Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Christmas and Kampant

       Since our last post we have celebrated Christmas and attended a youth camp called Kampant. Christmas was different as it was around 100 degrees and of course the obvious being that we are in Gambia. We began the day early to head over to Gary and Denise's house for a white elephant gift exchange and breakfast casserole. Then Elias, Gary, a friend Hayden that spent Christmas with us and I headed to church which was filled with much singing and dancing.

Our table of 50 Dalasi (roughly $2) gifts

Opening gifts

          After church we had a delicious, yet very expensive meal of turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing and gravy. The turkey was about 9 pounds and cost about 19 american dollars! But it was worth it considering Gary and Denise haven't had turkey in five years. Then we finished out the day by skyping home to both families.
          The next day we left for a youth camp called Kampant. I'm not sure how many youth we took from the mennonite fellowships, but we had 34 registered which is a really good number. The camp had about 100-150 youth show up and went from Saturday to Thursday. As you can see, I'm writing this on Wednesday which means we came home early. Elias was sick before we left and since the camp was out in the bush there was an excessive amount of dust and it was starting to take a toll on him so we decided to come home yesterday after breakfast. However, we are very happy that we had the opportunity to go and see what the youth are so excited about. They had wonderful speakers and each night they had a different activity after dinner. Sunday night we had a prayer time, Monday was praise and worship, Tuesday was a debate on 1 and 2 Timothy and Wednesday is a talent show. I am disappointed that we couldn't be there for the debate and talent show, but I'm excited to hear all about it. Gambians love to sing and dance, so even though we sing the same songs over and over they are always sung with passion and praise for the Lord.

Sing and dancing, and yes all of those spots that look like water are dust

Some of the girls that Elias and I will be working with, most of them are from the Pirang youth and it was cold hence the warm clothes, we could see our breath in the morning and I had trouble staying warm at night with a sheet, towel and skirt covering me while I was sleeping in pants and long sleeves!

Playing futbol in the early morning sun before breakfast

The camp looking in from the road

-A very different but very special Christmas and the chance to reconnect with home
-We had a wonderful time at Kampant and made new friends
-Elias is feeling better now that we are away from the dust

Prayer requests:
-We are still having difficulties getting a house
-We will finally be beginning language study
-Relationships with the youth of the different fellowships

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Pace of life

   As in most relationship oriented cultures, pace of life is much slower than that of business oriented cultures such as the States and Europe. Another way that these cultures are referred to is "warm climate" and "cold climate". This can be, and has been, a source of frustration for cold climate missionaries serving in a warm climate culture. We tend to think that things could get done much more quickly if there wasn't so much time "wasted", and in some ways we are right, a lot more could get done, but for those of the warm climate culture that comes at the expense of relationship.
    Here in Gambia to walk anywhere it is important to make sure that additional time is made because it is very important to greet everyone that you pass, and of course the obvious reason that it is very hot and easier to walk slowly. Some will greet us and keep walking, but others want to stop and shake our hand, ask our first and last name and then usually ask a few questions that leave us with blank stares and laughter. Some will even try and teach us what they are saying and how we should respond creating more smiles and laughter, but pleasure in the fact that we were trying to communicate with then and respecting their culture where greetings are important.
      This is only one example of how pace of life slows down, but we have also seen it in one of the churches where they have been making bricks to rebuild two rooms that collapsed during the rainy season and act as part of the house for the family living there. Once these rooms are built then the sanctuary can be blocked off from the rest of the house and the family will no longer have to use it as their sitting room. While in the states the bricks would be made and the rooms would be completed very quickly, it takes more time and it is difficult to get people to show up. We could easily go in and set up a time, but we really want the church to take the initiative themselves. Here a few pictures of the brick-making:

