Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Transitions, part II

The last blog entry detailed transitions that had already happened or were on the verge of happening. Those transitions were largely personal and had a bit about the family's transitions as well.  In this entry, I [Chris] would like to detail the transitions that we envision during our year of furlough in the United States, with a particular focus on the work side of life.

Retooling is a word that I've used a bit already in some of our presentations that we've done since being in the US.  As I understand the word, it means to update something.  Our retooling is not going to be updating in the form of a different focus, but will be more of an addition of capacities...more like development or growth of what we're able to do on the field for when we return to Cameroon.

One of the additions is going to be in the area of trauma healing.  I'm looking forward to taking a class entitled Arts & Trauma Healing at the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics in Dallas during months of January/February.  Trauma healing is already happening in our location overseas, given the needs of people fleeing neighboring countries that are in the midst of terrible events.  I anticipate being able to add to the work in Cameroon with our special brand of trauma healing containing an arts component - sort of like art therapy.

Another transition that is going to happen is in my own professional growth.  About a year ago, I put together a growth plan with one of my mentors with the goal of attaining the status of Arts Consultant within our organization.  There are many pieces and parts to the process including some continuing education, some research, some publishing, some independent study, etc.

As I move toward consultant status, the work in Cameroon will change a bit as well.  In our next term overseas, I will be working in more areas of Cameroon and, potentially, the Central African region.  This will be done with an eye of transitioning toward the development of nationals to take up the work.  As an organization, our mission has the value of elevating people to do the work within their own communities.  With this in mind, one of my projects during our furlough is to get one of our key EthnoArts training classes set-up in French so that we can train and develop more Africans to continue arts ministry.  Our goal is to have local leaders developed so that things continue smoothly (hopefully even more smoothly) for decades after we have left the field.

Thank you for praying over our transitions, both past and future, personal and professional.  We expect to learn a lot and we want to have the eager expectation of seeing how the Lord will use transitions to teach and grow us a bit...or a lot.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Transtions, part I

It’s such a part of our life right now that I [Chris] really hate hearing the word transition anymore.  It’s one of those things where I know it’s real, but I would rather deny it than talk about it…because to talk about it in correct proportion to the amount of transition we’ve done, would be to talk about it constantly.  But alas, the monster must be confronted!

We’ve got transition everywhere in our lives right now.  The obvious is that we just transitioned from Cameroon to the United States and will transition back to Cameroon again in a year.  But there are so many more - transitions for the kids into US public schools for the first time, a transition in our sending church with a new senior pastor, transitions in leadership for our mission organization…the list could go on.

Transitions away from friends and pets were a bit difficult.

The bright side is that not all transition is bad and not all of it is filled with uncertainty.  We have some transition going on now that will be great for our work in Cameroon.

So in the spirit of detailing the “good, the bad, and the ugly,” we’ll fill you in on the transition that has happened and what’s ahead and what it means for us as we begin our year of furlough, or home assignment, in the United States.

There was much transition subtly happening in our lives in Cameroon, long before leaving the country.  We were reaching a level of ease and becoming much more functional within the culture.  I also was becoming more at ease with my work and thus more productive.  I feel as if I can look years down the road and construct a plan for my work rather than being tentative because of a lack of cultural savvy.  In our last few weeks before heading to the US, I was able to lead songwriting workshops more confidently, work on research projects with good direction, and see where it was going to lead.  Seeing marked progress in this subtle, slowly developing transition gave a sense of accomplishment before our leave began.

Above:  Working on an alphabet song in the Iyasa language
Below:  Workshop participants from Kwasio and Batanga language communities with certificates at the completion of a workshop in late May.

Lori and the children were also feeling this same sense of comfort in managing family life and school life.  The kids transitioned from feeling new in their schools to feeling as if they really belonged.  Lori had much of our life at home into a routine and life flowed much more smoothly than it did at our arrival two years before.

The "six-handed dishwasher" in Cameroon.
After we finished the school year and packed up for our year in the USA, we took a little side trip to “close up” some old transitions.  We made a 9 day stop in France during our travels.  We found air tickets that allowed this to happen and thoroughly enjoyed our stay.  We made a point to visit people and places that were important to us during our time of language study in France (2013-14).  We also visited a couple of places that we had wanted to visit back then, but had run out of time for.  

