Emily Wilkens is an animated, impetuous, jump-right-in-with-both-feet 25-year-old with a health science degree from Walla Walla University and her name on the cover of a new book published by Pacific Press.
African Rice Heart is a candid portrait of Wilkens’ six-month stint working at a small Adventist hospital in Béré, Chad in 2009.
Wilkens lived in the village with an African family where she slept in a tangle of children, learned to put in IVs, went skinny-dipping in a nearby river, and tried to learn the local dialect so she could communicate.
She kept a journal during her stay, which became the basis for her book – an open, honest, inspiring and very readable account of a young American’s experience in a very different environment than the one she grew up in in Spokane, Washington.
Spectrum interviewed Wilkens about living in Chad, her experience as a writer and about her recent book tour across the US.
Spectrum: When and how did you decide to turn your experience of living and working in Chad into a book?
Emily Wilkens: I wrote almost all of the contents of the book while I was in Chad. When I got back, I began putting it together in a progression that would unveil pieces of my experience chapter by chapter.
I wanted the readers to be able to go through some of the thought processes that I did, and that meant letting them step into some of the situations. That meant letting them envision themselves sleeping on a mat with 19 people under the stars. That meant letting them have a malnourished child tied to their back while they give the noon meds. I don’t believe I could have done that if I had waited to write the stories after I returned home. When you feel steeped and soaked in the emotion of an experience, it allows you to write about it with an authenticity that I think is valuable.
I also wanted the reader to begin to distinguish the two sides of poverty – the side that causes people to suffer, and then that other side which is actually simplicity – a piece that is beautiful.
Spectrum: You are very open in your book about your thoughts and feelings during your time in Chad - it's a very personal story. Was it difficult to decide to tell your story in that way?
Wilkens: Yeah, actually this is something that I thought about quite a bit as I was putting it together.
You know, as I read my perspectives and thoughts in the early chapters they feel fairly naïve. I didn’t speak French in the beginning, or the local dialect, and so it wasn’t until perhaps two or three months in that the writing started to be informed by anything other than my observation or by sparse translation from fellow volunteers.
So when I got back to the US and decided to put the writings together into a book, there were moments where it was tempting to edit my honest thoughts from day one, and day two, and even day 60, because I felt like I’d learned more since then.
But the editors at Pacific Press encouraged me to leave the writing raw. In some way, our naïve responses – the ones unedited and purely reactionary, can speak loudly about the place we are coming from, and they allow us to see a progression of growth, and that, at least for me, is as important for the reader as the lessons I hope are embedded in the stories of the people’s lives.
At the beginning of the book I wrote some first impressions of a developing country. From a layover in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia:
“It’s a different world here. That’s all I can say for now….I just wrote a paragraph of thoughts that have been going through my mind but found myself “backspacing” them away because they don’t make sense. I haven’t made sense of it yet. What about all these beggars? They’re not begging for money or for drugs. These are legitimately needy people who want food. What about all those sad lions we saw at the Addis zoo? They look so unhappy. What about this defensive mode of mine — this feeling that everyone is out to get me in one way or another? Should I have this attitude? Does it make me safe? It doesn’t seem to fit with focusing on others rather than on myself.
Sort. Sort. Sort.
File this thought here.
Dismiss that one.
Dwell on this one.
Yes, this one matters.
Oh—this is just the beginning.”
Those thoughts clearly show where I was coming from. I’d never really been exposed to poverty. Part of me, as I read now what I wrote then, wants to claim, “Hey! I know more now! I get it more now!” But that’s purely the prideful part of me.
Still, when someone references a certain chapter that they liked or that made them think or even if someone simply says, “Oh I’m on the chapter about….” I get off the phone with them, pull out a copy of the book and go to the section to see just what I wrote. It’s silly, but true. Part of me wants to ask people to be gentle in their critiques!
My dad also gave me some good advice: “Emily, you wrote this book, but this book isn’t YOU. It’s just a window of your experience.” And that has been a beautiful reminder.
Spectrum: You recently embarked on an ambitious book tour to academies and churches across the US to market your book. Why did you go? Was it a successful book tour?
Wilkens: The trip was born out of that naïve place in me that sets goals – doesn’t weigh them but simply picks them up and starts skipping off on the journey. There were a few points where I thought, “I didn’t anticipate this! And well, this is pretty hard!”
I left in the beginning of February from Spokane, WA, by car. The goal was to share stories, wherever people would listen.
It was about inspiring engagement with the world and people around us. I believe that the understanding I gained from my experience in Chad will be more of a service than anything I did in the hospital in those six months.
I had bright red hibiscus tea in a big black bag that my Chadian mother Jolie and the kids had sent back with me from Chad. They said, “Give it to the people, Emily. The people will like it.” And the people did like it — most of them anyway. At one retirement home where we shared, one old lady told me my tea tasted like dirt. To which, the lady next to her responded, “Just plug your nose and drink it, Marge!”
The tea party idea was one that felt reminiscent of the many tea parties we had in Chad. It’s a way to host people – to give them a reason to sit down. To give them a reason to stay.
I did the first states alone, and when I reached Lincoln, NE, I picked up my long-time friend Dylan Wren. We met teaching English in Prague, Czech Republic, for a year when we were 19. I knew he was one of the only people I could make such a long trip with and come away friends.
He had graduated from Union College with a degree in business and so his title became “Book Agent.” I could not have completed the trip without him.
He kept meticulous record of the money we spent and listened to my proposed career path change with each sequential state. He gave advice, challenged my ideas, supported my goals, never complained, and was up for whatever. He often cleaned the car and set our stuff in lines that made the trip seem less crazy.
I often pulled money out of my pockets and said, "Dylan, I don't know where this came from, but here." And he'd just take it, and tuck it into our cash box. Any other financial manager would have been so mad at me.
He quoted African Rice Heart often, saying things like: “Well on page 15 of this really good book I read once, it says…” and then he’d make me eat my words!
Spectrum: I can imagine that your adventures would be inspiring to high school students contemplating working abroad. Have students expressed this to you? Would you encourage students to do something similar?
The parents of a high school senior pulled me aside one day and thanked me for speaking at their son’s school. They said their son had a bad experience on a mission trip and had come back with a bitter taste and no further interest in service abroad. But after hearing the stories from Chad, they said that he had a new perspective and told his parents he wanted to take a year out to serve abroad when he got to college. These stories were the ones that gave me the energy to tell the story again.
My experiences serving were the most valuable parts of my college years. I want so badly to tell students that flying through school is not the only way! So many students tell me: “Well I really need to get through and get a job so I’m not old when I start my career.” But I tell them that in all of my interviews for jobs, scholarships, and even for Physican’s Assistant school, my experiences abroad are a source of conversation and have only helped in pursuing all of my goals.
Spectrum: What was the best thing about your six months in Chad? The worst thing?
Wilkens: The best thing about Chad may have had something to do with the way we slept. That sounds lazy, but hear me out. At night, after we’d all eaten, we’d lie out on these mats and the kids would play counting games in their dialect or Jolie my Chadian mother would sing. Soon we’d all fall asleep under the stars in a big mass of bodies. We’d share sheets and pillows too. We’d talk on and off until we were all out. Maybe at midnight, or 1am, the pigs, chickens, or dogs would come around our heads and wake us up. I didn’t mind the numerous times we were woken, because we’d talk and laugh and joke then fall asleep again.
The waking up routine almost lengthened the nights, the weeks — you could say it lengthened and enriched my whole experience in Chad even, And mornings came at 5am but the light would wake us up in the most natural way. I loved it! I loved the way we slept and the way we lived outdoors.
The most painful moments in Chad came when suffering ran its course — it wasn’t even just the death that became difficult, but it was the suffering. The woman vomiting solo out in the courtyard on her knees; the stillborn baby handed to the grandmother; the trial and error method of regulating insulin for the diabetic; bleach water dressing changes; the lost sense of hope of the woman whose leg was amputated. Those were the most difficult pieces of my experience.
I don’t believe that suffering is unique to Chad though. People suffer so much in the States too. The woman addicted to meth, the father battling cancer, depression robbing someone of joy.
While suffering is not unique to Chad, it was very overt and I was very close to it, which made it an issue that I dealt with every day. It challenged my relationship to God and my ability to genuinely pray with a trust in His plan. There were many ways in which the suffering of others wore at my optimism, my hope.
Spectrum: You worked as a nurse in a small and seriously understaffed village hospital in Chad. However, you have no training as a nurse, nor do you speak the language of the locals. Why were you and other Americans like you doing that work instead of local Chadians?
Wilkens: No, I never once felt as if I was taking someone else’s job. Because of the short-staffed situation, I felt that extra hands were needed. I felt that the volunteer staff was teamed and paired with the local staff in a way that felt good. I learned a lot from the local staff — they understand the social systems that really play into the administration of health care. Eighteen-hour night shifts at that time were covered by two nurses — two nurses for 75 beds, five wards, and the E.R. as well. Sometimes they just needed someone to take the vitals in the E.R. to speed up the process of seeing outpatients. Other times they needed someone in the lab to process urine samples if the load was more than usual.
Spectrum: How do you believe the Adventist philosophy of mission has made a difference in places like Chad?
I believe that at the hospital in Chad doctors have been incredible teachers for many local nurses. The hospital has a reputation of being a place where the doctorswant to pass on knowledge to the nurses, and the nurses like that. It’s a different mentality than other hospitals in Chad because in Chad it is beneficial to hoard your knowledge — it’s your power, your job security, your pride. I think the emphasis on education is beautiful.
