Bonjour from Africa!
I am absolutely enchanted with Africa. I have fallen in love again and again and again with this place that I am serving in. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, Cotonou is an ugly city, with lots of litter and trash and open sewer covers, but for some reason most of the time I don't see that. I have just grown to love Akpakpa.
Also, technical items out of the way first: Elder Hansen recommended a website for packages, it's mymissionaryshipping.com. Rumor has it that it's a pretty good delivery service. When you feel the need to send me a package, let me know. There are no needs, but I do keep a small list of stuff that I'm craving.
First off, I was able to overcome a lot of initial struggles this week. My health has improved a lot, and I am no longer falling asleep in random places. Occasionally I'll feel my head start to nod, but I just sit up, take a big breath, and (if I can) take a sip of water. My language is coming along as well. I can speak pretty well, and I'm just working on comprehension. In fact, funny story:
Elder Hansen and I were talking about a former investigator who is starting to get interested in the lessons again. We were talking in French, and Elder Hansen said "Elle est un étranger ici dans Benin," which means "She is a stranger here in Benin," or "She's not originally from Benin." I heard "Elle est une transgendre ici dans Benin," and so I nodded my head and said something to the effect of "Oh, that's a tough situation, but we'll do our best." Elder Hansen seemed confused, but nodded and went on. A few days go by, and we run across her in the streets, and as she and Elder Hansen are talking, I couldn't really notice any masculine features on her, like an Adam's apple or broad shoulders or a deep voice, so I was a bit confused. This went on for a little less than a week, and finally one night I asked Elder Hansen in passing "What's the church's guidance for teaching transgenders, anyways?" He gave me the most confused look I've ever received, and I clarified "(insert name) is a transgender, right?" When I found out about this misunderstanding of language, we both ended up laughing about it for five minutes. So, anywho, the language is coming.
I love the people that I work with. Elder Hansen is a spectacular trainer. Not only will he teach me how to do things, but he'll take the time to teach me different ways that the other missionaries like to do it. He's super patient, chill, etc. I love my trainer. Even more, I love the people I teach. Is it possible to fall in love with a city so much? I don't know, but every day I just fall more and more in love.
Thursday evening, we were having a tough time with lessons falling through, and we were about to finish the day discouraged. Elder Hansen suggested we take the long way home and stop by Soeur Christine's home. She had us sit down, drink some water, and start with a hymn. We sang "Count Your Many Blessings," and I had to keep myself from bursting into tears. Here is this single mother/grandmother, with a house that would barely count as a house in America, singing a thanksgiving song as loudly and proudly as she can with her young children, happy as can be, and here I am sad about how "difficult" my day was. You learn very quickly to stop worrying about your problems here in Africa.
We are protected as missionaries. On Sunday, we were heading to an appointment with a less active couple, and blocking the street, right in front of their compound was a wine festival. Apparently, wine festivals in Benin get really crazy. Like, it's not worth going into detail because it's so disgusting. All you need to know is that they blast the music ridiculously loud. Anywho, me and Elder Hansen were both intimidated at first, and we looked at each other, but we both felt that this couple needed us to visit them, so we kept a prayer in our hearts, shielded our eyes, hoped and prayed that the compound walls would keep wickedness out of our lesson, and pressed forward into the compound. In the lesson, the music from the festival was very loud, and it was hard for us to string together a very coherent lesson. We both kept feeling bad, questioning why we were still here, etc. Then the wife, who was sick, asked for a priesthood blessing. I did the annointing and Elder Hansen did the blessing. I didn't understand the blessing, but I didn't notice the loud music. It was just us four people, and the Spirit really was strong. We ended the lesson, shielded our eyes, and fast walked away from it all. I felt so very protected that night. Traumatized a bit, but protected.
The Beninois are very superstitious. One day, we were teaching an investigator named Frida and her sisters. One of their children, about age 7, decided to go and play. We were teaching the sisters about the plan of salvation that God has for his children, and they seemed to be really feeling the Spirit, when all of a sudden we hear the loudest thud ever, right behind us. Frida looked over our shoulders, let a curse word loose, and bolted past us. We looked over, and their compound door (most people here live in compounds, it's kind of like an empty lot with eight or so cement houses per lot, the lot has a cement wall surrounding it with a metal door usually about as tall as me) flat on the ground, torn off the hinges, and the little girl laying on the ground next to it crying. The sisters spent the next two minutes speaking their native language shouting at each other, cleaning the little girl's scrapes. Turns out, the girl had been playing on the door, swinging on it like a monkey, and the rusty hinges tore. Both the door and the girl took a fall to the ground, hence the loud thud. From what we could gather, the sisters were debating on whether or not it was a sign or a warning from God. They kept pointing at us and the door, and very rarely have I been so scared for my life. We tried to explain in French that the hinges were just rusty, and so they naturally broke off. They spent about another minute talking in Fon (native language), and then they all sat down and calmed down. As it turns out, the sisters realized, from what they had seen, that the door would have fallen flat on the little girl. But instead, her feet had slipped in such a way that she fell away from the door, and landed on the ground just out of reach of it. She got away with only a few scrapes and a lot of tears. The sisters all decided that perhaps this was a sign of agreement from God. Either way, I had a lot of thank yous to offer that night.
There's a lot of real power in the message we have. I wish you could all see how much people are transformed by the Plan of Salvation. I wish you could see an investigator lean back after hearing the First Vision, in awe, and genuinely searching in their minds for thoughts to think of. I wish you could see how much people turn their lives around by reading the Book of Mormon, even if it's just a verse. In one lesson, we tried to teach an investigator about the Book of Mormon, and she refused to hear anything. She wanted to hear only a message from the Bible. After a brief minute of trying to explain, we decided it would be best to give in. We put away our copies of the Book of Mormon, and I felt like I lost a lot of authority in that lesson. Yes, we used the Bible and it was a good lesson about the nature of God, but it wasn't a good lesson at the same time. It was all stuff that she already knew, and that's not what we are here to teach about. The Bible is inspired scripture, but the additional power that we have in our message comes from the Book of Mormon. In falling in love with Africa, I have fallen in love with the Book of Mormon as well. The people that we have the most success with usually fall into one general category: they want to learn more about God. Rich or poor, Christian or not, those that get the most out of our lessons are the ones who want to progress.
For example: One investigator, Crespin, has a lot of faith. He came from a tough background as a child, and has these facial scars. It's voodoo tradition here to carve scars onto the face of your child as a symbol. Thankfully, we only see those scars on the adults. I think this generation has learned the error of their ways, for the most part, but it's still so heart-wrenching to see these wonderful people and the choices of their parents so visible. With all that, he has raised a good wholesome family. He wants to be baptized, but he has a girlfriend and a family, about the age of our family. In order to be baptized, it's a requirement to be married legally and civilly, and that is very hard for a lot of people. They want to get married, but it's a lot of money here. For someone like Crespin, it's about a month's salary to get married. Not for the flowers or the dress or for whatever, but just for the government official to sign some papers and say that they're married. And it's a lot of paperwork. Naturally, baptism for someone like Crespin requires a lot of faith. When we informed him about the marriage requirement, he didn't even flinch. In effect, he said "If it's a requirement for baptism, then yes I will get married." I nearly cried in that lesson too. More and more, I ask myself "What did I ever do to deserve this? No amount of good I have done in my life could have rewarded me with this opportunity to serve the most humble and faithful people on the planet. This thought always leads me to the conclusion that God loves us. No matter where we are in life, He loves us and blesses us more than we can ever imagine.
I love you all, have a good week!