     As you can see, this process is not easy as you have to dig the mud out of a hole, then form the bricks and let them dry before the building can be done. All of this is done the hot sun. Yet it can still be frustrating as we think, "if we just worked two Saturdays they would be done!" We have also found frustration with the gentleman we need to contact about the house we are looking at renting. Due to the indirect communication used here, we usually hear, " I will call you tomorrow" without hearing anything until we call him, at which point we are told we will hear back from him in several days. My final example is one that some of you may be able identify with somewhat...laundry. All laundry here is done by hand, you do first wash, second wash, first rinse, second rinse. I have done laundry by hand before, but never a week's worth for two people. We try not to wear many clothes to cut down on the amount to do, but it still takes between 2-2 1/2 hours and yesterday the sun was so strong (it reached about 100 F the other day) that by the time I hung the last load and was worried about running out of clothes pins, my problem was solved when I realized that my first load that I had hung was already dry! Unlike most men in Gambia, Elias helps me, so you can only imagine how many hours women spend doing laundry each week here, especially those with babies. Here are a couple of pictures of doing laundry:

     I will try and post more pictures later. Blessings to all of you!

-We are beginning to get to know the youth better.
-We are still healthy!

Prayer requests:
-That everything will work out with our house
-Kampant- a youth convention from the 26th-30th of December that Elias and will be attending, please pray for the both us and the youth
-For language learning even though we have not starting formal language study

Thursday, December 10, 2009

We have arrived!

     We have officially been in the Gambia for a week today. Last Thursday evening (Gambian time which is 5 hours ahead) we arrived at the airport in Banjul, The Gambia with the Guinea Bissau YES team. Our travel was quite uneventful, which is a good thing. We left Albany at about 10:00 a.m. and arrived in D.C. about an hour and a half later. We then waited in the Dulles airport for about 6 hours where we met up with the Guinea Bissau team and then we were on our way to Brussels. The flight was about 7 1/2 hours to Brussels and then we had a 3 hour layover. Then our last leg of the stretch was about 8 hours with including a transit in Dakar, Senegal and then we finally landed in the Gambia. We were shuttled to customs then waited for awhile for our bags to arrive. We were greeted by Gary Williamson, one of our outreach directors, and Beryl Forester, the Guinea Bissau outreach director. They took us back to MEHDA, where Elias and I are currently staying, where Denise (Gary's wife) and Lori Doll a 2 year long termer had beef stroganoff ready for us.
     The first night we slept very well considering sleeping on a plane is never easy, but then the next couple nights we noticed the 5 hour time difference and it took some adjusting.
     In this past week we have learned how to use public transportation, met most of the youth groups we will be working with, have begun to learned our way around the market, eaten Gambian food (rice and fish), which Elias likes, but I (Jess) will need some time to adjust to, hand washed clothes, been out to the gardens, and went grocery shopping with a quick swim trip included.
      Elias and I are unsure how long we will be staying here at MEHDA, but we currently have no electricity and only cold running water, however running water is a blessing either way. At our house that we will be living at for the remainder of the time we will have both electricity and running water so we are very excited about that even though we have learned that living without electricity isn't that bad.
     Ok, well I don't want this blog to be too long, so while there are many other things I could write about, I will stop there and hopefully have some pictures next time. We love you and miss you all! Blessings!

-We Made it!
-We have not gotten sick yet
-We are adjusting

Prayer requests:
-That we will remain healthy
-For the Lord to provide vision as to what our role will look like with the youth
-Language learning

