The old lady from North Dakota made me cry. Real tears, too, down salty cheeks, on the rooftop bar in Zanzibar, Tanzania. It started out as a discussion about how reflectors on the side of the road are stacked double high in areas where it snows a lot (like Colorado and North Dakota) in order to ensure a blizzard won’t cover up the reflector. That alone was enough to get a Denver girl thinking about home.
She then went on to wrap me in what she deemed a ‘North Dakota mom hug.’ She squeezed sunburned arms around me as the sun sunk over the Indian Ocean, “If my daughter were ever in Africa during the holidays,” she whispered to me, “I would sure hope the random lady from America would wrap her up in a mom hug and tell her how proud she was.” That was what brought on the tears, not the previous snow discussion or the American accent or our mutual fixation on ketchup or the brief mention of the Denver Broncos. The hot hot, hot weather has allowed me to push Christmas thoughts out of my mind for most of the month. Ninety-three degrees doesn’t exactly scream “White Christmas.” The only thing that does scream “White Christmas” around here is the restaurant that serves chicken and French fries (kuku na chipsi) a few miles outside of the village that has insisted on blaring Bing Crosby since November. You can push away Christmas thoughts when you’re in a non-traditional Christmas space. But this lady felt quite Christmasey, Mrs. Claus-like almost, and I let myself feel homesick and Christmas sick all at once.
Facebook and social media are interesting mediums because they are framed pictures of a life in its beautiful moments: smiling, happy, wearing deodorant, showered yet still exotic. The misconception tends to be that this is a person’s entire life. It isn’t the random thoughts that occur when you wake up in the middle of the night to donkeys braying outside or the photo of what your head feels like after cheap wine and two hour dala-dala ride. Instead, our social media is the result of our wisest words, carefully drafted and the most meticulously chosen photos. Like a photo of the sunset from that rooftop bar in Zanzibar and not of the homesick girl being hugged by a stranger.
I told a friend recently that I felt challenged during my time in Tanzania, especially during the Christmas season. He seemed surprised, “You don’t seem challenged,” was his response. Well of course I don’t seem challenged. I didn’t put the photos of the day I drank the bad water in Moshi on Facebook (probably because Facebook would have marked them as explicit). I also didn’t put up any photos of my wildly sunburned and peeling forehead. I didn’t post the fact that the vast majority of my meals are eggs from the chickens out back. Another experience I don’t put on social media is the hectic mess of driving dirt roads in ninety-degree weather all day long to ensure our female students were safe in the midst of the Christmas vacation. I didn’t show the death of a child in the village and wails from the villagers that ensued. I try not to show that the want is heavy and the money is rare around these parts.
My mom called me after a Christmas party and said, “All of my friends who see your pictures say you look like you are having a blast!” And don’t get me wrong; I am having the time of my life: the most emotional time of my life, the most frustrating time of my life, the hottest/sweatiest time of my life. But also the most rewarding time of my life the most maturing time of my life and the time in my life where I have appreciated my family and who they have raised me to become.
I hesitated posting this article because I didn’t want it to come across in the wrong way. I didn’t want to seem that I was looking for sympathy or to put struggles in the spotlight. Instead, I intended it for anyone who texts an overly positive Ella out there in East Africa, or stumbles across her Facebook or Instagram, to know that I am right there with you on being hot and frustrated and confused and homesick this Christmas. That its not all always white sand beaches and the most beautiful African children I have ever encountered, even if that is what my pictures show. It’s so much more.
It’s tears in the back office when a daughter is treated as less than a son, and it’s a lot of four letter words yelled at the sky. It’s learning to be strong when you’re tired and finding patience when you cook dinner in the dark again. It’s surrounding yourself with people who give up a lot of comfortable things to help others stand taller. And its in those cracks and pieces that no one really sees in the photos or the carefully thought out Facebook statuses that the true beauty is found.
So how far am I from where I want to be? About twenty-five hours away. That’s the final countdown until it is officially Christmas here at O’Brien School for the Maasai in Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. And while it may not be the most photogenic Christmas I have ever experienced, it is sure to be one of the most meaningful. Merry Christmas, my beautiful friends, family, strangers who have stumbled here. I hope it’s beautiful.