Updated: May 1, 2020
"Smooth Seas do not make skillful sailors" - African Proverb
The great mystery of this world is that it is filled with both joy and hardship, and there is no place like Africa to experience the wholeness of this Truth. There is a certain rawness to life in Africa that I appreciate. It wasn't until I was an adult that I came to understand how my childhood in Africa gave me the tools I needed to deal with adversity and find appreciation even in the hardest moments.
A brief glimpse of my childhood: I was one when my family moved to Nigeria. My father was a teacher and was placed at a boarding school in a remote area of Nigeria north east of Lagos. Granted I only have a few memories of our 3 years here, it is the stories my parents tell us that has rooted my appreciation for how easy my life is comparatively. Like many others living in the area, we had no electricity, no running water, and we were a family of 5 with 3 kids all under the age of 5. Life was basic. Malaria was rampant and my mother has stories of all of us getting sick, a lot; including herself four days after giving birth to my sister.
We survived. We also had the privilege of choice. We had chosen to enter into these circumstance, which means we also had a safety bridge of leaving if things got too bad. Most in Africa do not. Bless my parents, they accepted this lifestyle and even learned how to thrive. Their choice gave us the foundation of our perspectives later on in life.
Though my memories are mostly of running around barefoot, burying my flip flops in corn fields near our house and the roof of our house flying away in a terrible storm, the foundation of my little body had developed something invaluable. I now had an immune system with a superb ability to fight disease and an ability to adapt to my environment. (I also developed an obsession for cats)
Fast forward 3 more years to 1989 when my parents accepted a position of country representatives for an non-government-organization that focused on development projects in Botswana. I was eight and able to absorb much more of my environment and the social challenges of the people around me.
Though we were living in a middle class neighborhood in the capital city of Gaborone, my parents jobs took us all over southern Africa and into environments where hardships were prevalent. We were exposed to the rawness of life in Africa and to this day I will say this was the greatest gift they have ever given us. Experience teaches us how to deal with diversity and it shows us how others deal with adversity. Life in Africa taught me that there are many perspectives and that there is not one way that is better, despite what "International Development Studies" tried to teach me. I saw a resilience in the African people, a raw willingness to accept what they don't have control over. And despite their circumstances people were happy, joyful and praising God. Africans seem to have an ability to accept their suffering with a grace that I have not witness in any "developed" wealthy country. Perhaps poverty offers a certain ignorance to what one does not have, but I would argue that globalization has opened windows to view every type of reality, which challenges our psyche of comparison. And with that being said, I have seen those with much and I have seen those with little and in Africa, the predominant attitude is gratitude. Yes life is difficult but there is a sense of hope for a better future and a pride to keep dressing up because who knows what life will bring today.
Experiencing the generosity of African people
I remember visiting a women in a village. We sat politely in her small living room, and though it was obvious she had very little she asked us what we wanted to drink and offered things like Fanta, Coca Cola or Sprite. Obviously, given the choice as a child we opted for the soda, even though our mom tried to insist on our behalf that water or tea would be fine. On the way home, my mom told us she overheard our host ask the neighbor girl to run to the corner shop a mile away to purchase our order and would pay her later. Maybe its a small gesture, but that memory stuck with me, because despite having little, she went out of her way to give us what she could. A feeling of gratitude rooted itself deep into my perspective that day. One that I still think about.
The Circle of Life
The great Paradox of Life and Death. Perhaps the reality of this is more predominant in Africa because there are greater levels of poverty, sickness and death. Perhaps it is because this continent is host to the great "wildlife of the Savannah". The way the Lion King re-popularized the understanding that for the Lion to live the antelope must die, the rawness of this reality is steps away for many living in Africa. In the west our BBC nature shows give us a taste, but it's narrated with the comforting overtone of David Attenborough explaining what is happening and reassuring us that this is the way of nature. Then we turn off our tv's and drive to our big grocery stores and pick through an array of foods, detached from the reality of how that food got to our stores. This is not to shame anyone, I realize that we are born into our circumstances, it's no more your fault that you were born into wealth and an opulence of opportunity, than it is the poor kid in Africa whose parents are choosing which kid will eat or get medicine today.
My intention in writing this is not to point out the unfairness of this worlds disparity and look for solutions, it is instead a focus on how to deal with adversity when it arrives at our door. When nature is just being nature, but you got the shit end of the stick, how do you deal with the harsh reality of it? It's not all "Hukuna Matata". Just as none are immune to death, none are immune to challenges, no matter where you live. For even in wealthy countries we must face suffering and hardships. When grief arrives at your door, when financial hardships wipe out your security, when you are faced with social pressure to conform to the herd or illness attacks your body, how do you respond?
"It's your reaction to adversity, not the adversity itself that determines how your life's story will develop" -unknown
It wasn't until I returned to Canada at the ripe age of 13 that I was faced with the challenges of re-integrating into western culture. I couldn't understand why all these so called 'rich' kids were complaining and bored. And they didn't understand why I didn't have sympathy for them when they were upset because their dad didn't buy them the right kind of flowers on their birthday. It took me some time, but I began to realize most of the people in my school, including the teachers, had no reference to what I had seen and therefore couldn't understand my "raw" perspective. How could you be content with so little? And it wasn't their fault. So I learned to nod to their "suffering" and safely tucked what I'd learned from Africa into my heart and attempted to assimilate into western culture.
As I slowly stepped into adulthood I faced an array of challenges and hardships and I began to understand the particular adversities of western culture. I got my fair share of it. But even as my marriage crumbled, my debt piled up, I lost a pregnancy and I fell into depression... there was Africa. My parents called me to come stay with them in Zambia, to recuperate and I did. The familiar sounds of Africa, the smell of fresh rain on dry soil and even the hustle and bustle of Lusaka's busy streets felt comforting. I sighed deeply into what I knew so well as a child and I cried the sorrow out of my heart. Mama Africa opened her arms to me again and I felt comforted. I felt at home. It was in Africa that I began doing something that would lead me down a new path of hope... I began to doodle.
I got back up, wiped off the dirt and kept going. And life got better, it got way better. I remembered my humble lessons of Life in Africa and appreciated what I did have, even if it was a little. And then life threw me another curve ball and I lost another child. My baby boy Ryden. And I cried. The devastation was intense. I looked inside my heart and remembered the grace and wisdom I'd learned from my past. I thought about life in Africa and how they dealt with death. Sometimes life is taken quicker than it is given, that ultimately we are not in control. And I thought about all the women in Africa who lost their children to horrors much worse then mine and once again I found gratitude despite my sorrow. I learned how to accept what I was dealt. This is the complex nature of the World. Yes, it's hard. But it's beautiful too.
What I have learned from my life in Africa is that we don't always have a choice in what life hands us, but we do have a choice in how we approach what we've been dealt. There is opportunity even in suffering. The ability to develop strength, courage, determination and a resilience to keep going. Africa showed me time and time again that despite the struggle, the hardships and the suffering, there is always reason to get back up and hope for a future.
Written by Lori Fast