My Heart & My Hands 


Anna G. Joujan 


Copyright 2016 by Anna G. Joujan 


Photo by the author.

Photo by the author. 
It was the dance that did it. Sure, we exchanged the necessary formalities when one leaves a place where one has been hosted; there were the thank yous ["bareka"], the farewells [a slight bow combined with a nod of the head, and hands pressed together as if in prayer], and the exchange of gifts [2 Guinea fowl, 1 rooster, and a large bowl of their eggs--those of the Guinea fowl, not those of the rooster ;-)]. But I am convinced that the moment of significance--that in which the people of this village really felt, and believed, our hearts, came at the end of the formalities.

We had prepared a few simple things for this goodbye meeting but, knowing a bit about the nature of life here, we also recognized that things would likely not go as planned when we arrived at the designated meeting place at the designated time--or, more precisely, 20 minutes beforehand, to indicate that we were ready for the gathering. This allowed for a gradual trickle of people to start arriving. Soon we realized that a greater percentage of the population than we anticipated would be there; we decided, then, that we should move to the other meeting "hall." So chairs and benches were placed on top of heads and we walked down the road to the bigger mango tree; the intensity of daytime sun makes the shade of dense trees like the mango to be the only reasonable place to be--even the shade offered by a building becomes somewhat sauna-like with this level of dry heat. As we walked, my husband placed his water bottle on his head. It did not last very long there, but we decided that we should start practicing the method with small items. I used to assume that the head was used for larger or heavier items, but since moving here have noticed it to be simply another way to carry things: we see people with hands free but a head balancing lunch, or a drink. Thinking about the habit of favoring one hand over the other, I suspect that regular head-carrying may improve both posture and balance. I have also noticed a bit of a hunching in the shoulders as of late, so in good meddling-wife fashion, I suggest to Peter that perhaps he should pull this water bottle trick with regularity :-) But I digress--back to the mango tree meeting.

Once we had repositioned ourselves under the larger tree, the aforementioned formalities began. Truthfully, I did not feel as if I had done much to thank for. We had spent the week there on a medical mission and, with no medical background, the majority of our party walked around meeting people while the doctor and his wife labored all day to serve the endless stream of men, women, and children with all manner of skin, limb, dental, and other ailments. For the rest of us, the hardship was less in the work itself and more just in physical discomforts associated with village life.

For one, we joked about how far away the outhouse was. Considering the large quantity of fiber we were consuming, this was an actual issue: we had brought large bags of potatoes to toss in the cooking fire. We had not brought any foil, so just tossed them in with the coals. Depending on how impatient one was at any given point, the end result of the consumption of each potato would be either slightly burned, or just charcoal black fingers and face. The first day, I happily ate several large [hot ;-)] potatoes before deciding I was done. As is my custom, I then slathered petroleum jelly [i.e. all-purpose moisturizer] onto my face and hands. A few minutes later, one teammate came over, smiling at me, and announcing that she was taking a photo. "Ok," I shrugged, mildly curious about her giggles but too tired to care all that much. Eventually I was alerted to the fact that I was sporting the fashionable charcoal-black makeup trend. Peter and I thought this might make an appropriate time for us to reenact our wedding using current cuisine as a replacement for the wedding cake that we actually skipped over the first time as well [I had instead opted for a DIY strawberry shortcake that seemed more fitting for our simple farm/barn ceremony]. Strawberry shortcake in a mason jar, charred sweet potato ... Same difference, eh?

The elements were another "hardship" of the week: namely, the dry heat. We are accustomed to heat, but not used to being outside in it, in the hottest parts of the day. Our work lives in the school mean that we are generally inside when it is too hot to safely be out. For this trip, however, we were wandering the village with no prior knowledge or destination, so no idea how long until the next patch of shade where we may find people to talk to. One morning before setting out I had an idea. Remembering the research I had done on surviving temperature extremes, before my move to Afghanistan, I looked at the sachet of drinking water in my hand. It had chilled enough to freeze. I took a strip of fabric and wrapped it around the sachet, then tied it around my head so that the ice was strapped to my forehead. It was a decent portable air conditioner, with a twist: we drink these waters by tearing off a corner of the plastic. With my sachet already being drunk out of, this meant that as it melted, the water would drip out. Once I had discovered this effect, I began to sing "I'm a little teapot" each time the melted water had accumulated enough for my "pour me out" to be a nice little flow. It was also another patch of brilliance so far as fashion statements go.

