When I was little, I wasn’t a big eater. Finishing my food seemed impossible at every meal. My parents never made me clean my plate, but my grandparents did. Grandma Helen liked to make oatmeal with butter and salt. Not only did it not taste good, it didn’t look good either. One summer morning, I sat in Grandma Helen’s kitchen crying over my oatmeal.
“Children are starving in Africa,” said Grandma Helen. “You are lucky to have this oatmeal. Now eat it.”
“Can we please send my oatmeal to Africa?” I asked Grandma Helen on the end of a little sob.
Grandma Helen knew I wasn’t being a smarty pants. I really did want to help the starving children of Africa.
“We’d have to put that oatmeal on a big ole ship. By the time it got there, it would be cold. Now eat it for all those little kids dying of hunger over there.”
I will never forget that day I wept while eating all my oatmeal. It really bothered me that little kids were starving in Africa and I had more food than I could ever eat in America. Especially food I hated, like butter and salted oatmeal.
While in the midst of trying to get a tractor on a big ole ship to Africa this week, I remembered Grandma Helen’s oatmeal from over forty years ago. I wasn’t able to send my oatmeal when I was small, but hopefully this tractor we are shipping to Africa will help the people of Sierra Leone grow the grains they need to feed their children.
Along with the tractor, we are putting together a clothing drive for Africa. Shoes of any kind are especially needed, but it’s a warm land, and sandals are appreciated. Not only are the children over there hungry, they are short on shoes and clothes. Many have no shoes at all and wear the same outfits day after day.
Today, while going through my walk-in closet to gather sandals and clothes for Africa, I felt overwhelmed at the sheer volume of what I own. I gave away half my shoes, and still have enough to fill my closet shelf. Three large lawn bags later, the jumbo-sized lawn bags, mind you, my closet is still overflowing with a wardrobe I hardly wear.
Since I work on our farm, and am a stay-at-home mom, and a writer, I tend to wear the same jeans every week. My T-shirts are usually the same as well. I wear my shirts until they get too many holes in them, and then I toss those away, and pick out a few more shirts to wear out. The rest of my clothes hang in my closet worn perhaps once or twice a year. Sometimes I vary my church outfits, but really not very often. I’m not a fashion statement anymore. Feeding our horses, along with chickens and dogs and a houseful of boys each day, keeps me in the same old boots and jeans and dusty sandals come summertime.
Today I gave away nearly all my sandals, most of which I never wear. The girls in Africa will wear them, probably each girl will get one pair of sandals for herself. She might even have to share that one pair. As I bagged up my shoes, I imagined little girl’s feet in them and it made me happy. I parted with some of my favorite T-shirts and blouses today as well, thinking how cute they will look on girls who appreciate having these tops. I won’t miss my clothes, since clothing doesn’t really matter to me much anymore.
Africa matters to me.
Africa was a complete God thing.
I wasn’t thinking about Africa when Emily contacted me on Facebook last winter. I was thinking, Why is the author of Atlas Girl messaging me? I loved her memoir I read a handful of years ago, and requested to be Emily Wierenga’s Facebook friend because I admired her writing and her heart to move home in the middle of her young adult life to care for her mom with brain cancer. We had exchanged a few messages, but I really didn’t know Emily from Canada.
Now I know her. I think of her as my Christian sister. I love Emily and it all started with a tractor.
“Can you help us find a tractor for Africa?” Emily asked in that first Facebook message. “I see you are a farmer in California. Do you know someone willing to donate a tractor to Sierra Leone?”
I nearly laughed out loud when I read Emily’s short, outlandish message. I kind of felt like crying too. That very day I’d gotten a tax bill on a tractor we’d received on a grant from the government. The program I’d signed our farm up for paid for half the new tractor if we turned in an old tractor that polluted the air. After getting the grant money, our family would pay for the other half of the tractor. New tractors cost about as much as a tidy, little house. I thought we all might have to live on the tractor because it cost so much, and when we got the grant money, the government counted it as part of my personal income. This made us seem like we made a big chunk of income, which threw us into a whole new tax bracket. Which totally messed up our Obamacare, and we now owed thousands of dollars back to the government.
If you’ve read my other blog posts about the tractor, please forgive me for boring you with the same old details. But the day I got that Facebook message from Emily, I did cry. Because I didn’t know how we were going to afford our new tractor, and the tax mess that came with it, and here was a woman in Canada asking me to find someone in California to give Africa a tractor.
In the light of all this, finding people to donate children’s clothes for Africa now feels like a breeze. Heck, I can go through our family’s closets and clothe a small African village. Maybe you can too.
Do you have children’s clothes your kids have outgrown? How about baby clothes? Or cloth diapers? Cloth diapers are a big need in Sierra Leone. And shoes for women and children. Shoes are badly needed there. Look at this picture of the children at this church. Most of them aren’t wearing shoes because they don’t own shoes.
Do you have some gently worn kids or ladies’ shoes you can donate to Africa?
I was going through my closet, wondering if girls can wear heels at church like women do at our church. Browsing through Emily’s pictures of Sierra Leone, I found this photo of one of their places of worship. Women’s heels seem extravagant on this old linoleum floor, but when I was a teenage girl, I loved heels. I felt prettier in heels.
I remember in junior high desperately wanting a pair of platform heels. Brand name. Way too expensive. My oh so practical mom said, “You aren’t getting those.” My dad went out and bought me a pair, the expensive, brand name kind I so wanted, and when I went to my first school dance in those heels, I felt like Cinderella.
How do the teenage girls in Africa feel barefoot in their churches? In their lives? Walking on the hard, red, African dirt without shoes?
