Into the Lives of Extraordinary People
By Rachel L. Stinson ’08
More than half the population in Minya, Egypt, lives on less than two dollars a day. In the Philippines, a room comparable to a college single has housed a family of four. And residents of a Nigerian village must face not only poverty but disease that no amount of money can cure. Eight Rhodes community members recently left the comforts of home to witness such dire conditions—and help change them. They traveled across the world and into the lives of extraordinary people.
Presbyterian Church (USA) Young Adult VolunteersThrough the Presbyterian Church (USA) Young Adult Volunteer Program, five Rhodes alumni have gone abroad on mission trips, discovering radically different ways of life. One remains an ocean away from home. The other volunteers returned with memories of less-than-ideal conditions but, more so, incredible people.
When Stephen Ogden ’05, of Knoxville, TN, left for Minya, Egypt, he knew what it was like to go on short-term mission trips to Mexico and other parts of the U.S. But those places were hardly Egypt. Ogden felt a call not to go directly into graduate school but spend a year in the smaller city of Minya,about three-and-a-half hours south of Cairo by train, along the Nile River valley. His main job was to teach English courses; additionally, he volunteered once a week at a nursery, teaching English songs to preschoolers.
“Ultimately, it was a sense of God’s call to serve and be served through relationships in Egypt—a country with a lot to offer, but with a lot of needs, as well,” Ogden says. “My best memories are of interacting with families in their homes as they welcomed me, fed me and questioned me about my faith, my life as an American and my personality. Communicating half in Arabic, half in English was a joyful challenge.”
In Egypt, religion is a public part of life with calls to prayer coming from public loudspeakers five times a day. The most common phrases Ogden heard were hamdulillah (“thanks to God”) and insha’allah (“God willing”). “It’s easy to have many preconceptions about Islam coming from the West,” he says, but his Muslim friends treated him with “immense personal warmth.”
Ogden remembers at the end of his mission saying farewell to his friend and grocer, Maher, when the man embraced Ogden and kissed his cheeks. Ogden recalls thinking, “In America, you would never imagine kissing the person who sells you groceries!”
At the end of August, Ogden started a nine-month fellowship in Maryland at the Trinity Forum Academy. He left for Maryland knowing he had made a difference in Minya.
“I hope that my being there was a testimony to my country and my faith, even as so many of my close friends there were a testimony to Egypt, Christianity and Islam,” he says. “I have so many friends I didn’t know before who live an ocean away from me but who have really taught me so much about hospitality, love and friendship in a different culture.”
Sarah Tuttle Edgecombe ’03 also discovered a home away from home and a multitude of new friends during her time abroad in Kalookan, Philippines. For Edgecombe, who is originally from Black Mountain, NC, “home” became a small concrete block room with a bed, two plastic chairs and a sink. She was fortunate to have her own bathroom with a toilet, faucet and bucket for bathing; many of her neighbors had to use a public faucet nearby. She also felt privileged to have an electric fan, even if the electricity wasn’t reliable.
As a student at Rhodes, Edgecombe participated in the spring break Tex- Mex border ministry for two years and went on a service learning trip to Honduras.
Following graduation, her thirst for travel and knowledge had hardly come to a standstill. More than anything, she wanted to learn about herself.
Once she arrived in the Philippines, Edgecombe undertook a two-month orientation; then, she moved to a small neighborhood just north of Manila.
“I lived beside a church and was a member of the church and community. I participated in all church activities, and I went to many national denominational meetings in Manila, as well,” she explains.
The weather was stifling, but the heat encouraged everyone to leave their stuffy houses and gather outside in their doorways. During those times, Edgecombe and her new friends learned about each other’s families and compared cultures. One major difference Edgecombe found was the Filipinos’ “relaxed, gentle understanding of time” in which no one apologizes for tardiness and no one expects an apology in the first place.
From exchanging language pointers to teaching children’s games, Edgecombe and her new friends laughed a lot: “Before I left, I viewed it as a call that I had to answer, but my one-liner when I returned was ‘It was harder than I’d expected, and it was more fun than I’d expected.’”
Today, Edgecombe coordinates the outreach program at a Presbyterian church in New Orleans. Referring to her time in the Philippines, she says, “I feel like God called me to learn more, to do something hard so that I could really explore God’s people and their lives in a different context.”
