LAGOS AND THE SUITCASEPosted on July 13th, 2013.
LAGOS AND THE SUITCASE
by Sally Vann
Humidity, like a blanket, lay heavily in the tropical night air. Following the dirt path with my flashlight, I watched for dangerous critters lurking in the darkness. The path led me to a small bungalow with a thatched roof. This little round house would be my home for the next week.
I unlocked the heavy door and entered a dark room. Striking a match from a box of matches on the table, I lit the Kerosene lantern. The wick flickered a few times and then the lantern’s dim light slowly filled the room creating shadows that crept like cats’ paws into the darkness.
I mustered up my courage and leaned down to look under the bed for scorpions, spiders or worst of all, a snake. Locking the wood door I pulled a heavy chair to barricade it for added safety. I unpacked my pajamas and slippers, it was dangerous to walk barefooted, and got ready to go to bed.
Mommy packed my clothes in Daddy’s suitcase to go to school that term. The scent of his cologne permeated his suitcase and drifted through the muggy air. Determined, I lifted and shoved the heavy suitcase onto the high four poster bed. With difficulty, I did my best to tuck the mosquito net under the mattress to prevent menacing mosquito bites. I had already suffered several bouts of Malaria with bone aching high fevers and chills that past year.
I lay on the bed and put my arm on Daddy’s open suitcase. Having his suitcase near with the smell of his cologne, I closed my eyes and pretended he was with me. As I listened to the hypnotic buzz of mosquitos and other exotic creatures composing songs in the mysterious African night, I said my prayers and cried myself to sleep.
Sun’s rays filtered through the window the next morning. I awoke to the happy chattering of the ground workers outside my window. “Only six more days until the plane comes to take me to school.”
I was almost seven years old and in second grade. Every four months I went home to Natitingou for a one month vacation. The other four months I attended Hillcrest, a school for missionary children in Jos, Nigeria.
Living in Natitingou was an extreme contrast to the little farming town of Delano, California, where Daddy pastored before moving to Africa. Dad’s missionary work focused on the Somba Tribe. For centuries the Sombas had not changed. The tribe’s traditions steeped in voodoo and primitive rites of passage were commonplace to me. The Somba men did not wear clothes and the women wore a new dress of leaves every day. In 1872, the French colonized Dahomey and when Colonialism faded over the continent of Africa in the 1950’s, Dahomey became the sovereign country of Benin in 1960.
Our home sat on a small hill inviting the breezes of the Sub-Sahara to sweep through the windows of our living room. In the evening, electricity provided by a generator, allowed several hours of light before bedtime. Occasionally, Daddy told me stories and if the curtains tangled from the wind, I wondered if the winds from the Sahara brought more stories from faraway places.
The vista from our house looked over a valley where a small creek ran. I fished the creek, climbed trees and caught tiny, vibrant, rainbow colored birds in bamboo traps. The “Smokes”, clouds of stinging dust and smoke from bush fires, turned my skin brown. In the early evening before supper, I bathed in a galvanized tin bathtub. Precious water was carried in Kerosene tins on the heads of African men to the cistern outside our bathroom.
Time disappeared like a shooting star and stole my happy days at home. Unfortunately, when the day arrived to return to school, Daddy was unable to leave his responsibilities as administrator and teacher at the Bible School that trained the newly converted Sombas for ministry. Arrangements were made with a missionary family to give me a ride to the port city of Lagos where I would catch the plane scheduled to take me to school in Jos.
The sun peaked over the hill that bordered our mission compound. I leaned out the window and waved goodbye as the travel worn sedan chugged up the graveled driveway. Daddy, Mommy and baby brother, Mike, disappeared in the morning light. Winding onto a narrow, two rutted escarpment, we finally intersected to the road to Lagos.
The short rains came early that year making our trek to Lagos difficult. Slanted sheets of rain made the dirt road become like thick caramel. The car slipped from side to side and got stuck in mud pits that had once been a road. African men quietly appeared from the rain forest and without a word, lined up to help push the car free.
The stars in the Southern Cross twinkled as night time fell and we checked into the Lagos Sudan Interior Mission Guest House. It was no surprise to learn that I missed my flight. The next flight to Jos was in one week.
The missionary family drove out of the guest house gate to continue their journey. Now I was alone in Lagos and did not know the proprietors of the guest house or the people staying there. “What was I going to do?” Mom and Dad were in another country. It would be four months until I would see them again. The convenience of internet or a cell phone in 1950 was unimaginable. Television was unthinkable. Letters took months to reach family. Slowly, I turned and walked to the house. In deep thought, by the time I sat down in the living room, I had made a decision. “I’m on an adventure.”
