The Palm Tree

The children and I raced each other out to the patio to take a break from home-schooling while the late-morning heat was still bearable.  Our rough-hewn outdoor furniture faced an inlet of Lake Victoria, about 150 yards away, past native grasses and a communal garden plot. On one side was a tall, picturesque snag, its man-sized trunk shiny with smoothly peeled bark, the branches high and irregular. Close to the water’s edge was a lovely palm tree, shapely and symmetrical. It was the centerpiece of our lake view, a symbol of beauty, creating a postcard panorama.

Visual beauty was important for nourishing and refreshing my soul because of the primitive nature of our living situation. Our compound had been scraped out of jungle just a year before, and the red earth surrounding our house had a bare, scarred look. I planted starts of purple verbena, neon-bright cannas, and poinsettias outside our house to beautify the dull mud-brick walls. We decorated the interior of our enclosed pit latrine (a hundred-yard trek from the house) with “Far Side” cartoons and samples of the children’s penmanship lessons.

Our small village had only sporadic electricity and no running water, and we were reluctantly becoming very familiar with kerosene lamps and plastic water cans. We became expert at getting clean with a one-gallon plastic “camping” shower bag. Our daughters managed to keep their long hair well-groomed, in spite of shampooing with tepid water in a red plastic bucket. It was the absolute height of luxury when we took our semi-monthly trip to the Lake Victoria Hotel in Entebbe, a bouncy twelve miles away. We gladly paid the fee for a long HOT shower and a swim in the sparkling pool.

Life on the shore of Lake Victoria was both a pleasure and a frustration. We enjoyed the rhythmic sound of the oars of the local fishermen leaving the shore just before daylight, and appreciated buying fresh tilapia or Nile perch for dinner when they returned with their catch. During the rainy season, we saw spectacular electrical storms across the lake, and once even witnessed the awesome but scary approach of a tornado as it advanced on the surface the lake and passed directly over our house. A major frustration was not being able to swim in the lake, as it was a breeding ground for a nasty tropical parasite.  We could only wistfully imagine the pleasure of cooling our overheated bodies by sinking into the refreshing water. The nightly arrival of malaria-bearing mosquitoes was heralded by their peculiar hum from the border of papyrus between the garden and the lake. It always reminded me of an orchestra tuning up–slightly discordant and anticipatory, but here, it had a sinister edge. Once we saw or felt the first mosquito land on an arm, we headed indoors, regardless of the time or the view.

Absent-mindedly washing breakfast dishes one morning, I paid little attention to the small group of local workers heading down towards the lake in their shorts and rubber boots, each carrying a machete. It was a typical morning that engaged the senses in that peculiarly African way: pungent smells of charcoal cooking fires and rotting tropical vegetation, rising heat on my skin, the rhythmic pounding of mortar and pestle for ground-nut sauce, punctuated by the strident calls of hornbills and the communal chatter of weaver birds. Gradually my mind registered that something was different.

An unfamiliar noise seemed to be growing louder, and I went outside to investigate. The farm workers were standing by the fence at the edge of our yard, casually looking on as a raging fire swept through the papyrus and other foliage near the lake. As I watched in horror, the flames raced across the grass and leaped at “my” palm tree. I ran toward the cluster of men, yelling at them to put out the fire. But I was too late. As I reached the fence, the beautiful green fronds were suddenly ablaze, and just as suddenly were limp and charred, leaving only a blackened asparagus-shaped stub.

“Why did you set the fire?” I cried.

“It was necessary for the garden, Madam,” was the casual reply.

I asked, “But why did you let it burn the tree?” The men shrugged their shoulders awkwardly as they observed my obvious distress.

“Don’t worry, Madam”, one said, “You can always plant more trees.”

In frustration and anguish, I sobbed, “But I won’t be here to see them!”

For weeks afterwards, I avoided looking at the lake, not wanting to see the charred stump that ruined my postcard view. The black trunk seemed only too clearly to symbolize the ruin of my early hopes and anticipation of impacting lives in Uganda. It was almost more than I could bear. Not only did we deal with constant threats to our personal safety, but there were numerous other difficult circumstances that suddenly seemed overwhelming. The frequent visits of deadly snakes on our compound, sometimes even inside our house, the challenge of home-schooling three bright children without adequate resources, and the ongoing difficulty of providing nutritious meals for my family on a very limited budget and without household help, all threatened to drown me. The loss of the palm tree and what it represented took its toll, and I skated on the edge of depression and despair.

My circumstances were inescapable; we were only mid-way through a two-year commitment to our task in Uganda. As I fought discouragement and hopelessness, I finally realized that I faced a choice.  Would I succumb to self-pity, letting it suck me into the black bog of despair and fear, or would I again embrace the truth of God’s love, protection and provision? I can’t say it was an easy, straightforward, or painless choice. But somehow I knew that the only way out of the dark pit was to trust that, regardless of the fire of my circumstances, my loving Heavenly Father would bring good and growth into my life. So I slowly began to subdue and replace the negative thoughts, and once again looked for beauty in the middle of disorder and difficulty. I planted a new flower bed, figured out how to “bake” cookies in a frying pan over a propane burner, and moved gradually away from the edge of despondency.

Our situation didn’t change significantly. Life really didn’t get any easier, but it became bearable, with new moments of joy. Then one day a month or so later, I was astonished to see a green sprout coming out of the top of the burned palm stump. Gradually more fronds emerged, and a pleasing silhouette began to reappear. In just a few weeks, the branches were shapely and symmetrical, and my favorite vista was restored. Now, however, it was not only a symbol of beauty, but also a symbol of God’s faithfulness and His grace for overcoming devastation.

First published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Finding Your Happiness, November 2011

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