Ceremonies and celebrations

July 27, 2017

It is almost the end of July already. How is that possible? Life and work have been extremely busy these last few months. I will start with work…

Another academic year has come to a close. They seem to go by faster and faster every year! At the end of May, graduation ceremonies were held for the students of the Institute’s special program to train evangelists to be pastors at the Bible school at Meng (250 km west of Meiganga). Thirty students (29 men and 1 woman) graduated from this program. They will now begin two years of internship under the supervision of an experienced pastor before being approved for ordination.

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Graduates of the program at Meng

Our academic year at the Institute in Meiganga lasted a bit longer. After final exams, it was time once again for “soutenances” (oral defense of final papers and master’s theses). I was the director for the final papers of three students in our licence program and the thesis of one student in our master’s program, so the workload was pretty intense. I am happy to say that all of the students finished well.

Graduation ceremonies for the Institute were held Sunday, July 2. Nine students (8 men, 1 woman) graduated with the licence degree and one with a master’s degree. Three of the licence students and the master’s student were already ordained pastors who came back to the Institute for further study, so they are heading back to their ministries. The others will start two years of internship.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Cameroon held its bi-annual “Synode Général” (churchwide assembly) in late June in Poli, which is in the northwest region of Cameroon. Bishop Ruben Ngozo was elected to a second four-year term as national bishop, and Pastor Adolph Tellesam to a second term as assistant to the national bishop.

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Beautiful landscape in the Poli region

My colleague Anne Langdji (ELCA Global Mission regional representative for West/Central Africa and Madagascar) and I attended the synod only for a day because of security concerns in the region. Even though the time was short, we were able to meet with the women pastors in the EELC (10 already ordained, plus one who will be ordained very soon). They are planning a spiritual retreat for women pastors, with generous aid from the Manitoba/Northern Ontario Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. It has only been five years now since the first women were ordained in the EELC, and like all pioneers, they face many challenges. So we are looking forward to a time of mutual encouragement at the retreat in January 2018.

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Women pastors of the EELC

Three Elisabeths… and one Lelo
Last year (January 2016) I was honored when one of my students and his wife named their newborn girl after me. She is now 18 months old. She is in the photo below (top left), taken after our graduation ceremonies a few weeks ago, where her father was one of the graduates. Then in January of this year, the son and daughter-in-law of my cook and housekeeper, Marie, had a baby girl, and they too decided to name her Elisabeth. Here is the second baby Elisabeth with her parents (bottom left) and with me in April.

Then in May this year, another student and his wife named their baby girl – you guessed it – Elisabeth. They also asked me to be her godmother, which of course is a great honor. She was baptized on July 16. She is in the two photos below on the left with her parents and with me on her baptism day. I was equally honored to be asked to be the godmother of another little girl named Lelo, (pronounced lay-low), also the daughter of a student. She was born in July 2016 and baptized on Easter Sunday this year. Here is Lelo with her mother and sister and with me on the day of her baptism (two photos below right).

Having all of these little girls in my life is truly a blessing!

But wait, there’s more…..

Introducing Schekina, David, and Etienne

My husband Eric has a lovely, smart 14-year-old daughter named Schekina (photo below, left), whom I am officially adopting, and Eric and I are also adopting two little boys! Their names are David and Etienne. They are both orphans but not related to each other. Both were born in similar sad circumstances : in both cases, the mother died shortly after giving birth, and no father or other family member came to claim the baby, so they have been in foster care ever since. Eric knows the social worker assigned to their cases, and he has been visiting them both since they were babies. The adoption is already complete on the Cameroonian side, so now we begin the US process. We are hoping that will go smoothly.

In the photos below, Etienne is on the left and David on the right. It is difficult to get them both to look at the camera at the same time!

We are also hoping that the company Eric works for will transfer him very soon to Ngaoundéré (160 km from Meiganga), so that we will be much closer together and at least able to spend weekends together. We have postponed the church blessing of our marriage until December. At that time David and Etienne will also be baptized, so it will be a grand celebration! We thank God for bringing us together, and we are looking forward to forming a family with David, Etienne, and Schekina.

