All things big and small

I’m in Dakar, Senegal sitting on a flight back to the U.S. that originated (originally) in Johannesburg via Lilongwe, as they transfer passengers and staff, restock food, fold up blankets, and get ready for yet another 8 hour trip to yet another destination. If this plane is anything, it is a metaphor for my life: Another country/city/place, everything I own packed neatly into three suitcases in the cargo hold and 2 carry-on bags in the overhead. A life lived abroad all suddenly coming to a strange and seemingly abrupt end.

The process of change and transition, no matter where one is geographically or psychically, is never easy. Moving my life from Lilongwe to California has been a series of mini battles – some good, some bad, some more complex than others, and almost all of which have been in my own head and my own heart. For almost two years, Lilongwe has been my home. And although I knew it was time to leave, even though I could feel my body and my heart telling me it was time to go, it just never felt like quite the right time. Now that I’m here, on this plane, it all seems too soon and too fast. It feels a bit like I’m about to walk into a party to which I was not necessarily invited…and one that I’m poorly prepared for (and certainly not dressed for) to boot.

My last week in Lilongwe was spent in tears: tears with my housemates, tears with my coworkers, and tears with my clients. I pulled out of camp last Thursday sobbing in the front of the Land Cruiser as a dozen of my women clients showed me off waving and crying themselves. It was heartbreaking in a way that I cannot even describe…quite honestly, I don’t really want to. Although it was a very public good-bye, on the inside it felt a lot like someone squeezing my heart until it bled.  Given the hiccupping sobs I was rocking while leaving camp that day, I’m sure this wasn’t exactly a secret to anyone within about a 1 kilometer radius.

There was simply no way to prepare for it – no matter the time or the place, that final day in camp was going to be heartbreakingly beautiful and desperately tragic, not just for me but for everyone whose lives I have become inextricably intertwined with over the past 20 months. I’m on a plane leaving Dakar in the middle of the night one week later and I’m on the brink of tears just discussing it. I get the feeling that maybe the overwhelming feeling of loss is never quite going to go away – I am, in many ways, willing it not to, like my emotional baggage is the last remaining link I have to my life in Africa which is quite literally getting farther and father away as I write.

I left Lilongwe on Tuesday, after a weekend of going-away dinners, going-away BBQs, going-aways in general. At one point I think I just stopped processing the whole thing and sort of flat-lined emotionally because the very thought that I wasn’t coming back this time was too goddamned unbearable to contemplate. Leaving Malawi was more than leaving a job that I loved:  It was leaving my people, a group of people who over the last 20 months have become my family and my support network, silly, loyal, and occasionally dysfunctional as we all are. I feel as thought I am leaving my home– and again, as I say these things typing in the middle of nowhere transatlantic-dome I am crying like a bit of a maniac and hoping that $2 Malawian valium is somewhere within arms reach for the next 8 hour leg of this trip. (Malawi lesson #252: It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to. If you have a problem with that, mentally stated to the American man sitting next to me looking HORRIFICALLY uncomfortable as the woman next to him types and drips tears onto her keyboard, too bad. Pass the tissues, kids. I’ve got 14 more hours to go and I’m just getting started).

Malawi was not a “trip.” It was not “part of my travels.” I didn’t go there to party or go on adventures to the lake every weekend (although I will admit that these were all immense bonuses to the last nearly 2 years of my life). I went there to work and accidentally stumbled upon a life, one that I miss with an intensity I don’t yet know how to explain.  In many ways, Malawi made me whole again at a time when I didn’t even know how broken I really was. I found “people” in Malawi that I didn’t realize I needed until it all sort of tumbled together in this unexpected balance of f**ked up expats and life-hardened refugees. It just might be the most ridiculous faux group counseling scenario on the planet – and yet somehow, in sliding into all this, I rediscovered myself. I went to Malawi to help people put their emotional lives back together and in the process, it seems, I too ended up getting patched up along the way.

