Monday, October 27, 2014

Oh the Things I Have Learned....

Coming home!

Over the past few weeks, I've been trying to think of what to write in my last email. Words cannot really describe the feeling I have felt over these past two years as a missionary in Togo and Benin. This ride has really been one of the bumpiest, jerkiest, fastest that I have ever been on in my life.

I remember when I first got my mission call, and the months that followed, so many people were so excited about my call to the Benin Cotonou Mission. The excitement probably comes from the fact that nobody actually knows much about this part of the world. Everyone seems to hear those stories from missionaries in Brazil, Western Europe, the Pacific Islands, etc... but West Africa? Some people probably didn't even know the Church was out here... I sure didn't.

Even going through the MTC, when people would ask Elder Seidl, Kunz and I where we were headed off to, nobody really knew what would be waiting for us... until we told them Benin was in West Africa. Then thoughts of poverty, hunger, heat, AIDS, and the Lion King come to mind. Still, people couldn't quite wrap their heads around what Benin Cotonou really was. To be honest, I don't think I really could either.

Before and even in the MTC, I tried my best to find out what would be waiting for me in Africa. Hearing about the world class wildlife reserves in Northern Benin, I imagined going to see a real, wild African Elephant on a p-day. Hearing about the spirituality of Africans, I imagined being able to baptize everybody in Togo and Benin into the Gospel. Hearing about the poverty, I imagined that I would be repairing houses, building wells, and other never ending service projects.

And yet, even with what everyone was telling me, I still had no idea what to expect. I couldn't wrap my imagination around the fact that I would be living in Africa for two years. Even Frere Staretta, one of my MTC instructors who served in this mission when it was still a part of the Cote d'Ivoire mission, couldn't really describe to us what we would be seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting.

And then, the airplane door opened. Once I stepped through the literal wall of hot humidity, all of my imagining and my all of my ideas about West Africa were gone; all of it being replaced by the reality of being in West Africa. Every step, every breath, and every turn of the head was new to me.

The initial excitement of being in West Africa didn't last very long. Shortly after my arrival in Togo, I soon began to realize that this place was no longer just a joke or an interesting documentary... but it was my life. The weird perfumes masking the repugnant smell of body odor, the 5 o'clock wake up calls from the next door mosque, the blistering heat of the hottest sun I had ever felt, the never ending grid of dirt roads, the honks of the passing motos... this would really be the story of my life for the next two years.

On top of all that, I was expected to be a missionary at the same time. It was expected of me to go from door-to-door and actually teach people the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. Again, I soon began to realize that the mission was no longer just an idea I got from watching "The Other Side of Heaven" or "The Best Two Years"... but now, it was actually my life. The constant feeling that I never knew enough, the caring and worrying about strangers who I had a really hard time connecting with, the fear of talking to strangers about the Gospel of Christ, the being with a companion 24/7... again, this would really be my life for the next two years?

As if all of that wasn't enough, I soon began to realize that the French I was taught in the MTC was probably meant for France, not Togo. I tried my best to focus as best I could in order to understand what people were saying... and yet I just couldn't understand. Imagine my relief when I found out that people were actually speaking a local tribal language, and not French. But still, even when people were speaking French, it was all just too much to comprehend and to understand. I often asked myself if I would ever be able to understand these people... I also realized that whether or not I would eventually understand them, this would really be my life for the next two years.

Could I actually do all of this? Could I eventually get used to these crazy countries? Could I ever become competent enough in missionary work to actually be an effective missionary? Could I one day be able to speak French and have people understand me?

These kinds of questions always seemed to pop up. I remember one time, praying with all my heart right before going to bed and asking God all these kinds of questions. I couldn't tell if I was crying or not, as I was sweating through every pore of my body in that little 95 degree oven of a room.

But giving up wasn't an option. I knew that no matter how hard this would be, no matter how much I would suffer trying to adjust to Africa, no matter how much I would miss home. I would not, could not give up.  I would not go home early. I would not give up on learning French. I would not give up on God.

