Not by Might…

The other day I had a meltdown.  I can’t even remember what triggered it.  All I know is that I tried to distract myself by leaving the house to spend time with someone, but there was only one elderly grandma in the village, and after a brief chat, it seemed that she didn’t really want company right then, so I ended up back in the house, crying.

Despite the progress gained in seven months, counting by time actually spent in the village, not time since I first arrived here (I still hold a slight grudge against those bacteria and those incorrect antibiotics that kept me away for a few months) one can get so discouraged by the limited capacity for conversation and the minute understanding of a complex culture a world away from our own.  So it is easy to get discouraged by the enormity of the task, and the slow progress towards the goal.

But in that moment of discouragement, a Scripture verse blazed into my discouraged mind and heart.

“Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord.”  Zechariah 4:6

Applying the biblical principal to a language learning situation, where “might” and “power” aren’t exactly what one wishes for the most, it seems appropriate to say,

“Not by intelligence or organizational skills, nor by determination and willpower, nor by anything else, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord.”

That’s where it’s at, friends.  One might long for more intelligence, organizational skills, determination, willpower, etcetera, etcetera, but those qualities won’t accomplish the task, at least not in the most effective way.

Which begs the question, “How does one learn a language and culture by the Spirit of God?”

That question has burned in my heart and interrupted many other thoughts for the last several weeks.  Here is the answer I have for now, though it is something that I will continue contemplating and praying about.

The how of language and culture learning is up to God.  I honestly believe that the way I learned Portuguese was a miracle.  Oh, maybe not the blow-your-socks-off kind of miracle where the sun stands still or a dead person sits up during their funeral procession or Jesus walks on top of the sea in the middle of a raging storm.  Nevertheless, all things considered, I learned Portuguese fairly well, rather quickly.  More importantly, I integrated into Brasilian culture to the point where in many ways, I feel more comfortable or fit in better there than in my own culture.

And I ask myself, over and over, exactly how did I even learn Portuguese, and exactly how can I replicate the process for learning Neno?

Eight years later, it seems like a blur….  I remember lots of sitting around in people’s living rooms understanding almost nothing.  I remember afternoons in the kitchen with my Brasilian mom, asking her what utensil after utensil after utensil is called in Portuguese, and repeating their names rather badly.  I remember dozens of times when tears would well up in my eyes, because more than anything, I longed to be able to understand and communicate with the amazing people around me, especially in order to talk about Jesus and His great love, and I just didn’t have the words.    But those days passed, melting into fluency, and today, I am living a similar situation in the Neno culture, of desperate longing to understand and communicate.

After God brought Zechariah 4:6 to my attention, with respect to ACL (Acquisition of Culture and Language), I realize that trying to duplicate the process is not the answer.  What I need (and already have!) is not the same process, but the same power.

Circumstances are different, after all.  I am not living with a Neno family, immersed 24/7 in their lives.  I am responsible to care for my own house and cooking.  There are health challenges which slow me down and use up valuable chunks of time each day.  Supply-buying and other business requires frequent trips out of the cultural context.  So it would be unrealistic to expect the process to look the same.  And even though God opened doors for an amazing process of Brasilian culture immersion that worked very well, it wasn’t the process that was the key factor for success.

It was His Spirit that was my passion, my life, my fire, my everything.  And guess what?  The Spirit of God still lives in me.  Here in the Neno village, He is still the same as when I was in the midst of Brasilian “ACL”.  He surpasses any might or power or intelligence or determination I might have on my own.  He works in different ways in different times and different places, and orchestrates circumstances in the way He knows is best.  But we can trust that since the Lord Jesus brought me here, He has a foolproof, success-guaranteed plan for my Neno ACL.  The results and the timeframe will be exactly what He has planned, if I will walk not according to my own resources, but walk in His Spirit and depend on Him.  Please pray that I will not only write this and believe it, but that I will remember this and live it, every moment of every day.

