Out of Africa (A Journal)
When I opened Facebook today, it reminded me of some photos I uploaded nine years ago about my trip to Africa. As I was lying in bed browsing through the photos, fragments of memory of Africa resurfaced - the bustling streets of Kenya, the honking Matatus, the Maasai people in beaded necklace and strikingly long red robes, the wide-eyed children from the orphanage, the extraordinary long-necked giraffes, the wild rhinos and lions from the Masai Mara all appeared vividly in front of my eyes. My memories took me back to Africa nine years ago when I was still in my first year of university.
1. One day when I was casually strolling around campus, I accidentally saw this advertisement from an NGO that organised volunteers to Africa. As a sucker for adventure, I thought that was probably the coolest thing to do, also I thought it would be amazing to go to Africa and join such a meaningful cause. So when I met up with a girlfriend of mine, who was also a sucker for adventure (birds of a feather indeed flock together), I spread the news to her and persuaded her to come along with me. It didn't take her long to say yes, as she also agreed it was the coolest thing to do. So after taking seven vaccinations (Typhoid, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, cholera, yellow fever, rabies, meningitis, and influenza!!), we embarked on our first adventure to Africa.
2. The flight from Melbourne to Africa was long, terribly long. We first stopped at KL, then a long transit in Thailand, and finally, we hopped on a plane to Kenya. In Thailand, a girlfriend of mine was very kind to show us around. On my flight from Thailand to Kenya, I was sitting next to an English lawyer. He was on his way to London. At that time I had the aspiration of becoming a lawyer, so we had the most interesting conversation. I vaguely remembered that he told me had he given another career choice, he would have become an investment banker so he could make good use of money and invest it wisely (a conversation I'm not sure if I could still find it entertaining these days).
As the flight began to descent, I gazed out of the windows - the land seemed barren, there were no buildings, so unlike of any of the skyline I had seen. I felt I was about to enter into another world. Some places stayed with you forever, I knew Africa would be one of those places.
"This will be the rest of your life for the next six weeks. Good luck!" the English lawyer remarked, breaking me out of my reverie. I replied with a smile, half-excited half-worried, not knowing what to expect.
3. On my first night in Nairobi, I took out the mosquito net my father specially sent to me from China. The mosquito net was pink in colour, it was huge and popped up like an instant tent. I placed it on my bed so I could be sure no mosquitos would come and visit me in the middle of the night.
I also went to the local farmers market and bought some mangoes in the afternoon. Oh, the giant luscious African mangoes! I never knew mangoes could look so gigantic and taste so heavenly. If you think Australian mangoes are giant and sweet, then you haven't seen or tasted African mangoes (double the size and sweetness!). The mango was so huge that I only needed to buy one. I placed it on the table in my room, thinking that I would eat it for breakfast tomorrow.
When I was lying on my bed, cocooning cozily inside of my pink mosquito tent, journaling and reflecting on what a magical day it had been, then all of a sudden, I saw this dark grey shadow appearing from the slit under the door of the balcony. And before I knew it, this giant African creature sneaked into my room and jumped onto the table, snapping at my mango, drowning in sweetness, looking satisfied and content.
My instinct told me it was a rat, but honestly, I had never seen such a huge rat, almost the size of a cat!
For a moment, I was so shocked I forgot what normal people would do under this circumstance. When I got back to my senses, I remembered one ought to scream.
'Ahhhhhhh....' I screamed at the top of my voice. If there was anything in the world I really feared at that time, it was, oddly, mice! It was almost like a phobia I had developed since childhood. Any kind of mouse would freak me out (except perhaps Mickey Mouse). I did not know exactly why I was so afraid of mice, perhaps because when I was a little girl, I witnessed a few mice being brutally murdered by humans, and that somehow cast a shadow on my mind into thinking that mice must be scary and evil otherwise why would humans wanted to kill them. Thankfully, I have now overcome this irrational fear of mice.
The fat rat left hurriedly with a half-eaten mango as he was probably as afraid as I was when he heard my scream. So that night in my dream I dreamed of a mouse came to visit at me in the middle of the night, and the next morning when I woke up, the other half of the mango was gone too.
