It seemed like a good idea the first time I went to Africa.
I was young…20 years old…and in my second year of university. I had the plan all figured out…finish university, become a teacher just like dad, and live for the two months off in the summer.
It was a good plan. A noble plan. And one that I could have easily followed had it not been for my friend Laura who, over coffee at the University Centre, innocently asked me if I wanted to be part of a youth exchange program to Zimbabwe sponsored by an NGO based in Ottawa.
She had no idea that she would change the course of my life.
I went to Zimbabwe as an innocent 20-something and over the six weeks, I fell in love. I fell in love with the music. I fell in love with the food. I fell in love with the open hearts and warm embrace of some very special people I had the honor of meeting. It was like when you give that piece of your heart to your first love knowing that you will never get it back and hoping that it will grow into something beautiful. I fell for Africa. And I fell hard.
But I also came home confused about poverty, angry about structural adjustment and the power of the IMF and the World Bank, and stripped of my innocence regarding missionary work that seemed to export a North American version of Jesus to a people and culture who existed far from the margins of anything even remotely North American.
On coming home, I went through reverse culture shock. I was ashamed of my whiteness. I was resentful and judgmental of my evangelical culture and its apparent lack of ability to see that sometimes people need bread before they need Jesus. I felt a deepening desire to learn more of Africa and so I got off the teacher track and completed a history degree with a focus on south African post-colonial history and liberation theology.
My love affair with Africa had changed me, shaped me and left its indelible mark on my heart.
The second time I went to Africa was in 2005.
I was part of a small team of people who were sent by a relief and development organization to assess the impact of a longstanding famine that was ravaging Africa’s north east. More specifically, our small team was sent to Ethiopia to see how many children were starving and to find ways to help get them get food before they died.
For almost 10 days, we traveled into some of the most remote places I have ever been…places where we saw the impact of the famine first hand. Children were starving…their hair turning orange from lack of vitamins in their diet…their bellies starting to distend…eyes sunken and hollow. The mothers were most often quiet…silently hoping that the six strangers who were now in their village could somehow fend off the agonizing process of watching their sons and daughters slowly fade away.
I have a clear image of Ben – one of our team members emerging from a hut holding a whispy, skeletal baby girl was not going to make it through the day unless something drastic was done. Ben’s face conveyed the sense of urgency and futility that was darkening my own eyes and soul…threatening to choke out any sense of hope.
In some cases, we were able to help and get food to those most desperate. The little girl that Ben had held limply in his arms received the help she so desperately needed. But for every success story, there were some stories that did not end so well. The reality of relief and development work is that not everyone can be saved.
I came home from this trip traumatized and afraid of Africa. The place that I loved had betrayed me and turned from life giving to life denying or life destroying. Even to this day, the memories are hard, crushing and can trigger emotions that I am still trying to wrap in the poverty of language.
I don’t talk about my experience in Ethiopia very much – its just the way it is.
The only reason I’m telling this story now is because I have the opportunity to once again go back to Africa in June – this time with a group of classmates and teachers as part of my Masters in Counseling program. I have the chance to go to Rwanda – more famous for its genocide than its unlimited beauty – to serve local counselors and therapists who are working with various communities and client groups.
There is part of me that doesn’t want to go back because I am afraid. But it seems like it might be time to revisit yet another personal place of pain and trauma in order to ‘reclaim the land’ and finally make peace with demons that I have wrestled with for almost seven years.
Africa captivated me in 1991 when I was there as a young man…and it broke me in 2005 when I returned. So now I wait expectantly, prayerfully, and admittedly somewhat nervously to see what it will do to my heart and soul this time around.
Moving forward sometimes means going back – moving into the fear rather than continuing to run from it or keep it hidden.
But above all else, the important thing is to keep moving.