Thank you for checking in. I am always grateful for your prayers, especially in this time of major life transitions!

+ Grace and peace +

A brief addendum: On Sunday, July 30, I had the honor of participating in the ordination of one of our former students, Rachel Asta, who is now the 11th woman to be ordained as a pastor in the EELC.

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Big news!

March 6, 2017

Once again, I am long overdue for an update and will need to catch up on several months of events. But first, the most important event in my personal life: on January 30, I got married! My husband’s name is Eric Toudze, he is Cameroonian, and we have known each other for over four years. We first met in Ngaoundéré, where I studied French my first year in Cameroon, but Eric lives and works in Yaoundé (the capital of Cameroon, about 680 km from Meiganga, where I live now), so we don’t get to see each other very often. We keep hoping that will change, but at Christmas time we made the decision to go ahead and get married, even if we can’t live in the same place right now.

A civil marriage ceremony is required to legalize a marriage in Cameroon, so we did that in January and are planning a church blessing ceremony in July. We had the civil service in a city south of Yaoundé called Ebolowa, where Eric’s cousin is an attorney and was able to help us with all the legal paperwork. The church blessing will be in Ngaoundéré, where Eric’s parents and many of his relatives live. Here are a couple photos from the civil ceremony.

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I spent Christmas in Ngaoundéré with Eric and his family. Leading up to Christmas, there were many Christmas programs and concerts here in Meiganga, both at the seminary and at the local congregation. For the past couple years, I have been working as a volunteer advisor for the Sunday school teachers of the French-speaking congregation. We have some very committed young adults who teach the Sunday school and work with the children in preparing their Christmas program. They do an amazing job! If my internet connection were better, I would add some video of their concert, but a couple photos will have to do.

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Back in October, I wrote about my dog, Lady, who died. There was definitely a void in the house without her, so in January I adopted a new puppy. Marie, my cook, gave him the name Gamo (Gah-mo), which means “peace” in the local Gbaya language, because she said he brought peace to our hearts after the loss of Lady. He is about 4 months old now and is growing very quickly. Here is a photo of him in early January, at about 2 months:

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Many of you may know that soccer (what the rest of the world calls football) is huge in Africa. Every two years is the African Cup of Nations tournament. The women’s tournament was held here in Cameroon in November and December, and our Cameroonian women made it all the way to the finals. They lost 1-0 to Nigeria in the final match, but the country was very proud! Then in January, the men’s tournament started in Gabon. Much to everyone’s surprise, the Cameroonian men’s team also made it to the finals, and on February 5, they won 2-1 over Egypt! It had been many years since Cameroon had won the championship, and they had been beaten by Egypt several times, so it was truly an upset. The whole country was in a pandemonium of celebration.

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Cameroonian women’s team (les “Lionnes”) and men’s team (les “Lions”)

[Photos courtesy of : http://www.cafonline.com/en-us/competitions/10theditionwomensafcon-cameroon2016/photos/AlbumImages, and http://www.mirror.co.uk/sport/football/match-reports/egypt-1-2-cameroon-indomitable-9763648.]

 The celebration continued that week, as February 11 was the annual “Festival of Youth” national holiday here in Cameroon. As usual, our students from the seminary marched in the parade here in Meiganga. Now everyone is getting ready for the next celebration – International Women’s Day on March 8.

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Students of the Lutheran Institute of Theology in Meiganga marching in the Festival of Youth parade February 11.

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In the midst of all these special events, of course, the daily life of teaching and learning at the seminary continues, and I continue to be blessed and enriched by my interactions with students and colleagues.