The Little Teachers

Sometimes I learn vocabulary based on what is happening in the moment.  Other times, useful things just come to mind that need to be learned.  There were no moms feeding their children nearby the day I realized I didn’t know how to say, “She is feeding her child____.”  (Fill in the blank with whatever type of food you can get in a jungle village).  So, I quickly sketched this:


Can you tell what it is?  If you said, “It’s a mom feeding manioc root to her child,” you are correct!  Well, instead of leaving these simplistic stick figures nameless, I identified them as a specific mom and 2-year-old in our village.  For some reason, the children love this drawing, and frequently ask to see it.  On one such occasion, we ended up sitting on my long kitchen bench, four children and I, looking through various sketches.  On the page with a man, woman, baby, snake, fish, chicken, and dog, the 7-year-old girl started quizzing me.  She had been there for my first class using those particular sketches, when her mom helped me practice body parts, and taught a few I hadn’t yet learned, such as beak, fin, and wing.

As my little teacher asked questions such as “Where is the man’s knee?”  “Where is the baby’s eye?”  “Where is the fish’s tail?”, I would point to the body part on the corresponding sketch.  At one point, she repeated a question she had asked a couple minutes before, which was fine with me, because practice makes perfect.  But, in typical older-brother fashion, hers reprimanded her, saying something probably to the effect of, “You already said that one, silly.”  To which she replied haughtily, glaring at him, “I’m teaching her,” and kept right on going with the quiz.

A bit later, while I was making the Brasilian counterpart of “kool-aid” for the children, the 7-year-old boy told his cousins (the brother and sister mentioned above), “Last week, when our parents were gone for the day, we came over and taught Paulette.”  His smug facial expression and the self-satisfied, important air with which he spoke were just too cute for words.

It really must be quite a thrill for children their age to teach adults, though.  Seriously, what 5, 6, 7, or 8-year-old wouldn’t love feeling like an authority on any subject, having an adult ask, “Did I say it right?”  “Will you help me study?” or “What do you call this again?” and totally believing their responses, however incorrect they might be, haha.  If they ever wanted to, the children could trick me into learning things that are completely off base, or even inappropriate.  Please don’t give them any ideas, though, because until now, they have been great little teachers, as far as I can tell.  With a couple of them, I have to be careful, because they still have lisps which cause them to misarticulate certain sounds, so it’s best not to depend on them for new vocabulary, but work on reviewing words and phrases previously taught by someone else.

We have extra fun with the dynamic classes and learning exercises I plan.  Late one morning, I had just returned to the house after a couple hours out in the community.  Although it would have been good to study, a headache was threatening to turn into a migraine (this was back in February when I was getting those frequently – what a blessing that they are rare now), so I decided to take a break and lie down for a bit, to see if that would keep it from getting worse.  I had just settled onto the nice cool tile floor in the bedroom, when a little voice called my name, “Are you there?”  (Typical Neno greeting, even when you are visible, and it is clearly evident that you ARE there).

“Yes, hold on,” while I slowly sat up, and the headache intensified.

Well, the 6-year-old hadn’t stopped by just to see what I was doing, or ask for crackers.  She was on an educational mission.  Since I didn’t understand her words immediately (headaches aren’t particularly helpful when trying to process new languages), she quickly showed me what she came to do by grabbing a basket, a plate, and a drinking gourd, and motioning to my one and only chair.  These were some of the items her parents and I had used yesterday, to practice positional words and phrases, then commands.

“The basket is on the chair.”

“The plate is under the chair.”

“Put the egg in the basket.”

“Put the drinking gourd behind the chair.”

You get the idea.  Well, my 6-year-old teacher had gotten the idea too.  This was a super-fun game that she could come over and play with me.  Her timing wasn’t the greatest that day, when I didn’t feel up to studying or practicing, but I certainly wasn’t going to turn away such an enthusiastic (and adorable) teacher.  So we played and practiced, laughed and learned.

