Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Reeds in The Gambia

Weather: Partly cloudy. Temps in the lo 70's during the evening, lo 90's during the day. Low humidity. Winds out of the west at 30mph.

We'll be in The Gambia until Friday May 4. So as we travel about, we'll try to get you some images. We hope to get off the beach, or out of the pool, and into the countryside soon. Until then, here are a few shots from around our hotel. Oh, and HAPPY 14th BIRTHDAY HANNAH!!! (And uncle Dale's 60th, of course!)

The internet here at the hotel is not too reliable nor fast, so unfortunately the new images we hoped to get you by now do not seem forthcoming. It could also be a Blogger issue, but I think not. We've got about ten pictures we wanted to upload, with nice shots of birds and countryside. Anyway, we are enjoying our last few days in The Gambia. We'll be leaving early Friday morning for Liberia, with a lot of preparation and loose ends to tie up before our trip to the US in June. It has been wonderful visiting this place, and also seeing some of The Gambia beyond resort life. Maybe we'll get those pics up soon.

A Panorama view out of our hotel door. It's better than it looks.

Looking back toward that same door from the beach at sunup.

The other night we saw Hannah on the patio below us, just standing there, absorbing the healing winds. She stood there like this for a half hour. Groovy, man.

Tuesday night's sunset.

Yesterday, on a stroll through a local park, we were joined by a family of monkeys.

The Fam looking out for more monkeys. Stay tuned for more pics when Blogger is feeling better.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Back to The Gambia

It is impossible to convey the sense and sensation of rejuvenation that revisiting The Gambia brings. We are here for two weeks, ostensibly to attend a spiritual retreat for folks from Christian Reformed World Relief Committee and Christian Reformed World Missions. The retreat lasts from April 26 to May 1, and we are staying a few days extra before and after. This extra time in particular is as close to heavenly as we have experienced in a long time. The bliss is due in part to fairly logical reasons familiar to all vacationers: we are free from our regular but busy workload, we are particularly tired from a couple months of extra duty, and we are in a different location. But there is more: running water means no hauling it from a well everyday, and feeling clean for the first time in a year from real cascading hot showers, and Gambian temperatures that are ten degrees cooler, a view that is from a postcard, and then there is the breeze.

I must pause here for effect.

The Atlantic Ocean wind off of The Gambia is like the Balm of Gilead. It is steady, cool and refreshing every minute of the day. Our hosts tell us it never stops, and probably averages 20 miles an hour all day, but from about 5pm until morning, it averages 30 miles an hour. Coming from the colossal heat, humidity, and relative stillness of Liberian air, the breeze exhilarates and heals.

I ain’t kiddin’. These zephyrs do not simply waft over the body, they massage the soul. They carry our anxieties and tension away with them as they pass.

So, now I’m thinking only those privileged to work in a climate like Liberia get to experience the breeze like we do. Which in a weird and ironic way makes me appreciate Liberia more. There is a metaphor in there somewhere, but I’m grokking the moment too much to pursue it.

Anyway, we arrived very late Friday and have relished each hour of our three days here so far. We’ve got a few pictures, but Blogger once again is only allowing this map. Check back later.

The Gambia-- a country within a country. We are just a little south of Bakau, west of the capital Banjul.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Dante Venegas: A Laughing Warrior Passes

He was a Puerto Rican and proud of it, even though most folks thought he was African American. His laugh came from deep within and making him laugh felt so good I found myself saying crazy things just to get him going. A long time ago he lived in the mean streets of New York, and talked it, but settled down in suburbs of Grand Rapids, and I think endured it. As a pastor, he confused and vexed some of the very white, upper middle class members of his audience with a directness that cut through the crap of American Evangelicalism and made living with Christ gritty and in your face. As a counselor, he brought reality and hope to the broken and lost and searching. He loved God passionately, and reveled in every minute of life as if it was God’s very breath. He spoke with passion, taught with passion, complained (and sometimes swore) with passion, dispensed wisdom with passion, and with passion changed the hearts of thousands. Dante Venegas was as real as humans get.

A few years ago, he was diagnosed with cancer, and a few days ago, he died. During the last year he suffered enormous pain and refused to bow before it. His wife Jackie and family passed along updates regularly, and it was clear the man was embracing life even in midst of incredible agony. I could not visit him of course, but I wonder if he would have thought of himself as dying— it was as if he was living the reality of his cancer as he lived everything else—in our faces.

In the mid nineties, Pope John Paul II issued a brilliant encyclical called “The Culture of Death,” in which he blasted the West for avoiding suffering even at the expense of life—God’s greatest gift. Suffering, John Paul said, was viewed by the West only as an evil, possessing no value. Abortion, euthanasia, drug abuse, escapism, and the American obsession with security and comfort, are all products of the Culture of Death. When John Paul died after a long and painful illness, he showed the world that life is greater than suffering, that suffering is an important part of living, and both ought to be lived fully. Dante Venegas did that too. He loved life, lived passionately, and I think he died passionately. He fought with life and he fought with suffering and in doing so, he showed us a better way.

Hold on now in your suffering, dear Jackie. You—and the rest of us who loved him-- will hear his laugh again soon.

He is as wise and good and faithful as the setting African sun, and His promises as are as endless as the sky.

Monday, April 09, 2007


Weather: After two days of heavy overcast and temps in the upper 70s, today was clear, with relatively low humidity for Liberia, and temps in the upper 90s. Light breeze from the ocean made the late afternoon delightful.

