Saturday, February 22, 2014

2/22: Baptisms!

I planned to just blog once per week, but I'm so excited about all of the cool new experiences that we're having that I can't wait more than 2 days!
Yesterday we brought some beignets to the Douala missionaries' district meeting.  French pastries are so cheap here!  The rest of yesterday was spent preparing for the baptism, visiting with the Branch President, and minor tasks.

Today was really interesting.  The youth of the Douala Branch had a "fitness walk" at 8am so we joined them.  We walked through town for about a mile at a brisk pace, then did exercises in a park, led by a Branch member who is a professional soccer player.

Branch Youth

Working Out in the Park

Then we gave a ride to 5 of the youth to one of their homes to get clothes for the baptism and back to our house.  It was 8 miles from our house and our first visit to a Cameroon home.  After fighting the crazy traffic for most of the way we turned onto a barely passible dirt road and drove about a half mile.  Then we parked and walked the last half-mile, because the road was worse.
Difficult Dirt Road seen through the Windshield
It was hard to believe that these beautiful, intelligent, well-dressed, well-mannered, vivacious young women lived in a simple, cinder block house with hanging fabric for doors.  The front room has only one piece of furniture: a bench big enough for two.  The rest of the cement floor was bare except for a few possessions piled in some corners.  The walls were bare except for a worn chalkboard, used by the older sister to teach her siblings, and maybe 100 pictures cut from church magazines and taped to the walls.  They offered us the bench and we played hand-clapping games with the kids and chatted with the dad while the girls got ready.  (The mom was running errands.)  Outside their door was the village well where children were coming to lower their buckets about 10 feet to fill them.  In the neighborhood open space was a friendly young goat and several roaming chickens.  The other homes in the neighborhood appeared to be similarly simple, although some were kept better than others.
Family & Friends in Home (Dad on Left)
Front of Home, Well is Left of Bucket

Young Goat

The drive was entertaining with lots of laughter and enthusiastic singing of hymns and popular rock songs by all.  Nobody enjoys singing more than Africans  We had the air conditioning on but the kids rolled down the windows, preferring the heat.  We had to keep our home about 84 degrees for the baptismal service.  We wanted it cooler but our guests complained about being too cold.  I'm told that when it gets down to 80 people start wearing coats.
Fun Group of Youth

Four Baptizees and Baptizers and Missionaries
The baptism was in our building's swimming pool because apparently someone failed to pay the water bill at our meetinghouse so we couldn't fill the font.  We expected 25 people but 35 showed up so a few had to stand.  Three men and a woman were baptized.  The talks were long and the service took almost 2 hours, but everyone seemed to enjoy it.  It is really inspiring to see the joy of people with so little of what westerners consider important.  Today was another wonderful day in Africa!
Our Living Room

Thursday, February 20, 2014

2/20: Finally Settled in Douala, Cameroon

Quote of the day: "I can't believe all of the wonderful things there are about living in Africa!"
Ruth said this today after we went for a walk in Douala and brought home some delicious breads, pastries, fruits, and vegetables.  The breads and pastries were just like we remember from Paris, except cheaper.  We bought the fruits & veggies on a street corner and were prepared to haggle, but were surprised at the low price, so we just paid it.  I think that it worked out to about $1/pound, which is much cheaper than the supermarkets here.
Washing Produce in Bleach
In Kinshasa we were never allowed to go for a walk.  We were in the car or a guarded compound 24/7 once we left the airport.  So we were happy to be told that Brazzaville is safe enough, and while we were there we strolled up to a park.  For dinner there Jeff had fish (complete with head & tail) and fried bananas.  They were delicious.  Ruth had steak & fries.  The hotel was very nice and we were treated like royalty.
Fish & Fried Bananas
Our plane to Cameroon was 3 hours late (hey, this is Africa) and we had to circle for 30 minutes due to a presidential visit closing the airport.  One of the passport checking guys in Brazzaville asked us to pray for him and his co-worker so we were happy to stop and pray with them.  A security guy checking Jeff's baggage stopped in the middle and let us go when he found out we are ministers.  The Brazzaville airport is incredibly modern compared to the dirty, 3rd world airports in Kinshasa and Douala.
Surprisingly Modern Brazzaville Airport