Abi in my Bonnet

If you heard any of my presentations in churches or other settings before coming to the field, you may remember a brief explanation of the challenges that a tonal language presents, in that it facilitates errors created by saying what a foreign speaker considers the “right word” in the wrong tone.  The words I used in the imaginary scenario were dog, brother, and banana, in case that jogs your memory.

Well, there is no more need for ridiculous invented examples; I have discovered several real ways to say the wrong word simply by using the incorrect tone (let alone the times I say the wrong word by getting syllables in the wrong order or leaving out a sound or putting the wrong sound at the end of the word).  This tonal thing makes getting garlic oil in my eye seem like child’s play.  (Garlic = alho.  Oil = óleo.  Eye = olho.  The similarity of those words gave me trouble back in the early days of Portuguese learning). While there are certainly many more challenges to come, how would you like to hear the most confusing Neno example I’ve come across so far?

Enter “abi”  *buzz buzz*  (pronounce this word sort of like “a bee”)

abi 1 – bangs (as in hair)

abi 2 – on top of

abi 3 – killed (in hunting)

The tones are different, very subtly, so a friend kindly recorded sentences with each usage, so I can listen several dozen hundred times until the slight differences will sink in, hopefully.  In addition to the actual tones (high, middle, low, ascending and descending), sometimes a syllable is drawn out to change the meaning as well.

The fact that these words sound the same to gringo ears, is a new thought to my Neno teachers.  Remember that in their language, these are completely different words, and would never be confused by a native speaker, or even by someone who speaks another tonal language.

Imagine hearing your favorite song, by a different performer.  He sings most of it right, but every so often, he sings a different note, still in the same key.  Even though the word is the same, with the wrong note, it messes up the tune and drives you crazy.  Since you have known the melody for years, the mistakes would be obvious to you, even though someone who had never heard the song probably wouldn’t know the difference.

That illustrates the intricacy of the Neno language.  To non-tonal language speakers, many of the words sound the same, because we are not accustomed to thinking about pitch while we talk.  But to the Neno, if I use the wrong pitch, it either sounds completely wrong, doesn’t sound like a word at all, or sounds like a different word altogether.

Considering that, it is a mark of their kindness and graciousness that the Neno do not react with an attitude of, “Wow, this missionary is dumb, how can she possibly get those words mixed up when it’s obvious they are different.”  Instead, they act amazed, with an attitude of, “Wow she’s right.  We never stopped to think about it, but those words are pretty similar, or are they exactly the same?”  Then they repeat the words over and over to themselves, figuring out exactly what the those subconscious and subtle differences are.  It’s as if they think it is terrific that I am making connections (or realizing when there are no connections), exploring and asking questions.  Talk about encouraging.  Oh, wait.  I don’t know how to talk about encouraging in the Neno language yet, but someday I will thank these dear friends for the big encouragement they have been in the early months of language learning.

(Note made in mid-April:  I drafted this post the second week of February.  Well, just tonight, a fourth “abi” joined the other three already buzzing around in my bonnet.

abi 4 – fight

I’m toast, I’m toast, I’m toast!  This tonal thing is going to “abi” me (see 3rd usage above).  Don’t worry though; ACL is still loads of fun, and a truly delightful challenge.  Brain is only about half as fried as the delicious freshwater fish that was the main course of my lunch today.  However, here’s to hoping that no one exposes another “abi” anytime soon, because my ears and tongue are not ready to learn them yet, until I master these four, thank-you-very-much.

A Day in the Life – village edition, May 31st

A friend suggested writing a blog post about a typical day in my life in the village, and in the city.  This has actually been on my “blog posting schedule” for a few months, but I kept replacing it with other posts, for three reasons:

  • I wanted to wait until someone has time to take pictures of some of my typical activities (washing dishes outdoors, studying with a language helper, etc.)
  • There are always so many other topics to write about.
  • Typical days don’t exist. Routines are flexible, schedules are made to be broken, changes of plans are countless, and often better than the original plan anyway, if there was a plan for that day.

