January 30, 2012 / Praxis
Flannery O’Connor insists that good fiction must be grounded in place; in this essay, Andrew W. E. Carlson discovers that the same can be said for church.
February 20, 2018
I am caught between dengue fever and boarding school. Circumstances beyond my control have left me for weeks without internet and no hope of connectivity in the foreseeable future. I can’t Google the symptoms (fever, loss of appetite, bone aches, exhaustion, delirium) of my youngest daughter, and I can’t Skype with my oldest daughter, away at a boarding school in Kenya. I can’t even complain or worry to anyone because my husband left yesterday, for a three-hour drive to one of Djibouti’s refugee camps where he is conducting teacher evaluations.
When I remind myself of the teachers he will meet, my own struggles shrink, but they don’t dissipate. Teachers in the Ali Addeh camp stand in front of classrooms filled with Somali students and not one single book. They write lessons on the board, and the entire class session consists of the children copying those words, which they don’t understand, into notebooks. Some of the students come without pens or paper. Without shoes or breakfast. Without citizenship.1
Teachers meet physically or mentally disabled children in their huts for one-on-one lessons outside of school hours. The teachers have no training, no equipment, and no resources, but their paraplegic students learn math, and their deaf student runs a shop out of her hut. Their student with an undiagnosed issue that renders her body out of her control can only make cooing noises and she doesn’t understand the lessons, but she loves to have her teacher visit. So the teacher comes to the hut and hugs the student, then teaches her mother basic literacy for one hour a week.
These students were born in, or moved to, a Djiboutian refugee camp. Each night, they sleep in tents near the Ethiopian border. And yet they belong nowhere. They can claim no nation, and no nation wants to claim them.
Likewise, the teachers are not paid a salary; they are offered a minimal monthly “incentive.” So what can my husband evaluate? The teachers without curriculum or salary? The students without paper or passports, who barely speak the language of instruction? The aid organization funding this educational system? The parents struggling to raise a handicapped child in one of the harshest environments on the planet?
Those are questions he will face when he comes home and writes his report. My questions, with a sick child and an absent one, are less global in scope. They are not about loss of nation or loss of identity. They are not about the practical poverties of refugee camps and the impermanence of living between worlds, unable to make a home here and unable to return to the home there.
But my questions do overlap with the concerns of the refugees, at least on the margins. We are all concerned about home, family, and choice, about what can be reasonably endured in the search for a full life. We, too, live between worlds—we are Americans in Djibouti, but the chasm of difference is that we live here by choice and not necessity.
For me, a full life includes loving and taking care of my children, and tonight my circumstances mean that I have to place one child over the other, as I’m afraid my eleven-year-old has dengue fever. It’s a fear that might descend upon me every May. She got it last May after we hosted a wedding party in which several guests, some of the Somali traditional dancers, and my daughter all came down with the fever. She has many years of living yet, I hope, and I dread the increase in pain she will experience, as dengue gets worse each time someone contracts it. Can this be blamed on me? On my decision to live here? How much of my children’s lifelong pain and hardships will be the result of choices my husband and I make?
She’s had a fever of 102 or more for three days. She has a headache, bone ache, and no appetite. She was awake yesterday just long enough for me to read through Dr. Seuss’s The Sneetches and Other Stories. Our favorite is the story about the pale green pants with nobody inside them. I laugh every time I read it, and she laughed, too.
I’m thankful for small things, for those giggles. She also ate fifteen frozen peas yesterday. I am thankful for the fifteen peas. My Djiboutian friend tells me to give her water with diced garlic and lime juice. I buy her a bottle of Sprite from the corner shop. She refuses to drink it, so I wrap it in a towel to keep it cool, and I put it by her pillow.
I contemplate the pale green pants, the frozen peas, the bottle of Sprite with beads of condensation. I hold them like worry beads. I need a place to set down the anxiety. I stretch out beside her on the floor, our fingers entwined. Her palm is sweaty. I watch her breathe. She doesn’t acknowledge me.
Even when she sleeps, I want to be with her. I want her to know that I’m at home, that I choose her.
My sixteen-year-old daughter is at a boarding school in Kenya. She misses Djibouti, but she loves this school where she is receiving an English-language education and interacting with American peers for the first time in her life. She’s loving that girls can play on the soccer team, that there is green grass, and that there are other kids who talk about Jesus and faith.
