Your mantra is “thank you.” Don’t explain it. Don’t complain. Just “thank you.”
I read this the first month I arrived in Africa, nearly a year ago to this date. It seemed like an awkwardly simple mantra to carry around, but I had time and for some reason the words stuck out to me so I wrote them on a half sheet of notebook paper, rolled it up like a cigarette and put it in the pocket of one of my newly purchased mid shin skirts. Then I forgot.
I came across that paper a few months later. Thank you. I considered the situations I would be forced to say thank you for if I truly did make this my mantra. Dust storms. Homesickness. Sunburns, traffic jams, language barriers, power outages. There was already sarcasm oozing out of my hypothetical situation as I envisioned myself sitting in the heat and the wind of my Tanzanian office, plugging my computer charger in and smelling the familiar scent of burnt wires as I realize my charger has burnt out again; then turning my face toward the ceiling and whispering thank you. It seemed wrong, masochistic almost, to thank whomever (whether that be God, the universe, or Africa herself) for the uncomfortable, painful, and heart breaking. It’s unnatural to walk outside in the dust, stare at the thirsty donkeys on this drought-ridden land and say thank you for another sky without a cloud in sight. Humans don’t normally think like that. We don’t make a conscious Thanksgiving of the unfortunate events. That’s weird.
But I kept the paper and I stayed in Africa, and it turns out that life is a little weird. Weird enough for that mantra to hit me again just a few weeks ago as I sat in a pile of my own stressed out meltdown. These tears were the most it had rained in Sanya Station in months. And I couldn’t get them to stop. I felt overwhelmed by all I had to do with the small amount of time I had left remaining in Africa. I felt inadequate to speak in Swahili to the parents outside the office door who had questions about their child’s school fees. I felt I hadn’t done enough to prepare to prepare students for high school interviews, to find a job when I got back to America, to rent an apartment in Denver with an African school worker’s salary. So, naturally, I sat on the cement floor, cried like a child, and blew my nose into toilet paper. I smirked at the thought of even attempting a thank you to the sky or heaven or wherever my two words of gratitude were supposed to be directed.
In the midst of my tears I felt someone beside me. Blurry eyed I saw it was a few of the cleaning ladies who I had grown so close with these last few months. These were women I learned to see as sisters, graceful and confident. I loved their babies and carted them around as if they were my own, and our jokes were funnier than any language barrier (and usually consisted of impersonations of people around us.) We all stood together and as my sniffling subsided I saw that they were also a mountain of tears in a sweaty office on a Friday morning. “Why are you crying?!” I asked and pulled them all close to me. The reply was the same from each of them, “We’re crying because you are sad.”
I sat down with an Australian woman who often volunteers at the school when all the tears of the back office had trickled away. “Just think,” she said to me, “You may have never known how much these women love you if you hadn’t had a rough morning today. You can’t easily find a whole group of working ladies who will drop everything and cry with you!”
And she was right and so was that rolled up paper in some skirt pocket in a dusty drawer: Your mantra is “thank you.” Don’t explain it. Don’t complain. Just “thank you.”
I had been looking at that phrase incorrectly. You don’t say thank you for the bad stuff, thank you for the stuff that hurts your soul and burns your insides and keeps you up at 3am with the bright moon. You say thank you for the way these circumstances have the opportunity to change you and show you love.
I have had many friends ask me how I am different since I left for Africa just about a year ago. I have yet to find a perfect answer, I think I am very much the same woman. What I do know is this: I still can’t cook and I am still always hungry. I still can’t keep Christmas presents a secret or only eat half a can of Pringles. I still listen to trashy hip-hop music before I sleep. But maybe a consistently broken down car has taught me patience like I had never known before. Maybe students who are terribly sick with no medical answers from our doctors have taught me how to pray again. Maybe one cloud in our scorching sky has taught me hope when rain still seems unlikely. Maybe death in our community reminded me to love, love, love those I still hold.
My mantra is thank you. In Swahili we say asante. In the Maasai language of Maa, we say ashe. We don’t have to explain it or even understand it. Just thank you. Because Africa showed me life can’t always be good or decent or fair, but you can always decide to say thank you. And maybe that’s even better.