Wednesday, December 14, 2011
I had heard from others that going to Africa will wreck your life. I heard the voices cautioning me to be careful and not to go before considering what it would cost me emotionally and spiritually. I had read stories of those who had gone and their lives were irrevocably changed, some returning to the country in Africa that had stole their heart or ignited their passion. Some come back and tell stories of how they couldn’t deal with what they saw or felt and so have just relegated it to their memories and tend not to revisit it too deeply or too often.I’ve been home longer than I was away and yet, everyday is still filled with the faces of the children I met, the patients I visited and the volunteers we spent our time with. Zambia creeps into my dreams at night the way an old friend shows up out of context and yet seemingly at home in the places that our dreams take us. In my dreams, my boys play soccer with boys like Jackson and Kennedy as if it were a friendship forged long ago and developed over the years. In reality, I know that Jackson and Kennedy each have a photo of my boys and have memorized their names and how old they are. I know that they consider my boys their friends in Canada and when I look at photos from Mulenga, my boys can pick Jackson and Kennedy out of the many children crowding into a photograph. In my dreams, a young teacher named Anita shows up with her gorgeous smile and lovely voice and hugs me as she did when I left and whispers that she really loves me. When I wake up, I remember how hard it was to say goodbye to her and I pray for her, the only way I have to connect to her over the great distance between us. And in the dreams I find the hardest to wake from, my family lives next door to James and Sukai. My boys run back and forth between our yards and play with their boys and their youngest, their daughter Yamikani, comes and spends time in our kitchen singing Lion King songs and playing with whatever she finds interesting in the cupboard. When I wake up, I have to remember that I am here, in Canada, with a different day ahead. And yet, even in my waking hours, I can’t seem to shake the feeling that part of me has remained connected to those I met and learned to love in my short stay in Zambia.When I left Zambia, I was challenged to become an advocate for change in Africa. I am doing my best to remain focused on that challenge but I’m not sure that it’s all that I can do. My heart wants me to run back to Zambia, bring my family and as many friends as I can and walk through the streets of Mulenga, pulling children to me and saying, “See? This is Deborah…she’s so much more beautiful than her photo can portray.” I want people to hear her laugh first hand and I want my friends and family to feel how amazing it is when she shyly offers to take your hands and show you her favorite clapping game. I want people to know that she is so sweet and empathetic that when the children around laugh at my poor attempts at the simple game, that she shushes them and reassures me that it takes a little while to learn but once you do, it’s very easy and fun. I wish you could see her every day for two weeks in the same simple shirt patterned with kittens and I wish you could see the pride she takes in keeping herself neat and clean. I wish more than anything that I could explain to you and to her and maybe most importantly, to myself, how it is that this little girl who I only spent a few weeks with has worked her way into my heart and I wonder daily how she is and if she’s eating and if she is safe at night. This is the point where I can understand how people file these memories in the backs of their mind because it is painful to feel such love for someone who you are unable to be near and unable to help and care for on a daily basis.I wish that I could go back and see Kennedy and Jackson and make sure that they are keeping a promise that they made – a promise to take the best care of themselves that they could and make good decisions about their actions. These are 10 year old boys that are on the verge of the years where they can be pulled in directions and habits and decisions that will threaten their lives and perpetuate the cycles of disease and poverty that have enveloped their community. I wish I could tell them every day that they are important leaders in their community and that by taking care of themselves and making good decisions, they are influencing the children that flock around them wherever they go. I would show them how we could hardly take a photo of either of them alone, that children wanted to be where they were at all times. And I wish that I could show my friends and family, the tenacity of these boys, shown by Jackson who hurt his knee badly while playing and yet continued to play and lead games and dance and run, wincing all the while. In my dreams, Jackson’s tenacity brings him scholarships and opportunities. In reality, it only gets him through another day and sets him apart as a leader in his community at a very young age. I’m praying that being set apart