We saw the kids’ schools, walked past our old apartment, attended our church, ate with several friends, caught up with several of our French professors, etc.  It was fantastic and very cathartic, I think especially for the kids.  They put out a lot of effort to assimilate to school and learn the language during that year, only to leave shortly after finding their comfort zone.  My favorite memory was right at the beginning of our stay.  I was walking with Kristin (12) through Paris, searching for a bakery near a train station while waiting a few hours for our train to depart.  As we walked along the street, she said, “I don’t feel like a tourist here.  I feel like I belong here.”  She enjoyed knowing that at one time, it was a struggle to be in that environment, but was now at ease.  She also enjoyed that, even after two years away in Africa, she still felt confident in French culture.  I’m hoping that helped her turn some transition experiences in to positives that she can build on.

Reunited with our favorite breakfast and lunch options in France.

We still like to climb up to old buildings.
Albertville, our old 'hood!
Seeing snow for the first time in over two years...in June.
Seeing old friends in France.

Arriving in Virginia, a new transition awaited as we moved in with Lori’s mom in Lynchburg.  We’re learning to be more flexible with our family’s way of doing things versus Lori’s mom’s style of life (more of an issue after three years away in different cultures).  We even had to adjust to the feeling of being in air conditioning often.  It was a shock to find that air conditioning was not really pleasant at first and required some getting used to.  The living situation also requires adjustment to our typical schedule and tasks around the house.

A couple of days after our arrival in the US, we were at the 70th Sutton Family Reunion in Pennsylvania.
This is our branch of Lori's very large family.
For the kids, there is a huge new transition that looms and will probably be among the toughest challenges of this coming year:  school.  In the days immediately after our arrival, we began the process of getting the kids enrolled in their respective schools.  It was hard for us having to explain their educational background of the past few years, such as the conversation about Noah and his enrollment in foreign language classes:  “Yes, my 14 year old tenth-grader-to-be is well qualified for AP French and will quite likely be bored in the class - and also has a better accent than the teacher.”  There were also the shots and physicals.  Our kids have easily had twice as many shots as typical kids their age, but some were not accepted because of how and where they were administered.  Transition hurts in multiple ways sometimes!

When school starts, they’ll have the big social transition…again.  For the past two school years, they have been in a close-knit community of mostly expatriate kids in their international schools.  Before that, they were dropped into the French public schools with zero French language skills.  The year before that, they were in a charter school in Texas.  And the year before that, they were homeschooled in Virginia.  Honestly, I’m amazed that they’ve kept it together so well during all of that.  But I know this new transition will be a big challenge, even for seasoned transitionees.  They will need a copious amount of prayer as they learn a new educational system and new social rules.

Hiking Crabtree Falls in VA with longtime friend Peter.
The last of the transitions for this installment is transitioning relationships.  People change a lot when you’re away for three years.  Some of our friends have new children - some multiple new children!  Some of our friends have moved away.  Some of our friends have experienced break-up of their families.  Some of our friends have experienced tragic loss.  The joys and the sorrows are both draining for us as we renew our friendships because there are so many new realities to put together in our heads - honestly, it’s exhausting to process it all.  We’ve also learned that with some people, the friendship restarts as if there was never an interruption while others are slower to reignite.  The kicker here is that it is not necessarily relative to how deep or shallow the relationship had been…it seems quite random and hard to predict.

The other, less-anticipated relationship challenge was leaving friends in Cameroon.  In the missionary culture, we know that things can and do change quickly.  Sometimes a home assignment like ours marks the permanent end of a friendship due to people changing assignments, moving back to their passport countries, whatever.  There is an air of suspicion among our Cameroonian and expatriate friends of whether we will really return.  That too can be draining.

Goodbye picture with Abanda, the guard posted across the street from our home in Cameroon.
We thank you for your patience in this post that might seem like a series of complaints.  Our intention is to show what we’re struggling with and where the uncertainty in our lives is right now.  In another post to follow in a few days, we want to share the transitions that we envision during this year in the United States, mostly on the work front.  It will cover what our work looks like during this year in the US and how that will transition to more effective ministry in Cameroon beginning in 2017.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

On the Road...

Last week, I [Chris] had the opportunity to do a couple of songwriting workshops.  I did two short workshops of three days each.  They were in two different countries, conducted in two different languages and had two completely different types of participants.

