Today’s post is the first in the Strong in the Broken series. Melissa shares how she found home and healing after a traumatizing experience in east Africa.
Home is a town that rarely sees rain and faces daily highs often over 90 degrees. Home is a city where few speak our native language, English. Home is a medium-sized town in the heart of Africa. Dust collects in every crack, crevice, and makes itself known on every surface. It’s so dusty at times your skin collects a film, like beach sand that won’t wash off.
We’ve found Home to be difficult, but also it is Home. After 5 years of making this our base camp it’s just that now, our place to rest, work and live. I’ve learned one of the most important ways to make a place a home is to go through tough experiences. You get through it, come out thankful, and then, only then, the place where you endured attains this magical quality. It feels right and good. It becomes home.
In order to get to that point of calling Home “home,” I went through the most challenging things I’ve ever faced (even over childbirth, which I’ve done 4 times without pain killers!). Here’s one:
August 2013, I went on a hike. It was a climb many foreigners had done. Though cacti laces the edges of the path, it is decent and easy to follow. Here, it’s common as a foreigner to collect a posse of children, begging. Most beg not out of need, but out of boredom. They have a roof over their head, families, and food, though I wouldn’t say their life is comfortable or plush. They ask without a strong expectation that you would give. Some kids try to make a few birr this way, but they aren’t pushy.
I went up the mountain with my American friend visiting from India. We brought a water bottle, my phone, and I had a 50 birr bill (2 USD) in my skirt to cover our bajaj (auto-rickshaw) ride home. The afternoon was beautiful. We hiked past mud huts, old rock formations, and quickly neared the top where the mountain had a flat surface like a football field and a breathtaking view of the city.
The call to prayer, “Allah Akbar…” echoed. The crowd around us swelled from girls and boys ages 2-10 years old to a predominantly male crowd ages 10-15. The boys just as small, naive and childish as the children. I thought nothing of it. After inhaling the sights from the look-out point, we smiled at the kids and turned to make our way down the mountain. They urged us to walk further.
“No, no, this way, there is a fort you must see. It’s not far.” They spoke in broken English.
We agreed, it seemed just another 100 yards ahead. Near the fort, my friend grabbed my arm and whispered in my ear, “They keep trying to touch me inappropriately.”
Every once in a while, like a game, they slipped a feel. I got angry and told them to stop. As soon as I started feeling uncomfortable I took my surroundings seriously: Friday, call to prayer, no adults within earshot (they were at the mosque), not a single girl stood on the mountain except us. The small group of boys was now a larger group scattered all around and higher up on the peaks.
A boy asked for my phone. I refused. He tried to take it while another boy attempted to take off my clothes. I stepped back and screamed for them to stop. My phone wasn’t what they wanted. I scrambled to find my 50 birr bill in my pocket, only to find it had already been taken. I fought to keep my clothes on. What would the local people do? I picked up a rock to let them know I was serious. As soon as they saw I had picked up a rock, the gang of boys above us hurled rocks. We tried to run but had no hope of escape. They had us in their arms. We were unable to move or break free.
I looked past the mountain. In the distance a group of dark storm clouds formed above the valley between the peaks. My heart sank. My spirit of hope, love, courage, and grace, and the expectation of God delivering, dropped like an anchor, causing my body to lie paralyzed. I’m going to die. Or I’m going to get raped. I don’t know which I prefer. I wished so badly I was home, holding my four-month old son, my 2-year old bouncing at my feet. Anywhere but here.
Through the grabbing and struggle, my friend and I were separated.
I screamed in the foreign language I knew, “Help me!” The boys mocked me.
What felt like an hour was minutes. Finally my friend hit a boy hard and broke free, startling my captors enough for me to escape their grip.
She screamed, “Run!” We sprinted, not caring that cactus needles marred our skin. We struggled down the mountain, scraping our hands on the rocks to outpace the boys.
Screaming, crying, and making a spectacle so someone would hear us, we made our way to a hut in hopes to stop the pursuit. It didn’t. The women in the huts had little control of the village children.
Finally down the mountain, not sure if we were in the clear, we found an adult man and I insisted, in tears, that he take us further.
“Stop crying,” he said. “No, no, you don’t need me.”
We insisted. I held his arm and my friend’s tightly. We finally found an auto rickshaw to take us home.
I’ve never felt more relief and more sadness as I did riding home. I was startled by what had happened; in pure disbelief that the quaint town I was raising my children in harbored such disgusting evil, cruelty, and malice.
Where was God? Never had I felt so strongly I might die. Why would a good, gracious, loving God put me through that? Yes, He delivered me (and now four years later, I see how apparent His presence was), but in that moment I felt so strongly, like never before, has my God has abandoned me?
Have you ever felt like you were about to die? The literal unfolding of your death taking place.
Have you ever felt like God had abandoned you? As if you were in the depths of Hell, evil around you?
I was quickly led to Psalm 23:
“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of Death, I will fear no evil for you are with me.”
I hadn’t known what this scripture truly meant, until that day. It was the darkest moment and even in it, I saw an actual valley with dark clouds above. My heart mirrored the environment. But, here’s the important part: God was with me. I could fear no evil, He was there. He didn’t abandon me. He provided a miracle, and we escaped. Though our bodies were touched in deplorable ways, our hearts, minds, and spirits were unscathed. Hope came to us. We made it out alive and are better for it.
Jesus didn’t promise the men who followed him that they would not experience tragedy, pain or would be untouched by evil. He said “I will be with you always.” This is the hope the Psalmist had, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for you are with me.”
When I think of my awful experience that day, and the city it happened in, I’m okay with calling it home. It is where I’ve encountered the worst and survived. It’s where my first two (and now my 3rd and 4th) children took their first steps, said their first words. It’s where I’ve welcomed five anniversaries and celebrated five birthdays. It’s where my children have celebrated birthdays, gone to their 1st day of school, and where I learned to speak a language I thought I’d never learn.
Home is where Jesus felt so near. Home is where I found what true community means, and what a grace it is to see it. It’s where my husband cradled our kids in the middle of the night when I was too tired to hold them. It’s where I’ve felt extreme joy and extreme sadness.
Home is where Jesus is, and He’s everywhere. So I’m always (even in the midst of despair) in a good place, because He’s there. I’m Home.
Melissa Rowe Smith lives on the edge of the desert in Eastern Ethiopia with her husband, four children and three tortoises. When she isn’t busy homeschooling and offering support for her husband’s company, Ayaana Publishing & Media, she likes to create in its various forms—writing, singing, playing guitar and piano, attempting to watercolor—and teaching aerobics and nutrition classes to her neighbors. Find her at: dustyfeetinbeautifulplaces.wor