Knowing how to read the wallpaper

I used to pass through the village like a tourist – admiring the variety of sights and sounds, the colour, the amount of life lived on the street. It was like looking at a bright wallpaper. But I can’t do that happily now because I know too much. I “read” the wallpaper.

The villages I walk through are each within one or two kilometres of one another on the outskirts of Bangalore city in south India, some commercialised and some still rural.

At a water tap women stand with the yellow and green plastic water-pots that have replaced the traditional brass – red saree, blue, floral, another red. Of course, it’s women standing and women who will carry the heavy load. Well, let me be fair. Things are changing. Men carry pots too, these days. But there’s a difference. Men bring a bicycle and carry six pots slung around it to ease the burden and finish the job quickly. Women carrying are usually stuck with one 15 kg pot at a time on head or hip, back and forth, back and forth.

A group of boys playing volleyball. Good – young people need games and exercise. What are the girls doing? No games for the girls? Nothing. They are never seen playing games.

Oh, I see some girls there. They’re carrying their younger siblings. More girls come by from a further village, returning their goats and sheep after the day’s grazing. Of course, that’s work for old people and teenage girls. Boys have to go to school.

I’ve come to a construction site now. Women work hard here carrying dishes of concrete, concrete blocks and sand, and get paid more than they used to. Their wages have gone up from 40 to 75 rupees a day. Men on the same site stand at the top of the chain gang and put the blocks in place. They get 150 rupees a day.

Wait, here’s something for young women – I have reached one of the six new nursing colleges on the way out from the city. Scores of young women and some young men train to be nurses. I hear the high number of training institutions is because of the demand for nurses in the Gulf, and that these young people will head overseas. But why? Parents invest in their training so they can send them off to earn and remit money back to them in India. So that’s why they get the opportunities! For whose benefit is the education then?

I head back to the Theological College where I teach mostly single and married men, with wives looking after the children.

The college welcomes women students. A single women’s hostel, built nine years ago, has rooms for 22. There have never yet been more than 14 young women. There were only two new girls this year. What’s the problem? Parents. They will pay for their son’s further theological education but few pay for a daughter’s. That would waste money. Anyway, our college offers Master’s degrees after earlier study, and everyone knows one must not let a daughter reach 24 still unmarried.

“Girls don’t need Bible training,” parental thinking goes. “People might say they are not ‘home-makers’ when you are arranging their marriage.” But aren’t women needed to reach out to women? “Yes, but let someone else do that.”

It’s a bit like the ancient Vedic saying, “Let a girl be born, but let her be born in someone else’s house.” Population statistics reflect that – more males than females, especially aged under ten, since the widespread use of ultrasound technology, and termination of female foetuses.

There are so many ways of keeping women down.

Beulah Wood has been in and out of India for 40 years, and longs for change for women and men whose family life is damaged by the traditional system.

A passion for the neglected

It’s a steep learning curve living and serving overseas. You can’t help but be changed, both emotionally and spiritually. My relationship with God is deeper; I have definitely learnt to lean on Him more. The Bible is brought to life as I can see Bible images throughout the country, from things like flat roofs to community life, and how girls are married off with the husband being chosen by their parents.

A particular family have been observing me since the beginning of my time here. When they see me going into houses to work with disabled children who are otherwise neglected, they ask, “Why are you doing this?” The children’s families and neighbours also can’t understand why I am doing what I am doing. It’s great that it is making them question and think; it is letting my life speak for itself, and letting Jesus shine through.

I work alongside a society for the disabled, working both within a school setting (advising teachers and having fun with the children), as well as visiting children in their homes who otherwise would receive no aid or education. I am serving here because there is a great need; working with children who have disabilities is my passion, and to be able to serve God by using my profession is exactly me, so that’s all good.

If you really feel the desire to serve, then there is no valid excuse not to go.

God gives us desires for a purpose – trust Him and who He has made you to be. All sorts of people of all ages and backgrounds are needed to serve Him throughout the world. Often you just have to take the first step and say, “Yes God,” then things will begin to change. So go ahead and do it!

The importance of support from ‘home’ is far above anything you could ever imagine. Knowing there are people ‘back home’ (even if they’re from 10 different countries) is the ribs of the whole adventure. The backbone is God, and the support from home is the ribs… you can’t live without either.

The country is generally hot with some humidity. The landscape is varied; from sweeping deserts to mountains to the sea. The people are friendly and very hospitable; they like to meet new people. It is very much a segregated society, so my time is spent with women and children.