And I didn't.

Nothing has been easy about these past two years. Getting used to the food, the heat, the smells, the people, and the way of life... it was probably one of the hardest thing I have ever had to do... and, miraculously enough, I have gotten used to it. Even yesterday, somebody gave us a drink called "Malta" here. It's this weird malt/barely soda drink (no alcohol, so don't worry) that I hated at the beginning of my mission. It was so gross. Yesterday, I drank it and actually enjoyed it. Buying food off the side of the street, smelling weird things, hearing motos, seeing chickens in the middle of the street, feeling sweaty all the time, being the only white person in view...hearing "yovo, yovo bonsoir" nonstop, it's all normal to me.

Even the French eventually came. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine speaking French fluently, and miraculously enough, I did come to understand French. Sure, I've got a weird African/American/French accent, but I think that perfectly reflects the kind of person I actually have become and the experiences that I actually went through. Now I can make calls and not even worry about not understanding people, I can talk to strangers and have them understand me, I can even read, and understand, an Asterix comic book!

And yet, no memories will ever last with me more than the time I actually spent doing missionary work. I don't think there is a harder job out there. Before my mission, I thought I knew a good deal about the Gospel and religion in general, but it was here on my mission that I actually understood the meaning of it all. Working with people to try and fix up their lives is amazingly difficult, but amazingly rewarding too. Sometimes I felt so inadequate as a missionary... I think I still am not a great missionary, but I cannot deny the hand of the Lord in my growth as a person and a missionary. The greatest joys that have come to me these past two years have been through seeing people be blessed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ... that same joy is even greater in the fact that I was a part of helping those blessings come.

I never did see an elephant. I never did baptize everybody I met. I never did build somebody a house or build a well. But the things I did do are too numerous to count. And the things the Lord did on my behalf are even more numerous. My gratefulness to Him is so great. I could not have made it these two years if I hadn't relied on the Lord with all my heart, might, mind, and strength.

If I could sum up everything I learned into one phrase it would be that I don't think I ever did realize how lucky I was before this mission. I am so lucky to have my family. I am so lucky to live in my country. But, most and foremost, I am so lucky to have God in my life, who has given me the experience of a lifetime. One that I probably never will be able to experience again. I know that these two years have only been to serve God, but honestly, I still feel like I owe him so much, that I didn't deserve most of this. The fact that I survived, or rather thrived, these past two years is nothing short of a miracle on His part.

Thank you to everyone who has helped me through these two years. From the emails, the letters, the postcards  and packages, down to the silent prayers, your help has been crucial to my success.

Thanks to my brother and sisters, who despite my weaknesses and downfalls, have always encouraged me through their examples. Thanks to my parents who have somehow never lost faith in me or God... through their faith and their dedication to the Gospel, they helped me build a foundation on Christ which cannot fail. They have helped me go farther, work harder, and be better than I ever imagined. Through their help, accomplished things that I never dreamed nor thought possible.

You could even say, through their help, God's help, and the help of so many others...

... that I moved mountains.

See you soon,

Elder Hawkins

Looks like Africa!

My final food
adventure in Africa... eating the head of the animal.

EATING SHEEP HEAD! How exciting is that?

The meat was really chewy.

The sauce went great with the rice though.

Had good company and some Jus de Citron (with pressed pineapple) to go with it.

'Twas very good!

