Friday, June 29, 2012

Journal Entry

In just a few days, we will officially be at the halfway mark in our mission – 9 months down, 9 to go.  So I thought to do some reflection at this mid-way point:

We’ve been on a roller coaster of emotions and experience.  We could never have imagined what it would be like nor could we have really prepared in any specific way.  Our married years of serving in the Church was, of course, the best preparation but it would have to be considered as a “general” preparation of spirituality, service experience, and testimony.

Nothing could have prepared us for the difficulties of living in this “3rd world country” with its heat and humidity (so bad I’ve often said at the outset of the day – “Let the sweat-fest begin!”), dirt, bugs, illness, lack of education, and cultural barriers to success so deeply embedded that you wonder at times if the Fijians will be able to progress past the negative parts of village life & chiefs and laziness and addictive Cava drinking, and ineffective government.  Then too, we’ve experienced two floods, weeks without water or electricity, and all the challenges associated with an entire region being under water.  Add to those things the incessant noise from the diseased and roaming dogs barking & fighting constantly night and day; Indian music blaring from every store and home so loud you can’t hear yourself (and this is really bad music!); and “living noises” which seem right in your flat because houses have many windows and you never shut them because of the heat so there’s no barrier to sounds intruding from everywhere around you.  And did I mention the monotonous, awful food?  We rarely go out to eat in Ba or the other small towns around us because the food is truly terrible and we assume, unsanitary.  Then too, we are isolated with no other missionary couples near us to visit with on occasion.  There’s a lot more to complain about but all of them have combined to get us down so low at times that we’ve wondered if we’d be able to stick it out.  We’ve mostly determined to pray more, murmur less, and make jokes about the trial where we can and that has lightened the load but we still get down, particularly when you’ve worked very hard and made no discernable progress on so many fronts.  One day, in the ultimate expression of dealing with the challenges in humor, Annie was looking at our tin of pills where we have combined vitamin and mineral tablets of different sorts, and said, “which one do I take to kill myself?”

On the other hand, nothing could have prepared us for the sweet joy of working with the simple people of Fiji.  I’ve commented before that they are not unintelligent, but they are under-privileged and that certainly leads to a lack of educational quality, experience, and broadness of mind.  However, when we sit in these humble homes made mostly of a cement foundation, corrugated tin siding and roof, and almost nothing of value or possession on the inside, we are struck with how good these sweet people are and how simple their faith is, and how little you actually need to live and be happy.  They seem perpetually happy and jovial – Fijians love to joke and laugh.

We taught a woman yesterday who is preparing to go to the temple (Adi Tabualevu).  Her husband is not a member and she is a convert of a few years.  She is blind in one eye (result of a bad “home remedy” for an eye irritation), is the mother of 4 boys, and is as pure and worthy and full of optimism as anyone could be.  We have given her the booklet, Preparing to Enter the Holy Temple (from Elder Packer’s book) to be reading while we are teaching her the preparation lessons.  We asked her how her reading was going and if she could understand the English.  She first said, “yes”, but then reconsidered; “Not at first, but I pray to Heavenly Father and ask him to help me and then I keep reading it over and over until I understand.”  Whenever we visit there’s another “common” story of faith from her that is oh, so uncommon.  Her husband is a cane cutter (which means he is meagerly employed at a devilishly hard job of cutting sugar cane by hand with a big knife), and is therefore out of work 6 months a year.  He does other “casual” jobs for cash and as everyone, does a little gardening for the daily food of roots, leaves, fruit, etc., but they truly have no money much of the time.  When we were planning for her future trip to Suva to go to the temple (6 hours away by bus), we estimated it would cost her about $50 USD for bus fare, housing, food, garments, etc.  That’s like a dream amount of money.  We thought it would be difficult for her and not a happy prospect for her supportive but uninvolved husband.  But she prayed that his heart would be softened and the other day he said to her, “we will do this, it’s for a good thing.”