When Brooke McClelland ’05 thinks back to her time abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina, she remembers not only the people but the aroma of freshly-baked bread. “Every Thursday, the women of the church community received flour and yeast to make bread for their families,” she says. “I watched them prepare the dough and bake the bread. Later, I learned how myself. I also enjoyed the friendly chatter in the hot, humid kitchen on those days.”
From Aug. 31, 2005, to Aug. 1, 2006, the Tuscaloosa, AL, native utilized her Spanish skills while experiencing life in another culture. Three years prior to the mission, she had spent a summer in Iquique, Chile, teaching English at a Methodist school; the trip was funded by the Rhodes Service Scholars’ Summer Service fund, which allows students to spend nine weeks undertaking a significant community project. For two years, McClelland also participated in Rhodes’ Tex-Mex program, taking students on an annual spring-break mission trip to Reynosa, Mexico. But spending a year in a another country was entirely different.
During her time in Argentina, McClelland worked at the Reformed Church in Quilmes, in the province of Buenos Aires, and the Ecumenical Movement for Human Rights: “I worked as a volunteer at the church, helping with the soup kitchen twice a week, the after-school tutoring program daily, the confirmation class, women’s workshops, the youth group, children’s recreation and the weekly service.”
McClelland lived in a small cement house with a woman and her 23-year-old daughter. More members of the family lived in another house on the same lot, for a total of 10 people. McClelland’s room was separated from the rest of the house by a curtain. There was no hot running water, central heat or air conditioning, but she was well-fed.
“Argentines are very friendly and generous,” McClelland explains. “I felt welcome in many homes at any time of day. I certainly encountered God in Argentina. I saw God in the people I served.”
McClelland is now living in Nashville, where she works for Southern Migrant Legal Services (SMLS), a branch of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA). “As an outreach paralegal, I travel six southeastern states, speaking to migrant farm workers about their labor rights and the option of legal aid,” she explains.
Looking back to her time in Argentina, “I can’t say that I changed poverty in Greater Buenos Aires or even the way the church challenges poverty. But I met people, and we changed each other,” she says. “During my year abroad, I learned to speak Spanish like an Argentine. I learned to navigate the Buenos Aires transit system, knit and bake bread. I learned to wear the same clothes three days in a row when nothing was washed. I learned to make empanadas (Argentine meat pies). I learned how to make kids laugh in Spanish. I learned patience. I learned many songs. I learned how to get rid of lice and keep them out. I learned to serve mate, the traditional tea drink in Argentina. I learned hospitality. And I learned about myself.”
Christine Coy ’05, too, discovered her own passions when she was away from everything she knew. Coy, of Owensboro, KY, credits Rhodes for instilling in her a desire to learn about different cultures and ways of being in the world. During her time at Rhodes, she was a Service Scholar and studied abroad in Budapest, Hungary, as a Buckman Scholar, a cultural immersion program.
The anthropology/sociology major spent a year in Northern Ireland, returning in August 2006. Coy lived with two other American volunteers “in a row house in East Belfast,” she says. She was a youth worker in the town of Newtownards, 12 miles outside of Belfast. There, she worked at The LINK Family and Community Centre—an organization founded in 1997 to open dialogue work toward reconciliation between Newtownard’s deeply divided communities. She also served as a youth minister at Garnerville Presbyterian Church, a congregation which “rode the fence” between Belfast’s wealthy suburbs and a neighboring government housing estate.
Equally rewarding for Coy was simply spending time talking to the people she worked with, whom she calls “incredible.” She spent most evenings in families’ homes, sharing meals and craic (“fun” in Northern Irish).
Living in a foreign culture made Coy rethink her own life in the U.S. “Neighborhoods in Belfast are often segregated, with barbed wire-lined “peace walls” serving as divides between Protestant and Catholic areas,” Coy says. “Murals can be found everywhere—some depicting historical events, some representing paramilitary strength. Curbsides are painted different colors to designate Loyalist (Protestant) and Nationalist (Catholic) communities.”
Coy fondly recalls participating in the Belfast Marathon with the staff and young people from The LINK. “This is a huge event for Belfast, with the path crossing over what are usually deeply segregated neighborhoods,” she says. “The five of us comprised a relay team. Thousands of people were there—many of them running, and the rest just there to cheer folks on.”
Another instance she will never forget is when one of The LINK’s regulars approached her and, in his harsh Northern Irish accent, instructed, “Oy! Hold out your hand.” In her hand the young man placed a small figurine of a cow. Upon seeing Coy’s confused expression, he smiled and said, “Because you say it so well!”
