We are “retired”. In the North American context, that usually means something. Tending the garden. Volunteering at some worthwhile charity, non-profit or church. Some safe and comfortable travel. Visiting the kids and spoiling the grandkids. Enjoying the fruits of our labour and thrift. Nothing terribly stressful.
So what on earth are we doing in Cairo, where the heat will, in the next few months, become oppressive, where the traffic is so bad that getting around is always a challenge, where crossing the street as a pedestrian means taking your life in your hands, where the air quality is so bad that one can get one’s hand dirty on a table top you dusted just the previous day—and that’s inside; where urban planning means that probably less than half of the buildings in this city of 20+million have no building permits. What made us decide to leave a very comfortable and predictable living situation where we enjoyed seeing some of our grandkids growing up in front of our eyes, for noise, chaos and congestion?
Let me try and sort that out—both for ourselves and for any reader who may be wondering why we do something so demanding and so impulsive—so out-of-character with the stable, disciplined couple we think ourselves to be (and maybe you think us to be).
- So maybe we are not as stable as we appear. Maybe underneath that façade lurks a shared urgency and spirit of adventure that is not satisfied only with Maui, Bali, Cabo or Palm Springs. Don’t get us wrong—we love those places, but we know from previous experiences that the world is not defined by them. It is defined by realities much less pleasant than pina coladas, sunsets and sandy beaches. Maybe this is our way of staying “in touch” with those realities.
- Maybe this is our way of not getting stale, too comfortable, or insular. I don’t say that to make others feel like they might be— there are lots of ways to avoid going stale–it is just OUR way of learning, of staying “fresh”, of expanding our horizons.
- Maybe we just can’t help ourselves. We grew up with families and churches that called us to serve and this is our way of doing it. People find ways to serve in many ways at home and abroad. As Christians, we don’t really see that as an option. That is not how we were brought up. Thanks, parents.
- Maybe we just had the opportunity. MCC had an urgent need and we happened along. Things worked out on the home front to make it possible for us to go without significant difficulty….so far. Jane and I truly placed this one in God’s hands and we interpreted how things worked out to be indicators that it was “meant to be”. I don’t know what kind of hermeneutic that is, but that is how we interpreted it as God’s wish, and still do.
Now before I give the impression that this experience has been a real labour of hardship and sacrifice, I want to assure you that it has not been that way to date. Quite apart from the times of wishing we were home with family and having things predictable, there are a multitude of reasons why we can point to this as a great way to do retirement. Let me try a few.
- We have been easily as healthy here as we have been at home. Neither of us has been sick a day. Indeed, my need for nasal help for allergies has disappeared. Given Cairo’s air quality, that remains a complete mystery, but then, allergies still tend to be mysteries anyway.
- We eat as good (maybe better) here than we do at home. There is no shortage of good quality food available.
- Learning? Did I say something about learning? Formal education could never replicate what we have learned in Egypt. This is one amazing place in so many dimensions—political, religious, historical, context….it goes on and on. We have had our assumptions and beliefs challenged on so many levels, it will take some time to sort it all out. And that in only half a year.
- Egyptians are fantastic people. They have welcomed us. They have exemplified a faith in and commitment to God from which we have much to learn. We think as Mennonites our Anabaptist forebears have experienced suffering for their beliefs—and they have. But they are not alone. Coptic history is something that we should all know about. Politically, the struggles now experienced by this country are riveting, real and honest. What should one expect from Egyptians after decades where there has been no democracy?
- The Middle East and North Africa are defined by turmoil, strife and suffering. Egypt is no exception. Muslims and Christians have trouble getting along. Muslims and Muslims have an even harder time getting along. We have come to view fundamentalism (of any religious persuasion) with deep suspicion. Cairo is itself a city of displaced people…from Upper Egypt, from the Sudans, from Syria, from Eritrea and Ethiopia.
- Did I mention Egyptian history? Remember that when we talk about the Pharaonic period, we are talking about thousands of years, when we talk about the Christian period, it goes back to St. Mark, you know, the guy who wrote the first Gospel, and then it is followed by a millennium and a half of Islamic history. We don’t understand this. A hundred years for us is a long time. In Egypt, a thousand years counts for something. Anything less, is still a historic “baby”.
- We work together with partners that truly understand what it means to serve people on the margins….villagers in Upper Egypt (a euphemism that is almost everywhere besides Cairo and Alexandria) where poverty is still the norm…..projects that work to improve the lot of women in a society caught in age-old traditions that continue to marginalize them. Imagine a grown woman feeling proud that she can write her name on the page or on a blackboard!
It will be hard to imagine that we will return home unchanged. That seems not possible (mafeesh moshkela!). My hope is that we treat those changes as gifts that have enriched our lives.