It was unusually difficult for me to come to
Africa this time. I had just finished a crazy year at school, after many years off; I’d visited an old friend in , and was enjoying the (finally) nice weather. I was just getting comfortable with American life, living in my hometown for the first time since high school. In New York , I was immediately accepted and eventually became profoundly comfortable in my community, and since then I’ve been looking for similar community living in Mali but with no luck. Despite my unsuccessful efforts, I was finally generating optimism about finding a close-knit adult community here at home. I didn't want to leave again. Also, due to a rewarding but extremely time consuming and challenging position as a graduate student instructor this past semester, I didn't have a chance to work on or cultivate my African projects, and my interest for the continent got swept up and lost in the daily grind. For the first time since I returned from Peace Corps over a year ago, I didn't desire the upcoming change of scenery, and found myself asking “What is it that keeps bringing me back to this continent?” I doubted that I would find the sense of comfort in Ann Arbor that I felt in my community in Uganda or even at that very moment in Mali – so why was I returning? Those who have spent time in Ann Arbor Africa know the unspoken answer to that question, so it’s those that haven’t been here that ask, and I’ve never been able to give them a satisfying answer. This time, I couldn’t even answer the question for myself; I’d somehow forgotten why I’d spend the last year of my life trying to get back to Africa. But I was committed, and my intuition told me to stick with it, so I got on that plane and flew back to . Uganda
After that long, uncomfortable plane ride surprisingly full of eager tourists and missionaries ready to see
Africa, I disembarked and was comforted by the chaos, inefficiencies and misunderstandings that made my visa check last for hours. After waiting in the parking lot for the boot to be removed from the car (it had been “illegally” parked in the spot where the tires mysteriously appeared), Dr. Musaazi drove me back to . This ride brought me a sense of comfort from the things that usually elicit culture shock in other people – the seemingly chaotic driving styles; shaky shop walls leaning on each other topped with rusty metal roofs; dirty, naked children shouting “how are you”; police stopping vehicles with intimidating AK47s at road blocks; blaring music from clubs; wild dogs with hunger in their eyes - the simple “disorder” of daily life. This sense of comfort was ephemeral; in a few days, I found the disorder of this Kampala to be somewhat scary and alienating, confirming my pre-departure fears. Then, on my second day of work, I decided I needed to find a more permanent home than the cheap hotel I found in the city center. I wasn’t sure how to find a place, so I brought up my dilemma at work. Not more than 30 minutes later, a very hard working, friendly and dedicated female co-worker said her sister may have found me a place in a hostel (an unfurnished apartment building usually for students). Just before lunch the same day, we went to check it out. It’s modest, an empty room and a filthy bathroom with a shower, sink, toilet, and burned out light bulb, and access to shared kitchen space on the floor below. Needing something closer to work and more permanent, I decided to take it. After a stop for lunch, we headed to my hotel and I was met along the way by the most amazingly energetic, happy, bubbly woman (co-worker’s sister). Maggie helped me gather my things together from the hotel, and move them into my new apartment. She organized delivery of a bed, loaned me a mattress, sheets, dishes, her kettle to boil water (cold, non-potable water from the faucets only), and her stove, ensuring me I didn’t need to purchase anything. Next thing I knew, she’d gathered her cleaning supplies and was literally scrubbing my room from top to bottom. I tried to help, but mostly was probably just in her way. When my bed was set with the mosquito net she bought, the light bulb installed, and everything clean, we sat on the floor in my new home and chatted the night away. I knew immediately she’d be a lifetime friend. new city
It was at that moment, four days into my trip, head spinning from the days events, watching a stranger (who happens to also be a doctor) vigorously scrub my filthy floor, laughing all the while, that I remembered why it was that I came. I still struggle to explain the way I feel when somehow, out of nowhere (in a country where it takes 5 hours to get a visa), people come together to make the impossible happen in a day, so I’ll quote John Chernoff, from his book, Hustling is Not Stealing: Stories of an African Bar Girl,
“These are the people last in line, those without the opportunity to participate in the universal grabbing. . . Despite the chicanery at every turn, they hold strongly to a fragile fabric of social decency. Their approach to life is characterized by every type of exploitation but also every type of altruistic kindness. How else can one account for the survival of the common people? No economist has every figured out how they make it from day to day. The per diem allowanced deemed appropriate by the U.S. Department of state is several times the monthly wage of a well-employed worker and more than half the people in a city like Accra are unemployed. It is a situation that would turn us into gunslingers, and instead, people somehow hang together and get by. The society may be disorganized but the people are not in disorder. . . Sharing is everywhere – sharing a room, sharing one’s clothes, sharing food, sharing a cigarette, sharing a laugh, sharing a moment in the evening breeze. Under the pressures of modern living at its worst, the inherited values of the people do not break, though they often bend.”
It is these inherited values of this culture that brings me back every time. It’s good to be home.