Mozambican Odyssey, #20: Swaziland Safari

African Queen, Oil Pastel on Paper, 24 x 18, by Susan E. Brooks

Safari in Swaziland

Swaziland is a fascinating mixture of African traditions and western civilization. As we drove into the country, we saw a man in full tribal feathers walking along the road, carrying a brief case while talking on a cell phone. So cool! I wish we Americans were more like that. I want to wear a hoop skirt and a feather hat while talking on my cell phone.

Swaziland is a small country that is landlocked between the southeastern border of Mozambique and the country of South Africa. We heard that one could go to Swaziland and have an overnight safari for a reasonable price. A sweet friend offered to keep the kids while we went away for a night, so we decided to go for it.

The safari was in a white rhino reserve. We rode around in an open Landrover jeep, seeing elephants, large lizards, colorful birds, and of course, rhinos. At one point, a rhino came up and started sharpening his horn on the front bumper of our jeep! Granted, maybe the rhinos in this reserve were slightly tame, but still—this guy could have easily flipped us over. He could have hooked that big horn under the bumper, and we would have gone flying out. We sat still, holding our breath until he finished the sharpening and went on his way. That was a bit scary.

After a short afternoon safari and some supper, they took us to our accommodations for the night. Picture an Arab princess tent—not sure that even exists—but it was luxurious. Inside the huge tent was a soft, comfortable bed with a proper frame, covered with a thick white comforter, situated on a wooden floor with a table beside it. This tent also had a private flush toilet and shower inside. We were warm and cozy through the night, and in the morning they brought hot tea and toast to the bedside table. I could live in that tent!

The best time, however, was when we all gathered around an open fire where they cooked all of our meals. That was an African tradition that I loved. That night we gathered around the fire and discussed witchdoctor stories and local fables about the rabbit, the hippo, and the elephant. The rabbit was always the clever one. I asked our African guide about the practice of sitting around the fire at night. He said,

“The grandmothers used to tell stories around the fire, but now there are no more stories. Now we go in and watch TV, and I have to get away and go find some quiet.”

How sad for us, East and West, that the TV has taken the place of story-telling around the fire or around the dinner table. Maybe we can choose to be different. Maybe with our families and friends we can sit together, facing each other, sharing a meal and sharing our stories. Maybe we could learn a lot from the African grandmothers.

Mozambican Odyssey, #19: Baptism in Mozambique

Joseph was baptized while we were in Mozambique. Baptism in Mozambique, 24×18, Oil pastel, by Susan E. Brooks

Baptism in Mozambique 

On March 23, 1997, my husband Martin was very happy to baptize my son Joseph in the baptistry on the mission property in Maputo, Mozambique.  The baptistry was a concrete box that we filled with water just outside the church.  Joseph was seven, but quite intelligent and mature for his age.  He was also small for his age, so in some ways he reminded me of a little drowned rat when Martin held him up, dripping with the baptismal waters, but he was a lot cuter than a rat.

He is the only one of our three who was baptized in Mozambique, Africa, and it was so different from any baptism I’ve ever seen in the US.  We were outdoors, and local children and were pressing in around all sides, so excited to watch the event.  There was no stage, and no safe distance between the spectators and the baptism.  There we were, all smashed together, a vibrating mass of humanity, with a man and his son in the middle, and the little boy saying I want to follow God and have a new beginning.  In his seven years he probably had not done much to be forgiven of, having always been a kind, sensitive child who looked after his little sister and adored his older brother, and never complained, even when his mom accidentally gave him chili powder toast instead of cinnamon toast.

Whether he was too young or not, whether we did everything right or not as we tried to raise our kids, I don’t know—I doubt it.  But I do believe God’s mercy is great and that He will honor our trying.  I think He will honor your trying too, because His grace is big enough to cover us all, and He knows we are made out of dirt.

Just a bunch of dirtbags trying to get by, and yet there is also something divine about humanity.  We are made in the image of the divine at least, and I saw that day, dripping with water, sparkling in the African sun, one of God’s kids declaring his love for his Creator, and all of the glorious God-made people pressing in close enough to touch him, and I think that’s as it should be.  We need to press in close at times, and open our eyes to the glory of God in each other, and celebrate the sacred moments when we get a chance.

Mozambican Odyssey, #18: Carried Out, Kicking and Screaming

We saw this young boy relaxing with his donkey as we traveled through Burkina Faso. 30 x 20 inches, Oil pastel on mat board, by Susan E. Brooks

Carried Out, Kicking and Screaming

He told us he had been threatened with a knife.