However, I still wanted to write this type of post.  So here is the catch.  This is not a “typical” day from life in the village.  This is simply “a day”.   (All times are approximate).

5:45   alarm went off.  I was already awake, but feeling like if I got up then I would have a headache from not getting enough sleep.  Had awakened at 2:18, and dozed some since then, but not solid sleep.

6:21  Finally got up, got ready for the day, made and ate breakfast (scrambled eggs and multigrain crackers).  Read today’s My Utmost for His Highest.

7:30   Left the house, said good morning to my closest neighbors, saw that most of the village was gathered at one of the outdoor frequent hangout areas, with a few guests from another village.  Went to say good morning, be with everyone and observe what was happening.

One of the families is leaving today, to go to another village where there will be three days of thematic Bible teaching/celebration.  I meandered over to say good-bye, deciding to walk down to the river with them and the four girls who were going to see them off.

On our way down, the mom asked her teenage daughter if she had her hammock.  I didn’t understand why the response was no (perhaps it’s dirty…I can’t imagine that she doesn’t have a hammock, because they visit other villages and travel to the city frequently), but offered to lend her mine.  So we raced back to the village (exercise for the day!) to grab the hammock, then back down the path, where her family was starting to get into the canoe to cross the river.

The girls and I headed back to the village where I sat down with a few ladies who were still in the gathering area, to listen to conversations and find out what people’s plans were for the day.

When one of the women said she and her mom were going to the crop area to get manioc root and sweet potatoes, I asked to go along.  While she went to get her digging tool, I put on a long-sleeve shirt, and put my camera and tiny notebook in a small bag, instead of taking along the tote bag I always carry around in the village.

When we got back, we helped the woman’s grandma with a couple small tasks, then sat down and visited.

Another woman had gone into the jungle with her husband, on their motorcycle, to collect a couple necessary materials for a project.

When they returned, the fun of a new (to me) cultural event began.  The Neno people use gourds to make drinking vessels.  I had seen earlier steps in the process – cutting the gourds, hollowing them out, and leaving them in the sun to dry.  Now it was time to “paint” the inside of each gourd.  This process is as follows.

Materials needed:

  • Previously cut, cleaned, and dried gourds
  • Bark from a certain tree in the jungle
  • Wood from a certain tree in the jungle

It looks like the wood and bark come from two different trees, but I need to ask more questions about this part of the process since I wasn’t part of the bark-and-wood-gathering-expedition.  I don’t ask to go along on motorcycle trips.  Hopefully I will soon be able to sit down with one of the women and find out more details about the materials used.

Steps, as observed today:

  • Use spoon to scrape inside layer of bark off.
  • Swish these strips around in water, then squeeze liquid out. (bark juice)
  • Put wood on hot coals in your kitchen cookfire, until it blackens. (special charcoal)
  • Take a gourd. Moisten the inside well with bark juice.
  • Take special charcoal and crumble some inside the gourd.
  • Use fingers to spread ashes around and around, rubbing firmly.

When the entire inside of the gourd is blackened, and no more ashes easily “stick” to the surface, you have successfully “painted” the gourd.  Painted doesn’t seem like the correct word.  Any other suggestions?  We could just say, “talu pep ka” as the Neno do.

The gourds then need another drying period.  The Neno are not very time-oriented, so it was hard to get information about how long the gourds will dry before using, but it seems like at least several days to a couple weeks.  Then the gourds will be used as drinking vessels (mostly for traditional beverage, ee), kitchen utensils, and various other purposes.

This cultural event was especially fun and meaningful, because not only could I watch, I could participate, and actually be helpful!  No allergies, physical limitations, or inability to learn how to “talu pep ka” interfered.  It was a simple project, that even one of the 8-year-old girls, and a gringa could help with.  Another fun aspect was that this was the first time I have observed the women engaged in an art activity together.  They often engage in crop-related, cooking, and jungle activities together, but the traditional art I have seen before today has been individual projects.  Today four of us worked faithfully together, plus occasional help or interference from the children, until the task was finished.  Pictures were in the June edition of Crossing Cultures.

