By Jake Knabel, Sports Information Director, Concordia University (Neb.)
This summer, Concordia University (Neb.) soccer student-athlete Louisa Mehl embarked on a journey that would profoundly impact the way she sees the world.
"We talked to a lot of people who said, 'Don't let anyone kid you that they haven't had malaria. Everyone here has had malaria,'" said Mehl, who returned to the United States in August. "And they asked us about how we were dealing with it in the States and we said, 'We don't even have it.' They were just shocked."
Mehl recently answered a call to travel to Tanzania in conjunction with the Lutheran Malaria Initiative (LMI), which seeks to fight malaria in Africa by educating families and providing access to treatment and prevention methods. Along with fellow Concordia (Neb.) student Rebecca Monnier and students from Concordia Irvine (Calif.) and Valparaiso University, Mehl set out to make a difference in a nation unlike her own.
Tanzania, roughly twice the size of the state of California, sits in eastern Africa, south of Kenya and north of Mozambique with the Indian Ocean situated on its eastern border. In a third-world country with a high incidence of disease, Tanzania's nearly 44 million residents have a life expectancy of only 53 years. Because of the dangers, visitors like Mehl must take precautions before even venturing to the African nation.
Mehl, whose parents are also heavily involved in mission work, understood the perils but felt compelled to provide her assistance.
"Once I got the email that I got nominated (for the LMI trip), it was definitely an exciting proposition because I knew I'd get to go to Tanzania," Mehl said. "I grew up overseas, so going places wasn't as exciting to me as actually doing something about what I would see. I wasn't exactly sure about all the particulars, but I got the gist that I would be involved in saving lives, but not just saving lives but bringing Christ to the people's lives you saved."
The Concordia, Mo., native's unique exploits in Tanzania were characterized by interactions with the nation's welcoming locals. Mehl visited several villages, ate local cuisine and took part in malaria-focused educational programs inside churches. These events included skits performed by children, dances and Masai Tribe-led prayers held not in a church, but underneath a tree and uttered in the tribe's native tongue.
Inside houses constructed simply with intertwined sticks, Mehl witnessed the power of LMI. In one particular home, a mother named Esther displayed the bed nets her family had been using for the past year. In that time, no one in her family had been inflicted with malaria.
"I walked out of the house and I was like, 'Gosh, this really works.'" Mehl said. "And one of the ladies who was traveling with us from the church - her name was Grace-said, 'You're here and this is your first time here and you're seeing that the work being done is working. Well, we're always here, and these are our friends. We're so glad that you're taking our story back.'"
This occurrence confirmed the trip as a worthwhile mission for Mehl, who seemed to form a greater perspective on life through her experience. In Tanzania, Mehl saw a world where many live in relative isolation with limited transportation, scratching and clawing to provide food for their families.
"The big thing that you notice is what's important," Mehl said. "Most of these people are thinking about, 'I have work today so I can come home and feed my family.'
"They're thinking about the next meal, or maybe if it's not the next meal if you're better off, then it's the next thing you have to do to provide for the next meal. We're thinking about, 'Oh, I have soccer practice in three hours.' It's difficult to explain, but it's just about where your priorities lie."
Head women's soccer coach Lisa White realized how special Mehl's faith was even before her adventures in Africa. White made Mehl a captain on this year's team, recognizing the positive role model that the junior elementary education major is for the entire squad.
"I'm not sure I have the vocabulary to articulate the kind of character that kid has," White said. "She is definitely team and family first. Her faith is so strong to her and you can't separate her faith and who she is. She has such a heart for the people around her and wants to do so well and wants this program to do so well. She loves that our culture is shifting a bit more to really being up front about centering our performance around Christ."
In a land distant from the U.S. in both physical measurement and culture, Mehl saw that Christ has no boundaries. She will keep the people of Africa, struck by malaria and other misfortunes, in her thoughts and hopes to make it back to Tanzania again.
Now Mehl plans to tour churches and talk about what she observed in Tanzania and the important missionary work that still must be done. Soon after her return from Africa, she began an impactful speech in a church near her hometown by stating that someone in the world would die of malaria by the time she finished speaking. With the combined efforts of Mehl and the LMI, more attention has been focused on the hardships of people across the globe.
Without a doubt, Mehl's trip to Tanzania opened her eyes.
"These are people who have to decide if they're going to take their child to the clinic that day or work that day so they can feed their family," Mehl said. "If I hadn't seen that first-hand, I would not have the capacity to care enough."