Category Archives: Travels

Out and About in Cameroon

The last post focused on workshop issues; this one will have more other life issues. This was the longest workshop I’ve done in Cameroon, and my first time flying within the country. For instance, we stayed at a Benedictine monastery, so we were able to buy fresh milk, from the above and a small number of other cows on the compound.

Downtown Yaoundé from the air

For those looking for some perspective on the capitol city of Cameroon (where we live), here it is from the air. You can see the taller buildings and larger roads going to a center area in the top third of the above photo.

I also got a photo of our neighborhood, complete with our house, the CABTAL building, the soccer field where we get to exercise (even in isolation), and even on end of the building of our local church!

Our neighborhood

Back to the monastery, apparently this order likes to keep busy, and to make things to sell to the community. This is where they make essential oils (from lots of things, with lots of cryptic names —cinnamon was the only one I recognized):

They also have a place behind the building where we stayed, where they microbrew a beer made from locally available ingredients. But as with many places, innovation, industry, and tradition go hand in hand. They also have a talking drum prominently displayed at the monastery entrance:

Talking drum at the monastery
Hear the two tones of the drum

I didn’t ever hear anyone play it (other than me, in the above video clip), but these drums (found across Africa) are dear to my heart. They probably make no sense to most English speakers, but when you speak a tonal language, these drums are putting out the information that you normally use to make words. So the fact that these drums are used to communicate language, which is then understood at a great distance, is a testimony to the importance of tone in these languages. Imagine you had a drum you could hit that made the ‘p’ sound, and another that could make a ‘b’ or ‘k’ sound, and you could just pound out letters (on a drum carved from a tree, no less!), and so beat out the sounds of a word. Anyway, I think it is cool that something so uniquely African exists, that recognizes the unique value of tone in African languages.

Chufie’ workshop

several of us from the workshop
Hanging out at the end of the workshop

I just got back from a workshop where we tested out AZT in a longer workshop, and things went well. I say “longer”, because it was supposed to be three weeks, but we had to isolate after the first day, because of a COVID-19 exposure (the first in our whole community in months). But we got tested:

Our first (negative) test

And then again:

Our second (negative) test

Anyway, it was good to get back to the workshop:

guys working

When we debriefed the workshop, I had two main questions for the guys. First, was the tool easy enough to use? One guy responded that he didn’t really know how to use computers, but this tool was easy to use. So that was great news. I had suspected this, and worked for it, but it was good to hear we’re hitting that target.

The other question was about engagement and involvement: did the guys feel like they were actively taking a real part in the work? Again, they answered yes. In the picture above, the guys are talking through a decision, before telling the computer “This word is like that other one”, or “this word is different from each word on this list”. Framing this question is important, because this is a question that people can discuss and come up with a real, meaningful answer, without knowing much about linguistics. If we were to ask them to tell us if this phrase had a floating tone in it (yup, those are real), we would be asking them to guess and make up an answer, since they would have no idea what the question meant —probably just like most people reading this post. :-) But floating tones are important, and we need to analyze them correctly; we just want to get at them in a way that enables the fullest participation of the people who speak the language.

I didn’t come up with this on my own; far from it, I’m standing on the shoulders of giants, who pioneered how to engage people meaningfully in the analysis of their own language. What’s new here is that these methods are modeled within a computer program, so the user is clicking buttons instead of moving pieces of paper around on a table. Buttons are not in themselves better than paper, but when we work on the computer, each decision is recorded immediately, and each change is immediately reflected in the next task —unlike pen and paper methods, where you work with a piece of paper with (often multiple) crossed out notes, which then need to be added to a database later.