Perhaps those girls don’t care about shoes. Perhaps they love Jesus so much they could care less about their feet. I hope this is true. I want to love Jesus so much that I run barefoot to church, but I’m not there yet. I’m at the place where I stood in my closet and pondered shoeless girls in Africa today. Pregnant teens without husbands. Without hope. Unless they are given hope. Given an education. Given shoes by people who have them.
Like me. I have a closet full of sandals I hardly ever wear. Why am I keeping all these shoes? Why do I still need the beautiful sandals I wore to Anna’s funeral? Every time I see those shiny black sandals in my closet, a lump chokes my throat. And the lavender, wedge-heeled sandals I wore to my uncle’s funeral six years ago when I was pregnant with my last child. I adored my uncle. He didn’t have kids of his own and I was like his only daughter. When I see those lovely lavender sandals gathering dust in my closet, I miss Uncle.
Why do I keep those lavender sandals that make me sad when a girl in Africa would probably feel like Cinderella in them? Why do I keep six pairs of sandals when one or two pairs would do just fine? I hardly ever dance any more. I sway in church a little on Sundays to the worship music, but I don’t wiggle too much. I don’t want people to look at me. But in Africa, I hear the people sing and dance. Maybe the girl who ends up with my lavender sandals will dance because she has food to eat on the Lulu Tree farm because of the tractor. Because she will learn to read at the school there for pregnant girls. Because she will raise her baby there. Perhaps she will find love there.
Jesus loves the girl who will wear my shoes. And the orphans. And widows who will live on the Lulu Tree farm with our California tractor. Jesus tells us to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and help the widows. This tractor for Africa has opened up a whole new world for me. I want to help. I get to help.
I hope you will want to help too.
Hopefully the tractor will be shipped from Sutter County to the Port of Oakland to Sierra Leone soon. On the day we put the tractor in the shipping container in San Francisco Bay, my dream is to fill every inch of that container with women and kids’ clothes, shoes, and baby things, especially cloth diapers. On the Lulu Tree farm there is a home and a school for orphans and pregnant teenagers. Destitute widows are also welcomed on the farm. The widows will become grandmothers to the orphaned children. The pregnant teens will be educated.
“You know, you’re a dreamer,” my dad said when we were talking about the tractor for Africa the other day. In the beginning, I think everyone around me thought I was crazy trying to get a tractor for Africa. It did feel like moving a mountain. But the Lord made the heavens and the earth. Getting a tractor to Africa must be easy for God, I’d decided. I believed God would help me.
And He has, but it hasn’t been easy. This odyssey of the tractor has brought me to my knees. There have been days I thought I was crazy. Why can’t they just get a tractor for Africa in Africa? That’s got to be easier than getting a tractor from California. But it’s not. This small West African nation is still reeling from a civil war between 1991 and 2002 that claimed 50,000 lives and crashed the country’s economy. More recently, Ebola killed nearly 4,000. What you’ll find is a country full of hungry widows and orphans. And this week, Sierra Leone was hit by torrential flooding. Perhaps a thousand have been lost in mudslides with more flooding on the way.
How can a tractor help over there?
They will need a tractor now more than ever looking at this mess.
“I know I’m a dreamer,” I agreed with my dad the other day. “It’s the same reason I write books. If it can be dreamed, it can be done.”
“Well, I guess the world needs dreamers,” Dad said, and that was the end of our conversation.
Along with dreaming, I’ve spent most of my adult life raising babies. I’ve written several of my novels with a baby in a front pack. And I can’t tell you all the chores I’ve done with a baby strapped on my back like this woman.
A sister in Africa. Wearing a beautiful dress along with that precious baby on her back. Perhaps this dress was given to her by a woman like me. A middle-aged American cleaning out her closet because she has so much she doesn’t need. Swatting at the moths she’s stirred up today. Swatting at emotions she doesn’t want to feel. Women need to help each other, especially us mamas.
I know it’s so much easier to give without knowing someone. It’s far easier to throw money into the church offering plate, and let someone else deal with the world’s pain. To not know the hungry. The hurting. To just go to Marshalls to feel better.
“Retail therapy,” a friend calls it.
I’ve used retail therapy for years to make me feel better. The problem is, shopping doesn’t work for me anymore. Because now I know a man in Africa who is doing all he can to feed hungry children, and when I was little, I wanted to send my oatmeal to Africa.
This is Pastor Sonnel. He speaks in a British accent on the What’sup app on my phone. Sometimes he calls me “Paula” and the way he says my name is a way I’ve never heard before. “Paula, thank you for the tractor,” he says with such gratitude my heart aches. Like I gave him the tractor when we both know God has given the Lulu Tree farm this tractor. “Paula” he says in this way I’ve never heard before, or “Mam.” Most of the time he calls me “Mam” on my What’s up app. But he’s forever thanking me. It’s so convicting because I’ve done so little for the hungry. The hurting. The barefoot in Africa.
Why do I share all this with you? I guess I want others to care. Caring for people is hard. It really is. This whole tractor for Africa thing has changed my life. It’s changed my closet. I still have a lot of clothes because I mostly buy winter clothing and Sierra Leone is usually hot. I can’t send the Lulu Tree my warm clothes so I still have half a dozen coats. The good news is I’m down to just two pairs of sandals now. I hope I see a picture of some of my sandals in front of this African door. The shiny black sandals from Anna’s funeral. The lavender sandals that saw Uncle off to heaven. All the other sandals I don’t need.
But they need.
Emily tells me these shoes abandoned in front of this door means the kids inside are having fun.
If you can help gather shoes and clothing for the children of Sierra Leone, I will be forever grateful. I’d love to see your shoes in front of this door too.
If you can help, please email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Or visit the Lulu Tree website to make a donation. And please give your prayers. Prayers move tractors.