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As I write this, I am taking meds to fight off malaria. I am leaving for Dakar this morning for a week and the meds are a final, though ongoing, step in a series of vaccines administered to me en masse (The first of two rounds knocked me for a loop for a week. I had not ever felt that kind of energy depletion as my body immediately began building up antigens, fighting off the militia of micro-infections introduced into it) in preparation for the trip. The bottle told me to start taking them two days before entering the malaria risk zone. It says to take with food. It says to take them with plenty of water. It says to take one every day I am in the malaria risk zone. It says to continue taking them for 4 weeks after I return.
I should be surprised at the types of reactions I get upon telling others where I am headed and what steps I have have been required to take in order to be eligible to go, but I cannot say that I am, given the current mode of the media, especially in the West, full of anger and fear, some justified, though mostly misguided. The information given out at the infectious disease center is intimidating enough to make many change their travel plans. I have heard stories from others about these malaria meds who have experienced nightmares throughout the prescribed duration. This is all to say that the general culture in the developed world effectively conditions us to be afraid of anything that poses even the slightest amount of risk – and there are plenty of excuses around for us to use and give in to it.
Before today, I have not stepped foot upon the continent of Africa. I honestly do not know what I am expecting. When I think of Africa, the only images and ideas that come to mind are not my own. They are the images and sounds of films, emblazoned with romance and exotic, timeless beauty or violence and timeless unrest. Then there are the various agendas of the associated news agencies and television ad campaigns to raise money for the developing world, full of images chosen exclusively for their compelling attributes. All told, a polarized mix of love and hate, reverence and fear.
There are many ways of interpreting those messages. Realities are ethereal things, existential and elusive. They are relative, just like the physical. Like biology. What constitutes a cold to one person, requiring a trip to the doctor, may be just a sniffle to another. So they wait it out and in a couple of days they are just fine.
I do not know what we will eat there or if the water will agree with us. I do not know how I will fare in the heat of the day while filming the team. I do not even know if there will be enough electricity to power the equipment I will be using to shoot. I have learned what little I can about the region from what is posted on the CIA’s World Fact Book and related sites about the history, populations, languages, political and economic stability of the region. The work of Ben Herson, Democracy in Dakar, is some of the more current, compelling and poignant information out there and I am thankful for it – the struggle of the Senegalese people, politically similar to that in other regions of the world, is set apart by the conditions under which they muster the spirit to persevere in order to bring change and any improvement in their quality of life. How they manage to create such beautifully compelling art amidst such adversity and poor living conditions is a triumph in and of itself.
I do know that I feel a sense of mystique about it, having been so glorified by my own culture as a key piece of the anthropological record and also demonized for the strange differences of culture hidden within it. Is it natural for us to fear or discount what we do not understand? My culture has made the same mistakes as those that have gone before it – including insulating its people with convenience and luxury, softening minds and hardening hearts.
Naturally, I am invigorated by the idea of leaving these burdens behind if only for a few days. The mere thought of what it will be like to see, taste, smell, hear and feel Dakar for myself stirs butterflies of the best kind within. However, I am clumsy the way others are graceful. My only concern about the journey is making some bumbling move or inadvertently inconsiderate statement relating to something I take for granted in front of our less fortunate hosts. A good solution for this: I am focused on doing more listening and less talking, which should serve us all well. Being behind a camera lends itself to this.
The trip will mean something different to each of us on the team, though our primary goals are the same. One of the goals is clear: to move us out of the comfortable security of an illusion of our own design about the world. As I have said, the team is coming from a place of extraordinary comfort when compared to that of our hosts and our own struggles will be put promptly into new perspective. The other goal is to contribute to the construction of a house on behalf of Habitat for Humanity, which will power our third goal to create in the process a documentary of the journey, both for posterity and for the benefit of Habitat to use to promote their own future efforts. Our work shall leave an indelible impact on all of us.
In the case of the few who believe such a humble contribution is equivalent to a screw falling out of a deck chair off the back of the Queen Mary, they may have have a point of merit, given the obstacles between what is right and fair in the world and the sad fact that justice does not always prevail. Nonetheless, there are those who give up and those who, in the presence of great adversity, continue to do what they can to push the world to a better place. This is in line with something I read in my only surface-scratching study of the region’s primary religion – Islam:
None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself – Number 13 of Imam – Al-Nawawi’s Forty Hadiths
Such thoughts are small changes in thought which act as catalysts for larger ones. Through subtle shifts in our perceptions we are able then to move forward in bigger ways that would not have been possible without them. Whether we like it or not, as tough as they often are to initiate, these small changes are the stuff. Moving ourselves out of our comfort zones is arguably the only way to growth, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, physically and metaphysically. The metaphor of dropping of a pebble into the glass stillness of a lake is spot on here: the ripples fan out towards shore, bringing with it perhaps a nourishing drink that makes it just far enough up onto the shore to provide a drink for a flower that may have otherwise perished were it not for a timely, though seemingly insignificant, toss. These are the risks that have value, that have the potential to produce beauty. Without taking risks, we risk living life without beauty. Beauty in our ability to be generous. Patient. Tolerant. Alive, curious and excited to learn about the myriad of things we do not know or have only heard of.
I raise my glass to anyone reading this with my most sincere wishes that all our travels, wherever they take us, may nurture and raise our understanding to new pinnacles and give us fresh vantage points from which we are naturally inclined to take less and less of our life and times together for granted.