I am just back from Africa. One of those trips that leave marks on you, that make it impossible for you to get back to normal once you are home again, pretending you have not seen all the things you have actually seen while you were there.
My heart has come back heavy with a reality which has imposed its truth upon me making my life seem superficial in comparison, making me feel a stranger among all the things that were so familiar to me just a couple of weeks ago and deeply annoyed at situations that did not use to upset me at all. I do not mean my former life was empty or meaningless but I have this strong feeling that I have spent four decades getting life wrong or, at least, with a rather incomplete idea about what life actually is about. And all this despite having my priorities clear in my mind and heart and being (I believe) a pretty level- headed woman: but this thing I am describing operates on a different zone. In such a foreign context reality challenges you, questions you, and you suddenly discover a new dimension of yourself that you never even suspected that existed. Once this door is open, you can no longer ignore it.
I will avoid falling into clichés. I will not say people in these countries are happier than us. Their lives are dreadfully harder and they do not pretend or fool themselves: they want to achieve the same degree of development and comfort we enjoy here. They fight for it. Progress is something good and I wish with all my heart that their quality of life improves. However, part of me is afraid that their soul will get lost in the process.
No, they might not be happier but they are much more alive, truly alive, closer to the roots of life. They have not lost contact with the touchstone of their existence. In this blinding, hyper-developed world of ours, where everything happens as we expect, where we can make all kinds of plans and take so many things for granted, where there is a solution for almost everything sooner or later, we can keep pretending we are immortal, we can afford living with our backs turned to our pettiness, ignoring we are as subject as everything and everyone else to certain universal laws.
In Africa, the risk and the uncertainty are a part of everyday life and leave no room for nonsense. In general, people are very well trained in the balance between the fight for life and a willing acceptance of what it brings. With pain, sure, but also without that extra burden of frustration and almost affront which invades us, poor occidentals, as soon as something, anything, even the tiniest thing, does not turn out as we expected. They know full well how small we all are: this is exactly what gives them their greatness. Hearing a schoolteacher with over six hundred dirty, poorly-fed (and brightly-smiling) children and no means at all for teaching say life always goes on leaves you wondering, almost in shame, how on Earth you could ever doubt it, even in your lowest hours.
The African experience equals that deep dimension of life you suddenly grasp when you lose someone you love, when you have health problems… when something really, really serious hits you on your very core. Everything becomes deeper, life acquires a different weight and density, you start asking yourself questions you usually would not spend a second pondering (the type of questions which have no answer) and yes, maybe you are sadder but you also get rid of many mental distractions as your ideas gain wit and clarity.
Africa also knows that there is happiness in their fight, that you should never stop celebrating life; that life itself is something bigger than all of us, vaster than anything we can think of, feel, or create. Africa is grief and misery, color and music. It is the contrast and the absurdity of such a poor people in such a rich continent. It is life itself, just like it is: therefore, mingled with death.
Despite what it might look like, the purpose of this writing is not to talk about Africa. Not just, not exactly that. It rather is a reflection on our imperative need to recover at least a tiny bit of that essential, instinctive part of our existence, that connection with the source itself, that capacity for astonishment, that impression of greatness, that humbleness of heart, that spirit of fight mingled with pure joy, and that will to confront and overcome even the worst. Unless you volunteer within a NGO and move to any of these countries you cannot get off the wheel, you cannot isolate yourself from your context, your circumstances or your reality and, of course, you should not feel guilty for having been born where you actually were born, for having and enjoying the kind of comfort and luxuries you have and enjoy. But you can pay attention to the world around and to your inner voice and act accordingly.
You do not even need to visit Africa: we all have gotten through significant, life- changing experiences and events at some point. Let’s use the impulse they provide, welcome the learnings they bring to us, let’s keep that fresh perspective alive. Let’s make the changes they ultimately claim from us in our environment, our habits, and our attitudes.
Africa fights, struggles, and dreams. Africa grieves and dies every day but gets up again every morning, rises from its own ashes and its misery and goes for it all. Africa knows life is renewed over and over again, and living (and dying) is all about this.
Life is terrible, and terribly beautiful.
Translation from my own post originally written and published in Spanish in October 2016