I’m living the American Dream – I’m forty-six years old and as slender, muscular, and tanned as I’ve ever been . . . . and if this was an ad you’d be wise to look at the fine print on the label where they try to convince you that the MSG in your green goddess dressing is organic.
I’m slender because Malawi’s annual food shortages have struck our home as well; because I’ve had diarrhea for five months and now the borehole pump (our only “safe” drinking water) is broken; because I’ve just gotten over a near fatal case of malaria where I had no appetite and at one point was vomiting even anti-vomit medicine. I’m muscular because both the truck and the bicycle are broken down and going anywhere means walking 2-1/2 miles to the nearest minibus into town and carrying everything back, including a hot and tired 30-pound child. I’m tan because any toiletries beyond soap and toothpaste are a luxury.
“Africa is harsh!,” I’m told, as if I hadn’t figured that out by now. But somehow my sentimental heart cannot get past the dreamy landscapes of Meryl Streep and Robert Redford’s “Out of Africa” to accepting the reality of the Africa I’ve found myself in up to my nostrils. Years ago a stressed-out Type-A friend working frantically in Microsoft’s boom-time wistfully said that the only time his mind had ever been at peace was when he was in Africa . . . . on a 5-star big-game safari, sipping ice-cold imported beer, with no black African around for miles except the cook and the driver.
I’ve known for decades but only superficially understood why fat, flaccid, and fair-skinned people are admired the under-developed world over. Plenty of money translates into an abundance of food and a life of ease where all responsibility beyond personal hygiene is done by someone else. Now I understand this by experience – a good teacher but a hard taskmaster. I try to remind myself that for the majority of the human population, poverty, hunger, disease, and hard labor are not undue suffering; they’re simply part of life. When I’m successful at choosing that larger perspective, a rare occasion I confess, Malawian passivity, usually a source of annoyance to me, can seem like a greater ability to accept the sovereignty of Someone other than myself, a lesson obviously well-learned by the one who penned the following:
“Though the fig tree does not bud
And there are no grapes on the vines,
Though the olive crop fails
And the fields produce no food,
Though there are no sheep in the pen
And no cattle in the stalls,
Yet I will rejoice in the LORD,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.”[i]
His contentment is enviable.
When I came to Africa in March of 2003, I was repeatedly asked about a few particular individuals and repeatedly astonished the inquirers by truthfully replying that No, I had never heard of T.D. Jakes, Benny Hinn, or Kenneth Copeland. Having never owned a TV, I missed the opportunity of an introduction to these proponents of “The Prosperity Gospel,” which preaches that poverty, hunger, disease, and hard labor are not inevitable aspects of human existence. I have since concluded that the American Dream version of religion doesn’t cross over well into African reality. Having experienced far more of the Malawian nightmare, for many Malawians merely an ordinary day, there is for me great significance and a sliver of hope in the words of Clarissa Pinkola Estes:
“You know you are on the right path if you have experienced these: the scraped knuckles, the sleeping on cold ground – not once, but over and over again – the groping in the dark, the walking in circles in the night, the bone-chilling revelations, and the hair-raising adventures on the way – these are worth everything. There must be a little, and in many cases, a good deal of blood spilled on every story, on every aspect of your own life, if it is to carry the numen, if a person is to carry a true medicine.”[ii]
As I struggle to reconcile my creative and humanitarian aspirations, or perhaps, delusions, of 6+ years ago with my present day reality, the hope I hold onto is probably a common one amongst those who have the luxury (or the burden?) of pondering such ideals: that good will indeed come out of the blood spilt and there can be purpose in suffering.
There’s a saying (in my neck of the woods), “You can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl.” I think the same applies to a forty-six year old woman born and raised in the rich, skinny-celebrity-obsessed U.S.A. In spite of myself, whenever I am somewhere with a full-length mirror, I catch myself looking with admiration and a touch of disbelief at my runway model limbs. (Admittedly, short, middle-aged, runway model limbs) Of course, my breast-feeding child is unaffected by media-fueled body-obsessions. He’s convinced that my bust line, in production value, if not in grandeur, surpasses that of Dolly Parton.