Wednesday, August 5, 2009

All good blogs must come to an end

Yesterday I sat in terminal C of ATL, with the plane on my right departing for Mobile and the one on my left departing for Birmingham. I wanted to get on both but figured I should take the one on the left since that was what my boarding pass said. A few minutes later I awoke from a power nap as the pilot said "We are now making our final approach to Birmingham." It was in English and it sounded very familiar, and yet very foreign to me. I immediately looked out the window of our CRJ 200 (this thing seemed like a go cart compared to the A330 and 767 I had traveled on earlier in this incredibly long day...and those two planes seemed like minivans compared to the triple 7 I took to Joburg in June, but like a go cart, the CRJ was more fun and gave a better view of the landscape below) and I saw a giant racetrack. I was puzzled and thought to myself "I don't remember Birmingham planning to build a giant racetrack this summer." A split second later I thought to myself "You IDIOT, that is Talladega!" And then I got excited and found Hwy 77 and spotted the little gas stations outside of Lincoln that I used to hit up on my many drives between Crossville and Auburn. I stared out the window from that point until we landed. I saw I-20 and Trinity Hospital (that would be Montclair to you old timers) and looked at Red Mountain which after being in Moshi seemed like an incredibly small hill. I was very impressed with Alabama's beauty from up high. I read Hemingway's The Green Hills of Africa this summer, it was in the backpack in front of my feet at this point along with the only other book out of the 7 I carried that I brought back - for those who are curious the other book was Freedom of Simplicity by Richard Foster - READ IT. Anyway, the green hills of Africa is great travel literature and describes Tanzania well, but I suddenly thought that it should be titled "The Green Hills of Africa have nothing on the Green Hills of Alabama" because they really don't. Alabama is much greener than any other place I have seen in the past two months (so that would make it greener than South Africa, East Africa, and Belgium - I was asleep for the approach to Atlanta) and it may have more trees than any place I have ever seen period. I am constantly amazed at how many trees we have. It will take me a long time to name them all. The tires touched down on the tarmac and I resisted the temptation to look for warthogs and gazelle in the grass surrounding the runway. I went to baggage claim and picked up my trusty grey hiking pack. Hugged baba, mama, kaka, and dada (that would be Nelson, Shirley, Blake, and Audra - dada means sister in Swahili and it doesn't necessarily imply blood relation). I cranked my car (this felt great) while constantly telling myself to stay right or I would die and went to Cracker Barrel with the family. I had fried catfish, hashbrown casserole, and fried okra.

Open Sore of the World

Dr. David Livingstone is probably the most famous missionary and explorer in African history. His last recorded written words were the following; "All I can add in my loneliness is, may Heaven's richest blessing come down on every one, American, English, or Turk, who will help to heal this open sore of the world." He used the term open sore of the world to describe the East African slave trade which was centered in Zanzibar and the Tanzanian coast and lasted many years after slavery was abolished in Europe and the United States. The slaves from this area were taken to other parts of Africa, the Middle-East, Asia, and the South Pacific. Livingstone's writings, when taken back to Europe by Henry Stanley were very influential in bringing about the end of this. Although it happened after his death.

I was not familiar with this quote before traveling to Tanzania this summer and the words open sore of the world have gripped me. One needs to do nothing more than turn on the world news for a few minutes to realize that this world still has many "open sores". These sores are in many places, I can find them a few hundred meters from my house in 5 points Birmingham. And when I think of this term I can't help but be concerned for Juarez, Mexico and the people, many who are friends of mine, suffering there due to the drug wars and crumbling infrastructure. But perhaps there is no place where this open sore is more obvious than in Africa; the place where Livingstone first made the observation almost 150 years ago.

Today the people are not being captured and sold into slavery. But many millions are still in bondage. Oppressed by extreme poverty, hunger, corrupt governments, global corporate exploitation, and perhaps the worst health epidemic in history, Africa is a glaring open sore. And many of its people are born with the weight of the world on their shoulders. As I write this another quote comes to mind that a friend shared with me a couple of years back. This one is by Henry Nouwen and it states that "God has chosen to reveal himself in a crucified humanity". This too may be more obvious in Africa than anywhere else. And so we must respond...but how?

I don't have the answer. The situation is too complex for my understanding. I am convinced that "volunteer tourism" and short term missions from the west are not the answer, although they may be a very small piece of it. I am also convinced that the answer is not going to come from an American, English,...or Turk for that matter (nothing against Turks, I have met some really cool ones). I believe that, just like the sores on my body, the open sores of the world must heal themselves. And like the sores on our bodies, things can be done to aid and expedite that process. But the healing comes from within. Africa must heal itself. And after visiting alone and seeing East Africa in a new and revealing way. I know that it can. Many Africans are in the process of bringing about that healing even as I write. And many more soon will be. I had long conversations with my friend Prudence in Dar es Salaam. He is beginning his fourth year of medical school and has a passion to help Tanzania's many street orphans. He also has very detailed plans to do so that impressed me very much. And I expect he will see them through, and I hope to help. I have also had conversations with my Kenyan friends Jack Ogutu (currently studying in Auburn) and John Kiarre who lives in Nairobi. They are committed to serving their brothers and sisters and their faith inspires me. I am optimistic about Africa's future. Not unlike Livingstone's slave trade, the current wounds can and will heal.

And by healing I do not mean that Africans live like Americans. That would be foolish and unsustainable. I mean that they have a quality of life and health, and availability of opportunity comparable to Americans. That can and should coexist in simplicity and sustainable living. So how do we treat the wounds to bring this about? The most simple answer, and the only one that my mind can grasp is this; six years ago, upon returning from an Auburn Wesley trip to Tanzania, a family of missionaries who had served in East Africa encouraged us to become advocates for Africa. In my case they were preaching to the choir but I am here to repeat their message. We must become advocates for Africa. And this can take on many forms. I do not know if I will ever return to Africa. I now have many friends there and hope to visit them again. And if there is a needed service that I can perform in person then I will gladly go do it. But without rushing off to a distant land we can still give prayers and support. And this means a lot more than sending a check to help some kids. We need to be intelligent and aware so that everything we do, every service we perform, is maximally effective. The challenges are too great and the road too long for us to act irresponsibly.

And I will leave it at that. And ask you to pray that God will show you how best to be an advocate for Africa, how best to love Christ as he is revealed in his crucified humanity. I am still figuring out my own way. But I know one thing. I will be a friend of Africa, its people, and I can easily do that for the rest of my life.

And, all I can add in my loneliness is this, may Heaven's richest blessing come down on everyone, and I do mean everyone, who will help to heal these open sores of the world.

"Mzungu (white person), give me my money"

Walking down the street my first morning in Moshi a group of small children approached me, held out their hands, and said "Mzungu, give me my money". I just laughed and told them habari and kept going. I thought it was kind of cute. I didn't realize that I would be hearing this phrase, multiple times a day, everyday, from children and adults, for the next 6 weeks. Sometimes people said it with a smile as if they were joking. Some said it with expectant looks. Some said it with scornful looks. Most said it as a reflex to my caucasian skin, as if they were not thinking about what they were saying at all. Some who said it clearly lived in poverty, others clearly did not. But virtually everyone said it.

After a few weeks this started to annoy me. Sometimes I would rudely reply "you give me my money" (this was after I my wallet had been borrowed along with all of my shillings - check out the Victoria blog for more info) or "I don't have YOUR money". I would say it with agitation. Afterward, I would wonder if I were telling the truth. I wondered if somewhere in the convoluted and corrupt history of the socioeconomic web that covers and connects our planet, maybe I had received their money. I don't know. I didn't ponder these questions too long I just filed them away and went about my business. And most of the time I tried to be polite. And I think I was. But this phrase still bothers me.

