5 Things I Learned During 5 Weeks in Africa


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October 24th 2011
Published: October 24th 2011
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Tonight I fly back to Dar es Salaam, and tomorrow night back to the US. But I’ve started my decompression process early. It was an emotional weekend, and I think that sparked me to reflect on the past 5 weeks earlier than I usually do—during the 18-hour journey home or when I finally collapse into my own bed.

The first time I went to Africa—South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe—I felt fundamentally changed when I came home. I saw things that affected me on a deep level, discovered what I wanted to do with my career, and fell in love with a Kenyan man. I’ve been back to Africa 6 times since then. But it wasn’t until this trip that I felt fundamentally affected by what I saw and experienced as I did that first time. And given the fact that I’m a writer at heart, the best way I know how to process the experience is to write.

So, 5 things I learned after spending 5 weeks in Tanzania:

1. Patience.
There is no hurry in Africa. I’ve spent hours upon hours waiting for food, rides, and people to show up to appointments. Sometimes it drives me crazy. But overall it’s good for me, as my American life moves so quickly sometimes that I forget to breathe or appreciate what’s happening in the present.

2. Acceptance that I cannot know what is happening all of the time.
While I have been taking Swahili lessons twice weekly and have been trying desperately to learn to communicate with people in their mother tongue, I spend a lot of time not knowing what is being said, what is happening, or what the plan is. And for someone who is a planner and likes control over situations, that is a terrible feeling. But this is also good for me, as it forces me to just let things happen and trust that everything will work out as it should.

3. Hardship.
Is my life hard when in Tanzania? No. I have a nice hotel room. I have a driver. I have hot water (most of the time) and electricity (when the generator works). My hardest days are spending hours out in villages in the heat with only power bars and a hole in the ground to piss in, and then I get to come back to my little hotel oasis. But I have gotten very close to the hardship through my relationships with other people. Friends have drained bank accounts and very little money to even buy food. I’ve seen accidents in the street and know that the victims will not get the medical care they need to survive. I’ve seen sick children and weary adults. And while the hard times I have had in my life are at a different level than what is seen here, my own struggles to put myself through school, not knowing if I was going to have enough money from month to month, or not knowing if I was going to be able to afford medical care for my illness have allowed me to at least relate on some level. Being reminded of how hard those days were in my own life, I am also reminded of how grateful I am to have come out of that period, and how quickly circumstances can change to bring you back to hardship again.

4. I am a small part of a bigger universe that does not revolve around me.
Being in the African bush and watching the circle of life—lions chasing baboons for food, elephants fiercely protecting their babies, giraffes watching with caution and curiosity as a vehicle drives by—it all made me feel so small. My day to day struggles are important to me, yes, but sometimes being reminded that everyone and everything continues on despite what is happening in your own life can be a spiritual awakening. I am not a religious person, but having such an experience as being in the African bush, I know that there is a higher power in the universe.

5. Being alone is both painful and enlightening.
When you spend days alone in a hotel room in a country that you have only started to understand, or hours in a vehicle with people who speak little English, you suddenly feel alone, even if with other people. My tendency when alone is to think too much. Or maybe not even too much, but rather I have no choice but to think and reflect. I’ve recently realized that I have been running away from my thoughts for the past several years. Some things have happened in my life that are painful, and my way of coping has been to think about them as little as possible. And to do that, I keep myself extremely busy and focus on others.

But when you are forced to sit alone and have nothing but time to think…when facebook becomes boring and phones are not working and TV stations are in every language but English, you suddenly find yourself alone with those thoughts you’ve been avoiding. And it sucks because you have nowhere to go or to escape them, and all you can do is confront them.

My husband spent a lot of time reflecting while we were on safari together and felt better and lighter afterwards. And then he tried to pull things about of me that I wasn’t ready to deal with. At first I was angry that he was using our vacation to bring up shit that I didn’t really want to think about and solve right now. But now I realize he was only doing it out of love because he wanted to lighten my psychological load as well.

Having time to process, while painful, is incredibly healthy. And when you’re lucky enough to have people who care about you deeply and can see through the walls you’ve put up and coax you into sharing those thoughts, you learn how much you are loved and how much people really want to get to know the real you, all parts of you, even the ugly ones.

Fast forward a couple of weeks to when the stress of work and my loneliness has gotten the best of me. The few close friends I have made here sensed over the last couple of days that I was not letting them see all sides of me—that there was something making me sad. They, too, pulled it out of me and sat patiently as I let everything flow out, uncensored, uninhibited, unscripted. And when the floods cleared, they were still sitting there holding my hand, telling me they loved me and that those I love are lucky to experience what I have to give.

I know this is all very cryptic. But beneath my motivation and ambition and strong feminist identity, I am just as vulnerable as anyone else. And that’s okay, because I have people who love me unconditionally, flaws and screw-ups and all. And when you allow people to see those imperfections, when the loneliness and hole in your soul become too much to handle and you finally let go, you finally realize that you’re okay and you’re loved.

So with that, I leave you Tanzania. And although I may not be back for many months, I will carry the lessons you have taught me and the love you have shown me into the next phase of my life. I’ve always been struck by how close I feel to those whom I have met in my travels, or those I have traveled with. I think being in a foreign place and being alone with yourself forces you to reach out to others in a meaningful way that you might not do day to day at home. And when those people see you at your lowest, they suddenly become those closest to you because they now know all of your secrets. And that is a wonderful thing because you then build friendships and bonds that, despite the miles and cultural differences, are incredibly strong.

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