Entry stamps

“Wow. You’ve been a lot of places.” This waitress in Healdsburg, CA is flipping through my passport, seemingly unaware that every time she touches another page and opens her mouth I come one step closer to kind of wanting to punch her in the face.

“Tanzania? Bolivia? That’s a big visa from Kenya, huh?”

I smile politely and ask her, again, if she could possibly deliver on that order of zinfandel I just put in. Oh right. She smiles and hands my passport back to me before day-dreamily walking back towards the bar, totally unaware that I am sending her stabbing eye jab looks at the back of her head the whole while.

This scenario played itself out twice that night, again at another bar with another server who felt entitled, when I handed her my passport as identification, to flip through the pages and discuss the contents of the last 9 years of my life while I sat on the other side of the bar listening to my internal commentary switch come dangerously close to “f**k it” and “f**k you.”

I suppose bar patrons, particularly Americans living and drinking in America, don’t often use passports as the common denominator of identification. But I don’t really have much of a choice at the moment. My Massachusetts-issued driver’s license ended up on the losing end of a battle between me and a Malawian cop who for various reasons (ranging from me having an expired “certificate of fitness” on my car at the time to a streak of obstinance that prevented me from bribing him purely out of my own stubborn principle) resulted in my license being impounded sometime in July, effectively vanishing into the abyss of the Malawian police system never to be heard from again. Hence, the passport as my principle form of I.D. – As it turns out, it also now functions as a passport into my life when placed into the hands of complete strangers. Zikomo. You are certainly NOT most welcome.

Reverse culture shock this time around is creeping up on me in ways I didn’t anticipate. Some things are the same, like the fact that my first trip to the local supermarket nearly gave me a heart attack. (Are you aware of how many kinds of blue cheese there are? Or the fact that a pint of sour cream is only $1.69?! It’s criminal — CRIMINAL. Someone needs to stop the insanity). But the emotional ebb and flow of being back in California this time around is hitting me up side the head a bit differently, I suspect mostly because I am having to dually reconcile that this time it isn’t a vacation. This time, I’m not going back to Malawi.

I was standing in line at Peet’s Coffee the other day, waiting patiently to order some sort of ridiculously fancy and overpriced cup of coffee/espresso/tea/whatever when I had a little mini “WTF America” moment of unpleasant zen. The couple behind me were talking about repainting their house. The two women in front of me were discussing the sale going on at the local boutique where they were apparently headed to next. The entire place was packed with people, chattering, jabbering, gibbering people. When the cashier at the front said “hello” to me he looked genuinely surprised when I answered back, “Hi. How are you?” (Because greeting people in America is apparently akin to holding them up at gunpoint and demanding the soul of their first-born child). At any rate, it was your typical yuppie coffee shop scene, and all I could think about the whole time was, “jesus, this is utterly ridiculous cacophony…and there is a panic attack lurking riiiiight around the corner as a result.”

It’s only been a little over a week since I left but I miss the sense of living life in my own personal observation bubble. When you live abroad and don’t speak the language, the daily sound of life is almost like friendly white noise. It’s like a chipper background tune in a foreign tongue that buzzes around your head in an odd, yet soothing, urban symphony that you don’t realize exists until it’s no longer there. Or you’re no longer there. Instead, you’re in a new place where you suddenly understand EVERYTHING being said and demonstrated by nearly everyone around you almost all the time. I find this incredibly unnerving and kind of intrusive. Quite frankly, I’m having a really difficult time concentrating on the internal when everything external is just so incredibly chaotic, rapid, and irritatingly “loud” both in an audible and lurid sort of way.

And as “American” as this place so obviously is, so much of it sends me right back to thinking about people or places, even specific moments in Malawi. My friend J out there always says that even on the worst days of work, in the afternoons where you feel totally depleted as if the inanity of Malawi has actually, finally, crushed you, there is always this moment at the end of the day as the sun is setting where you catch a glimpse of something bigger. When you can suddenly understand the reasons you’re there and why we all do the things we do. The sun dips low on the horizon. The sky turns orange…then pink…and ends in a sea sky full of deep blood-orange red. You are conscious of your heart as all this is happening, and the sense that it is expanding, bursting, and breaking all at the same time. Everyone around you could be talking total bulls**t but that one moment in the day is clear and nothing, absolutely nothing else in the world could bring you more peace and clarity than the site of that sky and that sun setting in the distance.