The hospital has a worship service each morning that I really liked. I liked it because the patients would come and ask for prayer. I remember a few times, when the prayer was simply for comfort because their loved one had passed during the night. But I admired how the hospital had remembered to keep God as a Friend, a Father, and someone who was with us through healing and through loss.
Spectrum: You have a famous uncle. Carl Wilkens was the ADRA worker who refused to leave Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. How has he inspired you?
Wilkens: While Uncle Carl, my aunt, and my cousins lived in Africa they would come home on furlough and stay with us, so our families have always been close.
I've found that my uncle and I have a lot of similarities. In college I did some ethnographic research through interviews with the homeless of downtown Spokane. My uncle was a huge support and encouragement. He told me he'd keep his distance but be my bodyguard, which he did!
He has always been good at breaking down walls with people, and this really inspires me.
He often says, “When we engage our mind and muscle in acts of service, it changes our vision.” That’s what I hope to inspire people to do.
Spectrum: If you had to sum up what you learned during your months in Chad in a few sentences, what would you say?
Wilkens: I realized two things. First, we’re just a thinfilm of inhibitions away from each other at any given moment. And that if we could just understand each other better, we’d not be so afraid of one another. There is a quote I’ve said over and over: “The darkest part of any place is our ignorance of it.” I hope we can cross into the world of others more often and engage instead of staying isolated.
The second most important thing I learned was actually after I came back. I was struggling a lot with the things I had seen, finding no peace because of the suffering that was going on daily in that hospital. I was struggling with my relationship to God, and had not found the answers to my many “Why?” questions. Why God? Why humanity? Why, why, why? The questions left me unsettled and with such small faith.
Then I read a book called Drops Like Stars by Rob Bell that really helped me move out of the paralysis those questions had caused. In the book, Bell recognizes that we encounter pain as humans — we suffer. He writes:
“And when we try to resolve things too quickly or pretend that everyone is there when they aren’t or offer hollow superficial explanations…it’s not honest and it’s not right and it’s not real. It’s not how life is. I’ve heard people trying to be helpful in the midst of tragedy or accident or death by saying, “That’s just how God planned it,” while I’m thinking, “The God who planned THAT is not a god I want anything to do with.” Others with far more wisdom and experience than me have tackled the “why: questions of suffering. Here, in these pages, I’m interested in another question…not “Why this?” but “What now?”
Thinking about “what now” meant I no longer had to be paralyzed by “why.”
In the book, Rob Bell recognizes that there is a relationship between suffering and creativity — that while suffering destroys, there are also ways things can be built out of it.And maybe this is what God is doing through the kind hands of a woman bringing food to a starving child. Maybe He is creating through the surgeon who repairs a woman’s body who has been violated by rape. Maybe he is creating by empowering men and women to tell their stories in a way that inspires change.
My “why” questions are not all answered — I doubt they ever will be here on this earth. But the “what now?” question keeps me desiring to be close to a God who will work magic and create out of the suffering that His heart also breaks over.
Spectrum: How do you think your experience changed you? How do you think it will influence your future career decisions?
Wilkens: Getting to be part of a village – a literal village – really impacted me. The village mentality is open and connected.
And the hospitality of Chad broke my heart in the best way —the way that breaks it wide open. Jolie, my mother there, was such a good villager. She served people in the smallest yet most consistent ways. Hosting guests, getting me her pillow, heating water for her husband’s bath, feeding the neighbor’s children. She was such a good villager — a key piece of a community. I think that example is one I hope I can settle into more. In any given moment, in any given situation, we can always strive to be a good villager — be a helpful, self-less, honest piece of our present place.
Spectrum: What do you plan to do next, now that the book tour is over?
Wilkens: As far as my future, I'm still searching, to be honest. I’ve let go of the idea, however, that my future still has yet to begin. Today is a day I can place before God—as is tomorrow. One of my favorite verses is Roman’s 12:1 (The Message). It says:
“So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life - your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life - and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him.”
This verse gives me so much direction for the present moment, and when I feel stressed about coming to a conclusion about my future, I can bring my heart back down to the very second I’m in, and it calms me.
I have a friend who really inspired me with his perspective on vocational pursuit. He told me that he was not so concerned with what he would do so much as who God wanted him to be. And this is something I also feel can be a present pursuit in a time of searching.
Watch a short film about Emily Wilkens’ time in Chad here: http://starsgoings.blogspot.com/p/african-rice-heart-film.html
Order African Rice Heart from Pacific Press here: http://www.pacificpress.com/index.php?pgName=prodReadPub&sku=0816324026
You can find an audio version of the book read by Wilkens at www.cdbaby.com/emilywilkens