we lived and worked in Tanzania for ten years, we found it hard to follow our own advice.

Bwana Samaki, the fishmonger, waited at the door, four feet of swordfish ready to be negotiated by the kilo. His friend, Ali the woodcarver, was already setting up his ebony figures for our guests on the porch, and needed translation of his wheeling and dealing. Our lives couldn’t stop at dusk, and we certainly never climbed under a mosquito net in time to escape the cloud of insects that rose to meet us as the reflected sun blinked out of the puddles in which they bred.

Malaria is endemic in southern Tanzania, and thrives in the tropical heat and rain. We fought off attacks by the parasite with high fevers, chills, aches, squinty-eyed headaches, diarrhea and vomiting, all of which struck suddenly and violently. Swallowing the pills that could kill the parasite as it performed its multiplication in our red blood cells and liver became a cruel race: twenty minutes in the stomach meant the medication would be absorbed enough to do its job, but if we couldn’t hold it down that long, we had to try

again. Chloroquine, fansidar, halfan: in ten years we used several generations of drugs until the parasite developed resistance to each one. If they all failed, we might try that nasty old stand-by, quinine, which occasionally caused temporary blindness or deafness, or both.

Our kids could diagnose their own malaria before they were six, and performed finger-stick blood test to proved their claim. They impressed their friends by comparing “parasites per 200 red blood cells” on the slip the local clinic sent back to us by bicycle. Malaria became a frequent visitor to our home, and we created peace of mind by viewing it as a part of life, knowing that in our American wealth we could afford multiple tests and a wide menu of treatment drugs. Too often, that fragile sense of safety was shattered by the death of African neighbors and friends, and even Americans and Europeans who used the same preventive strategies as we did. Malaria kills a million people a year, most of them in Africa, and no ethnic or even socio-economic group is exempt.

But things are changing; a new movement to eradicate this disease is growing. Nets treated with insect repellant have been distributed in record numbers, lowering deaths and illness from malaria. Researchers are continuing the search for an effective vaccine, while testing and treatment have been improved, made less expensive, and provided more quickly. Campaigns to simply eliminate standing water in overgrown fields, ditches, and open water containers have reduced the breeding grounds for mosquitoes that carry malaria. To finally clear dwellings of resident mosquitoes, one old tactic could make all the difference: the weapon that ended the reign of malaria in European and western nations.

Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, DDT, has never been surpassed in its effective elimination of mosquitoes, although researchers are trying to find a match that would cause no harm in any circumstances. But the truth is, no study linking DDT to premature births, low birth weights, inhibited lactation, or other health problems has been successfully replicated or favorably confirmed by similar research. The harmful and fatal effects of malaria, especially on small children and pregnant women are, however, undisputed.

Well-intentioned environmental bans on DDT make dinner safe for the cloud of nibbling mosquitoes , but the proper use of DDT on the walls of my home could make life measurably and dramatically safer for my family and guests. Until an alternative is found that can just as effectively prevent malaria and contribute to its permanent eradication, DDT should be invited to the table.

(I submitted this for my Malaria Griot on-line course that I take from and Malaria No More)


Friday, March 12, 2010

"Still, I wonder if we shall ever be put into songs or tales. We're in one, of course; but I mean: put into words, you know, told by the fireside, or read out loud of a great big book with red and black letters, years and years afterwards. And people will say: 'Let's hear about Frodo and the Ring' and they'll say 'Oh yes, that's one of my favorite stories." — J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the RIngs

Let's hear about Carl Moyer and his adventures.

When Carl set off from the safe world of Sel-Perk High, no sage in all the world could have prophesied where his adventuring spirit would take him. Most graduates stayed close to the village of Perkasie, as the world continued to heal from World War II, and new conflicts developed in Europe, Africa, and Asia. But Carl strode across North America to Texas, then the Prairies of Alberta, and on to Nebraska and Missouri, where he learned a practical trade for his missionary future: he became a printer. This was probably not the first of a wide collection of useful tools that Carl loaded into his pack, but it was soon joined by lessons in pulling teeth from a dentist friend, eye surgery techniques collected from a doctor, skills in delivering difficult babies and packing them, sometimes three at a time, in the side-car of an old motorcycle to transport to the hospital a few hours away. Carl could fix a car with dental floss and duct tape, slide a plane onto rutted bush landing strips, and of course, build, plumb, wire, photograph, repair or re-invent any equipment needed in East Africa. I recall a Land-Rover trying to scale a steep escarpment when the front-wheel drive went out. He made use of his human cargo, Patty and me, as hood ornaments, and our combined weight on the front axle coaxed the car up the hill.