 + Grace and peace +

 

Home from home assignment

October 30, 2016

It is already the end of October, and I am long overdue for an update…

I’ll start where I left off, at the end of the last academic year. The month of June was a flurry of end-of-the-school-year activity. After final exams the first week in June, we had a week of “soutenances.” A “soutenance” is an oral defense of a paper or thesis written at the end of a degree program in the French educational system. The papers and theses at the Institute cover a range of topics in the traditional fields of theological study – biblical studies, church history, systematic theology, and practical theology – and often include an effort to contextualize the subject, that is, to discuss its relevance in the African context.  Each paper is read by a jury of two professors (or three for the master’s students). The jury reaches a preliminary decision for a grade based on the written work, then after the soutenance, the jury deliberates and decides on a final grade. Then there is great relief and celebration!

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Simon-Pierre (center) is one of the students whose thesis I directed, and he received the highest grade ever given for a thesis at the Institute! His topic was “God and the Stranger,” a work of biblical theology in light of the situation of Central African refugees in Cameroon. At right is his assessor and the Dean of the Institute, Dr. Jean Koulagna.

Our graduation ceremonies were held June 26. One historic aspect of this year’s events was that the graduating class included the first-ever master’s degrees awarded by the Institute – one in theology, and two in Islamo-Christian dialogue.

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Graduates with the LIcence degree at left, and with the Master’s degree at right.

In between the soutenances and graduation, on World Refugee Day (June 20), I had the opportunity to attend the festivities at the Ngam refugee site (about 60 km east of Meiganga) with a team from the Lutheran World Federation. The Lutheran World Federation is working with refugees from the Central African Republic in several areas: helping them develop new livelihoods, coordinating education efforts for refugee children, and coordinating peace-making initiatives among the refugees and between the refugees and native Cameroonians. The situation of refugees is indeed very sad, but it was encouraging on this day to gain a sense of the strength and resiliency of refugees.

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Top left: Members of the Lutheran World Federation team; top right: refugees displaying clothes that they made; bottom left and right: beautiful refugee children.

At the beginning of July, I was off to the U.S.  for “home assignment,” where I had the opportunity to visit many of my sponsoring congregations in Minnesota, South Dakota, Iowa, and Illinois. It is always good to make face-to-face connections with the faithful people who make this work possible! Another highlight of home assignment is the Summer Missionary Conference for all ELCA missionaries who are in the U.S. It is a great opportunity to connect with colleagues and learn how God’s mission is being carried out in our partner churches in every corner of the globe.

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ELCA Global Mission Summer Missionary Conference: the West-Central Africa/Madagascar team (missing Brian Palmer and Chad, Natalie, Paul Michael and Luke Rimmer)

Of course, I also had the opportunity to spend some much-treasured time with family and friends while I was in the U.S., to have medical check-ups, to eat my favorite U.S. foods, and basically to be refreshed and fortified for another year abroad.

I returned to Cameroon in mid-September, and the first semester at the Institute started the first week in October. We have 23 new students this year, 13 in the Baccalaureate program and 10 in the Licence program. With the returning students in the Licence and Master’s programs, we have about 50 students altogether.

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Beginning of the 2016-2017 academic year at the Lutheran Institute of Theology in Meiganga

Unfortunately, there have been some very sad events since my return. I think I have written before about our special program at the Bible school in Meng (250 km west of Meiganga) to give evangelists additional training to become pastors. We had two women in this program of 31 students, and sadly, one of them died on October 11 after a short illness. Sylvie was only 39 years old and leaves behind a husband and five children. It is, needless to say, an unimaginable loss for her family, for her classmates and teachers at Meng, and for the church as a whole. While I did not know her well, as I have spent only a couple of weeks teaching at Meng, I know that she was very well respected and will be deeply missed. I attended her funeral in Garoua-Boulaï (her home town) along with several professors and students from the Institute. I ask you to keep her family and the community at Meng in your prayers.

Then on October 21, my dog Lady died suddenly. I had taken her to Ngaoundéré for surgery to have a tumor removed two weeks earlier, and she seemed to be recovering well, but then suddenly she was gone. She was a very loyal, friendly, intelligent dog, and she is dearly missed, especially by Marie (my cook) and me. We buried her in the back yard with a brief ceremony, and many students came to express their condolences and to grieve with us. Lady was well-known and loved on campus!

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Left: Marie, her granddaughters Madeleine and Chiffra with Lady on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2016; right: Marie at Lady’s grave.