Coy explains, “Now, in Northern Ireland, that animal that goes ‘moo’ in the fields is not called a cow but a ‘cahee.’ Most Americans can’t say it, but for some reason I was able to. Later that day when I told my supervisor about this funny gift I’d been given, he was blown away. He said that this seemingly small act was actually amazing. For this young man—a kid who had caused so much trouble in the community—such a gesture of friendship was a huge leap.”
Following her return home, Coy began working for the Presbyterian Church (USA), recruiting specifically for the Young Adult Volunteer program. She speaks honestly about her year serving in Northern Ireland, sharing the joys along with the challenges.
Upon leaving home for Northern Ireland, Coy understood that her life would change, but she didn’t understand how extensively. She says, “This strange, unexpected irony comes about: You make plans to go and serve for a year, and the main thing you learn is the grace of accepting generosity. People say that throughout college, various professors and mentors had taken care of them. Now these people were taking care of me. They said I could best repay them by taking care of someone else later in life.”
For Leigh Bonner ’06, the journey of a lifetime has yet to end. Along with three other volunteers from the PCUSA, Bonner arrived in Accra, the capital of Ghana, at the beginning of September. Three days later, the group headed to Abetifi, a small village in the central region, for three-anda- half weeks of linguistic and cultural training. Afterward, the four returned to Accra, where Bonner lives with a host family. In Accra, Bonner teaches music and French at a church school. The job description is a perfect fit; she was a French major (who spent a semester in France) and music minor. Upon returning to the U.S., she will have spent 11 months in Ghana.
When Bonner first stepped off the plane in Africa, a sign of welcome—“Akwaaba!”—was in immediate view. Prior to opening her passport, the passport control officer exclaimed with genuine hospitality, “Akwaaba! You are welcome!” Bonner explains that “‘Yes’ is the Ghanian response to almost any question,” along with “You’re welcome.”
“Not only do Ghanaians tell you that you’re welcome, but they show you,” Bonner continues. “If you ask for directions, a person will drop whatever he or she is doing and take you where you need to go.”
Average living conditions are simple, habitable and conducive to a slow-paced lifestyle. Houses are most often made out of clay that remains cool throughout the day but absorbs heat from the sun to warm the house come night. The homes range from large, well-constructed family dwellings with native Akan culture symbols carved into the concrete blocks, to small huts of mud and straw. “Most people have running water in urban areas, but in rural areas, there are public places to relieve yourself and pumps where water can be drawn and filtered at home,” Bonner explains.
The living conditions for most Africans are “not what Americans would call habitable, but we have so much more than we need. The people in Africa seem to be more content with what they have than most Americans are.” And unlike the Western world, Africans aren’t in a constant rush. According to Bonner’s site coordinator, the Rev. Glen Hallead, “We have watches; they have time.”
Upon returning to the U.S., Bonner first plans to readjust to American life, then either work for a year or enter seminary. Already, she is an inquirer into ministry of the word and sacrament in the PCUSA. For now, Bonner is enjoying being a teacher. Ironically, she feels that most of the time, she is the one learning.
“I have begun to see people rather than circumstances,” she says. “That’s not to say that I’m blind to all the poverty here; there’s certainly more poverty than any one person could even think about changing. What I can change is the image that we Westerners often have of the ‘helpless’ African. Most people here know more world geography and languages than the average American, and, despite their sometimes desperate living conditions, continue running their family homes and stores with smiles and laughter.”
Crossing Yet More Borders
Doug Lensing ’08
In Rwanda—“Land of a Thousand Hills”—every hill has a name and history. As Doug Lensing stood on one, he saw an above-ground tomb containing more than 20,000 bodies. Neatly arranged skulls rested on a nearby table “for memory’s sake,” Lensing recalls. But even without tangible reminders, no one could ever forget the genocide.
A Memphis native, Lensing visited Rwanda over winter break 2005-06 with 12 students from Global Youth Connect, a human-rights group centered in Woodstock, NY. In Rwanda, the students attended a human-rights conference, visited the local office of the U.S. Agency for International Development and conferred with important officials, such as the minister of Youth, Sports and Culture. Lensing says the highlight of his trip was meeting the president’s director of communications, Alfred Ndahiro.
