Friday, August 5, 2011

Akwaaba to Kwaheri

"So many people have tried to define the feeling the French call mal d'afrique …It is a constant vertigo you will never get used to. This is why one day you have to come back. Because once you have been out here, hanging loose in the Big Nothing, you will never be able to fill your lungs with enough air. Africa has taken you in and has broken you away from what you were before. This is why you will keep wanting to get away but will always have to return...When you leave Africa, as the plane lifts, you feel that more than leaving a continent you’re leaving a state of mind. Whatever awaits you at the other end of your journey will be of a different order of existence.”

This time tomorrow I will be on a flight to Heathrow, concluding my two month adventure in Africa with a tray of processed foods and a B-rate movie on a seat screen. I am ready to go and terrified to leave, heaving a heavy sigh of nostalgia, relief, and wonder.

We talked about how
much he loves California.
Wonder: If this trip were a movie, it would be a conversation between me and a taxi driver. I must have met almost 100 of them. No matter where you are, taxi drivers are like telemarketers - erratic, a bit smelly, and a definitive expert on the most unique subjects. Once the car gets going, the initial power play between driver and passenger frequently fades into an exchange of ideas between two unlikely friends that can last a minute or three hours. I have been outwitted by many a cab driver, amused by their taste in music, and humbled by their keen perspective and understanding of the city in which they live. They know the shortcuts and back alleys, what the mayor was doing last week, where to take tourists looking for something a little sordid (not me, I promise.) My time spent side by side with these men will stay with me as a highlight of my summer.

One highlight of many. What an amazing thing it is when you discover you’ve put yourself in a completely foreign situation with people you don’t know and no idea of what’s around the corner…and you’ve survived. Grameen offered me a reason to be here but so much of what I experienced this summer was outside the office walls. For everything that I loved about it (the work), there was something I did not (potato belly), and I think I have yet to really understand what this trip has taught me.  The problem with being a capacity builder is that there’s always more capacity to be built. There is always more work to be done, whether it's on a new highway, a nonprofit program, a government project or....yourself. As I leave here I wonder about it all. Will it get done, and will I be a part of it?

Part of a Nairobi National Museum exhibit.
Relief: When I was growing up my parents had a saying for our itinerant family: "Home is where the dog is." As I grow into my own peripatetic ways I’m developing my own version - "Home is what you miss." You learn to identify the things you love and take them with you wherever you go.  Loved ones' faces cross my mind when I close my eyes at night. I salivate at the memory of a deliciously stuffed California burrito and daydream about the closet of dresses in my apartment. When I finally get back to all that familiarity, however, I know that my senses will long for what I love here. Creamy avocado, hot summer nights, sitting on the roadside in a plastic chair with a cool Star beer. The notion of “home" encompasses a huge world when you feel you could belong anywhere. But the Bay Area is a shining star in that huge world for me, and for now I know I belong there. I am eager, eager, eager to get back and hug my loved ones, amble down Telegraph, get yelled at on the 57, and start my final year of graduate school.

Nostalgia: I’m sorry to generalize but there’s no place like Africa. It is magic and loss and vitality and history and it is rough and real and striking. You don’t ever forget watching men hack the grass with machetes in their right hand, left arms folded carefully behind their backs. Babies tightly wrapped against women’s backs who remain quiet even when their mother bounces them around as they violently pound cassava. Beautiful, big skies and the wet smell of soil. The sound of rain showers or of tro-tros whizzing by and whipping your skirt up because they’re so close. The generosity of strangers. The crowds of city markets. It's all either maddening or breathtaking, and you know it cannot be found anywhere else.

There's an Enid Blyton book I adored when I was a kid about a magical tree that is home to an entirely different world atop its branches. Three children happen upon it and discover that the land changes every single time they visit, and they can never stay too long or they'll be trapped there forever. Africa is certainly my Faraway tree - just enough out of reach that I find myself longing for it, but always providing something new and wonderful when I return.

"This is why one day you have to come back."

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