Monthly Archives: January 2014

The Rainmakers

rain_makersThe journey of one touched by many

With the child mortality rate of about 19 percent, many Zambian children were not expected to survive past the age of 5.  2 out of every 5 children had no chance of ever setting foot in a classroom. Life was a dead end. I was like a little plant in the desert going against all odds. I could have been one of the many children who did not make it had it not been for the  rainmakers–people who caused it to rain, providing physical and spiritual nutrients for me to grow. So, how did I make it?

My parents were born and raised in the village. They believed in personal liberty, strong work ethic, self reliance and living in a strong village community. As a British colony, Zambia had gone through some drastic social and economical changes. The British way of governance had changed much of the village life resulting in an influx of Zambians migrating to the cities to work.  After Zambia’s independence, my parents were among the new immigrants to the city to find work in the commercial farms, construction, mining, and other new industries. Many had no formal education or technical skills, and worked menial labor, working for less than a dollar a day. Adapting to city life was challenging for my parents. They move around a lot before finally settling in a shanty compound built on a farm which was previously owned by an Indian farmer called Kalingalinga. The compound was eventually named after him.

Kalingalinga grew and so did the challenges. Houses were built out of mud and covered with tin roofs with no running water or electricity. By the time I was born, this makeshift town had grown to about 10,000 residents. Mounds of garbage piled up on every street corner. A quarter of a mile from my house was a huge hole where waste from nearby industries was dumped. Every year during the rainy season, there were outbreaks of waterborne illnesses such as cholera and dysentery, and many children lost their lives from these preventable diseases. There were funerals everyday in the community, of which most were children. There was so much hopelessness and devastation.

One day I was at church with my mother when I met a boy named Daniel. Daniel and I became best friends instantly. We had dreams to become doctors and travel the world; even though it wasn’t really the world, but countries that surrounded Zambia, nonetheless this was the extent of our world. Later on, we started a musical group that sang in funerals and some local churches. We had hoped to someday travel around Zambia and eventually to all of Southern Africa. Naïve to the challenges we were about to face, we were determined and nothing was going to stop us. We dealt with the challenges of living life and people’s stereotypes about Kalingalinga, hearing constant little voices that said we will never amount to anything; nothing good can come out of Kalingalinga. We believed education was the key to our dreams.

In the early 90’s, an American educator and his wife came to Zambia to help with a school zvgat our church. He had heard our group and was impressed with our vocal talents, and the fact that we had no formal music training. He promised to help sponsor the group to travel to the United States to sing at a student convention and schools. He encouraged us to practice every day, so we did. For several years we had practiced six days a week for at least three hours and had opportunities to compete in music festivals around Lusaka, the capital city. We had gotten better. We were even invited to sing for the head of state at the State House. Things started to look very good. We were finally getting somewhere.

And then it ended.

One evening my mom became mysteriously ill. We did not have the money to take her to the hospital, and the next day her situation was getting worse by the minute. By evening, our neighbor managed to raise money to take mom to the hospital. With Zambia’s extremely poor healthcare system, doctors did not fully know the cause of her illness until it was too late. The doctors said her cause of death was a stroke, but we later found out it was bacterial meningitis. With the death of mom, dad’s alcohol problem became worse. About a year after mom’s death, he had severely hurt his back and was unable to work anymore. I had to be innovative. So, I quit school and looked for ways to provide food for the family. My dreams of becoming a doctor died.

My mom had an old hand-powered sewing machine she received from her older brother. She used it to make quilts and patched holes in our clothes from time to time. Never in my life would I ever think that the little machine in the corner of the living area gathering dirt would become my lifeline. All I had was 3 shirts and 2 pants for clothes. I had to sacrifice my clothes to learn how to sew.  I took the seams out, laid them on the floor, studied the patterns, and practiced sewing them back together. I did this daily. My younger sister thought I was losing my mind after she saw the pieces of my clothes lying all over the floor in our little mud house. I was determined to learn.  In about three months, I was able to create my first outfit. I later started a small sewing business from my mom’s old leftover fabric. The business grew, and I later opened a shop at a local market.

A year and half later, the education missionary came through with his promise. He had managed to sponsor the group on its first international tour to the United States. The group traveled to over forty States, singing in over three thousand schools.

