Falling in love

People often ask me, "Why Africa?" Good question. I dug a hole in its deep red soil and buried my bloody, beating heart there and there it will always remain. Nope. It was chance that I fell in love with Africa, and reality that she broke my heart into a million little pieces.

The truth is, I don't know why I am so drawn to Africa, but I am. Maybe it's guilt, maybe it's a calling. But this is a path I have chosen for now and Africa will always be a part of who I am.
Here is an excerpt from a paper I wrote about my ordeal with Africa. It's the best answer I have for now.

Maria, don’t ever forget me. Don’t forget this warm breeze. The feeling of being loved and yet standing out like never before. Don’t ever forget the taste of milk tea and the smell of my hair after a cold shower. Never ever forget the late night talks, maybe not what was said, but the fact that they took place. Don’t ever forget salsa dancing on stage with Ugandans, the tears that came to my eyes when I get chocolate. The love you have for those orphans, Maria, don’t ever let that go. Never forget realizing that I have grown up, and in some ways I will never grow up. Maria, make some space for Uganda, lock it up and throw away the key. Let it become a part of who you are forever. -Journal entry, 4/06

I have this great story. It’s about when I fell in love. I was seventeen and living in Europe, the perfect place to fall in love for the first time. They say love finds you when you least expect it, when you’re not even looking for it. That was the case for me, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

I had been studying in Germany for four months, and the family I stayed with took me to Holland for the weekend. They wanted me to see the tulips. Not a yard of tulips, or even a vast garden of tulips. There was this whole park of tulips. It wasn’t so much like Central Park, more like Disney World. There were acres of purple tulips, then acres of red tulip, and then acres of yellow tulips. The only things besides tulips were hot dog stands and a merry-go-round. And Europeans do this; they take weekend trips to tulip parks. On our way back to Berlin, my host mother recognized the little African museum, so we made a pit stop. We were the only ones there, and all the exhibits were in Dutch. I grabbed a pamphlet that had English translations, and we made our way through. It beat sitting in the backseat of a car.

I walked from one exhibit to the next, more intrigued with each piece of pottery I passed. There were woven blankets and rugs hung on the walls in color combinations I didn’t know could coexist. As I reached the last room, I figured out that the fun had just begun, the major exhibit was outside. Several villages from all over Africa were replicated on acres of Holland land.

I played mancala with stones, I chased an ostrich, I sat in a hut. Actually, I sat in every hut in every village. There were tin store fronts, small stone ovens, even a beauty salon. I was in Africa, minus the Africans. Minus everyone, it was just us running around pretending to be in this new amazing world. I was so wide-eyed it hurt, this had to be the coolest continent ever. I couldn’t believe a place that seemed so far away was practically in front of me.

As the rest of my family continued to play mancala, I slipped back inside. I found myself in a bright room, white from ceiling to floor. It was almost empty with the exception of a few photographs on the wall. I took my time, standing in front of each photo for minutes, soaking in every pixel. They were mostly children, all victims of the AIDS epidemic. All were near death. It wasn’t the first time I had seen pictures of dying African children, but something about temporarily being in Africa, even if it was just pretend, that made these pictures come to life. They were real and standing right before me.

My host family was looking for me; it was time to hit the road again. I bought a beaded bracelet made by Kenyans on the way out. And then I realized I was in love. I was in love with a whole continent.

Africa was so romantic. As romantic as long-distance relationships get. He was exotic and helpless, I was passionate and naïve. Cupid strikes again. As many relationships begin, Africa could do no wrong in my eyes, he was perfect. Love could not have been more blinding.

Within months, I had sponsored a beautiful Ugandan girl. She was my link; she convinced me that I had some kind of investment in Africa. I had a pseudo relationship with a living breathing African. Her picture was on my nightstand, and I kept every letter she sent me. Every now and again I would read these letters in front of my church, so they would know how authentic my love for Africa really was. It’s funny how things don’t seem real to us until everyone knows.

The first day that I was officially a Messiah student, I went straight to the Epi Center. I wanted to know how soon I could be shipped to Africa. They happened to have a program in Uganda, and I was sold. For four months I would be immersed in African culture, politics and literature. I couldn’t get there soon enough. Within three years of falling in love in that quaint African museum, I was packed and ready to get our lives started together.

* * *

Within the first few hours that I arrived in Africa, the realization that I would not be taking a hot shower or have a full day of electricity hit me like a ton of bricks. I would be hand washing and drying my clothes, getting water from a well and eating primarily rice and beans. The thought that I may have to actually live (drastically) differently in another country didn’t cross my mind. As the weeks went on, my new living conditions normalized, and there were bigger relationship issues to deal with. Certain realities of Uganda were dawning on me several at a time, and I couldn’t process them fast enough. I realized that I had become overwhelmingly guilted. In the states, I occasionally felt a twinge of shame for shopping at Wal-Mart and every now and again believed I should finish every thing on my plate (because of the starving children in India).

Uganda bombarded me with the fact that I am better off than most of the world and with how much responsibility that entails. If it’s not starving orphans, it’s the history of Africa that is the faulty of my own heritage. And then there are the evils of giving money, further enabling Africa to remain dependent on the West. It doesn’t end there, there is the environment, and living simply, and feeding the poor, if I am ever to avoid hell. If I am ever going to live this life right, I felt that I would have to strip myself of all comforts and everything that I love about my culture. I would literally become dizzy trying to sort through it all.

I never thought I would get sick of African children. I didn’t think I would be tired of being around any children for that matter. After a few months in Uganda, I hid from them. I avoided them at all costs. Even so, I would discover flocks of them following me, begging for money and food, and I would shoo them away like bothersome insects. One of the most special trips I made was to visit the beautiful girl I had been sponsoring for years. That even turned slightly sour when she followed me to the bathroom and asked me to put her through boarding school.

The most difficult thing yet that I dealt with was poverty. I wish I could say that it was burning a hole in my heart – but it wasn’t. It didn’t faze me. I couldn’t even tell you what poverty was, even though it was all around me. I was on guilt-overload; I came to a point where I couldn’t empathize with the injustices around me. I came to Africa to face poverty, and had instead become desensitized by it. I had become numb to what brought me there in the first place; to that feeling that flooded inside of me as I stood in front of pictures of AIDS victims in Holland a just few years before.

My last trip in Africa was to Rwanda, which may have had the most profound affect on my life. We bumped through Uganda for a day, and then suddenly the roads became smooth. The air smelled like sugar, and I swear it and mean it, it was the most beautiful countryside I had ever laid eyes on. And yet the remnants of what took place less than two decades before still remained. Talking to students my age who survived the Rwandan genocide broke me. Seeing pictures of children (that could easily have been the Ugandan orphans I had fallen in love with) and being told how each was murdered, tore at my soul. Visiting mass graves turned my stomach inside out. Rwanda is a breath-taking country, and the irony of the travesty that took place there, in my lifetime, was too much to bear. I was completely devastated by what humankind was capable of.

When people ask me about my semester in Africa, I tell them it broke my heart. But what I saw and experienced did more than that, it broke every part of me. It ruined me. It took away my innocence and convinced me that people aren’t as good as I thought, and that God is not who He says he is. I told myself I would never go back, that I didn’t belong.

I am still picking up the bits and pieces, realizing that although I have so little left to give, I can’t see myself doing anything other than being in Africa again, loving hurt people.

Maybe you never do forget your first love.


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