Friday, March 9, 2012

remembering Africa

Recently, I began reading the Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver based on a recommendation from a coworker...I haven't been able to finish it from frutration and a bit of anger.   Just today I heard this piece done on a Hearing Voices episode called "Home from Africa" based on the culture shock and experiences of a young women working in the peace corps.  I have to admit, it's hard for me to hear these stories in the way they are told, but I'm glad to hear them all the same.

Although very different experiences than what I experienced in Africa...these run ins with stories of places/problems/crazy culture shock moments bring back shadows of memories...I don't know if I wanted to forget, but I find it slightly difficult to remember.

Throughout all of the traveling my husband and I did over the past couple of years, one thing we agreed on returning home was respecting the memories we had of our time in places with dignity.   We were careful in what pictures we took of people not to intrude on someone's personal space or disrespect them or hurt their feelings inapropriately in photos...this photo is one of just a few that we took of people at all.

A market in Zambia

I didn't do much writing during our time in Africa, mainly due to losing our power cord for our laptop shortly after leaving South Africa (the first leg of our journey) and even though the days were filled with long bus rides and lots of waiting, the feeling of wanting to jot down what was running through my mind at the time just wasn't there....thoughts were there, just so numerous and so fast, it was like watching them fly by as I stared out the window at a world that seemed like a dream.

Being in Africa is a beautiful, spiritual, life changing experience and some of the people and places and foods we were privileged to meet, explore and try there changed our lives.  I think about random things from Africa often at odd moments, but in slightly embarrassing ways for myself that I tend not to share out loud.

When I give away clothes, I wonder if they will find there way to wasn't unusual to see a Packers or Vikings t-shirt worn by someone on a street corner or being sold at a market.

When I look into my pantry at all the different options of flour I seem to be collecting, I remember the aisle upon aisle of the different brands and sizes of finely ground corn meal sold for pap/nsima/nshima/ugali....and nothing else....and feel a bit gluttonous with my stash of powders.

When I buy a tomato or an avacado at the grocery store and remember the texture, smell and flavor of a freshly purchased tomato from a local African market...ripe, delicious...real!

These moments trigger a certain feeling I can't quite describe, a longing for the beauty we felt and saw in our travels through South Eastern Africa and at the same time an embarrassing gratitude that I'm home again in a place where things make sense to me....where I blend in....where I feel normal and full and warm and clean with running tap water and an automatic ice maker....and that at the same time....that feels horrible.  It feels unjust to judge another culture as "not as good as mine" simply because their priorities are not my own, that I don't understand it and try to make sense of's not mine to make sense of....but then again...most people in Africa will never get to experience my life in the States, whereas I have the luxury of a U.S. passport.

I'll never know what it feels like to be African.  I'll never know how it feels to grow up in a small village surrounded by family and neighbors and love....this is something we also weren't welcomed into as an outsider, you remain outside!  It's rare to hear stories from this perspective and I wish there were more available....culture shock can be so blinding.


  1. I hear you, sister. Well written. I still remember staring with amazement at a tap of running water when I got home and thinking how much I took/take it for granted. I couldn't read Poisonwood Bible either. (this is your travelling buddy Krystal, by the way)

  2. Sarah, I'm so curious to learn why you are frustrated/angry with The Poisonwood Bible. I ignored recommendations to read it for years, only to be completely carried away by it this summer when visiting L in Rwanda. In fact, I loved reading it so much that I selected it as my giveaway book for the upcoming World Book Night! ( I wish we could share a bottle of wine and have a book club meeting...

    1. Hey Elizabeth!
      As always, my feelings are complex and difficult to explain and a bottle of wine and a few hours would definitely help!
      I agree that it's a beautifully written book and a great story. It was the details about it that were so painful for me of memories of my time in Zambia and Malawi particularly...the Betty Crocker cake mix scene was particularly meaningful to me....and the misunderstandings between cultures...I remember walking for hours with Rodolfo looking for coffee...and it just didn't exist. There were signs that read "cafe", but no coffee...feeling hungry all of the time but not wanting to eat...buying a meal and getting a large scoop of rice with a bowl of watered down broth....I guess my feeling is, it's difficult to live and know my American culture and then see Africa through that rose colored doesn't tell the whole story and it's not a story that I always want to hear. Maybe, based on your review, I may try and finish it! We'll see!

    2. I guess I'm not done....reading about was a bit too close for comfort as well...the characters were not at all like me and I found myself getting angry at them and the actual evangelists I met on the road as well...all in all...frustrating. Bringing the issue of religion and Christianity into the conversation...well...that was the biggest part of visiting Africa that made me so upset reading the book and all the harm that it's caused for Zambians and Malawians and the mixed messages they receive on AIDS awareness and contraception....and I begin to rant...sorry! Like I said, it was hard to read.

    3. Yes, next time we meet we will surely have to share some wine and talk about books and bread and everything else.

      It sounds as if you did care for some of the characters and this made their pain difficult for you to endure. For me, this is often the mark of a good book. (Though I realize we all read seeking different comforts/challenges.) But I'm confused what you mean about seeing Africa through rose-colored glasses--did you think the book looked at Congo in a sunny way? Or that it somehow endorsed the work of the evangelists? I felt it was deeply critical of evangelists; Nathan, the father, was the main evangelist and the absolute worst!

      What are you reading these days?