One Last Note from the Fro: Yes, the tears are pretty much constantly streaming now. (Not from the sheep's head adventure!) I can't believe it. I just can't believe it's the last weekly email. I can't believe I just "chatted" with him in Africa for the last time. I've already got his flight(s) yeah, plural, cued up on my flight tracker app. To say we're excited would be an understatement. And yet, I look back at these two years, through the hardships he had to endure, and the highs and lows. The craziness that is West Africa. The breaking of my heart for a son that I could only help through encouraging words typed in an email and prayer, lots and lots of prayer. It has been an emotional roller coaster, that is for sure. But would I trade these two years for anything? Would I trade the opportunity for my boy to grow in ways we can hardly even imagine? To learn what it is like to truly lose yourself in the service of others? To strengthen his relationship with God? To find out who he truly is and can be? No. I wouldn't trade it. Not for a minute. I'm thankful to him for sharing his growth with us too. Because how can we have not grown with him?  In reference to his last sentence there, well, we're a Seuss family...and in the talk I gave at his farewell I said: "Trevor, in all the times as a child I read to you “oh the places you’ll go”, never in my wildest dreams did I think you’d be setting off to Benin. Kid, you’ll move mountains."

And you did. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Three Things a Day

Another visit from Brother John!

As always, I once again find myself sitting at the cyber wondering what to write to everybody after another week has flown by.

Strangely enough, next week will be the very last time that I will have this experience of wondering what to write to everybody. 

As my time has been dwindling down in Africa, Fro challenged me to look for things that I enjoyed about my mission in Africa, or rather things that I would miss upon my arrival home. She challenged me to write down three things each day on things that I would miss.

At the beginning of the week, I was doing pretty good but by the end of the week, everything was just going by too fast that I ended up forgetting to write down the things that I love about here. I feel like I probably already have talked about a lot of the things that I wrote but if not, this will just give you a reminder of the things I like about this crazy little part of Africa and about my mission in particular.

Okay, I'm just gonna get the food out of the way because that's what most of my list was.

  • Aloco (fried plantains): The Ivorian staple, Aloco is awesome. It's pretty easy to make so if I can find some plantains I can make it really easily back home. 
  • Viju Milk/Juice: This is a Nigeria drink that is absolutely delicious. It's basically flavored powered milk but don't let the name get you to think that it's not good. They have tons of flavors like orange, apple, pineapple, strawberry, etc. It's funny because I hated flavored milk back home but I'll give it to those Nigerians, they did a pretty good job with it. 
Viju juice! Present from Brother John.

  • Coconuts: Ahhhh... coconuts are so good. Whether they be cut fresh or ones that you buy already cut at the market they are all really good. I really love drinking it with fresh lime too... very refreshing after a hot day. And eating the coconut "flesh" is always very good too. Now that I know how to open coconuts without breaking a cutting board, it's pretty dang easy to drink.
  • Beesap: The drink that turns your mouth purple, this is amazing and so good to drink. It's made from sugar and hibiscus leaves (mostly imported from Burkina Faso! How 'bout them apples?!). I hear that Mexicans make a similar drink so I will be on the hunt once I get home!  
Some nigerian patte with beesap made by sister Precious... the beesap was sooo good!
  • McDonalds - African Style: So we have this African mama who sells some pretty dang good fried food right down the street from our apartment. Among the varieties offered are enyam (the local spud here), bean balls (mashed white beans), aloco, but the BEST are the at-tele which is fried banana... man those are so good. You can eat them just by themselves! No pima required (the other stuff, save the aloco, is eaten with some pima hot sauce). After I had inherited President Weed's ketchup when he left, I also ate the stuff with ketchup which is really good. But now I'm out and have no more ketchup and it's too expensive to buy again... so piment it is!

    Also, once you get a variety of these things, it is best to buy a hot dog and about 200 francs worth of spaghetti to go with the dinner. What you do is you take the spaghetti with your hands, pick up a bean ball or a piece of fried enyam and eat! It's pretty dang good.  The spaghetti helps the enyam go down your throat. Exciting.
My fried foods with spaghetti!

