“Boy, I wish I could be a part of that,” I thought as we walked past several women chatting at the pump waiting to get their headpans filled with water. I’m sure if those women knew what I was wishing they’d I was crazy. Why would you want to wait around at the pump for an hour, then put your 60-pound headpan full of water up on your head and walk home with the water supply for your family for the day when you can turn a spigot and all the water you want comes rushing out. Well, I guess I wasn’t jealous of that part of what they were doing. But I was jealous of the camaraderie and fellowship they were sharing.
I’d been living in Togo for about 6 months and was feeling very lonely. I’d have given just about anything to be “one of the girls” hanging out at the water pump. Able to understand everything everyone was saying, able to contribute to the conversation. But here I was, surely envied by these ladies while unbeknownst to them envying them.
Loneliness and depression are major issues for women on the field. I know how much I’ve struggled with these issues. Just take a peek around your local bookstore, Christian or secular, and notice the vast array of material written about women and relationships. We’re inter-actors; we need people in our lives. And we need them to have us in their lives. How many times over the past 10 years have I cried out to the Lord, “I can’t do this anymore!” You made me a people person; give me some people I can be with!” That isn’t to say He hasn’t given me some really close friends during our time here, but it seems like they’ve always lived at least an hour away and they end up leaving the field for one reason or another. I’ve also been blessed with some good Togolese friends but the cultural, linguistic, and economic barriers make deep communication difficult. It happens, but it’s exhausting!
I think one of the causes of depression on the field, at least at the beginning, is change. Before Gary and I came to Togo, we spent a few months taking some courses at a Lutheran college in Minnesota. While there we were asked to fill out a personality profile, and one of the sections was on how well you deal with change. In the months before moving to Minnesota, we had moved three times (for all the different training we were receiving), quit our jobs and started on a new “career path.” Gary’s father had died, and we were getting ready to move overseas. Our Stress Level profile was off the chart. All they said was, “You need to find some good ways of dealing with stress.” The authors of that evaluation tool knew that too much change can lead to problems as people grope for ways to deal with the instability in their lives.
Change can be a healthy and productive force in our lives, but when you first arrive on the field, it seems as if there’s nothing in your life that isn’t changing. Suddenly you’re faced with preparing meals where not one ingredient in your old, faithful cookbook is available. When you eat somewhere besides home, it’s completely different from anything you’ve ever imagined yourself eating, and you’re not always sure you want to. I’m a pretty game person; I’ll try just about anything, but our first few months here I found myself shying away from new experiences because I was just having too many of them at once. In addition to new foods, your body is having to adapt to a new climate
Language and culture are the big changes. Suddenly you find you can’t talk to anyone. Simple things, like buying a stamp, become heart-pounding experiences. Just leaving the house is stressful because you may have to talk with someone and what they’re trying to tell you something really important.
The flip side of change is loss. When you move to something new, you inevitably leave something behind. You’ve lost the easy contact with your family and friends. Nowadays, with e-mail, it’s possible to keep in pretty close touch, but you’re still a long way away, often with an ocean in between you, and you know you wont’ be getting a hug for long time. You’ve also lost your routing. Maybe you like to sleep in until 7 a.m., but now it’s too hot to stay in bed past 5:30. Maybe you really enjoy the late night hours, but you’re chased into bed under the protection of your mosquito net at 8:30 p.m. You find you have no energy to cook in the evening, so you starting making your big meal at noon. All of these little disruptions can add up to a big problem if you find yourself unable to find some foundation that doesn’t change.
I found that the main thing I had lost was my identity and personality. It wasn’t like moving in the States where you know the language and know you’ll eventually find friends. Suddenly you worry about every little hand gesture or body movement. “Am I offending anyone?” you ask yourself over and over. “Will everyone hate me if I forget and use my left hand to give them something?” When you’re learning to communicate in a new language, you realize just how fluent you are in your own language. Now you’ve got to think about every little phrase before you force it out of your mouth. It’s hard to express your personality when all you can say is, “Please, I want to buy that!” as you point out what you want.