The other major advantage of this tool is the facilitation of recordings. Typically, organizing recordings can be even more work than typing data from cards into a database, and it can easily be procrastinated, leaving the researcher with a partially processed body of recordings. But this tool takes each sorted word (e.g., ‘corn’ and ‘mango’), in each frame (e.g., ‘I sell __’ and ‘the __is ripe’) it is sorted, and offers the user a button to record that phrase. Once done, the recording is immediately given a name with the word form and meaning, etc (so we can find it easily in the file system), and a link is added to the database, so the correct dictionary entry can show where to find it. Having the computer do this on the spot is a clear advantage over a researcher spending hours over weeks and months processing this data.

Once the above is done (the same day you sorted, remember? not months later), you can also produce an XML>PDF report (standing again on the giant shoulders of XLingPaper) with organized examples ready to copy and paste into a report or paper, with clickable links pointing to the sound files.

Anyway, I don’t know if the above communicates my excitement, but thinking through all these things and saying “This is the right thing to do” came before “Huh, I think I could actually make some of this happen” and this last week, we actually saw this happen —people who speak their language, but don’t know much about linguistics meaningfully engaged in the analysis of their language, in a process that results in a database of those decisions, including organized recordings for linguists to pick apart later —and cool reports!

Screenshot of PDF (which has clickable links, though not visible in this screenshot)

Indeterminate Culture Shock

Back in the land of cheap, yummy avocados.…

I’ve written before about triviality, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about its application to our current times. That is, for missionaries and others working cross-culturally, there is always an element of adjusting to a new environment and culture. This includes how to find your bedroom light switch in the dark (if you’re moving house), but also how to not insult someone on the road, and how to not be insulted by someone else on the road —i.e., knowing when someones behavior should be offensive, and when it is just normal for your new environment.

But the kicker in all the above (and many other things to adjust to) is that knowing the new reality is only the first layer of adjustment. Being able to point to your light switch after thinking for ten seconds is not the same as being able to reach it intuitively —in the dark, and while still mostly asleep, when your brain is not really working yet. This is where the concept of triviality is helpful (to me, anyway!). Normal life has lots of trivial items in it: how to shop, how to make food, how to greet, how to get around town. There is some adjustment when these things change, but the goal is normally to move these things to a place were we just do them, without having to think through them each time/day.

So the twist that hit me this morning, is that whether we’re talking about culture shock, or reverse culture shock (or reverse reverse culture shock…), the transition is normally from one more or less stable environment to another more or less stable environment. The problem is that one house isn’t laid out the same as another house —but they’re both houses, and neither changes much over time. Similarly, moving from one culture/city to another requires adjusting from one status quo to another, but there is a status quo in each place, which doesn’t change much over time. But this is not what we find in 2020.

Rather, this year we have political and medical facts which seem to change on a regular basis. Then the recommendations, orders/laws, and rulings, which change in response to those facts (or not), then the implementation of those recommendations, orders/laws, and rulings on various levels, which must respond to all of the above. So the question “should I wear a mask right now?”, for instance, has been a non-trivial question for months, for many people. Are the CDC and WHO recommending masks right now, or not? What kind of masks, in what situations? What are the relevant recommendations, orders/laws, and rulings of our federal/national government? And of our state? Of our County? Of our City? And perhaps most frustrating of all, how do we respond when the neighboring nation/state/county/city says something different than ours? Or when the state says something that contradicts what the county says? Most of us are simply not accustomed to thinking through all these issues on any kind of regular basis, much less each time it might be appropriate to put on or take off a mask. And masks or not is not the only question (e.g., distancing, quarantine/isolation, and contact reporting), nor are on and off the only answers to that one question (e.g., public/online shaming, rebellion, political advocacy, and non-/violent public protests)

Now, if there were one set of rules imposed (for better or worse), this might just be a matter of adjusting to them, however much time, energy, and libery that takes. But when the info we’re basing a decision on changes every couple days (on some level), we have to re-evaluate, and the decision never has a chance to become trivial –so we continue to spend energy we shouldn’t on menial, daily tasks.

