“On a summer morning / I sat down / on a hillside / to think about God / a worthy pastime. / Near me, I saw / a single cricket; / it was moving the grains of the hillside / this way and that way. / How great was its energy, / how humble its effort. / Let us hope / it will always be like this, / each of us going on / in our inexplicable ways / building the universe.”
– Mary Oliver
“And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”
– 2 Corinthians 3:18
While in Uganda I witnessed an overwhelming amount and level of poverty. I learned to easily spot signs of malnutrition in children and saw firsthand the inefficiency of the government to provide adequate services. It occurred to me that while its very cheap to live in Uganda, the actual cost of living is incredibly high. The cost of being poor to the human body and spirit is a figure too high to measure.
When you witness poverty at such a close proximity and for a prolonged period the perspective of “change” and “help” takes on a new dimension. I had a similar experience while I was working in Louisiana, post Hurricanes Katrina & Rita, with AmeriCorps NCCC. It is the experience of seeing a wall of problems and only a long road ahead. I used to say that I could get a new job in Louisiana and in 30/40 years retire and the they would still be hiring new workers. This wasn’t necessarily because of the damage from Hurricane Katrina and Rita, it was from the accumulation of years of poverty that had slowly deconstructed communities. The hurricanes simply sped up that process. I have heard people mention that they wish they could work themselves out of this job. That every morning you wake up and hope that today would be the last day poverty claims another life.
However it isn’t and what do you do when you are standing in front of a wall that is preventing true growth and flourishing. At a PICO (Community organizing) training I attended years ago, they said the best thing you can do is to find one piece and pull it out of the wall. You keep doing this until finally the wall is too weak to stand.
The solar lanterns are one piece of a complex system. The solar lanterns feel at times like just one brick in a huge wall. To keep deconstructing it is all we can do, even if you never see the wall weaken. Its not out of naiveté, its methodical and hard, and necessary for the soul.
Another experience that many people talk about is the joy you witness, the love, the life that exists in the face of these issues. The solar lanterns aren’t bringing light to darkness. The solar lanterns join the light that already exists in the people who I met in Uganda. The light that was born and lives in Uganda. The solar lanterns allow us to participate in the growth of more light, in the dawning of students who are able to read into the night.
We have 32 days left to raise just $700. Donate and please share this campaign. To learn more about the campaign visit the campaign website or this earlier blog post.
One journal page that catalogued the many words/phrases I learned in Uganda.
Since I returned, I have had the joy of being able to continue my Swahili lessons here in DC with Freddy, my friend’s building manager. It’s great to hear and talk Swahili, even if my ability ends at “hi, how are you?” I have also recently started dusting off my French skills, while attempting to learn Arabic and pick up Spanish from one of my new roommates. So, getting in touch with my lingual brain has been a great exercise recently. Though don’t get yourself excited, there is little way I am going to be fluent in all 4 languages anytime soon.
There’s a funny story from my French speaking days. I remember walking off the plane at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris and hearing a huge group of people speak French around me. My first thought was, “Wow, they did really well in French class.” Then in the next moment, I realized what I just thought and was laughing so hard, that because I was alone, and not on the phone, I am sure I added to their stero-type of crazy Americans.
I bring this up because while I love being able to greet Freddy, it doesn’t seem like what I am saying is real. It seems like a game, where I happen to know the rules. I remember that same sensation in Uganda. I would frequently thank someone in Rukiga and then follow up with English, to “make it real.” I’ve also heard this in the preschool play yard, when kids play pretend by mimicking the adults around them, without knowing what they are saying.
Today I began to wonder just how long we carry this behavior with us, and in how many circumstances. How often do we “play” or mimic right behavior before we feel like its real, before we really understand enough to hold our own self-directed conversations?
For many years I have laughed when people say, “oh, you’re finally an adult, (now that you own a house, sold a house. married, had kids, etc)” I never liked the idea of defining my adulthood, with acquiring things, or people. I didn’t think adulthood came from these “milestones.” However, I still never felt like what I supposed an adult felt like, from the vague idea I developed while watching them as I grew up, and on TV.
I was sure that with adulthood there was a confidence, a moment when you knew what to do in any situation and that moment had just not happened. I never consciously felt like I was mimicking an adult, however it occurred to me while I was in Uganda that somehow, somewhere I actually, finally, felt like an adult. I knew I was an adult all along and had owned a house, paid bills, held steady jobs, and had relationships, but now I consciously felt adulthood.