That same day, October 21, was truly a tragic day here in Cameroon. A passenger train derailed between Yaoundé and Doula, the two largest cities in Cameroon. The latest official estimates are that more than 90 people died, with around 600 injured, but many witnesses claim that the number of deaths is actually much higher. More than a week later, it seems that there are still bodies that have not been recovered. Again, I ask for your prayers for all those affected by this tragedy.

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Photo of the train derailment from the Cameroon Daily Journal

+ Grace and peace +

 

The rainy season and other events

May 22, 2016

The months are flying by, and it is time for another update.

We are well into the rainy season now, and the world is green again! The dust that I talked about in my last post has greatly diminished. Now we have plenty of mud. 🙂

I celebrated Easter in Ngaoundéré. The week after Easter, the Lutheran Institute of Theology in Meiganga and OSEELC (Oeuvre de Santé of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Cameroon) held our third annual seminar on palliative care. Palliative care is a holistic approach to relieving suffering and enhancing quality of life for terminally-ill patients.  This approach has been around for a long time already in Europe and in the U.S. (where we call it hospice care), but in Africa, it is still relatively new, and it is much needed! There are not yet very many hospitals in Cameroon with professionals trained in this approach, so it is good that the Lutheran church here is taking the lead. (They are able to do this with substantial help from partners in Norway at the hospital of the University of Trondheim).

The setting for the seminar this year was at the Lutheran hospital in Ngaoundéré, with teaching sessions held in the church building of the hospital congregation. It was a very interesting and enriching event, with participants including doctors, nurses, and chaplains from the church’s health care system, along with our students from the Institute and from the Bible school in Meng.

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Presenters of the seminar on palliative care / some students with their certificates of completion

In other news…. Since the beginning of March, I have been blessed to have an American colleague here in Meiganga, the Rev. Dr. Kristine Ruffatto. She teaches Old Testament at the Lutheran Theological Seminary of Saskatoon, Canada, and decided to spend her sabbatical semester teaching here at the Institute through the ELCA’s global sabbatical program. She and her husband, Scott, were missionaries in the Central African Republic in the late 1980’s – early 1990’s, so she already spoke French fluently and was familiar with this part of Africa. She will be leaving us this week to go back to the U.S., and then back to Canada. We will miss her, but we are very grateful for the time she has been able to spend with us.

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Kristine with her husband Scott, who came for a visit after Easter / Kristine teaching

The second semester is winding down, but there is still much work to do… This week is the last week of classes, then there is a week of preparation for exams, then final exams, then finishing students will have an oral defense of their “mémoires” (like senior papers). The graduation ceremony will be June 26.

Soon after that I will be heading back to the U.S. for “home assignment,” during which I will have the opportunity to visit many of the congregations who sponsor me, as well as spend some time with family and friends. I am looking forward to it, and hope to see many of you who read this blog soon!

+ Grace and peace +

 

Lenten Dust

March 12, 2016

At the beginning of Lent, at Ash Wednesday worship services, we receive a cross of ashes on our foreheads with the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Here in this part of Cameroon, Lent falls during the hottest, driest, dustiest part of the year. Dust is everywhere! It gets into one’s eyes and settles on every surface imaginable. It is almost impossible to keep anything clean for very long unless it is in a sealed container. While I find this very annoying, I have decided to try to let the ever-present dust be a reminder to me of that Ash Wednesday mandate: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

This mandate that we receive with the ashes on our foreheads, of course, is to remind us of our mortality and our utter dependence on God. Here in Cameroon, it seems that reminders of mortality are as ever-present as the dust. Hardly a week passes during which I do not hear of a death of a family member or friend of someone I know. And all too often, these deaths are premature. (The average life expectancy in Cameroon is only 56 years.) Last week, for example, one of the women who cleans at the Institute lost her 26-year-old daughter. Last month, our groundskeeper lost both his father-in-law and a nephew, and one of our night guards lost his sister-in-law, who died just days after giving birth to her fourth child.

