What became obvious to me over the course of my trip to Tanzania, and especially when I made my adjustment back home, is that it is impossible to describe Africa in words, pictures, or even videos. To understand Africa, you must go there.
Whether it was playing with the kids at the local primary school, building at the work site, walking for water, beading with the Mamas, goat herding, visiting and bargaining at the local market, going on a safari, hiking to the base camp of Mt. Kilimanjaro, or any of the countless other experiences, the heartbeat of Africa was present throughout all of our trip. The unique people and cultural traditions we explored brought bold colors, smells and music to us. I believe that this was a trip of learning, inspiration, growth and undeniable memories.
At the end of our service work on the mainland of Tanzania, each of us wrote a letter to our future selves. This was mine:
Remember their hands. How so many small palms rubbed up against my arms, so many tiny fingers ran through my hair or interlocked with my own. How when I went back to a tent with a bed, and a shower, and a hot meal, they went home to an indescribable small crowded mud hut riddled with dirt. But even so, the next day when I would see them again, their smiles would grow wider, their hugs become tighter, and their eyes brighter, each of them gazing into mine searching for hope.
Remember the mamas, their unimaginable strength resisting inequality, suffering, crippling responsibility, and all the burdens beyond what one could think of. But regardless, their welcoming nature. Their hospitality and kindness towards me was overwhelming to what I expected – to what I believed was possible. The way they laughed with us when we attempted to do the simple tasks demanded from their everyday lives, struggling with the jerrycans filled with water on our backs, and making a mess while trying to smear their homes with mud.
Remember the staff employed at the camp where I lived during the trip. With no running water they still managed to offer us showers, cleanliness, delicious hot meals, and the best mango I have ever eaten. How they would work with no complaint, without hesitation, but solely [with] our best interest at heart. Strangers devoting themselves for your simple well-being. These are the faces of genuine selflessness, of raw human beings that I see when I hear the word “Africa.” The things we take for granted now shock me. Once you see the pain, the struggle, the reality, you can never go back, never unsee.
I could never belong to Africa, to the children I met, to the school I helped build. But a piece of Africa will always belong to me. The escaping screams of laughter from the kids I met will always remain tucked in the corner of my eardrums. I will remember how the sun would set every evening hovering low in the sky, the trees forming black silhouettes. I will remember that there is something special about an African sunset.
When I close my eyes, I can see the moment I first stepped off the plane. The wind had rushed up to meet me, a warm breeze filled with humidity and dust. I saw a dark night sky, the stars watching me, and I felt both excitement and nerves swirling in my stomach. But when I had to let go of the children’s hands and say, “No,” when they asked me “Tomorrow?” I felt sadness, an emptiness inside as if my bones were hollow. But now, back at home, I only feel full of gratitude. The feeling that I converted from guilt, I can now look around and really see everything as if it were clear for the first time. The African people taught me to hold patience and relentless hope close to my chest, and let it surround me and make everything still. Because with stillness comes breath. And with breath comes love.