In awkward silence, I sat at the table for lunch the first day. The guest house included three meals daily and it was my responsibility to be on time to eat and to sit in my assigned seat. The grownups talked to each other but ignored me. What does a six year old say to adults that are not friendly?
After lunch, I watched the Agama lizards bathe in the sun. These lizards often are referred to as “rainbow lizards”. Their skin shimmers like a rainbow of iridescent blue, red, yellow and green colors. The male always sits higher than the females and prefers to wait for insects to come his way so he doesn’t have to exert himself for his dinner. His long tongue captures his prey with one quick flick.
A man I had not met entered the living room for afternoon tea. “Hello Sally, I’m Jessica’s father.” Jessica was a schoolmate of mine at Hillcrest. Her mother was in the Lagos British hospital and Jessica’s father was staying at the Guest House. He was tall and wore khaki shorts and a tropical cotton shirt. His huge bare feet looked funny in brown leather sandals but the kindness in his eyes put me at ease. We became friends and after he visited his wife in the hospital every day, he took me on bus rides in the afternoon to see the ocean. At the harbor we counted the ships at port and the flags that represented their countries of origin from around the world.
“You must wear your best dress, Sally, and please comb your hair.” said Jessica’s daddy. It was Sunday and after lunch he left to visit his wife at the hospital. He stressed I must meet him at a certain time in the living room that evening so that we would not miss our ride to attend vespers. I didn’t know how to tell time so I hurried and waited a long while before the cars arrived.
Flames from the lanterns sucked oxygen from the air making it difficult to breathe and the oppressive tropical night air hung over the crowded room at Vespers. Sweat poured down my back and my prickly heat rash stung. A sinister shadow crawled out of nowhere and sat on the ledge of my heart. A relentless clamp of loneliness squeezed me. I was homesick and missed my family!
The sounds of a familiar melody began. The song reminded me of home. Refusing the sob that hung in my throat I had no way to release my pain. The deep rich voices of the African men continued to sing in four part harmony with rhythms I had never before heard. Acoustically, the voices of people from countries of the world bounced off the walls reverberating praises that all of heaven heard. A pretty lady with blonde hair stood to sing a solo. I heard these words for the first time.
“When peace like a river attendeth my way
When sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot thou has taught me to say
It is well; it is well with my soul.”
The congregation spontaneously joined as a choir to sing the chorus with the soloist.
“It is well, with my soul,
It is well; it is well with my soul.”
H.G. Spafford 1873
Although, I was too young to fully understand the meaning of these ageless words, the gray shadow slowly retreated and the pain in my heart eased. I was not alone.
Departure day arrived. I sat on my suitcase trying to get it closed. Mother organized my things neatly when she packed for me. To this day I wonder how many clothes I left at the mission guest house for someone else to wear.
The excitement of getting on the plane helped ease the sadness of saying goodbye to Jessica’s father. At the airport, I turned and looked into the eyes of the man God sent to help me that week in Lagos. I hugged him and then boarded the plane. We never saw each other again.
Many years later, at my kitchen table, I told Mother the story of Lagos and the Suitcase. She shuddered, tightly closed her eyes and shook her head. “How could we let you go? What were we thinking?” she said. My answer was simple. “No regrets, Mom!” I reminded her that God accepted their dedication of my life to Him when I was a baby. God gifted me with insights and understanding about His character through this experience. I know His heart because of moments like this. As a little girl in Lagos, my own adventurous journey of soul began and became rooted in my heart.
The absolute trust my parents offered to God and their commitment to His plan to share the Gospel with the people of Africa, transferred to my spirit as a little girl. Somehow I understood that I was a part of a great plan full of adventure and purpose. Recently, sitting in church, I heard “a still small voice” say “I trusted your parents and kept my promise to them.” My brothers Paul, Mike and I all devoted our lives to follow the God they loved.
Many times since, I have found myself in a “Lagos”; an unexpected circumstance or place. When I have been in a “Lagos”, there has always been a “Suitcase” and a “Jessica’s father.”
“See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are ever before me.
The palm of my Father’s Hand holds my story and the plans He has written for me. He says my walls are ever before Him. And so, this Divine romance that began when I was a little girl in Lagos continues. What’s next Lord?