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Gambia update

        Well we are in our last full week of training which means that we will be flying out in two weeks from yesterday. We are very excited to be finishing up here and finally heading out to do the work that God has been impressing upon our hearts for the last year or so. We have grown quite a bit here as individuals and a couple. Our leadership skills have been tested and strengthened, our faith has been stretched in wonderful and amazing ways and our marriage has been challenged while making us stronger and more self-aware.
        All of these things have prepared us for where we are now and what we will be doing in the Gambia. We originally thought that we would be living in the bush in a compound with no electricity or running water. I, Jessica, thought that I would be working with a coop called My Sister's Company teaching women practical skills so that they can be self employed. Elias thought he might be working with a local carpenter and relationship building. We had begun to learn Mandinka as we thought that would be the primary language that we would be speaking. Then last week happened and everything has been turned on it's head.
         We have now learned that we will be living in the city of Brikama in a methodist mission with Nigerians, Europeans and Gambians. We will still live in the bush for the first month connecting with Gary, Denise and Lori, learning public transportation and the ways of life in the Gambia, but then we will move to our own house. The house we will be living in is a duplex that we will be sharing with Nigerian Christians and it will have electricity, running water, a bathroom, a kitchen with a sink, ceiling fans, a propane oven and a dorm fridge. This is about 20 minutes away from Gary, Denise and Lori, but is a more central location for the work we will be doing. Our focus will now be working with the youth of the largest local Mennonite church (a congregation of about 30). The church has only been established for about 7 years, the congregation is very young and their faith is very shallow. We will be working through the basic Sunday school stories such as the creation story, David and Goliath, etc.
        At first we weren't sure how we felt about this change, but we are now getting excited, still with some nerves, but with a feeling that this is where God wants us. It was almost as if the Lord roped us in with an assignment that was initially appealing, then when he got us to a place where he wanted us  he revealed to us how he really wanted to use us there. We may still be learning some basic Mandinka, but our focus will be on Portuguese-Kriol, which has a lot of similarities to Spanish and is typically thought of to be fairly easy.
        As details are falling into place we are getting very excited and we just ask that you continue to keep us in your prayers as our time is limited to get done all we need to do before we leave and as we prepare emotionally and spiritually for this next year.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A taste of Africa

       This past week here at HDC (Harrisburg Discipleship Center) we had world awareness week. It is a week where the participants at HDC have the opportunity to experience a little of what life is like in other parts of the world. A few of us had just returned from backpacking on Sunday and then world awareness week began Monday which may have made the week slightly more difficult to tolerate, but either way it was a good learning experience. The week consisted of no electricity, no hot water beginning Wednesday since the man who needed to turn it off was sick until then, and then no running water beginning Thursday until Saturday. We also "experienced" the culture of different areas of the world throughout the week with dress, food, no snacks and "unclean" drinking water (it was really clean, but we had to boil it to make it hot and since most of the world's water isn't clean).
      The week began with us experience Southeast Asia for the day. For breakfast we had rice and milk and lunch was a delicious Indian meal that unfortunately didn't settle very well with Elias' stomach. For dinner we had rice and eggplant, which we have determined should not be an edible vegetable. That day the guys could wear pretty much whatever, but the ladies had to wear long skirts, long sleeves and keep our heads covered. We then visited a mosque later that night and observed the prayer time along with some friendly dialogue of those that attend the mosque.
       Tuesday we observed Chinese culture with a breakfast of spaghetti noodles, a little bit of bouillon and soy sauce, and half a hot dog. Lunch was a day of fasting for EMM and then dinner  then consisted of a cast system of beggers, cous-cous, rice and beans, hamburgers and then t-bone steak. Everyone had to pick a category and then eat the food of their category, we had date night so we ate very well in comparison to most. That day we could wear anything as long as we didn't look frumpy.
      Wednesday was Africa, so the day began with leftover rice and beans and eggplant. And as in most cultures, we ate with our hands on the floor. Lunch was a Kenyan meal of a dry, play-doughy type cornmeal and greens, with dinner being a traditional Gambian meal of fish and rice with some cabbage. We ate out of a community pot with our hands with men and women separated. I have to admit, I didn't enjoy it very much, but Elias liked it. That day men could wear whatever and women had to wear long skirts, long sleeves and heads wrapped tightly in observance of North Africa.
     Thursday was Europe day so we had an amazing breakfast of bread, jellies and nutella.  Then we had a snack of cheese, bread and our only coffee of the week. Lunch was a Spanish meal prepared by our participant, Irene, from Spain. Then dinner was rice and beans. This day was "dress to impress" since Europeans tend to dress very well.
     Friday was latin America, which meant we had rice and beans for all three meals. However, we had a treat at dinner with pineapple! That day ladies had to wear skirts and guys had to wear nice pants and a button down shirt.
    Saturday was cereal for breakfast! This was the day that we got electricity, running water and snacks back. We had an amazing Thai meal for lunch and then a Chinese meal for dinner. The week was officially over, but the hot water didn't come back until Monday.
    The week was challenging, but as I came up to my room in the dark I realized that for the next year when it gets dark it will be dark in our house as well. I also was humbled in realizing how blessed we truly are when it comes to the food we have and the clothes that I can wear. We read about other cultures and the oppression that women face is astounding. I felt as though I was getting a small taste of what it might be like in Africa, and while there will be things that are very different, there will be things that are just as they were this past week. We had this past week easy compared to many around the world, we are truly  blessed to live the way that we do.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