  • 60 cent sandwiches: Usually, on any given lunch break, you can find me on the wall of our apartment hunting down a sandwich lady. Sometimes it can take a half hour for them to come, but they always come! When I was at the bureau, I would always buy a sandwich with avocado and mayo for the morning (that's considered a breakfast meal here)... but for lunch out here in Menontin, they only have mashed beans with spicy oil which is great for lunch. I'll usually by two of them, one with a hot dog and the other with a hard boiled egg (for the protein of course)... man I'll sure miss my sandwich ladies. Maybe I can look into Wawa making similar sandwiches and hiring people to walk around New Hope with bread on their heads! That would be awesome!
  • Enyam pile (mashed enyam) with peanut sauce: Man this is probably the best, most filling meal that you can get. Usually you eat this with either chicken or cheese, but I usually just get it with cheese. I am definitely going to eat this this week before I go home. Because the peanut sauce is filled with pima and is literally very hot, you are guaranteed a runny nose by the end of your meal! 
Okay, now for the other stuff:
  • Scripture study: One thing I will really miss upon my arrival home will be the fact that I won't have a time set aside to study the scriptures. One nice thing about the mission is that you always have a time dedicated to reading the scriptures, and nothing else! My Gospel knowledge has increased one hundred fold thanks to scripture study and I will definitely continue once I get home, but I know it will be a lot harder.
  • "Bon assis!": I'm definitely gonna miss weird African phrases too. The most common one people say is "Bon Arrive" which means good arrival... I suppose it's the African way of saying welcome. They also say all the traditional French ones like bon appetit, bon soir, bonjour, bonne digestion, bon voyage, etc... but my absolute favorite is Bon assis, literally meaning "good sit" which is what people say to you when they're busy and you're sitting around waiting for them. It's kinda like they're saying to you I haven't forgotten that you're there! It's so stupid that it's funny.
  • Negotiating prices: Okay, this is actually a double-edged sword because sometimes this can really bite you in the butt if you're not sure of yourself. One thing I like about negotiating is the fact that you can always get things at a lower price if you know what you're doing. When I go souvenir shopping, this is pretty key so that I don't accidentally spend $100 on only a few objects (yeah that happened near the beginning of my souvenir shopping experience)... of course, one thing that I have learned is never be afraid to walk away. Also, if you want to get a good price from a Beninois/Togolais, just make them laugh and they will be more willing to give you a better price.
  • The Heat: Another double edged sword because most of the time it is too hot! But it's nice never to have to worry about whether I need to wear long sleeves or short sleeves! And oddly enough, I have become so used to sweating that sometimes I don't even need fans to cool me down anymore because... well... that's my life: sweat.
  • The People: Of course this is the very reason I am here! I really love getting to know the members and making friends with people that I would have never imagined to be my friend! Sometimes it can be hard for me to relate with people here but usually as long as you can joke around about stuff, people will laugh and smile which makes them like you! In just about every place I serve, there is always somebody that is very dear to me and somebody I really hope to see in the future! Attiogbe/Sr Ngessun from Wuiti, John from Kodjoviakope, Precious from the Bureau, and Ismael/Betty from Menontin (I think it's kinda funny that there are two Togolais/Beninois on the list, then an Ivorian and then three Nigerians!)... of course there are tons more people that I love from every sector but those are just to name a few. 
  • Mission friends: Do you know that missionaries are actually awesome people? It's so much fun being here with so many other people doing the same exact thing that I am doing. The friendships that have been made here will definitely last far beyond the mission.
  • Moto taxis: So I don't take them anymore (don't worry) but while I was taking them I actually really did love them! I was still scared out of my mind when I took them, but they are a lot of fun... plus they're cheap and fast! Of course, I've seen some gnarly accidents from motos but... that's why I prayed every time I got on one.
Honestly, there are a lot more things that I could talk about but I'm going to limit myself here. There are a lot of things that are really hard to deal with here in Africa as well. But if there's one thing you've got to learn about living in Benin/Togo, it's that if you're only going to focus on the bad stuff, you're in for a long, long mission. 

It's hard to believe that I have one more week to live in such a crazy part of the world. I will be trying to take advantage of every single last bit of this place this last week. Saying goodbye to people will be really tough but I know that we will see each other again, whether in this life or in the next life. 

