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.

On coming home

Kampala Rd, GuluSo its been a little over 48 hours since I landed back in D.C.  and now that my body is adjusting to the time I am preparing for the reverse culture shock that I can see has already begun.

Reverse culture shock is the same as culture shock, in that the disorientation, overwhelming feelings, and longing for the familiar becomes just as pronounced when you return home from a long trip, as when you first arrived in the country you were visiting or living. There are lots of manuals and advice about how to cope with reverse culture shock, including this article on Forbes called “Home sweet Home? Dealing with reverse Culture shock”.

While I had barely slept for 2 days,when I woke up on the plane as we were landing in D.C. all my experiences in Uganda and Tanzania felt like a dream.  This feeling has only become more pronounced as the days continue.  The fact that East Africa is half a world away has only increased the feeling that perhaps it was just a dream.  However, the reality of my own changed perspective, in addition to the slight tan that I acquired, makes the two and half months very real.

The realization of reverse culture shock has been with very minor occurrences.  Brushing my teeth with the water coming from the tap, let alone drinking water straight from the tap.

That D.C. is actually a quiet city has been a surprising realization.  I didn’t think this when I first arrived in D.C. in September, but now having been in city’s big and small, bombarded by the sounds of countless motorcycles, honking horns, people yelling(trying to get you to ride their bike, or board their taxi/bus), the bump and crash as big trucks bounce through the huge potholes, and the trucks blaring music to sell tickets to a party, or club or whatever.   These sounds make D.C. seem like a quiet country village.

Being able to eat any food I find anywhere in the city and not worry about cleanliness. I know this may not be entirely true, but knowing the systems and checks we have work in keeping food safe, is reassuring.

Walking anywhere at anytime, not feeling stifled by the admonishing of locals about the safety of the city. I had my haircut yesterday and my stylist said her friend was robbed at machete point in Tanzania while walking with a large group of friends.  I’m very lucky and glad I didn’t experience this, but I knew it was a very real possibility, and not just because I was white, and would stand out, but because they think I have money. That this happens to the locals in Uganda and Tanzania was why I never walked alone at night, in fact I rarely went out at night.  I think I went out maybe 6 times.  I am going to talk more about this feeling of vulnerability in a future post.

I have also been aware of just how much food we have available, and are able to keep at home in our refrigerators with our constant and reliable power supply.

As I transition back I will continue writing about both my reintegration and the experiences of being in Uganda.



Blogging, when writing is hard

Writing in KampalaI have been trying to wrap my head around all the reasons its been hard to write about the many experiences and events I have observed in Uganda and Tanzania.  I have come up with just a few reasons.

When I observe something to share, I need to spend time understanding the situation, so I not only give you an adequate picture of the situation, but so I am also fair to all the players.  When I want to talk about the education system in Uganda, or how the World food program distributed food in Gulu I want to read what these agencies have said about the situation.  Talking to people on the ground here helps me to know the public opinion, and sometimes the events, though knowing the history and the context in which these agencies operate, help me to understand the nuanced nature of aid.

Some of the people in the situation read this blog.  At times I find myself questioning the motives of myself and other people here to help, learn, or whatever.  I question motives an/or actions, and sometimes both.  I want to be fair but I need to be honest too.  Living with this has been difficult. Living with the inconsistencies of what we are told and shown, versus what is experienced here is difficult.

I was speaking with another volunteer about this, especially about the face of poverty.  Before we arrived the picture of poverty was malnourished children losing their hair, stomachs distended, lying listless in the arms of their mothers.  While I have definitely learned to identify the more subtle signs of malnutrition I also see these kids running and jumping. Laughing with their friends as they play soccer with a crumple of plastic tied into a makeshift ball.  Now we can see the breadth of life, not just its darkness, but its light. This is hard to convey.

There are also so many moment’s to share.  My feelings of exhaustion have kept me company for the better part of 2 months, have nothing to do with the temperature, or being jet lagged.  Its just all my senses, smell, sight, sound, and heart are all being bombarded, as if I was trying to sleep in Times Square or in the bus depot in Kampala.  The noise, light, and people are just too numerous trying to isolate just one short circuits my brain. My brain sometimes feels like a mid 90’s computer, slowly working through whatever simple function, it will eventually reach a solution, you just can’t rush.

What I know for sure is my heart has been expanded by a whole continent and that kind of expansion is amazing and tiring.

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.