Saturday, 1 March 2014

A desert transformed

I don’t know if you like natural history programmes on television. One documentary shows the effect of rain on the Okavango Desert in Kenya. We see the animals and birds, desperately looking for water, grow thinner and hungrier as the dry season over ever larger expanses of land. Many die, their skeletons lying stark and unburied on the parched and cracked soil. Then dark black clouds appear on the horizon. The air, humid and heavy, fills the vast desert with an atmosphere of waiting. Everything changes with the first few raindrops. At first they are absorbed by the thirsty soil, as if it were drinking with an unquenchable thirst. Gradually the droplets come together to form a trickle of water which becomes a stream and then a fast flowing river. Dried-up watercourses change into raging torrents which chase forwards to fill the arid river beds which have seen no water for a year or more. Lakes appear as if from nowhere. Places which, only hours previously, were parched desert, suddenly attract, not only the thirsty wildlife, but also tiny shoots of green leaves. Flowers emerge as if by magic, piercing rock-hard clay with the same ease that snowdrops emerge through our own frost-hardened mud. The gift of rain transforms barren desert into a scene of exquisite beauty.

The famous Australian artist Sydney Nolan once spent a month living beside his country’s Western Desert when it received its first rainfall for many years. Every day he went out and painted what he saw. The result was a series of pictures of flowers, beautiful flowers which could only live where there was water. As the water evaporated and disappeared, so the plants withered, died and vanished from sight. Yet in the short time when they had water, flowers were pollinated, produced seeds and set them in the soil to await the next rain, however long it would take to appear.

I lived in Africa for 13 years. Of those years I spent one in Nigeria and 12 in Zambia. A Tanzanian friend once said to me, “We Africans begin to prepare the ground for cultivation long before there is any sign of rain. We know that God, if he is God, will send rain and we will have our crops. It may take time, but there will be rain because God is God.”

This year’s Women’s World Day of Prayer was prepared by the women of Egypt. They included an explanation of the Gospel reading which suggested that the Samaritan woman whom Jesus met at the well was not a promiscuous woman who only went to the well when nobody else was around so that she could escape from their criticism. It proposed instead, that she might have been someone who had suffered. It was entirely possible that her five husbands had died and, according to custom, she had been inherited by their nearest male relative. It was equally possible that the man with whom she was living could have been another male relative who had simply decided not to marry her. That suggestion is by no means as far-fetched as we, in our own society, might think. That the women of Egypt even thought of interpreting the Gospel in this way is a sign that the same situation is quite common and almost considered normal in their own environment.

This idea took me back to Zambia and the day that one of our staff was widowed. Margaret was our Deputy Matron and a gifted nurse and midwife. When her husband died of a heart condition, in accordance with her cultural tradition, along with the household goods, she was to be inherited by her husband’s cousin, an illiterate fisherman. Deeply worried, Margaret came to us and to the parish priest. We secretly helped her to find a new job in a nearby hospital and, at dead of night, drove her away from our village. By day, we quietly transferred as many as possible of her possessions to her new home before time ran out on us. Sadly, she had to count many household items as lost because her in-laws had already raided her house whilst she was at work. When her relatives came to take Margaret to her proposed new husband, they were told that we did not know where she was. Perhaps it was not true, but, in this situation, it was her only protection. Had we given them her new address, she would have been forcibly taken to their proposed destination, a grass hut in a distant fishing village in the middle of the swamps.

Sadly, in many societies, a woman has the same status as household belongings. She only has value in relation to her husband and her childbearing ability. If she is childless, it is not the husband’s fault, but hers. If he dies, as with Margaret, she is handed on to someone else. People will say that this is to ensure that she has someone to look after her and to protect her, but this reason has long been replaced by an unspoken wish to possess all that the married couple had gained during the husband’s lifetime. Margaret was a woman of education, outstanding ability and abundant commonsense. Her husband’s relatives saw her as an asset to the family economy, not as a grieving widow. They did not care that an illiterate fisherman, spending his life in the remote and beautiful Bangweulu swamps, was unlikely to be a suitable match for Margaret.

Margaret’s story re-echoes across many countries and cultures, including Egypt. That is why many women live in a personal desert. Images of women carrying water jars to a well make for beautiful photographs. A source of water is not always convenient for the home, however, especially during the dry season. So much time is needed to collect the water, that there is little space for rest and food doing those things which help a woman to reach her potential and to dream her dreams. Often, her dreams might be as simple as wanting not to go so frequently to the well. Perhaps she might also dream of being able to read and write, of having a career, of having a child who will live beyond infancy. One grandmother told me that so many of her children and grandchildren had died that she no longer had tears to shed. “I have wept so many times”, she said, “that my tears have dried up.”

Perhaps the Samaritan woman was a victim, trapped in a desert with no prospect of rain and no chance of living her own life. Her dream was of a source of water close enough for her not to need the well. It is a practical dream, one which transforms a village and gives women new dignity and respect.

Jesus gave the woman hope and the freedom to dream her dreams. He did not give her a new well in the physical sense and so, perhaps externally, her life changed little. Yet after talking to him, she could do the same jobs with a different outlook - and that made the difference. No longer was life a cup half-drained of tepid water, but a chalice, half-full of the richest wine. He transformed the desert  of her life into a flower-filled wilderness of loveliness. 

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