Poverty and a scarcity of health care professionals create a perilous situation. Many people do not seek medical treatment because they do not have the means to pay the basic charges for an appointment and/or the cost of transportation to a hospital or clinic. When people do seek treatment, they may not have access to a doctor, or they may not have the means to pay for the treatment prescribed.

When someone dies, an autopsy is rarely performed. So the question of why a person has died is often unresolved. Some people resort to mystical explanations – i.e., that sorcery was involved. Sadly, this can lead to all kinds of accusations and tensions among the person’s loved ones.

Many people find comfort in theological explanations – i.e., that it was God’s will that the person die. Honestly, I have a hard time believing that God wants so many people to die so young of diseases that are treatable. I think it comes down to a question of justice, or rather, injustice – the injustice of so many people living in poverty with such inadequate health care systems. This is a country that is rich in natural resources, but unfortunately, most of those resources are exploited by foreigners, and the profits that do come back to the country are hoarded by people in power rather than invested in developing the country. I find this systemic corruption infuriating, yet I feel powerless to do anything about it.

IMG_3895 (2)Of course, the cycle of life continues. The last week in January, during the week of exams for the first semester, one of our students’ wives gave birth to a baby girl. To my great surprise, they decided to name the baby after me. Here she is, the newborn Elisabeth Ann.

In other news, Cameroon celebrated the 50th anniversary of the “Fête de la Jeunesse” (Festival of Youth) on February 11. Once again, the students from the Institute marched in the parade, this time in suits and clerical shirts. They also had a special banner made with a prayer for security and peace in Cameroon. The far north of Cameroon continues to be attacked by the terrorist group Boko Haram, so I ask you also to keep the security of this region in your prayers. Please pray also for peace and stability to be reestablished in the Central African Republic, our neighbors to the east. Presidential elections were completed there last month, and the newly elected president will be sworn in soon.

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+ Grace and peace +

 

Joyeux Noël !

December 28, 2015

Merry Christmas from Cameroon!

I don’t have much news to report, but I thought I would simply post some photos to give a flavor of what Christmas celebrations are like here.

The Sunday school Christmas program of the French-speaking congregation in Meiganga follows much the same format as traditional programs in the U.S.: children recite Bibles verses, reenact the Christmas story, and sing Christmas songs.

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Christmas concerts are big here! I think I have mentioned before that many congregations have four or five choirs. They all perform concerts at Christmas time, and here in Meiganga, the Sunday school children give a concert as well. These kids know how to sing and dance!

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We have our own Christmas program at the Lutheran Institute of Theology for students, faculty, and their families. It is part worship service and part Christmas variety show, with singing, skits, and comedy. (The comedy part is largely comprised of students doing imitations of professors – ouch!)

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Above: the student choir singing; below: children of students singing.

Of course, there are also Christmas worship services. Christmas Day is generally the most attended service, and usually includes baptisms and confirmations – lots of them!

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This young girl is one of 30 children (and 6 adults) baptized on Christmas day in one congregation. 18 youth were also confirmed.

So there you have it – a few snapshots of Christmas in Cameroon. There are not nearly as many lights, decorations, and presents as we tend to have in the U.S. But the good news of Christmas, that a Savior is born for the world, is proclaimed bright and clear. Our world needs this good news more than ever these days.

May the good news of Christmas shine in your life and bring love, joy, and peace to you and to all those around you.

+ Grace and peace +

Back to School

October 25, 2015

Hello! I’m back again. I had a nice month-long vacation in the U.S. from mid-August to mid-September. It was great to spend some time with family and friends, and it went by very quickly!

Almost immediately after arriving back in Meiganga, I took off again for a few days at Meng, the location of one of the church’s Bible schools. The purpose of this trip was a pedagogical seminar for the professors of the Bible school and the Lutheran Institute of Theology. It was taught by my ELCA colleague Susan Smith, who has a PhD in education and is called to work as an educational advisor for the Lutheran church in the Central African Republic. Unfortunately, because of the instability in CAR, she has not been able to do much of her work there and has been staying in Garoua Boulai, Cameroon (on the border with CAR). Anyway, we have been taking advantage of her expertise here in Cameroon.  We had some very fruitful learning and discussion at the seminar about how we can improve our effectiveness as teachers and better reach our objectives as educational institutions of the church.