We usually text every day and have regular Skype calls. But now I haven’t heard her voice in two weeks, and I’ve started to cry when I think about her. The only way to talk is to go to my workplace, the International School of Djibouti, which my husband and I launched in 2016, but my husband has the car in the refugee camp, and I will need to bike to school in the dark on the unlit, unpaved streets. I risk hitting boulders, goats, thorn bushes, massive potholes, and mounds of garbage, including glass bottles and syringes. The ride will be one of sheer terror that I will break a leg or be hit by a car.
And if I go to the school to talk to my daughter, who will stay at home with my other daughter? She’s asleep, but she seems to know if I’m there or not. She has a barf-bucket by her pillow, just in case, but who will hold her hair off her face or rub circles on her shoulder blades? What if she wakes up, like she did a few hours ago, and hallucinates, and I’m not there?
My oldest knows her sister is sick. She has a date this weekend, and I want to hear about the boy, about their plans, about how she changed her mind to say yes. I need her to know that this, a high school date, matters to me. I need a place to set my sorrow over this distance and the reality that I will not be the one to greet the boy when he comes to pick her up. I need to hear his name on her lips, and I want her to know that I choose her.
I hate this choice. It reminds me that I’m not whole and that I will never be whole again. It’s my own fault for giving birth to children, each one a split down my middle. It’s my own fault for deciding to live abroad and away from extended family, my home culture, and the religious scaffolding of my Baptist childhood. These choices leave me drawn and quartered; they mean I’ve abandoned shreds of my self all over the globe, the way an umbilical cord, once absolutely essential, gets discarded.
Some women plant their umbilical cords. Mine were tossed into the garbage. Some Somali women bury theirs beneath acacia trees, or they tie them to the necks of goats. For luck, for protection, for the future.
Maybe I have not abandoned shreds of myself. Maybe I have planted them. Maybe I have tied them to my children.
Setting an altar is yet another choice. In An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “I can set a little altar, in the world or in my heart. I can stop what I am doing long enough to see where I am, who I am there with, and how awesome the place is.”2 And so I take a moment to pay attention to where I am, why I am here, and who I am here with. My family, content and delightful, in Djibouti, trying to nudge goodness a little deeper into the world. I take my sadness, my worry, my loneliness—all of it belongs to this expatriate life—and I acknowledge it. I set it as an altar, enabling me to hold these parts along with the joyful parts, the simple parts of reading books and choosing outfits for dates. The sorrow and the joy do not cancel each other out; that’s not what they are for.
I get to decide how I will interpret my expatriate life. Will it be one of loss and grief, a life of abandonment? Yes. Will it be one of hope and growth, a life of planting? Yes.
I tell my sick daughter I’m going to talk to her sister. She nods, bleary-eyed. I’ll only be gone an hour. She will sleep the whole time. I feel like I am abandoning her as I bike away, on my way to a conversation with her sister, on my way to planting.
I feel conflicted, braiding my griefs and joys with the stories of refugees. What sorrow and longing must a mother hold when she has a precious child with special needs, lives in a tent, and has no citizenship or education? What fear for her future does she feel when she sings her child to sleep at night and kisses her forehead? What delight wells up when she deciphers the letters of her own name and laughs with her child at the antics of goats in the refugee camp?
I have a bike, a car, a job, air conditioning, a navy blue passport. I have so much physical comfort, it is comparatively luxurious. Comparatively ludicrous. And yet. I have this tear down my middle where my children split me open.
The conversation with my daughter goes well. She is excited about her date, though she is not quite sure whether she likes the boy “like that.” She is proud of her strong test scores. She asks for a book recommendation, a narrative nonfiction book for English class. She loves science, and I tell her she absolutely must read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. She says she will. I am planting.
I bike home and arrive without a broken bone. This daughter is still sleeping but smiles when I kiss her flushed cheek. More planting.
My husband will be home tomorrow, with stories of the refugee camp. We’ll talk about what else we can do to help, about how to encourage these teachers and equip the parents. The families there also face the choice of deciding how to interpret their past, their present, and how to think of the future. Abandonment or planting? It isn’t really a choice. We do both. All parents do. We grieve and hope. We cry and dream. We build altars of remembrance and gratitude out of paying attention.
May we flourish. Dear God, may all our children flourish.
Rachel Pieh Jones
Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children. She has written for the New York Times, Runner’s World, Brain Child, and the Big Roundtable. She created the award-winning cookbook Djiboutilicious. Her next book will be released by Plough in 2019.