There is, of course one condition where this problem doesn’t apply. Namely, if your allegiance to a particular body medical/political/whatever is significantly strong to trump all others, then you make your decision once, and only change it when that one body changes advice —and hopefully that’s not often. But I have a hard time distinguishing that from bigotry, especially in the current political climate in the US. That is, if your response to the mask question is really just a badge of political affiliation (as I’ve heard from MANY people), then can you still say you’re wearing a mask (or not) because it is the right response to the pandemic?

I read twitter enough to know that for many people, there is only one correct answer to the mask question. But there seems to be a strong correlation between those people and the many who feel there is only one correct answer to the “which party should be in power” question, on both sides. And I, for one, have never felt fully comfortable voting for either party, as neither seems to represent me particularly well. So for me, my conscience dictates that I continue to reevaluate both questions, as new data comes in.

And I know there are many people out there that feel (at least a bit) the same. I’ve heard from many the difficulty of adjusting to constantly changing goal posts. And I think that this idea of having a culture shock (or lack of triviality) that has no real end in sight, is a large part of it. Even in this context, I feel obliged to continue to insist on my right and responsibility, as a human and as a Christian, to think, to use and develop my conscience, and to pray for the Holy Spirit to give guidance, and to follow that guidance even in the face of direction to do otherwise from lesser authorities:

But Peter and John answered [their rulers and elders and scribes, in council], “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.”

Acts 4:19-20 (ESV)

So where do we go from there? I think the bigotry answer, as flawed as it is, has something to it. That is, in the midst of a storm, hold one to one thing that doesn’t move. But I think we want to be careful to not make our one thing a human or human institution, which will all fail us, sooner or later. Rather, Jesus tells us

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.

Matthew 7:24-25 (ESV)

So let us continue to read what Jesus had to say, and try to put it into practice, and let the storm flow around us as it will. Not that I think this will be easy, but I think it’s the only answer that doesn’t result in our eventual destruction.

International travel through covidland

Starbucks is closed; does this still count as an airport?

Our trip to Paris was fairly uneventful, apart from being told we had to take off our beautifully created cloth facemasks, and put on “surgical” masks, which get wet and dirty easily….

Then we saw that our trip to Atlanta was late, currently by three hours. Air France (from whom we bought the ticket) has no idea why it’s late. They can’t improve our seating in the flight (we are currently all five sitting apart)

And they can’t rebook the flight we will miss because of this very late flight… Until we find a Delta person… Not sure what their partnerships are for, when they deny responsability for each other’s flights, even when they sold the tickets… I guess it’s fair to say everyone is stressed, so we should be glad to make it this far, and to have expectation to make it the rest of the way is a lot better than the alternative!

Ships, Patience, and Long Longing

Several of our dear Texas friends helped us catalog our shipment to move here to Cameroon, carefully tucking and packing things knowing the great journey they would travel. That was in late May and early June. Several asked, “When will this arrive in Africa?” I would reply, “Hopefully by Christmas.” Their shock was evident. We don’t have a culture that breeds patience. It is foreign.

When we arrived in Yaoundé July 8, our boxes had already been trucked across Texas up to North Carolina, where the JAARS office was packing them into wooden crates to be loaded into a sea freight container. When we sat in Orientation classes July 24, we were excited to hear the shipment had left NC and was due into port on this side of the Atlantic as early as September 12! That sounded too good to be true, so I mentally added a month. If it could arrive before our birthdays at the end of October, THAT would be a great birthday! They added a comment that it’s important to get shipping containers through customs well before the holiday rush.

In September, we began to really start longing in earnest for our belongings. Joel needs his own scientific calculator for math class. It’s coming on the shipment. Anna needs a longer skirt for Chapel day. We have one on the shipment. We need a board game other than a deck of cards to play when the power goes out! I need my cooking pots & pans, the sewing machine, the piano, the mixer, etc… Multiple times per day I think of something I have – but don’t have here – and don’t want to buy again for 1 month’s use (IF I could find it in a store!) I always thought of myself as a friend to the simple life, fond of minimalism, but feeding and caring for 3 teenagers for months on end is not so simple out of a few suitcases.