With all of these changes come many challenges and sometimes these challenges can overwhelm and lead to depression. Obviously learning a new language is a major one. There’s also interacting with people from another culture. Especially if you have a house helper, you wonder what this person thinks of every little thing you do. That’s stressful!
Another challenge is communicating with family, friends, and supporters back home. You can’t write, “I hate it here, and I want to go home!” to people who have been praying for you and encouraging you for so long in your quest to get overseas. I think this is especially hard for women who normally would relieve some of the stress of a situation by talking about it with friends.
So, where do we go from here? We’re depressed, lonely, dealing with all kinds of changes, surely the Lord doesn’t expect us to carry out His work in this state. No, He doesn’t! The best thing you can do is to cling to Him. I can vividly remember looking up at the moon on night and realizing, “Hey, that’s the same moon I see at home.” It really struck me that if the same moon could shine down on Togo, then of course God is here with me too. Somehow, having left behind the “church” I was used to and all of the other outward things that went with my faith, I think deep in my heart I was feeling that I had left God behind too. Sill, I know, but it was really eye opening and comforting to me to realize that He was still right beside me.
We need to cling to the Lord’s promises too. Remember what He tell us through the prophet Jeremiah that he has a plan for each of us, and it’s a plan for good and not for evil. God also promises in 1 Corinthians 10:13 that He’ll never give us more than we can handle. So many times throughout the past ten years, I’ve said to myself, “Well, God said He wouldn’t give me more than I can handle, so I must be able to handle this.” He’s always right there with us, carrying us through the things we could never hope to make it through alone.
In order to remember to cling to God and His promises, it’s so important for us to stay in His Word. Everyday, it’s imperative that we come for our daily refreshment and strengthening from this wellspring of life. I find the Psalms particularly comforting. David is a man who knew about loneliness and depression! And we must simply keep going. Since we know that the Lord is with us every step of the way, it’s important to keep “pressing on toward the goal” as Paul says. You may be only taking baby steps, but a whole year of baby steps can take you a long way. When I first arrived in Togo, I couldn’t tell whether people were speaking French or the local language. Now I’m at least functionally fluent in French and can make my way around the market in Moba. I’m amazed at how far the Lord has brought me.
It may help to focus on the new opportunities that the Lord has placed before you. Especially during language learning, it’s okay to just sit and talk with people. It’s not a waste of time; you don’t have other things that you need to be doing because talking and learning the language are what you most need to be doing right now. You can also feel a strong sense of accomplishment when you rise to the occasion that these challenges present. “Wow, I can’t believe I actually made it to the market all by myself and came home with almost everything I wanted.” It’s great how these challenges can make us feel so accomplished!
The most important blessing I can think of having received as a result of coming to the field is learning to lean on God entirely and seeing Him work in incredibly concrete and wonderful ways in my happening in our lives. Living in Togo has definitely shown me that I’m not the one in control. As I’ve said many time, “I wouldn’t have asked to live through some of the things we’ve been through here, but I’d never, ever give up what I’ve learned through those experiences.” God has shown Himself so faithful, patient, and kind to me, and I don’t think I would have seen that so clearly had He not help me jump from the high dive board I was standing on before coming to Togo.
During our time here in West Africa, I have often felt lonely and depressed. I’ve cringed every time I’ve read a book or article talking about the importance of friendships in the lives of women. I’ve cried over my apparent inability to build truly deep friendships with the Moba women I live amongst. Through all of this, God has been with me and He’s providing me with everything I need. Nowadays, I’m overwhelmed with friends as in the last couple of years several expatriate families have moved into the same town with us. He’s also given me a good Moba friend. This friendship has taken longer to form, but God answered this prayer too. The Lord does grant us the desires of our heart, but I think He first wants to make sure that He is our greatest desire.