I’m having trouble letting go of those sunsets out east and embracing the ones out west. There’s too much background noise here. Too many people, too many cars, too many kinds of blue cheese. I underestimated the learning curve getting back into the groove of American society. It’s not bad, but I’m not gonna lie, it’s hard and I have moments where I feel torn and tired, and a bit compelled to hibernate from the world and my friends and LIFE for a little while I retune my internal radio settings. None of it is unexpected but that doesn’t seem to lessen the fact that it kind of sucks. 

Which is where the passport situation comes in. I am putting barricades up against the noise. I’m plugging my ears to the dissonance. I’m fighting NOT to have panic attacks at the supermarket and do normal things like have a nice glass of wine with friends I’ve known for over a decade and haven’t seen in a year. And yeah, I know you’re curious about all those pages and all those stamps, and god knows you probably don’t come across them all that often, but those 22 pages of my very old American passport are a little summary of my life, one that I don’t have an obligation to share with you and one I am clinging to while the discord of my new life in America knocks on my door as asks to be let in.

So, madam bartender, if I may? Please just serve me up that glass of vino. Go back to your banter with the other patrons. Comment on the weather. Wipe up your bar. Do whatever is you need to do while I take a second to myself here. I need a moment with this part of the sky, with these new 7 p.m. pinks, oranges, reds, and blues. Because I’m looking for that heartbreaking moment on the horizon where it all makes sense…so far, it still feels a world away. 

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. 

If God is with us, who can be against us?

There’s a guy who sells bumper stickers down the road from my office. He hangs out around the traffic lights in Area 15, right next to the homemade sling-shot hawker, the stray puppy purveyor, the mop/broom/feather dust buster man, and an ever-changing variety of mobile merchants who sell live chickens, turkeys, and your occasional duck off of the handle bars of their bicycles.

The thing about bumper stickers in Malawi is that there are only about five – five staple phrases that you are sure to see on the back of at least every other vehicle in town. For the humble worker: “No Food for Lazy Man.” For the romantic: “I Love my Wife” (also available in “I Love my Husband”). For the God-fearing man: “RELAX: God is in Control” or the sticker that graces the back of my 1996 Toyota Corolla: “This Car is Protected by the Blood of Jesus.” (Trust me, if you were in a driver in this country, you’d want Jesus on your side too). And last, but not least, the Malawian adage that most aptly plucks the strings of satire: “If God is with us, who can be against us?”

Who can be against us…who, oh who, can be against us? Oh Malawi. You really just walked right into this one, didn’t you?

As much as I would like to think that I am optimistic about the future of international development and the burgeoning government systems in which we work, there are moments where the sheer irrational logic that seems to dictate infrastructure and problem solving in this country just completely overloads my capacity for lucid, balanced reactions. Malawi, I love you like a second home, but seriously? You are doing my head in.

There has not been steady running water in my neighborhood in almost 7 weeks, which when paired with the twice weekly electricity blackouts, the 72 hours this past weekend where the entire country was without functioning cell phones, and an apparent region-wide diesel fuel shortage, is making city living around here a real kick in the pants lately. When this first started, I made one, maybe two phone calls to the water company, politely asking when we might have running water again. “Yes, Madam, we are working on it. We do not know what the problem is.” Fair enough. Pipes burst, shit happens. I tell myself that there are people who work at the water board whose only job is to fix this sort of thing, maybe there is some kind of clandestine mercenary plumbing troop tasked with rappelling down in the middle of the night to fix busted water lines or clogged dams for the betterment of Lilongwers everywhere. I mean, no water for 7 weeks: There MUST be a contingency plans for this right? There must be. There has to be. Someone quash that grumbling rage in the pit of my stomach that says mockingly, “you are a moron. Of course there isn’t.”

Let’s fast-forward to this past weekend, six and a half weeks after this utility debacle began. I am on the phone, once again, with the water board, arguing against the most incomprehensible reasoning I have ever heard in my life in regards to why there is STILL no water between the hours of 6:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. every day in Area 12:

Me: Good afternoon, Sir. I am calling about the problem in Area 12. We still do not have water. When will this be fixed? 
Water Man: Yes, Madam, we are working on it. 
Me: Right, so what is the problem? 
Water Man: Ahhh, we do not know.  
Me: Sir, it’s been six weeks. Your company turns the water off at the exact time, for 12 hours a day, six days a week. 
Water Man: Yes. We do not know what the problem is. 
Me: Ok, but that is what I’m saying: The problem is that your company turns off our water EVERY DAY. 
Water Man: Mmm-hmmm, yes, well…we do not know what the problem is.

