Thursday, November 29, 2012

If Ever You Need Perspective

If ever you need to feel humbled, move to Africa. Imagine moving your entire home full of belongings into a truck for Africa and your feelings at opening all of your items among people who make 100 dollars a month at best. We found ourselves in this position last weekend, when our container finally arrived -four months late, and just in time for Christmas. I was tickled after feeling months of desperation for the things we so "terribly" needed to make home feel like home.  As our gardener's wife helped us to wash all of our kitchenware I suddenly became acutely aware of my privilege.  I felt my face burn as I had Jesca wash boxes and boxes of things like our Parmesan cheese grater, ice cream scoops, and sushi dishes, the likes of which she had never seen, let alone been able to afford.  I quickly shut the door to the rest of the house, filled with boxes and Jonas' newly discovered toys strewn about.  I opened the rest of our boxes with curtains closed while I thought about Jesca's boys playing in the yard with their stitched-together grocery-bag ball and felt a large dose of humbleness in my heart.


If ever you need to see the humor in things, move to Africa.  Among other things Jonas and I have been looking forward to, a bike and carrier have been on the top of the list.  We typically walk about four km a day on dusty paths and shoulders of roads in mid-day African heat.  I was tickled to finally have our bikes arrive, newly purchased just for our African commute.  What I didn't expect, though, was how tickled all of the local Shona would be with our bikes.  Apparently a white woman zipping around town in a bulky bicycle helmet with a giant trailer wheeling behind her, helmeted baby trapped inside, is reason to stop and smile, to sometimes point, and almost always to always yell, "Mangwanani!  I like your bike!"  I am joyously laughed at with awe so often I preemptively start laughing at myself now whenever I pass someone.


If ever you need to feel cynical, move to Africa. Kurt and I checked each numbered item that came off our moving truck as six men labored in long sleeve uniforms in place of ramps and dollys.  As the last piece found its way into the house, the head mover and Kurt looked at each other.  "There is a lot missing," they agreed.  We went through the lists again, having the movers unwrap every piece of furniture to make sure no package was stuck inside another.  When the movers finally left, we spent the rest of the weekend ripping open boxes at an exhaustive pace, rather than with joyful discovery, trying to recall what and how our American movers had packed, and writing down almost $40,000 dollars worth of stolen items.  Everything from electronics to a computer to table legs to design work to the 75 Christmas ornaments Jonas and I made together last year to the ten books I had handmade for each year of our marriage landed on the list. It rarely happens, though a pair of our friends had the same situation. The items were all accounted for when we arrived in the country, but four months of visa waiting later, seals were broken and bonded storage turned out to be, well, not so bonded.  We are currently dealing with insurance claims and explaining to Jonas why he now has no tricycle or bicycle. Training wheels, yes.  Bicycle, no.  


If ever you need to feel gratitude, move to Africa.  I set aside some of the paper packaging and boxes from our move for Jonas.  He wanted paper to draw on and boxes to build a fort. Upon leaving, the movers asked if they could take the mountain of bubble wrap sheets that had been taken off our large furniture items.  I thanked them, saying, "absolutely," so we would not have to burn the plastic in our yard.  Our gardener pulled me aside hurriedly and whispered, "Madame, can I keep it? I can sell it. People need beds."  I had totally forgotten that many of those who are not fortunate to have mattresses here sleep on scavenged cardboard and, if they're lucky, paper and bubble wrap.  My trash was just what others had been hoping for.  My bed has washed a wave of gratitude over me each time I've walked past it this week.


If you ever want to feel joy for the simple things, move to Africa. I have a favorite family Jonas and I pass every day on our trek; they are squatters who live among the foundational outlines of an incomplete house two streets from us.  We shout out greetings to each other and our babies whenever we see each other.  (When they first encountered me zipping past on our bike, the father shouted, "HA!  So much betta!  Yo bike is very clever! I see you go fast!  Ha ha ha! Go fast baby!")  They are the happiest family I've seen. The family can be seen doing their laundry in a wheel-less wheelbarrow every afternoon.  One day I passed at an atypical time and watched the mother run full speed from a water spigot to the wheelbarrow, water pouring from the bottom of a holey bucket.  She got a few cups worth into the wheelbarrow, then turned around and started back to the spigot once again.  The beautiful part?  She was laughing the whole way.

If ever you need to feel conflicted, move to Africa. The one most important thing, we were warned by the school, is to never give away from your gate.  If you make the mistake of giving from your door, people will know where to find you.  And their relatives.  And their friends.  Over and over again.  Soon it will be hard to get out of your home.  So when an elderly man came to our gate last weekend asking for money and Kurt, who like myself believes in the value of giving, lovingly said, "Sure, just a moment," into the buzzer, I jumped down his throat.  (This is after I encountered a begging woman last week that has been returning unwelcome to our next door neighbor's gate for over ten years after she was once helped out when she needed assistance for her sick baby. I heartbreakingly wished her many blessings and denied her the money I recognized she desperately needed in a tactic of self-preservation I have felt guilty about ever since.)  Kurt and I then hissed back and forth with hushed voices about what to do, as he had just led the man to believe he was going out promptly, but I recognized that it would be me trying to get him away from our gate the next time he came and Kurt was at school.  While the man waited, our sad discussion turned to conversation about how we want so desperately to answer the human condition here with a loving approach, that we want to treat all human beings as though they were God themselves, and how much we resent living in a place where the rules of how to live keep our lives safe but make us feel as though we aren't living at the same time.  No matter how we chose, the discomfort of the situation remains present.  In the end, Kurt went out to the gate.  

If ever you need to feel certain, move to Africa. People ask me all the time if I regret moving to Africa, after such a challenging last few months filled with car accidents and visa issues.  My answer is always the same.  

"Never. Look at how much I've learned."