I always joke about how Malawi is like Never Never land, how even Peter Pan has to leave the island and grow up eventually. It recently occurred to me in a discussion with a friend that maybe this metaphor isn’t so accurate after all. Life in Malawi is very real, real on in-your-face levels few people in the West have to deal with on a regular basis. The last 20 months of my life has been a crash course in all things poignant: Death, dying, loss, hope, joy, love, and all sorts of in-between crazy shit I cannot even begin to explain. (Goat induced panic attacks? Three-quarter length suits? Inexplicable shortages of water, fuel, electricity, internet, and telephones occasionally all at the same time? $20 butter and the world’s most expensive processed cheese?). All of these ridiculous and amazing things, bundled into this crazy time and spread out over a refugee camp and an expat community I didn’t know I needed until I stumbled my way into all of it. And now? Now it’s over. And Peter Pan or not, it’s time for me to leave.

I know that going back to the U.S. is the right thing to do right now even if I feel like I am breaking my own heart and tearing myself away from the people I love…even if I feel like I don’t know what I’m going “home” to when home feels more like Africa than anywhere else. What scares me the most is not returning to the states, because I am looking forward to it on some level. I’m nervous about living in California for the first time in 8 years but this too is a new adventure and there is an anticipation about living in the place of my birth for the first time in what seems like eons.

What scares me the most right now, as I look west in the middle of the night over the Atlantic is facing the reality that a chapter in my life has closed for good. Malawi is over. My job is over. I have become another hole in the lives of my friends in Lilongwe and the people at Dzaleka…in time, I will just be another chapter in a story, but one that cannot be re-visited or re-opened. There will, quite simply, never be a time in any of our lives like this again.  It is so very Malawi by virtue of its beautiful tragedy – immensely joyful and sad, intriguing and terrifying, friendly and yet lonely all at the same time. And now? Now it exists in memory, like a scene in a snow globe: perfect and untouchable all at once.

I am, for once in my life, not whinging. I am not lamenting. I am not complaining. As sad as I feel right now, somewhere over the Atlantic between Africa and America, the emotions I feel are not out of angst, depression or despondency. Rather, they are out of love and immense gratitude to my friends, to my once-upon-a-time home in Africa, to my clients, and to the universe, I suppose, for taking me in, for dropping me on African soil, for making me part of a community I didn’t know I was supposed to be in until I got there.

I am not ready to say good-bye and so I won’t. I will simply say, “thank you”. To whom? Well, that is a list too long to start. You all know who you are. You know I miss you with an intensity that will probably always make me smile, and very well may always make me cry. Thank you for the blessings of the past 20 months. Thank you for teaching me to love. Thank you for gifting me back me. A million times thank you for all things big and small.

So, as they say in Malawi? Tionana. See you later, my loves. This is Meagan Demitz, a once-upon-a time Malawi expat, signing off the island for the last time.

Over and out. 

Take me down to Paradox City

Let’s make something very clear before I get on my virtual soapbox: I am well aware that I am inches away from hitting the proverbial wall. I have a one-way ticket on the Compassion Fatigue Express which is heading into the abyss faster than a speeding bullet. Remember that scene from “She’s Having a Baby,” when Kevin Bacon suddenly envisions himself strapped into a rapidly accelerating caboose that ends in a mess of screams and fire? Yeah, it’s kind of like that. Next stop? Burnout-ville. Population: Me.

I have a propensity for being slightly overdramatic so all of this should be taken with a wee grain of salt. That being said, lately I’ve been feeling as if I’m running in circles, as if I’m pushing on a door when it says “pull” or rowing a canoe north through rapids that are clearly flowing south. At some point, it just makes you want to sit down and scream in frustration and anger and pain. I listen to stories all day long that would make even the most stoic of characters question their own faith in humanity, that make you wonder how it’s possible for anyone to survive so much hate and destruction. It makes you wonder how some people can face the present with a past that is so heavy and so dark. And, not surprisingly, some days it just proves to be a little too much. Some days you trip on a rock and kind of just lay there for awhile with your face sideways in the mud wondering if you can, or should even bother, getting back up.

