It has been 10 years since I have seen this red dirt, smelled the burning trash, wondered how people survive in the stifling heat that you can never find relief from. The heat surrounds you like a cocoon. The African red dirt that sticks to everything and you inhale it into your lungs.
It has been 10 years since I looked deeply into the eyes of the African people. It was there that I first experienced the core of humanity in their unique and brilliant souls. Their eyes tell the story of their hundreds of years of war and worship; it is a strange mix of unspeakable pain and indescribable joy. It is unlike anything I have experienced anywhere else in the world.
Nothing has changed and yet everything has changed in 10 years time. I am the mother of one less child, I am the grandmother of one sweet little girl. When we lived in Swaziland, I was in my mid 30’s and raising 6 children. I was full of ideas and my dreams were fearless, without boundaries or limits.
I would ask God daily, “How can I change the world?”
Back then, my African friends would call me “Make” (pronounced Ma-gay, meaning “Mother”). I find myself in Uganda today as an older, wiser woman. Now, I have been promoted by my African friends to “Go-go”, meaning “grandmother, elder and leader.” Africans honor the seasoned ones, the gray haired ones. They view wrinkles as signs that point to days of hard work in the harsh sun, and white hair is proof of wisdom. America could learn a few things from cultures like these, as we tend to ignore the voice of our elders and sometimes scoff at their stories. It is inspiring to be in a culture where the older and elderly are cherished, rather than told their value declines with every passing year, along with every sag in the skin or crease around the eyes.
The young woman that still lives in me can’t wait to get covered in the red dirt, to sweat in the blazing heat, to build something from the clay. Maybe help build a house or a school that is so desperately needed. I still want to bathe the children who have been separated from their parents, either through events of life or the finality of death. I want to put clean clothes on them, to hold them close and sing to them the songs I sang to my children when they were small and scared. I want to rock them in my arms and kiss the top of their head so they can feel the comfort of a Mother’s love.
I still ask God daily, “How can I change the World?”
The young woman in me wants to move right into the Refugee Camp, and work there everyday until I die. I want to do it all, the getting dirty, the teaching and the training, the dreaming and the hoping, the loving and weeping. The younger me was fearless; would leap without looking, without asking questions, without knowing the people. While I still feel that younger one inside of me, I know that she also burned out quickly, barely touching a fraction of the need here, and sometimes did more damage than good.
The older woman that lives in me now takes a deep breath and asks, “Who needs to be a part of this and how much more could we do if we all worked together?” She asks, “What is happening, what is working, what is not working?” I am now more fearless than ever, yet I move more slowly. I am more settled and calm, even though the needs are great and most definitely overwhelming.
Now, I know how important it is to honor the people, the government and the workers that have been here since the beginning. We must all talk, plan and work together. We must lay down our own ideas and agendas, and remember that while we all have the same goal, we have different gifts and resources that will help in different ways. But the slower pace can be frustrating, especially to Americans that are used to asking a question and getting an answer in the next second as well as always getting a “yes” as an answer. .
But life does not work like that in Africa, and it certainly does not work like a refugee camp. This is different than anything I have ever seen. This is a world on high alert, Leary of strangers especially those with white faces.
In my heart and my mind, I know that we have to go slower. We have to build trust and honor tradition and culture. I know that just throwing money at a country can cause more harm than good. When we send in food, farmers lose their jobs, the men go into the city to find work, families become split, and culture is sacrificed for survival.
In my mind, I know we have to let the Africans lead. After all, it is their continent, and it is their heritage and their community. I know fathers need to provide and protect their families through their own hard work, not handouts. I know mothers need to be in control of their children’s education and well being. I know that all parents love their children and want the best for them. I know that we must follow their lead and then empower, not judge and lord over a community of humans beings.
Still, this was the hardest trip of my life, and I have been to many desperate places. I have seen the aftermath of war and the devastation of poverty. I have lived among the African people with my own family years ago, and they graciously allowed me to be a part of their culture and community. But in a refugee camp, there is more anxiety, more fear, more trauma than I have ever experienced. In a refugee camp, everyone is on high alert, and lives can change in a moment. Wars end and people go back to their homeland. Motivation to put down deep roots is almost non-existent.
It has been 10 years since I set foot on African soil and so much has changed, yet what has stayed the same is the inexhaustible strength, resilience and incredible joy of the African people.
By the time we boarded the plane to return to our home in Europe we were dirty, exhausted and overwhelmed with the need and hurt of such a precious people. However, I know without a shadow of a doubt that these beautiful orphans, widows and refugees are the ones that hold the keys and possess the answer to the question that burdens me daily:
“How do we change the world?”