It was clear that these people were taught from a very young age to associate light skin with money. I would see volunteers and tourists from Europe and the Americas going down the street and giving money and random things to random children and then not having things to give to other random children watching further down the street. I was not sure about the benefit of this and decided not to participate in the "acts of random santa clause" as I labeled it in my head. Instead, I would try to talk to the kids, finding out their names and where they go to school. I would try to treat them as equals. I don't know if they realized that was what I was doing but by the time I moved out of the international house every kid on the street, and most of the adults, knew my name. As I passed in the morning or evening they would run up to me screaming Nicho-laus or Neek-O. Sometimes they would say give me my money and then smile and leave before I had a chance to reply. By the way, "mzungu, give me my money" was about the only english phrase many of them could speak.

I am not going to lie. I hate this phrase. The word for white person in Swahili is one letter different from the word for God (mzungu, and Mungu) and I doubt that is a coincidence. I hate that a generation of people are taught that they are inferior. I saw the frustration on some of their faces as they spoke to me. I imagined that they were thinking in Swahili and asking themselves and wondering "now why am I asking this loser for money again?" If that is what they were thinking I don't blame them at all. And I don't like the random acts of santa clause either. Not only do they exclude some children but they feed into the collective social consciousness of inferiority that seems to be the general rule in this part of Africa.

I didn't really know what to do but I wanted my actions to empower, not belittle. I don't want these children thinking that they have to ask wazungu for handouts the rest of their life. I want them studying and working to change the face of Tanzanian society because they know that they are equal to any person, no matter the color of their skin, though they have many obstacles. And thank God many of them are doing just that. I am excited about what some of my new friends will do. Well, these are my opinions and theories on the phrase "mzungu, give me my money". I can't prove them. And I hope that they are wrong.

I am writing this blog by hand in my Barometer Soup travel journal in the Brussels airport. I will post it when I get back to Birmingham. As I write I am surrounded by wealthy wazungu and I am thinking about sitting on the floor and putting my hat out and saying "mzungu, give me my money". With my old clothes and shaggy appearance I might be able to get enough to buy some food. My $10 US will barely get a coke here. But I am not going to do it. I am way too proud for that. Plus, I don't need to, I get on the plane in a couple of hours and they will give me lunch. If not, I have several granola bars and cookies in my backpack.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Tales from the Spice Islands

So I went to Zanzibar. One of East Africa's spice islands (not to be confused with the Island of the Spices). I didn't really know much about Zanzibar but I thought it had a cool name and I have had a serious deficiency of beach this summer and I have heard it mentioned in some Jimmy Buffett songs so there was no way I was going to be this close and not go. It is a 2 hour ferry ride from Dar if you take the fast ferry (which I did) and between 4 and 10 hours if you take the slow boat.

Pulling into Zanzibar harbor i couldn't help but be impressed by the crystal turquoise water and dhows parked lazily on the beach with children splashing beside them. But dominating the field of vision above the waterfront are the colonial and precolonial buildings of Stone Town. And they immediately filled me with a sense of wonder.

Upon leaving the boat I was greeted by a taxi drive wearing a University of Alabama polo. He eloquently informed me that "the man standing in front of you is a taxi driver" and I politely inquired, "Does the man standing in front of me know what kind of shirt he is wearing?" He said he did but couldn't tell me much about Alabama and I joked with him a little and said if he were wearing an Auburn shirt I would take a ride but then assured him that I didn't need one because a friend had arranged someone to meet me at the port and give me a tour of stonetown. But the friend of Dr. Karim from St. Joseph's didn't show up (it turns out he thought I was coming a few days later) and after waiting for a little while I decided to dive into Stone Town alone....and I am glad I did.