4. The next day we went to visit an orphanage which some of us would work there. We were greeted by the warmhearted principal and the students. They led us into a classroom, a dark room with no light, a few broken wooden chairs and tables. We were asked to sit in the front row. Then some students came in and started singing for us. It was a very special moment.
When those children opened up their mouth, it was like the voice of a choir of angels. Their innocent faces, their angelic voices saturated deeply into our hearts, touched our souls, beyond words.
Tears flooded my eyes uncontrollably, I tried to hold back my tears but couldn't, I didn't want them to think that I felt sympathetic for them, but the truth was apart from sympathy, I was deeply moved by them, by their innocence and sincerity. In the end, we were all happily dancing and singing, like a family.
Later I found a crumpled paper in my bag with something written in Swahili. I flattened the paper and asked my tour guide what it said. He smiled cheekily and told me it was a love song. I suspected I knew who put it in my bag. Feeling flattered, the next day I gave my bracelet to this tall, cute looking African boy, who was so talented in singing and playing the guitar.
5. I was placed to volunteer at a newly opened centre for children with cerebral palsy and stayed with a local African family. My daily job included assisting the nurses in feeding the children, changing nappies and massaging the limbs of the babies, also entertained them and kept them accompany. Before I went, I knew very little about cerebral palsy. All these young children and babies suffered from severe permanent movement disorders caused by brain damage before, during or after birth. Every morning, the mothers of these children would walk miles away to drop the kids at the centre and then went to work. A lot of these families (also a lot of single mothers) survived on average less than $2 a day.
Although the definite cause of cerebral palsy was unknown as it could be caused by many factors, given the extremely poor living conditions of most of the families, the extremely limited access to health, it was perhaps not difficult to deduce why cerebral palsy and other diseases are so prevalent among young children in Africa. And many of these mothers gave birth to many children due to the cultural, social and traditional beliefs, the lack of birth control and the lack of education, thinking that giving birth to more children was probably the way out of poverty. So sometimes not just one of their children but two or even three of them had cerebral palsy and other illnesses. A vicious cycle. At that time I was neither spiritual nor religious, but I did wonder if there were God, what was he thinking? Why do these people have to suffer? Why is life so difficult and unfair for these people?
6. I stayed with a local African family. The family was relatively wealthy, and they resided in the largest house I had ever seen in Africa! But still, there was no access to hot water. You had to get the water from the well, boiled it then shower. The father was a general manager of a state-own company, a devoted Christian, the Children's Center was founded by him as his daughter had cerebral palsy since birth, so he felt he was called by God to do something. The mother was a housewife and took care of cooking and everything else in the household. I shared a room with an Israeli girl, who was my very first friend from Israel. I considered her as my sister. The Israeli girl and I were the very first volunteers in their centre and they felt extremely happy and grateful to receive us.
One evening during dinner, the father and the Israeli girl started to have a conversation about religion, which somehow turned into a debate. The father tried to convince her that Jesus was the saviour and he had already come back to save us. The Israeli girl did not seem to be convinced but also cautious of not wanting enter into any unnecessary argument with him.
"I'm not sure about that," she said politely, "It was not what we've been told," she added, "But I respected your opinion."
I was not familiar with religions, so I kept silent concentrating on eating the chapatti on my plate.
"What's your religion?" The father suddenly turned to me ask, seeing that there was no way he could convince my Israeli sister to change her belief.
"Atheist," I mumbled.
"What!" Both of them exclaimed, they could not believe what I just said, and stared at me as if they were looking at an alien who had just uttered something in an alien language.
Well, at that time I was really an Atheist, quite ignorant now when I thought about it. I was neither spiritual nor did I believe in God. You see I was never brought up in a religious family. The word religion had never entered into my life until I moved to Australia and attended a Catholic school. Still, my faith in God was not strong.
7. The organisation arranged us to go on safari in the well-known Maasai Mara National Reserve, a trip I had been so long anticipating finally came true. As the jeep marched into the mysterious Maasai Mara, I felt like in the Lion King movie, looking for Mufasa and Simba.
