A Tanzanian reality check
By Jason Stormer | Sports Reporter
It’s the summer of 2008 and Stella Jacob has been told by doctors at the hospital that her infant child has passed away. They give her the body and Stella proceeds to cloak her child in an African garment known as a kanga.
By now, tears were falling down Amanda Maxwell’s face. Stella asked her earlier that day to be there when they went to the hospital. This was her second time visiting Tanzania on a mission trip. She now attempts to visit on an annual basis.
Before her first trip, soccer was the biggest focus of the Stillwater, Minn. native’s life. In 1998, she helped Stillwater High School to a state title her junior year, while also receiving the Minnesota Gatorade Player of the Year award. In her senior year in 1999, she was named Ms. Soccer Minnesota. After high school, she became a coach within the St. Croix Soccer Club program, a youth soccer developmental league and started her college soccer career at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, but transferred to the University of Minnesota, where she became the team captain. She graduated with a B.S. in elementary education in 2004. She then began working on her master’s degree in education at her alma mater and took a job as an assistant coach at Hamline University in Minneapolis.
She wanted to be a teacher and continue to be involved with soccer through coaching. Missionary work was never a part of the plan, nor was having to see a mother lose her child.
This child was the sixth Stella and her husband, William Jacob, lost, four of which came from miscarriages. One daughter made it 8 months.
Her son lived 9 months, but, like the daughter, complications from a premature birth caught up with the little one.
He was not expected to live as long as he did. He weighed two pounds at the time of his death.
The Jacobs’ didn’t even give him a name.
The average infant mortality rate for all African countries is about 52 per 1,000 live births. Tanzania is on the lower side of the median, according to 2014 demographics by Index Mundi, at about 44.
According to the CIA, nine of the 10 countries that have the highest infant mortality rates in the world are in Africa. Mali (102), Somalia (98) and the Central African Republic (90) have the highest rates throughout the continent.
Issues like infant mortality drives Maxwell’s passion for mission work. It took a movie to get her attention.
One night in the spring of 2005, Maxwell and her husband, Brandon, sat down to watch “Hotel Rwanda,” a 2004 film that depicts the Rwandan genocide of 1994. The film touched her in a way she didn’t expect. She had no previous knowledge of the genocide or other incidents that have caused bloodshed in Africa. To see this kind of plight opened a new perspective about what else is happening beyond her own world. Beyond soccer. Beyond what she knew as life to be.
After some research and receiving her master’s degree, Maxwell Brandon took off for Tanzania in 2006 to become missionaries through African Inland Mission International. The couple has gone back every year since and lived there full-time for three years from 2008–10. They have helped build a church and school in Madala, a village outside of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city.
Being Tanzania’s most popular sport, Maxwell also gets her soccer fix by teaching impoverished youth the fundamentals of the game and providing equipment. Before she got there, the children would roll trash bags into a ball and tie string around it to hold it together.
Maxwell has also experienced the challenges poverty provides the local people. She’s had her car broken into and her phone stolen right out of her hands while texting from the inside of a taxicab. She has seen first-hand what poverty has done and will make people do.
Stella carries her son out of a Dar es Salaam hospital just five minutes after doctors informed her that he passed away.
Stella puts their wrapped son in the backseat of their Toyota Camry and drives to their home on the outskirts of town in a village called Madala. As soon as they arrive, William goes out to the backyard and digs a grave. Stella brings their son from the car, lays him in his final resting place and they bury him. William, who is a local pastor, leads a quick prayer session with those in attendance.
Three close friends are in attendance. One is a neighbor. The other two are Maxwell and Brandon.
Few words are spoken. The Jacobs’ faces remain stoic as they look down to the oval-shaped patch of unraveled earth below them that now entombs their boy. The prayer session lasts less than a minute.
There is no funeral. No visitation. No obituary. Just a prayer circle.
William says the final words and everyone around the grave begins to walk away. Time to move on to the rest of the day.
The Jacobs have work to be done and a death is not an excuse to let it get in the way of a Tanzanian’s daily responsibilities.
They have obligations at Kanisa La Baptist, a church in the village they and the Maxwells founded in 2006, and Opportunity Nursery School, where William is the headmaster.
The Jacobs don’t shed a tear.
They acknowledge the reality of the situation and will try to move on knowing that nothing can be done to change the truth. In dealing with death, Tanzanian culture doesn’t focus on the loss of a person, but instead celebrate the life that was, no matter how brief.
They acknowledge the reality that resources necessary in providing health care for children born prematurely are not available to them because they are too expensive. Two-thirds of Tanzanian women give birth at home because of the cost and lack of local facilities that provide emergency services.
They acknowledge their belief that God has a plan for their family and they will continue to let His will be done.
Maxwell admires this resilient quality and trust in God. Today, Maxwell is the head soccer coach for Bethel University’s women’s soccer team and preaches the same values she has learned overseas on the pitch in St. Paul.
She lets her players know that there is nothing that can be done after a loss but to move on to the next game.
She tells her players that if they can power through the negativity in their lives, they can succeed in ways that go beyond soccer.
She tells her players that she believes God has big plans for each of them.
As the prayers conclude and the group disperses, the tears continue to fall down Maxwell’s face.
The others in attendance notice her grief, as Brandon, William and a few nurses who have been watching from afar try to comfort Maxwell.
Stella noticed her tears, too. She goes up to Maxwell and embraced her.
Stop crying. Stop crying, Amanda. Everything will be ok.