We haven’t left Africa yet.
The trees are swaying in the wind outside as I look out of the window, and the fan blows warm air on me as I lay in the twin size bed with the yellow mosquito net hanging above my head. I hear the chatter of the other girls as they finish packing up their belongings, and the delicious smell of homemade lunch lingers in the house. I wonder what we are having.
It’s hot here. Like the sweltering kind of hot that sits on you and stays with you. The showers are mostly cold, which you don’t end up minding later, and you can’t use the faucet water to brush your teeth with. My feet have never been so dirty, caked with red clay dirt. The strength of the bug spray I brought took off every bit of toenail polish, leaving my toes naked and brown. No matter if you wash or scrub your shoes – they are still brown. I really don’t mind.
I lay in the little bed. Mind drifting to what has already become memories tattooed in my mind.
In the old land cruisers – it’s almost as if you can feel every rock you plow over. Every nook and cranny of the red gravel road bounces you around as you make your way to the main road from where we are. Once you get to the 2 lane paved “highway”, your eyes sprint from image to image.
There are people dressed in dusty clothes walking for miles. Some of the ladies are in clean, bright colored, patterned and tailored dresses also walking for miles un-phased. People ride on bicycles on the shoulders as the buses and vans swerve around them and honk. There are motorcyclists with usually 2 people on the saddle who rarely wear helmets buzzing past. There are Messai – Tanzania’s local tribe – cloaked in plaid blankets with shoes made of tires – standing or herding animals. Cows graze in the median tied to a stake, and there are children walking goats on leashes. There are some women with a child on one hand a baby in a papoose and some carrying woven baskets of bananas or personal belongings. Some children run free as my mind runs wandering where their parents are and if the kids are safe… they are. The buildings are mostly small and sometimes pushed together like a strip mall, and sometimes spread apart for what seems like miles. They are made of concrete or plaster painted in bright yellows, reds and blues. You pass fruit stands and art markets where people barter for every shilling, and a lot of people wave at our bus as we pass by. There are villages with hay roofs in the distance. On Sundays they wear their Sunday best – suits and dresses – as they walk to church. Some of the trees are crooked and beautiful, some of the colors are vivid, and there are bunches of aloe plants begging for you to cut them open if your skin has gotten pink from the African sun.
These images I will never forget.
We are finally packed up. So full. In so many ways.
After eating a feast for lunch with chicken, pork, rice, spinach, sautéed veggies, potatoes, okra, green beans, pineapple and watermelon, we all sit out in the front room as the ceiling fan buzzes and rotates side to side. Every meal is a feast here. They treat us like royalty and people willingly give you more than ever expected and more than they have. They are the literal meaning of “I will give you the shirt off of my back.”
We take one last drive to the airport.
I was tired, but I didn’t want to shut my eyes even for a minute so that I could soak up every last bit of this magnificent place.. I reflected as we drove very slowly for about an hour and a half. We had already driven 4 hours that morning from the safari back to Mama Lucy’s house.
Mama Lucy. She is the founder of First Chance Education Centre and oh so much more… Mama Lucy is a large, beautiful African woman with eyes that smile. She is probably late 50s or early 60s. She lives beside the school in a lovely house with an extra house in the back where we stayed. No AC, no TVs, not much hot water. Mama Lucy is always dressed in a patterned dress or a couple of different patterns that are loud with different colors. I can’t help but grin when I think of her and her husband holding hands. She always says “caribou” as we walk by, which means welcome. We felt very, very welcome.
(Photo below by Anna Molenti)
Our drive to the airport seems like forever. I let my mind keep going…
Only yesterday we were breathing dirt, getting thrown around in a safari land cruiser, hanging out of the roof and the sides with wild eyes searching for animals begging to get a glimpse of a lion or cheetah. We rushed to get a look at a rhino resting – only a 2% chance that you’ll see a rhino on this safari, and we did. Our driver Toni had old country playing on repeat…Dolly, Kenny Rogers and a strange mix of a few other very random songs. The whole day was perfect. Seeing the animals in their natural habitat was breath-taking. It was a bucket-list day that will never be forgotten.
On the way to the animals, we stopped at a Messai village to witness a jumping ceremony and take a look at their houses. We passed a boy begging for food, we passed giraffes and adolescents chanting with white face paint. We sang songs, watched the sunset, used up our camera batteries and marveled at the grace of the people and creatures that we got to see and experience.
At the Kili airport. Hot. Have to pee. Everyone’s nerves are running thin. We are tired and have a lot of travel ahead.
As “Islands in the Stream” re-plays back in my mind, I sit with the girls at the terminal and use a little bit of very hard to find wifi before we board to post a picture of us from yesterday.
We board a bus that takes us to the plane – about 100 feet away. Everyone chuckles at how we probably could have walked faster. We board the plane.
I sit next to a lovely couple from the States and we start chatting as we take off. We exchange Africa stories and I tell her the main reason we came to Africa, and Tanzania specifically. The kids.