The Tabualevu home has never had electricity and they have hoped for it someday.  No electricity means, of course, no refrigerator (even if you could afford one), no light, no radio or music, etc.  Recently, Sister Tabualevu has been praying for a way to get electricity.  Just amazing how your faith is strengthened when you have no other means of resolution for needs.  Not by any means, out of desperation or piteous appeal to God; just pure faith that you live by because you have so little control over anything.  Anyway, the bishop brought over an electrician to see what it would take to get electricity into their home and they determined it was possible if the Church paid for the materials and the member electrician did the work for free.  But one problem, she needed a “government approved” post to string the wire from.  “Government required/approved” usually means, “impossibly expensive” because the government has no tax base from citizens so it gets most of its money through excessive fees for permits and permissions of every imaginable sort.  She was told that the post would cost $800.  We’re pretty sure they don’t make $800 in a whole year so that was a deal breaker.  Give up?  No, no.  Sister Tabualevu said that she came home from getting that news and went right over in the corner of her house and knelt down and prayed that Heavenly Father would open a way for them.  The next day she had the idea to go see an uncle who worked at the Fiji Sugar Company and told him of her plight.  He said that she didn’t need to worry because he’d find a way to get her one from the plant for free (not sure if it’s legal, but it was an answer to prayer!).  That’s her faith.

Speaking of faith, there’s a lot of sickness, disease, and injury complications due to infection here.  Everything green grows great in Fiji, and everything “bacteria” does just as well.  With agrarian lifestyle, running around bare foot, and lots of nicks and cuts, accidents and injuries, and bug bites, and poor nutrition – well, there’s a lot of serious sickness and infections -- and the healthcare is awful.  We were told early on, “don't go to the hospital, people die there.” But people still go to these little clinics and hospitals, because they have no other choice.  Fijians come from a chiefly society and one that was under British colonial rule for years and as a result of both these cultures and their lack of education and perhaps other factors, they often don’t ask someone “in authority" (like a government official or doctor) any questions.  Generally it seems that you just do what you’re told and don’t ask questions. We’re always amazed at a conversation like this that we’ve had so many times that we don’t even bother anymore:

We ask, “What did the doctor say you have?”
“He didn’t say anything,” they reply.
“Did you ask him?”
“No, but he gave me some pills.”
“What kind of pills, what are they for?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you ask?

Or even more laughable: a sister in the ward recently had swollen glands in her neck and a high fever so the doctor here in Ba said, “you should go to Latouka and have an x-ray.”  Latouka is an hour away by bus and costs about $4 round-trip.  Then you get to the overcrowded regional hospital and take a number and wait, wait, wait.  If you’re lucky, you get in that day and they do an x-ray which everyone with any education knows will show nothing of the soft tissues in the neck but hey, “we should probably do an x-ray anyway.”  So then you eventually get back the x-ray results and wait in another line for a doctor to interpret them.  Then the doctor says, “you’re OK, there is nothing broken, here are some pills.”  Nothing broken???

“Did you ask what the pills are for?”
“No . . .”

If you ask the doctor, as we did once in another circumstance, “can’t you just examine her neck, or look in her throat?” He replied; “the order from the doctor in Ba says to have an x-ray so that’s all I can do.  If you want me to examine her neck, go back to Ba and have the doctor write another order.” Oh my goodness, are we really experiencing this? He’s right there, he could reach up and feel her neck, or take here temperature, or look in her throat in less than a few minutes, but no – can’t do that, because he has no orders.  What a sad and ineffective system.  In fact, as our favorite friend, Saimone Nairoqo says, “everything in Fiji is broken, even the weather.”

I mention all this just to emphasize that most health issues, even serious ones, essentially go untreated or are treated ineffectively.  So the members depend on faith, prayers, and priesthood blessings. And sure enough, most terrible things are healed through their faith and the administration of those blessings.  We have given more blessings here in 9 months than I’ve probably ever given in previous years combined and it’s wonderful and humbling.  Recently one boy had a serious infection on the bottom of his foot and could not put any weight on it.  We had stopped by his village that evening and he wanted a blessing, which we gave. A few days later we heard that the boil popped and drained right after the blessing and the next day he ran in a school race.  “How about that big infection?  No problem, we just asked for a blessing and by the morning we were better!”  It doesn’t always work so perfectly but amazingly, it does work most of the time.  It makes us reflect on the statements of the Savior to those of “little faith” who doubt God’s power.  In this culture and with their needs, God just answers those needs more immediately than anything we’ve ever experienced or imagined.

