ANGOLA – SAKEJI REUNION
MAY 20-23, 2011
Almost exactly 50 years ago I left Sakeji, a boarding school in Zambia, to travel back to Angola with a group of about 20 other missionary kids. From the ages of 6-13, four times a year, we made this trek … mostly travelling first by truck, then footbridge over the crocodile infested Mukulwezi River, and caught the first of two trains to get home. Once we even discovered that the train tracks had been bombed in the war-time upheavals in Katanga province of the Congo so were forced into the hold of another truck and drove overnight through many military checkpoints to the border where the posh colonial railcars in Angola ferried us across the ‘Everlasting Plains’ to our anxious waiting parents. To say that our being “dropped” into the 60’s era of North American life was traumatic, would underplay the significance of that transition and the many others that followed over the decades.
This past weekend many of our little band met again here at Stonehaven. There were 24 of us including other school friends and a few brave partners who just couldn’t stay away. We spent three days, laughing, crying and telling stories of those years that have mostly been silent or gone underground into our unconscious. These were stories that needed to be repeated, witnessed and digested with the hearts, heads, and ego-strengths of now 60-70 year old adults. As a group facilitator and one of the two organizers of this event, I found it a challenge to provide enough structure for group process while also offering generous space for the unknown to emerge: in play, conversation, prayer, song … or one of the hundreds of stories that came from boarding school life. It was a non-stop voyage back into the past and out to the present.
After the last trip to the airport today, I wandered my garden for a long time, quite aware of how bereft I felt. It seems like a dream, but there are bits and pieces of my friends strewn everywhere. Pieces of pink Bazooka bubble gum, hidden beside our campfire where we sat talking late into Saturday night. (Ginny won the biggest bubble contest on Sunday and Jackie came in a close second.) A song sheet lies open to the Golden Bells hymns, the ones we sung on Sunday together as tears ran down many of our faces. Those words that reminded us of walking to church, jumping across the stones in the river, dressed in our Sunday best, hats for the girls and white shirts for the boys, the anticipation of Sunday chocolate fudge, and a good dinner – no boiled liver and onions that day. (This weekend we had fudge on our night-tables too and a posy of lantana; a bittersweet reminder of having to pick it as weeds for punishment from the Headmaster!)
As we watched DVD’s of old movies, we lived suspended between times, inside the skin of our youths – witnessing our tiny faces, joyful and exuberant one moment and serious as child-soldiers the next. Still, we remarked that we hadn’t really changed. Those faces still shine through wrinkles and grey hair, divinely graced with resilience that comes from the other side of decades of abundant living. These past days were packed full of laughter and life, our souls restored; more capable of truth in all forms, more comfortable with our familiar and very odd family. It was crazy to laugh and respond to old nicknames as if nothing had ever changed. We recounted the daring escapades out of the dorm at night, and grossed ourselves out with tales of ghastly food and school kid entertainments.
We delighted in remembrance of the soft fingers of our pet bush-babies that unknown to teachers, slept in our pockets in the school room and fed from doll’s bottles. We enjoyed familiar tastes, so comforting on the tongue, like Marmite and rice cakes. We laughed at our annual rituals of Guy Fawkes, pinch-and-a-punch, and the Sakeji folklore of “snipe-hunts” and the once a term purging of hook worm, when we all had to drink the poisonous brew and go for a long walk before rushing back to the toilets, but not before collecting cow-patties for our gardens and playing ant-hill tag.
We were awed, now as parents and grand-parents, at the comfortable companionship with risk that marked our lives as children growing up in Africa. Hours of stories about playing around fire, snakes, trauma and war, water-games, jumping from heights, walking barefoot at the river- so we wouldn’t lose our shoes. Risk was the norm for us. For others we remembered the tenderness of those teachers and those wonderful missionary ‘Aunties and Uncles’ who “saw” us, who stopped in their busy lives to be with us as little people. The ones who attempted to shield us from the pain of loneliness – the big bear-hugs, the gentle loving squeezes and teasings, the bedtime stories, the ones who taught us to cook and sew and take photographs – all those personal attention moments that kept us connected to each other and in our little beings. As children we felt this but now as adults can more fully articulate and continue to practice with compassion for those we love.
I was not surprised that we needed to speak a lot about the darker side of boarding school, our complicated relationship with authority, of the evil and the good that perversely came from that same experience. Many of us had been sadly censured into a terrified silence , but together now, we listened openly from many perspectives, sharing our truths. For the first time, thank God, after 50 years we could weep with the wounded and not turn away from the rejected. We talked of public humiliation. Our meeting rooms this weekend had no place for shame. It was OK to speak about fears and failings, of long held personal and family secrets because nobody was going to punish, reject or bully you. We shed tears for those hurt by our own childish meanness that came from our own unrecognized pain and anger. We asked questions and we didn’t have to have an answer – there was no need to pretend to have one voice anymore. As adults we honored our diversity and respected the need for personal identity, yet still could remain close and listening.
We even had a train ride on a vintage steam train in Strasbourg, PA which included white table-cloth fine dining at sunset while clicking along through the rolling hills and picturesque farms in Amish country. This time nobody threw unwanted soup out the window, and no slices of bread slid down into the window-wells – never to be seen again. This time Maruchi, one of our group, just after we had finished our meal and came to a halt at the station, burst into a grand operatic song. In that moment, opera was possibly the only medium that was capable of describing the rich tapestry of those days together. It was a perfect ending to a day of still travelling on this train of our lives that keeps on chugging, getting us closer and closer to home.
I had never realized that my propensities towards a monastic way of life were channeled deeply in this primarily Plymouth Brethren school. Quiet time before breakfast, a Bible verse a day to memorize, then each week‘s verses to recite on Friday. Whole swaths of scripture channeled into the recesses of our pores. Boys and girls separately marching single file down to morning hymns and meditations, then afternoon prayers before supper – the ritual singing and chanting of choruses became our language. The movies showed us little ones kneeling before our beds, shrouded in mosquito nets, before lights-out. Then those existential moments some of us talked about – me hidden away behind the bathroom window sitting out on the ledge under the African sky, asking the big questions about ‘Where are you God?’. I heard about another who sat in the bath alone noticing the sand at the bottom of the tub and remembered asking those same deep questions. We didn’t have lots of time, but some of us started that conversation again, all the why’s and ‘what if’s came much easier now. It felt good to just be free to question and put out a little of that infernal fire of doubt in the power of love and goodness.
It was interesting to note how many of us are now professional care-givers. Our room was full of doctors, therapists and teachers, business partners, all of us evidently serving in creative ways to give back into the world the very best we can offer. I think one of the biggest take-aways from this weekend, after the joy of just the re-connection, was how we all remarked that out of some of the toughest places of our lives, much growth has come. Time and again, we noted that strength that comes out of darkness, (reminds me a little of the Lyles Golden syrup motto, “out of strong comes forth sweetness!”) We are a remarkable group of people who like our parents keep giving out of the wellsprings of our hearts, often from the silent, more hidden parts of our lives. I do marvel about our incapacity as a group to re-connect until now.
The gift we brought to ourselves this weekend is that of each other-our truest and most passionate and authentic selves. As we listened to Steve and Peggy and Shelia Foster speak of their work in Angola, as we heard of the incredible work of RISE based on the life gift from Andrew Cole, our schoolmate, as we hear of Etienne and J’Pete Brechet who pour themselves into Angola as dedicated citizens, let’s keep building fresh ways to connect and serve each other and this planet. God is with us and in us, building and expanding our Sakeji family.
Tu vero permane…
May 24, 2011