An attempt to bring everything together

Facebook reminded me — one year ago yesterday, I landed in Tanzania for the first time. One year ago today, I flew to Mwanza with Moya, the MSL program director, to meet the Tanzanian midwives who were training colleagues, and being trained, as part of the program.

Today, for a paper that I sometimes wrote for back home, I’ve been asked to sum up the whole experience in a 600-word column, and I barely know where to start. How to sum up a rich, chaotic year of living out of a suitcase and learning every day? How to talk about my main takeaway from this trip — gaping, disgusting inequality — without turning my column into the kind of — heaven forbid! — political screed that community newspapers sometimes hesitate to print.

At the moment, I’m still in the Bale mountains of Ethiopia, getting ready for my last day of fieldwork tomorrow. We — me and a co-worker from the Addis Ababa office — have been put up at a sort of safari lodge, where most of our neighbours are German and Belgian trekkers and birders about my parents’ age, kitted out with expensive fleeces and backpacks, twittering (pun intended) about their “world lists” and the different kinds of finches they saw.

The Ethiopian hotel staff speak to them with undisguised bewilderment. The life expectancy of Ethiopia is 66, which is about the same as the life expectancy of Africa as a whole. Those who live beyond that date are usually either sitting at home, presiding over (and being cared for by) relatives, worn out by lives  of constant walking, poor medical care and neverending anxiety over where the money for the next necessary expense was going to come from. Either that, or like a few of the elderly people I worked with in Benin, they’re working night and day on a soul- and mind-consuming project, scrambling to finish it, or get it into an appropriate state to pass the torch on, while they still have the energy. The average African life is wearing — I thought one of my bosses, to give just one example, was older than my father, but in fact he’s in his early 60s. “Where you’d be wearing out the knees of your trousers, sir, they just go and wear out their knees,” says the perceptive, long-suffering Orleanna in The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver’s beautiful novel about an American missionary family stranded in the Congolese jungle as independence unfolds)  which I’ve been rereading.  One thing African retirees generally aren’t doing is looking around for ways to spend their money and deciding to spend thousands going to Ethiopia to watch for birds and mark a checklist. Between the birders and the staff here, there’s a quiet, polite clash of civilizations.

It’s been an incredible year, and part of me just wants to get on the next flight home, sleep for a week and then start the holiday baking, but me being me, that’s not how I’ve set things up. I have one more week in Addis Ababa before I go to Lalibela to visit the millennium-old churches carved out of rock that I’ve only read about. Then I leave Africa — less than two weeks from now! — and fly to Vienna, where I’ll take a few days to get organized for the next leg of my trip (and hopefully absorb at least some Christmas cheer in the Vienna Christmas market) — before catching a bus to Ljubljana to meet Mom and see my Slovenian family (Midnight Mass, the whole routine…I haven’t been to Midnight Mass since I was ten, and I feel like a fish out of water because I never take Communion, but what is more Christmasy than Midnight Mass in a small  Eastern European village? Count me in.) A few days after Christmas, I’ll catch another bus, via Belgrade, to Athens, where I’ll spend two weeks volunteering in an urban refugee camp with some Norwegian and Czech people I met on the Internet.  Somewhere in that time, I need to wrap up a few work-related loose ends. The plan after Athens is to catch up with some old friends in Berlin, London and Cambridge before heading to Dublin for a folk music festival I’ve been anticipating since last winter. And guess who the closing act is?

Afro-Celt Sound System.

After Dublin, I’ll fly to Toronto, possibly meet with a client, and then take the train the rest of the way home. Then, and only then, after I’ve gotten through customs, gotten a new phone number, signed up for health insurance and slept in my own bed (did I mention I got my apartment back? that was a nice early Christmas miracle) will I really be able to sit back and sum up. And that is quite a ways away. So…stick with me until then.


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