The first stop was in Kribi, South Region, Cameroon.  Kribi is a popular destination for tourists (and sometimes expat missionaries).  It was a bit hard to convince my friends and colleagues that this time I was headed to Kribi to work.  The coordinator of our Scripture Engagement Department, Apolinaire, went with me to guide the first one.  He is a dynamic guy and bails me out when I get myself stuck in a corner with my French!  It was also the first time that Apolinaire had been so near the ocean, so we made sure to head out to the beach one day after our sessions.

(L-R) Apolinaire, local pastor Francois, and Georges, the mobilizer for the Kwasio language project.

We had 10 participants - 9 from the Kwasio language and 1 from Iyassa.  In these workshops, we guide them through the creative process and give hints on how to use scripture effectively, encourage them to use the true music of their culture, and then have them do some composition in groups.  At the end, we record the groups and give them their songs on an SD card so that they will remember what they created and be able to teach it to others in their communities/churches later.

Most of our participants in the Kribi workshop
After the workshop, Apolinaire headed back to Yaoundé, but I went south to Campo, at the far southwestern corner of Cameroon.  I drove down there with the Iyassa-speaking participant of the workshop, Adolphe.  We stopped in the village he grew up in and he introduced me to some of his extended family as well as showing me the sights of Ebodje.

Following Adolphe from his family home in the village down to the beach.

Miles of beautiful beach...

A culturally significant rock that the Iyassa call The Tortoise

In Campo, I stayed the night and left my truck at the home of my colleagues Wendy and Benis, linguists studying the Iyassa language.  The next morning, I boarded a small boat and went across the river into the country of Equatorial Guinea, where I was met by another colleague that has worked in EG for a couple of decades.

In Bata, Equatorial Guinea, we did another workshop.  The difference in this group was that the participants were more urban, with most living in Bata, which is a fairly large city.  But, it was interesting that many were originally from other parts of the country, as we had five different languages represented.  The music produced was more western influenced, but they all were interested in pulling in some elements from their home cultures as well.  This group also had some polished musicians, a few of which had produced professional recordings in the past.  What made this workshop easier was that I was able to teach in English!  Spanish is the language of wider communication in EG, so my colleagues that work there translated for me in addition to leading some of the discussions.

Some men of the Fang language getting help with vocal parts from Benga and Kombe women.

The results in EG were closer to finished products since these were more experienced musicians.  We took the opportunity to make some sample recordings of their new creations as well as some older songs that many of the musicians had.  This group also did something very unique: instead of recording a "rough draft" of their songs in progress, which is what we typically shoot for by the end of the third day, this group worked all together to add voice parts to each of the other groups in the other languages.  It was cool to see a trio of Fang-speaking men teaching a trio of Benga-speaking ladies the words to their songs so that they would have women's vocal parts included in their their songs.  And each group did the same, including all of the others in their music.  It was hard getting all of the participants comfortably into the small office we used to record, since we only intended to record 3-4 people at a time.  But they didn't seem to mind squeezing 11 or 12 into the space for the fuller sounds.

At the end of it all, Scott and Margaret (my colleagues based in EG), were thrilled to have the musicians of five different languages excited to write new music in their own languages and hear the finished products.  While hearing the participants singing scripture songs together in their mother tongues, they said, "This is what we came to EG for!"

My trip back to Yaoundé was a long one on Sunday.  I left Bata at 7am and was driven an hour and a half north to the river at Rio Campo, took the boat back across (not a fun experience this time, but that's another story for another day...), picked up my car at Wendy & Benis's house, and drove 6+ hours home to Yaoundé.

One of my fellow passengers on the boat back into Cameroon.  She and her friend make the crossing every Sunday from EG to go to their preferred church in Cameroon.

All in all, it was a successful trip.  I missed my family, but was glad to have some positive results in both Kribi and Bata.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Calm before the storm

That's probably not a very good title.  I [Chris] don't know necessarily that there's a storm (metaphorically speaking) headed this way...but we're definitely in a calm period before some change.  So it may or may not be appropriate.

If you see our newsletter, you probably know that we have a firm assignment with the Makaa language group.  If you care to know more, I'll provide the details that I know about how this will look.

Right now, the calm is that I'm doing administrative-type things.  Today I was working on creating paperwork to obtain a research permit.

