When I was 19 and fresh back from East Africa, I embarked upon what would most assuredly become my most anti-social year of college, my junior year. For some indeterminable reason, my time in East Africa left me unable to communicate with other human beings present in Provo, UT. I spent hours at the library writing essays about Idi Amin’s invasion of Tanzania and blood diamonds, rendered completely incapable of frivolity and fun. All of this seriousness came crashing down a year later for completely unrelated reasons, when I found myself once again able to enjoy a weekend in Vegas or a rap concert in Orem, Utah.
I write this because once again, I am undergoing another post-Africa funk. This trip to Africa was entirely different from my time there as a student. This time I was there on vacation, and I spent more money in two weeks than I did in several months last time. Last time, I was a student who was overly cautious initially, only realizing how much I loved everything and everyone too late. This time, I felt like I maximized the short time that I had there to the fullest. The trips were to completely different parts of Africa. When I was there before, I dreamed about luxurious tented camps, and this time, I experienced them. But all of that aside, I came away both times pretty depressed about life in the United States and feeling like I am unable to relate to people as naturally as I can when I am south of the equator.
I realize that most of this is probably in my head. However, may I submit that there are aspects of living in the United States that immediately make it more difficult to really relate to people and live in the moment with the people who are around you. So much of what we do in the US is mediated by technology. So many of our relationships are mediated with technology. So there’s that. However, that isn’t all of it. I truly believe that we are unhealthily competitive in the U.S. So many people are trying to prove that their lives are more meaningful than other people’s lives, however “meaning” is defined (wealthier, prettier, skinnier, cuter, cleverer), etc. It truthfully is one of the reasons I have stopped blogging so much, because I really feel strongly that so much about blogging is about conspicuous consumption and I am afraid that I am guilty of that, no matter how much I try not to be. I hate all of the photo-shopped photos and cute posing, and I hate all of the clever-offs. It is so fake and insincere, completely rooted in our capitalistic lifestyle. Buy this and then you will be as cute as me!
So above all, I like myself when I am in Africa, because I can just be in a moment. I can just love all that is around me without having some technological distraction or some competitive nagging that brings out the worst in me. That has everything to do with it. I can be myself more easily, and because I can be myself more easily, I can relate to other people more easily. I can be with people who don’t have anything to try to prove to each other, but can just enjoy learning from each other. I can look around and see beauty that isn’t photoshopped or a pretend exercise in how we want something to appear to be, but just appreciate beauty that actually is. I mean, you go to Shamwari and sit in the brisk cold of a 6:30 AM Game Drive and see a herd of elephants tending their young and tell me that it doesn’t beat anything that you can buy on the website Etsy. I am telling you, right now, it does. You watch kids dance in a township and tell me that there is equal beauty in a Kate Spade dress, and I will call you a phony and a liar. The two aren’t the same.
For whatever reason, the contrast becomes real to me there, in a way that I wish it could be real every day for me here. I am weak and I let the other stuff get muddled and in the way, Stateside.
And can I help it that there is so much more to find that can be inspiring in Africa. I mean, I came of age during the years when apartheid was ending and Nelson Mandela and his compatriots were changing the world. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa completely changed the way that I thought about justice. I read Wangari Maathai in college. And now, we have the newest Nobel Peace Prize winners also representing African women of our generation. These people inspire me, and so when I am in the continent where they reside, I feel inspired. Is there an American political leader that is even capable of inspiration, anymore? I highly doubt it.
This isn’t to say that everything in Africa is perfect. Obviously, many things are far from perfect; too many to list here. Even inspiring South Africa has many clouds hovering on the horizon of their still young democracy, as Desmond Tutu so perfectly pointed out earlier this week. For many heads of state in Africa, the temptation to choose China as a development partner and model means sacrificing human rights for the economic gain of a few. But hopefully, something good will come out of this, as having a powerful voice like Tutu’s come out and condemn a government that puts economic interests over human rights can be a powerful message. Today is Desmond Tutu’s 80th birthday, and it just makes me sad to think that so many of his generation in South Africa are aging and passing away, while the new generation that takes power lack the committment to building a better South Africa for all of its citizens instead of just building a better bank account for those in power.
Because I can’t get my mind Out of Africa, a few weeks ago David and I hosted an African dinner party at our house, so at least I could attempt to be social and not completely re-enact my 1998-1999 behavior. It was a moderate success, but still hasn’t gotten me out of this funk. Because, what am I doing with my life? Absolutely nothing, I feel like.
But at least we can eat some good food.