12:30    I took a shower, using a sponge to get the ashes off of my hands and arms, which were almost as black as the gourds, made and ate lunch (scrambled eggs, plums, a carrot, and roasted potatoes with onions), put away yesterday’s dishes and gathered today’s dirty dishes for washing

2:30    Went to check in with Juliana, see how their day was going, and ask her about a couple things, including when we would have our team meeting, which we had planned for last night, until something else came up.  She said she would check with Wellington, but probably sometime this afternoon.

I changed into my dishwashing bug protection uniform.  It normally gets half-soaked because of the position of the outdoor faucet and my lack of coordination, so I use the same outfit each day instead of soaking every change of clothes.  Then I went to wash dishes.

3:30  I remembered something I had forgotten to ask Juliana about, so went to her house again.  Then came back, changed into dry clothes, and organized a few things for later activities of washing clothes and making cookies.  I made some notes about today’s events up until now, so as not to forget later.

4:00     Study time, typing vocabulary and language notes from my field notebook onto a Word document.

4:30 – 7   Team meeting.  This seems long, but we haven’t had one since January, and we wanted to talk about some things because one of the mission leaders is coming to visit, so we wanted to make sure we are on the same page and ready with the questions and subjects we should discuss with him.

7 – 9   There is a ride available, so Juliana and her family are going to the city tomorrow to take care of some things there.  Since she is busy getting ready, I invited Juliana’s girls to come over and play while I did a load of laundry, and then help me make a batch of cookies.  They entertained themselves with a board game (similar to Candy Land) for the most part, but we also chatted a lot, and of course they wanted to help make cookies and taste the dough.

I delivered four slices of cake to one of the Zoro families, who was in the city when I made cake on Monday.  I had shared it with the entire village (2 small cakes, actually, that fit in the oven at the same time), and reserved some for them, knowing they planned to come back soon.

I took the first cookies over to Juliana’s house, fresh from the oven.  The girls had already gone home.  She had been making homemade rolls, and gave me some, which was a great trade in my opinion, since I try not to eat sugar in the village, to boost immunity.

Back home to finish the laundry and bake the rest of the cookies, then take them all to Juliana’s house immediately, to get the tempting chocolate goodness out of my house.

She and another “city Brasilian/Portuguese speaking” lady were sitting at the table visiting, so I sat down and chatted for 10 or 15 minutes, then excused myself to come back and wash and dry the bathroom floor, which gets soaked when doing laundry.  (As a sidenote, their ride to the city fell through, because another family needed to go the city urgently).

9:15  Got ready for bed.  This is easier and quicker on nights like tonight, when there is diesel for the generator, so we have lights!

9:35  Time with Jesus, reading the Bible, praying, and working on a topical study from Revive our Hearts Ministries.

10:52  – Looked at clock, much later than I thought, quickly called it a night.  I normally am in bed by 10 on a night with electricity, if not sooner, but as stated at the beginning, this post is not meant to be a “typical day” just “a day.”

Please comment with your thoughts on this style of post.  If you enjoyed it, perhaps I will write “A Day in the Life” posts every couple months, so that you can get different glimpses of other non-typical days.

Moments Like These

Following Jesus to this corner of the Amazon Jungle has brought its challenges – infections, bugs, tropical heat, tonal language, and being faraway from my family.  Sometimes I feel discouraged, overwhelmed, or homesick.

But God remains faithful.  As He said to Abram, thousands of years ago, “Fear not…I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward.”  God Himself is enough to make any challenges and suffering worthwhile.  Actually, He is enough to make them seem trivial.  In addition, if He weren’t already enough, God gives me beautiful, precious moments where His extreme grace shines into everyday village life with unexpected glory.  Although words cannot adequately express these moments, please let your imagination supply what is lacking in the following feeble attempts.