Once in Douala we met the Mission President, who took us out to dinner along with the Gaileys, who were going  home.  After a short visit, President Cook flew off to his next zone conference and we began learning our responsibilities for the next year-and-a-half from the Gaileys.
Dwight & Jan Gailey with Us
Several branch families dropped in for tearful goodbyes that night and the next morning.  For 24 hours we went over 6 pages of instructions, copied files, met people, and toured all of the most important places in town.  Thankfully, Elder Gailey had drawn a map so Jeff could follow along, because there are no street signs.  You just have to know your way around and recognize landmarks.

Last night we dropped the Gaileys off at the airport and suddenly found ourselves feeling very alone.  Here we are, in a poor African city, in charge of 8 missionaries, with nobody to turn to if we have problems except Africans that we just met or missionaries without cars or senior missionaries at least 3 hours away.  It's an eerie feeling.  And next week the only other missionary couple in Cameroon is going home.  We're going to take the 3-4 hour bus ride to Yaounde on Monday to spend a night with them before they leave, in case we need to cover for them until someone arrives to take over in Yaounde.

Is Douala modern or backward?  Here are my initial, superficial impressions:
Modern:  Folks here commonly wear western clothes, as opposed to the beautiful African fashions we saw in Kinshasa.  Some high-priced stores seem quite modern and there are many cars and even more motorcycles.  Most of the main streets are paved.  Our home is quite nice, with a washer & dryer, microwave, internet, air conditioners, 2 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, and a common swimming pool.  The electricity hasn't failed in the 2 days we've been here although the water pressure is sometimes very low.  Isidore is our friendly guard and opens the gate for our truck.

Backward:  Many streets are dirt and almost all homes appear to be barely liveable.  The downtown gutters are 2-foot deep concrete channels that are incredibly hazardous.  Deep potholes are common.  Some traffic lights don't work at all.  Wikipedia says there are about 2 million people in Douala, which has a diameter of about 10 miles.  I don't know where all of those people are, since there aren't many tall buildings.  They must be crowded into the many tiny shacks, or homeless.  Unemployment is high.  A lot of commerce seems to be done by folks selling food that they carry on their heads or in small roadside stands.  Traffic is almost lawless.  The mass transit system is a bunch of beat-up minivans packed with people.  And please don't send us anything bigger than a letter.  The post office charges customs fees to pick up packages.

The branch members that we have met have all been very warm and supportive.  And we're just getting started on this mission, but we're loving it so far.  Knowing that he would be too busy driving to take photos after the Gaileys left, Jeff took a bunch of photos during our tour of the city.
Motorcycles Commonly Carry 3, Sometimes 4

Carrying a Bucket

Carrying an Ironing Board

Most of the Downtown Streets Look Like This

Another Load on Head
This is Really a Very Common Sight
Banana Carts

An Upscale Downtown Street in Douala

Monday, February 17, 2014

2/17: 2 Nights in Kinshasa

We spent the past 2 nights (Saturday to Monday) in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, while waiting for our Cameroon visas.  Now we are in Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of the Congo.  Tomorrow we fly to Douala, Cameroon where we can finally unpack and get to work.

We haven't eaten anything exotic and we couldn't leave the apartment to tour because it is considered too dangerous in Kinshasa, but Ruth says that she is pleased with everything so far.  We were expecting to be shocked by the conditions here but found it not too different from some of the poor towns we've seen in Europe.  One difference is the vast numbers of pedestrians everywhere, many carrying loads on their heads.  Most people dress very well, and the women generally wear beautiful African styles of long dresses.  We saw a man getting his hair cut in a chair in the dirt alongside the road.  There was an auto repair guy working on a car nearby and many other services and vendors.  The funniest IMHO was the guy selling Scrabble games to people stuck in traffic.  (If the traffic is stuck for long enough maybe people starting looking for entertainment.  But Scrabble?)

Our flights were uneventful, except in Brussels when the police put a man on the plane who didn't want to go to the DR Congo so he wouldn't take his seat.  That delayed us for about an hour in Brussels.