In October, we learned that the shipment had been delayed 3-4 weeks, but was almost to Cameroon. And in November, we learned of it’s safe arrival in port! But it can take 2 weeks to process customs paperwork. Then last week we learned that initial paperwork was rejected. No idea when it will actually make it here…

Why is it so hard not to have a sewing machine? A Halloween costume? Wrapping paper? These are American things that our African brothers and sisters live without. I find myself longing. I have been longing now for a very long time. Even when it may be broken or ruined when it all arrives! I have been pitiful enough to read those packing lists for fun…

The longing in my heart grows so strong for these physical things. And I know the Scriptures say, “Do not store up for yourselves earthly treasure, where moths and rust destroy or thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasure in heaven… for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Matthew 6:19-21

Have I put hope & joy and comfort on earthly things that perish, spoil and fade?

This morning in my study of the apostle Peter I read the phrase: “…when God waited patiently for Noah to build the ark.” I ever thought about God waiting patiently. How long was that? No one knows exactly, but Biblical scholars all estimate somewhere between 40-100 years. Years! God’s patience is beyond my imagination. I’m having a hard time waiting for even 6 months…

As I marveled at his patience, and my lack of it, He spoke,

“Do you long for Me, like you long for this shipment?”


Do I long for Jesus’ arrival like I long for my ship’s arrival?

Do I long for heaven as my true Home like I long for these cement walls to feel like home?

Transition is hard.

It is rootless wandering.

Challenging me to build on the Rock of Ages.

The joy of every longing heart. ?

– – – – – – – – – –

What are you longing for? Is it eternal? Or can it perish, spoil or fade?

Let us set our “minds on things above, not on earthly things.”
Colossians 3:2

Getting around in Yaoundé

Everyone but Kim in the back of a Corolla
Four of us in the back of a taxi

One thing that hasn’t changed much since we first visited Cameroon (in 2004) is the taxi system. They are fairly inexpensive, though they have a few drawbacks. First of all, they pack in people (normally into a Toyota Corolla), as you can see above and below (driver not pictured, but on the other side of Kim.…)

Kim and I on a single Corolla front seat.
Kim and I in the front passenger seat

But it isn’t just people who get overloaded; it is also not uncommon to see stuff sticking out the back of a taxi:

Stuff gets overloaded, too

One comment we heard that has helped us process traffic here is to not think of “my lane” and “your/oncoming lane.” Or, as we were otherwise told in understanding Cameroon, “Everything is negotiable.” How many “lanes” do you see in this photo?

Five lanes of traffic on the road to downtown

On the far right (upper right in photo), you can see a yellow taxi on the side of the road, probably picking up or dropping off a fare. Behind him is a silver car edging in between us and the taxi in front of us. Passing the taxi in front of us is another silver car, straddling the center line. On the other side of him is an oncoming taxi, who is passing cars stopped on the other side of the road. Think of it as water, flowing around whatever other is there, including cars, people, motorcycles, and potholes. Then our driver passes:

Passing with oncoming traffic

I don’t remember who we were passing, but you can see we’re across the center line with oncoming traffic (don’t do this, James!), which we managed not to hit. And yes, that truck in the oncoming lane really is labelled “flammable liquid” (probably natural gas tanks for cooking).

