If You Ask Me About My Trip to Africa…

11 Aug

If you ask me about my trip to Africa don’t be surprised if I tell you about the elephants, the hippos, the giraffes, the crocodiles, the zebras, the great kudus, the lioness I saw in the distance and so many cool birds and the spectacular trees.

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I will mostly likely tell you about the baboon who got in our jeep and stole our brownies and dropped crumbs all over the seats and how we laughed so hard.

Maybe I will tell you about the day I spent in the kitchen of a daycare center / orphanage with two women who have never been outside Tanzania and spoke marginal English. We cooked porridge, ugali, beans, and greens, shared stories about our lives, our families, and our dreams… and fed babies.

I guess it’s possible that I will tell you about the young medical student on my team who – wearing rain boots, a plastic apron, and gloves that she was not entirely certain were sterile –delivered her first baby. I may not tell you this story not because it wasn’t oh so special, but because, really, there are not words to express the look of sheer joy and radiance on her face when she walked in the door and told me about it. That is a moment that I don’t ever want to diminish.

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Odds are that I will tell you how grateful I am for a stable power grid, reliable internet, western toilets, toilet paper that does not disintegrate on contact (actually toilet paper period), and clean drinking water but I don’t expect that to be meaningful to most. We sooooo take all of that for granted.

It’s quite possible that I might not tell you the story about giving a young woman and her less than 24-hour old baby (and their entourage) a ride home. She had just given birth in the so much less than fully equipped clinic in the village we were visiting. The mom and baby were going to have to either walk to the next village or ride on the back of a motor cycle. We found out the baby did not yet have a name so they asked my colleague (and now friend) and me to give her a name. I may not tell you that story because even I have hard time believing that that actually happened, and now, more than a week later, can’t express just how powerful it was to watch that new mom take out the baby’s record, ask to borrow a pen, and carefully write “Maya” on the top of the page.

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I doubt I will tell you about sitting down with a man who, when I looked in his eyes, I saw the entire universe. You wouldn’t believe that I wasn’t making it all up. I was there; I saw it; and you know what? I really don’t believe I am not making it all up.

I probably won’t tell you about the tiny children who really weren’t that young…just tiny. Not sure you really want to know about that.

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Chances are you won’t hear about the cane or police pay-offs at check points on the highway or the lack of basic sanitation or the cultural norms about distribution of food that leave children malnourished (and tiny) or the textbooks that actually say women are inferior or the students who thought HIV was created by man in the laboratory…. You really don’t want to know about any of that. I am not sure I wanted to know but now I do and, trust me, it all changes you. I honor your ability to not know.

I will tell you about the inspiring people – the best and the brightest – who I am so honored to have worked with and now call colleagues and in many cases, friends. These people allowed me to think in ways that I did not even know I could. I came out not just changed by the experience this time but a better thinker – a multidimensional thinker – because of these three and a half weeks. I bet, however, that you will not see that because fundamental change in people you know is not easy to recognize– even when it is a shift to something so much more. So I may keep all that to myself.DSCN4027 (2)

I don’t believe I even know how to tell you about how a magnificent 13-year-old young woman who, without even realizing, gracefully shined a light in the darkness and changed the tone – created a moment of safety and sanity in a world that held neither – for another young girl whose life, experience, and existence held so little hope. I could never do that justice and would never, in my wildest dreams, capture the overwhelming pride and gratitude that I felt for knowing her and witnessing that moment.

I am happy to tell you about the promise I saw – the abundance of food and natural resources, the staggering beauty of the landscape, the people I worked with’s drive and desire to do more and better, the thirst for knowledge, the desire to spread the word about a program that could change so many lives, and the unwavering position of those I worked with (those with real power to do something) to help bring about a shift in cultural norms that would create a sense of equity and fairness. I bet, however, that you will write that all that off as idealism or the romance of the moment in hindsight or the view from the other side of my rose colored glasses or the perspective from my glass overflowing take on life. I know that. I appreciate that. I respect that position.

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I may not share many of those stories not because I feel you are incapable of understanding or that you lack something that allows you to feel them. I may not tell you about these significant events because I never want to diminish them with inadequate words or language that lacks the power to express true transformation.

So….

Come into my kitchen and pull up a chair and let’s talk about the animals and the trees and the landscape. They were all breathtakingly spectacular.

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All thanks to Global Volunteers….

What Happiness and Yahtzee Have in Common: Tanzania Reflections

9 Aug

I am, right now, on a brain and world expanding trip to Tanzania. I am working with an amazing organization called Global Volunteers. My task is to ask questions and gather data to initiate a project that is intended to reduce stunting and raise cognitive funtion for villagers in the Iringa Region of Tanzania. This is the second in a series of thought pieces as I work my through Tanzania and this inspiring project.

I worry about drawing parallels between the students I and my fellow volunteers met on this trip to Tanzania, and their counter parts in the US. It feels dangerous and a bit irresponsible.

Everyone’s circumstances are different.

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Yes, some conditions are more conducive to thriving – physically, mentally, and educationally – and even though those conditions don’t always provide a direct path to success they do provide a setting where it might be easier to unlock human potential.

Happiness and fulfillment are not that straight forward. I am not sure we can make blanket statements – circumstances alone don’t necessary translate to feeling happy and fulfilled.

Here is what I mean.

Happiness and fulfillment are relative things. We only know where we are and some of the details about how we got to this point. How we react to the circumstances in our lives is complicated. All decisions are based on what we know, how we feel, and what is swirling around us at that particular moment in time. It’s a snapshot.

We filter, sort, and search that picture for a frame of reference.

We sift and prioritize how we feel and what we perceive.

Then we dump all that out on the table, like the dice in a game of Yahtzee, and see what comes up. What shows up frames our choices and they make up our points of reference for how we put our world in perspective.

Think about this: That collection of what shows up gives us our behavioral options and we choose from what appears on the top face of the dice. Such a small slice in such a big world.

So… when I hear those around me talk about how people here, in Tanzania, are happier and more joyful even with “so little” I cringe. It just sits wrong with me. It is as if they are seeing the world through a distorted lens and that, in my opinion, leads to broad generalizations, dehumanizes life, and is dangerous.

Happiness and fulfillment really are relative things and we define our reality by choosing from available options.

Simpler does not always mean happier.

Having creature comforts doesn’t always mean you are set up for success.

The Tanzania I am seeing is filled with abundance and therefore potential. The land and the environment is rich, fertile, and evolving – that signals neither good nor bad. From where I sit, this moment in time in this country simply provides the opportunity to choose.

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My new forever friend Lisa is writing about The Other Africa on her blog. This quote from the top of her Tumblr page really got my attention.

“If you followed the media you think that everyone in Africa is starving to death and that’s not the case; so it’s important to engage with the other Africa.” — Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Lisa is looking at Africa through the eyes of a scientist and a mother and sees the potential.

I honestly believe that I have been sitting in rooms filled with the best and the brightest and maybe, corny as it sounds, the future of this beautiful country. Did they arrive in these rooms by circumstance, chance, or choice and does that even matter?

 

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