I have heard this phrase “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” being thrown around a lot. You might say I was innovative to use my mom’s sewing machine to create a business from the ground up, but I look back and see an army of people who helped me along the way. You can only pull yourself up by the bootstraps if you have boots; in my case I had nothing. Had it not been for my uncle giving mom the sewing machine, my pastor who became like a father to me,  and the many other people who helped us with food during the time I was learning to sew, there was no way I could have made it. The army of rainmakers in my life continued during our tours in the United States. From my American mom and dad who had three of their own biological children and us ten adopted Zambian children all living in one house,  to a family doctor and his wife that kept and sponsored three of my friends and I for our first year of college. We had families that loved us and supported us with their time and resources.

james-at-schoolIf it wasn’t for others raining blessings in my life, I would not have been here. Let us think twice before we tell someone to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps”. We all have been helped by someone to become what we are today. I can’t do enough to pay back all the people who helped me; the little I can do is to help someone else. We all can be rainmakers, making a difference in someone’s life, one person at a time.  Do you have someone that has had an impact in your life?

A Life Changing Moment

a-life-changing-momentWhat changed my life is not what my father said, it’s what he did.

I was born and raised in a shanty compound east of the capital city of Zambia. Kalingalinga was one of the poorest communities in Lusaka. An average worker made about $30 a month. Poverty, crime, diseases, witchcraft, and prostitution were rampant; there were more bars than there were churches. The nearest schools were about four to five miles away. People called Kalingalinga the dark city because of all the crime.

Our house did not have running water or electricity. Mom had to go to the market every morning to buy fresh food. One Sunday morning, my mother was making her trip to the market and  was stopped by a missionary. The missionary gave mom a Bible and other pamphlets.  She politely accepted them.  My mother did not know how to read or write; she never had a formal education. Both my parents did not attend church and did not know what to do with the materials. Thus my mother used the pages of the Bible to wrap roasted peanuts that she sold on the streets to supplement my dad’s $40 per month income.

The following year, I wanted to go to school with my older brother, but the school principal thought it would be dangerous for me to make the four and half mile trip through the corn fields. I had heard stories of kids who had been kidnapped and killed taking the same gravel road I would have to take, but that did not deter my ambition to go to school and become a doctor someday.  After I learned that I couldn’t go to school until next year, I was crushed.  I attempted to teach myself to read by using what was left of the Bible. I wanted to prove to my parents that I was ready for school. My determination paid off. I had learned how to read.

The first year of school was great. I was excited to finally start learning English and how to write.  I had excelled through the third grade, but by the fourth grade, I had become a target for bullies. By then, I realized my family was very poor compared to most of the kids in the school. The kids would tease me, spat on me, and call me names. The fact that I was wearing old hand-me-down girl shoes and a patched up uniform, made the situation even worse. I started to resent school. I was afraid to tell my parents about the torture I was going through. Something had to change if I was going to make it.

I became the monster the kids were afraid of. I became mean and fearless to gain respect from the bullies. I started to physically hurt the students who teased or bullied me. I was at the principal’s office at least seven or eight times per week because of all the fights I had gotten into and was suspended from school numerous times. The principal told my parents at one point that if I didn’t change, they would have to expel me from school, but I felt respected and important, because the students feared me.

One afternoon I came home from school, I had lunch and set out to play with a friend, but a neighborhood kid started to tease and taunt us. I picked up a sizable rock and threw it at the boy as hard as I could. The rock hit the boy in the top left side of his head barely missing his eye. The boy fell to the ground and was unconscious for several minutes. He was rushed to a clinic at my dad’s work. I knew immediately that I had done something very bad and was afraid my dad was going to literally kill me. My dad gave me harsh punishments very often since I started to get in trouble, but none of the punishments would make me stop the destructive path I was taking. This incident was very different; I saw my life in a different light.

I fled and hid until evening. I had contemplated about spending the night in the nearby bushes, but the thought of poisonous snakes and spiders made me think twice. By the time I came home, I had hoped my dad, who was an alcoholic, would be gone to the bars, but he wasn’t. I came into the yard and heard him talking with my mom. My heart sunk. I had never been this scared for my life before. I made my way to the front door and stopped. Then I heard him call my name. I responded and made my way into the house. He asked me to get a stool and sit in front of him. He looked me in the eyes and told me that what I did was very bad and never to do it again. I got startled as he reached to grab something on the table next to him. I was expecting a devastating blow on my head to knock me unconscious; instead he grabbed a plate of food and handed it to me. He said bye to my mom and left for the bar.

I ate my food in silence. This was unlike my dad. I was afraid he would come home and still punish me severely. He came home three hours later that evening a little drunk and did not say a word about what I did.

