From my journal, 24 June 2007, 2nd day in Africa:
If I had written this several hours ago, I would have discussed a sense of apathy I was feeling. I wasn't feeling any terrible sense of jet lag or culture shock, but I also wouldn't say that I had any great excitement over the people and the landscape of Africa, either. To be honest, as we drove in the rural areas, it looked like the zoo. Both Chicagoland zoos - Brookfield and Lincoln Park - have holistic African exhibits that mimic the landscape and habitat of the African animals with round, thatched gathering huts, small square buildings of mud bricks, plastered over and decorated with geometric designs or random and poetic word combinations. "Sunflower love." This is what I saw. Most huts had little wooden stands - just sticks driven into the ground with more sticks lashed to them to make a couter top about chest high - at the sides of the roads on which they displayed for sale any vegetables that they had harvested during the day.
After a three-hour bus ride in which the only toilets that existed on the whole route were behind a newly built police station, we were told to exit the bus: first women, then the men. 20-30 African men and women were singing and moving joyfully, greeting us with smiles and words and wrapping us women in traditional wrap skirts called chitenge while we were still standing on the bus steps. The men received hats made of some fibrous plant and carved walking sticks. The hats were ridiculous but most wore them well.
The church service that began after our arrival did not really impress me. I have a stereotype in my head of overly formal welcoming ceremonies from the grateful natives to the white saviors, and the opening events of this church service fit perfectly into my uncomfortable expectations. After the exuberant welcome, we were ushered onto a raised platform that had a thatched shelter built over it. We faced 200 people, who were arranged in u-shaped bleachers. Western and formally dressed officials to our left, the high school students in their uniforms directly across from us and the women and children in their brightly colored finest to our right.
But then the children sang.
In high school I discovered Ladysmith Black Mambazo and fell in love with the harmonies of Africa. It was the perfect extension of the recognition and comfort I feel for the harmonies of gospel music.
These children sounded like the Africa that spoke to me as a teenager.
These children were not the zoo.
Something shifted inside of me, away from apathy.
Then, our trip leader, Larry, lined us all up to introduce us. A local government official was present and we were formally introduced. Larry displayed a keen understanding of African humor and made the group laugh several times as he mocked himself and us. I was blown away.
Then, I had to go to the bathroom and edged away from the crowd toward the mud-brick building marked clearly, dividing the flow by gender to one side or another. Inside was only a hole and toilet paper on a stick wedged in the high window opening. Luckily, because of my Orcas Island experience, I was not daunted by the hole. It was fun not to be daunted. On my way back from the hole, a little girl, about 3 years old, walked toward me, away from the service. I squatted next to her and talked to her a little. Babies never make sense so the language barrier wasn't an issue. I was charmed.
Then, the high school boys put on a skit whose plot I couldn't follow but whose actors were so talented, I couldn't look away. One boy shaved the center of his head and rubbed mud along his jawbone to make himself look like an old man. His talent for physical and slap-stick comedy was greater than any kid I've ever seen on the Illinois Forensics circuit. This was the realization of universality that made me finally trade in my apathy for empathy. My experiences are not mine entirely because of privelige. Children of poverty are talented to the same degree as children of privelige. I know this in my head but I didn't apply the knowledge to Africa until that moment. I was enthralled.
Then, I opened up. I flirted with every little girl that I caught looking at me, just like I used to do at the Renaissance Faire. As we were forming a parade to get from the assembly grounds to the half-finished boys' dormitory that was being funded by several of the members of our trip, one of these little girls fell into step alongside me. We smiled at each other while we walked and while we were both looking forward, I took her hand. 2 or 3 other girls gathered around her as we walked. To one of them who seemed to want it - rather that just to giggle at her friend's audacity - I held out my other hand. She took it. These two girls led me to the front of the parade, just behind the choir. I was the only "visitor" that I could see. The experience of being in the middle of everything is different for me; I'm usually on the edge observing so that I can write it down later. I had fun. I didn't even mind when Larry took my picture.
