Africa's faces

July 27, 2010
I find that my relationship with Africa is not unlike my relationship with my high school boyfriend – on again, off again, a high here, a low there – one day complete discouragement, the next – elation.

Saturday afternoon, Morris made me coffee. It was tea time, and he smiled at me, when he set a cup of clear liquid beside my lap top, along with a little yellow packed of Ugandan coffee that he set beside me, triumphantly.

“I thought maybe it needed to be coffee time, not tea time,” he smiled.

He was right.

It was an act of extra generosity, especially considering that 2:00 pm is lunch time, never tea time, and he had crossed cultural boundaries to create for me a tea time all my own. The other teachers in the school house furrowed their brows at him, while I beamed.

When Africa turns her face this way, we are on a high, and I see that love is in her blood, flowing from the mountains of Lira into my life outside of Bombo, and blessing me with a kind of generosity one is not typically accustomed to. It pours out in the culture, offering food when there is not enough, refusing to let Mzungu pay, and going out of the way to make sure that I have an internet connection.

Last week, I had to work against the purchase of a generator as a special luxury for my visit. We had lost power the night before, and word in the village is that it will be gone for three weeks. I shook my head when they said they would purchase a generator so I could keep working. “I will walk to the school and work,” I said.

“Oh, I guess that would be ok.”
“Yes, it will be ok.”

Millie says it is being African. But for me, it is the catalyst for one wave after another of fresh humility that I have not known before. Giving, in Africa, is customary. You do not refuse an unexpected guest. You do not allow your brother’s children to go hungry. You do not allow the people in your church family to suffer.

Then Africa turns her face another way, and I find that there is never enough love. After Morris poured me coffee, he told me about Keneth, a little boy on sponsorship at the school. Keneth fell on a floor stove two months ago, and a crowd gathered when he began to scream. But when Morris turned off the road to see what had gone wrong, Keneth was sitting on the floor alone, with a crowd of Ugandan’s staring and clicking their tongues. His mother had fainted beside him.

Africa turned her face again when Morris told me that the church had paid for Keneth’s medical bills, and a discretionary fund from Life With Hope was used to sponsor his schooling.

She turned again when Morris began to tell me about his own childhood, and the way he learned to fake unconsciousness, so that his mother would rest from beating him. I bewailed my ignorance in thinking that Africa’s deepest problem was poverty, when it is also the treatment of its children.

“Oh, but you see it comes back to poverty,” he told me. “For example, if your husband has left for another woman, it is because there is not enough money, and he is miserable. And, when he leaves you, you are left unable to feed your children. If you are frustrated, you take it out on your children, because they are costing money you do not have. And so you beat them, because of poverty.”

I find that beating is so common that it goes unmentioned as people tell me stories of their childhood. I have to ask – “what was it like. Were you hungry? Were you beaten?” Morris nods again as I tell him that the people here think of many things as common that would shock the people from my country. He nods, and he says, “I am realizing that.” Then, he laughs, and Africa turns her face again, surrounding me with corn fields and gorgeous red soil, palm leaves and a cup off coffee while I talk with my friend.

Africa, in all of her faces, shows me that love is more necessary than I ever believed. The children that come to the schools run to me for hugs in a different way than children in the states. They soak up love like living sponges, waiting for me to give them any sign of care. They hold on tight, grabbing my hand, my waist, my leg. When I reach for them back, they melt into my body, as if I could give them something they have been lacking.

There is Isaac, who was sent from uncle to uncle after his father died, traveling in and out of the village where his tribe comes from, without consistency. He is living in my home now. I watch his aunt and uncle love him like their own, and Africa taking care of her own stays with me in a way that the ministry of mission teams or missionaries from the U.S. never has before. This is an Africa that loves without question, or limit.

These are the people who take in the women, sore from beatings by their husbands, with hungry children to boot. These are those who rescue the women who have spent days sitting on dirt floors, watching their friend’s babies while they prostitute themselves out for rice and beans. These are the people who gather up their old belongings, and take them to those who are impoverished. These are the people who take in family, without question, and give them the corner of a room that is still vacant, and a seat at the table, without reproach.

And I watch, barefoot, in the middle of a cement floor, wondering how they found clothes to give when I have watched them wearing the same outfits, day in and day out. It is uncomfortable to be here, watching the impoverished feed the most impoverished, the needy give to those who have more need. I squirm as I am here, documenting those who have just enough change the lives of those who do not have enough, the just barely fed give food to those who do not eat.

In Africa, I find that real love is a terrible discomfort. The weight of it is unsettling, because it is heavier than the poverty and abuse it is born out of – and I did not know that anything like that could come out of a place like this. Does it live in me? Can love like this come out of my spirit? 

I think that love like that comes through when Africa hides her own face, and begins to reveal the face of God. 


Phoenix said...

This is a beautiful post. I hope you know what a fantastic writer you are - this story, laid out for me, was inspiring.

Thank you.