Yesterday on the ride back from the camp, I couldn’t stop thinking about what one of my clients had said earlier that afternoon during one of our groups. This client attributed all of the wars, all of the dying and the killings, to an absence of love: “People in Congo have simply forgotten how to love one another,” she said, “It wasn’t always that way, but now neighbors kill neighbors, friends kill friends…even family. There is no love.” There was a heaviness in the way she said it, as if the capacity to love and respect human life was both the simplest and the most complicated, inexplicable things in the world. And at that very moment, and for reasons I will get to in a bit, those two contradictory statements made sense: It is both. It is easy and Impossible, all at the same time. It’s a paradox, just like everything else is here.

My heart is tired in a way I never expected. It’s not the stories or the terror, or the trauma or the pain. It’s not the sense of grief and sadness and immense loss I hear every day at camp. It just isn’t. Instead it’s something more nuanced, shaded a bit from the obvious, something that kind of whacks you up side the head every once and awhile to make you examine who you are or who it is you think you should be. It is the paradox that evil, darkness and despair, exist at the same time as goodness, hope, and light. One cannot survive without the other and we’re all stuck in a tug-of-war as this ying & yang flips back and forth, and back over again. So how do you reconcile the fact that this is maybe the way it has to be? How do you accept that sometimes s**t has to hit the fan before you can get to the core of what really matters?

At that same group in camp yesterday, I listened to story after story of war and gang rape by rogue soldiers, husbands who had been murdered and children who in the panic of fleeing were lost in a sea of people never to be seen again. I hear these stories and I want to scream out and curse God for allowing it all to happen — I want to throw things through glass and crawl out of my own skin because I simply cannot comprehend how any one human being could be so cruel to another. I don’t understand how anyone is meant to survive such a life that has seen so much suffering and so much loss. And yet at the same time I feel as if this has to be the end of all things, I also see unmistakable signs of hope and strength that for all intents and purposes, shouldn’t exist at all. These women share stories in languages I do not speak and with an intensity I don’t even pretend I will ever be able to truly grasp. They speak of things none of us in our wildest nightmares could ever imagine, about things you wouldn’t wish upon your worst enemy. But despite this, I can’t help but seeing strength and healing — it’s visceral, and I don’t need to speak Kiswahili to put the pieces back together.

The process is heartbreakingly lovely and powerful, watching as a near electrical spark pulls people together spreading love and support, and the long-awaited sense of peace. But it also scares me in a way I can’t quite articulate. Sometimes I find myself feeling like I’ve been dropped into some kind of fractured, alternative universe; I have these moments every once in awhile where I just don’t get it. The world abandoned you…how do you still have the will to continue to live, how do you still believe when you of all people, should have no faith left in humanity at all?

My feelings around all of this are equally complicated, and I have a love/hate relationship with my work sometimes when I start to question what it is I’m doing here and what kind of “help” I’m actually offering these people. The red devil on one shoulder tells me that help is a childish notion in the face of this mountain of human damage and utter psychological carnage. While on the other shoulder, the angel in white continues to jump up and down shouting positive affirmations and turning my head to see the faces of healing and peace that I know do actually exist and that I have contributed to. I don’t expect I’ll ever NOT feel conflicted about everything — If and when I do reach that point, I hope that will be the moment I realize it’s time to pack up and leave.

So it’s all a paradox. It’s all good and evil. And as most paradoxes go, it is an endless stream of questions that will never have sufficient answers. The best I will ever get are glimpses into that unknown part of life none of us will ever quite understand.

I happened upon one of those flashes yesterday, coming back from the camp. It was intimate and strange, and I am pretty sure I am the only one noticed as I sat there trying to sort out all of these thoughts in my head about good, evil, healing, love, and otherwise. In a cosmic twist of chance, at precisely the same wrinkle in time I sat there thinking about all of this, we passed a familiar face on the road. A man. In a truck. For a moment we caught each other’s eyes and smiled sad, knowing smiles. As the Land Cruiser slowed down to pass, I watched our hands go up in a stalled wave, frozen in some kind of silent understanding or acknowledgement about what it means to be present in this world. We sat there like that, me staring out the back of the Cruiser and him standing by his truck, for a long time, long after we had we had pulled away, watching one another as we became smaller and smaller dots on the horizon. All I could do was cry.