doesn’t lead him to be singled out as a good prospect for abuse or exploitation.Zambia doesn’t just come to me in dreams; it infiltrates my waking hours as well. The smell of smoke in the air in Saskatoon brings me to the road to Kitwe and the thought of those who burn the landscape and sell the charcoal to sustain themselves. The school zones here remind me to slow down and as I do, I realize how privileged our children are to have access to such an education, even when they are reluctant to feel grateful for such a privilege. The very school buildings with their glass windows and sturdy roof and walls evoke a double edged reaction – how is it that we have been so blessed and how can the disparity remain so huge between us and them. The sight of sweet potatoes in the grocery store takes me back to the small roadside offerings that support whoever set them out there that morning. I wonder if the farmer that grows these sweet potatoes ever wonders whose table they wind up on or if they are the product of an incorporated farm operation, impersonal and efficient. I find myself wondering why when I enter a room full of children, I get down to eye level and ask them questions about who cares for them and consistently wonder how great it is that they all have a ready answer.And yes, I would answer those cautionary voices and those who predicted that my life would be wrecked, it's true. Zambia has pulled at every thread of emotional and spiritual health that I possess. Emotionally, it's distressing to love someone and feel helpless to care for their very basic needs on a consistent basis but that is not specific to Zambia. Friends have watched their children struggle with life threatening illness and have known that emotion first hand of how painful that helplessness can be. And spiritually, if anything, Zambia has emptied me of every notion I had that I understood how wide and how deep the love God has for me. It pushed out all the answers I felt I had about blessing and love and contentment and need and left me with a vacant space to be filled with real answers when I finally land on them through this process and also spaces that probably can not be filled at this point. I don't understand needs and wants anymore. I certainly don't understand blessing or joy when it is defined by volunteers who give so sacrificially and joyfully in the midst of their own pain and need. I've never experienced that in my own life, to give that way. I do know that Zambia cleared space and increased my desire to learn firsthand what those answers are, and to be content with not understanding them until it's time for me to understand them. I know too that I've never wanted to rely on God as much as I do now and I am understanding why the things I've put my security in just haven't filled that void the way I wanted them to. I'm such a slow learner.Awake or asleep, I’m realizing that the part of me that is so deeply connected to this community in Zambia is crying out for some form of reconciliation between the life I live here and the one I saw there. I’m still working on that one, in fact, I’ll probably be working on that for quite some time. I’m asking that if part of this is about advocating for those I saw myself, whose hands I held and whose homes I was in, if only that part were able to be fulfilled in a way that was pleasing to God and to others, then please stick with me on this journey. It will become part of your journey and you’ll begin to hear the warnings and the cautionary tales of Africa. I’m asking you to keep moving forward on that, despite the cautions and the heartaches. Stick with me and remember Kennedy and Jackson and Deborah and the many children whose stories have fixed themselves in my heart…allow them to fix themselves to yours. Remember these kids when you hear the statistics. Don’t be overwhelmed by the numbers, think in terms of names. Somehow, we know each other and most of you reading it have some level of trust in me, so trust this…we can make a difference in the lives of these kids. Some of you already have. My birthday wish this year was just for donations to be made to Hands At Work to help them care for these kids. One wish. One day. Nearly $600. These things make a difference in the lives of the children I am telling you about. Thanks for being part of that. It’s not just that you supported those kids, it’s that you reminded me that I am playing a role that I was challenged to play. I am their advocate. It really is the very least that I can do with what I saw and experienced but it is the beginning of what I hope will be a lifetime of working towards reconciling what I see in my dreams and what I’m living out in my life and in the lives of others.Speaking of dreaming, that's where I should be. I'm tired and have no business trying to form cohesive thoughts in this state but this is the space and time I have. Forgive me for rambling. I hope you get the overall gist of where my head and heart are at. Bear with me. Bear the very weight of this with me. I'm not sure this experience was ever meant only for me.