In the Land of Rugged Mountains

by - 4:58 PM

This is my first week in the land of rugged mountains, also infamously known as the graveyard of empires. It is a land of resilient peoples who will never give up a fight, but who have over time, been crushed under the oppression of countless tyrannies. When I touched down, the airport chaos was as I expected. I won’t deny that I felt rather insecure about how well I had worn my scarf… I was greeted by stern faces and long queues through the passport control – and oh, people jumping those long queues like it was standard procedure. Then you had everyone frantically trying to match their luggage tag numbers to the bags streaming haphazardly through the conveyor belt. Local young men pushing trolleys offering to carry bags for the arriving passengers. Since signs were virtually non-existent to guide you out of the airport, you had to figure your way out. Thankfully, after navigating the cacophony of people yelling and bustling about, I spotted my assistant and our driver. It was surreal to finally be on the ground, witnessing the chaos of the streets, where cars know no lanes and traffic lights either do not exist or exist for somewhat decorative purposes. I loved how the local music playing on the car radio was a perfect soundtrack for the moment. There were vendors and beggars, many of them teenagers or children, roaming the streets. There were these bizarre-looking make-shift shops on the dusty road side that were selling broken, dismembered car parts, batteries, and various other items hung with wire from tin roofs. There were beat up Corollas, local taxis, buses crammed with people, and the occasional Medecins San Frontiers truck or some white Land Rover, a real stand-out. It somehow reminded me of Africa, but with a different vibe, as you saw the young women in scarves or other unidentifiable ones clad in black or blue burqas.

My assistant is a wonderful young man who recently graduated from the school and who aspires to be the next piano teacher in my place. It is part of my work to mentor and prepare him for that enormous responsibility ahead of him. Even though I was dead tired from the 14-hour flight, the 5-hour transit and another 4-hour flight to my final destination, I now felt so suddenly alive and full of joy. I incessantly fired him with questions and he heartily responded. I got to hear his story and I recall a moment when I asked, “So, what’s your dream?” He chuckled shyly and said, “I just want to be a very good teacher.” Well, that was enough to melt my heart a thousand times!

When we arrived at the school, it so happened that the whole staff were having a meeting with Dr. S, the founder of the institute; so I got the chance to be introduced to everyone. I was so touched when he introduced me as the brave girl who emailed him right at the time when the city was being rocked by several attacks, and that I had determined to come and not pull out. For the first time in many months, the school finally has its complete music faculty, including a new strings teacher that also fearlessly arrived a month ago. Throughout the week I saw the orchestration of Providence over all these details that have lined up in preparation for my time here. I was amazed when Dr. S perfectly summarized my reason for being here, and that just like all of them present, I was here to use the ‘soft power’ of music to stand against the tyranny of darkness, violence and injustice, to see transformation and healing in the lives of the next generation. It was a powerful and poignant moment as we all looked around at each other and nodded silently in mutual understanding. Afterwards I got to greet the three young conductors of the school. I’d heard about them from pictures and interviews online; it was so exciting to meet them in person and they were also excited to learn from me, as all three of them were also piano students.

Later, I was taken to my living quarters, a wonderful 2-bedroom apartment with a breath-taking view of the mountains and the city. It was exactly what I’d imagined in my mind when I hoped and prayed for a location that would give me a vantage point of the land. It was an absolutely surreal moment, standing there with my ukulele, suitcase, and backpack, my shoulders aching from the long journey. The last three months have passed in a whirlwind of prayers, decisions, emails, packing, and preparations. Now, it has culminated in my arrival – standing in this bare room, in a land that I had been drawn to through many biographies and stories since I was 17. A land I had desired and prayed to come to, bringing music and carrying hope. A people that I wanted to embrace, understand, and learn from. Now that I am finally here, I am immeasurably glad that it has taken much quicker – and I much younger – than I thought. Yet at the same time, it left me feeling slightly petrified at the prospect…

The past 7 days have passed by so quickly as I’ve thoroughly loved, loved, loved (and love) my work at the school like I have never loved work before. I was busy throughout, working with my assistant to set up the teaching schedule, meet all my students, and get used to living in a land of many contradictions. Navigating the security protocols and various cultural rules, both spoken and unspoken, was also part of the hectic week. Nevertheless, I endeavoured to bring a new smile to the place, and it was pure joy to teach individual students at the piano. For the older students who could speak English, I would ask them to share a bit of their life story and their musical journey. I wish I could speak about all of them – one day I will – because they are heart-wrenching, honest, inspiring, and unbelievable stories that fill me with a full heart of love for each one of them. Even though they are young, it feels like they have lived a lifetime. Many of them have backgrounds on the street, in orphanages, or of a life in the limbo of displacement because of the conflict over the years. For the younger students, a few of whom are new, it was a bit more difficult to communicate because of the language barrier. But it gives me great incentive to learn the language and sprinkle in local phrases alongside English in my teaching.

Just like how I felt on my journeys to Rwanda, and the miraculous things that happened there, I can honestly say that I feel the same sense of assurance and calling in being here at such a time as time. At a time when many are leaving and have left in the past months due to the precarious security situation, I have the full conviction that this is moreover exactly why I should be here. Dr. S personally met with me and said he was touched by my message to him in January after a huge blast that shattered a main street in the city, where I wrote my conviction saying that I firmly believe we ought to continue our work all the more because it will instil bravery in our kids. He placed his hand on his heart and said it meant a lot for him to receive that email. It is in a place of utmost darkness that those who carry the light must remain to shine brighter than ever. In such times, the smallest gesture – a smile, a kind word, a song sung, a melody played, a meal shared – stands out in stark contrast to the despair, frustration, fear, and hopelessness that threatens to devour every living thing in its path.

I have come to realize that the greatest choices we can take are led by the internal decision we make to choose to live and act not by fear, but by faith. What do I mean by faith? Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things yet unseen. I always tell myself, I will never see what’s on the other side if I do not climb over the mountain and see past the horizon for myself. To traverse the dangerous mountain terrain is to hold the internal conviction that it is better to go by faith, believing that something on that other side is worth discovering, rather than to hold back in fear, thus losing the opportunity to meet with a destiny that awaits us. Living by faith has never been an option for me, but an essential value in my way of life and that of my family’s. What is the worst that could happen? Yes, we are risking our lives, but death is an imminent fact anyhow. (Maybe sometimes I don’t know the full weight of what I am saying.) And furthermore, if I hold the hope that death is not the end, but the beginning of Eternity, then why should I be afraid to answer a Call to the frontiers unknown? One decision can change the course of your life and the lives of many. Therefore, it is never a question of whether it is worth it or not, but it is about our willingness to count the cost and choose the narrow way that will bring life to those in lifeless places. That, is always worth it – even at the expense of our entire lives, our time, energies, talents, money, resources, reputation, position, and countless other ‘lesser’ things.

Nevertheless, the challenges abound. There were several times this week when I woke up in the dead of night or early dawn, startled awake by the unusual sounds that resonated in the cold air. I think on various occasions I definitely heard a donkey baling, dogs howling, helicopters or planes rumbling, gunshots firing, motorcycles and cars revving (in the middle of the night when the shots were heard), grill gates slamming in the housing block, prayer calls echoing in the stillness at 4am, and many other sounds I wouldn’t hear if I were back in my Australian abode. I love it because it tells me that I’m here, far away from my normal life. But I also hate it, because I’d wake up with this inexplicable dread that I am so, so far away from home and I really am all alone (but am I?). It is not a feeling that is jarring or sharp, like say, a painful paper cut; it is more like a dull thumping in your belly, the gruelling feeling you get in your gut when you wake up early in the morning knowing that this is the day you are going for an important exam or competition. Except that this is neither an exam nor competition; it is daily living in a hard and unpredictable place.

The other thing that is difficult is feeling that you cannot really trust anyone. It is sometimes hard to choose between discernment and suspicion. One must guard from becoming pessimistic or paranoid. Yet, you must always be about your wits. You must always have a plan B at the back of your mind if something unforeseen happens. When you’re stuck in traffic, crawling along the road with cars honking and swerving, the dull thumping in your head reminds you that at any moment, something could go off and everything could go really, really wrong in an instant. And I’m not being melodramatic. Even though it’s my first week, I’m not the only person who goes through this. Talking with colleagues who have lived here for a few years, they speak of the same nagging thoughts assaulting them every now and then when they are conscious of the fact that they are living in such a volatile country.

Nevertheless, the thing that is my rest and quiet peace is when I get to sing and talk with my Lover, and read His beautiful, comforting words in solitude by a small lamp. Sitting on my carpeted floor, on a large pillow cushion called a toushak, I hold my ukulele and sing. I lean back, close my eyes and pour my heart out in tears and cries and unspoken words. Groanings of the spirit. This is something that I can only experience here, when I have no one else but Him. I am infinitely thankful that in my 20s, I am getting this unique opportunity to do what I love – empower the next generation to expand their hearts, minds and spirits in creativity, courage and compassion – to live where I am called, and to discover what my Father is doing in a place that is in desperate need of the reality of light, hope, justice, and sonship. I may be afraid for a little while, but I am no longer fearful when I am reminded of why I am here.

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