We rounded a corner of a school building a walked along the wall. The music of the teenagers bounced off the wall and surrounded me. This was the first moment that I was so overwhelmed with emotion that I thought I might cry. The girls continued to lead me but at some point when we got to the front to be honored, as visitors, to see the new dormitory, the first girl on my left hand fell back, absorbed into her friends. I looked at the girl on my right to see if she wanted to go, too but every time I smiled down at her, she gave me the most beautiful smile, all the way to her eyes. So, I took her with me on the tour. I kept looking down at her and she kept smiling back up at me. I think we fell in love with each other a little bit.
At one point, I felt her touch the skin on my arm with just one finger. I'm sure she was trying to figure out if white skin felt different from the skin that she knew. I looked down after I felt the touch and tried to encourage her to explore more but she just smiled, almost as if she had never done it. LAter I noticed that she would rub her little thumb back and forth in the web of skin between my thumb and forfinger. The red dust from her hand mixed with the sweat of both out hands to form a paint that probably looked very different with my light skin as a canvas than red dirt on dark skin has looked. I wondered a little, with a sense of silliness, if she thought she was rubbing off on me. I think she's probably smarter than that.
She stayed with me all the way to lunch, whne I had to let her go. When I left her, she showed such a reluctance to be left. However, it was a passive reluctance. Her body didn't respond to my hug and she continued to drift toward me as I walked away, almost like static cling. No one would have called it following but she certaining didn't stay put, either.
For lunch, many women had gotten together and cooked for us. I ate sweet potato leaves, nshima, beans, cabbage, and a hominy-type corn with peanut sauce.
When I came out from lunch, the little girl was waiting for me. I tried to ask her name but it was too African for me to process. I couldn't spell it in my head. Luz something. Larry couldn't process it either when he asked her. She was standing with only a few other children in the courtyard outside the school room in which we were eating. I took her hand again and we went back to smiling at each other. However, I was suppose to go straight to the bus and had to say good-bye to her a couple of times, because it was the first day and I thought that everyone would jump when Larry said jump and was fooled every time. Again, the passive reluctance when I would say good-bye. Not protesting. Not aggressive. A subtle physical hope that if she kept close, she might get to go with me. Once she actually made it onto the bus steps. Larry encouraged me to give her the beans that I had bought the day before at the market from a woman who had received micro-enterprise loans from World Vision. I went onto the bus and got the bag for her. We had been instructed to offer gifts with both hands and so I knelt to be at her level and held the beans out to her. As cliche-ed as it sounds, she looked lost. None of her facial muscles were flexed so her face looked slack, yet she kept eye contact with me as her arms reached out to take the beans. Then, I got on the bus for good and looked out the window for her. As the other kids crowded the bus, she stood 20 feet back, looking back at me with the bag of beans draped over her small arm. It seemed like such an insignificant gift. She waved every time I waved and followed the bus for just a little while as we pulled away. Tears welled up in my eyes as I took a picture and waved good-bye.
I want it to be clear, though. My tears were not tears of pity. I wasn't imagining how hard her life must be for her. I wasn't picturing the opportunities that she doesn't have.
She reached out for me hand when I offered it. I needed her to lead into the middle of the singing. She needed me . . . I don't know why she needed me but her persistence tells me that she did.
Isn't that what it's all about? Haven't I been yattering on for years now about community and how our need for relationships with one another is the only pure desire we have? How our modern, drive-through, suburban culture lacks intimacy? Don't we all just want to be known? And loved anyway?
This little girl wanted to be known by me. And it turns out that I needed to be known by her. Maybe this could only happen in the midst of what the Western world would call poverty. When then only wealth a child has is the people she interacts with, then a little African girl can reach out to a grown American woman and they can know each other to the point of tears.
Without ever saying a word.
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