One of the biggest changes I’ve had to adjust to is being in only female company, the attitudes towards the role of women, and of course, style of dress! Sometimes all these changes have been really hard, and I have to remind myself that I am doing these things in order to show my respect for the local culture, so as to be able to show the love of Christ.

Encounters with Jesus in Central Asia

A few years ago a stranger approached my landlady at the local bazaar, and told her about a man who could help her with her problems. “Is he a rich man?” she asked, because she needed $2000. The stranger was talking about Jesus, and he encouraged her to pray, which she did. A few days later, someone knocked at her door and asked to rent some of the rooms. When she asked how much they would pay, it was $2000.

My landlady found out more about this faith and became a believer. Her attitude to her husband and family became more loving. As she stopped beating her children, they recognized the change in her and they too believed. When her daughter was desperately ill with typhoid, they prayed and she recovered. Her husband doesn’t allow her to have regular contact with other believers, but we’re sometimes able to pray and share together.

If you look in an atlas published before 1991 you won’t find the Central Asian republics- the five ‘stans’ west of China. They were occupied by the Soviet Union for much of the twentieth century, and underwent huge upheaval after the collapse and withdrawal of the Soviet Union in the early nineties. However these are ancient lands, through which invaders, explorers and merchants such as Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great and Marco Polo travelled on their camels and horses along the Silk Road.

The Central Asian country I work in is predominantly Muslim, and the majority of the people live in serious poverty – the average annual income is only 2% of the average New Zealand income. They are people scarred by a history of violence and oppression, and feel powerless in the face of injustice, high unemployment and substandard public services. They long for their country to become peaceful and prosperous, but there is much political corruption, incompetence and naivety amongst the country’s leaders: despite the authoritarian brutality of the Soviet regime, many people desire the return of the stability it brought.

Living in Central Asia is not easy, with extreme heat in summer and bitter cold in winter. Outside the main city there is limited or no electricity for four months of winter – ironically, the country ranks among the top in the world for water resources and electricity generation potential. Where I live, the water that comes out of the tap is often chocolate-brown dirty – we call it ‘typhoid water.’ My housing is much better than one of my visitors, though: I was shocked to discover she lived in a hovel, with cardboard boxes along one side serving as walls and a dirty drainage ditch running through the middle of it. She lived right next door to a grand embassy building.

I am a teacher working with educated adults: young professionals, bankers, business people, government workers and university students.

A taxi driver told us his story. He had been in prison – not a pleasant place – and a religious leader told him this was his destiny. The man was angry at God for this, but had a revelation of Jesus in a vision and said, “God, if you are real, of course I will follow you.” Now out of prison, both he and his wife are believers.

It was very important for local people to be able to slot me into a role (“Oh, she’s a teacher”), in order to accept me. They also value the contribution I’m bringing to their community: education opens doors to employment and further education opportunities, and is needed in order for the country to develop. Some of our former students completed further studies abroad before returning to Central Asia to take up high level leadership positions with international development and aid organisations.

School provides more than education, though – it also provides opportunities for students and staff to build meaningful relationships. Several women in my classes told me how they made supportive friendships and gained a sense of self–worth through school. In one particular class the women formed a strong bond, and a group of them would come regularly to my home throughout the summer break. They witnessed how God answered our prayers – for example, a student’s mother who was desperately ill with a bleeding artery in her neck recovered after we prayed for her. Some of these women and their families have become my long-term friends.

People are very hospitable, and I sometimes found myself in unusual situation, such as singing The Yellow Submarine at a karaoke party held to celebrate Women’s Day. The philosophy was that we had to make the most of this day as it was the only day in the year that was any good for women! The hostess, a somewhat vodka-drunken Russian-speaking downstairs neighbour, ended up becoming a good friend, and proved to be a real help when I had a flood and unexpected intruders in my flat.

The local people generally think of Christianity as a foreign religion, and consider their own religion (mainly folk Islam) to be an integral part of their national identity. A handful of my friends, however, expressed a serious interest in Christianity as they saw it being worked out in my life.

A Sixteen Year Journey God has led me gently and step by step into crosscultural work. It started back in 1992 when I made the decision to do something purposeful with the rest of my life. At the time I was picking carnations on a flower farm, which gave me plenty of time to pray for God to show me His direction for my life. I wasn’t really considering going overseas because I wasn’t a very confident traveller, but then in 1993 the door opened up for me to go on a short-term mission trip to Vietnam. It really inspired me, and since then I have spent a year in Russia, made two short-term trips to the mountain areas of Pakistan, and lived in Central Asia for two years.

Each trip made me more ready for the next, and caused me to grow in faith. I’m so glad that I went, as all the trips have been amazing highlights and growth periods in my life.