One benefit of all this congestion is that things really don’t go very fast. On a trip downtown, I only get up to fourth gear once or twice, and over 60kmph (38mph) maybe once. So most of my driving has been in first or second gear, negotiating near gridlock, so any accident wouldn’t be very serious. In fact, I had a motorcycle hit me the other day, and he just kept on going.…

But the trip in the taxi is only half the fun; there are so many places you can go. One of my agenda items in these last three months has been to research church options. There turn out to be lots of different churches around, each with their own particular issues (as is true everywhere, I think). After spending a good chunk of time looking for signs on our main road, I realized that might not be the best option; this sign points to something that I never could find.… 

Sign for a church (not? no longer?) there

But we did find lots of other churches, smaller and larger, more baptist and more presbyterian, more village-esque and more televangel-esque. Most seem to have teaching at least bordering on prosperity as gospel. It has been easier getting around on Sunday mornings once we were able to use group cars, though not without issues. The car we checked out last Sunday stalled on the way to the church we planned to go to. We got it push-started, but we returned to our neighborhood, rather than park it in a neighborhood where push-starting it would have been much more problematic.

Whatever trouble we have getting around,  we are glad to have on hand our missionary aviation colleagues. We visited the hangar one day, and got a few photo ops:

Joel and Anna in a Caravan

This program also has something we haven’t had before, a missionary helicopter:

All three in a helicopter

There was even some art on the wall with the aviation mission statement:

The Mission of SIL Aviation

With some of the security issues in Cameroon right now, we aren’t able to go some of the places this aviation program has flown in the past —so they aren’t getting as much flight time as they’d like. But it is good to know they are there, and I look forward to flying with them some day!

Please pray for our safety and smooth travel as go out and about in Yaoundé and elsewhere in Cameroon. Please also pray for the larger security issues to be resolved, and for peace, development, and the growth in breadth and depth of the church of Jesus Christ in Cameroon!

We made it to Paris!

Here’s all of us at a welcome to Paris sign –in the airport, of course. With less than six hours of layover, we’ve been strongly advised not to leave the airport. ? Here’s the rest of the sign:

And of course we found a children’s area, complete with an Eiffel Tower made of blocks…

We’re all looking forward to some rest at this point, so we’ll see if we can find any open couches….


The sunrise out my window on our last day in Gardendale.

We handed over the keys to our home last week. It was all disassembled piece by piece over the past month or so. First, the furniture, TV and second fridge, then the books, clothes and odds/ends that didn’t make the cut into a suitcase or shipping crate. Piles became boxes, boxes went into car, truck or van, until all that remained was to repaint and sweep.

Hours of manual labor lends itself easily to contemplation, which helps with grief. As I painted over the kids penciled-in heights on the laundry room wall, I felt the pangs of ‘erasing’ milestones. James grew 13.5″ at Gardendale. Joel grew 17″ and gleefully passed his big brother. Anna grew 16″ at Gardendale. While the marks are no longer visible, I will remember they are there. We let go of things of this world in order to hold more firmly to things of heaven.

As I painted, my sadness flipped into gratitude for these 6 years of stability in one house. That breaks our record in 20 years. Gratitude for these tall, healthy kids. Gratitude for all the invisible ways they are growing up. Gratitude for the family who will move here soon, whoever they are.

Letting go. As we sorted room after room, the verse that kept running through my head was from Hebrews “pressing onward, casting aside every obstacle that hinders in order to run the race marked out for us.” In this season, our race to run is in Central Africa among the poorest, most marginalized peoples of the world, serving the Bibleless.

The song “Jesus, You are Enough” runs on repeat in the back of my head. It says, “When I have nothing, I still have everything.” I am reminded that Jesus himself never had a house of his own this side of heaven.

I paint over our walls, covering the traces of our living here, and I’m reminded of the sick, weary family who moved in. We had been through intensive therapy coming back to the US from our Congolese home; we had a list of emotional and physical health issues to tend to. Psalm 23 says “He leads me by the still waters. He restores my soul.” Gardendale was a place He restored us.

Now we’re ready for the next chapter, and we press onward so so grateful for Gardendale and all God did there.

New ˈLand

The majority of group housing is in a compound with a shared wall and guard, called New Land —presumably because it was once new… But lots of our colleagues live there, and there is a central play ground where Joel got to try out the tire swing:

as did James:

But I think the best thing is that they don’t have to play alone; there are lots of other missionary kids in there: