I’ve been struggling with the Medjai.
The Medjai were a nomadic desert people from a region of Nubia (now northern Sudan) and started settling in the Nile Valley because of extreme drought and famine around 2350 BCE. When they first entered ancient Egyptian society they worked as palace attendants, temple employees and merchants. Then they were incorporated into the Egyptian army to serve as garrison troops in the outposts of the empire in the hopes that fellow Medjai tribespeople would not attack Egyptian assets in the region. By the 18th Dynasty (1539 BCE) Medjai were an elite paramilitary police force who were often body guards for the pharaoh. They also operated as mercenaries, desert trackers and patrollers as well as protectors of royal valuables such as palaces, tombs and religious complexes. Eventually the term “medjai” became synonymous with policing.
I’m writing a scene for my novel in which a Nubian prisoner makes a heartfelt appeal to the Medjai who stand impassive and alert, guarding the pharaoh. Oh, the challenge of writing well about people who have a scant record in history and of whom there are few pictures besides this image from a temple relief. I try this structure, that dialogue. What if I chop this, and add that? Have I successfully portrayed the soldiers as real people? No approach pleases me. I think they call this struggle “writer’s block.”
But there are struggles and then there are struggles as I was reminded last Sunday when I joined 229 others to see the World Premiere of Tastes Like Freedom, a documentary film about Camp Blue Spruce, a worry-free summer camp for children with life-threatening food allergies.
What does it mean to be a child with a life-threatening food allergy? It means that a potentially fatal anaphylactic reaction may cause swelling and tingling in your throat and face that may end in an emergency room visit. It means bringing an EpiPen with epinephrine everywhere, and packing food whenever an experience outside the house involves a meal. It means, in any new environment, letting people know that certain foods can kill you. Sometimes it means anxiety, panic, depression, feelings of isolation and nightmares. And you can probably imagine what it means for parents.
Louise Tippens and Riley West don’t have to imagine. Seventeen-year-old Riley has a life-threatening allergy to shellfish, fish, beef, dairy, eggs, peanuts and tree nuts. Louise, his mom and founder/director of Camp Blue Spruce, says, “The challenge for parents is making sure that kids are safe and included. I remember, growing up, the tremendous fun of sleep-over camp and I wanted Riley to experience that. When I learned that no food allergy camps existed, Camp Blue Spruce was born. We attract children from all over the country. Attendance has grown from 27 in the first year to a maximum of 80 now.” One camper says, “Sometimes parents want to keep you at home so you don’t experience anything dangerous with food.” A key message of the camp is that kids with food allergies can be independent and live full lives.
Film director Eric Stachon, recognizing a fabulous story when he saw one, captured this powerful narrative during three summers at Camp Blue Spruce. Certain things struck me as I watched: the variety of fun camp activities like swimming, singing, roasting goodies over the campfire, swinging on ropes from tall trees (I want to do that!), jumping off a gigantic inflated pillow into the water, square dancing, and going through the cafeteria line for meals. Meals. At Camp Blue Spruce, campers don’t have to bring their own food or worry about anything they eat. Eight foods cause 90% of allergic reactions and these are automatically cut out of the menu. Also staff and volunteers contact manufacturers about all packaged foods to ensure they’re safe. Riley says, “Being able to eat everything there was a life-changing experience.”
Louise also says that one huge benefit of the camp is the community it has created. Kids meet other kids dealing with the same issues and stay in touch long after camp is over.
There are people in this world who seem to overflow with positive, loving energy. When Tastes Like Freedom premiered, it was obvious that the children and parents in that theater had huge love and respect for Louise Tippens. She and her volunteers have created a strong and unique tribe for families dealing with food-threatening allergies and Eric Stachon brilliantly captured what this means in his moving film. Stay tuned to the Camp Blue Spruce Facebook page for your opportunity to view it. Most of us soldier through life one way or another. But even soldiers get to have fun.