I don’t know if this has happened for anyone else, but it seemed like whenever Martin needed to travel, the craziest things would happen while he was gone.  If Martin left, one of the kids would spike a fever of 105, armed robbers would storm the compound, or some kid would say he was going to die if we didn’t let him move in with us.  I wish I were exaggerating.

I may have mentioned before a young boy who became friends with Kirk. We had been happy to have him visit in our home with thoughts of discipling a future church leader. I had studied the Bible with him and taught him a little English at his request. He seemed like a wonderful boy, but that week we found out he had some problems.

He started by telling us that his family was going to kick him out of the house.  We were skeptical, but with all of the street kids and orphans around, we knew it could happen.  We told him we would help if he got into a bind.  Kirk was all torn up, begging us to take him in.  The story became more questionable when he said we shouldn’t talk to his family, or they would beat him.  Kirk was beside himself, believing that his close friend would become a street kid if we didn’t help him.

Then one day he came and said he had been threatened with a knife.  He was in tears.  Martin had gone to Nelspruit for the day. Now what was I supposed to do?  I consulted the other missionaries on our team, and we decided that his family had to be confronted.  We found out that he had told many lies, and that his very nice family wanted him to come home.

He was at our house with Kirk, and he refused to even go outside to talk with his aunt, who had come to fetch him.  It turned out that  this boy of about 14 had to be literally carried out kicking and screaming by one of the men!  He wanted so badly to stay with us. What a scene!

It seemed that our young friend so wanted to live with us that he devised a scheme to accomplish that end.  It’s not so surprising really.  At that time, everyone wanted to go to America, and we had so much more of everything than he did.  No doubt he was hurting.  It was difficult to tell him that he had to go, but of course, I couldn’t kidnap him from his family— not that I wanted to.  It was just hard.

Kirk learned that you can’t trust everyone, a tough lesson at age 11, but his friend survived and seemed to be fine.  Later he came back to help Kirk make kites and learn the culture in many healthy ways, and nothing like that ever happened again with him.  Many Mozambicans seemed very happy with the little they had, and put me to shame, but poverty is a scourge that I have never had to suffer.  I have no room to  judge those who cannot escape the vicious cycle of poverty.  I don’t blame him for trying.

Mozambican Odyssey, #17: Kids Are Terrifying

Judith loves life and loves everyone she meets! She looks a lot like her mother did as a child in Mozambique.

Kids are Terrifying 

Little children have always terrified me.  Yes, I have 3 grown children and 9 grandchildren, and I know that sounds crazy, but this is why I never taught elementary or younger children if I could help it.  You never know when they might do something crazy and die.  They might drink bleach or fall out of a tree, or run in front of a passing truck, or pick up a poisonous snake.  One negative aspect of having an artist’s imagination is that I can imagine all kinds of terrible things happening.  Add that to losing my 20-year-old brother to a rare form of lung cancer, and later losing my dad because of a car wreck, and well, I am terrified of a lot of things. When each of my children reached 18, I was relieved that at least they had lived to adulthood under my watch, and now it was up to them to keep themselves alive.

As I continued reading my journal from Mozambique, I realized that something else scary happened on the same trip out of town when we lost the tire on the car, and the Hulsey family had to drive us around. (You can read that story here.)

After losing the tire, we stayed at a hotel in Nelspruit, South Africa, for a couple of days while the men tried to get the car repaired.  The hotels in Nelspruit are clean and comfortable, and I was enjoying having carpet, a bathtub, and tiled floors—things I had taken for granted in the US, but did not have in my house in Maputo, Mozambique.

One morning at the hotel, Aleta Hulsey and I thought we would let the little ones, her nearly 4-year-old Zach and my barely 3-year-old Hannah, play in the little swimming pool in the hotel lobby.  It was such a small pool that we thought the kids could play around the edges and be fine, so we didn’t plan to get in with them.  We ladies were talking, and then Aleta stopped short and motioned toward the pool.  Hannah was floating in the deep end of the pool!  I dived in, fully clothed, and rescued her, of course, but good grief!  Little kids are really scary, always trying to get themselves killed or drowned or something stressful like that!

I went dripping back to my hotel room, kind of embarrassed, and yes, thankful that I didn’t lose a child in addition to losing a tire off the car on that first trip to Nelspruit.

God rescues us and our children from disaster so often, and I tend to take it for granted.  Just the other night I lost track of my one-year-old granddaughter for a minute, but we soon found her sitting in the bathroom, holding my toothbrush in one hand and my razor in the other.  Kids are terrifying—and so precious.