The Kinshasa airport is like other small airports, with shuttle buses to bring us from the plane to the terminal and a dirt parking lot.  The people were polite.  The mission hired Antoine to meet us and help us get our baggage and find the Sneddons' car.  That was reassuring, especially since our last bag came about 30 minutes after the others.  We didn't take many good photos because some places it isn't allowed and we didn't want trouble.  Still, a border officer made us delete the last 2 photos when we entered Brazzaville.

We stayed with Roy and Kathleen Sneddon in Kinshasa.  He's 80 and she's 78 and they're enthusiastic, hard-working missionaries, studying French and enjoying Africa.  Their apartment building is surrounded by walls and razor wire and has armed guards who inspect for bombs before lowering the steel barriers to let a car in.  I've never seen such security in other than military facilities.  But the apartments are nice and modern.

Sunday morning we heard the chanting of an excercise class of about 50 working out in a plaza outside our window at 7am.  It looked like fun, African dancing with a lot of rhythmic jumping.

We went to church and were asked to share our testimonies for 5 minutes in Sacrament Meeting.  They had an English Sunday School class, but Ruth preferred the class in French to help her learn.  (She has learned fast understands most of it now.)  The meetings were just like services in America, except with more reverence and louder singing and the power went out twice, briefly.  We enjoyed visiting with the members and feeling part of an African unit.

There were 2 guards at the gate of the church meetinghouse property, which is surrounded by high walls.  Security is a major concern in Kinshasa, or anywhere in the DR Congo.  There are police everywhere and they can't be trusted.  One couple told of being stopped 6 times.  Usually they give the police a Joseph Smith pamphlet through a slightly opened window and they let them go.  But once they had made an illegal turn, so the police called a tow truck and took their car to headquarters with them in it.  They had to pay a fine that time.

Sunday evening the Sneddons invited all of the other mission couples over to get acquainted.  They all live in the same building and are fascinating people.  That was fun.

This morning we explored the Mission Office, got our visas, took a motorboat ride across the mighty Congo River to Brazzaville, and got settled into the Hotel Adonis to await our flight to Cameroon tomorrow.  We chatted in the Mission Office lobby with an unemployed doctor and former missionary named Sebastian Kazadi (pronounced like Cassidy).  The man who drove us from the airport, got us our visas, and chartered our boat is a former lawyer and judge and current bishop who now works for the Church, and goes by the name of Aime.  We were picked up in Brazzaville by a former telecommunications engineer who now works for the Church and is called Geitan (sp?).  He was the main force in getting official recognition for the Church in Gabon.  Just last month the mission opened Gabon and sent 4 missionaries there.  The Church has some incredible members helping to move the work forward in this part of the vineyard.

Kinshasa Meetinghouse

Kinshasa Institute (Temple Site on Right Out of Photo)

Typical Kinshasa Policeman

Roy & Kathleen Sneddon

Overlooking Western Kinshasa

The Sneddons' Living Room

View from the Sneddons' Apartment

A Guy Balancing a Load on his Head

Woman Carrying Bread Through Traffic

Wheelbarrow (Pous-Pous)

The Mighty Congo River

Kinshasa seen from the Congo River

Assists to the President Crossing the River with us

Memorial to Brazza (the Frenchman who "Discovered" Brazzaville
Hotel Adonis

Our Room in the Hotel Adonis
War Memorial in Brazzaville

Friday, February 14, 2014

2/14: Loving Life in the MTC

Disneyland isn't the happiest place on earth; the MTC is happier!  At least it is from our point of view.  Senior missionaries are VIPs here.  Our room is nice, the food is good, the people are great, the Spirit is strong, the meetings and training are uplifting, and it seems everyone is happy.  Every morning we run on the treadmills, then have meals, meetings and classes until 4:30.  After that we have free time to visit with our kids (the Hubbards) or shop or study or email or visit with other couples.  The other senior couples are all so talented and friendly.

When we arrived the Dalebouts (the couple staying in our house) picked us up at the airport and brought us to the MTC.  On Sunday they took us to meet the Livingstones, who presided over our mission a few years ago.  We had a great time peppering them with questions and getting valuable info about our mission.  They hooked us up with the Nuttalls, who served exactly where we will be, 18 months ago.  They brought us to their home for lunch and another valuable question/answer session.  They also offered us a ride to the airport tomorrow morning, so we can ask more questions.

