I think a lot of people might wonder how I have ended up working in Africa. In fact, for the last few years I have been slightly obsessed with this type of work and Africa in particular. If somebody were to ask me why I have come here I am not sure I would have a good answer. It is something I have reflected on quite often – after finishing a degree in education I think I can reflect the crap out of most situations. In fact my powers of reflection may be bordering on superhuman and are a big reason why I am doing this blog. Why would I let these reflective powers go to waste?
Anyways, how does a kid from small town Canada end up in Africa? Growing up I had very little, or no interest in politics, history, or social issues. Through most of university I managed to maintain this apathy. I have to be careful what I say here because I don't want to come across as virtuous. My intention is not to stand on a soap box lecturing people on becoming more engaged. Development or charity workers are often unquestioningly praised, but I would be misrepresenting myself if I tried to come across as completely altruistic. I am here, and involved in this work, for a variety of reasons, but many are self-serving.
So, what caused my attitude to change? Through the reflective process I have pinpointed two events that I believe have sent me down this path. The first is travel. I think working in China and travelling around China and Asia exposed me to many issues that I had never given much thought to. I also became interested in travel for the sake of travel. The second event seems trivial, but I consider it more significant. During my final year of university I read a book called ‘Shake Hands with the Devil.’ It seems silly that I would consider reading a book a significant event, but I suppose I am easily influenced. I can’t remember who
recommended it or why I read it, but it shocked me for a couple of reasons. I was shocked by the fact that an event like the Rwandan genocide occurred and I knew nothing about it. This is not a condemnation of the media. Like I said previously I had no interest. My mom is constantly listening to CBC and I am sure at some point I heard about the genocide, but never gave it a second thought – scratch that, I never gave it a first thought.
The second thing that shocked me was that I had a strong emotional reaction to the book. It made me quite sad and angry. This may seem obvious, but if you know me then you know that I am about as emotionally expressive as I am verbally expressive. On an internal level I would also say that I don’t experience emotional highs and lows. Therefore, having this reaction to ‘Shake Hands with the Devil’ was fairly significant. It also sent me on a binge. I ended up searching out and reading books that were about atrocities, genocides, disease, poverty, etc. Most of these books were about Africa. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I have come to Africa to satiate some emotional hunger. Like I am a drug addict trying to find the next high. I do have a genuine interest in the work I am doing, but it is hard to deny that emotional extremes are part of the job. This place is very heartwarming and heart wrenching at the same time.
On the other hand there is a certain amount of emotional repression that has to occur in a place like this. People attend funerals almost every weekend – I have been told not to schedule events on weekends because of this. At a meeting a couple of weeks back, during a tea break, we had a 40 minute conversation about funerals. How many people should talk? How long should it be? What kind of casket? What kind of tombstone? Burial or cremation? What food should be served? Everyone in the room was between 30 and 40 years old, but had attended countless funerals and had given a lot of thought to their own. When someone in their immediate family passes away some Basotho will wear a black ribbon or scrap of fabric around their neck for a period of time. Throughout the day I will see a number of young adults and children - including participants in the programmes I am involved in - going about their business with death hanging around their neck.
I think my own perspective has also changed. When my wife came to visit I asked her to bring me a book called ’28 Stories of AIDS in Africa’. Before leaving for Lesotho I attended a Stephen Lewis talk and he recommended the book. Stephen Lewis’ ‘Race Against Time’ Massey Lectures was one of the books I read during my doom and gloom binge, so I decided to act on his recommendation. ‘Race Against Time’ also had a significant impact on me. Both it and ‘Shake Hands with the Devil’ are not incredibly literary, but the facts that are presented are overwhelming. I expected to have the same reaction to the 28 Stories book, but I didn’t. I think it was very representative of individuals with HIV, but after living here for only a few months it came across as common place.
I’m not sure if this is emotional repression or just dealing with reality. Maybe repression for me and just reality for everyone else.