5 Things Africa has Taught Me as a Writer (a guest blog from Curt Iles)
Lagniappe. It’s a French word denoting, “A little extra.” And it’s a common expression in Louisiana’s Cajun culture. In the local Lugandan language along Lake Victoria’s northern shore, the word is enyogeza. It means a little extra at the market. Two small potatoes added to the dozen you purchased. This story is lagniappe (or enyogeza.) A little extra for you to ponder from my personal journey in Africa.
My wife DeDe and I have lived in Africa for two years. Often I look around and am shocked at how far I am from my Louisiana piney woods roots. It’s been an eventful time full of growth, frustration, change, disappointment, and joy. Very similar to life back in the good ol’ U.S. of A. I’d like to share five lessons loom large in what these years has taught me as a writer and person:
It’s always a draft.
2013 and 2014 have been years of constant change:
- Selling our home where we’d raised our family and lived thirty years.
- Leaving the Southern rural culture for the red dirt of east Africa.
- Learning Swahili to work in Democratic Congo, then being switched to South Sudan and Arabic. Hatuna matada for sure!
- Our country, South Sudan, descending into chaos and anarchy as we watched our new friends suffer and doors close. The future is poised with more of the same. It seems change is the only constant.
Due to daily change, I’ve learned to live and journal in pencil. Life requires erasers. Our African journey has been similar to the process of writing a novel: sometimes our characters take over and send us in directions we didn’t choose. But the end result is almost always a better novel as well as a richer life.
In spite of the change and uncertainty, I’ve never been more excited about life, our mission, or my writing than today. I’m confident that God is still in control and still trustworthy.
It’s always about the story.
Regardless of our genre, we’re all storytellers. Our challenge is putting down words that attempt to accurately describe we first heard, saw, or imagined.
I’ve stepped from one storytelling culture into another. African culture is rich in gripping stories, proverbs, and history. The best stories are always about the lives and struggles of people. Stories put a personal face on both tragedy and triumph. Instead of statistics about the daily struggle Africans face, I share about a ferry ride with a young island boy returning to the mainland for a new school term. His mother holds a long stringer of fish in one hand and a plastic bag holding two live ducks. The boy grins. “That’s how she’s paying my school fees.”
Numbers can be cold. “Over 1000 dead in South Sudan and 250,000 displaced.” But the story of one person’s journey is better than dry statistics. I think about our Nuer friend Kun, trapped in the capital’s UN compound for three weeks. He is paralyzed with fear that certain death by Dinka soldiers awaits him outside the gates. Our team listening to his frantic calls coupled with our inability to help.
It’s always about people. It’s always about their stories. Our job is simply the struggle to tell them well. As poet Mary Oliver aptly wrote, our job is to:
- Pay attention.
- Be astonished.
- Tell others.
That’s what I do. That’s who I am.
It’s always about humility.
Writing and the subsequent attempt at being published is an extremely humbling experience. Sharing our thoughts and words with the public is akin to running down the street in your underwear. (Do other writers have that dream as often as I do?)
This public inspection and attending rejection is so deflating that many abandon the journey due to the disappointments that are part of the process. I know about rejection. I can proudly assert that my rejection folder is as thick as anyone’s. However, Africa has humbled me like nothing else.
I speak the local language on about a three-year-old’s level. The nationals laugh, correct me, yet still show me grace. The taxi driver who delivers me to the market is fluent in five languages. I’m an American so you can easily guess how many I’ve mastered. I’m greeted daily with cries of “Mzungu” and requests for money or assistance in “coming to America.” Each day gives me opportunity to look odd, stupid, and awkward and I seldom disappoint. It’s part of the experience. It’s all about humility.
I’ve always believed the humble writer is truly the best writer. Africa has allowed lots of practice. I wouldn’t trade it for all of the tea in Kenya or coffee in Rwanda.
It’s all about being a servant.
Africa rewards the curious soul. During this past year, I’ve filled up numerous journals, taken hundreds of photos, and recorded dozens of voice memos. I have frustrated myself and others with my obsession to capture every image, thought, and face or smile. Our favorite word has become, “Wow.” It can mean many things in Africa.
Our missionary term is nearly half completed. I have mixed emotions about that, but am more determined to observe it all and capture it in my mind and heart.
It’s all about having a gratitude-filled life.
My African teachers are so grateful for everything. Oftentimes, it seems they enjoy their little much more than our largess. Africans have so little compared to Westerners. They understand “Give us this day our daily bread” and thank God for the bread when it appears. I’m honing my degree of gratitude from this experience. Being thankful is simply a habit as are the twin sins of ingratitude and arrogance.
So I’ve been reminded of the real reasons I write. It’s who I am. It’s what I do. Presently I’m not entering contests or seeking daily for that ever-elusive contract. I’m simply writing. Last week, I started Journal #74 of my life journey. If I never published another word, I’d still write. It’s who I am.
A writer is someone who wrote today. My job in Africa is researching the unreached people groups of South Sudan. My assignment is to tell their stories in a way that will lead Americans to pray, give, and come over to help. My calling is writing with influence and impact for a reason. It’s Kingdom work and I believe it matters. Influence and Impact for the Kingdom.
Influence is how far our message can go. It’s the ripple effect of our writing. Impact is how deep our stories can dig into a person’s heart. It’s about depth. I hope wanting to have influence and impact isn’t sinful. If it is, I have sinned greatly.
The Internet Age opens so many doors for influence. I can tweet about a refugee camp in northern Uganda in real time as I share prayer needs and faces. As I write for influence and impact, my reward isn’t a glowing review, award, or publishing contract. It’s a Facebook reply that states, “I feel as if I’m over there with you.” It’s that volunteer, moved by a story, who comes to Africa and returns home with a fresh passion burning in her heart. That’s influence. That’s impact. It’s why I write.
Curt Iles currently writes from Entebbe, Uganda, where he and his wife DeDe serve with the International Mission Board. The author of eleven books, you can find out more about Curt at www.creekbank.net. This story comes from his new short story collection, Trampled Grass, now available as an Amazon ebook. All proceeds will benefit the IMB’s Lottie Moon Mission Offering.
A heartfelt, five-fold “yes”… Thank you for sharing.
Curt, thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences. I read your post slowly and somehow feel like I needed that pause before starting what promises to be a hectic week. But rushing hither and to isn’t important. Thanks for the reminder that what matters is taking time to capture images and faces, to savor moments wherever we are and whatever we’re doing. Your prayers for impact and influence are probably being answered in ways you can’t imagine or perhaps will never know this side of Heaven. Prayers and best wishes.
It’s not about me, is it? It’s about serving wherever and however God has called us. Curt, I think you for this post and for the example you set for obedience and service. It’s an honor to know you.
“I’ve always believed the humble writer is truly the best writer.” –Thank you for that reminder. Excellent post and a great way to start my day. God bless!