Based on my dead-end conversation with the “faults” line personnel, my housemate then decided on Monday that perhaps a physical visit to the water board might prove more fruitful in terms of information gathering. Wrong. That scenario clearly ended in similar obscurity, with a rather bright-faced Northern Irishman storming out of the building muttering unmentionable curses and with no clearer picture of how, when, or why anyone would conceivably expect that there be reliable utilities, like water, in this city.

Argue that I am petty and spoiled all you like. I don’t care. I live in a house, in a city, I pay for public utilities and I have quality of life expectations, although they are certainly more tempered and flexible here than they would be at home in the U.S.  But what I would say in retort is that my annoyance with the infrastructural failures of this country is the accumulated frustration of living in a place that seems so apathetic to problem solving. Yes, my water may not be a major concern to you, Mr. Water Utility Man, but that is because I am a half-enraged white woman who, you figure correctly, probably has other alternatives to getting water when I need it. I can go to the posh hotel around the corner for a shower or I can drive up to a friend’s house for a hot bath and a cup of tea. But that is sort of the crux of the problem, now isn’t it, because there are LOADS of people who live in my neighborhood who can’t do the same thing. They are housekeepers, watchmen, guards, gardeners, tomato sellers, maybe even bumper sticker vendors – they are the ones who have to bear the brunt of bullshit like this and I am equally, if not more so, infuriated for them. As a Malawian friend of mine said last week, “it is very bad. Water is life. Without water…this is a difficult thing.” I obviously agree although after nearly two months of dealing with this, I can’t say that I have an immense amount of faith in the system’s ability to right itself at this point. Bucket showers and evening water hoarding continue, as do the occasional early morning shouts of “F**K MY LIFE!!!” that come from the bathroom when my half-naked roommate realizes, once again, that there is nothing coming out of the tap and we are both going to work dirty today. 

An expat friend wrote me in a gchat the other day, “I realized recently that living in Malawi is, sadly, like interacting with a teenager on a daily basis:  Stubborn, temperamental, crazy illogical, and sure that it is right 100% of the time.” As development workers, we are here trying to build systems of sustainability, to create projects that help people better themselves, their lives, and their country – at least this is the altruistic half-truth we all tell ourselves. But I question this rationale and wonder if our involvement here is, perhaps, doing more harm than good. I mean, how do you build sound, sustainable policies and projects if the infrastructure of a place is still so unreliable? It’s like building a fortress upon a foundation that has been crazy-glued together with a colorful mish-mash of questionable internal policies, politics, and ever-shifting international influences. I often feel like we are just tripping over one another, dog-piling onto an already incomprehensible bureaucracy that seems to bottleneck at the top before anything gets down to the bottom where it is really needed. 

I know God is with us, even as someone who walked away from the Church a long time ago, I believe in the spirit of something bigger and a faith in hope, and I can see that in the faces of the people I work with every day. But it isn’t God I’m worried about: It’s us, the communities of this country, expat, Malawian or otherwise. The biggest enemy of development is development itself and maybe all we’re doing here is compounding the problems, proliferating the crux of the issue even through our most altruistic efforts to make things better.

At the end of a 12-hour workday, when I’m tired and I’m dirty with red African dust, when my heart feels heavy and I’m angry at the world for the list of injustices we just can’t seem to sort out, the only thing I want to do is go sit in my shower, under an artificial rain of warm water and pretend, if only for a moment, that everything isn’t f**ked up, that God is nearer than he is far, that everything we’re all doing here is for some kind of purpose.

So, God, if you’re listening, cut us some slack. We could use a break here. And a little bit of water too.

5 minutes of zen

Today is Thursday, which means it’s dog washing day in Lilongwe. Once a week the city streets fill with purposeful individuals leading one, two, sometimes four dogs at a time down the road into Area 18 where the doggie dipping station is located. It’s mostly house staff that carry out this weekly routine – guards and gardeners, mostly men, wearing the unofficial uniform you see around here: Royal blue jumpsuits or brown work trousers tucked into big black mud-rucker boots, all walking or jogging along side Malawian mutts that look as though they must have been cloned from the same little beast ages and ages ago. And it’s the same once a week, every week; rain or shine, hot or cold. Dogs will be washed come hell or high water.