The research permit is important for a couple of reasons.  First of all, it's a tool that allows us to do arts research.  One thing that I respect very much about SIL is that we're pretty thorough in what we do and try to do it to a high standard.  In the work of trying to understand local arts so that we can encourage its use in the church, we do our research in classic academic fashion.  Lots of folks from SIL publish their findings in linguistics and the arts in academic journals, present papers at conferences and the like.  I'm looking forward to that aspect of things, really.  In terms of arts research, there's some low-hanging fruit.  A lot of the artistic life in this region has not been thoroughly documented, so topics to bring to light are plentiful.

The other reason for the research permit is that it gives us an opportunity to give something valuable to the community.  In documenting their music and making it available to be understood and/or heard, it lends dignity to the cultures involved.  And that dignity can be a big step toward understanding the value of oneself as "made in the image of God."  We don't conceptualize this too well in North America, because we have a relatively homogenous culture and we value equality and pluralism.  But in Africa, some cultures really have identity issues that affect the self-perception of entire communities because of their status as a non-dominant culture in an area.  It's been demonstrated many times in our organization that when a culture is dignified by our presence and research, they often become open to hearing the gospel.

Anyway, I hope to have the research permit business done really soon.  I just need to polish it up a bit.

A Presbyterian Church building in the village of Bagbeze in the Makaa area...
…complete with a church bell.

The other part of the coming change is taking on language learning and finding a music teacher.  I'm going to start learning the Makaa language as soon as I get hooked up with a language helper.  A Makaa gentleman in a church I've been attending is trying to find someone for me.  I'm a bit intimidated by learning Makaa, because it has some difficult elements.  First of all, it is tonal.  That shouldn't be too tough because I'm a musician.  But it's different, so one never knows how tough it will be.  Second, I'm told that the language has about 10 noun classes.  And your next question (if you're not one of my linguist buddies) is, "what are noun classes?"  Well, take French, for example.  Nouns are either feminine or masculine, so there are two noun classes.  In German, there is feminine, masculine and neuter - three noun classes.  Definite articles (the), possessive adjectives (his, her, their, our, etc.) and other things may change depending on the noun class.  So I guess I'll eventually find out what the 10 noun classes in Makaa are based on, because it surely cannot only be gender or lack thereof.  I'm anxious to get started and find out!

Some typical tam-tams (or slit drums).

As an aside, you might ask, "Why do you need to learn the language?"  I'm not going to be translating or anything like that, true.  But I've always told people that in SIL we believe that "one doesn't learn a language; one learns a culture."  Well, that cuts both ways.  If my job is to learn the Makaa culture and music well, there are certain intangibles that one can learn through learning the language.

Finding a music teacher might be a bit more tricky, but in the end probably more fun.  I'm going to learn the instrument known as the tam-tam.  It's from a class of instruments known as idiophones - which basically means that the instrument itself is vibrating but without strings or a head of any sort.  The tam-tam is actually best described as a log drum.  Some call it a slit drum because of the opening on the top.  This instrument is at the core of a lot of Makaa music.  It also has had a communication role throughout African history.  Tam-tams were used to communicate messages over long distances (like several kilometers - village to village) by drumming out rhythms that evoked the tonality of the language.  I was joking with Lori that apparently Africa has had wireless communication for millenia!

And the last thing is a bit of traveling.  The Makaa zone is about a three hour drive to the largest town.  It's another few hours to get to some of the more remote areas where the culture is more "pure."  I'm planning on being out there 4-6 days per month.  I haven't planned my first trip yet, but I hope to get started soon.  I'm hoping on my first trip to find a tam-tam to buy.  I'm not so sure my neighbors are going to be happy about my owning an instrument that has the capability of being heard for miles!

So a little bit of change is coming, but mostly just for me.  The rest of the family is happy that we don't have to move and they will get stay in their schools and that their routines won't change much.

As I get some music recorded, I hope to be able to share some interesting things over the next several months.  Stay tuned!

In the meantime, enjoy some more pictures of the past few months.

Meeting with a church leader in Campo, a village in the Iyassa language group.

Limbe, Southwest Region.  This is a much more beautiful beach than this picture lets on.

Lobé Falls, Kribi, South Region.  These small falls are one of the rare spots where a waterfall drops directly into the Atlantic Ocean.  It's hard to tell in this picture, but there is another 20-25 foot drop before this river reaches the ocean behind us.

Sunday, November 9, 2014


Cultural adaptation is a tricky thing.  We form habits and expectations as well as define “normal” in our minds from the day of our birth.  They become deeply ingrained in our being.  When sharp change comes and those norms are tested, it can be exciting, stressful, anger-inducing, frustrating, confusing – a whole range of emotions is possible.

