B-desh is now in my rearview mirror, and I keep looking back – partly because I left my husband there, but also because even when we are reunited next week, we will still feel deep affinity for the country and the people.
My time in B-desh ended on a definite high-note: a trip to several villages that are nearly 6 hours out of D haka. We got in a van at 7:30 a.m. and started driving. I learned quickly that this is the type of country where you can call up a friend at 7:30 and pick him up at 8:00 for a full day of driving and translating. As our van hurtled down the roads, they gradually got more and more narrow and the population on the roads changed. In the morning, in the city and its outskirts, the streets were full of busses, rickshaws and little scooters called “bijays” (sp?) that are basically two-person cabs (the driver sits in a little box on top of the front wheel, and there is an enclosed bench for two people over the back two wheels. The sides of the streets were full of people walking to work in the garment factories – thousands of people who would spend their day in a hot, cramped factory sewing many of the clothes that populate our American stores.
Further out in the country, the roads got increasingly narrow, and I learned that there is a hierarchy on the road. You honk and, theoretically, anyone smaller than you gets out of the way (sometimes diving to the edge of the road or at least casting dirty looks at us as we grazed the side of their rickshaw going 40 or 50 mph – we contemplated making a video game of this guy’s driving). The reverse is true, too – I’d glance up to see a bus or burly truck barreling head-on at us, taking their proverbial half out of the middle. Fortunately, a quarter of the road was usually enough for us, but it always seemed to be by a hair’s breadth. The rickshaws were still there, but now there were bijays on bigger motorcycle frames, with little cages in the back that could hold a dozen people, plus sheep, goats and miscellaneous vegetables and wares.
We were going to the villages to meet and interview for the documentary some of the believers in these heavily-M*slim areas. The villages themselves – though poor – are beautiful. They are like little islands, raised up above the rice paddies that filled the area. The people seem to make their living from growing rice, and occasional fishing (there are small tilapia farms scattered throughout). The whole country – in the city and the rural areas – is extremely industrious; people everywhere are working, and building supplies are being sold and delivered everywhere you turn. The road to the villages is a gorgeous site – fields of brilliant green rice for mile after mile. There are no road names, no signs; we were met by two men on a motorcycle who guided us for about two hours through tree-lined lanes and trails through rice fields barely wide enough for the van.
In the first village we visited, we were ushered into a corrugated steel structure that was maybe 15x30 feet; this was the home of one of the Christians in the village. We were shown to several seats in the front; facing us were about three rows of people on benches, with a crowd of maybe 50 people behind them. Everybody in the building except for me was a man. Most of the people sitting down were Christians (10-15 people); the rest were M*slims who were drawn in by curiosity. The house was fairly dark – the only light was a few bare lightbulbs and two open doors, which kept getting filled by curious people, mostly women and children.
And they are a curious people – in an unembarrassed, friendly, upfront sort of way. If they are interested in you (and a van itself is interesting out here, not to mention a van full of white people), they will crowd in and stare. We have a lot of pictures of people staring at us – HH was a lot more comfortable taking pictures of them staring than I was. One of my enduring memories of this village visit will be from after the interview. I needed to go to the bathroom, and one of our hosts told me that this would be the best bathroom I’d encounter until we were back near the city, 8 hours later. He showed me to what looked like a two-door outhouse; I went in and wrangled all of my clothes successfully to avoid dragging on the floor while I used the squatty. I was quite proud of myself – it really is no small feat, especially with things dangling from my neck like the requisite scarf and a camera! There was no running water, so I dipped the pitcher into the bucket sitting next to the squatty and “flushed.” Reveling in my small victory, I opened the bathroom door to find a crowd of maybe 30 women pressed around the door. “Wow, that’s quite a line that formed … was I wrestling to keep all my clothes off the floor that long? … no, they’re waiting for me.” I was swept into this unembarrassed, curious crowd as one woman in particular placed her arm around my waist and guided me back to the van. My triumph in the squatty made me a celebrity! (not really, just being white and a woman). I think HH got some video of me in the crowd, but I couldn’t get far enough ahead of them to get any pictures.