He also met the less fortunate Rwandans. Lensing says, “You see the life they live only on the National Geographic Channel.” During the night in Kigali, “We had to sleep under mosquito nets because malaria is up there with AIDS as a leading cause of death. Unless you live with a family, it’s just really hard to get by. There are so many orphans. It’s unimaginable to be 12 or 13 and have a whole family to take care of,” as is the case with many Rwandan children.
It was the mass graves—“They’re everywhere”—that really made an impact on him. “It’s hard to imagine one million people (killed in the genocide). That would be like all of Memphis destroyed,” he says.
He worked at a nongovernmental organization (NGO) called Uyisenga N’Manzi that aids children affected by the genocide and AIDS. The children he met wanted to learn how to dance. But Lensing is a self-admitted nondancer, “so the next best thing was music.” He helped them compose rap songs in their native language and then perform the music, but these weren’t just any songs. “One was about genocide, another about equal and fair treatment of women and another about AIDS,” he explains.
Lensing’s supervisor at the agency survived the genocide, but his horrific memories will forever remain alive. Lensing explains that the man had a preexisting condition: “His left leg is about six or eight inches shorter than his right leg.” When the man’s family had to flee, “His parents said, ‘We can’t take you; you’ll just slow us down. You need to stay here, and we’re sorry, but this is our only hope.’”
The man ran, hid between two houses for a week, and ultimately escaped the danger. His entire family was slaughtered, and all the women “from five to 85” were raped. For Lensing, “It was unimaginable that on that hill, 12 short years ago, all that happened.”
Everywhere Lensing went, there was a clear language barrier, but “Without even saying words, you’re able to develop a relationship because they have so much trust. And you ask yourself, ‘Why?’” That trust, according to Lensing, is present even in the youth.
Lensing’s trip “was really interesting because it gave me an idea of what I wanted to do when I came back and specifically what I wanted to do in the future, politically and economically.”
His return to Memphis came with an amazing bonus. “The day we came back, I had to prepare for Paul Rusesabagina’s appearance,” Lensing says, referring to the real-life hero of Hotel Rwanda who spoke at Rhodes. Lensing found himself talking with Rusesabagina about Rwanda over dinner.
Sini Nwaobi ’07
Electricity may come on randomly for 30 minutes and then be out for the rest of the day. Running water is nonexistent; wells provide unpolluted water. Typhoid and malaria plague the people of Issele-Mkpitime, a Nigerian village.
But nearby urbanized areas are home to a different kind of lifestyle: that of unbridled energy. People hurry by on foot, bicycle and moped, while others are busy selling products on the street. The setting is hardly how Americans imagine a Third-World country.
“People will always ask, ‘Do you guys have houses?’ or ‘Do you live in trees?’ and all those crazy questions, but it’s not like that at all,” Sini Nwaobi says, even in the “rustic” areas.
Rhodes Service Fellow Nwaobi, of Brighton, TN, left in July 2005 with her father and Aaron Creek ’07 for a threeweek stay in Nigeria. The benefits were two-way: She had an opportunity to make a difference in Nigerians’ lives, and they aided in her study of international health care.
“My dad’s from Nigeria, and I’ve been there before, so I already had a pretty good perspective of what it was going to be like,” She explains. In Nigeria, “We traveled to various clinics, teaching hospitals, and universities.”
Nwaobi visited Nigeria during the dry season and claims that Memphis’ humidity rivals the temperatures in Nigeria: “People are always shocked when we say it’s hotter in Memphis.”
“Everyday conveniences that you know someone here would take for granted are not there,” she says, adding, “The village was rustic but comfortable—nothing shocking like many people wrongfully portray villages of the Third World.”
Before Nwaobi left for Nigeria, she helped raise money to bring a variety of medicine, supplies and clothes to the people. She also raised funds to build another well there. In Nigeria, “We traveled a good way around the country, going to different hospitals, teaching hospitals and universities.”
She comments, “It was a learning experience. We actually talked to the lady who’s in charge of the AIDS program at a particular clinic in Benin about how the programs developed and how there’s one-on-one counseling for patients. It’s not just prescribing medicine; they really work with patients and treat them in a variety of ways for a more holistic care.”
Nwaobi’s trip emphasized in a grand way just how small the world really is. She met the director of primary health care and chief medical officer of health in Issele-Uku, Dr. O.J. Moemeke, “and he happens to be a Rhodes alumnus” (class of 1975). His daughter, who had been reading Rhodes magazine, told her father about Nwaobi’s medical outreach trip. Nwaobi soon found herself chatting with Dr. Moemeke about how the campus is different today, especially with the addition of the Paul Barret Jr. Library.