These physical difficulties, then, both the expected (heat, inconveniences, etc.) and the unexpected (such as a bizarre rash of large and painful blisters I developed), I was mentally prepared for.

I was not, however, prepared to face the raw ache for significance that began to swell after our first day. Once I saw that my work was not a scripted one, I began searching for what it was that I was meant to do in this village.

Some in our group were gifted at sharing the Word with those we met. Knowing this was not my strength, I began to gravitate towards the children, who were a decidedly more captive audience than my usual students on any given day. I guess those who see me on a daily basis have grown accustomed enough to the song-and-dance routines that it's not an exciting novelty anymore. That said, I do believe that the combination of music and motion is an effective, and lasting, learning tool. So it was with intentionality that I went through a small set of songs, with any surrounding youngsters, on a daily basis, with the same motions associated with words for each language we were singing at the time [i.e. hands over heart = love, hands forming a large circle = the world, etc]. Sure enough, by the end of the week I was getting used to overhearing snippets of "God is so good," ("lesa wawama") and "there's no one like Jesus" ("takwaba uwaba nga Jesu") while walking.

I began to settle into my role, assuming that anytime grown-ups were gathered but children hanging from trees nearby, I'd make my way over to the children. Which brings me back to that mango tree meeting mentioned at the beginning.

Before starting this farewell meeting, our Pastor had asked if I could lead them in a few songs, as I had done when we first arrived. That time I had combined a performance by the Easter choir (as most in the choir had come on this trip) with a few other songs most of us knew. This time, I mentioned several of the songs I had been doing with the children, asking him if he thought it would be ok to do children's songs and motions with the adults. I began to explain to him that I thought it might help grownups, in the same way that it helps children, to associate motions with the words of the songs. But he nodded a cheerful assent before I had finished my overly anxious request.

The first part of the ceremony, then, went as expected, with the thank yous and the gifts already mentioned [we have been periodically "shush"ing the 3 birds in a box behind us as we travel back.
For some reason they are dissatisfied with their luxurious instant noodle box turned passenger car. Instead of standing to give a message, Pastor then turned to me and motioned that I should begin. Our group stood behind me, copying my motions, while I faced the people of the village for a short set of easily singable and danceable choruses. I nodded my thanks when we finished and returned to my seat.

At this point a few people stood up and had a short discussion. The translator came back to us and relayed the message that the women would like to give a performance for us in return. Soon no one was sitting anymore. A couple drums had appeared, a voice began to sing, others joined in, and the dancing began. It was a seamless flow of beauty, one song rolling into another as different voices started new call-and-response tunes. Different people also began the accompanying dances, young and old alike, with no apparent difference in agility or energy.

My smile grew, my feet started to move, and soon I was focused intently on my efforts to copy their intricate motions. A few of the dancers noticed me and, before long, I had been motioned into the circle with another lady. I copied the motions as best I could, moving my feet to the beat, then turning a circle before letting myself fall back into the arms of one on the outside of the circle, who would catch me under the arms while I jumped, as if she was throwing me into the air. I did not feel particularly graceful, in the least; but it was, in a word, exhilarating to be a part of the beauty. I was honored.

The dancing continued, for quite some time, until it was time for us to leave. Once back with just out party, we had a time of sharing one highlight each of us had experienced. Three words came immediately to my mind: "song and dance." At times I worry that I am not spiritual enough to prioritize traditional preaching. But when it comes down to it, I cannot help but circle back to this same center point. We have had a theme song for the trip, singing it together in our morning and evening devotions. In it, we sing the words, "my heart and my hands, I'm making them Yours." It makes me smile. Yes, Lord--I may not have the words to say. But I have a heart for the beauty of this world: its music and its motion. And I have the hands to join in with it.


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