One of the couples in our district, the Kaonas, is from Kaui and gave us crocheted leis as a parting gift.

The one anxious time we had here was when the travel office (or maybe the Cameroon Consulate) lost our Yellow Fever immunization cards.  Thank you Ricks for picking up new copies for us and overnighting them to us, saving the day.

Our District: the Squires, Jeffries, and Kaonas

The Obligatory "Pointing at our Mission" photo

Sculpture in the MTC

The main hallway in the MTC

Wearing our leis in the common area of the Senior floor


Tuesday, February 4, 2014

2/4/14: Final Week Preparations

Our flight to the Democratic Republic of the Congo Kinshasa Mission where we will serve in Douala, Cameroon is fast approaching.

We leave for the MTC Saturday and only have 4 more days to prepare and still a lot to do.  I'm afraid that some things just won't get done.  I finished our income taxes but they had issues.  I set up new homeowners insurance but it has issues.  Our internet is finally working again after failing when we cancelled our phone service.  I still have to prep our cars and motorcycle for storage, change our address with a dozen companies, clean, pack, and do various other things.  So, I'll keep this short with just a photo and excerpts from my farewell talk.

From Jeff's talk:

There are 405 missions, each with a mission president.  Only one of them called to recruit us.  Bryce Cook, of the DR Congo Kinshasa mission.  He asked us about our health, whether we could live a spartan lifestyle, and whether we spoke any foreign languages.  He said he would call Salt Lake.  But it was too late to make any difference, to anyone but us, because our call was already in the mail.  The next day we received it, opened it, and found a photo of President Cook and his wife.  And we knew that the Lord was directing our call.

A lot of prospective missionaries like to play a game called "Guess where I'm going on my mission."  Whoever guesses closest wins.  I didn't play that game and just didn't feel comfortable guessing.  But then one day that changed when we met a missionary couple in Costco.  We stopped to chat with them and speculated on where we might be called.  They told us about a relative serving in the Congo, and that they speak French there.  That conversation struck me and I began telling people that we would probably be called to the Congo, although we still had no indication.  Then the call came and it said "Congo."  And we knew that the Lord was directing our call.

Prior to that, we had 2 French-speaking guests stay at our house.  One of them, Patrice, stayed for 3 weeks.  We had made our home available to long-distance bicyclists for over a year but hadn't had anyone come yet.  Then we suddenly found ourselves with 3 guests, 2 of whom spoke French.  Patrice helped me immensely to brush up on my old mission French.  He found a group of French speakers who meet Saturday mornings for us to chat with.  I told him that God probably sent him to us because he will be sending us on a French-speaking mission.  Patrice agreed.  And that is exactly what happened.  And we knew that the Lord was directing our call.

Our mission application was quite extensive, with 4 dental pages, 16 medical pages, and 44 other assorted pages.  There was plenty of opportunity for us to specify where we would like to serve our mission, or where we would like to avoid, or what type of mission we would like to do.  We could have specified numerous preferences as to the climate, distance, work, language, cost or circumstances of our mission.  But we knew that the Lord was directing our call. 

We were concerned about what to do with our house.  We learned that leaving it vacant would cause our homeowners insurance premiums to skyrocket.  So we called the San Diego Mission office and asked if a senior couple would like to stay in our home while we are away.  They were able to arrange for one couple, Elder & Sister Dalebout, to stay almost the whole time.  When we talked to them we found that they had been called to the DR Congo Kinshasa Mission but had to cancel due to health problems.  And now they're coming to our house.  The Lord is directing his work.

He knows us better than we know ourselves.  And we wanted to go wherever we could help people and do the most good.  I hoped that would be in Tahiti.  Ruth hoped it would be France.  But now there is no place we would rather go than the DR Congo Kinshasa mission, because that is where the Lord wants us.  He has given us so many indications that he is directing our call that we have full confidence in him.