I’ve been observing this odd, collective morning ritual every Thursday now for the past year and despite the fact that I don’t have a wee pup of my own, I realized this morning that somewhere along the way this quirky, quintessentially Malawian routine became my routine as well. In a world where the everyday mundane is grounded in disarray, missed deadlines, delayed appointments, and spinny bureaucratic mania, Thursdays are the sentinels of order and peace, as if the whole of Lilongwe had been, up to that very moment, holding its breath until it finally has the chance to let out a great big pleasant “sigh” of relief. No matter what the day is about to bring and no matter how crazy you know things are about to get, there is always a moment on these mornings where I get a little mini moment of Zen, a few minutes of giddy bliss as we head north through the city towards the camp. Warm early morning sun. Streets dotted with pops of royal blue. Reddish-brown dogs proudly walking down the sidewalk as they show off their clean coats and shake off the water from their early morning baths.

It’s a beautiful part of my week but it is the absurdity of the scene that makes it kind of amazing. We are basically talking about a once per week canine pilgrimage in search of cleaner fur, maybe some kind of pound-puppy enlightenment. I asked one of my coworkers why dogs only get washed on Thursdays, as if there might be some secret meaning behind this weekly ritual I now find myself looking forward to every week: Dogs get washed on Thursdays, he said, because that’s when the dog washing basin is open – most people go in the morning because by the afternoon, the water has become dirty and unusable. And that is that. Make a mental note the next time a stinky dog crosses your path.

I think one reaches a point while living abroad where the bizarre becomes more normal than strange as our social paradigms start to shift from the far West to some murky in between space that straddles our past and our present. Last weekend I sat on a porch drinking box wine and watching a hippo eat grass 10 ft. away from our chalet. On Tuesday I walked through camp and watched kids play soccer with no shoes and balls made from plastic bags. Two Saturdays ago we stumbled upon a head-on collision on the M1 freeway – no one was killed but those who stopped to help injured passengers also happened to be on their way to a “jorts” (jean shorts) themed party. Because hauling bleeding, concussed people out of cars while wearing denim-on-denim mini-shorts in the middle of Lilongwe is bizarrely kind of your average Saturday night around here.

I don’t know what normal is anymore, or if there was ever a baseline for “normal” to begin with. In a final example of this mish-mashed mosaic of mundane and peculiar, our housekeeper was sick last week with Malaria and so went back to her village for 7 days to recover. Our housekeeper basically keeps the house in operational order – if you fuss up the system or fail to maintain the House 33 status quo, soft words of passive annoyance will be spoken, and it’s pretty fair to say that you’ll end up feeling like a badly behaved 12 year old all over again which, let’s be honest, is a pretty accurate description of the two of us who live there.

So it was about day 4 was when my housemate and I realized 1. We had no clean clothes, 2. No clean dishes, and 3. We have regressed to the point where we can no longer take care of ourselves. It’s not that we couldn’t sweep up the house or wash our own clothes, because that can and did happen when the two of us ran out of underwear…literally. It was more the realization that we live in an environment where having house staff is so the norm (shades of 20th century colonialism, much?) that we have forgotten what it’s like to deal with the day-to-day business of our lives even in our own homes. Abnormal would be not having a housekeeper or a gardener, or security guards at the gate of your house every night – it would mean having to deal with your messy house and grubby garden just like you would back at home in the States, Ireland, Canada, wherever. Just like zillions of people do everyday.

I can see eyes rolling from across the globe right now, like, “Jesus Christ, get a friggin’ grip and do your own damn laundry.” I agree – it’s ridiculous for sure. But normalcy is all just a matter of perspective of time and space. Wild hippos and warthogs are a stone’s throw away from your porch in Malawi just as squirrels and blue jays are at home. Housekeepers clean clothes on one side of the globe while millions of people trek out to the Laundromat every week on the other. Social life revolves around theme parties in one place and sophisticated cultural activities rule the scene everywhere else. Potato, potahto. Tomato, tomahto. Who’s to say what’s normal in the end, anyway?