So at this mid-way point, we feel blessed to have come and even for wading through the difficulties.  We’re not saintly on that issue but we do feel refined and somehow accomplished for making it this far.  And we think of the two we’ve taught and baptized (Tuliana Lewaseni and Miriama Saqali), the families we’ve helped prepare and go to the temple (Mateiwai, Nairoqo, Nava), the leaders we’ve helped to tutor, and the inactive members we’ve helped back into faith and all in all it’s been a good 9 months. We’ve learned and felt much of the divinity of human kind and the great need of the gospel throughout the world.

Some have asked if we will be in Ba all 18 months of our mission, and the answer is, we don’t know.  Like all missionaries, we are presided over by a mission president (President and Sister Klingler) and we stay or go at his inspiration.  Sometimes we think it would be nice to have a change of scenery and see another part of Fiji.  On the other hand, we have a nice flat and feel accepted and loved here in Ba so would we really want to go to another – perhaps more difficult – area where we have to start all over again? Hmm, that doesn’t seem so enticing and all the areas couples are assigned to are difficult ones – that’s why they send us there.  So we’ll do what all missionaries do, serve where we are asked to serve and try our best to be a blessing to these people while they are a blessing to us.  In the end, we’ll probably gain more from our service to them than they will from us.

The scriptures have been a constant comfort and guide during these months.  You do read them differently and notice things differently based on your circumstances and I’ve been endeared to missionaries past who shared similar experiences.  Here’s a passages that describes something of our experience and which has become fondly embedded in my mind (from the Book of Mormon, Alma chapter 17):

“And they fasted much and prayed much that the Lord would grant unto them a portion of his Spirit to go with them, and abide with them, that they might be an instrument in the hands of God to bring, if it were possible, their brethren, the [Fijians] to the knowledge of the truth.  And the Lord did visit them with his Spirit, and said unto them: Be comforted.  And they were comforted.  And the Lord said unto them also; Go forth among the [Fijians], thy brethren, and establish my word; yet ye shall be patient in long suffering and afflictions, that ye may show forth good examples unto them in me, and I will make an instrument of thee in my hands unto the salvation of many souls.”

Friday, June 8, 2012

Fijian Ways

When we think of "Fijian Ways" we're not sure whether to laugh, cry, 
or just be amused.  May we share a few with you? 

"Bula" is the Fijian word for "hello, thanks, welcome", etc.  Speaking of "welcome", we never shared with you our official welcome by Bula singers at the Nadi airport 8 months ago (wow, 8 months, and after 32 hours of travel):
Our bula welcome was just the beginning of experiencing Fijian ways.  Like visiting any vastly different culture, you find things that delight you or baffle you. 

Food is a big deal in Fiji, perhaps because there is often so little of it with an equally negligible variety in daily life.  But whenever they can, and wherever they gather, the experience is sure to include food prepared in the "Fijian way."
Luncheon after a leadership meeting: beans on bread, canned corned beef sandwiches with
shredded carrots (note the grater is made with a piece of metal with holes poked into it
and mounted on a board).  All lovingly prepared on the floor of the kitchen with hand
mixing -- meaning, WITH your hands!
Cassava and Dalo (Taro) spread out on banana leaves for the Christmas dinner.  All preparation is done by hand as they break up the chicken, stir the sauce, dish up the food, etc.  Those hands have been everywhere & not necessarily washed!  Then again, they dish things up on a plate for you and because of a shortage of plates, they take your finished plate, scrape off the remainder and dish up the next person's food without any effective washing.  Will we live through this?
More Cassava in palm frond baskets whipped up for the occasion
Speaking of Cassava - the daily food of nearly every family, here's a look around the Bainivalu "plantation" as they show us Cassava being cooked inside and outside at the Cassava plants -- the best part though, is the kids:

Olivia and Tuli teach us how to make "Roti", the wonderful flat bread that goes with most meals.  The pan was hot but Olivia just used her fingers to turn the bread as Tuli rolled it out.

 We found some new citrus in the market one day.  Many of the fruits look the same so we asked the seller, "What's the difference between these and those
other ones?"  "Oh, these are seedless," he replied.  Right -- anything to sell you, but they do taste yummy and we get much of our Vitamin C from these little tart treats.

