Please look around and continue visiting my blog so that I can keep you up to date about everything having to do with my serving in Tanzania ! Feel free to email me with questions and please keep me in your prayers!
Matthew Sroka

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Man vs. Ants

As I sat outside, watching the sun make it’s slow descent over the African horizon, I noticed a black mass covering the ground about 20 yards from the house.  Confused by the oddity of the mass, I got up and walked towards it.  The black mass had just begun to enter our yard.  As I walked closer, curiously squinting in an effort to discover what it was, I saw that the mass was alive.  I jumped back when I realized what it was.  Ants.  It was an army of siafu, biting ants.  I ran into the house and grabbed Emily. 
We had heard of these ants before.  There were many stories from other missionaries about how they were walking at night and accidently stepped in a line of siafu. Within seconds they would crawl all over you. Biting you.  Not painful bites, more like obnoxious mosquito bites, but to have all these pinching ants crawling over you can make for a painful time. 
One ant couldn’t do much damage, but the key to the siafu was their numbers. And on this occasion I had never seen so many ants in one spot and much to my horror the ants were on the move, the mass slowly inching inevitably closer to our house. I did what I always do when there is a problem in Africa; I ran to my neighbors.
“Atu! Musef!” I screamed as I ran to their door. I knew time was of the essence as very soon the siafu would overrun our house; moreover, the sun was setting and night would soon arrive which would make this battle all the more difficult.  Atu and Musef ran outside to see what was the matter. I explained and showed them what the problem was.  They didn’t seem as concerned as I thought they should have been.  Musef said, “Mr. Matt, you must leave.” 
“Leave?  What do you mean?” I responded rapidly, panicking enough for the both of us. 
Musef answered coolly, “You cannot stop the siafu.  You must just wait till they have passed.  Take the food from your house and let them come in your house and they will soon pass through.” 
With this blasé answer my mood immediately changed from panicky to angry.  “Musef!” I said, “We do not have time to remove all of the food and I will not let the siafu just come through and destroy my house. We must stop them.”
Musef saw my determination said, “ok”, and then took off running in the opposite direction grabbing his sister Atu as he went.  “I am coming!” He shouted as he ran away from me. 
The siafu were now about ten yards away from the house.  If they entered the house the battle would be lost.  In vain I tried stomping the siafu, but I was not even making a dent and all the while I was getting bit.  Then after about a two-minute absence, my neighbors returned wielding branches.  They arrived panting and sweating but smelling like fresh mint.  Atu handed me some of these branches that emanated a minty smell.  I watched and then followed suit as Musef lined the outside of our house with these branches.  Meanwhile Emily and Atu spread corn flour across the doorway and the windows.  Atu explained to Emily how the siafu do not like the corn flour nor do they like the branches that her and her brother had retrieved from the forest. 
After lining the house with branches, Musef grabbed the largest of the branches and much to my dismay, ran right into the middle of the mass of siafu.  I watched in disbelief as like a mad man he yelled and slammed his branch on the siafu.  Killing many and making many others disperse. He was able to take about four big whacks before sprinting back to the safety of my porch. His sister quickly went to work pulling the siafu off her brother as he writhed and wiggled with every siafu bite.  Atu laughed loudly at all his brother’s squirming and told him to hold still.
It’s moments like these where I couldn’t help but step back and ask myself where am I and how did I get here.  Our house is about to be overrun by a swarm of black biting ants. My neighbor is fighting these ants like a warrior battling his arch nemesis. However, every three minutes he must take a break from this battle to run to his sister who picks these tiny foes off his body.  As Atu laughs, I can’t help but laugh with her, and then I grab my branch and following Musef into the masses yelling for Emily to be ready to pick siafu off me in a couple minutes.  Well, Musef lasted a couple minutes. I lasted about 30 seconds before I ran back to Emily to help pluck of the siafu. Our house may have been in danger and the siafu bites did sting, but Emily and Atu could not help but laugh at the contortions we made as ants literarily ran up our pants. Soon Musef and I were laughing too*. The siafu bites had become more mundane as over and over again we ran out and reigned blows on the small beasts then raced back to our sister and wife to recover from the battle. 
By nightfall, the ants had not left, but they had also not entered our house.  We had stopped their march, but they remained a large ominous mass in our front yard.  Our corn meal and minty branch barriers appeared to have done the trick.  Occasionally, a brave, poor ant would break through the barriers and run into our kitchen just to meet its quick end at the bottom of a shoe.  However, this was not the time to celebrate because we weren’t sure the war was over.  Every hour we would scan our flashlights out the window onto the black masses to see if they had left us; they had not. Emily and I lay in bed in what was one of our longest nights in Africa, too frightened to go to sleep.  Whenever we closed our eyes we imagined waking up to sight of siafu covering every inch and crawling in every orifice of our bodies.  There was little sleep had the night, but eventually in the wee hours of the morning we both found uneasy rest.
We woke early the next day to the find the ants had left.  Besides the white powder and countless branches that lined our house, there were no signs that there was even a battle the night before.  The siafu had vanished leaving no trace behind.  Emily and I feeling more fatigued then victorious, returned to bed, where we remained for a long time.