Going on Safari was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, an unforgettable experience that would bring you into the present, 100%. Let's face it when you encounter a few wild lions just meters away from you, where else would your mind be? Although the big five was on our list (lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants and buffalos), I was equally excited and impressed when I saw the cute antelopes running freely, mingling with the stylish zebras, the enormous elephants flapping their bigs ears marching nonchalantly, the elegant giraffes walking gracefully under the sunset. We also spotted a cheetah, wild rhinos and some exotic birds I could not name. I think we saw all the big five except leopard. An exhilarating experience.
Later that night we camped near the national park. Our tents were guarded by some Maasai warriors who walked around with sticks, to fend off against potential intruders such as Simba! As I took a walk outside near the tent, I gazed at the night sky, and was incredibly in awe of what I saw - the enormous sky was dotted with countless stars. I had never seen so many stars in my life. There were so many stars that the sky doesn't even seem dark. The stary night enveloped my heart and I was suddenly feeling overwhelmed, awed and also humbled and insignificant at the same time, against the vast backdrop.
That night I went back to my tent and wrote down these words in my journal - "The world is so fascinating and full of mysteries. I feel I am experiencing a different kind of reality, a reality that is so different from what I usually experience."
The next day we paid a visit to the famous Lake Nakuru National Park, well-known for the flock of pink flamingoes. I had never seen a flamingo in my life, and where we stood, meters away, there were perhaps over a thousand pink flamingoes by the lake. To say I was in awe of the beauty of these creatures was simply an understatement. I kept pinching my face and couldn't believe what I saw in front of me was all real, a completely eye-opening and mind-expanding experience. Surreal, and other worldly.
There was also one scene I remembered vividly. When our bus was on the way to the lake, we made a quick pit stop. And we saw a group of baboons, marching around displaying their red asses proudly. Two of them were having sex, just like the humans, except in public and with no shame, other baboons were standing next to them, clapping and cheering (they were truly clapping and cheering). We were all amazed, and I was so stunned to see just how similar their expressions resembled us humans.
8. We volunteers decided to take a trip to Mombasa, the famous beach town. A few days before our departure, there was news about how a tour bus to Mombasa crashed, and many tourists were injured on the bus. Upon hearing this news, a few volunteers decided to pull out. I still insisted that we should go.
"There is danger everywhere. Since we are already in Kenya, we should go. When will we be in Kenya next time?" That was my argument, and the people who pulled out initially decided to come along too.
Also on our way to Mombasa, on the same date, my grandmother in China passed away. My parents did not reveal the news to me until I went back to China later. However, for some reason, on that day, I felt something, and my grandma somehow crossed my mind. I grew up with her but was not particularly closed after I left China to Australia. Still, she would always remain in my heart. She was a woman who was also a lover of words and reading.
The visit to Mombasa turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip. We swam, sailed, and scuba dived in the Indian ocean, riding the camel on the beach, also dining at a Chinese restaurant on Chinese New Year! It was a quality time for us to recharge and refresh before we all went back to our assigned volunteering work.
9. The guide arranged us to visit a Maasai tribe, to experience their culture, traditions and lifestyle. The Maasai are a Nilotic ethnic group inhabiting southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. They are among the best known local populations due to their residence near the many game parks of the African Great Lakes, and their distinctive customs and dress.
They can be easily recognized by their distinctive dress, adorned with bright red robe with black stripes, which is called a shuka, also affectionally known as the African blanket. The Maasai lived among wild animals in a semi-nomadic lifestyle. They resisted the urging of the Tanzanian and Kenyan governments to adopt a more sedentary lifestyle and had preserved their ancient customs and culture to this day. The Maasai people also stood against slavery, never condoned traffic of human beings.
Maasai society is strongly patriarchal, and almost all major decisions involving the tribe are decided by the village elders. Men can have multiple wifes and wifes will give birth to many children. However, interestingly, it was the women who were responsible for building the Maasai huts. The huts are oval shaped and was build with a mixture of water, mud, cow dung and even human urine.
A Maasai woman led me into her Maasai hut. The hut was so small and dark inside, one could barely see but for the light entered through the door. There were flies everywhere. The woman showed me that she slept on one side of the 'bed' and the husband slept on the other side. The woman invited me to sit down on the 'bed', but there were so many flies and mosquitos, and the smell was dreadful I could barely stand being inside for any longer.