One Month Down

      Our first month is about over and we have learned much and been challenged a lot throughout these past few weeks. Upon arriving, we found the schedule to be quite full, but we were still getting to know people and Elias was having a blast. I, Jess, was having a little bit of a more difficult time adjusting back to the rigorous Harrisburg Discipleship Center (HDC) schedule. Having been here before, it was a bit of a challenge to adjust back to community living and having all my days scheduled out for me. As we began to adjust however, it became a bit easier for me, but we also began to feel the strain of the lack of time with each other. This has been a good lesson in figuring out our boundaries and that we need to put our relationship before our ministry. During our first year of marriage we stepped down from our church responsibilities so we did not encounter this that much, but we feel that it is good for us to learn this now before we get on the field because it is likely that we will encounter having to set boundaries in ministry at that time as well.
     But, on a more positive note, now that we have set more boundaries and found more ways for Elias and I to spend time together, we are developing some amazing new relationships with the other participants in the house. We are also learning a lot about God and listening to His voice. We are finding that we are being stretched and challenged through teachings on the Holy Spirit, dying to self, spiritual warfare, prayer, spiritual streams and other areas that we will be able to take with us to the Gambia and throughout the rest of our lives.
    Also, this morning, we found some amazing language study tools that we will be using to learn Mandinka, which is one of the three different language that we may be learning and using. We can now greet each other, which is very important in Gambian culture, and makes us very excited.
     I feel like this post is a bit all over the place, but I haven't updated the blog in awhile and I don't want it to be so long that it is unreadable. If you have any questions please feel free to ask! Blessings to all of you!


Saturday, September 19, 2009

Let the training begin!

    Elias and I have arrived in Harrisburg, PA for our two and a half months of training at the Harrisburg Discipleship Center (HDC). We left for PA Friday the 11th and stayed with my (Jessica) sister Ashley. We had our commissioning on Sunday and then that evening we arrived at HDC with all of the YES (Youth Evangelism Service) participants, two particpants in GO! and one long termer. This week as been very full with exercise beginning at 6:00 or 6:30 Monday through Friday and ending with a variety of activities around 8:30 at night. We then have to be in rooms at 10:15, which is no issue for Elias and I, as we have been very tired. Even though the schedule is packed we have already been stretched and we are enjoying growing deeper in our relationships with Christ.
    We also wanted to let everyone know that we have received wonderful news. We have been given a $10,000 check from an anonymous donor, which puts us at nearly full funding! Elias and I weren't sure when we would be able to leave for Africa because we didn't have enough funds, but with this donation we are put at almost full funding and we should be able to leave in early December or somewhere around there. Thank you so much for your prayers as you can see they have paid off! Below I am going to list some praises and prayer requests so you know how to better pray for us and you can see how the prayers that you have prayed for us have been answered.

