Here’s a final piece by author Shauna Niequist I had ourteam readon our last night in Zambia…it summarizes much of what we feel, struggle with, and look to see in the future as our lives are forever changed…now we are in the hard spot…bringing these two worlds together as God invites us to care about both of them…prayers are appreciated! I will jot a quick update note from Heathrow tomorrow and we can’t wait to see you tomorrow night in Grand Rapids! CHIP
Four years ago, I went to Africa with my mother and my brother and a friend of ours, who is the president of a relief agency. We went to Kenya, Uganda, and Zambia, and it freaked me out. It unnerved and unraveled me, seeping into my dreams and my thoughts the way a particularly evocative movie or song does. Africa is nothing if not evocative. It’s a place of such unimaginable beauty and dignity and expanse and possibility, and such unfathomable suffering and despair and disease and decay. It is at once so alive and so wracked by death, so powerful in its landscape and physicality, and so powerless under the weight of famine and political upheaval and disease. Its intensity scared me and overwhelmed me, and I feel like I wandered through many long days there, stunned and tired and unable to digest what I saw and heard, and more specifically, what I felt inside myself.
And even now, four years later, I’m still piecing together what happened in me and what was happening around me in those cities and villages. I wasn’t ready for Africa. I have been to lots of other places, but I wasn’t ready for the chaotic jumble of people and homes and music and muddy winding paths through the shanty-towns in Nairobi or the huts in the Ugandan bush, tiny huts in the middle of a binding, parched expanse that went on as far as I could see. I wasn’t ready for the hospitals in Zambia, where I cried and hid my eyes as much as possible, where the smell of death and the cries of people in extreme pain rang out over row after row of rusted beds with dirty and bloodied sheets. In the most disorienting change of venue, I flew from Zambia, through Frankfurt, back to O’Hare, and on to the Caribbean for a family vacation. I wish I could say that I wasn’t seduced by the smooth deck and bright white sails of the boat we stayed on, that I couldn’t swim in the perfectly warm navy-blue water because I was so overcome by the horror of what I had seen. I’m ashamed to say that wasn’t the case, and even more ashamed to say that I was glad to be there, glad to no longer be in Africa. I almost tried to let the warm salty water and the soothing wind wash away the smells and sounds of Africa. I wanted away, out from under what I had seen and felt. I talked about it a little bit, but it was so hard to explain, and so hard to go back into those places inside me. I didn’t know how to tell my husband or my friends that Africa had done something bad inside me, had demonstrated to me a part of myself I didn’t know I had. For one of the first times in my life, my beliefs and perspectives bowed and flattened under the weight of my experience.
Before I went there, I wanted to invest myself in the healing, in some small way, of Africa. But when I was there, I just wanted to leave, and I was ashamed and surprised by that part of myself. I wanted to shut my eyes and stop seeing the images of starving children. I wanted to sleep at night without smelling the scent of smoke from open fires and the sounds of guards’ heavy footsteps outside our doors. Everyone I know, it seems, wants to go to Africa, wants to volunteer for a few days in an AIDS clinic or an orphanage. And that’s good. It’s a good impulse to want to see it with your own eyes and to want to be a part of the solution. I encourage them to go and recommend organizations and churches to connect with, but inside myself, I whisper to them, Be careful. You will be haunted by what you find there, and you won’t be able to wash away what you’ve seen and heard. You will see things and hear things, and then you will be responsible for them, for telling the truth about who you are and who you discover you are not, and for finding a way to make it right. I had to make things right in two ways. I had to do something personally to make things right in Africa, because now I knew too much and couldn’t erase the images and sounds that had embedded themselves in me, like seeds planted in a garden. I had to make something happen right there, which is both enormously daunting and shockingly simple.
