Becoming the Baobab: How Tanzania Turned My Life Upside Down
The Makonde people say that in the beginning of time God created the baobab tree. It was the most beautiful tree in the world. Unfortunately, the tree’s character was not so beautiful. It would look down upon other trees proclaiming, “Look at me! Look at me! I am the most beautiful tree in the world!” The other trees started to feel resentful as they looked at their own flimsy limbs, their disproportionate trunks, and their discolored leaves. To bring peace back to the wood God spoke to the baobab. “Baobab,” he said, “you should not brag to others about your beauty, for it was I who made you beautiful.” The baobab thought about this for a while and then announced to the forest, “God has chosen me above all of you to make me the most beautiful tree in the world!” With that, God reached down to the earth, picked the baobab out of the ground, and stuck it back in upside down, with its roots hanging up in the air. That is why the baobab tree looks like its upside down.
My story is not so different. I spent the majority of my life in the same house, the same school, and the same church. I developed the skills I needed to live successfully there. My knowledge, talents, and worldview were all catered to this way of life.
Then God, as he always seems to do, let me know that he had other things in mind.
My seven weeks in Tanzania made me feel as if God had reached into my life, picked me up out of American soil, and planted me upside down in Tanzania with my roots flailing in the air. My community service awards, my A+ research papers on 60's poetry, my ability to bake cookies, and my general English language proficiency might as well have all been buried in the ground. My roots were all people could see – where I came from and the color of my skin. My inability to speak Swahili and KiMakonde, to cook over a fire, to carry enormous amounts of water on my head, or to properly wear a headscarf was obvious.
Luckily, the baobab and I both have more to our stories.
It may look a little ridiculous, the baobab became a signature part of Africa. Its strange structure allows it to hold up to 50,000 gallons of rainwater, which was necessary for it to adapt to its harsh arid climate. But it doesn’t just survive – it thrives. It produces a fruit, which provides a food source and multi-use oil; an edible root vegetable; a hardwood; an erosion combatant; and a coffee substitute.
In the same way, though my roots were tangled and flying all over the place, God saw past my weaknesses and gave me the ability to adapt. I learned to communicate with smiles, nods, right-handed handshakes, and the few greetings I had in my Swahili repertoire. I learned how to take nonverbal directions when I was shredding coconut for my Makonde host’s dinner (This task was quite confusing initially since the word for the coconut shredder is the same as the Swahili word for goat. You can imagine my confusion when my host handed me a coconut and said, “Get the goat.”). I learned how to go through all the extra steps of cooking that do not involve pre-made foods, microwaves, or yellow cheese. I learned how to drink boiling lava hot tea without literally burning my tongue off. I learned how to ride my bike in a skirt without flashing my conservative neighbors (unfortunately this took a bit longer to achieve than I would have liked). I learned how to rely on God for all the millions of other things that I could not control or do.
Slowly but surely I moved from a constant attempt to adapt to a sense of normalcy. I came to Tanzania wondering if I could survive there, but I left knowing that I would be able to live well there. And there's a distinct difference between the two - surviving and living well.
I often gleaned from teachings that God saved us from depravity and then called us to depravity. Being a person of faith means leaving behind anarchy and frivolity for a boring life of miserable, cross-bearing submission. In reality, people of faith are called into abundance, living in a present kingdom that is in the process of bringing heaven down to earth.
Living well means refusing to take blessings for granted. Living well means living into the good news that the divine is among us. Living well means living simply, taking up the cross, and leaving everything else behind. Living well means asking not only, “what would God want me to do?,” but also, “what is God already doing?”
So, what does it look like to live in abundance in the midst of physical and spiritual poverty? For my friends in Tanzania it means intentional time with their families, taking time to fellowship with one another, articulating where they see God working in each week, building strong friendships with local people, making pizza and watching movies on Friday nights, writing letters, spending nights watching the sunset on the beach, going on the occasional safari, and having epic obstacle courses to commemorate U.S. holidays.
In our world, whether in a monocultural or cross-cultural context, every day can seem more like a sacrifice than living in abundance. We are busy, we are stressed, we are overwhelmed, and we are exhausted. Dealing with the pressures of the world is difficult. I need to be still and know that God is present. I need to be reminded of the good in the world. I need to fellowship with those who encourage me and lead me closer to God. I need to take advantage of the opportunities that I have to truly enjoy the life God has given to me. God does not call people to merely die – God calls people to enter into new, abounding, resurrection life.
This resurrected life is to be a holy life, even in the midst of unholy circumstances. I witnessed my friends here pursue holiness in their daily loving interactions with people, their compassion in giving, their humility in being served, their loyalty to their teammates, their dedication to their spiritual growth, their commitment to raising godly families, their patience in building relationships, their perseverance in language and cultural training, their willingness to contextualize everything they teach, and their very presence in Mtwara. They are not perfect people. I saw glimpses into the negative results of culture stress, living in a small community, and being human. But greater than all of these things I saw a continuous pursuit of a holy life, a simple life.
For most of my life I have believed that “simple” living was something for hippies and people on a shoestring budget. I believed that carrying a cross meant I had to give up anything that brought me happiness. I now see that it is far more than a lifestyle choice, it is a calling that leads us closer to God and closer to our neighbors. By simple I do not mean plain, boring, or unintellectual. I mean a daily commitment to living with greater focus and with a singleness of mind that liberates us from the cluttered busyness that holds us captive.
God has turned my life upside down. He took me from where I was and he flipped everything. He planted me in a new place with my roots up in the air. But he did something far greater than that in the process, something that I did not realize in the moment. It was more than learning to eat with my fingers or understand the history of the Swahili Coast.
He taught me how to adapt to new environments. He taught me how to rely on him to become all things to all men. He did not show me how to just survive, but how to thrive; not just how to be content with what I am, but how to be confident in what I am becoming; not just how to live with what I have, but how to give back as well.
I know that no matter where he plants me, I can trust that he will guide me in his steps to reflect him…even if he plants me upside down.
Reposted from August 2014