As we taxied, I showed her pictures of the kids and of Kilimanjaro. She ooooed and ahhhs at the picture of the mountain peaking out from behind the clouds, snow sitting at the very top as if it were just dropped on just for this picture op. I explain how we only did a day hike and show her a few more of the lush pictures of our 13 mile trek up and down the base of the magnificent mountain. Our guides – Paul, Eric and “Usher” truly made the day one to remember cracking jokes and feeding us information and Swahili words along the way. We were tired, dirty, and some of us already had the desire to come back to hike the whole thing. What a beautiful way to start the trip!
On the plane. 20,000 feet. Mind racing and ready to write some more.
The kids. How can your heart break and be full of so much joy at the same time? I think we know now. You don’t have to speak the same language to communicate clearly. Laughing, singing, and love come through loud and clear no matter the language barrier.
I don’t think one of us can put into words what we learned about human connection last week. Their eyes and their smiles spoke a million words. Some of the kids… you could see right into their souls. They wear uniforms – probably washed once a week at best, but they don’t mind. Their classrooms don’t have overhead lights, and their playground consists of 2 swings and a barely functional see-saw, but they don’t mind.
One boy in my class was having a hard time getting the heel of his shoe right, so I bent down to help. I pulled it off to fix his shoe and the entire heel of his sock was a hole. I choked back tears. He didn’t mind. (Photo below by Elise Zimmerman)
They just turned the lights out. My light goes on. Get it all out while you can still remember it, Megan.
Back to the kids. Every morning – breakfast at 7am, class starts at 8am and we meet in the playground to do yoga and wake up as a big group. “1-2 make a circle, 3-4, a biiiiig circle” they would scream with an accent as we tried to wrangle them into a large circle. They would run up to you and cling on to your leg fighting to hold one of your hands if it was free – or fighting with another kid if it wasn’t free. They would look up with their big, wide, brown eyes full of hope and excitement for the day. We would say “shine, shine, shine” to each other and feather our fingers around the circle when they were being good. Shine. Shine. Shine.
That they did.
8:45-10am we had time in the classroom working with them on a specific lesson that day with flash cards, songs and games. Some days they paid attention, and some days they didn’t. You could always expect one of the troublemakers to do something bad – eat a crayon, steal another kid’s chair, or just be loud. 10am they went to porridge and we had a tea break. Amos – our amazing cook for the week – would bring over hot water, African tea and a snack – sometimes homemade chipati or fried bread balls, fruit and toasted peanuts. 11-11:45am we had arts and crafts where we face painted, colored, cut and glued until we ran out of supplies. They would run up to us and yell “teachaaaa teachaaaa look!!!” We would gaze back with pride and awe at their creation. 11:45-12:30/1pm – they had outside time on the playground. We brought blow-up beach balls, jump ropes and bubbles, and it seemed like they could have played out there until the wee hours of the morning. We would say goodbye and head to lunch around 1pm where we would sit around the table laughing and telling our stories about our favorite kids. Something about them…
So much happiness and so little worldly belongings. We have a lot to learn from their culture. You can’t miss what you never had. Some of the kids had never had a nice notebook or played with a beach ball. Some had never seen fingernail polish and they would rub our fingers and stare at them with amazement. Some would braid your hair or just rub your hair because their heads are shaved. They were so appreciative of what we brought. They were appreciative of our time and love. Maybe they didn’t fully understand – hell, we didn’t even know why we were going (we knew our purpose, but didn’t have an agenda and set schedule until we arrived). We didn’t know what our days would look like, but in the end, I hope we spread some joy. Sometimes you have hopes of going to do some good, maybe change some lives, but really you are the one that is changed.
(BW photo above by Elise Zimmerman)
A fourth of a glass of white wine and my mind is still replaying all of memories of the week. I keep rewinding them like an old tape player.
On our first night after working with the kids, we had a parents night. The parents of some of the children gathered in white fold out chairs on the school grounds. Brittany – our fearless leader – explained why we were there and announced that we had fundraised to provide the teacher’s salaries for a year as well as a new van for the school. They clapped. A few stood up one by one and voiced their thanks to us as well as discussed school matters in Swahili. Then came the eating – always the eating with the East Africans. We insisted the parents, teachers and heads of the school go through the line first. At the beginning of the food line, there was a yellow water cooler filled with tap water where each person rinsed their hands before the meal. They took a paper plate and piled their plates high with rice and meat (probably goat) and everything else that was offered. After all of the teachers and parents had been served, we – the marengos (white people) – formed a line, washed our hands and tried as best as we could to fill our plates too. Much to our surprise, they had no silverware so we used our hands. We lined one of the stoops of the school directly in front of the parents and ate while they finished their plates. We felt strange. They served us on glassware and Amos – the humble and amazing cook – brought out napkins for “his guests.” Afterwards we laid out the kid’s artwork as the parents proudly came to find their child’s work. We tried to mingle with some of them, take pictures and talk in broken English. We waved goodbye as many of them left and we headed back to the house for yet another meal.