The decision to come to Central Asia was more difficult, as I didn’t have a strong sense of calling to this country. But I came because I was available and needed, and was confident that I would be given sufficient support from inside and outside the country to enable me to do a good job. “Send me forth, Lord, bearing seed, destroying our fears, conscious of our needs.”

When a 14 year-old neighbour became seriously ill with meningitis, we prayed for his recovery and, after two months in hospital, he came home. It was a delight to once again hear him singing in the stairwell and thumping out one-finger tunes on my old Russian piano.

My once-a-week cleaning lady became a loyal friend, and introduced me to her village relatives. She knew how to fix important things like telephone lines that wouldn’t connect. Her sister had died of tuberculosis, and over the months we walked through her grieving together. Although she still holds to her traditional superstitious beliefs she has recognized that God answers our prayers.

The church here is small, weak and doesn’t seem to be growing. But I have a lot of respect for the local believers, who are unafraid to shine their light courageously. One pretty young woman has a visible joy; she is undeterred in her continued witness even after recovering from a tragic neardeath encounter a few years ago, when a bomb explosion targeting young Christians succeeded in killing ten. There’s a solo mother who bravely runs a business, undaunted by harassment from family and officials with their long interrogations; a flatmate who, even though only a young believer, steadfastly preached out in the villages despite there being strong opposition and demands that she stop; and the busy mother of five young children who took the time to patiently and sensitively befriend a lonely refugee woman of a different faith. These are just some of the people who give me hope that Christ is at work in this land.

Robin is currently on Home Assignment, and is available to share about her experiences with interested groups. Please contact the Interserve office for more information.

How in the world did I end up here

It’s a question I often ask myself while I’m being force fed sheep’s ears and other nasty bits, or travelling by minibus across town with my nose pressed in the armpit of some guy I’ve never met, or working in a system where corruption and exploitation seem the norm.

I am a nurse working in health related community development work in a Central Asian republic. I joined IS in 2003 when I decided it was an excellent way to combine my desire for travel and adventure with my desire to use my profession to truly impact the kingdom of God. I’d never even heard of this little country in the middle of nowhere until IS introduced me to it… now, almost five years later, I am about to return for my second term as an IS partner in Central Asia. It is strange, but oh so exciting how God takes you on such incredible journeys for Him.

Central Asia is a huge landlocked area of Asia, with China to the east and Russia to the north. It has high passes and mountains, vast deserts, and treeless grassy steppes, and the Great Silk Road and the mighty Genghis Khan are exotic memories woven into the fabric of its history. More recently, though, it was part of the USSR – a legacy which many are still trying to recover from. Central Asia is an incredibly fascinating and beautiful place; the culture is diverse and multi-ethnic, with Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Russians, Ukrainians and Germans, and a small number of Uighur, Dungan (Chinese Muslims) and Koreans.

Economically, the countries are not in great shape. Unemployment is high in the area I live, and many live a ‘hand-to-mouth’ existence, living off the land and selling anything extra. The majority of the people are literate, and education is available to most, including women. However the health care system is inadequate and illnesses resulting from poor diet and hygiene are a major health issue, as are mental health problems. HIV/AIDS is becoming a major problem as drugs are trafficked through Central Asia from Afghanistan up into the north.

My first term in Central Asia mostly involved language learning. Russian is not the indigenous language of the country but is commonly spoken, particularly in government, educational and health areas. It was my first attempt at learning a language, and it was often quite a humbling experience! I studied at one of the local universities, which are not well equipped like NZ universities, and frequently suffered with a sore back from being squished into wooden benches designed for children! The buildings were cold and damp and we would often be interrupted part-way through our lesson because the room had been double-booked.

Since finishing full-time language study I have worked with a non-government organisation committed to sustainable community development. Much of my time was spent visiting rural areas, visiting nursing schools and trying to ascertain the health needs of communities and the educational needs of nurses. On my return from Home Assignment I will relocate from the capital city to a ‘less-served’ provincial centre, where I will be involved in helping translate ‘A practical guide to Mental Health Problems’ into both Russian and the ‘heart language’ of the people.

Lives and communities transformed through encounter with Jesus Christ… it has been such a blessing, as a relative newcomer to mission, to see how that is lived out through my fellow workers, going about their normal lives, doing ‘normal’ jobs, seeking to serve communities in ways which best suit the interests of the people. It’s tough work though, living in post-Soviet Central Asia. We are often treated with suspicion (I was told that it stems from a Soviet mentality coupled with a deeply imbedded Islamic mind-set) and ministering to people takes time and a whole lot of effort. But it is a work in which we persevere, doing our jobs as best we can as God’s people, trusting that He is in control, and being willing wherever and whenever possible to testify about Jesus.

