Encouragement Unlikely Places

Sometimes, God knows that we all just need a little encouragement.

Yesterday, He sent it in the form of a little boy in my English reading class who whispered, "this game is very fun." 

Coming from the boy who used to cry and refuse to enter the classroom, and who is usually silent or mutters barely audibly when compelled, this unsolicited affirmation spoke volumes.

The stress of teaching these 5 year olds melted away with 5 words and a cheeky grin.

Just the night before, I was at a loss, trying to come up with an interesting programme to help the class revise over a hundred new words while knowing there would be two new children who would be joining the class. With another work saga at the back of my mind, I was fighting a losing battle on my own. So I did what I could, said a prayer, committed it all to God and went to sleep. Having inspiration for the programme when I was already running late after a frustrating day at work, and seeing how the kids enjoyed learning, it was clear. It can only be the Lord's grace.

So 5 simple words whispered by a 5 year old changed my day and pointed me to God. I am challenged to be that encouragement to others today. Won't you join me too? 0 comments

Turning 29

I turn 29 today. I woke up to many birthday wishes which cheered my heart. On my way to work, I spent some time thanking God for all that I hold dear- love and grace, the people and places, and above all, His hand in my life. I took half a day off work and spent the afternoon with Mr Kwek roller blading at East Coast and enjoying awesome zi char at night. I'm low maintenance like that. 
As I look back on the last 29 years, I'm amazed at where The Lord has led me and I look forward with excitement to the fulfillment of His plans for my life. 

At the same time, this birthday, more than ever, I am reminded of the brevity of life. Today, Malaysia observed a day of mourning as it welcomed home the remains of some of those who perished in the MH 17 tragedy. My heart goes out to those who have lost their loved ones. 

My mind keeps going back to the verse in Psalms 8:3-5: 

When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
The moon and the stars, which You have ordained,
What is man that You are mindful of him
And the son of man that You visit him?
For You have made him a little lower than the angels,
And have crowned him with glory and honor.

For what is each day, each month, each year? They are but gifts from God. And who am I that God would do so much for me? I am but a child of God. 

And my response like the psalmist, through each year that I am given, should always be, "Oh Lord, our Lord, how excellent is Your name in all the earth!"


Flunky in the African Land of Black Gold

My flunky African adventure continued as we landed in Luanda, the capital of Angola. (We had just flown from Rwanda to Luanda, you can imagine the confusion with the travel agents and bosses' personal assistants during the preparation for the trip, especially with Singapore pronunciation being not quite perfect) The multiple transits to get there had resulted in our luggage being damaged and looted of all gifts that we had brought along- everything from letter openers to brooches to electronics that had been in the check-in bags and boxes were taken. I was beginning to understand the extent of petty crime of the region.

Angolan leg of the journey would soon reveal itself as one of my most eventful ever. So much so that even at the retirement speech of the person leading the delegation several years later, I had a special mention because of this Angolan Adventure.  To make matters worse, by this leg of our journey, either my strong malaria pills had kicked in, or some African virus had taken a hold of me and my memories of the country are coloured by nausea.   

View of the congested capital city

Angola was the second largest producer of oil on the African continent after Nigeria and all the major oil companies had set up shop there. The country was enjoying immense economic growth from the oil industry since the long civil war ended in 2002, but looking around, one could hardly tell how much wealth there was coming from this country's resources. Having been engaged in internal conflict since independence from Portugal in 1975, Angola's infrastructure was crippled, population poorly educated and bureaucracy inefficient. But the large oil companies seemed to be able to work around these limitations, as they always do, and extract whatever they needed, while leaving most of the rest of the country unchanged. 
Street in front of our hotel
As the flunky of the delegation, I was sent to pick up the luggage from the conveyor belt while the rest waited at the lounge. I checked each piece of the delegations luggage off my list, but alas, my luggage was nowhere to be found even as the last piece from the plane tumbled out. I was sent to get my statement taken along with the 20 or so other angry Angolans who had luggage missing as well. How they manage to miss out that many pieces is beyond me. So with me speaking only English and everyone else crammed into that little office speaking only in Portuguese, I somehow managed to be interviewed by an airport staff barking at me, and get a Portuguese form filled in about my lost luggage. The rest of my delegation had been taken to the hotel for a little rest, and thankfully they sent a car back to the airport for me. That night, I understood why torch lights were common issue in every hotel we stayed in Africa as I experienced multiple electricity cuts, which I was told, was the norm in the country. 