For several weeks I lived in fear. I had stayed out of trouble, expecting my dad will come home one day and snap at me. I had all these unanswered questions of what made him act this way. I started to read the half Bible again. Three weeks had past, nothing.

One evening, I was sitting outside doing my homework. My dad came home and told me he had gotten something for me. He handed me a package and I opened it. It was a brand new Bible. Wow! My family did not have a lot of money and Bibles were very expensive. His simple gesture was a life changer to say the least. It was then that I knew without a shadow of a doubt that he had forgiven me. All my fears melted away.

If my father could forgive me, could I do no less for those who had wronged me? I forgave the students who bullied me, and I set out to right the wrongs.  My goal was to make a difference and to be a friend to everyone, including the least popular kids. Mothers of my friends at home took notice of the drastic change and would use me as an example for their children. It’s amazing how something so simple, an act of love and grace, but yet so powerful would change my life forever.

What are some of the life changing moments you have experienced? How did some of the things you went through shaped who you are today? Maybe sharing them here can be a life changer for someone else — you never know.

Are We On The Same Page?

are-we-on-the-same-pageHeck, are we even in the same book?

On my last blog post “How Does She Do It?” I touched on some of the challenges mothers face raising kids and how most of the work they do at home is not appreciated. Culture teaches us that work is earning a paycheck. It is so embedded in our brains that we do not see the sacrifice of a spouse who has to deal with the day to day chores and dealing with kids at home.  I have received a lot of good feedback on how men and women can learn to listen to cues and establish an environment where we don’t take each other for granted.  I have to admit that I have a lot of learning to do. Despite trying to understand my wife between conversations that beat around the bush and non-verbal cues, I can totally miss what she has to say.

friendshipWhat’s fascinating is the huge difference in the way men and women process information,
yet we have to live with each other.  Our differences somehow are weaved into this amazing hidden treasure that unfolds as we explore life together, discovering the
beautiful and the ugly parts of a relationship.  True friendship develops when we can connect with each other on a deeper level, going beyond the superficial. We then discover that beauty comes out of the ugliness in a relationship.

I am not as patient as my wife when it comes to grocery shopping. I get in, get out, and get on with my life, but then I would only have a meal for dinner and most likely break the budget. She has all the menus planned out for the entire week, a grocery list, and a plan of attack upon entering the store. Sometimes, in the middle of planning the menus, she will ask me a question about what I would like to eat during the week, and it is usually when I am in the middle of doing something. And my mind goes blank.  It sure is not rocket science—it’s a simple question, right? If it takes more than 30 seconds for me to respond, she will come back with a suggestion.  She will say “What do you want to eat Monday, chicken or beef?” Information overload! I still hadn’t processed the first question, and now she’s added a second! And my response will be “yes, chicken or beef”.  My brain has just gone through a state of nothingness.  I have been caught off guard and do not know what to do or how to answer the question. My brain is flat-lining. It’s not that I am not interested in eating for the week. Interrupting a one-track mind is like making a wrong turn on the highway, like a GPS, I am recalculating trying to find an easier route to the question at hand. It won’t take long before she is frustrated because of my lack of input in planning the meals and she will proceed to make the menus without me. Or just quit cooking altogether. Good thing she loves cooking.

What frustrates both men and women in a relationship is the fact that we don’t operate on the same page most of the time. We think that we have communicated with our spouse about what we need, but we are using words or giving them cues they don’t understand, and then we expect instant results. What makes sense in our head does not mean that it made sense to our spouse.  I have heard frustrated women say “why can’t he do something without being asked? Can’t he see that there is work that needs to get done around the house?” In a lot of cultures, the mentality of most men is that work around the house is done by women and as a result, they do not feel the need to take the initiative to help. Men who do help on the other hand get frustrated when they are asked to do multiple things at the same time. I can’t multi-task like my wife. When I’m sweeping the floor or something and she asks me to take out the garbage, my response will be, can’t she see I’m already doing something? Our frustrations are the result of our lack of understanding on how different we process information.   We tend to be impatient with each other and are unwilling to give each other grace.