*Authors Note:
At the conclusion of writing all of my blogs I give them to my wife to read to see if my memory agrees with hers and it also offers us a chance to reminiscence about some of our past adventures. Let the record show that after she read this particular entry she remarked that I failed to accurately capture the horror of the incident. She recalls less laughing and more cowering. It’s been duly noted Emily.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

What Africa Taught Me about Friendship

I am not a very gregarious person. I have many acquaintances, I am on friendly terms with everyone I know, but I have very few close intimate friends. This is a direct result of my personality. At times, I can be anti-social and often takes me a long time to feel comfortable opening up to people I don’t know. It is not a coincidence, that my closest friends are people I have known for many many years. With all of this said however, one of my friendship and connection happened to be with two people that I spent a mere six months with several years ago, and since then we have a hung out a mere two times.  Yet, the profoundness and depth of our relationship (at least from my perspective) has been rarely matched.
When I had first set out for Tanzania I had little international travelling experience. I say ‘little’ only to be factually correct, though I think it would be more accurate to say I had no experience.  The little experience I had of leaving my homeland involved a cruise trip with my family to the Bahamas and a one-week church youth mission’s trip to Toronto, Canada. This was the extent of my international travels before I decided to go by myself to live in Tanzania, Africa for six months not knowing a soul in Tanzania, or in all of Africa for that matter.
Physically, I was 23 years old, in good health, and I was up for the challenge. Spiritually, I felt this where God wanted me and I was in a good place. Mentally and emotionally, I was as ill-prepared as it is possible for someone to be. 
            I arrived in Tanzania and met all of my fellow missionaries who had also decided to dedicate 6-months, a year or two years of their lives to teaching middle school and high school in poor villages. As I was introducing myself to this group of 9 young men and women it hit me; I thought to myself “What kind of weird person (myself included) would just leave whatever they were doing in America to come work for free in Africa?”  At this moment, I immediately decided that I could not be friends with any of these people because they were either: A) religious fanatics who one could not have a real conversation with because they were too busy meditating on God, talking about God or praying to God or B) mentally unstable. 
            The small group of us went through training together.  Training for Village Schools International (VSI) is intense and extremely stressful. It is fascinating to see how people react to stressful situations and few things in my life have ever matched the stress level of VSI’s training program. Being introduced to a brand new culture, being surrounded by a an unfamiliar language, suffering from a lack of sleep, and having a bad case of homesickness, all adds up to an amalgam of frustration causing oneself to second-guess life decisions that have led you to this point. Some people in the group responded with tears, some anger most remained positive despite the hardships (lending further credence that they were in fact emotionally unstable as hypothesized in the previous paragraph). As for myself, I responded to this stressful situation by retreating into quiet thoughtfulness and contemplation (very close to but not akin to brooding) about how I ended up here. And then there were David and Rachel…
            One of the things that scared me the most about going to Africa was I had to leave my then girlfriend (now wife) Emily. We had grown up going to the same church; friends since middle school, boyfriend and girlfriend since high school, and virtually inseparable since college. Our lives had become so intertwined that it was to the point that I did not know how to function in the world without her. This was actually an argument I told myself for leaving, that I’ve become too reliant on her and this would be a good experience to show and practice self-reliance… stupid.
Anyway, through training Emily was often (okay fine, always) on the front of my mind. And then there were Mr. and Mrs. David and Rachel Bryant. David and Rachel who were so damn in love and affectionate with one another you would have thought this was their honeymoon. And I resented the hell out of them.  Every time I looked at them it reminded me of Emily, or more specifically it reminded me of what I was missing.  And like one who has always enjoyed masochism, I found myself spending more and more time with them.  And the more time I spent with them the more I realized they were my exactly what I needed. Where I was homesick, insecure and lonely, not only did David and Rachel have each other, but also they were both well-travelled having lived in both Europe and America at different points in their lives. And where I was just trying to survive from one day to the next, they were setting up a home and preparing to make Africa their home. Soon, though they were only a few years older than myself, I had forced them to become my surrogate parents while in Africa.  I spent many nights at their house, eating dinner, talking about our pasts, and (most enjoyably) watching episodes of The Office on their laptop. We did not have a lot in common, but by (my) necessity we became the closest of friends. I felt alone and scared and homesick and they took me in and for a least a couple hours a day when I was at their house, I was in a home. And even if it wasn’t my home, it was enough to get me through.
Friendships originate for a variety of reasons. Some originate from common life histories, some originate from common experiences, some originate from convenience, and some originate from necessity. David and Rachel didn’t need me, but I needed them. And therefore, I clung to them with emotional attachment the like of which I had never clung to anyone else. I clung to them like a boy who is lost in a city, strangers everywhere, and then he sees his mother and runs to her and clutches her leg tight, not letting the grip go even for a second for fear of being swept away. David and Rachel were my anchor to sanity, to normalcy, to home, and because of that we now have a bond that is eternal, even if we never see each other again.
Since returning from Africa I’ve had the opportunity to see David and Rachel two times. The first time was at my and Emily’s wedding. The second time was in Hawaii, as we both happened to be vacationing there over the same week.  Both times we hung out there was something missing. I was married and I had my wife, and I had my home, I no longer needed them.  However, we talked and hung out and it was like hanging out with family.  Even though, the situation has changed and I no longer needed them, the bond that we shared was still there. A bond forged through trials and necessity is a bond that is not easily broken.  I haven’t seen or talked to David and Rachel in years, yet I still consider them some of my closest friends, and this will always remain true.