Several of the men hopped into the van with us as the motorcycle took a shortcut to the next village on roads the van couldn’t navigate. It felt like we were going in circles, but we finally ended up in another little gathering of huts were we were ushered to a little pad of dirt. There were about 20 women sitting on a grass mat and a handful of men and children gathered around. They told us that most of the people in this group were Christians – it is an older and more mature group than the first group we’d visited. We spent minimal time there, just met and heard from several of the church leaders. They have definitely faced persecution as a Christian minority in a devout M*slim community – they are looked upon as outcasts, they are shunned economically, and one of their biggest challenges is finding people for their children to marry.
But they openly proclaim their faith in Christ; in fact, they seem proud to be able to testify that Jesus is their Lord in front of the watching community. On our way out, I asked someone in our group if they really were honored and encouraged having us there – no more than 20 minutes in one place, really just tourists off the beaten path. But we are not just tourists to them, we are brothers and sisters for people who rarely see brothers and sisters. In the M*slim context where they live, Christianity is seen as a cult – they are the whack-jobs who are straying from the truth and ruining their children’s prospects for a normal life. To have Westerners visit them, listen to their stories and agree with them legitimizes their identity. They seem like less of a fringe sect when outsiders validate their commitment. It’s amazing to me if that’s really the case and, oh, I pray that God will encourage them in their faith.
In the third and last village, I discovered that many of the men who had accompanied us on other parts of our journey were a) family and b) lived there. One youngish man pointed out his tilapia pond and then showed us his nets outside of his house (unfortunately, his English wasn’t good enough for us to have ANY idea of how the nets work!). His father seems to be the key discipler for other church leaders in the region – he has been a Christian for 20 years, but only recently have the Christians been assembling as a visible church. And do they ever delight in being a visible church! This group was again gathered in a home, and as soon as we got out of the van, we could hear singing. It is considered heresy to use worship music in Isl*m, and yet a love of music is deeply embedded in B-deshi culture. Here was a little worship band huddled in the corner of a packed-out living room. They had a violin, a little accordion/piano thingy and some finger cymbals, and everybody was singing their hearts out. Again, we heard testimony from a handful of church leaders who are boldly-yet-gently living out their identity in Christ in the midst of a culture that ranges from misunderstanding to hostility toward them.
And then we climbed back into the van and did the whole journey in reverse – through the rice paddies, through the small towns where the streets are jam-packed with rickshaws, past little storefronts selling lumber and sheet metal, past shops where men were getting their necks and faces shaved, onto the slightly bigger roads that are wide enough for a bus and a van to pass without significant swerving or passenger panic (although the dark did make it hard to see rickshaws and bijays that we were passing), then finally to the larger divided highway. Oh, the divided highway, such a welcome site after roads like these, where each direction of traffic is confined to their own side!
We arrived back in D haka at 10:30, giving me enough time to return to the hotel and shower before heading to the airport for a 2 a.m. flight to KL, then on to Manila.
Now I’m sitting in a hotel in the southern Philippines, where Peacemaker Ministries Doctor of Ministry course is taking place. I had durian (notoriously stinky fruit – smells so bad that it’s prohibited in many public places, like hotel rooms) for lunch, along with lots of seafood (fresh tuna steak? Um, yeah!). The group is so dynamic – instantly welcoming (they have now spent the equivalent of more than two months of their lives together over the last 3 years), full of life and laughter, and I’m eager to jump into the class (taught by an Indonesian Mennonite) and the group. They are meeting in a church/school, of which one of the D.Min. students is pastor. This is a national holiday, so the school is quite quiet, but I guess it will get pretty lively tomorrow. It’s so hot and sticky here that my touchpad isn’t working very well – too much moisture between my finger and the touchpad!
And that’s me, checking in. (Unfortunately, I can’t post any pictures of B-desh because I left them all on our big camera, which stayed with HH. But I did document the durian eating and will include pics if they'll upload ... but it looks like the internet is too slow.)