Stone Town is shrouded in antiquity and seems to be straight from an Arabian fairytale. I could wander around for days following its narrow cobblestone streets (they were about 4 feet wide) dodging scooters and watching children playing, walking past shops and inns and mosques, and the occasional fortress-like Cathedral (there are only 2 on this island that is 99% muslim, but they are huge, impressive buildings). I kept looking for a magic carpet or Aladdin's lamp and think if I had stayed much longer I would have found them. Anyway, after a few hours I met up with some of the volunteers that had stayed in Moshi earlier in the summer and so I spent the rest of my two days with them and the misunderstanding with my guide wasn't a problem. So the first day I spent wondering around Stone Town.

The second day I had to find a beach and of course the more the difficult the beach is to get to the better it is right? We decided to go to one on the eastern shore of the island (Stone Town is on the western shore) named Pongwe. It took us 2 hours on the bus and when we got there we were the only people on the beach. But this place was awesome. The beach was made of snow white sands and bordered by a tropical palm forest with a sleepy little fishing and seaweed farming village nestled within the trees and lining parts of the beach. And the water was beautiful, but it was about a half a mile away because the tide was out. I spent a while admiring the beach and trying to imagine how much better it would be if the tide were in. And when I could take it no longer I hiked for about 45 minutes over exposed rocky ocean floor and tidal pools to get to the water so I could swim a little. It was nice.

Afterward I talked extensively with the local shaman and complemented him on the great beauty and tranquility of his beach. He informed me that he had dreamed of a much better beach located in Southern Mexico and advised me to head west immediately. This frustrated me to no end but I did as he said and began journeying west as far as Stone Town where i stopped to rest for the night and enjoyed a feast of grilled octopus, red snapper, and shrimp at the local seafood market - this part is true. (I cannot confirm or deny the statements regarding the shaman in the previous paragraph. He may or may not have existed. And the statements regarding Mexican beaches may or may not be my own humble, yet somewhat knowledgeable, opinion - seriously, can you beat the Caribbean? I think not.)
The next morning I spent a few hours hypnotically exploring the maze of buildings that is Stone Town (i honestly enjoyed this as much as the beach) and then caught the 2:00 Ferry back to Dar. I knew there were problems when as we were leaving the harbor the crew began passing out plastic bags that were labeled "sick bag". I am by no means a salty sea captain but I have been on a few boats and never really had problems with sea sickness. But then again, I had never been on a sea like this. As our 200 passenger catamaran cut through the waves headed to Dar we encountered huge swells and the boat was constantly rocking and bouncing and crashing into the water. I saw many European tourists as their faces slowly went from a tanned bronze to a sickly green and felt the green invading my own face as well (I think I would have been fine if it had not been for the bad breath and B.O. of the man sitting to my left who was a very nervous Tanzanian and would not stop talking to me). The boat was also very warm in the lower deck which did not help any. So I spent the better part of the next two hours taking deep breaths and listening to people vomit behind me and smelling the vomit when the wind died down. This was not pleasant. And I timidly lined the inside of my hat with the barf bag and prayed i wouldn't have to use it. And I did not get sick. Once the boat was docked I had to step over a pool of someone elses vomit to get off of the boat. And all during the trip they were herding sick white people out to the bow, I had a good view of this from my seat and would have enjoyed it much more if it hadn't been for my own nausea.

Back in Dar (I really felt at home in this city, it is huge, coastal, laid back, and runs on typical African "organized chaos), I could feel the bronze replacing the green on my face and with it came confidence that I could find my way around the city on my own. So I negotiated a cab to take me back to the medical school where I was staying (some friends I had met here in 2003 were hosting me). Once in the cab, after about half of the trip someone ran a stoplight and crashed into the cab on my side. It seemed like a minor fender bender but as we continued on the tire blew out. I insisted on paying the guy extra for his trouble and then had to get a new taxi back to the hospital. So I survived barfboat 09 and a taxi wreck within an hour of each other and it was fun.

Dar has also inspired me to write a song about Tanzania's public transportation system of daladalas. The song is titled "Butt in the face" and is sung to the tune of Band on the Run. I have only written one line so far....