The next day, there was still no news about my luggage. While my boss had told me to always bring an extra change of clothes on my carry-on, my suits were all packed away in my check-in bag. So this little flunky showed up for the official programme for that day in a tank top and pencil skirt (lightest items to hand carry). Brilliant first impression I was making. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise as the day was filled with site visits, and in the African heat, I was glad I was not in a suit.
Flunky at the broken dam in a tank top looking rather malnourished
We were taken to visit a dam which was so damaged by the civil war that it could no longer produce hydroelectricity. Neither the government nor the private sector was willing to pump in the upfront costs to repair the dam so it sat there in decay and disrepair. It was hard to witness such unfulfilled potential. It was harder to think that in a land which produced so much fossil fuel and had so much renewable power potential, much of the population still relied on candles and firewood, and power cuts were a daily occurrence. This was my first run into the incongruence of this country, which also characterised much of the region.
The glassy swiftly running river

I also remember the river there as one of the most amazing things I had seen. At first glance, the water seemed to be still. Almost like a sheet of glass covered the water, yet at each drop, we could see the ferocity at which the river ran, and the raging rapids almost instantly disappeared into another glassy mass. I have never seen anything quite like it again. 
River meets rapids

Our next stop was a little chapel at the coast. The tiny white unassuming building did not betray its dark history as the place where thousands of Africans from Angola and its neighboring countries were "baptized" before being shipped off to Europe and America as slaves. Most never made it to the other side of their arduous journey. I thought of the thousands who where marched for hundreds of miles to the point where I stood, with the knowledge that only death, torture or immense hardship lay head. It was the place where "saving souls" and taking lives stood hand in hand. In the thick, warm coastal breeze, I could almost hear their cries of anguish.
Where the ships filled with slaves set off to the "developed" world

We were next told that we would be heading to a nearby township for a traditional lunch. I have come to learn never to trust anyone when they use the term "nearby". It turned out to be a 3 hour drive outside of the capital city, on majorly potholed and unpaved roads to a building in the middle of nowhere. 

By the time we got there, it was 3pm in the afternoon. The buffet spread was clearly laid out since normal people's lunch hour and the flies had taken over. I managed to shovel some potatoes and chicken into my mouth while praying the flies didn't carry some exotic African virus. Meanwhile, tribal dances and music was performed in all their glory for our enjoyment, but with my tummy churning, I could hardly enjoy anything.

It was soon time to take the long drive back. But of course, even the drive back could not be smooth sailing and we got a flat tire an hour into the journey.

That evening, I got back to my hotel room to find that my lugguage had been delivered. Seeing my stuff again brought an inordinate amount of comfort after the tough day. I embraced my stuff and slept like a baby that night through the sound of the dripping plumbing and the multiple electricity cuts that my colleagues complained about the next day, as our adventure continued...

Happy Birthday Singapore

The 9th of August. A day when Singapore is awash with red and white. The day when loyalty to the nation and patriotism is at its peak. A day when the everyday man looks forward to the most spectacular fireworks display of the year. 

This year, Mr Kwek and I were fortunate enough to score tickets to the NDP preview show the week before National Day. What a treat it was. With thousands of others at the floating platform, waving our national flag enthusiastically, we sang the old national day songs that we grew up singing, watched the deafening fly past, and stood in awe as the night sky exploded with a brilliant fireworks display. The experience was made even more incredible with the beautiful Singapore city skyline as the backdrop transforming magically from day to night. My heart swells with pride and joy. And I recognize that there is so much to be thankful for in our tiny country.