How in the world did I end up here? God brought me here… and when He calls, He always provides the strength and resources needed to get through the challenges. I work alongside people from all walks of life – some are fresh out of university whilst others are using their retirement years to serve, some hold PhDs but others never attended university – what we have in common is that God called us and we responded. Is He calling you?

Rhonda is on Home Assignment until April 08, and can be contacted through the Interserve office.

Nurturing Young Minds

I have spent the last academic year in an Evangelical School in the Middle East telling them about God’s love and how they should respond to what Jesus has done.

I taught a class of 8 and 9 year olds for most of the time. Although I am not a qualified teacher (yet), God really helped me get into the swing of teaching. This gave me the chance to become really good friends with ‘my children’ and now they feel like little brothers and sisters to me! They learnt a lot over the year and their English improved greatly. I learnt a lot too and managed to understand long division for the first time!

During the week I also gave my class a Bible lesson where we read and discussed events from the Bible. Sometimes I had to cut short the streams of questions they asked, as there simply wasn’t time to answer every single one! On Thursdays I lead the chapel time in the morning, for Years 1-6; singing songs and talking about a Bible story. It was lovely to see my children’s understanding of Jesus increase over the year.

Teaching there is a very different thing to the UK. We live in an age in which using computers in the classroom is compulsory. However, where I was, you couldn’t even guarantee an electricity supply! There were usually 4-8 hours without electricity each day – some days had only 2 hours of power – so I frequently had to abandon computer lessons, singing songs off the projector and every other “normal” activity that requires electricity! We did have a diesel generator at the school, but its use was rationed because of the cost – this led to some fairly miserable, wet, snowy, winter days.

Being a Christian, my job didn’t finish at 3pm when the kids had gone home. We (the staff at the school) tried to act as Jesus would all the time; trying to show his love for us to everyone we came across. Some good discussions were had with the parents and families neighbouring the school. They listen well and some are genuinely interested in what we have to say. Whoever we met – a main opposition MP, Palestinians, Jordanians, Lebanese, Syrians, Muslims, nominal Christians, Druze and even members of an organisation classed as ‘terrorists’; we tried to show them Jesus and used words whenever the opportunity arose.

There were a few cultural hurdles to jump adjusting to life in the Middle East. One of the major blunders I made was during the Christmas play preparations. My class played the nativity scene. Casting Mary and Joseph was easy, but the animals proved to be a cultural minefield. Parents took particular dislike to donkeys, horses, goats and, in one case, animals full stop. Unknown to me, ‘donkey’ is fairly high up on the Arabic swear-words list! The kids came in with threats from their parents saying that their children were not going to come to school if they had to be a particular animal. There wasn’t much I could do, as we needed people to play the animals. The boy playing Joseph turned up wearing a Batman costume – his family had obviously never heard the story of Jesus’ birth before! I got it all sorted in the end.

You would be wrong to think that the sale of alcohol in the Middle East is prohibited everywhere. Where I lived, whisky cost less than surgical alcohol and a lot of the local men drank heavily. The mother of one boy in my class put whisky in his water to help his hayfever! I caught four of my class drinking neat whisky at breaktime (these were 8 and 9 year olds). I was not expecting this sort of thing in the Middle East!

Neither was I expecting everyone to be extremely fearful of a solar eclipse. The government closed all the state schools and the parents wouldn’t send their children to school in case they went blind. Some families hung blankets over their windows to protect them from the ‘poisonous rays’. I however gave a great science lesson to the 5 of my class who turned up – and none of us are blind!

Despite all our cultural differences, I never came across an Arab that was openly hostile to me (apart from one taxi driver that is who assumed I would pay him double as I was British!). Their friendliness to strangers is embarrassing and really puts us to shame. I’d like to encourage you to go there, there’s much more to the Middle East than the news shows. Having said that, few countries in the region have escaped trouble and strife over the years. I left the Middle East three days before the war between Israel and Hezbollah started. The wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Palestinian Territories have been raging for so many years. Now tensions are building in Iran – will it turn into open warfare too? The people need to hear the gospel and people like you need to tell them.

Remember what Jesus said in Matthew 9v37 “The harvest is large, but the workers are few.” The Arab World needs you. The whole world needs you.

