Friday, February 8, 2013

Thoughts on life and death in Africa

I actually wrote this during one of my first few sleepless nights of jet-lag when I got into country.  But I had to find time to edit some of the deliriousness out of it.

When I look back at my last blog from Malawi, it was about three months before I wrapped up my Peace Corps service and I wrote mostly about trying to savor the sights, sounds, smells, and emotions that went with life in Africa.  I don't know why I stopped posting blogs during my last three months, maybe I couldn't find the right words to verbalize the emotions that went with all of those goodbyes.  The goodbyes weren't just with the people I loved in Malawi, they were also with the day to day life in Africa that I had become so accustomed to.   A lifestyle that swung me back and forth on the biggest emotional roller coaster ride of my life.  I don't know if it was a life that I would say I particularly loved, but it was a life that I have genuinely missed in the time that has elapsed.

Almost in the instant that I stepped off of the plane in Uganda everything came rushing back to me, along with similar sights and sounds, came a deep nostalgia for the life I knew in Malawi.  Something about life here makes me feel more alive than any other place I have ever been.  Granted I haven't been a lot of places,  maybe life has a similar feeling in parts of India or Latin America, but my only experiences with widespread poverty are in Africa so I associate these feelings with Africa.  Other outsiders share a similar feeling, I ran across a line by Lance Morrow an essayist for Time Magazine that seems to articulate what I'm trying to get at:
"Africa has a genious for extremes, for the beginning and the end. It seems simultaneously connected to some memory of Eden and to some foretaste of apocalypse. Nowhere is day more vivid or night darker. Nowhere are forests more luxuriant. Nowhere is there a continent more miserable."  
I would add another line; "Nowhere is a continent more joyful."  I think Mr. Morrow is getting at the same sentiment that I am, life in Africa is more primal, more harsh, and all at once more beautiful than anywhere else I have been.  I would also say that the misery that he mentions seems to always be juxtaposed with pure hapiness.  The same woman who wails in misery at her niece's funeral,  might be laughing with equally as stirring laughter the next day as she shares a memory with a sister.  Golda Muir once said "those who can't cry with all of their hearts, also can't laugh with all of their hearts."  This is true in Africa, people tend to do both with absolutely every piece of their heart.

Maybe this capacity for extremes comes with always being in such close proximity to death.  Death seems to be lurking around every corner.  Whether its careening down a hill through a city in a minibus - full to capacity - weaving around traffic in and out of the lane of oncoming traffic - just barely missing pedestrians and bike taxis that line either side of the road,  or walking through the bush to harvest from a distant hive and coming around a corner to find a bull elephant - ears flapping - and eyes red with fury for your intrusion.  Maybe it's a neighbor who was nearly bitten by a black mamba before chopping it's head off with a Jembe, or a different neighbor who just lost his second child to Malaria.  It could be the millions of adults dying of aids across the continent or the millions of children dying of hunger, death is always lurking somewhere around.  But still life goes on in every community, and so does laughter, dancing, celebration with nothing held back.  That is part of what I love most about Africa, this capacity for joy despite misery.

I have been thinking about this since I had a conversation with my good friend from Mwazisi Benedicto, after three years of not being able to get through to him.  I have mostly been trying to call him for the past year, ever since I found out that his wife Dorothy had died.  My friend Prashanth who replaced me in Mwazisi told me that she had some sort of infection that appeared on her leg.  She went to the health clinic straight away.  They didn't know what was causing it so they organized transport to the Rumphi hospital for the next morning.  She died before the morning came.  People still don't know what caused her to die.

I know that Benidicto must have been devastated.  I know this because of the way he talked about her.  When he introduced me to her he said "So Daniel, this is my wife."  "Wow, Benidicto she is really beautiful," I said.  The way he looked at her and smiled said it all as he just said, "Yes, I know."  He constantly bragged about her hard work in the community and talked about her as his companion, which is rare in such a male dominated society.

When I spoke to him on the phone a couple weeks ago I struggled to figure out what to say about it.  We talked about the village, various agriculture projects he was working on, my life in New York and of course bees.  Finally I said "I heard about Dorothy, I'm sorry I didn't call earlier but I couldn't get through."  He said that it was "okay."  I said "Mafwa Tafwa" which means "your grief is our grief."  And he said "Thank You Daniel, I was very sad to lose Dorothy, but now we are carrying on very well.  My sister is also a widow and she has moved in with her kids.  All of the kids are doing very well, and so am I."  He told me how Simione, and Salome were the best students in their class, and he told me that he had become total land care's lead farmer.  He spoke with pure optimism and never showed a bit of fear for his family's future.

That conversation made me very happy.  I know that everybody has to move on when they lose loved ones but Benedicto's attitude surprised me.  Just hearing genuine happiness in his voice was very heartening for me.  I take inspiration from his optimism in the face of all of the challenges he has faced in his life.  I don't think I am half as strong as he is, but I look to him as a model to try mold my own character after.

Of course death is a part of life everywhere, but it seems especially close here in Africa.  Maybe it's because there is so much life thrown together here trying to survive.  That's where Africa gets her genius for extremes.  Extreme struggle, misery, and ugliness is balanced by extreme optimism, joy, and beauty.  But this is just another azungu's perspective.

1 comment:

cy said...

Reading through your blogs again tonight and through my own journal from our travels through Africa... reminded me of a quote from Peter Godwin's book -- a crocodile eats the sun. 'in Africa, you do not view death from the auditorium of life as a spectator, but from the edge of the stage, waiting only for your cue. You feel perishable, temporary, transient. You feel mortal. Maybe that's why you seem to live more vividly in Africa. The drama of life there is amplified by its constant proximity to death. That's what infuses it with tension. it is the essence of its tragedy. (now for my favorite line) People love harder there. Love is a way that life forgets it is terminal. Love is life's alibi to face death.'