Friday, December 2, 2011


How was Africa?

The question comes often, and is completely expected and understandable. However, the answer is not so simple. It doesn't fit the pleasantries short form. I stumble over my reply, and try to explain that it's complicated.

Just name your favorite thing or moment, that stands out.

Again, no one moment, idea, or feeling springs clear of the jumble in my head. It's more like a constant boiling of emotions, with a new point bubbling to the surface every few seconds.

At one point, I was amazed at the  beauty of the country. It is absolutely gorgeous, once you get clear of the city. There is never a flat moment, as the land of a thousand hills rolls off into the distance. The green and brown undulations, the patchwork of organized agriculture quilting the hillsides, look as if they were created by some grand artist, inspired to render both heart stopping beauty and life giving functionality.

Another, I was truly scared. I ended up solo, looking after the truck in a small village. As the crowd ebbed and flowed, as it does when the oddity of white people come calling, I realized that the look in the eyes gathered around me had changed from that of the curious, to that of the hunter. Not that they were looking to cause me harm, as street gangs here in the states will do, in the name of  fun or power struggle. I simply stood between these teen kids, and a wealth of supplies in our safari truck. The food and water could easily be replaced, but my riders diabetes supplies were inside, so I stood my ground.

That hour at the truck, created a wellspring of its own thoughts and emotions. One small boy, about 10, got between me and the crowd, turned his back to them, and whispered, Don't leave your truck, Mister. They will steal. Hope. It springs eternal in the minds of man. Without it, what's the point? You see, this boy is young enough, that he did not witness the horrors of the genocide. The older crowd that had gathered, falls into the age group where they got the ugliness that comes from the aftermath of those unforgettable, but mostly unknown to us here in this country, 100 days. The death toll estimates range from 700,000 to 1 million, slain in just over 3 months. Who were the participants of this mob at my truck? Were they the offspring of the 5000-8000 estimated rapes that occurred? Did they watch their parents be exterminated by their neighbors and countrymen? Or, are they left in the unspoken purgatory of grudging acceptance, granted those who participated, or who's family participated, in the killing spree?

Heartbroken. The poverty that we saw tugged at my heartstrings, repeatedly. The throngs of people you see walking up and down the mountains at the crack of dawn, are not headed to a 9-5, to earn their retirement or buy a new ski boat. They are working to survive. They hike several miles to bring water to their homes, many of which have only dirt floors, and no secure doors, only curtains. Electricity is available, but far from prevalent, outside the cities. They grow what they need, be it crops, goats, cows or chickens. Anything above what's needed is traded for other supplies. Despite what I saw, I unexpectedly, did not feel "white man's guilt". I recognize that wealth is relative. While my modest, 1000sqft, home far exceeds what is common in Rwanda, I am still in the lower economic quarter of this country. Though I may not suffer guilt for where I was born, or my station in life, I will likely hold my tongue, before I gripe about the trivial garbage that we complain of so often, here in the land of the spoiled and "deserving". I realize that it is cliche to say that I have a new found appreciation for the many gifts taken for granted in my life, but these types of generalities spring from kernels of truth, and I am thankful to have had the experience.

Contradictions. While the majority of the homes are sub-par by our standards, the people take great pride in what they have. There may be no doors, windows or grass lawns, but they will take time to construct elaborate beauty, with well placed agriculture. A wall of banana trees may define a courtyard, or rows of flowers and food plants bring ordered walkways to the front doors. Pride in their country is evident when you see people out cleaning the streets by hand, with small brooms and dustpans. The last Saturday of every month, automobile travel is curtailed, for the few with such luxury, and everyone chips in to clean the roads, ditches, parks, etc.

People would walk many miles, or wait many hours for our crew of type 1 diabetics to come and speak at local clinics, every day. Their thirst for knowledge, to protect their own life, as well as those of their families, was clear. Yet the genocide stands as a reminder of the ability to kill, in vast numbers. It is very difficult for me to grasp this contradiction. We value life so highly, and they do, too. So how did this murderous event come to occur? How do you reconcile this desire to protect life, with this ability to kill? I cannot imagine a scenario where I could be convinced to take up a machete, and hack down my neighbor, based upon a loose ethnic affiliation.

I had resentment and anger for the crowd that spooked me, by the truck that day. But at the same time, I understand that poverty and hunger can make people desperate. This in no way brings absolution to the offenders, but at the same time, I cannot view it in the same way that I view criminal activity here at home, fueled by drug abuse, or simple laziness. Despite all our desires for issues to be black and white, to instill order, life is almost always shades of gray.

Friendship. The people who share a trip like this, can be a defining influence. Phil is like my adopted little brother, at this point. I don't get to see him very often, but when I do, the jokes and laughter pick up right where we last left off. Bobby was on the first 2 RAAM trips, and I have the utmost respect for him. He and I discussed this strange friendship we have. While we don't pass on the streets daily, or have years of exposure with one another, ours is a friendship forged in times of short term, high intensity. It's as if the focused weeks of RAAM, and now Rwanda, pressure cooked our relationship to this moment, where we clearly. each call the other, a friend. The moment I saw that the 3 of us were back together, I knew it would be a trip to remember. The myriad other personalities that made up the Team Type 1 entourage added the spice and flavor that made the trip great. I met so many new people, that I hope I can stay in touch, though I freely admit, I suck in that general department. Hopefully, if any of them read this, they will hold me to task. Bobby said it best, mid-trip. You meet only so many, truly good people in this life. So, it would be a shame to let those opportunities pass.

Shining moments. Phil's infectious smile and ever positive attitude. Laughing with the gang, over Mutzig and Primus, the local beers, after a long day. Meeting another mechanic, whose OCD style attention to detail, made my OCD friends look like slobs. Seeing the professional team rise to the occasion, and win time and time again. The adventure of driving those psycho streets with Stephanie, in search of food and water for those in our charge. Getting to know Claude, our driver who took such great care of us, and without whose help, the morning crew likely would have failed, utterly. Trying to keep the ladies' spirits high, as they struggled each day to clear the relentless mountains of the Rwandan roads.

As you can see, it is very difficult for me to answer the question, How was Africa?. The answers are many, and convoluted. It may take weeks, months, or even a lifetime, to come to terms with all that I saw or felt, while in Rwanda. I am glad that I went. I spent my Thanksgiving, in a hotel in Butare, run by nuns, eating spaghetti with some strange red liquid poured over it. When I asked Phil what the liquid was, he responded that the pasta was turkey, and the soupy liquid was gravy. I was/am thankful for the opportunity to be there, and for the people with whom I shared the experience.

Would you go back?

Let's let this boiling mind of mine turn down to a simmer, before I answer that question. But already, I see disturbing lights at the end of that tunnel. With the right seasoning, I just may jump right back into that soup bowl, again.


BIG JIM said...

Felt like I was there. Nice write-up.

Human Wrecking Ball said...

Abolutlely awesome. Nothing spices life or perspective or WRITING like travel. It has been my experience that the destinations people tell you not to visit are the best places on earth to go.
As always your perspective was level headed and compasionate.
Glad you are home my brother, thanks for reminding us how lucky we all are.

Juancho said...

When I was in Bosnia after the war someone told me if you come here for a week you understand everything, if you stay for a month you will understand nothing.

Juancho said...

oh, and can you rebuild my shock now please?

Anonymous said...

I am so proud of you! AND you write beautifully - what a powerful experience! Thank you for sharing, Dr. K.

Mark said...

Good write up BW, and well written. Phil is lucky to have you as a big brother