This snapshot has real significance. As we sat in front of the parents – we felt awkward and on display… But today as we pulled our luggage into the front room with sweat dripping down our backs – Mama Lucy came out to say goodbye. She cried. We cried. She had to step out she got so emotional. There were a lot of thank you’s and please come backs and we wills. She told us that never before had white people served and cleaned up after them. Never. There were more tears and some of us tried hard to choke back the emotions we had knowing that once we started crying – we probably wouldn’t stop.
Mama Lucy then explained to us that she had a gift for us – that it wasn’t much, but to an African – it was everything. It was a kanga. A kanga is used to wrap a newborn baby in… a man presents his fiancé a kanga when he asks for her hand and presents one to the mother as well. They are used to shroud a bride on her wedding day and many people bring kanga to the mother of the bride. They are also used to celebrate a funeral and death. It stands for a celebration of life and love. Each African came over to one of us and wrapped us in kanga. The significance of these beautiful cloths is that you are always wrapped in love even if you are apart from those you love.
Only 2 hours in to the first flight. A long way to go. Down to half a glass of wine. Still a long way to go.
The secondary school. This was day 2, and probably the hardest. We arrived and the headmaster showed us around the school and specifically wanted us to tour the dormitory that burned down earlier this year. I could almost hear the hearts break as we walked through the room of soot and belongings that had been destroyed. The headmaster explained how 50 of them live in one room and some are sleeping in a classroom now because of the fire. These children are boarded here because they have to travel too far. Africa is a very, very big continent.
We came back to where they had chairs set up for us. They had a fine-tuned schedule that quickly went out the window. African time is very loose to say the least. 10 minutes could mean 45. 3pm sometimes means 5pm.
They performed a song, dance and play for us, but by the end we felt like privileged white people being solicited for money. It was a rough day.
We didn’t know this would happen – no one did. We wanted to come, share food and community. They do need money, but this wasn’t our specific purpose. We did get to feed the boarders a meal with meat – something they usually only get once a year… They usually eat a diet of maize, stiff porridge, rice and the occasional vegetables. In the end – the takeaway was more positive than negative because of human connection. They freaked out over mechanical pencils, and we ended up laughing, dancing, sweating and working out together.
There’s a movie playing on the airplane. It’s old and there are subtitles. I can’t see it at all. I make a note to go to the eye doctor when I’m back. I pull out my phone to look at some pictures.
I have so many moments burned into my mind of this last week both in my mind and on film, but being able to communicate the human connection – both with the kids and people here and the people I’ve traveled with – is next to impossible. Hopefully some of these images will help…
I got caught up in editing photos. Inching closer to 4 hours on this flight. 2 more to go.
I almost forgot about the market. We went to the market on Sunday to check out the local produce, and I was seriously impressed with the array of fresh picks. It wasn’t as busy as I had imagined, but bursting with colors. There were fruits, vegetables and pastas in rainbows shaped like X’s and O’s and the alphabet. There were beautiful people with wide smiles trying to sell you whatever they had at their particular stand. There was everything from dried fish and knick knacks to cleaning supplies and every fruit imaginable. It was lovely.
It’s been a whirlwind. I had to leave writing for awhile. We’ve been traveling for over 30 hours and still aren’t home yet. Perspective. Little problem compared to some.
Does this culture think they have problems? They seem pretty happy to me. These people don’t have much when it comes to material possessions, and they are some of the happiest people alive. Some can only afford to buy 1 avocado a week at the market if that, and foods like meat and peanut butter are expensive treats. The kids beg to have their pictures taken because they don’t have smart phones and cameras readily available. There aren’t washers and dryers – you wash your clothes by hand and hang them to dry. A family rarely has a refrigerator so any kind of dairy or keeping fruits and veggies fresh is out of the question.
On the other side of this – their clothes smell like the sun, their food is always homemade and fresh from the market the day of. They don’t get caught up in social media, politics or anything of that nature. Maybe they have it figured out.
Flight canceled to Nashville. Nightmare. Re-routed through Miami and finally get back home around midnight. Exhausted beyond belief. Again, perspective.
I couldn’t have taken this trip without the support of so many. If you’re reading this right now – THANK YOU. This trip forever changed me. You have helped provide a new van for the kids to get to school, and now the ones that live too far away to walk will have a way to commute. You also have helped provide the teacher’s salaries for the next year so that these sweet ones can continue to have an education.
12 strangers forever stitched together by a couple of common threads – 1. Our friend Brittany and 2. The want to make a difference. Now we are rafiki – friends – who share an unbelievable and indescribable week of connection, love, heartache, belly laughs, chewed up crayons, ruined shoes, long skirts, braided hair, new words, too many carbs, lots of sweat and even more tears. Together we CAN.
Shine, shine, shine, my friends. Shine on.