We love getting acquainted with the natural handicrafts and these brooms made with the spine of a palm frond leaf are the norm here.  They work really well (particularly outside) but take hours to make and sell for $3-4 Fijian (about $1.60 US).
The Nairoqo family were sustained by their broom making and selling during a jobless time.  Their 13 year old son climbed the extremely tall coconut trees to harvest the fronds while the rest of the family worked on the brooms.  Saimone had best luck by selling door to door.  Who could resist a smile like his?
A sweet grandma with handmade fan also from palm leaves.
We loved our visit to Navala, a village where it is required that all homes be built in the traditional method and materials.  It is a "Shangri-La" setting way back up in the interior mountains of the island with a great waterfall behind it and a wonderful river in front where it seemed half the village was hanging out:
Now to a few things most tourists don't get to experience in Fiji . . . 
Above and below -- two Fijian peculiarities, which we don't think American technology has caught up with:  You buy a scrub sponge for dishwashing and instead of the sponge enlarging with water exposure, these begin shrinking until the sponge entirely disappears and you're left with just the mesh (takes a lot less space in the "rubbish bin"); below is an even greater feat -- first finding one to buy and then finding it is only good for 2 uses.  As you begin to swing these, they proceed to break apart in the air (left), and when you hit the wall the rest of the swatter shatters.  Just amazing.
Below - a "repair" of termite infested wood in our bathroom door moulding (this is the finished job, mind you).  They have a saying here that means something like: "well, that's good enough I think", which characterizes all lousy workmanship.  This week, the bottom of that board fell out as the termites had finished munching and there was not enough remaining structure to hold it together.

Termites enjoying our former dining room table.  What artistic circles of "sawdust" they left behind!
Roads are treacherous in Fiji and hub caps have no hope of staying on by themselves
The local mechanic's "garage"
Thinking of cars, we might insert here an experience Tom had one night when he was returning without Annie from dropping some people off.  As he turned a corner next to a sugar cane field, a police officer ran out of the ditch and flagged him down.  Concerned that he had done something wrong, Tom rolled down the window to speak with the officer.  Policeman here have no guns and no cars (but a mean reputation for beating you up before they take you to the station for booking).  So it was particularly strange when the officer excitedly asked Tom if he could jump in the truck and chase that car disappearing up the road because the driver was apparently drunk and he wanted to arrest him.  Stunned, Tom said "Sure, jump in."  Just then the officer saw the car turning into a driveway and said; "Never mind, I think he got home OK."
Gotta love that TV antenna . . .
. . . don't have to love the outhouse
 Note the  "warning" sign at the temple patron housing bathroom where
many islanders from different languages stay when coming to the temple.
Do you get the Pigeon English "Woning" from the island of Vanuatu?
After the flood, Saimone Nairoqo observed that the people spend time every day searching for
firewood and here Heavenly Father brought it right to their village!
On the search for firewood
Speaking of "firewood," check out this major thorn.  This lady's son came limping up to us at church and said he had a sliver in his foot and could we help extract it.  Tom pulled out our handy Leatherman tool and tried but with no success (he thought it was a stubborn, thick sliver about a 1/4 inch long as the entire thorn was imbedded into the boy's heel).  A couple days later the boy was swimming and the "sliver" began working its way out.  Wow, now that is a sliver!  Little wonder they get slivers and other injuries when they are almost always barefoot in all sorts of conditions.  Check out this recess game of rugby in the mud.  Can't imagine how the classroom looks when these little guys return for class:
Tui, Ifi, and Iva
Iferemi Mateiwai

First birth-days for little boys are cele-brated with their first haircut and a party, but most others aren't until you reach 21 when you get the "key" to the world and official adulthood.  Below, Elder Patenaude from Washington DC is being fetted by friends at the little branch in Rakiraki (about an hour and a half north of Ba).

No worries when you have a lot of coconuts for sale
Inmates from the local prison repair a flood damaged wall. We have been so pleased to
observe useful ways they contribute.  They loved the attention when we asked
if we could take their photo.
We started with "bula" and we end with "moce" (pronounced mo-they, meaning good bye) and with some traditional Fijian fire dancing.  

