African Rice HeartCategory:
Recent student missionary publishes book
Three years ago, Emily Wilkens flew into the unknowns of Chad, hopped on a motorcycle and found her destination amidst the desert flats in the village of Bere. This month, she holds in her hands a hot-off-the-press copy of her very own book, “African Rice Heart,” a compilation of prayers, letters to friends, journal entries, poems, and blog entries from her time in Chad.
Wilkens, a 2010 health science graduate of Walla Walla Univeristy, spent six months working as a nurse in the hospital in Bere and living with a family of nineteen.
“However, let’s remember that I’m not a nurse,” says Wilkens. “I had done some phlebotomy training at the community college in Walla Walla, and had some training in medical assisting, but even so, the hospital was a very stressful place for me. Even a hard place for me.”
The book contains over 80 short chapters, each introducing different aspects of Wilkens’ experiences and her understanding of them. Though she had not originally anticipated pulling her various writings together into a book, she later felt the desire to inspire others to take part in the same kind of learning she had experienced in Africa.
“As I found myself with a place in that family and culture, I found that I was hitting new feelings in my chest left and right,” says Wilkens. “And through writing, I was learning to translate emotion into words and writing became a very important part of learning, of understanding, of coping. It was the kind of learning that helps you understand someone and be able to love them better.”
Wilkens arranged her book chronologically, so the reader can move through the experience, learning with Wilkens and watching her understanding and perspective change.
“I think there’s a progression as I go from being very much an observer of the culture, lacking language skills, to being an active part of conversations,” she says. “There is so much more light toward the end of the book – so much more insight coming from the people.”
Taking her book and experiences on the road, Wilkens is spending the next couple of months presenting across the country, in high schools, elementary schools, bookstores, chapels and churches. She considers her message one of engagement vs. isolation. To demonstrate, Wilkens shares a story about meeting a young woman in Boulder, Colorado, while staying in a hostel there for a presentation. The woman had bicycled from Canada to Mexico.
“I asked her what her main take-away from her trip was, and she said, ‘I realized that people want to be connected to each other, but we lack a reason to be. When I was biking and my circumstances created a reason, I connected to so many people.’ She was dead on,” says Wilkens. “People are scared to take part in others’ lives. I want to inspire people to engage with each other, because it brings so much understanding, and that understanding allows us to love so much more deeply.”
Wilkens hopes that her presentations across the U.S. will draw people to Walla Walla University.
“WWU so clearly wants to reach out in service locally, nationally and internationally,” she says. “I really hope that hearing my stories will draw people here who want to be a part of that.”
When people who have read her book tell Wilkens they’ve fallen in love with her African family, or that they cried when reading about the suffering many people live under in Chad, it gives Wilkens hope for her African “brothers and sisters.”
“It gives me hope that there will be understanding in the future, and that their opportunities for health and education might be better,” she says. “They are absolutely deep and incredible people with stories and joy that deserve to be told, so I’m grateful for the opportunity for that to be done in this book.”
Though Wilkens was scheduled to start school in May with the intention of becoming a physician’s assistant, a recent return trip to Chad gave her pause. Though she’s not sure of her future, she knows at some point she will return again to Chad. Meanwhile, she says she’ll battle the guilt she believes all returned volunteers feel, think of her family in Africa, pray for them, and send her love their way daily.
On her most recent visit to Chad, Wilkens found that working night shifts at the hospital made her chest tight and her blood pressure rise, but that cooking in the mornings with the women in the hospital courtyard, speaking in foreign languages and learning from each other lit her up.
“I’m definitely searching right now,” says Wilkens. “I’m praying a lot and in these times when I feel I’m being flighty in decisions and feel like I’ve got no anchor for the future, I remind myself that our destination is secondary to our connection with God through the process. So I’m trying to stay connected.”
Wilkens’ book, “African Rice Heart,” can be purchased at Chocolate Apothecary in Spokane, Wash., or from Wilkens herself on her tour. The book will be made widely available on March 1 in ABC Christian Bookstores. Inspired by two blind friends, Wilkens made an audio version of her book, which is available for download by clicking the link below.
View a video from Wilkens’ time in Africa by clicking the link below.