Every once and awhile, my wife and I have these self-evaluations where we talk about our needs and the things we do that makes the other person frustrated. At times my wife will say she has needs. I ask her what her needs are, and she tells me she doesn’t know. What’s a man to do with that? It is hard when you hear your spouse take a jab at your ego and bring out some of the ugly parts of your life, but it is necessary.  This helps us find ways to reconcile our differences and learn how to meet each other’s needs. We become better people when we learn to take criticism and not become defensive when we are corrected. Many times we are all locked up in our own little world, but we must look beyond it.  We must work hard to keep the channels of communication open even if it is a hard thing to do.  In the end, it will be worth it.

What do you find frustrating while trying to communicate with others? Spouse, parents, friends, co-workers, kids? What has been the most rewarding conversation you had? Would you mind sharing some of the ways you use to effectively communicate? We can all use help in establishing genuine and solid relationships.

 

How Does She Do It?

mother_imageTwo hours with the kids and I am almost pulling my hair out!

I work 8 hour days, 5 days a week, by 5:00 p.m., my brain is all mushy from writing web programs or dealing with the technical issues of the day. I always look forward to getting home so I can have a few minutes to relax and spend time with the kids before their bed time. My wife who is an excellent cook always has a meal ready for us to eat. After the meal, we try to get the kids to help with cleanup and getting the dishes in the dishwasher, even though it is messy at times; it’s the thought that counts. Once we have the dishes all cleaned up, it’s time to play tickle-kiss with the kids—some kind of game we invented. Our oldest son is the loudest and most active and our youngest is obsessed with stuffed animals; she has quite a stash in her room. All it takes is several minutes for the house to look like a mini tornado went through. If my wife told anyone that she had cleaned the house and had everything in order, no one would believe her because of the lack of evidence.

How does she keep up with the never ending list of chores, menus for the week, cooking, laundry, cleaning and whiny kids? And the list goes on. Where does she get the strength to keep going? When does she have a quiet time to reflect and rest? Can you imagine a single parent who has to raise children, work, go to school and worry about the day-to-day chores?

The other day, I heard a man argue with his wife; he told her “all you do is stay home with the kids while I bust my [tail] with these 10 hour shifts at work to put food on the table”. I couldn’t believe what came out of his mouth. Yes, he definitely deserved the dog house. I am afraid that was probably the way he regularly talked to her. The lady, who was visibly shaken, picked up the crying baby and proceeded to check out the groceries in silence. The guy kept grumbling on the way out the store.

One thing that came to mind after I saw the incident was the story of a Texas woman Andrea Yates, a stay at home mother who drowned her children. No one really knows what drove her to commit such a crime, but what we know is she was suffering from postpartum depression after her fifth child. When I read an article “Andrea Yates: Ill or Evil?” by Katherine Ramsland , I couldn’t help but feel sorry for a family that was fully involved in their local church and appeared to be happy on the outside,  go through something so horrendous. When I read comments from people, calling her a monster and that she deserved to be hanged, I was amazed at such rage coming from the readers of the article. Wow! I am not trying to lessen the crime she committed; I am just appalled by people who commented without a clear understanding of what mental issues can do to a person. Her oldest son’s final words to her were “I am sorry”. Could it be the challenges of raising five kids that drove her to the breaking point? Is it possible that her husband was so busy trying to provide food, clothing and shelter for the family that he neglected a crucial aspect of their relationship, her emotional well being?

A lot of people who are suffering from depression and in need of help are afraid to reach out for help because of how we respond to them. We tend to isolate ourselves from people who are dealing with emotional or mental issues. We have created an environment where there is no room for people to be real. People like Andrea Yates who do reach out to the church or people around them, get a “you got to fix your life first” before you can come into my little circle of friends. This kind of treatment could be the reason why a lot of people dealing with depression and other emotional issues remain silent. What Andrea Yates shared with the cops in the 30 minutes interview after she was arrested, was what she should have shared with her husband or her church group. She believed she was a bad mother and the kids were getting out of control. She needed to do something to save them from hell. This to me sounds like an outcry of a mother who felt alone and did not have anyone to share her issues with. Could the whole situation have been avoided?

What makes us human is the ability to process information and able to make sound judgment. In most cases, people going through depression or extreme stress have a difficult time making rational decisions because their reality has been warped by isolation and compounded by life demands, cultural expectation and the little voices that circulate and condemn. Sometimes family and friends who know of a loved one dealing with depression or other mental issues live in denial, and would rather not deal with the situation instead of seeking help through counseling or other means.