  Moment 1

Leaving the home of one of my language helpers, after eating lunch with her and her family, her two-year-old calls my name, and I respond with, “yes?” to which he replies, “nothing.”  We go through this sequence three times.  He clearly does not want me to leave.  The morning before, he actually came home with me, to play with the toys I brought back from the city last time, and the big cardboard box that my agitator came in.

That box proved to be the preferred toy during its two-week lifespan.  I suspected that children valuing boxes as the best playthings ever would be a cross-cultural phenomenon, and now that theory has been proven true.  It served as a terrific hideout, playhouse, and jungle gym.  The two-year-old girl, who is an only child, was afraid to go in the box by herself, however, and her mom never offered to go with her, so guess who ended up going in and out of the box about a dozen times that day?  Let’s just say it was someone who was rather large to fit in the box, but I scrunched myself up as best I could, and we both two-year-old had fun.

The box was also great for carpentry practice.  Lorena, my coworkers’ oldest daughter, came up with the idea of nailing the box to the floor (note that my kitchen floor is made of dirt).  After engaging in this activity for over an hour, she commented, “Now that I’m learning how to hammer nails, I’ll be able to help my daddy with things.”  Her dad probably won’t need things nailed to the ground very often, but at least that skill is a small first step towards hammering nails into wood.

The eight-year-old girl invented a game where she and her cousin laid inside the box, and told her two-year brother to run and jump on top of them.  Inside the box, they couldn’t see when he was coming, producing an adrenaline rush of wondering when they would suddenly get pummeled by a flying child.  (No, I did not participate in this game, just imagining what it would be like and remembering similar games I may have instigated with younger siblings back in the day, ahem).  Unfortunately, the box met its demise during a variation of this game, and is no longer with us.

This post was supposed to be about special moments God has given me recently, not “Ways to Have Fun with Large Boxes”.  Please excuse that rabbit trail.

Moment 2

Have I mentioned that the two-year-olds (there are three in our village – two boys and one girl) have developed the habit of yelling my name whenever they see me?  They mispronounce it in the cutest ways, too.  There was never more than a slight chance of a very, very white gringa sneaking across the village undetected, but now the probability has decreased to just above zero.

One of the two-year-olds mothers commented,

“The children like you a lot.”

“Aww…I like them a lot too.”

Her husband interjected a smart-aleck comment into the heartwarming moment, saying, “The children like your cake.”

“Just the children?” I teased back, a twinkle in my eye.  “Not the grownups?”

Returning his attention to working on their family’s motorcycle, he ignored the question, but his wife laughed.

Such good friends, and such wonderful moments.

Moment 3

One morning, down at the creek, as I sat on a log while my friend, washed her family’s clothes, she suddenly commented,

“You are a good friend.”

I have no idea what I was even doing to qualify as a good friend.  I actually felt pretty much like a lazy loser.  If it weren’t for my pathetic allergies, I would have been in the river with her, helping wash clothes, because that’s the kind of friend I am in my heart.  Actually, my sneaky plan was to help despite my allergies, thus the pair of non-latex cleaning gloves (sent special delivery by my special sister-in-law) stuffed in a back pocket.  But I had forgotten that in addition to regular laundry detergent, the Neno use huge quantities of bleach for washing clothes, and the bleach allergy is so strong I discovered it long before doing any allergy tests.  It manages to get the best of my fingers, even inside gloves, and last attempt took a couple weeks to recover from, so I don’t dare use it for anything, and cannot even stay in a closed area with the smell, due to the resulting lightheadedness.

Yet in that moment, while struggling with the never-ending tension of what I want to do and what I am physically able to do, something prompted my Neno friend’s affirming words.

There is no way she could have known what was going through my head.  She doesn’t even know that I am (or used to be, anyway) the hands-on, jump in with both feet, get in the middle of the action, type of person, and that it is oh-so-hard to hold back from getting involved.  Sitting still and observing gets old fast.  Yet in the Neno culture, the opportunities where I have been able to help have been few and far between, due to various health challenges, the intense heat, and the fact that compared to theirs, my muscles are outrageously weak.