So, in summation, Go to Zanzibar! and spend some time in Dar on the way!

Monday, August 3, 2009

Adios Africa

I am in Nairobi now. My flight leaves in about 11 hours. The travel books describe Nairobi with words like Nai-robbery and sinister. I have been here 3 days and have not felt sinister or like robbing anyone. As a matter of fact I would say this; if you can spend only one day in East it in Nairobi. This city gave me my first taste of Africa 12 years ago and it was love at first sight. It is the hub of diversity in this region of the world...towering new skyscrapers that look over a pristine national park on one side and one of the largest slums in the world on the other. Economic disparity is more evident here than anywhere. You can see just about any African animal in the wilderness just beyond the city limits. Everyone speaks swahili, and everyone speaks english. Masaai warriors walk down the road dressed in their bright blue and red shukas. 6 lane highways are sometimes brought to a dead halt by herds of cattle crossing the road. The sky is dotted with jumbo jets and jumbo Maribu storks. It is a city worth experiencing. It kind of reminds me of a mega sized Birmingham and it feels a little like home.

In the past week I have been to Dar es Salaam (an amazing city very different from Nairobi, I felt at home there as well and loved the coastal culture, I will write a lot about it soon), Zanzibar, and taken a 15 hour bus ride across kenya and Tanzania in which I successfully avoided Tanzanian immigration one final time (please remind me to tell about this when I get home). I have seen Kilimanjar one last time, I don't think it was a coincidence that the clouds parted as the bus drove by. I think the mountain was telling me Kwaheri.

So this is my situation, I have 10 US dollars, 500 Kenya shillings, 3 cancelled credit cards that I keep for sentimental value, and an envelope full of travelers cheques that I have no intention of using. If I can get through the rest of the day with the 500 shillings that will give me 10 US dollars to get me through Europe and back to Alabama. I don't know how many miles I have to travel but I am going to budget myself 1 dollar per 1000 miles, that should be plenty.

I am missing Africa already and I havent left yet. But I am missing home more. I have much that I have to do when I get home, and much more that I want to do. I know life is going to slap me in the face hard. Hopefully I can smile and roll with the punches. And I am glad that I can honestly say, at least for some of you, I will see you tomorrow, if God wishes of course :) . So see you tomorrow. Thanks for reading, I will probably write a few more when I get back.



Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Comedy of errors

Warning: This is not a real blog, I just had a few minutes of FREE internet and thought I would make the most of it. Enjoy.

It came to my attention the other day that for the entire summer I have been mispelling the name of my favorite tree. Baobob is actually spelled baobab (it is still pronounced Baobob as in scott BAO and what about BOB). This error has weighed heavily on my conscience and I just had to make the correction.

In a related matter I have cancelled all of my flights and built an ark-sized dhow out of banana leaves, monkey spit, and zebra hair. I will travel in this vessel, manned by an able bodied crew of baboon and hippopotamus, from Dar Es Salaam to Mobile bay. The cargo of my precious ark will be Stanley, Livingstone, Bono, and Goolsby (this is for the little boy pants comment), which are the names of my favorite Baobab trees. I have uprooted them and will replant these trees with their house sized trunks in the following locations: Mobile, AL - Sandge Brinings back yard, Auburn, AL - Samford Lawn, Birmingam, AL - 2620 Niazuma Ave. Parking Lot, and finally my parents backyard in Crossville, AL (and hopefully CJ will not eat the tree). Afterward my ark dhow will be employed alongside my favorite sailboat Sundancer (which will be manned by a crew of Jarvii clones - this fake blog is full of inside jokes) in making the vision of Caribbean caravan a reality. The fleet will be commodored by the one and only Captain Jones (although there are two) and our journey will consist of an island hopping route between the Island of Freedom and Tobago.