Of course, when researching our particular mission we found some interesting facts.  Young missionaries are given two buckets: one to wash their clothes and the other to rinse them.  They are given a charcoal brazier on which to cook.  One mission couple published some of their letters on their blog.  I found this gem from the sister who had just arrived in Africa:
"It has taken me two nights of trying to get "connected" & now it is too late to say much more than every horror story you have ever heard about the Congo was understated!"
I should explain that this was after only 2 days that included a terrifying ride through Kinshasa traffic.

Another sister told about being asked by the Branch President if they might extend their mission.  He said he wished that he were rich so he could bring their entire family to Africa and get them to stay permanently.  She wrote:
"...there is nothing in this world that would make us want to live here, but oh how we are going to miss these good people."

Larry the Lawnchair Guy was a truck driver who hooked a bunch of weather balloons to a lawnchair, filled them with helium and went for a ride.  His plan was to float over his neighborhood about 30 feet, then shoot some balloons and float gently down.  But he forgot to tell the balloons.  They quickly dragged him to 16,000 feet where he was too terrified to shoot balloons.  He drifted into restricted airspace near LAX and was spotted by 2 jetliners.  After 45 minutes he got so cold that he found the courage to shoot some balloons.  Near the ground his balloons got tangled in some power lines and he made it safely to the ground where he was immediately arrested.  Reporters asked him why he did it.  I think his answer should go down as one of the best answers of all time.  He explained his foolhardy actions with the simple phrase:  "A man can't just sit around the house."

2 years ago we got on a tandem bike and rode from here to Florida.  People thought we were nuts.  Why did we do it?  A man can't just sit around the house.
Last year we took 2 backpacks and went schlepping around Europe for 7 weeks.  Why?  A man can't just sit around the house.
Now we're going to Africa where every horror story may have been understated.  Why are we going?  Most people would say, "No thanks.  I would rather just sit around the house."  But we have wonderful motivation for this trip.  We know that the Lord has directed our call.

The people of Africa are ready for the gospel and are joining the Church in droves.  Although we go with some trepidation we are excited to be on the forefront of the Lord's army.

Elder Bybee (no relation to David & Judy Bybee), who is serving there now wrote to me, "This is the Africa moment. The Church is blossoming as never before in Africa. We have had a rich and fulfilling experience here. ... You are among a rare few who will serve in this great land."

One of the former mission presidents of our mission, Elder Livingstone, was interviewed on The Mormon Channel where he told of the incredible faith of the saints in Africa and the speed at which the work is progressing.  He said that in one village there were 30 church members who had to travel 45 minutes to get to their meetinghouse.  So the church procured a building for a meeting house in their village and assigned 2 Elders to that area.  After 4 months the President had to put restrictions on the Elders.  He said they were only allowed to baptize entire families and only 15 people per week.

One of the problems of a rapidly growing church is that sometimes there is not enough time in Sacrament Meeting to confirm all of the new members.  17 confirmations pretty much fills all of the time.

We have been assigned to work in the city of Douala in the country of Cameroon.  Cameroon is slightly larger than California although it only has about half as many people.  Elder Livingstone spoke specifically of Cameroon.  He said that the country was dedicated for the preaching of the gospel by Elder Holland in 2009 "and the Church is growing wonderfully, rapidly there."
According to the LDS web site, there are now 1,277 church members and 6 branches in Cameroon.  We are excited to be going to work there.

We were asked to select a favorite scripture for our missionary plaque.  Trying to choose a favorite missionary scripture is like trying to choose a baby name.  She has her favorites and I have my favorites and there's not much overlap.  We finally agreed on 1 Ne 22:25.
" And he gathereth his children from the four quarters of the earth; and he numbereth his sheep, and they know him; and there shall be one fold and one shepherd; and he shall feed his sheep, and in him they shall find pasture."

I like that scripture because it talks about gathering his children from the four quarters of the earth.  One of those quarters is Africa.  And they shall be with us in Christ "and there shall be one fold and one shepherd."  Also, it says "they know him."  We are not called to serve sheep that have no master.  As it says in John 10: 4, "the sheep follow him for they know his voice."  People who wish to follow the Savior will recognize his voice and follow him.  They are the people we seek.  And the Lord is directing this work.