After more than three months in Africa, we’ve seen progress in our process of adaptation.  We’re learning to adapt to new norms and redefine expectations daily.  It isn’t easy and the process is never complete, but by God’s provision of patience and wisdom, we can press on toward thriving in our new situation.

All in all, our first thirteen weeks have been quite tranquil.  Even so, there are adjustments to make.  I’ve made a list of a few of our little adjustments.  It is fun to notice how far we’ve come in our short time thus far in Cameroon.

We’ve lost water service in our neighborhood for parts or all of about 30 days since our arrival in the last week of July.  The longest continuous period without water has been almost 5 days.  The first time without was rather traumatic and nobody was happy.  We’re used to it now and know very well how to manage our reserves and function normally.  Heating up water in the tea-kettle and filling a bucket for a warm shower is no big deal anymore.

Lori has learned to observe the skies to decide whether it is best to hang the laundry outside or on the lines we’ve made inside.  Clothes dry faster outside if it’s sunny, but if rain looks imminent, it’s best to hang things around the house for a couple of days to dry.  We’re in the midst of a rainy season, so it looks like the house will be decorated with our clothing each day for a while longer.  It may seem like no big skill to discern if rain is imminent or not, but it’s a bit tricky here.  Big puffy clouds are always in the skies above us.  Learning to identify the potential for rain is not nearly as simple as it was while living 40 degrees north of the equator.

Storm clouds gathering over the mountains of the Northwest Province

Candles are always on our dinner table.  We don’t lose electricity all that often – maybe 2-3 times per week, usually not for more than an hour at a time.  But the candles are always there so that if the power goes out, we can continue eating without having to get up and look for them.  The solar-charged lantern isn’t far away either.

Fresh, natural food is very convenient in Cameroon, so we’ve learned to benefit from the many entrepreneurs in our community that hand-make different food items.  It can be confusing to remember who comes to the house with what on which days, but the fresh squeezed pineapple and guava juice that comes on Fridays is almost as heavenly as the freshly made bagels that come on Tuesdays and the cinnamon rolls and (still warm) bread that get delivered on Mondays.  It’s so cool to be able to eat excellent food, buy from local vendors, and go to the grocery store a little less often.  And this doesn’t even begin to address the guavas and avacados that fell from the trees in our yard each day for the first month we were here.  Yeah, we ate a lot of guacamole for awhile there.

We’re adapting to ambient noise.  We live less than 400 meters from a rather busy city street filled with taxis and other traffic.  The constant horn-honking doesn’t even phase us anymore.  And the roosters that begin at 3:30 AM don’t penetrate our sleep too often either.  Yes, we live in a place where urban traffic noise and rooster crows are perfectly normal together.

Neighborhood roosters along the road to Kristin & Ben's school

We’re getting used to being looked at a lot.  When we walk down the street, we look very different, so its only natural that people look at us closely.  Honestly, it does take a bit of getting used to.  Also, people might verbalize their observations in a way that society would consider inappropriate in America (Bonjour, les blancs/Hello, white people).  But we’ve learned that Cameroonians are gregarious and friendly on the whole and the comments/observations are generally good-natured.

Church is a different experience.  It makes sense that if people have a personal relationship with their God, they should worship in a way that expresses things most naturally for them.  This is actually a core principal of our work in EthnoArts.  It’s also cool to see it first hand.  We’re adapting to the animated worship style that reflects the personality of where we live.  But we also will take time once in awhile to refresh ourselves at an international church of expatriates where the style will be more like our home culture.

We’re learning that in Africa, relationships are more important than goals/tasks.  I (Chris) realized I was starting to live this when I looked at my watch and noticed that I had been talking with one of the security guards in the neighborhood about his family, kids’ schooling, and whatever else for about 30 minutes one afternoon.  I don’t think I would have done that a few months ago, but I’m slowly catching on.

For sure, there will be much more adaptation for us.  It’s actually a good thing for us to be stirred up a bit and relearn the need for our dependence on the Lord in our daily lives.

On the more newsy side of life, I (Chris) made a first trip out of Yaoundé to a village in the Northwest Province.  It was two days of driving.  The first day was six hours of highway driving with two hours of muddy dirt roads (see video below).  The second day was a physical four hours on rough roads heading to the village of Misaje.  I am thankful for the vehicle we were able to purchase and for the new tires that our staff mechanic advised us to put on it. 

