reports from Joyce and Bob Carlson
The creation, says Saint Paul, groans in frustration, waiting in eager expectation to be liberated from death -- waiting for all things to be made new in Christ. But nothing, it appears, springs up into new life until it has fallen into the ground like a seed, to die...


Dear Friends Near and Far,

Bob and I are in Bamako , the capital city of Mali , and packing to leave for Ivory Coast this evening on Air Senegal . One more time everything important needs to come down to 22 kilos, no more, and certainly no less. Bob's linguistic books alone weigh more than half our luggage allowance.

We came up to Bamako by bus two days ago. That makes two significantly long bus trips across the West African savannah in the space of three weeks (the first being our trip from Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso to Sikasso, Mali at the beginning of September). I have this to say about traveling in West Africa by bus:

1) Drink a small, strong coffee at 5:30 a.m. and from then on limit your liquid intake to tiny sips of water from the bottle you've tucked in your bag, because you don't know where the next rest stop will be.

2) Tell yourself that you like being smashed for long hours against the strange, hot bodies of people to whom you've never been formally introduced. In the interest of taking as many people as possible, most 30 passenger buses have fold-down seats that obliterate anything like a central aisle. Once you're in, your in, with no wiggle-room.

3) Remind yourself that this journey is today's entertainment, and the longer it takes, the more entertainment there will be. This will keep you from dismay and woe every time some petty official at a random "post of control" demands to see all the passengers and their luggage arranged in front of him on the ground -- a process that forces everyone to extricate themselves six or seven times from the confines of this hot tin box.

4) Buy a woven grass fan for 300 francs at the first opportunity to beat off flies.

5) Resist the impulse to buy grilled meat on skewers from the vendors who scream through the windows at every stop (even though you know these snacks are delicious), remembering luckily just in time that hunger never forced anyone to begin a treatment for dysentary.

6) Keep your eyes on the clouds. In rainy season there are castles and cities and islands in every shade of white, grey, pink and purple arranging and rearranging themselves over your head, and they lend both brightness and depth to the tall green grass of the savannah.

7) Mind where you put your feet. Someone will be sure to pack in a trio of chickens who will respond anxiously to their journey by leaving chicken "doo" all over the floor, and someone else will eat too many delicacies on offer from the vendors, and will be sick all over the place before the day is done.

8) And if you're me, you'll amuse yourself by studying what everyone else is wearing --
-- the policeman whose shirt barely fits over his stomach, thanks to a life of over-indulgence fed by his long experience in picking up bribes;
 -- the woman in high-heeled sandals which pick up the colors of her robe and headtie while her wrists and earlobes clink with jewelry;
-- the patched and tattered Ghanian teenager, barely able to communicate with French-speaking officials, who's got his hopes pinned on finding a job somewhere besides home;
 -- and me of course -- in the loosest, most comfortable dress I can dig out of the suitcase, padding around in a new pair of plastic flip-flops bought by the road, and juggling computer, camera, purse, water-bottle and lunch.

Remembering Harlequin Feathertail

Thus we arrived in Farakala Village to spend 10 days before continuing on to Abidjan , Ivory Coast for the start of classes. And so it was that I spent one more week in the world with my Kitty, Harlequin Feathertail -- my lovable, furry, purry, black and white cat who would have been 15 years old this coming December. Harlequin was an item in my daily prayers all this last year -- that he would be well and happy, keeping the mice under control in Farakala Village  while we traveled around America . If I could have figured a way, I would have taken him with me, but he was old. He liked his routine, and loved his good friend Chandogo who served up the catfish, and thought there was no better thing than to take naps in the sun under the rose bushes in my village garden while the clock ticked, and time went by.

Time didn't wait for him, or for me by very much. I walked through the door of home and held him for several hours on my lap where he was content, but the poor darling, though he was hungry he was barely able to swallow and hardly able to walk any more, and I knew the day was dark in his big, liquid eyes. So I wept, and wept, knowing that he had to go -- away, away. And I'm still crying.

He slept his way out of this world, and now he lies under a cover of fresh earth in the garden, where the red and white roses bloom above him.

From where I stand bereaved at the door, I can see the clouds fold and unfold around a yellow sun, and the winds through the nime and néré trees ruffle the leaves the way they used to ruffle Harlequin's long, soft fur. I will probably never be fully consoled. Why should I look for easy consolation when the world is broken, and death lurks around every corner for the great and the small, the rich, and the poor. "All flesh is like grass, and like the flowers of the field, it flourishes. Then the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and the place thereof knows it no more."