I sat for a moment and had to step outside, thanking her kindness. I like the Maasai people, but could not imagine what it would be like if I were born a Maasai. We were all so deeply conditioned by our cultures and the way we were brought up. I couldn't imagine what it was like to live as a Maasai, to be a Maasai woman. So I googled,
"Typically, Maasai girls are circumcised between the ages of 11 to 13 and soon afterwards married to a man chosen by her father in exchange for cattle and cash. A Maasai woman will never be allowed to divorce, except in the most egregious cases of physical abuse, and will never be allowed to marry again, even if the husband her father chooses is an old man who dies when she is still in her teens. Instead, she becomes the property of one of her husband’s brothers. She will be one of the multiple wives, and will have many children, regardless of her health or ability to provide for them. She will rise early every day to milk cows, and spend her days walking miles to water holes to launder clothes and get water, and to gather heavy loads of firewood to carry back home. If she is lucky, she will have a donkey to share her burden. She will live a life of few physical comforts, dependent on a husband and a family she did not choose. Her life expectancy is 45 years."
I can only thank God that I was not born a Maasai woman. Imagine if a Maasai woman is educated, would she still suffer this kind of hardship? But then, on the other hand, I had not asked if the Masaai woman was happy or not, who am I to judge others happiness? Sometimes ignorance is bliss. If she had not seen the outside world and the Masaai world was all that she knew, would she be sad about it?
I see that modernization is a double-edge sword, like many things in life. Too much modernization may lead to the destruction of valuable ancient customs (e.g. the normadic lifestyle of the Maasai people), but the lack of modernization was also not the answer to human evolution.
Perhaps humanity can find a middle way - increasing access to health, and education, particularly access of education to women, but also preserve some valuable customs and traditions.
10. On my last day in Kenya, I decided to go to Nairobi and buy some local souvenirs together with my Israeli sister. As we were getting off from the matatu, a gang of black men tried to touch me, at first I thought it was sexual harassment, then when I looked down, my purse was gone. They also did the same thing to my Israeli sister. As a strong, ex-army girl, she was not intimidated. She asked the driver to stop the bus, with her arm on her waist, ready to fight the fight.
"Give our money back! Jesus would not forgive you!" She yelled at them angrily, with her finger pointing at them, cursing them by using Jesus Christ, knowing how deeply religious the Kenyans were.
I felt like a little rabbit standing next to her. Her courage was so awe-inspiring, I looked up at her, intensely reverenced.
Even the gang of tall black men were intimidated by her firm voice, and other people on the bus were also helping us, telling those people to return us our purses.
"Oh look, you dropped them." One of the black men said. So in the end, they threw our stuff on the bus floor and pretended that we dropped them.
"You were so brave," I said, grateful for my guardian angel.
As the bus drove away, my Israeli sister checked her bag, "Damn, I forgot my camera." Unfortunately, it was too late.
11. There was also another incident happened. As we arrived in Nairobi, we were originally supposed to shop at the largest shopping centre in town. However, where we got off the bus, we had to cross an extremely bustling road to get to the shopping centre. So we decided to just shop at the nearby shopping centre instead. While we were happily shopping African coffee in the centre, my Israeli sister asked if I heard a loud bang from the distant. I, completely immersing myself in the different ranges of coffees, was unaware of any loud bang.
Later that night when we went home, we turned on the TV and saw the news that shopping centre we initially supposed to go was exploded (not by bombing, but some internal leak of gas pipe or some sort) and over a hundred people were injured and a few were dead. When I watched the news, I felt we were really blessed by God (I did believe in God in that moment) and there was really some greater force that protected us.
12. On our way to the airport, we had a flat tyre (the second time we had a flat tyre while driving in Kenya), and we nearly missed our international flight.
Moral of the story is: In Africa, everything is possible :) And the spirit is always Hakuna Matata.
As I am typing down the article, memories of Africa just keep flashing back. I wish I could go back to Africa again. I would really love to visit South Africa and other parts of Africa. Hopefully in the near future :)
Love, Peace & Bliss