Disillusioned Youth 2.0

When I was in college, I worked for the university newspaper, a small, chaotic operation cleverly named “The Loyolan” after, well, the university. Although I held several positions there over the course of my college career, my most favorite and coveted job was that of “Perspectives Editor” aka, Op-ed editor, which I had my senior year at school. I loved working at that paper – the crazy deadlines, the sense of perpetual mania, the eternal search for a better edge, a better story (not to mention the promise of dinner from Beach Pizza every Tuesday deadline night) – that job was my life for a good part of my college existence. And I’m not gonna lie – what made it particularly endearing was the fact that once a week I got to spout off my own personal opinions to the world in an editorial column, a piece whose only purpose in life was to rant, rave, and generally point out the glaring ridiculousness of whatever was happening in local or campus-wide news, or just simply to bitch about something worth bitching about. The column was called “Disillusioned Youth” and disillusioned it was indeed.

That editorial lived the good life until May 2002 when my professional student life came to an end and I entered the world as a qualified, knowledgeable, and responsible adult. I use those terms loosely. For those of you not familiar with the narrator at the age of 21, I can pretty much assure you that she fit none of the above-mentioned requirements. Manic, beer loving, I-have-a-degree-in-English-and-am-totally-unmarketable-in-my-home-country? Now we’re getting somewhere…

For reasons I will get to in a minute, I’ve been thinking about that column a lot lately, and internally reflecting a bit about who I was at that age and what I, presumably, had so much to journalistically fuss about. I attribute this current pontification to the present circumstances of my social circle in Lilongwe, namely the fact that I am fairly sure that half the people I now spend a significant amount of time with may or may not have been born in the year 1986. So far as I recall, this was a pretty good year. I was in Mrs. Bradley’s second grade class. I excelled at swimming lessons at the Oak Park pool. I developed a distinct and unrepentant obsession with “Little House on the Prairie” and an undying hatred for flowery, puffy, or overtly girly dresses. Overall, the late 80s had a lot going for them, even if we all do lament the whole crimped hair, shiny bubble skirt, tapered jeans with double socks thing.

But here’s the thing about being born in 1986: It makes those of us born in or around 1980 look like Bea Arthur from the “Golden Girls”. And you know how much I love me some Bea Arthur, I’m just saying – six years can oscillate between being a blip in the grand string of time or an epic eternity depending on how the cookie crumbles on any given day.

Truth be told, for those of us who are from the U.S. and did the whole American college thing, there isn’t really that great a divide between the ages of twenty-two and twenty-eight. Our formative early adult experiences were pretty much etched in the same Bud Light soaked stone – whether it be 1998 or 2005, the propensity for ridiculousness knows no age and I am pretty sure the game of “asshole” hasn’t changed it’s rules since about 1972.

But the thing about this whole seemingly minor age differential is that it does, on occasion, bring up the fact that we’re all looking at the world from slightly different points on the horizon. The late 70s, early 80s crew are a little closer to that spot where the sun meets the hills, where as the rest of those crazy kiddos are looking a little bit farther up at the big, blue, wide-opened sky. Most of us, most of the time, don’t give two thoughts to any of this but every so often the difference between blue sky and shades of the setting sun makes an appearance – it’s those times that make me step back and look at the horizon twice.

I had a conversation the other day with one of these ‘86ers. We were on our way down to Blantyre, driving down the only highway that runs the length of the country. As we passed through village after village, we started talking about village life and more specifically, about what it would be like to live amongst the people in those tiny little towns and start a grassroots program from the bottom up – wondering and thinking how amazing and powerful it would be to just show up in a village and live there and make something incredible happen at the most basic, clearest level of need. It was a simple statement, a straightforward observation and we chatted a little while about what that would be like and how it really would be development work at its very core. The discussion drifted and ebbed, a new song came on the stereo, and off we went to continue our meanderings down the dusty, pot-holed highway.