The local pastor, Augustine Zar, has become a friend of ours. He is the head pastor the church we most usually attend, and we have been a channel of your support for improvement to his church, and also to the Christian elementary school he runs. Monday, he asked us—along with Henry, Marrie and Noah—to journey with him to Kakata to visit his farm. There he and his family grow eggplant, bitterball, cassava, raise hogs, and are about to resume planting rice.

It was nice to get out of the Monrovia area, and we were treated with generosity and hospitality. We looked over the crops, visited the neighbors, and ate bitterball and palm butter. Just before we left, the clan announced it had a gift for the Reeds. We have visited before, and are becoming close to these good folks. We were touched at their thoughtfulness. Then they showed us the gift.

It was a hog. A real live hog. Of course, we had to receive it-- this was a real honor. So they hauled out of the pen, washed her up and tied her in a bag for the ride home. We named her Henrietta after her Uncle Henry. She rode with us the whole way back to Foster Town, stuffed in that bag in the back of the Pathfinder.

So, dear readers, we now have a new creature to add to the zoo. We don’t have a clue as to what to do with it, but Rev. Zar assures us he will help us out.

Getting ready for our walk to the farms. Henry and Junior, our host with Rev Zar.

Our stroll. The hunidity was oppressive.

Yers Trooly noting the difference between bitterball leaves and eggplant leaves. What a nerd.

The soon-to-be rice field. Actually, it is larger than this and will cover several acres.

After the crop tour, we vist the neighborhood. Another cooking hut. I think I should author a picture book on the cooking huts of Africa. I find them fascinating.

I like this shot. Lighting is great, as well as subject matter. We are visiting the local church-- an open palm and reed structure with bamboo pews next to the local pastor's house.

So when we got back, they were preparing the stinky lil' hog. Washing her up, though we could still smell her on the way home, even with the windows down.

Back home to the menagerie. From the bottom, Dale Rooster, Henrietta Hog, Dogs Max and Bandit, Grace Deer, and Dogs Jackie and Nikki.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Appreciating Johnson Town

Weather: Hot and very humid, with daytime highs in the mid 90sF and night time lows around 80F. Hazy skies.

Wednesday brother-in-law Henry joined me as I took my act on the road back to Johnson Town. Johnson Town wants to develop—they want a school, clinic, a church, and commerce. They also want to tackle some sticky psychosocial issues, like what to do with young men returning after fighting in a very dirty war, or how to address alcoholism in the community, or how to address conflict in a more healthy way. Working with staff from the MPCHS Womens' Program, I’ll be there regularly for the next few months establishing trust and building relationship that may allow me to serve them in practical ways on these issues. This week, we conducted what is called an “appreciative inquiry,” which basically means asking members to look positively at the community—what are its strengths and resources, what makes it unique, who are its leaders, what are its dreams. From there we begin a process of tapping into all that positive energy to help them make good things happen.

We arrived and the Johnson Town folks were already in the partially completed Women's Resource Center, waiting for us. This is a panorama using three pictures.

Another pan shot after the meeting closed. Yers Trooly on the left was feeling blessed to listen to these concerned Johnson Town residents express their hopes and dreams for the future.

Leaving the center. It is being built by the women of the town. Pastor Henry Kranenburg on the left.

The center just two weeks ago.

As I said, built by the women. Each woman is responsible to provide 1000 bricks. Provide means make. Here Hawa digs the earth in the hot African sun, makes the mud and puts it in a wook brick form. Every Tuesday she'll make a 100 until she reaches a thousand.

A bit of Johnson Town. Cooking hut on the left.

The town is made up of a very few central structures with a few dozen others in the surrounding bush. More on this in another post.

After our time is over, participants head home, chairs in hand.

Monday, April 02, 2007

More Blessings-In-Law

Weather: Very pleasant and sunny Tuesday, with low humidity and temps in the mid to upper eighties. Light and variable breeze. A most exceptional day after a weekend that saw 39C (102F) temps Saturday followed on Sunday and Monday by rain and unseasonably cool weather-- with daytime temps only reaching the mid 20sC (mid 70sF).
UPDATED Tuesday April 3
In-laws from my point of view, that is. A few weeks ago, it was bro-in-law Brian, today and for a while the VIPs are Renita's mom Marrie Kranenburg, and her brother Henry Kranenburg. They got here Sunday night. In an interesting "full circle twist," their arrival was something special. Last March, you may recall-- or review the archive to the right-- Marrie and husband Peter arrived just minutes after former president Charles Taylor touched down and was flown out in handcuffs to await his war crimes trial. This time, they landed for a stop over in Feetown, Sierra Leone and were joined by the current President, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Marrie and Henry both had a chance to meet President Sirleaf.

So you could say, "Last time they were here, the Kranenburgs chased the former President out of Liberia, and this time they escorted the current President in."

Anyway, should be a non-stop week. I'll be tormenting my social work students with a mid term, then Wednesday I'll be back in the village of Johnson Town with the MPCHS Women's Program. Thursday Renita takes the Kranenburgs to Buchanan, and Saturday we'll be visiting farms in Kakata.

This was the scene at the airport one year ago as the Kranenburgs arrived-- Charles Taylor being escorted from one plane to another-- bound (we hope) for justice. AP photo.

The scene at the airport Sunday, as President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf hears words of encouragement and praise from our own ambassador of good will, Marrie "Oma" Kranenburg.

Next day, the Reed morning ritual is shared: coffee, quiet chat and animals as we look forward to upcoming activities.

One of those activities being home school. Oma as guest intructor teaches Noah his piano, Renita leads Hannah through the music of math and Uncle Henry cat calls from the cheap seats.

Finally, just before dinner, its water time. Here Hannah and Henry discuss how much faster he can pump than "slow poke Unca Brian." They could not suppress a good laugh.