Mozambican Odyssey, #16: Car Trouble in South Africa

 

Here we are after losing a tire on the road in South Africa.

While Martin and Don haul the tire up out of the ravine, 6-year-old Joseph finds a tree to climb.

Car Trouble in South Africa

“Divine love is incessantly restless until it turns all woundedness into health, all deformity into beauty, and all embarrassment into laughter.”  — Beldon Lane*

By October of 1996, in Mozambique, we had managed to buy a small used car to get our family around until we could get something better.  Shopping in Maputo, Mozambique was very limited, so we wanted to travel to South Africa like our coworkers did for supplies and groceries that we could not find in Mozambique.  Our good friends, the Hulsey family, decided to go with us to show us around, and to make sure our little car could make the trip.

We waited about 2 hours just to get through the border between the two countries, and then, about 20 minutes into South Africa, we heard a strange sound.  All of a sudden, one of our tires flew off, speeding down into a ravine on the side of the road, and then launching back up into the air and disappearing again over the side of the road!

We were able to get to the side of the road without injury, and the Hulseys pulled over to help since they were following us.  My poor little 3-year-old Hannah was nearly hysterical, and I could hardly blame her after waiting 2 hours at the border and then this.

“What are we gonna do now? she wailed. Our car is broken!”

I wanted to wail too, but I didn’t.

We found the tire down in a ravine beside the road.  Don Hulsey had the always-prepared-seasoned-missionary-equipment in his car, lots of rope and hooks and such.  He held the rope as Martin rappelled down into the ravine by the rope to retrieve the tire.  I am glad I was not watching.

After the men hauled the tire up through the brush with the rope, we then piled both families of 5, yes, 10 of us, into the Hulsey’s landrover and went in search of a mechanic.

Today we laugh about this adventure, but had the Hulseys not been with us, it could have been horrible and dangerous.  There were rumors about little kids being kidnapped and used for “parts,” and the crime rate in South Africa was very high.  Had there been cars coming, the tire would very likely have caused a wreck.  God has protected us so many times through situations that could have been disastrous, and he has turned our “embarrassment into laughter.”*

This week in November, 2019, in Kentucky, again our family is having car trouble, but I am thankful that we are all safe.  Once again, I am so thankful for lifelong friends like the Hulseys who have been there for us so many times.  I am also thankful for my family, and how we take care of each other.

Finally, this Thanksgiving, I am thankful for a God who “turns all woundedness into health, all deformity into beauty, and all embarrassment into laughter.”*  I am still waiting on some of this to be completed, but I am also trying to focus on how much God has already done for me.  Praying you will experience the goodness of God this holiday season.

*Beldon Lane. Quoted in Tattoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyle

This Artist’s Life, #12: Working with our Hands

 

Ancient Cedars in the Summer Sun, Oil on Canvas, 11 x 14 inches, by Susan E. Brooks will be on display at the Jane Morgan Gallery from December 5 – April 2020.

 

“Where the spirit does not work with the hand, there is no art.”*

—Leonardo Da Vinci

I have to admit that I do not know exactly what Leonardo meant by these words, but this quotation is thought-provoking for me.  As usual, I am feeling a little sad with the approaching of winter and even the holidays.  I need some encouragement.  One way I can find encouragement, is to work with my hands.

I was having a conversation with an artist/teacher friend the other day, and we agreed that there is something healing about creating with your hands.  I find that whether it’s painting, drawing, or making a pie for Thanksgiving, I feel better and breathe easier when I’m working with my hands.

Too often, I am just “in my head,” worrying over the grandkids’ health or the latest car trouble, and I need the healing that creative work brings.  We sometimes act like we are only vehicles meant to carry our brains around while they do all of the important work.  The reality is, we are body, soul, and spirit, all connected and created to act as a whole.

Perhaps this is what Leonardo meant when he said the spirit needs to work with the hands:  Sometimes, when our hands are able to create what our spirits are needing to express, what results is art–something that goes beyond just one person’s expression and becomes universally true and impactful in unique ways to the viewer.

Simply working with our hands can be healing and helpful, but when the spirit shows up expressing truth through beauty, this is art.

 

*  https://renee-phillips.com/art-and-artists-statements-by-famous-artists/

Mozambican Odyssey, #15: Sometimes We Cry

Window to the Soul, Oil Pastel on Pastel Paper, 14 x 11, by Susan E Brooks

Sometimes We Cry

The adjustment from one culture to another is called culture shock.  I had no idea what that was like, having never even been out of the country before the move to Mozambique, except on an anniversary cruise to the Bahamas.  Trust me.  Moving to Mozambique is no trip to the Bahamas.

