Love and War: Parenting in Pemba

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I’m not in Pemba. I sit looking out at the sea, in a comfortable flat in Cape Town. We left a couple of weeks ago, and our ragamuffin tribe was not a pretty sight. Dirty, sick and sleep-deprived. Totally exhausted. We – especially I – needed a break. To rest. To try to sleep more than two hours at a time (I am still working on it). To be surrounded by comforting people and beautiful places. To eat. To question where we’re at and why it feels so hard for us as a family to be in that little, hot, coastal African town.

To process.

One of the things I am thinking through is how it feels to mother in such a wild environment. In a village that is so normal to thousands of mothers, and such a steep learning curve for me. And some some days I adore it. And many, many others, I fight against it angry or I curl underneath the weight of it, exhausted. How do I find parenting in Pemba? Mainly hard, sometimes beautiful. Here are some thoughts that surface as I take a moment to exhale.

I hate the stress. I don’t like feeling stressed and I hate what stress does to me. Most of the time it is blistering hot. My house is sweet, but small and dark, and there is barely room to move without waking a sleeping baby or tripping over wires. Inside we can’t move much. Outside it’s too hot and eventually both need carried (picture that for a minute). When we’re home, emergencies or children find our door, although I work on boundaries. The water can disappear. The electricity can too. There’s nothing for dinner and if I want to walk to the shops, it is an hour in the heat with my babies. I’m stressed. And I’m taking it out on my husband. And I’m putting my baby on the floor and my toddler in front of a screen to try and escape for a moment. There are a million places I’d rather be.

I love the dirt. I love seeing Lily charging into orange dust. The simplicity of it is like a cool drink in the toxic toy kingdom of pink plastic and instant screens. Some afternoons, as the trees turn yellow-gold in the late sun, I watch Willow sitting outside in her white plastic tub, splashing naked and giggling, as Lily digs up dirt. And there is no place I’d rather be.

I hate the sickness. I really, really do. I hate the boils in their skin, and the endless coughing. I hate the way I feel as I watch my daughter collapsed on the bed all day, the way I feel like someone punched the wind out of my stomach. I hate the way sickness has no mercy on my tiny baby, covering her fresh warm skin in infection. And I know that this is nothing compared to what some mothers watch in their huts, day after day.

I love the freedom. We can go anywhere! There are no programmes or preschool or playdates. (Secretly I wish for these too.) We can paint with glitter or we can play in the sand with Makua girls. We can watch Doc McStuffins or we can splash in the ocean. I have freedom too. I am a stay-at-home-mum but just down the hill are hundreds of women I can sit with, who speak a foreign language and teach me so much. I just need to answer my door to pour into someone’s life or give a hungry person food. I can dream dreams for Pemba and dream dreams for my children in the same morning. Nick’s hours are interwoven with mine, as he works and comes home so easily, and I don’t feel cut off at home. It is a wonderful gift to feel part of a living, breathing, rich family. I don’t take it for granted.

I hate how my children are different. I wish we could blend in, but we do not. As soon as I leave my house, Lily is surrounded by a group of sweet, excited girls. They prod her and stroke her and giggle. And she squirms and frowns, and they prod her again and giggle again. And now I’m angry and I tell them to go. And this is not what you dream of as a missionary mother, but it happens all the time. The girls run off, and I’m aware of the gaping gulf between us all. I long for our lives to mesh into each other, us and the Makua, but there are men who want to marry Lily and children who prod her and boys who steal her toys, and the line where gracious meets furious is difficult to discern. That group of girls, they probably just wanted to make friends.

I love their inheritance. Though my children have witnessed my tiredness and stress in their home, I believe they have also inhaled an inheritance. They are accustomed to a way of life marked with buckets for water and heat and need, whereas for me it is a huge unlearning of comfort, and it hurts. I love that Lily shares his lollypop with a little girl in church without fear. I love how she plays with anyone. I love that the girls breathe in a home marked by devotion and first love. By desperate prayer and joyful worship. Yes, our home spills out anger and stress and hurt and questions. But our whole world has spun around Him in that place too. They have seen this, even though we’ve reflected it so messily. They have seen it. It counted.


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