There is a yoga pose called the “ecstatic unfolding of the enraptured heart.” It’s not quite as dramatic of pose as the name suggests. Basically, two feet and one hand are on the ground and you press your chest up towards the sky. I really have nothing against the movement itself: but the name always seemed a little extravagant to me. The ecstatic unfolding of the enraptured heart sounds like it should be life changing and momentous. It should be jumping off of a waterfall after releasing all previously held inhibitions and screaming a word you just made up because you are no longer bounded by the confines of language. It should be dancing around a fire wearing nothing but a bikini sewed from seashells. The ecstatic unfolding of the enraptured heart better be skydiving, ribbon dancing, naked surfing and elephant riding. The name itself deserves something of that magnitude.
The thing is, I have jumped off waterfalls before and I have ridden an elephant before and I have even gone cliff diving before, and it was all a lot of fun. But I don’t think any of that ever unfolded my enraptured heart. Strangely enough the closest thing I think I have experienced to this ecstatic opening has been sitting in a sweaty ninety-five degree sewing room while working on a Saturday. Not what I initially considered ecstatic “enrapturement.” In fact, the very concept of working on a Saturday with no electricity to turn the miserable fan that sits in the corner was a personal definition of hell. However, it was just outside of that office three days before that thirty plus Maasai mamas sat, intricately beading jewelry that would be sold back home in the States in order to raise money for the school. I had been out in that throng of women for the majority of the day: checking and rechecking beadwork, and rattling off instructions in Swahili the best I knew how.
Working with the jewelry mamas is always chaos. It’s a mass of needles, beads, a jumble of languages and a friendly competition of who can show me what they have created first, of who can place the jewelry closest to my face. These mamas are sassy and stubborn and my Swahili can’t always keep up with them. I heard a voice behind me on this particular day, someone whispered in my ear in the midst of the madness and the unforgiving sun: “This mama has run out of red beads,” the voice explained, “And this one over here needs more leather.” I turned around quickly, desperately wanting to thank whoever had made the chaos seem slightly more manageable. There standing was a small woman wrapped in traditional Maasai clothes, just like all the other mamas wore, with a piece of fabric over her head as protection from the sun.
“Thank you!” I exclaimed, and reached out for a handshake, “Where did you learn to speak English?” There is one thing I have found consistent in all of my travels from South America all the way to South Africa: it’s the kids who know how to speak English. Tanzania has been no exception. If you need a last minute translator, the most efficient thing to do is run out on to the soccer field, promise a twelve year old some bubble gum, and have them translate what the adults are saying! That being said, I was surprised to see a jewelry-making mama with such competent English. The woman smiled and laughed in a way that let me know that she wasn’t a woman at all, but instead a young girl sitting in the hot sun with other grown women, making jewelry in the middle of a school day.
“Well, I used to go to school here,” the girl explained, “But then my father ran out of money and we had to stop paying tuition. I even sold my old school uniform to one of the girls here for a little extra money.” My mind raced to an image of a child selling her school uniform so the family could eat. The red beads and extra leather would have to wait. I asked her to come into our breezeless sticky office and talk with me some more.
She was sixteen now. She had left school about two and a half years ago. In that time she had given birth to a son. I had a hard time imagining someone so small being pregnant. “But you have some of the best English I have ever heard,” I said to the girl, “You haven’t been in school for nearly three years, how do you speak so well? Languages are hard to remember if you don’t speak them every day!” My mind flashed to a few weeks ago when a Spanish tourist had come to the school, and I confidently told everyone I spoke Spanish quite well and could give him a tour. I stumbled through “Como estas, rafiki? And Jambo, amigo, no probelmo hakuna matata” Nearly all my Spanish had been transformed into a Swahili hybrid that no one could understand. But this girl was carrying on a very normal conversation in obviously perfected grammar, in a language she had not been formally taught in years.
Sitting in the office now, I couldn’t believe I had not realized she was a child before; she seemed so young and wide-eyed. The girl continued to explain, “I wasn’t going to school, but I practiced my English every day. I took old papers from kids at the school and I studied them. I have a whole book of them! I speak English to them at home, I like learning.”
“If you had the opportunity to come back to school would you?” I asked her, looking at her straight in the eye, thrilled I could use big words like “opportunity” with a young girl who I was confident would understand.
“Yes. I would.”
Fast-forward three days to Saturday. An American sponsor had been found for the student and she was scheduled to start classes on Monday. I sat on a wooden chair in the sewing room and waited for a woman turned back into a girl to come out from behind the curtain to show off her freshly made school uniform. It was hot and humid and I was tired and had week’s worth of work to get done in a two-day weekend. She peered around the corner before stepping cautiously out in front of me and the seamstress: anxiously awaiting our reaction to her new clothes, her new story.
“How do you feel?” I asked, unsure of how the idea of returning to school was settling in on her. Maybe she was self conscious? Second guessing herself? One of twenty thousand emotions I felt before coming to school each morning?
Then, she smiled the biggest most genuine smile I have ever seen in twenty-five years of life. And sitting in a hot dusty room in the middle of Africa, miles from any family to kiss goodnight or waterfall to jump from, I felt a new kind of happy. Here was the kind of happy that I felt on my skin and in the back of my neck and inside my ribs and sinking into my cheeks. That kind of happy was, right there, was the ecstatic opening of the enraptured heart. It was the life giving feeling of accomplishing something you know you were placed on this planet to accomplish. This was the adrenaline pounding heart pumping high that I longed for and imagined when I heard the word “ecstatic.” There was no coal walking, fire breathing, adventure seeking altitude changing moment of bliss. But the simple, smiling face of a child with a second chance at life. It was the most exciting feeling in the world. And I hadn’t even jumped off of anything.