The creation, says St. Paul, groans in frustration, waiting in eager expectation to be liberated from death -- waiting for all things to be made new in Christ. But nothing, it appears, springs up into new life until it has fallen into the ground like a seed, to die. To each thing ever made -- the appropriate seed case, with its own kind of loveliness. To people, one kind of splendor; to animals, another; to the heavens, another; and to the earth, something else. "The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another, and the stars another, and star differs from star in splendor."

And there is nothing in heaven or on earth that doesn't have a voice to say "Alleluia".

"Praise the Lord from the earth,
you great sea creatures, and all ocean depths,
lightning and hail, snow and clouds,
stormy winds doing his bidding,
you mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and cedars,
wild animals and all cattle,
small creatures and flying birds,
kings of the earth and all nations,
you princes and all rulers on earth,
young men and maidens,
old men and children.
Let them praise the name of the Lord,
for his name alone is exalted;
his splendor is above the earth and the heavens."

It matters a lot to me that on at least one occasion in Scripture, a donkey had the wits to recognize the Angel of God and stop in his tracks, even at the cost of a beating from his master, Balaam the Prophet, who was on his way to pronounce curses over the Children of Israel, in spite of God's disapproval.

"What have I done to you," the donkey asked his rider, "to make you beat me these three times?"

"Why have you beaten your donkey?" God chimed in. "Clearly your donkey is smarter than you are, luckily for you, because if he didn't have better eyes and more understanding than you, you'd be dead by now."

One doesn't read more about that donkey -- only about Balaam who finally got the picture and pronounced blessings instead of curses. But if that donkey, at his death, was not escorted by God to a very nice pasture with like-minded creatures ready to bray their thanks and praises, then I will be surprised.

And then there's the unusual story of the Reluctant Prophet Jonah -- a story that has enough surprising twists and turns to make the reader dizzy. Jonah, as I need hardly remind you, was supposed to go to the Wicked City of Ninevah and announce a coming disaster unless everyone repented in sackcloth and ashes. But he didn't want to. And a little perusal of history makes his reluctance perfectly clear. Why warn the Dreadful Ninevites away from immanent distruction when what they so richly deserved was a fate worse than death? People whose warriors were so blood-thirsty and cruel they would peel the skin off their living victims and leave them in shock to die under an open sky, where flies buzzed and buzzards wheeled. Why save Ninevah?

But God, on the verge of pulling off an Act of God, was oddly anxious to give everyone a last chance. And Jonah, unwilling to take a second journey to the bottom of the sea, unwillingly complied, taking three days to spread the news in Ninevah that,  "Boy were they ever going to get it, and good riddance to them all". To his dismay, everyone in town, from the king on down to the lowliest beggar got the drift and repented and fasted rigorously. Every single person, said God, and all the domesticated animals, were to be covered with sackcloth, and bewail their manifold sins and wickedness. Which they did so effectively that God aborted his mission of destruction. Which made Jonah mad.

Jonah pouted. He went outside of town, sat under a vine, and blamed God for unfairness. "Isn't this just what I was afraid of," he fumed. "Isn't this why I didn't want to come in the first place? I knew you were gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and ready to relent at the drop of a hat. So let me die! I'd rather be dead than see all these people live."

"Well, really," said God, as usual having the last word. "Shouldn't I be concerned about this city of Ninevah , where there are more than 120,000 people who can't tell their right hand from their left, AND MUCH CATTLE?"

Cattle? Or rather CATtles. Not to mention DOGgles I should think.

Don't tell me that it's all just a fanciful and fantastic fairy-tale. God Cares, and doesn't care how that message gets across just so long as it Gets Across.

So I am listening up, and wiping my tears, after putting fresh roses on the newly turned earth over my Kitty's grave in the garden, knowing that not even a sparrow has ever fallen to the ground without God seeing, knowing, and caring for the lovely things he has made.

Sadly and tearfully, but not yet utterly destroyed,


Psalm 103:15,16
Romans 8:19 ff
I Corinthians 15:35 ff
Psalm 148
Numbers 22:21 ff

If this is Wednesday we must be in Abidjan!

Bob and Joyce Carlson in Africa.
You can email Joyce Carlson at

copyright 2004 by Joyce and Bob Carlson
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