First off, dear people, thank you for all the love and prayers and support you offered for this latest venture in East Africa. Though exchanges were few, even the brief interactions I had with people State-side provided just the love and chutzpah I needed on those especially overwhelming or exhausting days. As they say in Uganda, "Webale nyo nyo nyo" (Thank you so much so much so much!).
Thanks too for a bit of time and space, allowing for re-acclimation. Even though it was just 17 days, time is not measured the same in Africa. Besides, I have a way of becoming rather engrossed in a place, keen to stay, learn more, live more. And so I'm always grateful for whatever time of readjustment I'm allowed by society. Even now, I write this, safely, from my solitude, knowing it will go out into the void as it is, without my having to accompany it just yet. The day we got back to the States, a friend left me a tongue-in-cheek welcome back voicemail from "America." "This is America calling..." Touting all its excess and liberty, T.V. and 30 different types of shampoo. "This is America. Your bestfriend. #1 in the world."
It's funny because throughout the trip, whenever something was just too ridiculous or logic or time (time, always time! that mistress of western civilization that keeps us all captive) had been utterly lost, we would declare, "TIA." This is Africa. You couldn't help but smile, laugh, shake your head - it explains everything.
TIA. This (now) is America.
There's this perfect quote from one of my favorite writers who grew up in southern Africa, it pinpoints the strange transition from there to here. In her book, Scribbling the Cat, Alexandra Fuller writes on returning from Africa to her home in the US, I think of it whenever I'm coming from somewhere far removed:
"The shock is too much, the contrast too raw. We should sail or swim or walk from Africa, letting bits of her drop out of us, and gradually, in this way, assimilate the excess and liberties of the States in tiny, incremental sips, maybe touring up through South America and Mexico before trying to stomach the land of the Free and the Brave."
She's right. Even though my brother and I were traveling for 32 hours en route to the States, it somehow wasn't enough. In just a 32 hour transition from raw sienna soil to snow and sleet, from a taxi packed with 24 persons to driving alone, from streets cluttered with people and trash and animals and boda bodas to the windswept sidewalks and orderly movement of the City of the Big Shoulders. It's easy to feel a sense of guilt. To go on living as before, but only feeling awful about it. But I'm not sure that's helpful. That's not the point.
We met some amazing amazing people. People whose generosity, humility, hope and zeal left me speechless. I withdrew so convicted and stirred to live a better story. Inspired to tell their story. Because what a story. We saw a great deal of hope and a good deal of healing and progress. People who gave even at their own expense. Made a sacrifice for the good of another, offered something of themselves to the world in exchange for nothing (see #3).
And we saw plenty of the flip side. Savage poverty and hopelessness. Neglect and exploitation. Children who have seen and experienced more darkness and loss than I'll ever know in my lifetime. I prayed the Missionaries of Charity prayer everyday. And sometimes, I confess, we slipped away to a cafe with filter coffee and American pancakes in order to forget.
It's the simple things. Sometimes clean feet, a Rolex, a blanket and a mosquito net mean the world. And maybe a haircut. We took a family of particularly despairing kids for a haircut and a plate of hot chips. A small joy. For that one day, it was enough.
I love that conversation every traveling troupe is bound to have on the food you're most craving, that first meal, the menu and ingredients you know and love. It always brings to mind the story from Donald Miller's book Through Painted Deserts, when he and a buddy are hiking on the cheap through the Grand Canyon, subsisting on a diet of rice and beans. They talk about eggs and tortillas and other expected comforts, finally settling on raisin bran as the food they would most like to have on the other side of the Canyon. At that moment, the thing they wanted most in the world was a bowl of cereal.