Now that I’ve been back for a few months from my year in Malawi, I’ve had more of a chance to reflect and process my time there. I wanted to take some time to share some thoughts from the field that I hope are helpful for other people.
Many of my closest friends are women who have served overseas as a single person, and we’ve been able to talk and discuss and share our experiences. In our conversations, there are some common experiences that I think that we have had, and I wanted to bring them to light. There are definitely great advantages to going overseas single, but there are also some unique challenges, and I will be perfectly honest that it is really difficult. Hopefully I’ll highlight some of both. Note: My community in Malawi was amazing, so some of these experiences aren’t fully mine, but I can definitely relate to each of them.
1) We experience deep loneliness. I had a friend state it this way: “I have never felt loneliness in my life, until I moved overseas.” I think all people who go overseas experience loneliness and isolation, but those of us who are single feel it even more. In our home countries, we rely on our wider social networks to get the relational care that we need (because we know that God created us to be in relationship with other people). When we are overseas, we don’t have these social networks to rely on for support. “It is not good for [wo]man to be alone” is true, yet as single people, we ARE alone. We can form friendships with nationals, and our singleness allows us to do that better, but it does not replace having another person who’s experiencing the same things with you to process with.
Another extra note: I understand when married people tell single people to be satisfied in Jesus alone, and that a husband won’t fulfill their needs. I think while that might be true, I can tell you most women living overseas are satisfied in Jesus, otherwise, they wouldn’t have gone overseas single. YET, they also realize how much easier life would be (and less lonely) were they to have a partner on the field.
2) Our target cultures don’t know what to do with us. For most of the world, marriage and kids are the norm. Single women are strange to most of the people in the unreached worlds we are trying to work in. We don’t fit neatly into a category, therefore, it can be harder to make entrance into communities. When I was on my own, to start up conversations were so much harder, as I couldn’t talk about my husband or my kids. When my teammates arrived, and I took our their kids for walks, I immediately got into conversations that I hadn’t been able to have before.
As time went on, and people got to know me, it gave me an opportunity to share about where I was at with marriage, and why I needed God to send a man who loved the nations in order to be married, which was a testimony in and of itself, but it is tiring needing to explain.
3) Our married teammates and other workers don’t know what to do with us. No matter how hard we try to understand one another, our lives are just different. That doesn’t mean we can’t thrive living together, but it is easy to misunderstand a single teammate. Most married people have forgotten what it’s like to be single, and most often times, have never experienced living overseas as a single person. Families are trying to seek to protect their own families and their time, which is important, but they often forget that single teammates need family too, and are often left out of things. Oftentimes, their married with children teammates subconsciously expect that their singles should do more, since they are single and should obviously have more free time than them. Single teammates often don’t have somebody else to advocate for them. I have experienced great times with married people who have watched out for me, and my teammates treated me as family. Not everybody got to experience this, and I feel my experience was more of an exception than the rule.
4) We face more safety risk. Particularly for single women, we often times are easier targets. Without a man around, we are harassed more (#yesallwomen). I feel this in the States, but especially overseas, I find that I’m always thinking about whether or not what I am doing is safe, and what type of perception I am giving off. When I first landed, some other expat women had their house broken into with machine-gun armed men. I was living alone at the time (my other teammate was living at another property and had similar sentiments), and it was terrifying for a while to think about. I’ve learned, however, that God really does protect. Despite the increased safety, I saw the hand of God over me in such profound ways, and that knowledge actually allowed me to sleep through the night.
5) We have to learn to do things we’d never do anywhere else. Manage travel. Yes. Keep passports. Yes. Money exchange. Yes. Fix cars. Yes. Figure out the house. Yes. Clean up the plumbing mess. Yes. Manage workers (including males). Yes. Cook. Yes. Clean. Yes. Interacting with police, government officials, etc. Yes. Say no to the countless people that ask for money. Yes. Kill bugs. Yes. <Sigh> Living overseas is a lot more complicated than living in our home country, and as single people, we don’t have anybody to partner to do these things with. I’ve had to learn to do things that I never thought I’d ever have to before. And really, this can be one of the most tiring things about living single— learning to navigate life all on your own. And that’s tough… But I’ve come out of this tough as nails and have gained experience because of it.
6) We are oftentimes laying down our deep desires for marriage. While Paul may say he wishes all were like him and were able to be celibate, I have found very few single missionaries that actually wished that for ourselves (they do exist). Rather, many have counted the cost and have laid down a deep desire of their heart in order to pursue another desire of their heart. It can be hard watching others who have partners to minister with while we don’t have it. I have also seen those who have wrestled with their calling with a mate who might not have the same calling or vision, and the challenges of what they should choose. It is not easy. (More on this in a next post)
7) We have opportunities to be accepted into and experience our target culture in ways married people can’t. As single people, it is easier to be “adopted” into families, and have people watch out for us. One friend said she was able to be daughters to multiple people, and I found many people watching out for me and acting as my “uncle” (which is like a dad). This is a special experience. I also got to experience culture in ways families and marrieds can’t. I spent a week living in the village with some women, which would have been difficult for a married couple and especially a family. Those were unique experiences that really helped me engage with culture that I wouldn’t otherwise been able to have.
8) We are able to both express and experience God in important ways on the field. Single people play an important role in what God is doing overseas. I don’t know that I would go overseas single again, but I wouldn’t trade my time overseas as a single person at all. My understanding of God as a bridegroom has increased exponentially, and I have really come to know and trust in God’s protection, provision, and love for me in ways I never would have otherwise. God really does pull through and He will hold us and walk with us as we walk out.
Conclusion: It was hard, but it was amazing. I wish I had done it younger, rather than in my thirties, but I don’t regret it at all. For those of you considering going overseas as a single person, understand there will be challenges, but there will be great rewards. For those of you who might be on teams with singles, support them, love them, be considerate. You can make or break their experience. For those of you who are just reading this but not on the field, please find the single workers that you know, and send them an e-mail, call them, visit them, send them a gift on their birthday, encourage them, and pray for them. It is not easy, and they could use all the support they can get!