April 14, 2016
We were three men on a motorcycle, each of us with a bag or two, driving too quickly down a bumpy, rocky red-dirt jungle road. We came around a bend in the road and saw a check-point set up by the Cameroonian police. This unpaved unmaintained road was a major artery connecting two cities in the English-speaking part of the country. The police were checking licenses and registrations for the taxis, motorcycle-taxis, and trucks transporting goods.
When he saw the check-point, our motorcycle driver accelerated. I found out later that he did not have a driver’s license, and he was not interested in stopping because an interaction with the police would mean paying a bribe that would take away any profit from what we were paying him to transport me to the village where I was living at the time.
When the police saw that we weren’t slowing down, they pulled up the rope they were using to block the road. The police later claimed that they didn’t see us coming and wouldn’t have pulled the rope if they had. Regardless of intent, the rope came up right as we were passing through the check point. My memory of that moment is a blur. My forward momentum collided me with the men in front of me who were being pulled back by the rope as the bike spun out from underneath us and threw us and our bags across the road.
I stood up as quickly as I could, assessed myself and found a big tear in my pants down the side of my right leg. I could see the skin underneath was a mess of cuts, dirt, and little rocks imprinted in my skin.
The driver and police yelled at each other for a minute or two until they all felt they had expressed themselves, and then we got back on the motorcycle and continued.
As we drove away, I thought to myself, “Well….that happened.”
Between Cameroon, Kenya and Djibouti, I have spent about four years of my life on the African continent. The experiences I’ve had have shaped me and taught me. I was reminded of this recently when someone commented, “You’re not a normal American.” That took me by surprise, and I’ve been thinking about it and wondering what makes me abnormal. Well, the list of things that make me abnormal could get really long, so I have been limiting it to how I view and approach the world differently because of my time in Africa.
My story about the motorcycle illustrates one of the biggest shifts I have seen in myself because of my experiences on the continent. The American culture I grew up in was focused on the individual. I was taught to be competitive, and in that merit-based struggle, to be the best. I was told from the beginning – directly or indirectly – that I could be whatever I wanted to be, and that if at first I didn’t succeed, to try, try again. This taught me that I am in control of my fate, and that my large and small-scale successes and failures are direct results of my efforts. As a result, I tend to take great pride in my achievements, and my response to failure is to immediately try to do something to fix it or to somehow prove I am not defined by that failure.
One of the biggest things I have learned from living in Cameroon, and now in Kenya, is that I am not in control of my fate, and not really in control of much at all. I’ve learned in a lot of ways that life is sometimes something that happens, not something I do. During my time in Cameroon with the Peace Corps, that lesson was a hard one to learn and involved several frustrating emotional breakdowns, because I felt like an out-of-control failure when I couldn’t make things happen by my effort.
Matthew 5:45 is a verse that has given me comfort in those times of learning: “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”
Basically, what I get out of that verse is that things happen. Life happens. Things are happening that we can’t control and that have nothing to do with our inherent value. This is true of me. It is true of the people around me. Regardless of situations, we all have value. My faith teaches me this, too. Sometimes my American mindset makes it hard to accept that nothing I do and none of the circumstances of my life affect my standing with God. He loves me and sees value in me regardless of - and in spite of - my actions, my achievements, and my failures. In fact, He loves me and you so much that he sent his Son so that whoever believes in Him will be saved. This is an amazing thing - and needed, because in the end we are all out-of-control failures.
I am still exploring this topic, and I am aware that - as in everything - things aren’t black and white. I have to keep in mind that there is a tension between my lack of control and a personal responsibility for my actions. Our actions and choices can sometimes change things and create impact - for good or bad. Similarly, I don’t want to discredit the merits of my cultural background that focuses on and values the individual. There is a balance here that I am trying to find and live in. As I am learning about contentment and my lack of control, I remember that, although God is ultimately in control, I still have personal responsibility to live well, and for me that means a life of faith lived in submission and obedience to God, because that is where I have learned to find contentment.
CARE for AIDS’ intervention into the lives of people living with HIV/AIDS is an example of these balances. We take people who are struggling to accept HIV - which happened to them - and help them understand that this doesn’t affect their value as humans or their ability to be loved and accepted in community and by God. On the other side of the balance, we counsel them towards taking responsibility for their situation to manage their status, live healthily, and protect their loved ones from being infected. This takes a lot of effort on their part, and I am extremely proud of our clients who see positive change in their lives. We help them accept their HIV status, but we also equip them to move forward and make the best of their circumstances. It’s not just “Well, that happened…”, it’s also, “Let’s make the best of this”, because we do have control over some things and with those things we have responsibility to act, to intervene, to work.
After being clothes-lined by corrupt police off a motorcycle that was being driven by an unlicensed driver, I could have questioned my life decisions and been angry at myself for being in that situation. I could have been angry at the driver for speeding up and for not telling me he didn’t have a license. I could have been mad at the police for pulling the rope and for being generally corrupt. I could have been mad that the major road between these cities wasn’t paved – even though on paper it was – and that this was representative of the political oppression of the people living in that area.
I could have been mad about a lot of things, and because of this, my response to this situation had to be “Well, that happened”; it had to be acceptance. Otherwise, I would have been overwhelmed by anger and frustration about things I can’t control, and I would have directed my anger at people who also aren’t in control.
In Cameroon, people liked to say “nothing works, but everything works out”. I said this often during my time there, because it would make me laugh, and would also give me a sense of relief that everything was going to be fine. I learned that accepting life and people as they come means that I stop judging people and situations by what they could or should be, I start to accept them as they are. In that acceptance there is a freedom to be and to love.