That’s the moment. There’s your difference. That seemingly miniscule conversation is the distinction between a time as long or as short as six years. What I heard in that brief chat, what got sifted through all of those words, was this immense sense of hope and enthusiasm, and the thought that tangible hands-on impact was wrapped up in the very idea of adventure itself. What did my internal monologue have to contribute to this discussion? Little more than the sound of an old, ticking grandfather clock and the recognition that that bold piece of my formerly twenty-two year old spirit has kind of checked out. It’s left its grubby, beloved knapsack at the trail’s edge, traded in its hiking boots for heels, and has lazily walked away into the city sunset. At twenty-two, I would have looked out that window and said the same thing. At twenty-eight I look out the window and I think that living in the village would send me to levels of insanity I can’t even properly describe in words. 

My initial thought is to be sad about this, and to want to mourn a bit for the pieces of myself that I’ve outgrown whether by the force of time or as a matter of choice. But I think that’s not the way to go in this case, despite the fact that it feels natural to pine for younger times or at the very least, to feel a bit anxious about the reality of being on the rapidly diving bell curve toward the age of thirty. But that just sort of misses the point of all of it, don’t ya’ think?

The person I was at twenty-two and the person I appear to be at twenty-eight still share a continued capacity to be open to possibility, chaos, and change, only these days that capacity is dotted with end-line asterisks like the need for running water, sleeping arrangements that do not involve dodgy hostel dorm beds, and the promise of a consistent Internet connection. But that’s the way it’s actually meant to be – from individuals just out of university to those of us a little farther down the line and those farther down still, each of us is exactly where she or he is supposed to be right now. If I was still cool with living out in the bush and frolicking around the world with nothing more than a backpack at this age I probably wouldn’t be doing the work I now do. Is that a matter of age? Or experience? Or both? Yes and no. Here, in this random hodgepodge of development and aid workers, there is an unintentional momentum moving everyone forward. Along the way, we pick things up, we let them fall away, and we grow – older, occasionally fatter, but hopefully wiser – as we trudge along this continuum. It’s the metaphorical equivalent of the kindergarten buddy system – hold the hand of the person next to you, pull each other through the valleys, push one another up toward the roads, follow someone down through the hills, and walk with your buddy up to that point where we will all inevitably have to split up and go our own separate ways.

I look back on the days of “disillusioned youth” and realize that it wasn’t disillusionment I was trying to capture at all. It was hope, and a sense that the world was movable even when it looks as if it tipped right over on its side. And I see that now in the faces of those friends at the very beginning of that chain. They’re in the trenches, running through the muck, smiling through mud-caked faces, and laughing through the early beginnings of something pretty amazing.

So does that make me old? Magic 8-Ball says, “Ask again later.” Maybe I will, maybe I won’t. In the meantime, there are lessons to be learned from the 1986 crew before I pass into unremarkable old age. Case in point? Jorts. That’s right, I said, “jorts” — jean shorts. Confused? Baffled? Mildly horrified that you might have to attend an entire party themed in this manner at some point in the not so distant future? Yeah. Me too.

Uphill mud

Work on the international development scene moves slowly. Painfully. Dreadfully. Slower-than-mud-uphill-in-a-downpour SLOWLY. For the most part, I can testify from experience that a lot of this isn’t a whole lot different than working in nonprofit in the U.S. — There is never enough money, never enough time, and everyone could use about twice the number of staff to accomplish everything that needs to get done. It’s easy to let all of these crushing, unrelenting challenges throw you into a bit of daily spin cycle, one that oscillates between wanting to routinely punch walls and/or people in the face or the moments of near hysterical euphoria when something actually gets done. Those moments, where you really get to see a tangible end result for someone are like contemporary, enigmatic miracles. I would put it akin perhaps to witnessing the birth of your first child — an overwhelming expansion of awe, love, and gratitude made more intense by the very fact that you know moments like this in life are unique. They are special. And they are limited. They don’t happen everyday.

And that is the problem: They don’t happen everyday. In fact, sometimes they don’t happen at all.

Life for refugees in a refugee camp is a combination of bustling activity and the sheer freezing of time. People come, people go. Life happens, life stops. Wake, eat, sleep. Wake up and do it all again. Apart from the infinite seepage of days one into another, the other constant presence in camp is the sense that nothing ever actually gets accomplished. From refugees, to the implementing organizations, and back again, there is this tiring feeling that the search for help is just a fuzzy run through one big labyrinth that loops over and over again with no beginning and no end. Earlier I said that international development runs at a snails pace — here, from where I am standing at the moment, it doesn’t actually move at all. Here, it feels more like running through quicksand. Maybe even running backwards through quicksand, or doing the moonwalk through mud. Here, I sometimes get the feeling that if you were to just stop on that patch of unstable earth, it might actually swallow you whole, suck you under, and spit you out somewhere in China during the Middle Ages. How’s that for a commentary on the modern bureaucracy of international aid.