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Letter Home

Dear Kids,
Mom and I continue in our evolution of faith and commitment.  As you all know, we've been through some rough times lately and find ourselves much less valiant than we expected (often more like Laman and Lemuel than Nephi).  Helping Church leaders to grow here is intensely complicated - more than we could ever have imagined.  We somehow simplistically thought that we'd just breeze in, share leadership skills with a "hungry" and willing group and they'd say: "Oh wow, this is what it's all about.  Now we can be real leaders and help the Church to succeed in Fiji!  Why didn't we know about Handbooks and principles like this before?"

How naive we were.  We couldn't have imagined the deep and implacable stamp of culture on people who know little of organization, cleanliness, planning, interacting, leading, etc.  We couldn't have understood that people can "hear and read words", nod their heads, and not really get it at all.  We couldn't have understood that 6 months after weekly repetition and training that not a single sacrament meeting would yet be fully planned out before Sunday, that interviews (the mainstay of bishopric ministering) haven't started, that leaders would have not implemented almost anything from the handbooks, that almost no one comes to a meeting having given any thought whatever to the agenda, that presidents of organizations would not have presidency meetings or talk to their counselors, etc.  Combine that with the fact that they have no money, no watch, no calendar, no car, no computer, no phone, and yet preside over a ward with 20-30 some villages spread over a 50 kilometer long region.  That they've never seen the Church "work", are a new convert, that there is no Visiting or Home Teaching, that people alienate each other with gossip and criticism so deeply imbedded in cultural habit that even though they read of the Lord condemning such behavior in the scriptures they don't actually understand it applies to them.  And all these factors are just the beginning of woes we encounter.  So 8 months into our "Member and Leader Support" mission we wonder if what we've done actually has had any lasting affect for change on leaders that will remain after we pack up and go home.  Combine those issues with living in a place with screaming Indian music that daily deafens you, dogs that bark and howl and fight day and night outside your open window, food that is completely undesirable, sweat and bugs and dirt and disease, and . . . Well, you get the picture.

So we flail back and forth between despair and disgust, sadness and disappointment. Then we feel condemned for our complaint and lack of faith, hope, and charity. We study our scriptures and see that we must "becometh a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon [us], even as a child doth submit to his father" (Mosiah 3:19); and we think we are just beginning to understand what that might really mean.  We see the Lord ministering to the poor and downtrodden and realize that we have enjoyed living in a world in the states that is so completely foreign to most of the rest of the world that it is embarrassing and that we "really don't understand" either. We're so grateful for the scriptures and Conference talks that help us out of the "pit of despair" and point us in the right direction.  And we have each other to lean on and be strong when the other isn't.

Then we go to some little home, so barren of any possession that it is startling, and we have the sweetest sharing time.  We hear an old woman (Sister Mate), telling how she was inspired by a scripture to pray that she might just make a dollar or two that day at the market so she could afford to go to church - and the Lord answered her prayer.  We hear the Nairoqos telling us that we were their "saviors", and we get a tearful kiss and grateful smile from a little old Indian woman who speaks no English - simply because we visited her and brought a pair of reading glasses from “Dollar Store” in the US (thanks Sara & Birch). We share a lesson on the plan of salvation with a 58 year-old man who lost his wife last year and he says, "I have never heard of these things before, but they sit right with me." And we wonder how we could be so ungrateful as to feel like our mission is largely a waste of time.

So that's something of our world, the back and forth struggle of our spirits as we try to actually learn what the work of the Lord is really like and why He sent us here, and how we can be more faithful and "submit to His will" more gracefully.  We're still figuring this out.  It's mostly a matter of the heart and mind and more complicated than we imagined. We are making progress, and this is not a plea for your pity -- just wanted to share with you that discipleship is a lifelong process and the path is thorny, as you all know. Elder Neil Andersen's wonderful talk, "What Thinks Christ of Me," from the last conference has been sustaining and inspirational.  There are so many reasons to be faithful, and we hope to be that with all of you whom we love so much.  Thank you for your sustaining prayers, letters, and internet visits that make the distance between us feel so much less.

All our love,