Carl succeeded in printing Words of truth in many languages, but he could spin stories by the fire and generate laughter from even the most solemn of visitors. His grin must have charmed Joanne when he first told her of his capture and rescue from Congolese rebels in the early 60's. They met in a language training school, and I heard the story of their romance, both versions, around the dining table at Tatanda mission station, in the golden lantern light after the generator was extinguished for the night. His slant on the story brought shrieks of "Carlo!" from Joanne, but the laughter and affection between them never seemed to grow old. At twenty, observing their marriage as I stayed in their home for months at a time, I resolved not to marry until I found a partnership like theirs. Carl and Joanne make it easy to believe that God fashions one man for one particular woman, and brings them together to create families that just have to be. And, with all the sad and broken relationships in this world, they make it easy to believe in marriage as high adventure, and not the end of the story, but only the beginning.

Growing up in Pennsylvania, every few years the Moyers appeared with snake skins and exotic carvings and stories that I wished would never end. I was only about ten when I decided I wanted the most exciting life possible, and work that brought unexpected wonders and challenges at every turn, so I resolved to be a missionary. Even if the guidance counselor raised an eyebrow at my plans, how could I settle for less? Carl was involved in the ceremony when I married Darrell, whom he soon initiated into African life on a short trip to Tanzania. When we named our first son Matthew Karl, it was in honor of two fathers: my own, Karl Thomson, who we lost when I was just thirteen, and Carl Moyer, who filled in as a spiritual model in so many ways. Our daughter was born two years later, and she is Joanna. We are delighted that some of the magic of Carl and Joanne has become their legacy, too, as they find their own ways to love Africa and the world with their talents and willingness to be a citizen of heaven anywhere on earth.

I am sure that I am only one of hundreds of people all over the world, who feel a pang of loss and disbelief at the thought of Carl, not among us. If I look at the places I have gone and the things I have done in my life, most of what has made me who I am can trace back through branch, trunk and root to seeds that were planted by Carl and Joanne. I hope that one of the joys of heaven, that makes Carl shout with laughter and joy, is a full understanding of how many of our stories were shaped by his. And may we all be given the chance to pass along those tales of courage and heroism by our home fires, to warm and light the planet.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Longing for a Sun-scorched Land

The snow is finally melting, and Haley was able to run across the top of the grimy crust this morning when I walked her. The light arrives earlier every morning, and the official start of spring is in 17 days, but the grim cold of winter still seems like it could never leave us. A few days ago there were morning streaks of salmon and orange between the skeletal black tree trunks, and that taste of color reminded me of the flaming sunsets that hovered over Mtwara almost every night that we lived there.

I insist, I didn't pray for three feet of snow this year, but I did enjoy every snow storm, and turned on the porch light to check on each accumulating, sparkling inch. After ten years in a hot country, the magic of pure white snow is not lost on me, even at 54. In the days when, by 9 am, my hair already stuck to my neck in the humid air 10 degrees south of the equator, my fantasy was a cool spring breeze lifting a lace curtain over a feather quilt. Here in America, I catch a whiff of wood smoke and breathe deeply, letting it it transport me back to Africa. Ten years in Tanzania... Ten back in Pennsylvania... It is clear now that my heart will be forever divided, always wistful for my other home. But in an odd twist of my life story, last week I found myself building a snowman in Pennsylvania with two little girls from Kenya who live in our garage apartment. One of many circles I can see in my life!

Back when my mother was still living and holding down 426 Crown Street as the center of our family universe, walking into the center hall of that little house in Morrisville and smelling roasting turkey was the absolute meaning of home.

I guess I won't stand in that center again. In Tanzania, part of me is drawn to Pennsylvania, but here my heart turns daily to the warmth of Africa like a morning glory turning to the sun. After years of wandering, we have our own piece of land and tall trees that spring back to the heights after bowing to the snow. Now the branches of our family are scattered to four continents and four points of the compass: Tanzania, Pittsburgh, Savannah, Chiang Mai, Costa Rica, Germany, Florida, England, Idaho, New York. I'm starting to "get" why older people long for heaven, but right now it is my turn to be home for the travelers. My first deep breath of that perfect air will be scented with turkey, curry, wood smoke, frangipani, pine needles... One breath, and I will know I am finally home.