How to Survive a Trip to Africa Without Too Much Crying

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n104179_35647049_9215.jpgI was five years old when I laid eyes on my first National Geographic, sitting atop a mass of other magazines in the living room of our house in North Carolina.  The cover boasted a male lion crouched down mid-stride, and as his piercing eyes greeted mine as I stood entranced, half-believing he was coming to take a bite out of me.  I picked it up regardless and did my best to attempt a reading of the cover article, translation:  I poked through the pages with pictures.  Yes, I was a normal little five year old.  The continent's pull on me continued into my pre-adolescent years, and soon enough, I was at an age where I started to understand the wide range of social and political issues in Africa giving my interest an entirely altruistic bent.  When a proposed building trip in Africa with Habitat for Humanity Global Village Program came up this summer, without giving it more than twenty seconds of thought (hasty I admit), I signed up, interviewed and was accepted onto a team of 13 volunteers for the Mozambique build in October.  I got my requisite shots, a prescription for Malarone and packed a full week early.

Ordinarily, seventeen hours of flying time and three stops might give me some pause, but I didn't care in the least, I was going to Africa baby!  South African Airways zipped us through Dakar and then onto Johannesburg where we caught a puddle jumper to Maputo, the capital of Mozambique and drove to a hotel for the night.  Early in the morning, I woke up slightly disoriented but quickly caught my bearings, taking my I-don't-leave-home-without-it video camera to the balcony.  Pointing it towards the edge of the Indian Ocean in Maputo City, a strange calmness swept over me and the reality finally set in; "holy shit" being the only appropriate reaction.

I rode in the flatbed atop the luggage in the back of the pick-up truck as we descended, bumpy, dusty and windy, upon the village of Massaca.  Women carried massive jugs of water and piles of sticks on their heads and waved to us often, walking with an elegance none of us could fathom.  Tiny children pitter-pattered after the truck, shrieking with delight.  The dirt roads covered my socks in a thick red dust that has yet to wash out.  It was then that I realized that this was the first time I'd been in a truly foreign locality and hadn't felt the slightest bit out of place.  Honestly, I really hadn't expected to feel such a strong sense of familiarity.  I always seem to incur a bit of homesickness on my travels but here, it had yet to rear its head.  It was as if I'd been served a huge dollop of deja vu, like I had been here before in a dream, and that was recognizably startling.  Sure, I had hoped that my lifelong belief that Africa was where I was 'supposed' to be would all prove to be truer than true, but to be in the midst of it all and realize that it was, well that was pretty damn cool.

Soon we were learning to mix cement, build bamboo walls and successfully pronounce the corresponding Shangana and Portuguese words for the basic tools used. Our master carpenters and their apprentices had the collective patience of a thousand kindergarten teachers, using hand gestures for basic instructions on how to mimic them as best as possible.  We were building thatched hut homes through the Orphans and Vulnerable Children (OVC) extension of Habitat Mozambique, a relatively new facet of the program designed to help those children who have little to no family support and suffer from a lack of proper housing.  Mozambique, in addition to being the poorest African nation, also struggles in social and health matters: nearly one in four in the country are infected with HIV.  Moreover, one of the most disturbing trends appearing is the slow dissolution of the 30-45 year old population group, with one or both parents passing from HIV, leaving behind their children to be cared for by grandparents or by the eldest child, usually no older than fifteen or sixteen.

n104179_35646792_1629.jpgThe children in Massaca, and most of Africa for that matter, exist on next to nothing. There are no Toys R' Us stores, no television, no iPods, no AIM chatting till late hours and no trips to the mall for the latest trendy duds.  Yet these kids in and around the village seemed happier than any little squirt I've seen in the States, even offering to help us on the build sites by gathering materials and refilling the water jugs whenever necessary.  (I know it's a bit of a cliché to talk about the happy but poor indigenous people of the world, it's like something out of a nineteenth century missionary's journal, but it was totally undeniable up close.  Maybe all our technologcal distractions serve only to make us more anxious, maybe it's got something to do with our environs, I can't really say.)  Personally, I've never been one for kids, so when I found myself happily greeting and looking forward to our village visitors watching us closely as we struggled to saw, mix and shovel, I knew something freaky was happening.  In retrospect, it's quite possible that my new found appreciation for those African ten and unders is a direct result of the striking and understandable difference between youngsters growing up in poverty and those spoiled by a capitalistic and wealthier American lifestyle.  And who couldn't adore these lil' ones?  They were ten times happier than yours truly, whose bank account could pay for their livelihoods a hundred times over.  So it seemed apposite that after visiting a local girls' orphanage one afternoon, it was decided to throw a party there the following night for the orphans.  Cookies, Fanta and a whole lot of dancing carried on into the sunset.

To us, we were throwing a very casual good time for kids whose visitor count could likely be in the single digits. To the girls, it was an occasion for their Sunday best dresses.  Now let me just say, I don't really cry.  It's just not in my nature to let the waterworks flow their course unless endless amounts of alcohol have been ingested or an annoying guy friend talks about my cat getting fried.  But as we started making the rounds for goodbyes, I felt something bubbling up inside of me. "Keep it together, man. Keep it together!" I told myself while biting my lip. Leena, my fourteen year old orphan partner in many of the dances, ran up and embraced me with such force that I couldn't help but fall in love with her.  Slowly, I separated myself from her ninja tight grip and did my best to keep face until reaching the pickup's cab, where the tears began to flow like Victoria Falls.  Lesson learned: the cynical are no match for pure, genuine affection and longing.

Looking back, I find the problem with expectations is that more often than not, they curve perceptions and cultural understandings in ways that do not lend themselves helpful to even the most fervent tree hugging hippie do-gooder moseying down the road in the back of a pick-up truck.  Before my trip, I had some rather elaborately naive notions of the situations at hand in Africa, having read various reports and watched a wide assortment of documentaries on Darfur, Rwanda and Congo that painted similarly dire pictures but were hard-pressed to make the substantial impact that would inspire action.  None of the media I had consumed could have properly prepared me for what I witnessed and lived.  Poverty did not seem to dampen the spirits of those I met and worked with, as if pointing out to me that this was how life should be lived, simply.  Obviously this is not to say that poverty is not a grim situation, only that the village life was something that affected us all profoundly, eradicating our well-worn superficial values and ideals.  Yet trying to quantify and properly explain it has been incredibly difficult.  And I still cannot help but feel my Mozambican comrades got the short end of the stick, despite the fact that 84 people are no longer homeless as a result of our efforts.  What they did to and for me in just two weeks was enough to change twenty four years of cynical thinking and subconscious selfishness.  I highly recommend a visit, but please, do pack some Puffs.

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