Nevertheless, we have a loving Heavenly Father who knew exactly the emotional conflict going on inside His daughter’s heart.  And He gave me that encouraging moment with a friend to remind me to keep on going, loving those around me, and serving when opportunities arise, without feeling guilty or remorseful about all the ways I see that I wish I could serve and be involved.

And as I write this, weeks later, tears fall freely…tears of gratitude for two-year-olds, cardboard boxes, children in my house, jokes and laughter with friends, and unexpected grace at the creek’s edge.  Emotional conflicts continue, but with friends like the Neno, a Father like God, and occasional moments like these, it’s going to be just fine.

The Cake Chronicles: Part Two

 “Easy” as Cake

Our not-very-smart missionary woke up at 2:30 AM and for some reason, sleep eluded her for the rest of the night.  This left plenty of time for her to ponder the deep questions of life, such as how to make a cake without sugar.  When an idea suddenly hit her, she realized just how silly she could be.  She had plenty of sugar!  Didn’t one of the Neno ladies give her a short piece of sugar cane on her second day back to the village?  And hadn’t the same lady given her a long stalk the previous day?

What if the sugar cane were chopped into tiny pieces (after being peeled, of course), then boiled it water?  The reduction would certainly be very sweet and could be used to make milk to put in the cake (make milk = use dry milk powder).  She was impressed and excited by the sheer brilliance of the plan.  At least it seemed like brilliance at about 4 in the morning.

At 6 in the morning, however, in a state of exhaustion, while waiting for water to boil to make coffee, she still considered the idea a pretty smart one, so she set to work.  Did I mention that our unnamed missionary has never actually peeled, cut and eaten sugar cane?  She has only eaten it when it is handed to her, already prepared.  Sugar cane is really not that exciting to her…just sweetness without flavor, and she tries to drastically limit her sugar intake while in the village, in an attempt to boost immunity.  Sidenote on “eating” sugar cane, in case you have never had the opportunity: you put a chunk in your mouth and chew it and suck it to remove all the sweetness, then spit out the tough fiber that is left in your mouth.

The Neno people make sugar cane prep look super-easy.  Although they boast what my brothers might call “mad knife skills”, our missionary thought she would at least be skilled enough to accomplish the task, although obviously not as gracefully.  She also depended on the convenience of a cutting board, instead of hacking it into chunks in the air, just inches above her knee (Sometimes her Neno friends scare her just a little.  Their idea of “knife safety” is not exactly what she was taught.  But that is another story for another post).  The missionary tackled the sugar cane optimistically, although tiredly.  That cake would going to be in the oven in 45 minutes at most.

She quickly realized that processing sugar cane is much harder than she ever imagined.  It is an especially bad idea for an inexperienced person to attempt such a task at 6 AM, pre-coffee, after about 4 hours of sleep.

And she doesn’t don’t have a heavy-duty large knife (machete) like the Neno people use.  Good thing for her allergy-affected fingers, she gave up on the whole sugar cane idea quickly and decided that resourcefulness and ingenuity are overrated, right up there with cake.  Cake isn’t even healthy, after all.  The Neno people could just wait until her boxes arrive.

Nevertheless, deep down in her little heart, our missionary did feel a little sad that she couldn’t make cake for her dear friends who appeared to be craving it like crazy.  Despite a busy culture immersion and study schedule, she really does love baking, especially when the results guarantee big smiles, delight, and a quickly emptied cake pan.

Lest anyone think these villagers are asking too much by hoping for cake after cake, you need to know that they themselves are most generous.  They are always blessing the not-very-smart but very grateful missionary with food gifts, (all homegrown and organic, at that!) such as manioc root, oranges, the world’s tastiest bananas, or freshly-caught fish from the river.  She appreciates their generous hearts, and the delicious, healthy additions to her diet.

