I have this little snack-sized baggie filled with slips of pink paper on my desk at work. It was given to me at a workshop to stimulate creative writing. The workshop was an all-day affair that was to stimulate us to think creatively and spiritually. We made collages, made up stories about things we pulled out of a bag and talked about our lives. I’m always looking for something to stimulate me to write. The only topic that ever really gets me going is mission and Sudan so I am writing this as we are at the last moments of packing to leave to go there again.
Those little pink slips I mentioned have silly phrases on them. You are supposed to pull one out every day and write on whatever it says. One of the papers says, “That’s stupid” and it is about what I thought when I saw them in the baggy. Another says, “Play it louder” and that is pretty funny as I sit at my desk listening to an entire band of bagpipers practicing “Scotland the Brave”! I think not.
The one phrase that haunted me is “a rare wood”. In Lui there is a wealth of amazingly beautiful rare woods. There is a huge mahogany that sits by the Good Road on the cathedral grounds that was planted by a boy as penance for something terrible he had done. This man, now quite old, told me the story himself. Teak plantations are planted by members of the Mother’s Union to raise money for their projects. Now that I am a card-carrying, dues-paid, member of the Mother’s Union, I might have to plant a tree myself! And, then there is the ebony.
I was fascinated to learn that the beds were made of mahogany right in Lui. And no veneers either. These beds, including the slats, are all made of gorgeous, red mahogany. It seemed an odd choice for an extravagance, I thought. The beds weigh a ton, too. Mahogany is so dense a wood. How could they work this amazing wood with just a few tools? Finally, I learned about mahogany: it has such a terribly bitter taste that termites won’t eat the wood! So it wasn’t an extravagance to make furniture of solid mahogany—that’s the only way it will last.
Poles of teak are used to make the framework of a mud hut and to make the base for the thatched roof. Unfortunately, termites will eat teak so, in the quiet of the night, you can hear the chewing of termites as they eat your roof. A snowfall of sawdust will fall on your bed at night if the Moru haven’t lined the inside of the roof of the house with plastic to prevent it. We saw huge termite mounds that had grown like cancerous tumors inside the payat (guest eating room) in Lozoh. Termites are a mixed blessing—they eat your house but they, themselves, are good eating! Once they are pounded into a paste, children and adults delight in dipping two fingers into the lovely termite paste. Thank God, I am vegetarian! They tell me it has a sweet taste but I was not tempted.
When they replaced the fence around the cathedral compound, they bought poles from the Mother’s Union. Fence poles are about three inches in diameter. They set the poles in deep holes and nailed three thin crossbars between each pole. Split bamboo was woven in and out around the crossbars to make the fence. It was kind of bamboo basket fencing.
I loved watching them make this fence but was stunned and horrified to discover they used a lot of ebony wood poles to make the fence poles, too! The Moru men would take their machetes and chop right through the ebony. “Why do you use ebony for a fence?” I would ask. The answer is, of course, that the wood was so hard that the termites didn’t eat it very easily. Of course, termites again. I should have known.
I was fascinated by ebony once I figured out which tree was ebony. It isn’t that impressive a tree and I had mistaken it for just some large overgrown shrub like an untended crape myrtle. But, that peeling, white bark covered something quite valuable. Only the heart of the ebony branch is black and strong. The rest of the bark looks like balsa wood that you might buy for crafts. Don’t mistake it for a soft wood—it is also hard—but it doesn’t have a pretty grain or a great color like the flame of the mahogany. The black heart of the ebony does have rings when you look at it closely. Ebony has a very beautiful heart.
The Morus told me that ebony could be used for making arrows, too, but they were really only used if you intended to do great harm to something. They aren’t practical for hunting animals for food because ebony—beautiful, black, hard ebony—shatters when it strikes its target. Nobody wants an animal full of black splinters! But, they said, if you wanted to shoot your enemy….
I sometimes feel like that ebony with its plain, unimpressive, white exterior but with a heart that is strong and that is so African-black sometimes; a heart that may seem so hard but shatters on impact. Ebony, a rare wood indeed. Better an ebony heart than a bitter mahogany one!
I’ll be home soon and my heart will be splintered again from contact with those I have come to love in Lui. Thank you for your patience and your prayers.
Lu ago talia’tokpe (Love and peace), Deb