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My colleagues, Dr. Susan Smith and Dr. Jean Koulagna, at Meng / Susan leading us in a discussion about educational objectives

The last week in September, I started teaching Greek to the incoming class of students, and the regular semester of courses began October 5th. Each academic year is kicked off with an opening worship service. Here are some photos of that service on Friday, October 2nd.

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Dr. Koulagna, Dean of the Institute, speaking at the opening worship service for the academic year 2015-2016

It is good to be teaching again. This is now my third year teaching New Testament at the Institute, and each year I can see that I am growing in confidence and competence, much of that related to my ability to speak French, but also to having more time to hone the content and teaching strategy of my courses. When I look back now at my first year teaching, I feel a little sorry for my students at that time, as I was really struggling to keep my head above water. There is always much room for improvement, of course (that was the purpose of our pedagogical seminar), but in general, I feel much better about the work I am doing now.

Daily life: power and water

One of the ongoing struggles of life in Meiganga is that there are frequent power outages. This is especially a problem during the rainy season (April – October) when there are frequent storms. I have a generator at my house that I usually start when it gets dark and the power is out. The Institute also has a generator for the main building (provided by the ELCA), but to save money, it is only run when it is essential to have power, and that generator does not connect to the campus housing. That means that on evenings when there is no power, my house sometimes becomes the “recharging station” for cell phones and laptops.

I have written before about the water situation here. The city water service seems not to work much of the time, at least not in our neighborhood. In the spring of 2014, I was making weekly trips to a local borehole with students to fill water containers, an effort which was very time-consuming. I realized recently that I neglected to write about the improvement that came soon after that. In May 2014, retired missionary Jim Noss was visiting, and with ELCA funds, he was able to get the Institute’s back-up water system working again. He and his team installed a new pump for our borehole, fixed several broken pipes, and got our water tower back into working condition. So now we can pump water up to the water tower and supply water to the campus.

The only catch is that this system is expensive to run because it requires using the Institute’s generator to pump the water. So to save money, we have set times when the water runs and everyone fills up their containers.  I also have a rain barrel on my back porch to catch rain water, which gets used for house cleaning purposes and for filling up buckets for flushing the toilet when the water is not running. 

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Two essentials of my existence in Meiganga – my generator (with its own little “house” to protect it from the elements), and my rain barrel.

Needless to say, this process is also a bit time consuming. But it is better than making trips to a well or borehole, which is what many people here do every day, making the trips on foot and carrying the water home on their heads. (Have I mentioned how heavy water is?!) In an area where the majority of people do not have indoor plumbing at all, I have it pretty easy, relatively speaking.

An addition to the household

Another thing I neglected to write about before: At the end of May of this year, I received a dog, Lady, from another missionary family. She originally belonged to my ELCA colleagues, Deborah and Joe Troester, who were working in CAR. When they started a new position in Tanzania two years ago, they left Lady with a family in Yaoundé. In June of this year, the family with whom Lady was staying was returning to the U.S., so Lady came to live with me. She is a black lab mix with a very sweet temperament, but also a ferocious sounding bark for scaring away any potential intruders. In other words, she is a great companion and watch dog. She is very good with children, and my cook’s grandchildren love her, as you can see in the photo below.

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Finally, speaking of children, I was invited recently to speak to the Sunday school children at the local Lutheran church. Sunday school is conducted differently here than in the U.S. Generally, churches do not have an “education wing” with multiple classrooms, so Sunday school is held in one room with all the children together. Here there were only two teachers, but I was quite impressed with how well they were able to keep order and keep the children engaged. I leave you with this photo of me with the Sunday school children of the French-speaking Lutheran congregation in Meiganga (there are also Gbaya-speaking and Fulfulde-speaking Lutheran congregations in Meiganga).

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+ Grace and peace +