Life here may be strange and unkempt, and a little bit off the rails, but it is a life and everyday of it is meaningful in some way. And who knows, in 20 years things may be different – perhaps the bizarre will become normal and visa versa. Maybe one day the stodgy limitations of this one-doggie-bath-per-week society will be lifted and Malawian pups everywhere will have access to clean bath water 24/7.

But for now, I hope it doesn’t change; I hope this one piece of life here remains the same. Because silly as it may seem, sometimes it’s the only thing that makes sense. Clean, happy dogs and a big bright blue sky. Seems pretty normal to me.

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.

Never let me go

I wrote an entire post last Wednesday about death that in the end I didn’t publish because I just didn’t finish it in time to go to camp the next morning. I had been to the funeral of a colleague’s husband that day and had spent a good portion of the six hours I was at the service contemplating how we all pay respect to our dead. As I sat there, hundreds of people streamed in and out of the family home to give their final send-off to a man I barely knew. The Pentecostal choir stood in the shade and sang hauntingly beautiful African hymns for hours, while the men sat under the awnings praying and bowing their heads solemnly in respect. The women, all dressed in beautiful shades of chitenje sat separately, some on the front porch and others in the house, as the widow lay next to the coffin of her dead husband, wailing with grief and emotion. All the preaching was in Chichewa and I found my mind drifting from observation to observation as the day went on.

What I thought about the most was how up front dying is in this country. Death does not tread lightly here in the seemingly idealistic landscapes of Southeastern Africa. It is frequent and obtuse. It is ugly and sudden. It is often the abrupt end of conditions or diseases otherwise treatable or preventable in the “developed world”. And sometimes, death is just the cruel result of accidental circumstances – the harsh reality of living in a place where being in the wrong place at the wrong time is more commonplace than it is exceptional. How easy it is for us to forget the latter; how blasé we have all become about the truly precious gift of life…

On Thursday morning, in a sad and awful twist of irony, after all these contemplations of what mourning and death are in this country, and after boldly faffing around on my computer and spouting out judgment calls I had no business making about what dying really “means” here, the universe put me back in my place. It sat me right down opened a scary, dark door and demanded that I look at the face of death without any mask or any cover. Tell me then, it said as it ripped the illusionary veil of ignorance from my face, what exactly is it that you see?

I see a sharp, blind-sided road with seven-foot embankments on both sides, that directly bi-sects a primary school. I see a crowd of people off to the left, and more off to the right. I see a pick-up truck stopped in the middle of this scene, it’s driver on the phone, his face pale with shock and agony. I see a mother with a baby tied to her back sink down on her knees and scream a sound more guttural than anything I have ever heard in my life. And I see the little body of a child that one could have mistaken for being peacefully curled up and fast asleep were it not for the bright red pool slowly spreading out from under her precious little body onto the dirt road below.

Death is a condition of life no matter where any of us are from. But it hovers low and close here, and strikes unrepentantly when we all least expect it. It’s like that everywhere, I suppose, but somehow here it feels different – rawer, and more callously guileless in some way, as if to purposely keep everyone on their toes lest we all forget that it is fate, rather than freewill, that pushes us along in this life.

I have never been one for religion or prayer, but that day, as I held the hand of the driver as he cried and tenderly touched the small, cool hands of this little girl, I closed my eyes and prayed. I prayed for hope, and for light, and for healing. But mostly I prayed that somewhere, somehow, there would be a chance for forgiveness – that the family would find it in their hearts to forgive this man for a terrible accident, and that in turn, this man would be able to forgive himself for an awful and tragically unavoidable twist of fate.

I have no better understanding of death now than I did 5 days ago. If anything, I understand it less. It seems grossly unfair and heartbreakingly arbitrary, as if the mere act of opening your eyes in the morning and walking out the front door is like playing an inevitable game of Russian roulette with your life. Maybe it just seems worse coming from a place where we put all of these medical, safety, and emergency infrastructures in place to ostensibly “protect” us from ourselves. Maybe all that really does in the end is leave us horribly unprepared when it all desperately unravels.

So go home, everyone, and look at your life. And more than anything appreciate who it is you have in this life with you because all of it is as fragile as porcelain and so irrefutably precious. At the end of all things, the people you love in this life are the only true measure of anything that really matters. Never, ever, let them go.

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.