In Misaje, I was helping out with a songwriting workshop that was held for six language groups of the surrounding area.  It was good to get a first taste of ethnoarts work and to live with/work with my ethnoarts colleague in Cameroon, Neil Zubot, and his family during the week.  The workshop participants were very eager and turned out some nice music in their indigenous styles and languages with Biblical texts.  One highlight of the workshop was when one of the participants decided to lead the group in a song that everyone knew in Pidgin, the trade language of the region that closely resembles English.  Their zeal in doing this song was pretty cool to watch.  I caught most of it on this video.

And at the same time, in the same building, some of our media specialists were recording voice tracks for the Jesus Film in a recently translated language of the region.  One day I looked around at lunch and noticed that I was only one of two Americans among the missionaries.  I was there in the village working with teammates from Canada, Costa Rica, Austria, The Netherlands, and Cameroon.  What a fun week to be with a great group of co-workers and enthusiastic workshop participants!  Enjoy some pictures below from the workshop.

Wonderful friends and co-workers: Kay (Costa Rica), Nathanael (USA), Neil (Canada), and Guy (Cameroon)

Editing song texts with workshop participants from the Naami language group

Participants and most of the staff from the October workshop

Teaching a workshop session

Photos don't do justice to the beautiful scenery in the Northwest Province

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

No, man...I live here!

Despite being an introvert, I (Chris) enjoy a little bit of small talk with random people from time to time.  When we lived in Virginia, I got into the habit of talking a bit with grocery store checkers, bank tellers, whomever.  It's kind of fun.

While in France for language school, I really went out of my way to speak even more because I was always looking to improve my conversational skills.  The French are generally less outgoing than Americans, so sometimes I caught people off-guard with the attempts at conversation.  Sometimes I embarrassed myself with silly mistakes in the language.  But all in all, it was beneficial.

And now that I'm in Cameroon, I've discovered that people enjoy friendly chit-chat quite a bit more than in Europe or even the US.  It's still an opportunity to practice my French and now maybe I can also pick up some new cultural tidbits with each conversation.

Yesterday, I was in centre-ville Yaoundé with a friend going to look at a car.  It's the busiest part of town with tons of traffic and people going in every direction.  It can be sensory overload.

Rond Point de la Poste, or Score Circle...the center of Yaoundé.
While my friend was looking for his contact that was going to take us to see the car, I was approached by a man wanting to change money.  He asked me if I had Euros or Swiss Francs or US Dollars that I'd like to exchange for Central African Francs.  The best moment was when I responded (in French, but I'll loosely translate here), "No, man.  I live here.  I only have Central African Francs."

He smiled and wasn't sure he understood.  So he asked if I needed Euros before I went back home (I took this as a compliment of my French, that he thought I was European).  I said, "No.  This IS my home!  I live here!"  And then we shook hands and laughed a little.

As a man trying to conduct business (not sure if it's legal, doing currency exchange on the street like that...but whatever...), he certainly made a logical assumption that I was a good person to approach.  It was fun for me to be able to trump the typical and share a laugh - and then a bit of conversation.  And it was fun, even if in the context of a joke, to call Yaoundé home.  It doesn't quite feel like that yet, but it's getting there.  A few more days like yesterday and it will soon enough.

Monday, September 1, 2014

A thousand+ words about a lack of pictures

The old saying that, "a picture is worth a thousand words," is a gross underestimation, especially for the observant and/or loquacious.  There's so much to see and describe in the world around us, especially if an image includes people.  People are far more complex and I believe that just about everyone could have a pretty interesting book written about them.

After one month in Africa, I wish I could say that I have a ton of pictures to tell the story of what our life is like here.  But I don't.  Last year in France, I must have taken at least 1,000 pictures in the first month (digital photography is so different from the film era).  By contrast, I think I've taken less than 10 here except for a couple dozen inside our apartment at Kristin's birthday party Saturday.  Lori has taken a few dozen pictures, which for her is an incredibly low amount, and only a couple with Cameroonians in them.  Why so few?

Because I can't.  I cannot bring myself to photograph much of Cameroon for several reasons - not yet.

