Vulnerable Strength

Looking at the tankers moving past the coast at Dar es Salaam

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.

A billion reasons to believe in Africa

IMG_0308This post will seem a bit bizarre given how much I like to deconstruct advertisers desire to get us to buy into their lifestyle. While I have traveled in Uganda and Tanzania my favorite ad has been Coca Cola’s, “A Billion Reasons to Believe in Africa.”  So today I was going to share the ad with you and as I looked up an image, I found a music video that goes with the campaign.  The music video further complicates my love of the positive message of the campaign with bizarre claims that “while the world is crumbling, Africans are dancing”?!  Sounds a bit like the fall of Troy, though the version for India is even more bizarre.  That for every tank built there are 1.3 million stuffed toys made in India. Its an amazingly narrow yet, strangely uplifting ad.  It’s a world I want to believe in…maybe? At least it has more interesting things to say than polar bears slipping on the ice.

What the cultural implications are for these soft sell, uplifting ads is elusive. I have read about the negative cultural implications of advertisements, from Ad Busters and others, but what of the positive? Can there be a positive impact from plastering the country side with the slogan “A billion reasons to believe in Africa”?

They call it Africa...

Driving through villages whole buildings in the business strip are often painted for advertisements.  The bright red buildings for Coca Cola or Airtel.  And a rainbow of other colors for various other products and services.

I spotted this ad this morning on my walk through Dar Es Salaam.  “They call it Africa, we call it home.”  For the Standard Bank of South Africa. Definitely drawing a distinction between native Africans (and their businesses) and the investors (and businesses) that have been flooding the continent.


Whether the impact of these ads is generally positive or negative, I find on my last day that there are a billion reasons to believe in Africa, even with all the complications, and I have been given the chance to know just a few of the people who help me believe.

Malaria Kills

mosquito netSo a few weeks ago, as I crawled into bed after a long dusty and bumpy drive, I lay in bed looking up at the ceiling through the white gauze of the mosquito net.  This particular net had been embellished with lace details and was draped nicely over the bed.  It reminded me that as a child I always dreamed of sleeping in such a bed, shrouded with mystery and romance.  I remember watching films that took place in far away places like Kenya and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), where the main characters, European or American transplants would fall asleep or wake up in these beds.

It occurred to me on this occasion that, as a child, I had no idea the nets were meant for protection and not for some decorators romance.  The nets actually protected the characters, and real life people from deadly Malaria.  Having spent some time with the staff at the Bwindi Community Hospital I learned that Malaria still kills many children in Uganda. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), while infection rates have dropped nearly 33% in Africa, a child still dies every minute from Malaria(approximately 660,000 deaths a year, mostly among children).  Many reasons they catch it is because the distribution of nets, sometimes for cost, has not been sustainable and has not reached everyone.  Then we also hear of people who prefer to sleep outside, since it can be too hot (as it is in Gulu). The nets that may hang in the house don’t make the migration outside with the family or are sometimes torn or improperly used.

Even with all the precautions people still die and still catch malaria. Many expatriates, including a Peace Corps member I met yesterday, contract Malaria despite sleeping under a net and taking anti-Malarias.  Fortunately, for us, when we do catch the disease our immune system is not already compromised by Dysentery, malnutrition, or any other number of worms, viruses, and disease that many people are already infected with in Africa(and globally).  We are also able to afford the medications that are needed to then fight the infection.

Please consider donating to an organization like Imagine No Malaria, they are doing great work to help educate the population and distribute nets.  There are also some very funny and educational movies about Malaria on Youtube. I found one the other day that featured the 7 dwarves, in a movie made by Disney in 1943, called the Winged Scourge.  While some of the tactics are incredibly centered on the “new” chemical weapons, it still is very educational.