Other news: Do you know the ninja (this is a terrible adjective) muslim women, the ones who cover every square inch of there body in black except for the eyes...well, I think that they have beautiful eyes and it is a shame that they look away everytime I make eye contact...that is all I have to say about that.

On Saturday I attended the university of Dar Es Salaam and had to fight a monkey for my backpack (this is kind of true). The university has 35000 students and to my knowledge no Wesley Foundation (Juuulius - if you are reading this, I think they could use you,....I could translate, maybe).

I am going to have to blog on Zanzibar but not yet, lets just say that its waters are every bit as spectacular as the electric blue lonely liar book picture showed. And here are the highlights of my voyage their - vomit (not mine), car wreck (maybe mine), a University of Alabama shirt, semi-true stories and a lot of things that I could never make up....coming soon, the Tale of the Spice Islands.

From Dar es Salaam, me being 100% healthy and happy, Good night and good luck.

War Eagle!



ps - Sorry for all of the monkey business, the baboon didn't like it either and I have pictures to prove it. this part is true.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The live version

I am wrapping things up in Moshi. Friday I head to Dar. Then to Zanzibar. Then to Nairobi. Then to Brussels. Then to Atlanta. Then to Bham. If God wishes (that is what all the Africans say) I will be back home on Tuesday August 4th. I will try to blog a little from the road if I can. I also have at least 2 thoughtful posts I am going to make once I get home. But there is much I have not written about or just forgot to write about.....

so here are some flash words to jog my memory next time I see you wonderful people. And like my cousin says, the live version is always better.

-warrring Greeks, Penelope Cruz confusion, European girls taking multiple candid photos of me (I hate this and don't know why it happens), being on the daladala when it exploded (I aint kidding), snakes (but not King Cobras), geckos, deep swahili conversation with the staff of international house, countryside misadventures with Bwana Paul, MBEGE, Swahili flirting with the cooks at the hospital, being proposed to at least 4 times (Siliewi kwa nini wanawake Afrikani wakili sana na wanawake Marekani wajinga sana....Natania tu! pole mimi!), Dr. Babu, yoga, and lots of other stuff that I can't think of right now.

So here is a poem i stumbled across somewhere along the way(its not Bits and Pieces by Dick, I mean Lois, Cheney- but thats a great poem)...something for you to read and pass the time while I am on the road.

Traveler by W.L. Kent

God bless the traveler
Blown with the wind
finding a home wherever
He can find a friend

Guide her on life's pathway
Leaving footprints of joy.
A smile for each new day
May all her talents you employ.

Blessed to be a blessing.
The traveller wanders on.
Unencumbered and addressing
Any need that is shown.

Through solitude and commune,
compelled by your small voice
Refreshed by Spirit Triune
Seeking wisdom with every choice.

Thankful for the freedom
Yet knowing its not free.
Conscious of the Kingdom
Wherever they may be.

The traveler is but a servant
In motion for highest cause.
Chasing the magnificent,
In spite of all the flaws.

Constant and ever ready,
New horizons to explore.
Love, simple and steady,
Gives the strength to endure.

God bless the traveler.
Along the journey that we share.
May we faithfully deliver,
Your Peace, sweet and fair.

And here is one that I wrote at 3:00 am after taking lariam (that stuff is like kryptonite for sleep - that was for you Sarah ;)

Lariam side effect blues by N.T. Wilkes

I cant sleep.
My learning curve is steep.
If I get out of bed,
I will have a mosquito on my head.
Woe is me.
I am so sleepy...
But I can't sleep.

I am 27 years old and as far as I can remember this is the first poem I have ever written....what a waste of talent. I am a poet and I didn't know it.

And I wrote this one the next night (sometimes the side effects linger a little) this one has no title.

Here's the book.
Here's the pen.
It's 3 am.
Let's begin.

- Well thats all I've got. Time to go say my sad goodbyes to the hospital and set sail for ZanZibar!

tutaonana baadaye!