And our missionary will have her turn to give back.

Come back next week, when you’ll hear our missionary say, “Wait just a minute!  The sugar cane plan was a total flop, and I still only have this one measly cup of sugar, but here is another sweet pantry ingredient…a whole container of it!  This idea will work for sure!  Tomorrow is Cake Day!”

The Cake Chronicles: Part One

Let Them Eat Cake!

Once upon a time there was a missionary.  We shall allow her to remain anonymous, since this post will show that she is not the smartest missionary in the jungle.  On her last trip from the city to the village, she apparently made the worst missionary decision ever, almost causing a national crisis.  Okay, well maybe it was more of a village-wide scandal.  Said missionary returned to the village.  That, in case you did not know, is another way of saying, “The possibility of homemade cake returned to the village.”  Which is, of course, a reason for great bliss and delight, except for the two diabetics in the village.

Unfortunately, when our beloved but not very smart missionary returned, there was not room in the pickup for all of her luggage.  Three people were riding in the back of the pickup truck, after all, on top of the purchases of the family giving her a ride.

That was no problem, though.  The missionary was thankful that about half of her luggage would fit, and put in the most important boxes and bags first.  Also, she was thankful that another family was planning to travel from the city to the village “soon,” which our optimistic missionary assumed meant less than a week, probably only two or three days.  They were willing to bring her last boxes with them.

It will probably be immediately obvious to you that her packing priorities are shockingly inadequate, in failing even to itemize “cake ingredients” on the list, which was as follows:

  1. Backpack (including Bible, documents, camera and laptop)
  2. Vegetables and fruits
  3. Clothes, medicines and vitamins
  4. Books, muffin tins, bread pans
  5. Health food store items (oats, sunflower seeds, whole wheat flour, dried fruit, tea)
  6. Grocery store non-perishables
  7. Cleaning supplies
  8. Water filter
  9. Gas (for the oven). The current “tank” probably won’t run out until mid-March.

If you thought it odd that food items were in the second half of the list, the reason is that she still had non-perishables in the village, and assumed that her boxes would arrive long before they ran out.  The problem was that a few standard kitchen items had already run out.  One of them was sugar.  Well, there was one cup left.  It is still there in its container, untouched, patiently waiting for granulated reinforcements to join it, since all by its lonesome, that one measly cup is not enough to make a cake, unless it is a very little cake.  It is, however, poor policy to make a very little cake when you have very many cake-awaiting friends.

You see, our not-very-smart missionary’s first clue that she had committed a major tactical error was that on her first visit with every family in the village, the subject of cake was broached (not by her).  It has yet to be determined whether the villagers truly missed the missionary as a person and friend, or if they missed her solely as a Maker of Cakes.  Apparently, her cakes are to die for.  The ironic part is that she doesn’t even like cake that much, and, left to herself, does not make it nearly as often as they seem to think.  But she does love baking, sharing the results, and making things people especially enjoy.  So cake will probably feature as her Most Frequent Baked Good of 2017.  What gladsome tidings for her new cake-loving friends.  Cake Ingredients will certainly be high on her packing priorities list in the future.  (In her defense, Cake Ingredients had made it onto her shopping list, at least).

This time however, the missionary brought along pizza ingredients along with the veggies.  Some of her friends had expressed a desire to eat pizza in her new house, so she was excited to bless them and treat them to something extra special.  The four huge pizzas she made were extra special, and many friends enjoyed eating them, but pizzas can never be as extra special as cake.   Almost everyone knows that universal truth.  Except for you-know-who.  Well, she has figured it out now, because after all the planning, work and money she lovingly invested in the pizza production, it turns out her friends would have been happier if she had just brought along sugar and made a simple (but as-large-as-possible) cake.  Who would have known?

Join us next Friday, when, after five long cake-less days, in the middle of a sleepless night, you’ll hear our missionary say, “What a silly little person I am!  Of course there is enough sugar for a large cake.  I’m making one first thing in the morning.”