SHIT…OR GET OFF THE POT!?
I hope this blog will help to inspire all you fellow procrastinators
out there…to “Shit” and never look back.
They say Africa gets under your skin…in my case it’s penetrated my soul. This is my journey….
In September of 2008, as a very special birthday gift to myself, I decided to fulfill my lifelong dream of going to Africa. I divided the trip into 3 stages. 6 weeks would be devoted to volunteering, bracketed by three weeks before and after spent on safari. I stayed at some of the best safari camps on the continent. I was pampered at all 3 Belmond Safari Lodges in Botswana — Savute Elephant Lodge, Khwai River Lodge, and Eagle Island Lodge. Was spoiled at several Singita Properties in South Africa and Tanzania — Lebombo and Sweni Lodges in Kruger National Park, Sasakwa and Faru Faru Lodge in the Grumeti. Spent 2 luxurious nights in an African styled hut at the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge in Tanzania. And, enjoyed several nights at various Sanctuary Retreats properties in Kenya and Tanzania — Olonana in the Mara, Kusini, and Swala.
I mention the safari part not to brag, but to give you some idea of the type of person I am OR believed myself to be…but most definitely the type of person my friends thought me to be. I admit to liking the finer things in life, especially when it comes to traveling. I’m not a “rough it” kind of girl. I had only gone camping once in my life and lasted less then 12 hours. So it’s no wonder that my friends took bets on how long I would last in a village without running water, indoor plumbing or electricity and having to bath out of a basin.
I love to shop. I can’t stand to have chipped nails. World renowned skin care specialists Dr. Sebagh and Mamie McDonald tend to my skin and wrinkles. And every three weeks, no matter where I am, I get my roots done…even when I am in the bush.
As for volunteering or giving back prior to this adventure, the only time I ever volunteered, was back in college because I had to for class credit.
Like many Americans I thought of Africa as one large country and not a continent made-up of 56 (54 depending on the source) unique countries. I believed it to be a place comprised of starving babies with protruding bellies and flies covering their mouths. A place where most families live on less than $1 a day, where education is not valued, where one classroom housing several grades is considered acceptable, and where most of the girls and women are abused, mistreated and not thought of as equal. A country made-up of people living day to day, waiting for a “mzungu” (“white skin” or “rich people”) to come along with a hand-out. I fell victim to the propaganda painted by the media and likes of Bono, Bill Gates, Ray Chambers, Bob Geldof and countless others. But now because I have experienced the continent for myself, I can speak about an Africa that is comprised of beauty, love, community, kindness, and positivity.
My first stop was Botswana. When I finally reached the bush for the first time I was in such awe of my surroundings. To this day, if I had to choose one place in the world to live it would definitely be in the bush. I LOVE the bush. Listening to the calls of the wild, its unpredictability, its endless beauty and magnificence, no two experiences are ever alike. For those of you who haven’t been, it should really be on your bucket list.
Another amazing and refreshing thing about Botswana is how incredibly forward thinking the local people are. Their views on sex, family, divorce, education, etc. are very progressive, holding social values above all else.
Second stop: South Africa – Cape Town to be exact. Besides its beauty (to me it’s a combination of Napa Valley, Malibu, and Beverly Hills) the thing that struck me the most was the profound feeling of racism that clearly still exists in the country. Chalk it up to my naivety, but it never occurred to me that Africa would exhibit such extreme racism between the different ethnic groups.
Next was Namibia to visit the infamous Red Dunes (a must see) – culturally somewhat similar to that of South Africa.* It was there I felt compelled to call my friend, and said, “Your friend Bono is a liar. Where are all the starving babies with protruding bellies, all the desperate people dying of AIDS?! And where are the black people?” As a black man he laughed, and told me to wait until I got to Uganda. It would be there that I would experience the Africa I had imagined… I really did hope so.
*To all my South African and Namibian Friends – Please except my sincerest apologies if I have offended you by this statement. I have drawn this conclusion because of my own personal observations and experiences. In no way do I wish to impose my beliefs onto anyone else. I can also state with certainty that every South African I have met no matter their skin color has treated my with nothing less than kindness and extreme generosity, inviting me into their homes and their lives as if I were part of the family. (For those of you who have never been there — racism has no boundaries and seems to penetrate across the races– whites, colored and blacks– and of course not all South Africans and Namibians can be called racist )*
Finally, Iganga, Uganda – the place that would change me forever…
After a four hour flight and a six hour death defying car ride in the pouring rain, we finally arrived at my host family’s home. Completely exhausted, it wasn’t until the morning that it hit me that I just might have made a horrible mistake.