Laughing, Nwaobi adds, “He had a Rhodes bumper sticker on his car in Nigeria.”
Rachel Boulden ’06
On Rachel Boulden’s left wrist is a tattoo of Picasso’s “Dove of Peace.” When she worked with orphans in Bosnia, the children asked her to draw replicas on their arms. “I had my own little gang of dove children,” Boulden says, grinning. They called her the “Pigeon of Peace.”
In fall 2004, Boulden spent time in Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia, and the following summer, she returned to Bosnia for a month to work in a Mostar orphanage. Upon returning home, she helped arrange the Rhodes Mock Refugee Camp in winter 2005; she has also worked with the campus group STAND (Students Taking Action Now—Darfur) and been involved with Bands for Sudan, a fundraiser for Sudanese refugee aid to that country. Now, Boulden is continuing her quest to make the world a better place by spending two years in Africa working for United Action International in Kenya while earning her master’s degree at the University of Nairobi.
“The main thing I’m doing here is working with refugees and conflict, like in Bosnia,” Boulden says. “I went to the war zone in Northern Uganda, where the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels have been fighting, to visit internally displaced persons’ camps and have been working to get to Northern Kenya, where refugees continue to pour in.” She is also helping to raise desperately-needed funds for the feeding program at The Sud Academy in Nairobi, the only school for Sudanese refugees.
“In Bosnia, I was working with postconflict, posttraumatic stress for children, the orphans,” she says. “I was also doing an ESL (English as a second language) program with them. A student from William and Mary and I worked at the orphanage and lived there for over a month with 60 orphans from three or four years old to 19.”
Boulden had lived in Memphis her entire life, but thanks to her parents, was exposed to various cultures. “We had exchange students my entire life coming in and out of our home,” Boulden explains.
In Bosnia, she became the foreign one, but Boulden never felt out of place—even when a girl asked her to go to mosque. When Boulden revealed that she wasn’t Muslim, “Her jaw dropped. She said, ‘What are you?’ I said, ‘I’m Catholic.’”
Soon after her arrival at the orphanage, the eldest of a trio of troublemakers—a scrawny eightor nine-year-old boy—made an inappropriate comment to Boulden in his native language, wrongly assuming she couldn’t understand Bosnian. Boulden’s translator explained the situation to some older boys there and asked them to talk to the child. Instead, they took him outside and beat him.
For Boulden, the incident illustrates that many Bosnian children grow up far too quickly. “A young orphan may often have an 18-year-old orphan who is dad or disciplinarian,” she says. When Boulden left Bosnia, her relationship with the boy had strengthened considerably. She says, “By the end of my stay in the orphanage, they called me ‘Mama.’”
Boulden also remembers a girl who “looks like Kate Moss except with a big scar down her face.” The 16-year-old had been in her front yard with a friend when a Serb soldier threw a shell at them, seriously injuring the girl and killing her friend. Boulden saw the girl coughing up blood one day because—even after six surgeries—she had pieces of the shrapnel embedded in her lungs.
The children with whom Boulden worked had seen horrors far beyond their years. “Everyone from a four-yearold to a 60-year-old has some kind of haunted look in their eyes because of the genocide. I think that some of my sixyear- olds were so much wiser than I,” Boulden says. Some orphans had helped carry their mothers home after snipers shot the women. By the time Boulden met the children, they carried only memories.
The stark contrast between the United States and Bosnia was especially apparent on television. Boulden remembers the pain of watching TV with underfed and parentless children when “The Fabulous Life of Britney Spears” came on.
There was no running water or air conditioning. All of the orphans were malnourished. On one occasion, Boulden found a child picking meat off an animal’s skull. Because of the change in diet—breakfast included chicken paste, for example—Boulden herself lost 10 to 15 pounds.
Nevertheless, “After the first trip, I immediately wanted to go back. I feel like I am Bosnian. I’m more comfortable there than here in the U.S.,” she states. For Boulden, the people themselves make up for what Bosnia lacks in material goods: “The most amazing people are the ones who have been through these amazing trials and come out with such spirit.”
When Boulden returned from Bosnia the second time, she had another tattoo inked onto her skin, this time displaying her own words. On the inside of her right arm is a phrase written in French. In script, the words read, “For it’s solely the pain that permits us to sample the beauty in life.”