Thanks again for all the prayers from everyone... I'll need every one of them when I'll be traveling home this next week! 


Elder Hawkins

New text signature on our phone made with what I think are Ethiopian characters.

Monday, October 13, 2014

One Last Great Adventure

Kunz and Hawkins = African Brothas!

First of all, I want to thank everybody for the birthday wishes! To let everybody know how I celebrated, I will attach my birthday dinner.

My great b-day dinner of tapioca gruel and fried donuts.

As you can tell it was delicious and it only cost me 40 cents... at least this time I didn't get tricked into buying lunch for my companion like last year!

Other than that, my last birthday in Africa has finally gone by... it was pretty much the last thing I needed to celebrate before I leave for home!

However, the most fun thing that we did was not on my birthday... this week I finally got to cross one more thing off of my Benin bucket list: Ganvie, the Venice of Africa!

We were finally able to head out there and just in time too (it was either now or never). As Elder Kunz and I had never gone out there, we decided to plan an activity with the Office Elders so that we could go and see Ganvie... we kept trying to plan zone activities and get our Zone leaders to do it, but... when you only have a few weeks left, you
gotta take matters into your own hands!

Thankfully, it was pretty cloudy and it had rained that morning so we had no problems weather wise! We headed out to Calavi (which is the shortest way to get to Ganvie). We had to, of course, negotiate the price for renting the boat but we ended up getting it for $28 (renting it for three hours, taking 8 people).

The dock parking lot with the cows we almost hit going in
The dock and going out

The beautiful boat: Elders Oliverson, Isampua, Semeha, Me, Kunz, Donadier

It was pretty sweet! The boat looked sea worthy enough so I wasn't too scared but, you know Africa, anyway it was pretty cool to finally get going out there! The lake was very dirty because of the rain (every time the paddle came up from the water, the water was the color of Coca Cola) but that didn't scare us. The only funny thing was that Elder Isampua was pretty scared to go on the boat (I don't know if he knows how to swim) but the lake is only three feet deep so I wasn't too scared. Plus my camera is waterproof so no big deal!

But thankfully our boat did prove sea worthy all through the trip! We had two rowers with us... it took us about an hour to get there but it was so cool. A lot of people on other boats were passing us and looking at us really weird but it didn't matter as we were on an adventure!

Just cruisin' on the water

Kid with a gas tank boat

Thankfully we didn't see much trash on our way over... actually we saw some really cool plants that grow on the lake that had really pretty flowers on them.

The cool flowers on the lake.

Once we finally got to Ganvie, it was quite different from what I had imagined. I kinda imagined a huge village made on a pile of sticks that floated on water, but it wasn't quite like that! Instead, they were just parcels built on sticks, which is probably what I should have imagined.

Cool straw hut


A house with a very visible water line... in 2006, the water was up to this point and most of the city had to leave and wait for the water to come back down.

The Bridge of Ganvie. Not sure where it goes to.

Our tour guide/rower guy explained to us that Ganvie was created in the early 1700s to escape the slave traders (who would think to look for people in the middle of a lake?!). And even after the slave trade, people continued to live there... apparently, our tour guide said that like 40,000 people live out in Ganvie but I really don't see how that
is possible. I think I might have heard him incorrectly but I think it was more like 1000 people lived out there and that might be stretching it.

Once we got there it was pretty interesting to see all the houses on stilts. Apparently, the water on lac NokouĂ© is either salty or fresh water depending on the season. During rainy season, it tends to be fresh water from all the rain, but during the dry seasons it is salty.
The main occupation of the people would be fishing. Our guide said that usually the men will go out and fish (women are actually banned from fishing) and then the women will go and sell the fish (men are actually banned from selling). Most families have about 3 boats: one for the father to fish, one for the mother to sell fish, and one for the kids to go to school in.

Sad little kid... most of them were pretty happy to see white people though

Nice Coconut tree!

