Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Rice Chronicles: Christmas in July

**The Rice Chronicles continues with another snapshot of my crazy childhood! Please follow me around the world to Freetown, Sierra Leone, West Africa, where I spent the summer of 1995. I was 16 years. I was in a war-torn country. The only other white person that I knew of had left a week after I arrived. There was no electricity most of the time and there were huge roaches (eewww!). I was far from everything familiar--except rice. It was the staple diet, of course! The Rice Chronicles, take two...

Christmas in July

I climbed the steps of the mission guest house wearily that night. I set the kerosene lantern on the table and groped around for something to eat. After weighing the possibilities--leftover potato leaf plassass with palm oil congealing around the edges of the plate, or a gigantic mango--I settled down to cutting up the mango and watching termites fly suicidal missions into the flickering light of my lantern.

I heaved a heavy sigh. I was so tired...of everything really. The initial excitement of the lush tropical landscape and a new culture to conquer had slowly worn off in the face of stark realities. Just that day we had visited a home overflowing with refugees fleeing the rebel terrorists. One pregnant woman was very ill, and the little witnessing team I was with had stopped to pray for her.

"'E de got de cholera," one of her relatives told me. Then, indicating a bright-eyed boy and girl curled up on a ragged blanket, "An' de pikin den. De de got 'em too."

What could I do? Nothing.

A few days ago... A woman writhing in the red mud next to her dilapidated shack--screaming as if her heart was being ripped apart. Her husband had just died.

What could I do? Nothing.

Children clogged the streets. Begging, crying, bloated stomachs, skinny legs. Homeless. No one called them their own.

What could I do? Nothing.

Amputees. Handless. You saw them everywhere--the butcher in the market, the lady on the bus, the child playing in the dust. Evidence of a senseless war. Cruelty beyond imagination.

What could I do? Nothing. Nothing. NOTHING!!

Lord, why am I here? I'm only sixteen. What in the world can I do? What difference am I really going to make? I'm lonely and overwhelmed and I want to go home.

I heard my house mate, Kadi, at the door. I hurried to wipe away my tears; I was not in a mood to bear my soul. Not to her, anyway. Kadi was a sweet Christian girl, but very quiet and usually kept to herself. Tonight, as usual, she greeted me politely and hurried upstairs to her room. I sighed and blew out the kerosene flame.

Inky, velvet darkness enveloped me. I had never quite got used to the complete darkness of Africa at night with no electricity. No streetlights, no headlights, no glowing windows. Dotted here and there were flickers from native oil lamps, capturing brief silouettes of passers-by. In between the small circles of light they cast were vast frontiers of blackness--inpenetrable, invincible darkness...


I jumped.

"Sorry to startle you," Kadi whispered from the stairs.

"No, not at all," I said, "Come sit down. Should I light the lantern?"

"No, no. I'm used to the dark."

She held up something that glittered every so slightly in the velvet blackness.

"Did I ever tell you I play the flute?"

"No, I don't think you ever did," I replied, only slightly interested.

"Well, I don't play much. Only Christmas songs, actually."

Her voice sounded a little bashful at this admission.

"Can you play one for me?" I asked, wanting to make her feel better.

The first few notes trilled out loudly in the stillness. She was playing "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen", and she played it very well. It made me think of carolling and of home, and when she was through, I asked her to play another.

And she did. That quiet, mousy girl must have known every Christmas song ever written--"Hark the Hearld Angels Sing", "Away in a Manger", "Silent Night", "O Come All Ye Faithful", "Good King Wencelas"... On and on she played, each soft note striking a blow against the palpable night.

I sat across from her on the cold tile floor, whispering the words to each well-known tune--verse after verse, song after song--tears slipping soundlessly down my cheeks.

"...O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by..."

Dark, quiet streets like those outside the window. Mary gazing at the face of her new baby Son in the glow of a native lamp... Her Son born into a terrifying, sinful, dark world like this one.

"...Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Son of righteousness! Light and life to all He brings, risen with healing in His wings. Mild He lays His glory by, born that man no more may die..."

Oh, Lord, how much we need your light and life and healing here. Oh, Jesus, come be born in Africa!

"...O come, O come Immanuel! And ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear..."

I am here, Phebe. Shining out through you--a small circle of light in the acres of darkness. Shining out through every heart that is open to My light. I have many people in this city...

And I could see those lights--small but bright--dotted through the streets and mountainsides of Freetown. God's light and life and healing. Never going out. Pushing back the darkness. Hope for all of our wretched sinfulness. Hope for me.

My comforted heart overflowed with thankfulness to a God who cared enough about a homesick teenager to visit the dark backstreets of sad Freetown. With Christmas music. In July. A God who cared enough for all of us to come into our sad world as a crying, helpless newborn baby on Christmas. And bring light.

"...Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight..."

By Phebe Sistoso
June 7, 2009


JillY said...

Phebe....that is a beautiful post.

Phebe said...

Thanks, Jill! I'm trying to get back into the habit of writing and one of the easiest ways to do that (for me, anyway) is to write memories. Would that be called memoirs? :)