Nothing ever prepares you for arriving in the dark of night on a new continent. There isn’t enough cultural sensitivity classes, language training or dining at a hole in the wall ethnic restaurant in your city that can prepare you for the way your life will change.
Go ahead and embrace that truth. You can have all the training and orientation in the world, but stepping foot on the soil of your new overseas home will challenge and change you in ways that only you will understand once you are there.
You can’t fully prepare your senses.
Liberia is a coastal country in West Africa. The capital, Monrovia, sits right on the coast and smells of sweat, seaweed and garbage. Wander your way to far into the local market and you will smell the rotting flesh of bush meat caught earlier that day long before you see it. You get used to it, but the first time you catch a waft it will take your breath and turn your stomach.
Liberians are anything but plain. They are a colorful resilient people and the markets are full of lappa (African fabric) and jewelry made from anything and everything the color of the rainbow. The women are a spectacle in their smart outfits and I know they thought me terribly unimaginative in my comfortable brown cotton skirt and solid t-shirts; my standard uniform.
But what does it matter how colorful your outfit is when you are coated in the red dust of dry season?
I never knew how much I valued silence until I lived in Liberia.
The rhythm of Africa is alive and well in this war torn and recovering country and at times it is as if the whole country is tapping out a dance in perfect synchronicity. Long into the night the nearby town would be booming and bouncing to the beats of Bob Marley, cheering on Barcelona in football with yelps of “Goooooooallll!” periodically. Off in the distance you could hear drum beats nearly every night pounding mystery and fear into our foreign hearts.
The first time a plate of rice and greens was placed in front of me I eyed it suspiciously. I knew better than to eat the goat intestine soup without seeing that it was prepared properly, but the rice and greens looked less dangerous. The palm oil coats your throat and the greens slip right on down. Pumpkin soup became a favorite and our local cooks would make the expats heaping bowls on special occasion. I never could manage to swallow GB- a dough like ball made from ground cassava and dipped in pepper sauce- but I always pretended I did if a Liberian friend asked.
My hands were blistered from the water pump after a few short weeks of hauling water to and from my house. The tropical climate wreaked havoc on my skin and I battled rashes and ringworm from the start. We would lie still on our beds, under the mosquito net and without a single sheet, waiting for a stray breeze to find it’s way through our cement apartment. Liberia is humid and sweltering on it’s best days.
After a couple of months the sights and sounds became our normal.
It’s the sixth sense that you really can’t prepare for life overseas. The way you begin to see people, by the Spirit, not as members of this tribe or that culture foreign to your own, but as humans full of need in a million different ways.
At times your five senses will get the best of you. You will grow weary in some way of the foreign life. It is there that you have to press into the sixth sense. My Liberian friends were not simply an amalgamation of my five senses. They were individuals loved deeply by a living God who sees them not as foreign, but as His beloved (as much as you as much as me) creation.
It is easy to romanticize life on the field. To our friends and family back at home it may seem exotic and exciting- which it is in many ways. The reality is that all the things that tickle our senses at first contact fade and the one thing that needs to remain fresh is how we experience the human souls that we are encountering.
Prepare your senses to be ravished in the country to where you are headed. Take in the sights and sounds because too soon they will become commonplace.
Hold gently the souls that you encounter and don’t ever become used to them. They are invaluable to God. They are more than the sum of their culture. They are the very image of God, eternal. Let your whole being take that in and you will forever be changed.