Here are the top ten things I learned while living in Africa:
1. The things you take for granted, someone else is praying for. Let’s get the most obvious thing out of the way. Africa made me grateful.
There are struggles that generations upon generations of our ancestors dealt with at one time that many of us First Worlders now do not even think about most days. I have clean water miraculously come out of a spout in my kitchen. I flush the toilet and never have to see the contents of it again. I can call 911 and people will actually come; paramedics... firefighters... police... A system is in place and people will actually come when I need help. My First-World doctor will most likely not turn out to be a veterinarian. I open the refrigerator and assume the electricity has been on all night to keep things cold. Said refrigerator usually has food in it; and when it doesn’t, I can resource more of it independent of how well the weather treated local crops during the growing season.
I am grateful for the comforts I grew up not knowing were comforts. Until the day I die I hope I always look at my bed as I have every night since moving to Africa. I do not sleep on the ground; I do not sleep on bubble wrap, or cardboard, or a piece of wood. I remember back to when my gardener asked me for my moving boxes so he could sell them to people for beds and I think, “Dang. I’m lucky.”
2. It’s a very very small world. I thought I knew this lesson, but apparently I didn’t know it well enough. I grew up in a teeny tiny town in the middle of Iowa. I was blown away by the fact that every time I walked through Times Square I ran into someone I knew. “It’s a small world,” I would say. When we moved to Africa and met coworker Jon, it took us literally two minutes to realize we had both grown up within a fifteen mile radius of one another. “It’s a very small world,” I had said. But it was on the day I saw a re-sold tee-shirt from my high school being worn by a native African on my street that I truly knew. It’s a very, very small world.
3. Luxury is having a thermostat. This may just be the most intelligent thing I ever say so please take note. Luxury is having a thermostat. My ability to manipulate my surroundings in the First World is. Un. Real.
4. You only learn as much as you want to. *I started to realize it when I moved to NYC and was amazed that instead of finding worldly-aware citizens, I found people who could tell me ten ways to get to Times Square but could not find the state of Iowa on a map. *I started to realize it when I moved to NYC and found worldly-aware citizens that could discuss the implications of an MFN trade status with China and the effects of trade embargoes on small villages in rural Cuba, but did not know how to buy a subway pass. *It clicked entirely when I moved abroad and was amazed that instead of finding locally-aware Zimbabweans, I found people who did not know the pangolin -one of the most sought-after animals in their country- even existed, but knew Snooki’s catch-phrases from MTV’s Jersey Shore. *It clicked entirely when I moved to Africa and found locally-aware Zimbabweans that could discuss the tragedies of the monetary incongruities of white-African versus black-African farm-ownership in Zim, but did not know that the n-word or k-word is not an acceptable term to most English-speaking people.
I found the same tendencies in people wherever I went. A person can choose what they care about and what is relevant to know in order to navigate daily life. Getting outside your walls (literally, in the case of walled-Africa) and choosing to learn about the diversity of culture found in your own hometown? That is entirely up to you.
5. Wealth is not about how much money or possessions you own, it’s entirely about access. This is not just a sentence; it’s a whole college class. I am American and I take a few things for granted, feeling poor when I look at my wallet or bank account. But, if I want to buy a car, I get a loan. If I want to go to school, I get financial aid. If I want to buy something, I can buy it even before I have the money, instead using a nice little piece of plastic. I have access to things simply because I am an American with a social security number. If my Shona housekeeper walked up to a bank to ask for money, she’d be turned away before she even got to speak to someone. In Zimbabwe, you buy nothing that you do not first have money for. If you don’t have money, you don’t eat. Want to go to school? Save up for it first; you cannot borrow your future. Every time I felt frustrated by my American student-loan debt, something most Africans have no concept of, I had to stop and remember; my thousands of dollars of debt is worth more than the five dollars in the pocket of a Third-World citizen. It’s all about access.
6. Living in Africa is like driving with the windows rolled down. You try to orient yourself while challenges come at you at high speeds and your hair whips in your face. You can feel the air, richer than any oxygen coming out of mechanical dashboard vents, and you can smell the earth. Sunshine sits warmly on your arms and you feel alive, though perhaps a little disoriented and overwhelmed and nostalgic for the unnameable. Life is raw and real, out in the open. You will leave refreshed. But you will look like a mess.
7. The 1950s are alive and well. We first noticed it on the rusty metal pipes that made-up most of Zimbabwe’s playgrounds. We saw it in the backseats full of bouncing children playing with lighters but sans car seats. We saw it in the 30 year-old medical books our vet-doctor referenced in place of a computer. We saw it in rusty vehicles held together with tape and prayers. We saw it in the gross treatment of staff, as though it was the mid-century American South. We saw it in kids drinking out of hoses and sunburns welcomed on blistered white children who had never worn sunscreen in their lives. We saw it in the use of non-politically correct words that made our ears blush, and crank cash-registers that made our child’s eyes light-up. We saw it in the motor-oil used to finger-print us at the police station, and in the misplaced paper files that delayed our many governmental registrations. Just because people know about technological/societal changes does not mean they want to embrace it, or have access to do so. It’s awesome to talk to a Zimbabwean about “the good old days” –and most people do love that subject- and to realize that the generations I am speaking to in many instances are decades behind our American concepts of “the good old days.” Not everybody got the car or the computer at the same time.
9. Write your love letters to home. Nothing will make you feel more like a part of something than when you are separated from it. I never felt so American as when I moved out of its borders. I adored countless things about my African days. I could gush for weeks. But I surprisingly discovered –sitting in the differences- what it is I love about home. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. And perhaps a little more grateful, too.
10. You can’t go back. The bright shining continent of Africa will live with me forever, whether I make it back or not. (And I do plan to!) As Andy Bernard said so accurately on The Office, “I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them.” We are always in the good old days. We’re in them right now. But the tragedy about trying to go back to a place you love is not just a question of geography. It’s about who was there, when, and how, and why. My baby grew up in Zim, he ran barefoot climbing mango trees and giggling as we chased giraffes in our jeep and caught frogs in our pool. We felt the spray of Vic Falls and the dry heat of Mana Pools. We basked on the Zambezi and cuddled orphan babies we eventually cried about putting down. The ways I got to experience the Great Continent That Could were a gift I will return to a thousand times… but only in my mind.