I can’t comprehend what it is like for a mother carrying a baby for 9 months and going through labor, the everyday demands of giving without receiving, sacrificing herself for the needs of the kids and her husband over and over. Moms never have a break. They keep going even if they are in pain or sick. Parenting is hard, harder when you feel like you are carrying it all. It is easy to go off to work, earn a paycheck, and come home and check-out of this world through watching TV. I know of mothers who work 8 hours a day, 5 days a week who still go home and cook, clean and do all the household chores. We all need a break, we all need a rest and refuel, but how does a woman find the time? Since she is so in the groove of self-sacrificing she will not ask for time alone, she might. Sometimes she does, but it feels wrong to her….is it culture telling her that she cannot rest, refuel? We guys can zone out in front of the TV, computer, iPhone, play games, be totally oblivious to what is going on in the house. Sometimes it is easier for a woman to do the chores herself, rather than try to communicate to a spouse who has checked out to what needs to get done or how to help. Wives are expected to assist their husbands, to listen, be sensitive to pick up on the cues of what they like, dislike. Why can’t men try to do the same?

What a mother does is more than work, it’s LOVE. It’s sacrifice. So how does she do it? I can honestly say that I don’t know. But I can help her.

When Cultural Expectations Don’t Lineup With Reality

cultural_expectations2When my wife and I got married, like any other young couple, we had a list of things we wanted to accomplish which included having kids. We thought we had this whole marriage thing figured out during our courtship, and since we were not guaranteed tomorrow, why not get on with the program and have kids right away. I had always dreamed of a baby boy or girl running around the house getting spoiled by daddy. Whatever the challenges this little munchkin brings my way, I would be able to handle them as grown up men do. After our two-year honeymoon was over, I was more than ready to be a daddy. My wife always talked about being a stay at home mom, that was her dream before we even met.

Two, three, four, five years had passed, no baby. We had started to wonder if this whole children thing was for us.  Me being on the road, traveling with a music group did not help the situation. We felt time was not on our side. It seemed everyone around us was getting pregnant, even couples who were not ready to have children. We talked about adoption if we could not have children of our own. My wife’s work was getting more stressful, she wanted to quit her job, but her dream of becoming a homemaker was getting shattered, and I knew she felt bad. If she stops working, what would she become? A stay at home wife? It would have helped if we had a bunch of pets, she would have at least quit work to take care of them at home. Ha! 

Finally, we accepted the possibility that we might not be able to have children – and we were okay with it. But then what would she do? Her purpose in life was supposed to have kids and take care of the home–at least that is what culture taught her. And me.

During my time of reflection, I began to realize my cultural expectation of what marriage should be was getting a kick in the rear. I grew up in a culture where married couples were expected to have children. I remember even at a young age how people who had failed to conceive were isolated and ridiculed. In every case, the woman was to blame even though there was no proof that indicated the woman was the culprit. I couldn’t imagine how women felt who expected support from their husbands, family and friends, but instead got a slap in the face – a baby making machine that does not work.

We have literally created these cultural boxes where roles for men and women are stored. Everything expected of a man or woman is defined by the checklist within the box. My wife who was born and raised in Minnesota was challenged at one point by someone she knew. She told the lady that her desire was to get married and raise a family but she wanted to go to college to get an education first. The lady told her “why do you want to waste money getting an education when your desire is to get married and be a homemaker?”

That kind of cultural expectations hung over my wife’s head as she tried to figure out what she should do until meeting Mr. Right. So, she became a lady-in-waiting, waiting for prince charming to whisk her away to a castle where she will live happily ever after. Then she met me…LOL. In the following six years she remained childless. What was she going to do in the meantime? Be a housewife? No, she went off to college and discovered her true passion. Not that her desire for having kids lessened, but sometimes we have to face the inevitable. What if my wife never had kids? Was she supposed to work menial jobs? Or could we perhaps be called to more? Do we allow our culture to hold us back? To dictate certain expectation but only to find that these cultural demands does not line up with reality? Then what? Maybe we need to take a step back and think what we are teaching our sons and daughters.

Challenges we face now are definitely different from what our forefathers faced a century or two ago. There is nothing wrong with keeping up with traditions, but if our traditions become a source of strife and harm to our loved ones, then maybe we should think twice about holding on to them. I have seen families who hated each other’s guts get together for cultural  or traditional holiday gatherings because it is expected of them. At what cost? Perhaps we should spend more time mending broken relationships and empowering people to use their talents to their full potential. This world is full of pain and suffering, we can all use a little encouragement from loved ones.

What are some of the cultural expectations you faced that did not lineup with reality? How did you deal with them?