The mosque

Most people's homes only have one or two rooms and are not too big. There are a few small islands on the lake where people take their kids to learn how to walk (apparently, people can always tell that somebody comes from Ganvie because of the wobbly way they walk). Remember, everything that I am saying to you is coming from my boat driver so
you know that it's true fact and reliable. Like Wikipedia. No worries.

Anyway, there were a lot of kids out there who were all shouting "yovo, yovo" which I didn't mind too much! I thought it was kinda funny this time around because everybody else got a kick out of it too.

The biggest island I found

Our first stop was to the Ganvie hotel and gift shop (who in their right mind would stay there? That's like staying in a train caboose). Actually the two places they took us to were to gift shops... but joke's on them! We didn't buy anything! It had some pretty cool stuff
but I liked just being on some crazy Ganvie stilt houses! The Hotel was called the 7 Star Hotel because it's better than a five star hotel in that you can catch a fish right from your bed... Also, the bathroom just turned out to be a hole to the water...

Kunz and I at the 7 star hotel

The floors and the water below!
Cool vintage coke sign in the hotel

The front of the 7 star hotel

the bathroom with the hole to the water haha

Kunz using the John!

These were the toilets that some NGOs built throughout the city for who knows what reason!
Sorry for all the bathroom pictures

As we kept going along, we noticed a few other cool buildings, like this huge three story building that was a hotel and night club (ookaaay). Also, apparently there are two main "roads" in the city: Fisher's road and "The Young Adult Celibate Lovers road" (yes it is
literally called that) which, according to our tour guide, is where all the youths from the city go set up dates. Apparently it's closed off to everybody else save people going on dates after 7 o'clock at night.... so if you're a married man/woman and you find yourself
there, you're in big trouble!

The "Ganvie Night Club"

Oddly enough, I saw a lot of animals that actually lived there like chickens, goats, dogs, etc... as for what they do all day I have no idea as they can't go very far without falling into the water. 

Goats in Ganvie!


Electricity wise, most people just don't have any but there are some
people who are able to afford generators and solar panels (there were various solar panel street lights throughout the city actually). I also asked where people throw their trash away... well, it ends up in the same place that their bathroom waste goes as well.

Hipsta pic of Afrikan lake

As you might imagine, the water on the lake is not drinkable and is highly polluted. So, there are a few fresh water outlets on the city that people canoe too with big tubs to fill up with water. I'm not sure where the fresh water actually comes from but... I'm guessing it's not from the lake.

I think that's about everything I saw out there. On our way back, our tour guides fired up the roaring engine of our big canoe and we got back to the dock in about 10 minutes.

The Mighty Izekor coming down the stairs to the boat.
Donadier and Fr Francois who helped us get out to Ganvie (a member in Cocotomey)
Towards the end there was quite a bit of water in the boat... not as seaworthy as I thought
Thankfully Elder Izekor did not "drive" the whole way.

Big open waters

Getting off the boat was a slippery affair.

Kunz, Me, Oliverson, Donadier

 Anyway, that will probably be my last, real African adventure on my mission! Hopefully I'll be able to come back one day and visit the northern wildlife reserves, but those are just a little to far away to visit (not that Elder Oliverson and I haven't been planning on sneaking off for two days to go and visit...).

Other than Ganvie and my birthday, there wasn't really anything too special that happened this week. Elder Mejean has finally left back to France and he promised me that he will be eating raclette for me this week... we had interviews with President too... mine wasn't really too big of a deal because I'll be having my exit interview in two weeks anyway!

Like I said last week, I'm still chugging along. I'm really thankful for all the advice that people have been sending to me about how to finish the mission well... and I'll be applying it my best! I can't say that this last month has been easy, but nothing ever has been easy on this mission so I'm not too surprised!

Thanks again for all the birthday wishes! I was glad to "talk" with so many people today and hope that everyone has a great week... hard to imagine that next week will be my last in Africa, so this will be the time to take advantage of it!

Love you all,

Elder Hawkins

Me and Ganvie