The first reason is very practical.  In Cameroon, and particularly in the capital city of Yaoundé, where we live, if one photographs any government buildings, police officers, military personnel or other official apparatus, your equipment will be confiscated if you're caught - even if it's just the camera on your phone.  Lori & I really wanted to take pictures during our first shopping trip into downtown on our fifth day in Cameroon.  But the president was going to be passing through our part of town and there were military and police everywhere - on roof tops, balconies, every little street that came off of the main road.  It would have been a dangerous situation.  So we ended up with only a couple of blurry shots that Lori took very discretely out of the taxi window in a different part of town with less police hanging around.  On the whole, we've been advised to be very careful about where/when we take photos around the city.

The other, much larger reason is about walls.  Cultural walls.  We're in a situation where walls (literally and figuratively) abound.  But at the same time, we're trying to eliminate or at least reduce the number of cultural walls because they prevent us from getting inside the culture.  We will always be cultural outsiders here, but it's necessary to get as close to "insider status" as possible to best do our work here.

So the first obvious wall is skin color.  An unfortunate part of being human and having an inherent sin nature is that we are automatically suspicious of those that appear differently than we do.  Yes, we can learn to overcome this, but it's been there since the beginning of history and it is very real.  In Cameroon, I've already got one hurdle to overcome because of my skin color.

And because of my skin color, I am automatically defined as rich because I am obviously European or American and most Cameroonians believe we're all rich.  The truth of the matter is, while we as missionaries are notoriously poor in our home culture, we are, by comparison, quite rich here.  Another wall.

But there's some relief for that one.  I've been taught, and experienced, that in Africa, titles and status are very important.  This is very anathema to Americans because we try to be a "flat" society, where we place extreme value on equality.  But in Africa, I am perceived to be rich, probably well-educated and by extension perceived to have status.  The good news is that I can make this wall less significant by carrying myself as the person that they think I am.  As such, we in our organization do our best to dress very professionally all of the time so that we appear to have the status and credibility that the people around us assume we should have (dress is a very powerful outward image of status to Africans).  If we were to dress in shorts or jeans with a ragged T-shirt, we wouldn't be taken very seriously and due to the societal construct here, people would be at a loss of what to think of us - "He's a rich, white American who claims to be here to help people, but he dresses like a common lackey.  Where's his self-respect?"  That thought process is very opposite of America in 2014, and we can debate right or wrong all day, but the bottom line is that it's the reality in this place and time.

I digress...OK...why almost no photos yet?

In an effort to aspire toward eliminating/averting/more easily traversing walls and becoming a cultural insider, I realized that I can't pull out my camera right now because I would effectively construct a nasty, slippery, thorn-covered wall.  If I went just 150 meters down my street and took pictures, not only would the "perceived as rich" wall become a bit higher because of the value of my camera or iPhone, but I would then objectify the people that live on my street.  They would be nothing more than an exhibit at the zoo.  They are well aware that a powerful person (me, in their eyes) wouldn't take a picture of them or their living condition out of envy.  They would immediately know that it was out of pity because they know that the house I live in has a wall around it to keep out bad people and wild dogs.  They know that my house has two toilets that flush.  They know that a woman comes to help my wife with household chores and goes to the market for us.  They know that my kids go to the school that costs a lot of money.  Why would I be interested in them?

Until I show them the true answer to that last question, "Why would I be interested in them," I can't just snap away at will.  I have to become genuine to them.  I have to show them that I am interested in them beyond just having pity - that I am their neighbor, that I am navigating life just like them, that this is my home right now, that I'm trying to parent my kids well - that I want to see a fruitful increase in their lives and purpose.  I have to demonstrate that I am a person of integrity that isn't out to take advantage of them, even though I may not get to know them on a truly personal level (I have a lot of neighbors).

We'll see how it all plays out, but my hunch is that a formula of consistency over time will be key in establishing credibility in my neighbors' eyes.  And when it finally comes, I hope that being able to take some photos of our neighborhood, our street, and inevitably our neighbors that live there, will actually help to remove some walls.  However, until then, I will only lock the images in my mind as best I can.

As a parting thought, I see a bit of the life of Christ in my conundrum.  Jesus came to save a people in need but He didn't do it as a conquering hero.  He did it as a humble servant.  He left the splendor of heaven to muck it up in our broken world.  By no means do I make this analogy as if I'm some kind of savior or even comparable to God, nor do I want to equate America to heaven and somehow superior to Africa.  But Jesus gives an example of ultimate humility that I need to re-study and model.  I need to follow through on humble servant before I pull out a camera, lest I be misperceived.