I will NEVER forget my first day in Iganga. I was awakened at the crack of dawn, after a horrible sleepless night, by the sound of an unruly rooster and the many voices coming from the family that would be hosting me. Having spent an hour or so procrastinating, I finally dragged myself out of bed and ventured outside to meet this very loud and lively bunch. Made-up of a great grandmother, grandmother, one of her daughters, and 8 children ranging in ages…who would of known that this group of Ugandans, would one day become like family to me?
It was sweltering hot. The sun shined so bright I had to wear my sunglasses, baseball cap and slather myself in sunscreen. My eyes never really adjusting to the brightness. Iganga a very dry place with dust everywhere; just sitting around was a dirty activity. Taking everything in, I became enthralled by the girl who swept the dirt.
It was while drinking my tea (Africans love their tea) and eating chapati (a flaky semi-sweet crepe) that it hit me like a ton of bricks…”What the f*** was I thinking?” For the next six weeks I would spend my nights sleeping on what felt like 2 inches of styrofoam, rest my head on a pillow stuffed with prickly little round balls, do everything to block the buzzing sound of the one mosquito who would ultimately find her way under the mosquito net, and on the rare occasion when one might need a blanket, I would have to cover myself with rough scratchy sheets, all while trying to master the art of bathing out of a basin… which I am now a pro. There was one luxury of home however, an indoor toilet which I was so thankful for. Beat-up and needing to be manually filled with water to flush it – it didn’t smell AND it was indoors. Hallelujah! Yet, could I really spend one more night here….just because of a toilet?
Finally the volunteer rep arrived to take me and the two other volunteers, a high school graduate and a college student (making me the oldest volunteer in the group) on a tour of the district and show us where we would be working. Hot, dusty, and noisy, beat-up trucks whizzed up and down the Kampala Highway, the streets lined with mounds of garbage, we walked through a sea of black people, while young children screamed, “Hey, Mzungu give me money.” Finally the Africa I had imagined – minus the starving babies with protruding bellies, desperate mothers sitting around begging, and the majority of children being out of school. However, I still wasn’t sold that I could survive six weeks of this.
Upon arriving at Maranatha, the “orphanage” where I had committed to spend my days volunteering, I was now certain I had to get out of there. Within seconds, I was bombarded by kids of all ages covered in rashes and ring worm, grabbing at me, petting my hair, and on occasion I would catch the very young sneaking in licks of my skin. Most of the children tried their hardest to get my attention by screaming at me to take their photos.
Maranatha was comprised of 162 children, ranging in ages from 4-14, living in the worst conditions imaginable. The children slept and learned in three tiny rooms. There were no desks, chairs, beds or blanket. They were forced to sit and sleep on the rocky dirt floor. Rats climbed over them as they slept and their living quarters turned into mud when it rained. Many suffered bacterial infections from the unsanitary latrines.
They were taught by unqualified teachers and cared for by people who used them for their own personal gain. At dinner time, the younger children would fight for a spot in the line while the older children waited their turn to receive their one meal a day that barely filled their empty bellies. Yet I was amazed that although these children were hungry, bored, and barely educated, most wore constant smiles, demonstrated an eagerness and enthusiasm for learning, and aspired to grow-up to become someone that made a difference. They were filled with hopes and dreams, but I sure wasn’t. The only thing passing through my mind was, “What the F*** had I gotten myself into? ” “I can’t stay here!” “Maybe I will go see the gorillas?”
But…before making any rash decision, I knew I had to call my good friend and trusted adviser Mr. Vernon Jordan. I explained to him that I thought I was in over my head, completely out of my comfort zone, and that maybe my friends where right. I told him that I didn’t think there was anyway I could survive this. I can be a quitter when I really want to be.
In true Mr. Jordan form, he did not judge or try to talk me out of leaving, he did however talk me into staying for at least 2 days, promising to give Iganga and volunteering an actual chance before abandoning my commitment. At one point in the conversation he asked, “If you leave what you would you do?” I replied, “I’ll take the $5K I brought to do something good for the kids with and use it to go see the gorillas.” I hung-up the phone promising to check back in two days with my decision.
I will be forever grateful to my friend for his unfailing words of wisdom and his faith in me to always do the right thing. By the second day my love affair with all things Ugandan began… (To be Continued)
My hope is, through the Shule Foundation, we will be able to change how children living in rural villages across sub-Saharan Africa are educated by making a top-quality education available to all; show that the African people are able and willing to take care of fellow Africans; and play a vital role in rebranding the continent in a more accurate and positive light.
* Please contact me directly if you would like help planning your African or any travel adventure (all of the commission that I receive from booking travel is donated to the Shule Foundation) – firstname.lastname@example.org – An Affiliate of Cassis Travel
Photo credit Jacqueline Wolfson