There is no possible way for any of us to truly envision what kind of nightmares force people to flee their homes and become refugees — husbands running with wives, with babies on their backs hand-in-hand in the middle of the night from a life that at one time was fruitful, peaceful and above all, happy. Think about this — I mean really, REALLY think about it. What kind of horror would it take for you to make the decision, sometimes in only a matter of minutes, to leave everything you owned, even people you loved, behind without any hope of return? And then, once you’ve lived through the seemingly unthinkable, and often, the unlivable, you find yourself marooned in a foreign land without papers, without money, without explanation, dazed and scared, unsure what the future will bring but knowing that the past is full of demons and monsters so evil you are scared to close your eyes at night for fear of what the dark may bring. So here you are, in this place you are now to call “home” — maybe you’ve been here for years at this point. And all around you, there are these groups that advertise how they are supposed to be helping you but when you reach out for assistance they tell you “no.” Not enough resources. Not enough people. Too busy. Too burned out. You said the wrong thing, now you don’t get help. You made too many waves, now you don’t get help. Come back later. Or don’t come back at all. Ask another agency. Ask another case worker. Go ask Alice. Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.

As aid workers, as agencies, we are all guilty. We are all accountable. No one gets to skirt responsibility or close their eyes to the blatant reality that a lot of the time, the only thing those of us in the field are doing really well is failing to do anything at all. We act as if we are all righteous and wise, sometimes behind the backs of others, sometimes to one another’s faces, when in reality, our systems are broken. The wheels churn, spit out screws, and make ear-cringing screeches and pops as metal grinds against metal. For all the good intentions the world has had for helping people forced to flee their home countries, there are some 10,000 refugees idling at a camp in the highlands of Malawi just waiting. In camps all over Africa, there are hundreds of thousands, if not MILLIONS, of displaced people simply WAITING. For what? For someone, anyone, to give them answers to prayers and simple questions alike. In any case, nothing is clear, not even to those of us who are supposed to provide a response. We tell people to walk towards these doors for assistance and when they get there they find that they’ve been padlocked. Or torn down. Or maybe those doors never actually existed at all. Pepani. Sorry. Better luck during your next 7 years in this camp, or at the next one you flee to when the civil war starts again. And again. And again.

Welcome to Frustration Nation. All of that said, when you as the humanitarian worker are not having one of those weeks where everything you hear makes you want to cry, when the operational meetings you have make you so viscerally angry you have to sit on your hands for fear that you may jump across the table and throw rabbit punches at the person sitting smugly in front of you, or when you just feel like you are a wee burned out in general, there are those moments where all of the bullshit and the murkiness suddenly vanish and the horizon looks calm and level, just as it should. You help someone heal. A child gives you a hug. You watch as someone climbs into the truck that is about to take them to the plane that is going to deliver them to their new life. These enmeshed dreams of hope you start having for your clients really do happen, even if they don’t happen often enough.

In spite of all of the uncertainty and despair, there is a vivacious, booming pulse of survival running through the camp even if it’s not always evident, and even when the systems ostensibly set up to help seem to do nothing but drag everyone down. No one seems to give up and even though the drive to move onto better circumstances often turns ugly and desperate because of the perpetual despair and all of those dead-end doors, there is something sad and wondrousabout watching it all unfold. It’s like embers of a fire as close to burning out as they are to starting a whole new flame — the human spirit never dies without fighting the good fight, even if it means running blindly through the night and through a maze with no outlets. You just can’t kill hope.

But “hope” is a charged word, one that we associate with all things positive and shinny. It is warm rather than cold. It is sunny, rather than dark. Here, however, hope sometimes looks more like a solar eclipse than the bright beating sun. Sometimes it feels like it too.