Wednesday, January 28, 2009

When the unexpected occurs...

These last two days were nothing I would have ever planned. In fact, knowing myself well, I would have said “Wow – that is a recipe for burnout!” And yet, emerging from two and going into a probable third, I would not trade it. Not necessarily replicate it every week, but not replace it either!

On Tuesday morning, my night guard Ismaguil woke up from his night off in his own hut. He has a wife, 4 children (Ages 18 months to 7) and his two brothers, all who live together in a straw hut. They live in the inside courtyard of a cement house. The owner of the house allows them to live there, which provides them with privacy and a certain amount of security, in exchange for keeping on eye on the house. No one currently lives in the house, and it is locked up tight with a vehicle in the courtyard as well. So their straw hut takes up all the space between the cement wall of the house and the cement of the courtyard wall. While some of the family still slept, Ismaguil got dressed and headed down the street to do errands. He was about ½ kilometer away, almost at the paved road, when he got a call on his cellphone. What he heard set the course for our days to come.

“Ismaguil – your house is on fire!!”

Having left there only 20 or so minutes before he found this hard to believe and yet picked up the bottom of his robes and ran as fast as he could back to their courtyard. What he saw was devastating. In less than 10 minutes, their hut and all of his belongings had burnt done to nothing but cinders. However, his heart leapt to see all of his family safe and outside the courtyard walls. Thankfully not all had been sleeping and everyone got out before the hut went up in flames. The fireman were called, but did not respond, which is about par for the course when they hear it’s a “hut fire”. Because the hut is made with wooden posts and dry straw mats, it incinerated faster than you could imagine. With the exception of the cooking bowls, pots and dishes (which were in another part of their yard) they lost EVERYTHING they own. The heat from the fire also melted the front end of the owner’s car which was parked next to it.

Shortly after I got the phone call from Ismaguil (on Paul’s cellphone) that the “patron” (Paul) had to come quick – there had been a fire. Paul dropped everything and jumped in the truck and took off. Sure enough, when he arrived, this was all that was left.


What happened? Above Ismaguil's house runs a central power line on poles. This line was old and cracked and broke in two pieces. One side fell right onto Ismaguil’s hut, shorting out and bursting the hut into flames in seconds.

So the representatives came for both the house owner and the power company. Keep in mind we aren’t really living in a place where “the rights of all men” is applied equally. We are thankful that the owner of the property is fighting on behalf of Ismaguil and it sounds like he will be reimbursed for all they lost. The immediate needs of his family were still unmet however. Paul gathered up the family and brought them to our house, leaving Ismaguil behind to deal with details,etc. So we received his wife, 4 children and two brothers at our house around noon. We are thankful to have a large covered terrace at the front of our house. We borrowed a few foam mattresses from the team guest house, put out our straw mats, filled a large bucket with water and did our best to give them a peaceful place to process what they had been through. The children instantly went at the buckets of toys and our own children did a wonderful job of sharing their buckets, trucks and bikes. My household Rebecca had already left for the day, but my language tutor Kutana was still outside. He is a knowledgeable young guy who is also a good cook, so I recruited him to help me make a big batch of sauce (tomatoes,onions, hot peppers, tomato paste, spices, oil,etc ) all in a big pot while I made rice and gathered dishes. Including our family, we fed 14 people for lunch, and 16 for supper that day.

One thing we wanted to be very aware of was that we didn’t want to impinge the role of the community in how they would normally react to a crisis like this. We retained an open gate policy through the day and night where people would come and pay their respects to the family, and often slip them a little bit of money to help with what they lost. The Tamasheq community group we work with pooled some funds to go out and buy several pairs of clothing for all the children and we pitched in to get some blankets.

Tamasheq friends dropping of bags of clothing


We wanted to learn the ways that the culture responds and not take over, but watch and try to fit in the gaps to some extent. That evening, Bennett brought out his little DVD machine and all together they watched Dr Seuss for an hour while we made the supper.

Eating in the evening with some of the people


After that, the kids went to sleep and the adults built a fire in the middle of our courtyard. Kutana is also an excellent guitarist and I brought out my guitar and we enjoyed 90 minutes or so of music, clapping, singing and even a little dancing.


I am quite the novice guitar player, but I told them they had to hear at least one song of our style of music, so I played Matt Redman’s “Blessed be your name” and Paul sang with me. Much to their (polite because I'm not good) enjoyment! Then we wrapped a tarp around some of the open walls and they all settled in for a good sleep.


This morning we enjoyed bread and oranges for breakfast and the men went off to the yard to clean up all the debris, talk with the owner and start to dig the holes for new posts and walls. I had class for 3 hours with Kutana, but for the first hour and a half I made traditional Tamasheq tea. Yup, ME!