Prayer requests:
-That Elias and I will find the necessary alone time that we need as a couple while living in a house with 40 people.
-That we will be able to go deeper in our relationship with Christ and each other
-That God will prepare us for the Gambia and the Gambia for us

-Almost being at full funding!
-Arriving in Harrisburg safely and beginning to adjust
-Being with other young adult with the same vision as us.

Blessings to all of you and thank you for your continued support!

Saturday, September 5, 2009


We realized that it has been awhile since we updated the blog and some of you may be wondering where we are at. We are almost half way there! Right now if we had 60 people willing to pledge $20 a month we would be all the way there! This is not a very big number considering the number of you that have supported us already. If you feel as though this is something that you could do just let us know and we will send you all of the information that you need. We also wanted to remind everyone that New Bremen will be hosting a BBQ pork or pulled pork dinner on Sept. 13th in the fellowship hall right after church to help us raise additional funds. Elias and I won't be there for this dinner because we will be in Pennsylvania for our commissioning that evening. If you live down that way and would like to come it will be at Mount Joy Mennonite church in Mount Joy, PA beginning at 7. We are unsure if our parents will be able to stay for the entire service so it would be wonderful if we could have some friends and extended family join with us! We will try to continue to keep you updated as we continue to receive updates. Blessings!

Elias and Jess

Monday, August 17, 2009

So we had our dinner Friday evening and it went really well. We raised about $4100 so we are roughly a third of the way to our goal! This isn't to say that we don't still have a ways to go, but we are doing well considering the short period of time we have been fundraising. I want to thank all of you for bringing us this far this quickly. God has blessed us in so many ways and the journey has just begun! We will be leaving for training Sept. 12th and our commissioning will be the 13th. We still have a lot of packing to do, but we are very excited to begin training and see what the Lord has in store for us there. Thank you all again for your support!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Fundraiser and update

Hello everyone! We just wanted to you let you all know that we will be having a dinner Friday evening at Croghan Mennonite Church from 5-7:30. Cost is $9 for adults, $5 for children 6-12 and 5 and under are free. We will be having pork loin, cole slaw, potatoes, corn, bread and pie for dessert. Take-outs will be available as well. So far we are doing fairly well with fundraising. We have enough for training in Sept. which is a huge blessing, but we still have a long ways to go before we have enough to leave for Africa. If you need a support letter or pledge form please let us know. Thank you for all of your support thus far, you are all such a blessing to us and we are so excited to have this opportunity to serve our Lord in this way, while having a life changing experience at the same time. Blessings to all of you!

Jessica and Elias

Monday, July 13, 2009

The beginning of a new adventure.

First off I want to apologize to all of you that have already tried to look at our blog and found nothing. I just want to update everyone on where we are at. First of all for those of you who don't really know our story, we are planning on serving in The Gambia, West Africa for a year through a mission internship through Eastern Mennonite Missions (EMM). We received our budget in June and we have learned that we need to raise $31,298 for time that we will be serving. This will cover our stateside expenses such as trainings and administration costs along with all of our overseas costs like plane tickets, health insurance, basic needs, etc. I'm not sure how much we have raised so far since we just began the fund raising process. Currently we need to have $3000.00 by September for training, however we would love to have as much raised by that time as possible. 

Recently we were able to sit down with Gary and Denise and discuss some of the things that we will be experiencing in The Gambia along with how we will be living and what we might be doing. Jessica is hoping with work with a group called "My Sister's Company" which teaches women how to sew and make jewelry so that they can be self-employed. Elias could be helping a local carpenter or possibly focus more on relationship building and evangelizing. 

We are very excited for this next chapter of our lives and we feel so blessed that we are able to share it with all of you. You will notice that on our prayer cards the address for donations is a physical street address, if you want to donate and haven't yet please send all donations to P.O. Box 417 Lowville, NY 13367. Blessings to all of you and we will keep you updated as we continue on this journey!

Elias and Jessica Zehr