Several people have asked if I had a blog from my time in West Africa. I don’t. But I thought it might be fun to occasionally post about some of my experiences here for anyone who is interested.
It has been almost six years since I found myself on a plane over the Atlantic. Time really flies. So much happens so quickly! And so much from that year, now becoming more and more distant past, is still so clear in my mind.
I thought I’d start with my experience traveling to West Africa. I lived and worked in a small country that is 99% Muslim, including a rapidly growing fundamentalist sect of Islam associated with the Taliban. Because of the nature of that part of the world, I will not explicitly name the country itself, any of the towns I worked in, or the names of any Africans or expats who live and work there for security reasons. Anything that can be more generally applied to the area of West Africa I will more freely name.
We had a fairly simple, although long, flight itinerary. Dallas to New York to Casablanca to our final destination in West Africa.
I remember when our flight from New York took off. It was already late at night, and as the plane lifted up off the end of the runway over the bay, I looked down and realized that my “safety net” of familiar culture and family and friends was falling away behind me and I was suddenly on my own with only God to trust as the One who could hold me up. I had travelled overseas before and done short-term mission work, but it had always been with a team and a leader. This time, even though I had a team for the first couple of months, I was essentially going on my own, and I remember feeling a strange mixture of fearful anticipation and peaceful trust.
I was traveling with one other girl, and she and I had not gotten along well during training. There was nothing particularly “wrong” with either her or me, but we had vastly different personality types and ways of approaching problem solving, so traveling internationally together proved to be… interesting. The rest of our team was flying through Belgium instead, so it was just her and me.
We had a 12-hour layover in Casablanca, Morocco. Our airline, Royal Air Maroc, provided us with hotel and food vouchers for the layover so that we could take a good nap and a shower and eat a good meal instead of just hanging out in the terminal for that long stretch of time. Our final flight was scheduled to leave at midnight.
So we took the airport shuttle to the airport hotel, about 5 minutes away and just outside the city of Casablanca, and took a very refreshing shower and nap and and enjoyed some amazing Moroccan food. The people were so friendly and just beautiful. Seriously, Moroccans as a people group are some of the most attractive people I’ve ever seen. (Aside from my own husband of course!)
Around 10:30, we boarded the shuttle back to the airport to check in for our flight.
It had been cancelled. Indefinitely.
Supposedly, there were riots happening in the city we were supposed to fly into, and the airline didn’t want to risk landing there during the violence. My traveling companion and I, however, had contact with the rest of our team already in country and they assured us there were no issues. Later we figured out that there was an issue with the airline itself – probably a bribe had not been paid by the destination airport to the airline or vice versa.
So we were stuck in Casablanca. Cue Bogart and Bergman. At least we’ll always have Paris.
But props to Royal Air Maroc, who agreed to extend our hotel and food vouchers for as long as we needed them. So, we boarded the airport shuttle around 1:00 in the morning to head back to the hotel to get a few more hours of sleep, hoping for a 6:00 am flight. On the shuttle were me, my traveling companion – also a young, white, American, Christian woman – and a whole lot of Arab men.
We started driving. 5 minutes. 10 minutes. 15 minutes. Still no hotel in sight. In fact, not a whole lot of anything in sight…. And I started to get nervous. Finally, around 1:30 in the morning, the bus stopped in the middle of nowhere and all of the Arab men on the bus stood up and started talking and yelling and causing all kinds of commotion. I looked out the window and realized through the darkness that we were in an unlit parking lot of sorts filled with cars from which many more Arab men were hurriedly coming toward our bus. My traveling companion thought this was a great time to practice our French. I explained to her that it was a great time to sit down, shut up, and try to be as invisible as possible!
Headlines were flashing through my brain: “Two Missionaries Kidnapped by Extremists in Morocco.” Oh man… my parents are gonna be so upset. Dear God, get us out of this!
This went on for several minutes.
Finally, everyone sat down, quieted down, and the bus started driving again. A few minutes later, we pulled up to the hotel and everyone got off and went to their rooms.
Most frightening hour of my life. I found out later that it was just the shift change for the hotel staff. That’s it. The day shift going home and the night shift coming in.