I finally understood what I was doing, and being, and didn’t need to qualify or repeat to “make it real.” I realized I actually didn’t need to mimic the adults around me, because I finally understood, that no one knew anything for sure. For me this was the moment I finally understood the language of adults, that we never really know what is going to happen, or really what to do. Though, some people live their life pretending to know, or enamored with the illusion of certainty, in reality we just muddle through and try to remain true to ourselves and, for me, the spirit of love. We can live our lives as self-directed conversations with our perceptions, what we want in life, and how we can or should achieve them.
Tankers moving past the coast at Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
On my last couple days in Dar es Salaam, I was trying to find what one feeling I could identify from my time in Uganda and Tanzania. After some thought the one feeling that continually rose to the top is vulnerable. The feeling of vulnerability pervaded the 2 1/2 months, in retrospect, it seemed to invade every aspect.
The feelings lived in the fact that while, almost everyone spoke English, everyone also spoke a tribal language that I couldn’t speak or understand. I didn’t understand the cultural cues and rules that dictated the conversations and relationships that I formed. Before I left I was so prepared and warned about the “dangers” to my health, that I was hyper aware of every thing I ate or drank. The traffic and driving conditions were such, that cars frequently drove too fast, dodging potholes, pedestrians, and animals. The traffic related death rate is more than 2x that of the US.
I’m told by volunteers and expats who have lived in Africa for an extended period, that some of these feelings subside as you become used to all the cultural intricacies, and perhaps grow numb to the dangers of traffic and disease. Its possible this alertness to everything helped exhaust me such that I was very ready to come home. My witnessing of the woman dead on the road after being hit by a car, contributed to the feeling of vulnerability. I reflected then, and still hold, you have no idea what day will be your last day. And when you begin to fully comprehend this, how is your life changed?
Being back in the US makes me question whether we have by necessity, culture, or technological advances eliminated the feelings of vulnerability. In reality I could get, and have had, food poisoning here in the US, and the death rate from car accidents is still at about 90 people per day. The physical vulnerability we have here is just as real as in any country in Africa.
I think we and, I suspect, most people worldwide, have necessarily negated the threat of vulnerability from our daily thinking. In a TEDx talk the researcher-storyteller Brené Brown began exploring the feeling of vulnerability, while trying to discern between various feelings of shame and fear.
Brown discovered that among people who described experiences of shame there were two camps of people, one that still experienced joy and strength and one that did not. Her research and talk is fascinating, I highly recommend watching the entire 20 minutes.
The main point that I will highlight is that while vulnerability is the source of shame and fear, it is also the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging, and love. In the very act of revealing our true selves and experiencing the breadth of emotions, experiencing our vulnerability, we find true connection with others.
It is when our true selves are seen and held with compassion we feel true acceptance and peace. It is numbness to our own vulnerability that has created a mask which covers our true selves and the true depths of love available to us and from us. While I know this realization of vulnerability came at the end of 2 and a 1/2 months of travel, it was really at the end of a year of upheaval and living into vulnerability.
I sat in a rooftop cafe in Dar Es Salaam with the word vulnerable and thought of the women in Liberia who threatened to expose their nakedness to men if they did not reach a peace agreement to end the Second Liberan civil war. The women were successful in getting the men to negotiate and their movement inspired the movie “Pray the Devil back to Hell.” I thought about the strength that can be gained from such a vulnerable position? What strength can we gain in our most vulnerable selves? What strength can we gain when we realize our true psychical frailty? I wrote this poem while I sat on that rooftop and pondered these questions.
Naked, I walk among the elephants, breathing slowly as they lead the way through the forest towards water. Naked, I drink, letting the water drip out of my cupped hands, flowing down my arms. Naked, I stand on the river bank watching life’s endless flow towards the sea. Naked, I dive in,holding my breath and finally emerging from below the surface. Naked, I float watching the clouds in their endless cycle of birth and death. Naked, my heart cries. Naked, my eyes long for the stars, an ancient map towards Jerusalem, Mecca, and the new world. Naked, I emerge dripping with the rains of a thousand years. Naked, I hold my heart in my cupped hands letting it warm me. Naked, I am lead to your warm embrace. Naked, I hold my heart for you, for me.
My take away from the 2 and 1/2 months and from the year, is if I’m going to be vulnerable, I am going to do it being brave. I am going to live knowing I may be rejected, fail, die, but I will still be loved and will still love. There is an abundance of love and strength available to everyone, wherever we find ourselves.