Daunting because of how massively tangled the roots of the issues have become-it is about famine and sexual violence and patriarchy and racism and economics and medicine, and when you think you’ve knit together the magical solution, one pull on one string unravels the whole thing and leaves you with a mountain of new questions, while the clock ticks away lives by the dozen. And then again, shockingly simple, because there are such good, smart people doing such courageous, good, smart things, and what can be done with tiny little bits of money is just dazzling. Also, though, and more difficult, I had to make things right within me. I had to confront the person I found on that trip, the one who wanted to fly home the first night and pretend the whole thing was not real. That’s the trick, I think.
That’s why actually getting on a plane and going there is dangerous and very important. Because I could not forget about it, as desperately as I wanted to. I had to clear away space in my mind and my heart, spaces previously occupied by easy things–groceries to buy, albums to download, people to call–and replace them with the weight of Africa, a heavy, dark thing to carry with me, something under which to labor, something under which to tremble. Because once you see it, you will never be able to un-see it, and once you see it, you will be responsible for it, and for the self it reveals back to you.
Somehow on that trip, I grew softer and harder in unexpected places. But more than that, I’ve grown since that trip, because there is a new thing inside me, however thoroughly I tried to escape it. Africa has grown like a stubborn stalk in the soil of my life, despite my resistance, despite my fear and selfishness. It took some time, after the trip. It took some time for me to want to talk about Africa, to want to read about it again, to want to hear about it at church. But I saw it, and carried it with me, and despite my best efforts, I couldn’t un-see it, so all I could do, it seemed, was enter back in, in an entirely new way. I will never recapture my naïveté, my idealism about what magical solution might just bind up all the broken pieces. But I practice listening, learning and praying. I practice telling the truth about myself, the truth I was too proud to admit four years ago, that I’m scared and that when faced with death, I cried, instead of rising up like a nurse or a prophet. I hid my eyes.
But I don’t anymore. The baby growing in my belly as I write has brought my memories of that trip into focus. What was distant and abstract is now bursting into my field of vision in sharp relief: mothers could not feed their babies. I understand that now in a way that I did not, could not, then. My own mother has said that AIDS in Africa will be addressed and eventually healed by mothers. Then, I thought she meant women in general, possible mothers, I guess. But the non-mother-me who took that trip didn’t get something that the mother-me does now. Everything looks different–Africa and my own neighborhood and my own belly and the pregnant bellies I saw there, others carrying babies who will be born hungry and live hungry every day of their lives.
There is a food truck that comes to our neighborhood twice a month. A wonderful local church sets up the truck in their parking lot, and people line up around the block for potatoes and formula and apples. Our house church volunteers sometimes, unpacking the food and packing it into the laundry baskets and bags and buckets that our neighbors bring. I’m silenced every time, watching women just like me, carrying babies they love the way I love mine, tucking onions and corn and juice into baskets, because without the food truck, they would not have enough food for their children. What happened in me on the other side of the world is working its way through my life like yeast through dough, right in my neighborhood. I help feed people on Thursday afternoons, a tiny thing, but one that is important to me, because once you see something, you can’t un-see it. I saw the women in that line with their babies, and I can’t un-see them. And I don’t want to.
One night in Africa we climbed to the highest point we could find, through waist-high bushes and bramble and thorny underbrush, and when we came to the top, we looked out at the sun setting across a majestic and regal land, land that had been given and taken and stolen and drenched with blood, but land that at that moment was glowing with the softness of the fading sun and the rich purples and greens of harvest time. The property on which we stood was walled on all sides, and the top of the wall was spiked with broken bottles so that no one could scale it without being cut on the glass. We stood inside the wall, and the broken bottles glinted in the sun like sparklers, keeping people in, keeping people out, twinkling and beautiful, and at the same time, embedded with violence and division, and in those two things, those twin natures, lies Africa. And in Africa I discovered my own twin natures, extending to me two hands, one holding terror and despair and one hope, and day-by-day, I make my choice. There is hope for Africa, and there is hope for me, and for my neighborhood, for the shards of broken bottles that puncture and divide us all.