Africa (Pt. 1): Stepping Out

I paused for a moment at the lip of the plane door.

One last moment to feel safe and secure and clean.

One last moment in my comfort zone.

I sucked in a deep, hot breath of sticky air as an unfamiliar scent encircled my head and tickled my senses. It’s hard to find words to describe the smell of Africa–it is sweet and spicy, a sort of smokey scent with dull hints of pastureland that waft in and out with the wind. The scent is aged and natural and rich. It is relaxing, and ever-present–weaving it’s way through your clothes, your hair, your being. It has a way of welcoming you, and all the while reminding you that you are far from the land you know. It is sour and sharp, yet comforting. The hot breeze steals your worries and robs you of your distractions. I long for the scent of Africa.

The smell of Africa was a perfect stranger to me, and yet it was the first hand I held as I stepped off the plane into a world unfamiliar. I found, quickly, that the hospitality of the land was a beautiful precursor to the hospitality of the people. Warm, sharp, and different…yet inviting.

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We wove our way through the Ettenbe Airport, the streets of Uganda, and the neighborhoods of Kampala. The night was deep and dark–darker than I was used to. It was impossible to survey the land as we bounced and jolted down rough¬†streets, jerking our way through twists and turns of the city. I gazed out my window and watched shanty shops and roasting fires and busy people wiz by. The town was very much alive and milling, and I longed to interact. I longed to enter in to the lives and circumstances and thoughts of the people. ¬†My nervousness faded as quickly as the moon in our rear view as we found our way to our first guest house and tucked in beneath mosquito nets and stirring fans. I dozed off into dreams of what our coming days had in store–thanking God for guiding my days and guiding my way to a continent I had always longed to know.

I carried much with me into Uganda–including many preconceived notions. I had a grand picture in my mind of exactly what Africa was–a picture painted by years of hearing and seeing and learning about Africa from afar. From the heart-wrenching sponsorship commercials on tv, to the stories of adoption, to the Americanized marketability of fundraising for countless initiatives. All of which had been laced with images of malnourished children, haggard women scooping drinking water out of muddy puddles, destitute conditions, and dry, lifeless land. Viewing a continent from halfway around the world through Americanized goggles and over-dramatized insight left me with, in my mind, a pretty clear image of what this place was struggling with. And it left me with a pretty bold assumption of what this place needed: Americans to sweep in and save Africa.

I entered in with this perspective. A perspective reinforced by our media, my imagination, and my westernized ego. Surely we were coming here to be a part of saving Africa. Surely we were going to be messengers of a grand call to action. Surely we were going to have all of the answers for all of this crisis. These poor, poor people. This poor, poor place. Surely we were wiser, stronger, more equipped. Surely Africa needed us.

Surely I was wrong.

The realizations of my ignorance hit me often, and hit me hard. I felt like an untrained, blindfolded boxer standing center ring, with an opponent circling me, popping me and jabbing me without mercy. Then again, there was no time or room for mercy. I had a wildly inaccurate perception of an unfamiliar land, and the continent only had three short weeks to shatter my perceptions and rebuild a reality. There was no time to waste–and I felt, often, like the land knew this. My perspective of Africa was rocked and robbed constantly throughout the trip. I was popped and punched with truth before I could even catch my breath from the jab of realization that had come before. The land swung, the people thumped, and the children tugged at my heartstrings and my insight into a very different Africa than I assumed I would find.

The sharpest and most stinging realization coming with the very first sunrise on the very first morning of our adventure…

(to be continued)