We had talked about doing that one class, and today was a great opportunity to do just that! We bought tea and sugar and sat outside together around the mat. I was the one in front of the tea set and I added the tea and water, adjusted the coals, learned to judge when it was ready, poured back and forth the tea from cup to teapot in high streams off the ground to mix well the tea and sugar and water and to make the coveted froth in the cup along with the tea. I didn’t even spill much!


And as I worked, I learned. I learned how to say all the actions in Tamasheq, the required verbs for pouring, adding, etc. The names of each item required to make tea. How to offer, how to describe the taste, etc. Three times we repeated to process, since traditional tea is a series of three glasses for everyone. The first being strong like life, the second (I cant remember what they compare it to-but its a little sweeter and mild) and the third soft and sweet like love. Each time I would hear the words, enter into conversation, repeat the phrases of what I was doing and hearing, and serving tea! I was quite the sight apparently and many stopped by to greet us.


After tea I went into the classroom and we wrote down all the key words so I could re-read and memorize them. That’s they key for me, who is a visual learner – I hear, I try , I repeat and then I need to see it written down. It was a great day for tea!

Now it is getting close to supper and I have a great meal of rice, lentils and a pimento sauce all ready on the stove for when the men return and we all eat together one more night on our patio. This afternoon they have been working hard getting all the walls up at their new hut and tomorrow it will be done and they will go back home. All afternoon the children having been having fun together, playing in the sand, using chalk to write on the walls, etc.



So tonight I will sit on the mats some more next to his wife and talk stiltedly. But I can communicate! What a joy to at least make some progress and get my point across and laugh together. Who cares that I used the word “bum” instead of “cushion” today. Who makes them so close in sound anyhow here! hah. They will sleep safely here again tonight and start the process of rebuilding their lives.

Interestingly enough, one of the most important things they lost is their paperwork. That is the one thing they kept talking about. Can you imagine losing every piece of paperwork you have about your identity? Health records, birth records, death records, social insurance cards, employment cards, bank info (ok-they have no banks-that’s just you). They lose their ability to participate in programs, etc and apparently this is not easy to replace or cheap. Hopefully this will be covered by the power company as well. I spoke about this with a friend though. In our culture we mourn the loss of sentimental things in a time like this. We mourn photographs and albums, special jewelry, gifts from loved ones, etc. They mourn identity.

While they rebuild we will continue to help and support them, albeit carefully to make sure we never take over the role of their community and families and the power company who was at fault. To give you an idea of the scope, here are some of the things that were lost

  • all the clothes of every member of the family except what they had on their backs.
  • all of the mattresses and blankets
  • all of their family identity papers and health records
  • all of their medications and food stores
  • tables and other little pieces of furniture
  • any toys they had for the kids

And yet they are so grateful no one was hurt, and that they will “rise from the ashes” and move on with life. Just another bump right?


Many of you who saw my update about this on facebook have asked how you could help. Thank you so much. We are thankful that we have a healthy “Work Special” Account that allows us to immediately respond to crisis here. Thank you for those who support that fund and the Global Advance Fund which keeps us here. In fact, what we are trying to provide costs very little except for the blankets and food we have bought. As we see little needs over the next while I am sure we will help some of those too. The youngest boy has really bad and painful eczema and we just had a tub of “Georges cream” sent out from Canada to help treat and heal that. We applied it twice before it was lost in the fire. Anyone want to mail a new tub?

And you can't put a price on emotional support and care anyhow. You are partnering with us to allow us to be here in Niger, and it is times like this where we see can live purpose in loving these people, and praying with them and for them. The Tamasheq people have a great saying for the way they live and work together “Nous sommes ensemble” (Yes that’s french-not Tamasheq!). It means “We are together”. That is what we are doing here, being together as part of their lives, in the good and the bad, hopefully making the bad a little better, and bringing HOPE.

So tonight we will sit around together again, speaking a mix of french and Tamasheq and telling stories and relaxing. I am really racking up the hours of language study! Tomorrow they will go on with their lives, but now we know them better. I feel more comfortable to drop in on them at their hut, sit and visit, and enter into their lives in a meaningful way. I hope they know that we didn’t just open our house, but our hearts, and they are always welcome here.

In my weakness I have been made strong...



Anonymous said...

I'm weeping of course, that's me but totally blessed once again by your journalling of the events that transpired. What a beautiful gift you are to these folks Chantelle... May God continue to bless your relationships as you open your hearts and your home to your new friends. heather

Carrien said...

What a cool thing a blog is. We get to hear about your life far away in real time as it happens.

I really appreciate all your points about watching how the community responds, etc. as well. Good food for thought.

Bob the Dog said...

This is a beautiful testament of your work and commitment to the people. I enjoyed this post very much. Your language study on the tuareg tea and practice made me remember our forays into the Ethiopian coffee ceremony. Thanks for sharing!

andrea said...

What an incredible story... thank you for sharing. A

Anonymous said...

the photo of the sweetest goat. yea! what kinda of goat is it?!

Anonymous said...

the photo of the sweetest goat. yea! what kinda of goat is it?!