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Easter, 2013: Wendy LeMarquand


(Photo: Canon Dr John Macdonald)

Canadians Dr. Wendy LeMarquand and her husband, Bishop Grant LeMarquand, moved from their home in Ambridge, Pennsylvania last fall to serve in the community of Gambella, located in western Ethiopia near the Sudanese border. Their work is primarily among refugees who have fled Sudan. Bishop Grant is an area bishop for the Episcopal Diocese of Egypt, responsible for the Horn of Africa. Debra Fieguth interviewed “Dr. Wendy” in Addis Ababa via Skype.

TAP: What is your work or week day like? What do you do as a physician in your new environment?

WLM: That’s an excellent question. The fact that I don’t have government permission to work as a physician at this point has given me a chance to see what I might do once my paperwork is approved. They’re really careful in Ethiopia. In the meantime it’s giving me an opportunity to get to know the people and the community a little bit and see the needs so I can get a sense of what I can do here. I met with the administration at Bethel Hospital in Addis. They want to have some of their residents come down and do some training around tropical diseases.

When Grant and I go around to the tiny villages there is always a variety of things I can do to help. I’m a little bit on call, for malaria and other tropical diseases. So I can hopefully start up a little bit of a bush lab and care for what comes to me from the tiny villages.

But by the same token, being connected with the church, I can work more at prevention. I’m connected with the Mothers’ Union. There are well over 1,000 members in the different churches. They are women who work one-on-one in their communities. They want to come and receive training at our centre. When they go back to their villages they can teach what they’ve learned to other women. They can teach different aspects of health care and income-generating things like weaving.

They’re teaching not as an outsider. They are teaching what they learned. Having fun doing it really helps.

For example, in Kenya [where she and Grant lived in the 1990s] I did some community health care work. One of the communities had chosen the problem of their little toddlers falling into the cooking fires. The ladies in the community [learned] to build up mud around the cooking fires, so toddlers would fall against the mud wall instead. ...I talked to the local hospital and found that admission rates for that went down by 70 percent.

This makes being connected with people like the Mothers’ Union such an opportunity.... I’ve been talking to them, asking, “What kinds of things do you want to learn?” One of the things was stopping infant diarrhea, because that’s a huge killer. Another example from Kenya: Women had taken water in clear plastic containers and set them out in the sun for five hours. The UV radiation will kill the bacteria. They pass around pop bottles and water bottles and pass around dish racks to dry the dishes in the sun instead of in the damp huts. Again I talked to the hospital. Their admission rate for diarrhea went down by 90 percent.

(In Gambella) they’re interested in learning how to make cookies that have some extra nutrition in them. Everyone coming for Sunday school can get a cookie. They don’t get meat more than once or twice a year. Cookies have a tiny bit of egg in them.

What they learn is what they tell me they want to learn. That helps give me ideas as a physician on how to come alongside them.

Grant and I visit the tiny villages. When I have my paperwork I can then get a sense of “How do I help the existing medical care?” I don’t want to be in competition. When we meet doctors I want to build them up as well.

I should have my business visa in a month or two.

TAP: What is expected of you as a bishop’s wife? (Do they say Mama Bishop there?) How do you and Grant work as a team?

WLM: I’m usually called “Mama Wendy.” When we meet with the different church councils, the elected members of each church want to discuss [issues] with the bishop. Grant and I will be meeting with all those members. I’m consciously encouraging the leadership of the women. Being a bishop’s wife gives more of a cultural opening to express their needs and concerns. It’s difficult to express to a person in authority, a bishop or a priest. When they have a woman there’s much more of a sharing. The hearts open up and the mouths open up.

TAP: What language do you use to communicate?

WLM: The languages are Nuer, Anuak, Mabaan, Dinka, Opo, Amharic. There is some talking through a translator. It hasn’t seemed to be too much of a barrier. There’s a lot of opportunity to pray for people. People come to pray. That’s something Grant and I do as a couple.