Life Behind the Veil

Having just trained in development, I wanted to find a role where I could put my knowledge into practice, and I had a very clear interest in Middle Eastern or Central Asian countries. I was drawn to Interserve's commitment to professional standards and was not quite ready for a long-term Partner commitment, so I was delighted to discover the On Track programme.

After interview I was offered and accepted a one-year position seconded to an NGO working in Central Asia. I was to be the Technical Adviser to the management of a disability and deaf education project in the eastern region of the country. I arrived in the country's capital and within a few days began one-to-one language training. An understanding of the importance of learning the local language was also something that drew me to Interserve. It made such a difference in building relationships. The small amounts I learned were appreciated and extremely helpful.

After a month in the relatively liberal capital, I moved east to a more conservative and rural city. I lived in a spacious compound with very high walls (the norm for all nationals) which were topped with barbed wire (the norm for all foreigners). I lived with three other single women, and we had a dog and two guards. Outside our compound were open sewers and children playing. The children used to throw stones at foreigners; now they just shout names at us, identifying us as outsiders.

My daily work took me to a school for a few hundred deaf, blind and mentally disabled children. Just a small percentage are disabled from war injuries, more from untreated diseases that escalate to permanent disability, and perhaps the majority have congenital defects due to generation after generation of intermarriage. This is one of the few schools in the country where boys and girls are educated together. As they are seen as not normal, they are exempt from some of the national rules governing schools and share classes up to Grade 1, after which they are taught in single sex classes but in the same school. The hearing teachers teach in Sign Language, as do the deaf teachers for whom it is their first language.

Cultural adjustment My daily attire was a shalwar kameez (trousers and tunic) and a large chadar (scarf) that covered not only my head and shoulders but also my back down to my thighs. There are dress differences across the regions. In some areas, much smaller, almost nominal head scarves can be worn, but in the region I was in, the adherence to veiling is much more strict. Eastern women still wear the burqa when outside their home compounds. The more forward thinking families permit their women to be uncovered in their places of work and therefore seen by their male colleagues. Many long for the time when they will not have to wear the burqa.

The conservative customs of the city meant that I was not to drive and I was not to walk anywhere alone. I was not to greet any male unless he greeted me first, nor to offer my hand unless he did so first. I was not to be in a room with any man on my own, nor to laugh loudly or blow my nose in public.

Shopping, for foreign women, consists of making a shopping list for the guard and leaving him to go out and get it or sitting in the car on the bazaar road, sweating and being stared at, while the driver does your shopping for you. Kidnapping threats are regular occurrences as are random bombings in the bazaar areas.

Despite such prohibitive social practices, there are no restrictions on hospitality, which embodies the Persian saying that guests are God's friends as well as the Arabic proverb, 'A house that receives no guests, receives no angels'. We were always welcome at our friends' and colleagues' homes for meals at tables filled with freshly killed halal meat, vegetables, freshly milked yoghurt and cups and cups of green tea. If the neighbours cooked too much they would send round a plateful to us. And so we learned to do the same.

The people there know the importance of spending time with one another. Their cutlure speaks of the value of human beings not human doings: Take off your watch and sit cross-legged on the rug; do not be embarrassed about silences – speaking the same verbal language is inconsequential; sharing time and space is a blessing.

A year of challenge, a year of blessing There were hardships to the life: rare hot water and sporadic electricity; extreme heat in summer and no heating in winter; limited social options with other foreigners; no sport but what you could rouse yourself to do in your own room. And yet what a valuable year: learning about my own capacity to deal with an extremely different culture; learning a new language; living a very simple, timeconsuming life where the tasks of cooking, cleaning and washing leave little time to think of the television you do not have. A year to learn how to continue to be vibrant in my faith without the support of a local Christian community. How to minister to and encourage one another (my housemates and I) in our spiritual lives and in the trials of a life lived so contrary to what we were used to. How to survive such solitude from all the mod cons and social options of European life.

To say there were not times when I felt ashamed to be a woman, that I took on that spirit of shame which is so prevalent in that situation would be lying. There were times when I wanted to dance in the rain and laugh out loud, to wear jeans and walk bearfoot, to run up a hill, to be in male company of any sort without someone thinking ill of me.

It was at these times I had to look to the Lord and remember what he thinks of me: that I am not pure or saved by anything that I have done of my own merit or can ever do, but through the sacrifice of Jesus I can come to him as his daughter. When my love is wanting, he gives me more to pass on. When my spirit is weak, he gives me strength to persevere.

God took me to Central Asia for the year, and he was with me in all his abundance throughout. He blessed and protected those I left behind and has brought me back again, filled with ever more determination to give my life as a living sacrifice. I expected a desert and I got an oasis.