You can’t finish pieces of life like you can a book. There is usually no witty closing line that ties the entire story together, no final dialogue that meshes all loose ends. The end of most journeys, it seems, is more jagged and open-ended. It isn’t graceful. Your hair isn’t clean. The mascara is smeared and you can’t find deodorant and the words don’t come out right like the goodbye you planned in your head. Believe me, I know. I said goodbye to Africa this month.
The jet lag has me up early in the morning, as does the 6am yoga class I agreed to teach. I’m up with those homesick drunks and heartsick lovers and I am sure if all of us 4:00am’ers formed one giant club it would be a sight to behold. It would be a club where all of us would sit in a circle and burn incense and have to tell everyone else in the circle why we were awake at that time. I’m sure if you sat in that circle, you would hear stories about internal war, and external war, art and girls and the glow in the dark stars that you stick to your ceiling. Everyone has stories. Sometimes those told early in the morning are the best. But because there is no 4am club (at least not that I am aware of) and because those who have welcomed me home this month have asked, here is the story I would tell in the circle:
There was a fifth grade girl who became pregnant last year, against her will. She was angry and frustrated, as she should be, until she took admittance test into high school, passed with flying colors, and started her life as a freshman in high school while her mother cared for the brown-eyed baby. Then, this little heroine joined an organization in high school advocating for women and girl’s rights in her hyper patriarchal society. I want to tell you how she is the smartest and brightest star I have ever seen and she wrote me a letter before I got on the plane telling me how happy she was with her life now. That’s a story worth hearing.
Then you need to know about a young man who daily questions his traditional tribal culture: everything from the clothes they wear to the customs of eating, to roles of men and women in society. I could tell you that in a small village where everyone knows the business of everyone else, he is questioned and ridiculed for his stance in something new. If you sit down and drink a soda with him he will ask you about American politics, and world history and how my ancestors navigated their culture in a new world like America. He will tell you that he is questioning his customs not to be rude or defiant but to understand if his culture could be doing things in a better way, a way more inclusive way of everyone in the community. That is a short story of a the bravest eighteen year old I may ever encounter.
I have listened to a child bride turn businesswoman. I watched while she forged a loving relationship with a husband who had taken her childhood, then became the breadwinner for her new family. I watched as she learned how to laugh and dream like a child again, and how she brought big ideas and laid them at the feet of her circumstances. I observe as she refuses, time and time again, to ever be reduced by her situation. That is a story.
I listened to young men tell me how they created an art studio for street kids so the children had something to be excited about or proud of in young, hard lives. He says he wants them to know creation, not just destruction. I watched as a teacher stayed at the hospital with a troubled young student late into the night, and when the hospital didn’t know what to do, sit with him while village leaders prayed over his tired body. I sat on the back of a motorcycle of a father who, before giving me a ride home, dropped off a bag of rice to a handful of families who were struggling to buy their own bag. I watched tired people stay diligent. I saw young people make wise decisions. And time after time, I listened to hurt people love.
And then, I would tell my 4am club that I left Africa as jagged and haphazard as I came: hopeful but lacking in the smoothness that each one of use imagines we will have when a pivotal moment arrives in our lives. I would tell them I am awake at 4am so that I don’t forget. I would tell them I am awake because there are more prayers to be said and hands to be held and plans to be made and yet I am here. In America. For good this time.
I will them that my reflection has left me inspired and my homecoming has made me gracious. And then I would tell them to stay awake a little bit longer. Because I came home from Africa and I have heard and seen so many things I wish the world could know. That I have no choice but to believe this story isn’t over yet.