With clergy, we are teaching them on prayer and telling them more about the Mothers’ Union. We want the Mothers’ Union to connect more and take an active role in services on prayer.

We really find that there’s a tremendous open door to just learn what’s on the hearts of the people, and enjoy with them the process of growing. You don’t want to impose your own culture. You want to get a feel for the heartbeat of the community.

TAP: What do you expect Easter to be like? Do people there observe Lent? It’s hard to imagine what people in an environment like that would give up. Do they increase Bible study and prayer, or is Lent like most other times?

WLM: So far I’ve seen more of a lifestyle of prayer with fasting among the different groups. They’ll regularly fast for a day. So many of the church communities have so little. They don’t have a lot of extra to begin with. When it comes to Lent most of our people just continue their regular practice of fasting and prayer. They will intensify their fasting, or the number of times going to prayer and church services. Usually they’ll give up meat for Lent and spend more time in prayer. A lot of people we visit only eat one meal a day. They’ll often give that up.

This Easter we will be in Addis Ababa where Grant will be preaching at the Easter service. St. Matthew’s is a very multicultural, international congregation. Last time there were more than 20 nationalities – African, European, Asian. It’s an interesting kind of thing when you’re together with a group of people, many of whom have assignments for one or two years. They don’t have a lot of time to develop relationships, so relationships quickly take on a lot of depth.

Times like Christmas and Easter become very poignant in the villages. The people groups really have a focal point in their worship in terms of music if a celebration comes up there will be a tremendous amount of singing, and this could go on all night long. You also will find more drama. Some of them don’t have any written language. They will celebrate.

The Anuak love to write their own songs, as do the Dinka. The Nuer receive the western hymns and make them entirely their own. It’s only by the third or fourth verse that you recognize them. They have a different tonal system. The South African song, “We are marching in the Light of God,” is completely different.

Some of their singing is beautiful. The Anuak have a specialty in rhythm. The Mabaan love to harmonize. The Nuer sound kind of like Scottish bagpipes. I love Scottish bagpipes. When you get to hear the words of a song that they’ve written themselves, they are often full of African proverbs.

TAP: What are some of the challenges?

WLM: The physical difficulties. For example, for weeks at a time when we have no electricity and/or no running water. We go hungry when the people we’re visiting are going hungry.

For February the temperatures have been well over 100 (about 40 C). And it doesn’t cool down at night. In the last two weeks I was only able to fall asleep at cock crow.

Things sometimes will be distractions: restlessness of the children, noise that could distract you. Yet at the same time when you’re praying, the people are coming with their whole heart.

I can’t tell you how many times we had a powerful experience in the church and then we get a phone call – somebody came and stole all our cattle, or stole all our clothes.

The Opo and Mabaad women spend their lives grinding maize two to three hours every day. You end up with an aching back and aching neck and aching wrists. There’s the sheer unremitting grind of just getting the water. Life is hard! And life is a little unfair for the women. The men have got more of a rhythm of work and rest. The women have a rhythm of work and work.

But I see this humour and a twinkle in the eye. It’s such a difficult life, losing children, accepting being beaten and being poor. They still laugh; they are still able to have a twinkle in their eye.

One of the challenges to me is when you care, your heart hurts. Your heart gets bruised. When we were in a refugee camp with new refugees from the Blue Nile, there was a man about 6’7”. He was happy. He was singing, swinging his leg. He had a boot that twisted. I could see the leg was amputated. He had one long leg but so skinny, I could put two fingers around his shin. I couldn’t see anything except bone and flesh. But he was sitting there singing and swinging his leg.

There’s no defence against caring. It’s a challenge. It hurts. I can’t fix that man. I can walk with him. It’s a big challenge.

TAP: It’s a difficult privilege.

WLM: It’s a difficult privilege.

To my mind, in a sense I’m getting to know Jesus and his fullness as well. Not just the happy, victorious Jesus. It’s a suffering Jesus. You have your heart united with people and it hurts. But it’s worth it.    TAP

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