In recent years, my frequent travels have made me appreciate our little city state even more. Having seen incredible beauty, experienced exceptional efficiency, and felt exuberant vibrancy in other corners of the world, there is still no other place that has that perfect mix and holds my heart like Singapore does. And this year, as we celebrate national day, the words of the ever popular song resonates in my heart, "this is home, truly, where I know I must be."


Flunky In The Broken Heart Of Africa

They say that just like your first romance, you never really get over your first job. My first job was on the African desk. And for some reason, Africa has been on my mind a lot of late. So I've decided to write some of my memories down, before my goldfish brain forgets.

In early 2008, a few months into the job, I was told that I would be staffing a whirlwind 10 day 3 country tour of Africa- South Africa, Angola and Rwanda. 

The time in Rwanda, in particular, was surreal. Up until my feet touched Rwanda's soil, my only image of Rwanda was from the movie Hotel Rwanda. It was a picture of war mongering militiamen waving machetes and breathing threats. It was a picture of a country divided by an arbitrary categorization of its people by a foreign power. It was a picture of fear and death. About a year after writing my final term communications paper on the communication strategies employed by the Interhamwe militia, I stood on where it all really happened- THE Hotel Rwanda, the Hotel Des Mille Colines. Surreal is an understatement. 

Welcome to Hotel Rwanda

A visit to the genocide museum was arranged for us. I made it only about halfway through when I could take no more heartache from what I saw and I excused myself when we reached the room where the photos of those who perished- men, women, and children, stared resolutely down at each visitor. I couldn't even take the museum. I could only imagine what it was like to live through those days and it rends my soul to know the darkness on man's hearts. Emerging from a side exit of the museum, I was told that I could wait at the verandah which overlooked one of the mass graves used during the genocide. My heart broke.
The mass grave at the genocide museum
In the sheltered world of Singapore, wars and genocides are distant facts. They are occurrences in history books or something reported clinically on the news of something in a distant land. Yet being in Rwanda just over a decade after the genocide, I was keenly aware that each person I met probably lost someone they loved or witnessed untold horrors. In a tiny country which lost an estimated 20% of its population in about 3+ months of bloodshed, those we met were the lucky ones who survived. 
View of Kigali City

But with these thoughts swimming in my mind, what I saw was a completely different reality. Far from the sweaty violence, the Rwanda that greeted me was one of peace, calm and order, with a cool "eternal spring" climate to match. Unlike most of the other African countries I have visited, I did not see a single firearm the whole time I was in the capital city Kigali. Petty crime was not a concern and nobody had any trouble strolling along the streets at any time of day. There were no road blocks, which always brought an inexplicable fear in my heart. Neither was there a visible security presence. The only reminders of the days of terror were kept in the museums. Everyone seemed to have gotten on with their lives and decided to put the past behind them. This almost clinical determination to move forward was exemplified in the leaders we met. Each one was an exceedingly bright and well educated technocrat with steely resolution to beat the odds and push their small country up the ladder of global success. 
Meeting with the President of Rwanda
On the final day, we got to the airport to find that our flight was cancelled. With the help of the government officials, we scrambled to find new flights out of the city in order to make it to the next leg of our trip-Angola, in time for our meetings there. We finally got tickets which would bring us to Nairobi, where we would wait 5 hours before a flight to Johannesburg where we would have to spend the night, before the flight to Luanda. And even then, we had to leave one of our delegation in Johannesburg as there weren't enough tickets.

Some years later, an official told me that the flight that we were originally on was cancelled as it was deemed not safe enough for us to fly on. I was ever thankful despite the trouble it put us through. If these people who have lived through a brutal civil war say a flight is not safe enough to fly on, I believe them with all my heart. 
Children clutching English textbooks walking to school

Till today, I remain a fan of this little hilly country in the heart of Africa. As I read articles of Rwanda's success, my heart is glad. In a region where corruption, inefficiencies and violence which are considered normal, I hope with all my heart that this nation can continue to withstand the temptations and its people can walk in the way of the upright. Yet I know the criticisms of the government remain. 

Rwanda will always have a special place in the heart of this flunky. Maybe because I always root for the underdog. Or maybe because I see a little bit of Singapore in this fledging nation.