The thoughts and feelings below are from my journal in August of 1996, just after moving to Mozambique, Africa:

I was excited to move into our house yesterday, but it has a few problems.  The toilet leaks sewage across the floor and into the shower stall.  I’m exhausted, and between a stressful team meeting last night and the toilet issues, I found myself in tears again last night.

(from 8/29/96, 3 days later)

What a week!  I tried to use the electric skillet, but it blew out the transformer.  All of our appliances from the states have to be plugged into a transformer to work on the 220 electricity.  Sometimes the transformers overheat, and it ruins both the transformer and the appliance.

We are supposed to have 220 electricity, but it fluctuates.  It’s really strange.  The lights suddenly become dim and flash on and off like a scene from a horror film.  This is also hard on appliances.  Our new refrigerator shut down after one of these episodes, so we called the electrician.  He pronounced our 5 day old refrigerator dead.  Desperate, we prayed, and tried one last time to get it going, and miraculously, it started running!

I needed that miracle.  Earlier today I was crying, again.  At that point we were nearly out of food, out of currency, no refrigerator, no vehicle, no way to manage.  What were we thinking, moving here sight-unseen with three kids and no overseas experience, at least none for me?  The tears flowed.

Somehow, by grace, by the end of the day we had a little money, and one of the local women agreed to walk to the market for me.  (She wouldn’t get swindled at the market like I would have.)  She came back with lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, and we had a meatless spaghetti meal for supper.  We invited a veteran missionary couple to eat with us and were comforted by their company and their sage advice.

Now in 2019, back in Kentucky, I still cry, but not about electricity or money or food.  I would not trade our time in Mozambique for anything, but neither do I want to relive it.  A quote from Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities describes it better than any words I can invent. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” but God got us through.

Last week, I cried over the fact that my little grandson was diagnosed with diabetes.  I hate it because, barring a miracle or the discovery of a cure, he will face that disease for the rest of his life.  But I know that God is faithful and gives us the strength to handle whatever comes along, even though, sometimes we cry.

This Artist’s Life, #11: Inspiration from Fellow Artists

This is one of the few animal paintings I’ve created. I’m now inspired to try more animals. We saw this young boy relaxing with his donkey as we traveled through Burkina Faso. 30 x 20 inches, Oil pastel on mat board, by Susan E. Brooks

Open Studio Weekend is an event sponsored by LVA, Louisville Visual Art, and by the University of Louisville Hite Art Institute in Louisville, Kentucky.  During this special weekend, scores of artists around town open their studios to the public, and LVA sells tickets with maps and information about all of the studios.  I did not sign up as an artist this year; instead, I enjoyed visiting the studios of fellow artists. It was an inspiring weekend for me.

The first artist we visited was Helen Merrick.  Helen uses bright colors to paint just about any subject you can imagine.  Helen inspired me to think about painting subjects that I don’t usually paint, such as animals or historic sites, and to try different mediums, such a watercolors or alcohol inks.  Thank you, Helen!

The next artist we visited was Anne MacCracken Borders.  She showed me that  I could open up my back porch studio area to visitors, and reminded me that I have traveled to many interesting places around the world that I could paint.  I will be digging into my travel photos soon!  Thank you, Anne.

On Sunday I stopped at KORE Gallery to hang out, both as an artist and as a visitor to my gallery owner’s studio.  I had never taken in Don Cartwright’s studio, which is filled with beautiful abstract paintings.  Abstract painting has not been my purview, but sometimes I feel that it takes more creativity than working from life or photos.  Thanks, Don, for sharing your creative imagination with us through your painting.

Our last stop on the Open Studio tour was at Debra Lott’s studio.  I love her colorful, haunting, floating figure paintings and portraits! She inspired me to think about how I can communicate powerful messages and advocate for justice with my art.  Thank you, Debra.

Thank you, LVA and  U of L Hite Art Institute for a great weekend of art!  Perhaps I will invite you all to my place next year.  Meanwhile, here’s my next big event:

Mozambican Odyssey, #14: Battling Monsters in Mozambique

Our son Kirk, back in 1996, being friendly with an African Giant Millipede.

