As a first-time visitor to Zambia, I’m captivated by this land of extremes.
We’re in the middle of dry season, and the parched ground is crumbling into a thick reddish-brown sand. Rain won’t return until November. Yet there is a profusion of flowering plants whose hardiness surprises me. Poinsettias, for instance, don’t grow in pots here. The plant in the backyard at our guesthouse is a 12-foot-high tree.
It may sound like a paradox, but it’s true that life is lived both on a grander scale and at the most basic level in Africa. Here in Mukinge, time seems to stand still and no one is in a hurry. I find the slower pace of life refreshing. We have been here for three days, and I think that is the sum total of cars we have seen ramble down the dirt road. Most people walk or ride a bicycle.
I have come to Zambia with a team from World Medical Mission, visiting some of the hospitals that Samaritan’s Purse assists with medical personnel and supplies. Our first stop is Mukinge Hospital, a 200-bed facility that was started in the 1950s and is now operated by the Evangelical Church of Zambia.
What I find most striking is the wonderful sense of community and the friendliness of the Kikaonde people. Relationships take center stage. You see the kinship among the long-term missionary doctors too, who have come from different parts of the world and bonded as family. And the close ties forged between the missionaries and their Mukinge neighbors is beautiful to see.
Zambians and Missionary Doctors Living in Community
This afternoon, we attended a birthday party for 8-year-old Emelyn, the daughter of Dr. Daren and Elissa Tompkins who are serving as long-term missionaries. The Florida couple originally came to Mukinge in 2006 for a two-month volunteer stint through World Medical Mission. They came back after being accepted into World Medical Mission’s Post-Residency Program and remained here from 2008 to 2010. The Tompkins enjoyed their work and the people of Mukinge so much that they returned in 2012, this time to stay.
Daren’s commute to the hospital entails a two-minute walk. The family medicine physician comes home for lunch and is usually home for supper unless he is on night watch. Elissa’s days are busily spent home-schooling and taking care of the Tompkins’ five children: Zach, 12; Nate, 10; Emelyn, 8; Drew, 6; and Ethan, 15 months old. They can play freely around the residential quarters. The fence around their house is for the dog, not the children.
Seven of Emelyn’s Zambian friends were among the large group of people who gathered in the Tompkins’ living room for the party. After the strawberry cupcakes were eaten and the birthday gifts were opened, all of the children went outside to play. One of their games involved Emelyn and the other little girls linking hands to form a circle. As they walked in step, the circle rotated but remained intact.
“The sense of community we have here is unlike anything I have experienced anywhere else,” Daren told me. “The missionary families and the Zambians do work and life together. We are very close-knit.”
Several missionaries also attended the celebration. The Tompkins are part of an expatriate staff at the hospital that includes medical professionals from Canada, England, Ireland, and New Zealand. Social events like these are important to the doctors, who need a break from the pressures of their workplace and gladly welcome the opportunity to just relax and have fun together.
Dr. Missy Sandberg is a Minnesota native who went on short-term mission trips with World Medical Mission during her residency training, serving at Tenwek Hospital in Kenya and Kudjip Hospital in Papua New Guinea. Like the Tompkins, she has found a home away from home in Mukinge.
“I have a busier social life here than I would probably have in the United States,” said Missy, who invited the Samaritan’s Purse team over for a Mexican dinner at her house during our first evening in Mukinge.
The missionary doctors do have an active social life—and food is usually a part of the event. Every other Tuesday night is a women’s Bible study. That alternates with prayer meetings every other Wednesday. A potluck dinner and DVD movie are the mainstay for Friday evenings, and after church on Sundays they gather for pancakes.
Support During Loss
The camaraderie and spiritual support are crucial. These doctors work six days a week. They rotate their on-call schedules, but because they are short-staffed, it’s hard to take time off for an extended period. Their prayer is that more missionary doctors will come and serve.
Daren spoke of the “perpetual loss” the staff must come to terms with in a developing country hospital environment where there is never enough medication or equipment. Nothing is more frustrating or heartbreaking than to have patients die that would have survived in a more advanced Western facility. The doctors do their best despite the limitations, and the patients appreciate the compassionate care they receive at a Christian hospital. Even though a government hospital is nearby, most prefer to come to Mukinge.
Losing patients is painful enough, but the death of one of their own in January of this year was devastating. Dr. Sarah Lantz, a general surgeon from Indiana and a former World Medical Mission Post-Resident, succumbed to breast cancer at the age of 34.
Her loss is still deeply felt here. I hear her name mentioned daily. We are staying at the home of Michelle Proctor, one of the British doctors who is currently on holiday and was a close friend of Sarah’s. When Sarah returned to the United States for treatments, Michelle brought her friend’s two cats into her home to join the two she already had. As I write, Sarah’s gray and white cat Lloyd is fast asleep in the chair here in the living room.
Grieving Sarah’s death united the missionary doctors even deeper as a family unit.
“It’s still hard without her here,” said Missy. “All of us are very much a family. We go through everything together. Our lives are so intertwined, and what affects one of us impacts us all. I’m so glad we have each other for support. We are here to help each other.”
That same sense of community—during times of rejoicing and times of sorrow—is seen in the corridors of the hospital. In the pediatric and adult wards, the nursing students begin the day singing songs to the patients. If the patients feel up to it, they chime in. When a patient dies, other women gather around the family members of the deceased to mourn, console, and pray.
A Team Effort
Our team was blessed to go to a worship service at a church about a mile from the main hospital complex. I enjoyed walking with other families down the dusty path toward the church. That’s something I haven’t done since I was a college student.
As members of the congregation filed outside at the end of the service, they were greeted with handshakes by a line of people who had exited before them. After we made our way to the end of the line, shaking each person’s hand along the way, we became a part of the line. The ritual of handshakes and joining an ever-widening circle continued until the last person walked through the church doorway. By then there were more than 100 people standing hand-in-hand together.
That moment symbolized for me what the mission of the local church, Mukinge Hospital, World Medical Mission, and the dedicated Christian physicians who serve here is all about. It’s a team effort that works best when the participants put aside their differences and yet value the unique strengths and talents of one another. That single-mindedness of vision and purpose can only come as they daily rely on the Lord.
Daren and Missy likewise appreciate the way the Kikaonde have embraced them, not just as doctors, but as friends. Unless God directs them elsewhere, they plan to continue serving in Mukinge for many years to come.
“This is how Gospel-centered healthcare is supposed to be,” Daren said. “God is using us to bless this community, and we are grateful to be a part of it.”