Africa conjures up a lot of emotion in me. I speak of the continent as if I somehow have ownership of a small piece of it, as if I am it’s keeper and protector. And I suppose that passion creates curiosity in people to frequently ask me why I am so attached to Africa. I don’t know how I usually answer this question. Please. Tell me if I have responded to your query. I’d like to know what “story” slides off my tongue. Usually, when I hear that question I run for cover internally. So much of my life and who I’ve become is tied to this place. I am either not comfortable or completely clear about my love affair with Africa, but I know it is intense, and I am constantly reminded of just how intense I am. But there is a story to be told.
I recently shared the book, Eat, Pray, Love with my friend Ann, who would read passages of that book to me as I lay curled up on her couch during my visits to Connecticut. While listening to the author’s most intimate truths being revealed page after page, it inspired me to tell my truth, too. I know I have told versions of it. Why I’d venture to reveal such a truth on a blog is beyond me; perhaps distance in time and space creates a degree of courage and whimsy within me.
A few years ago I met a man who loved Africa; an intellect, scholar of sorts, a writer, a recluse. He dreamed of returning to Africa, after having lived in Kenya for some years. He asked me to marry him to create the opportunity to return to his first love, and I accepted the invitation because I loved him. We all make choices. We all know the truth and reasons for those choices. ( I’ll leave those details for the book I’ll write sooner than later). Suffice it so say for now, I forged ahead with my eyes tightly closed, clenched fists, and the private little dream I had for my life tucked away in the left corner of my heart. That is where I have always reserved the space for the man I would call my husband; the person I would journey through this life.
We left for Africa soon after our nuptials, and it was soon after that that our “house of cards” marriage came tumbling down, down, down. Nine thousand miles away from home, and feeling more frightened than I’ve ever felt before, I mustered the strength and courage to tell my friends and family that all was well; that things were going great, and that I was choosing to stay and make my life (for the time being) in South Africa. Yes, I actually said goodbye to my parents and my dearest friends, and moved far away, in the hopes that this cataclysmic change, that I was told was vital and necessary for me and my husband’s life, was the “answer”. The problem for me, in retrospect, was that I did not know the question.
South Africa is one of the most beautiful places on earth. It has lush forests, beautiful beaches, incredible mountains, spectacular sites to see, the most breath-taking flora and fauna, and of course, real live, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC wild life adventures. (Uh, huh. I slept in a lien-to in Botswana, deep in the bush, while on safari. I’m still not quite sure how I survived the terror of knowing there were snakes and elephants possibly inches away from me as I “slept.” Walking to a pit toilet in the middle of the night was a sight to see. And the cold morning splash baths were embarrassing due my inability to quell the screams I uttered from the freezing water temperatures). But the most incredible part of my experience in South Africa was my relationship to its people. I fell in love with Africaan-er’s, tribal people, and ex-pats. I was embraced by many different kinds of people, as if I were their family member. I was treated with great respect and I had great respect for those with whom I shared my life. People were seeing something in me that I had not yet seen in myself. I was changing because of their perceptions of who I was, and it was becoming habit for me to behave fearlessly, stronger and more capable that I had ever been before.
My husband (now ex) and I were a teaching team at the American International School of Cape Town. Together, we created a very exciting theatre program. The students were incredible. I loved each and every one of them. I believe they loved me back. I worked tirelessly every day as I had no teacher training, and I was determined to create interesting, exciting theatre and history classes. I doubt they were all that interesting, but I did my best, gave from the heart, and fought for each and every one of those students to have the experience of their lives with me. I believe many of them did. I certainly did. They saved my life, and I think, I saved a few lives myself.
Ironically, in the process of figuring out how to save my marriage, my job, my life, I lost everything that people define as having a life. But the one thing I found in Africa, through all that loss and pain, was myself. My center. My person. I was introduced to Hope Salas. There was a part of her that was new to me. Although, I was still wrapped in feminine clothes, donning my heart on my sleeve, and goofy and innocent in many ways, there was this fierce, determined part of me that emerged. Ready or not she was seemingly capable to face fear, slay big dragons, and do so with the grace, glory and dignity my mother demanded be demonstrated by me always. Perhaps this was the training and preparatory coursework needed to manage and face what the future held for me. (Again, details in thethe book).
Africa is the part of me that is crooked and imperfect; red dust and interminably demanding. It is the part of me that will eat with my hands and not be concerned about germs and Western manners. She is the part of me that can kick dirt, pee in a pit toilet, and kill a bug the size of a goat. She is restless and worn, yet ever breathtaking and new. She is resourceful and grateful for what is there, not knowing all will be replenished, but believing what is needed will be found. She is the weak and hungry soul in me; the bones and will of a spirit that cannot be broken. She is pitiable and respected; tall and iron fisted. She is a lover to be loved; alone and silent and still as the African night. She is forgotten and misunderstood; yet curiously interesting…a continent, a woman to behold. I am. She is. An unregrettable, unforgettable past; an exciting future. It is where a part of me is set free. It is where I come home. Alone.
Oh, and I do believe I actually knew the question my ex-husband sought to find the answer to. The question is too painful to admit and write. But the answer is/was: No, you don’t. And Africa won’t change the outcome of that! Ironically, my answer was: Yes. I do. And the place didn’t matter.