At the hotel, I requested a wake up call from the front desk. But since I didn’t speak French or Arabic, and the lady at the front desk spoke both of those but not English, I wasn’t really sure she understood. So I didn’t sleep much that night. I didn’t want to sleep late and miss our flight in the morning! So that night was spent reading Psalms and watching Al Jazeera – the only English TV channel I could find.
Well, the next morning… no flight. That afternoon: no flight. The next day: no flight. We spent four days stuck in Casablanca.
During that time several things happened.
One, we weren’t able to leave the hotel and go explore the city, partly because we had to be able to shuttle back to the airport for a flight at a moment’s notice and partly because our only opportunity to go into town was with two very nice Lebanese men who offered to share a taxi – and I had seen “Taken.” No way was I going anywhere with two men I didn’t know. No. Way.
Someday I’d love to go back and actually enjoy Casablanca without the stressful circumstances.
I didn’t cope well at all. In fact, it is not an exaggeration at all to say I was a complete basket case for about 2 days.
But the girl I was with had an amazing personality trait I just don’t have: the ability to pull back and see the forest for the trees. (I am detailed to a fault, and the details can easily overwhelm when they have no context.) She came up with a plan.
“Megan,” she sat me down one afternoon. “We could realistically be stuck here for weeks. Even up to 3 months before we need a visa. We need a plan. God isn’t wasting our time by keeping us here – what can we do with it?” She laid out goals: meet 4 new people every day and get to know something about them, learn 5 new French words every day and practice them by using them in conversation with someone, study a chapter of the Bible every day, take a walk around the hotel every day to get out of the room and be around people. Things like that.
Lesson one in humility: we need the body of Christ. I had written off this girl because she was so different. God showed me I needed her and that He is the one who had put us together.
The next morning, we took the shuttle to the airport again (lots of back and forth every day). This particular morning, many citizens of the West African country we were headed to were just fed up. They wanted to get home. They were forming a group to go to the airline in protest and wanted us to come with them. We headed the opposite direction! We didn’t want to get caught in the middle of a riot in an airport in Africa!!! Instead, we went to see if we could get access to our checked luggage (which had been just sitting in the airport for days). It took several hours, but the airport did release our bags to us, and we took the shuttle back to the hotel.
And the hotel refused our vouchers.
The two lebanese men spoke quite a bit of English, and they were able to explain to us that the hotel wouldn’t honor the vouchers any more because a flight was scheduled that afternoon.
Could we really believe there was a flight? Was it really going to happen?
We sat in the hotel lobby, our luggage all around us, waiting for hours to hear for certain.
Then suddenly the airport shuttle showed up, loaded us up, drove 5 minutes to the airport. Within 30 minutes, we were through security and sitting on the plane! Apparently that group of angry Africans had gotten something done!
We took off.
And then I experienced the strangest flight I have ever been on.
As soon as we took off, the Africans around us started shouting and singing and clapping in celebration. And never quieted down. As soon as the “buckle seatbelt” light was turned off, everyone – and I mean everyone on the plane got up and started walking around. In true African fashion, they were visiting their friends and relatives in other parts of the plane. The few Africans who had met us white girls made a big deal out of coming and talking to us and showing off to everyone that they knew the Americans. Everyone was in everyone else’s business for the whole flight. The poor flight attendants had a difficult time getting our meals and beverages to us because there were always several people up in the aisles.
But we finally landed in our destination country.
We fought our way through all the “helpful” people who wanted to show us how to fill out our customs forms and carry our luggage for a fee or a large tip and finally met the rest of our team.
We were never for a moment beyond God’s hand. There was not a minute of those days that surprised Him or caught Him off guard. In fact, it was all part of His perfect and gracious plan for this time in our lives, part of His goal of shaping and molding us to be more like Christ – to learn to trust Him instead of trusting our own strength. To trust Him for our basic needs instead of trusting our own cleverness. To learn to declare “You are my God” and with trembling to say with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, “Even if….”
Welcome to West Africa! With one adventure under my belt, I had months more to look forward to!