I left my job at a Fortune 500 company so I could move to rural Africa. It wasn’t even hard. I just walked my skinny little pencil skirt butt to my boss’s office and told him that it was time for a change. I said I saw education in Africa in my future, but not so much my cubicle walls or middle-aged men in New Balance shoes talking about budget changes. My boss didn’t question it; it’s difficult to draw too many parallels between corporate America and elementary schools in Southeast Africa.
I think he knew that salary and 401K arguments weren’t going to go anywhere when I was willing to give up consistent electricity and hot tap water. In fact, his argument may have had slightly more clout if he had pointed out that the chicken in the cafeteria is already cooked and does not need to be killed or plucked, but he didn’t bring this point up. Instead, he agreed to two more weeks and let me clunk back upstairs in my high heels and finish up a few more days of excel documents and office donuts. Simple as that: I had quit my job that I had meticulously won over after four years of private university and a master’s degree.
It was impulsive, but perhaps a little more thought out than it may have initially seemed. I was walking with one of my closest friends from college just months before and explaining to her how Africa was on my heart and mind, and I couldn’t seem to shake it. There was longing in my heart that was ignited randomly: from the drum beats in the Ethiopian restaurant downtown, to the pictures in National Geographic, to one of the hundreds of elephants I collected in my bedroom. I had been to Africa before, in the classic private school girl’s study abroad fashion. But the place stuck with me a little more than a few months away from home should. I dreamt about floating down the river in Zimbabwe. I craved the smell I remembered from the South African pavement: gasoline and sun kissed bodies. And I quit my job so I could go back.
It could not have been more than a week after this discussion with my friend that I scrolled through Facebook and found photos of an old college roommate grinning ear to ear with tiny African children in school uniforms, and a snow capped mountain that peaked to the top of every photo she posted. Her eyes shone brighter than I had ever seen before and matched the sparkle of the little ones she held in her arms. I felt the twinge of homesickness to the place I had never been and instinctively emailed her, “Where are you and what are you doing and are you as unselfishly happy as you seem? And do you miss Excel spreadsheets and office donuts?”
I won’t bore you with the details of the lengthy emails we sent back and forth but the premise was this: she was in Tanzania, not so far from Kilimanjaro, working in the office of an elementary school for Masai children in the area. Yes, there were challenging times but she was genuinely happy in this community she had found. And no, she did not miss office donuts.
A few months of interviews and emails offered me a position at the same school. A few hard conversations with sisters and parents, best friends, roommates, and Macy Gray (my cat) let me know that if I were to make the decision to drop everything here in my wonderful Colorado home: the Rocky Mountains, prestigious job and heated yoga studios, that they would support me in every way they possibly could. The choice was mine to make.
It was in the midst of these conversations that another African memory floated into my mind. It was November and I had journeyed with my wonderful and bright-eyed American roommate to the colorful beaches of Mozambique. It waws a long and complex journey but one that involved stolen passports, no money, and coconuts for dinner, but that is not the piece that sticks out to me when I remember our days in Mozambique. What I remember most is a man we met thumbing our way down those beach roads. He yelled out to us as we shuffled together, arms linked, wandering down rural African villages that we had so obviously had not been born into.
“How far are you?!” he called to us as we made our way closer, teeth shining, dreadlocks blowing in the sticky breeze. It wasn’t a strange question for two white girls walking down a rural road alone. Surely this right here was not our destination. Surely we were a long way from where we were supposed to be.
We stepped closer and shook hands with the grinning man and he asked us again, “How far are you?”
Exhausted, exasperated, and genuinely lost, I threw my hands up in the air and said back, “How far are we from what? Home? The hostel? Our country or our family or dinner? I don’t know what you are asking us!”
The man laughed and threw his pale palms up to the sky and allowed the sun to reflect off that permanent smile before he said the words that I would never forget: “How far are you from where you want to be?”
And that, you lovers, you learners and workers and mothers and runners and talkers and thinkers; that is the premise of these words here on this blog: how far I am from where I want to be. I hope you potentially consider it for yourselves if you continue to read my words: apply that distance to your own heart and mind, and if you are feeling particularly brave: figure out how to lessen that distance.
It is 8,995.4 miles from Denver to my school and Tanzania. And while tying up the loose ends here in Colorado, spending time with the people I love and teaching yoga when I can is making the transition peaceful and smooth, Africa is where I want to be.
And with that I will ask myself the question: How far am I? About 8,995.4 miles away.