Battling Monsters in Mozambique

Moving to Mozambique, Africa, with three children was difficult for many reasons, not the least of which was that the insects in Mozambique seemed prehistoric in size and structure.  As if to confirm that impression, when I looked up “chongololo,” the name for the millipedes in Mozambique, the article said, “The giant African millipede can grow up to 15 inches in length.”*

Of course!  Just my luck.  Mozambique would be the home of the “giant” millipede.  We saw dung beetles the size of a young child’s fist, crickets that looked like a prehistoric armored version that could carry off a young child—okay, not quite.  But the worst were the baboon spiders that looked every bit like huge tarantulas!  Big brown furry creatures that hung out, literally, on the ceiling of our porch just outside the door.  They were terrifying.  I do not care if they were said to be harmless; those hairy monsters were nightmare fodder.  Having so many oversized insects in Mozambique, which were impossible to keep out of the house, was the bane of my existence, not to mention the mosquitos that carried deadly malaria.

We moved to Maputo, Mozambique in August of 1996 to do mission work.  I taught at an international school, and my husband helped start a pastoral leadership training program.  Living in our newly built house was described by one of our American friends as “like living in a bath house.”  We did have screens on the doors and windows, but we had no ceilings and only a concrete floor. Picture a bath house at a campground having three bedrooms, a kitchen, and a living room.  The roof leaked whenever it rained, and we placed buckets under all of the leaks, not knowing how to fix the type of roofing that was used.  Though we had screens, there was no keeping the insects out of that house, nor the geckos for that matter.

One time I was sitting in the bathroom taking care of business, when something came crashing down from the ceiling toward me.  I screamed and jumped up, not able to flee because of my state of undress, but it was just a gecko.  Geckos were crawling on our walls and ceilings constantly, but since they ate malaria-carrying mosquitos, we learned to consider them our buddies.  The insects, on the other hand, I could not stomach.

In my fervor to keep bugs out of our food, I would look for any container that might be airtight.  Containers were important.  Sometimes we would buy cookies that were sealed in a metal can that had a tight fitting top, similar to the tins we sometimes use in the states to give homemade Christmas cookies as gifts.  If I found cookies in a tin, that meant maybe they were fresh and not bug infested, and then I would save the container to use for storage after the cookies were gone.

One day I could not find my cookie tin where it was supposed to be in the kitchen.  I had looked everywhere.  I went looking around the house, and I found it on my oldest son’s shelf in his room.

“What is Kirk doing with my cookie tin?” I thought.

Nonchalantly, I opened the top.  As soon as I opened the tin, big hairy spider legs crawled over the edge, and I lost it.  I screamed bloody murder and flung the tin away! Out came one of those furry, tarantula-looking baboon spiders, followed by a huge prehistoric cricket, and who knows what else was in there, as it went flying out of my hands, clanging upon the concrete floors.

Hearing my scream, my husband came running.  He had a split second to decide whether to smash the big baboon spider all over the bottom of his boot or let it escape under the water bed where our son slept.  He smashed it, fearing none of us would ever sleep again knowing that it had escaped under the waterbed.

After the screaming and the slaughter of the monster, we laughed hysterically.  I learned a lesson: never open a container on a boy’s shelf without first inquiring about the contents!

* from https://www.animalstown.com/animals/m/millipede/millipede.php

This Artist’s Life, #10: Only One You

We are each one of a kind. Stachelle, 12×16 inches, oil pastel on mat board, by Susan E. Brooks

There is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost.

—Martha Graham

I love this quote, and it fits as I try to encourage myself to keep going.  We are created with unique creative minds and souls that are constantly coming up with ideas that no one else in the world is having in exactly the same manner, and if we don’t free ourselves to express and create, that unique expression will be lost.

We can get blocked, however, so what can we do when that happens?

I am writing these helpful hints to remind myself, and I hope you can benefit from them as well.  From the wonderful series of books beginning with The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron, these are some things we can do when the creative juices don’t seem to be flowing.

  1. Free write for at least three pages daily, in the morning if possible.
  2. Get out for at least an hour a week, and go somewhere different just for fun, such as a fabric store, museum, pet store, art gallery–somewhere that feeds your imagination and makes you smile.
  3. Go for a walk weekly, if not daily.  Walking gives a fresh perspective and helps you process your thoughts.

There you go.  Three easy steps to jumpstart your creativity and mine.  Thank you, Julia Cameron.

This coming weekend our city offers Open Studio Weekend, and for one small price you can visit lots of art studios in town.  One stop on the map is KORE Gallery, where you can see my work and the work of many other talented artists.  I plan to spend part of my time there, and also tour other artists’ studios.  This is a great opportunity to experience new ideas and get inspired for your own work.  Hope to see you around the studios this weekend.

Artist, writer, teacher