in black and white
The contrasts could not be more stark.
(And I'm not talking about my Chaco tan, although that's pretty spectacular as well.)
I spent 8 of the last 15 days traveling through 9 airports and 10 airplanes in 6 countries. In the course of two weeks, I've gone from one of the poorest places on earth to one of the most affluent counties in the United States. I saw more water than you can imagine pouring over Victoria Falls, and I saw what Tennessee looks like in the middle of a serious drought. I went from the pleasant weather of the central African highlands to the humidity of an Austin August.
But the dramatic differences in landscape and temperature aren't nearly as jarring as are the contrasts of daily life that this journey brings into sharp relief. It's the simple, day-to-day things that get to you.
Wednesday I went to Whole Foods to get some yogurt and granola, so at least there would be breakfast in my home whenever jet lag allowed me to wake up. (The Whole Foods in Austin is the flagship store, and it's ridiculous in every respect - think European food hall meets organic-obsessed yuppies and you'll have the idea.) I walked in, smelled the Hatch chiles, was handed a rose by a florist in comfortable shoes, and tried to focus on the task at hand.
I miss my friend Mama Helene. Her tiny shop in Goma is packed to the gills with what, for Goma, are luxury goods - hand lotions and cookies and other imports. I wonder if she could even imagine Whole Foods, what she'd think if I showed her a picture.
Thursday I had coffee with my friend Kat, who just returned from a summer in Rwanda. It was her first trip to the continent, her first time to process extreme poverty, her first experience with the bloated, wasteful humanitarian aid industry. We had a great time catching up and hearing about one anothers' experiences in a cute little fair-trade coffee shop that is Austin through-and-through. Thinking about it later, I just laughed at the fact that, despite the fact that we'd been in town a collective 72 hours, both of us had already had our hair and nails done.
My haircut cost more than the monthly income of most Goma households. Together, we almost certainly spent an amount equivalent to an average Congolese household's annual income. On personal grooming. And coffee.
Saturday night we celebrated my mother's birthday at one of Nashville's nicest restaurants. I ordered a beef filet that was so tender and delicious you could cut it with a fork. While enjoying every bite, though, I couldn't stop thinking about Olivier, how he watched me cleaning up in the kitchen on my last night in Goma. I tossed the scraps of my gristly, fatty pork-or-some-other-unidentifiable-meat chop that I had done my best to eat into the trash, and he almost tried to stop me.
"It's bad," I explained, and he let it go. But I saw the grief at my waste in his eyes.
Sunday morning at my parents' megachurch the contrasts were clear. It's not just the forty-piece orchestra accompanying the huge choir, or the well-air-conditioned auditorium-like sanctuary, or the HDTV's, or the very necessary army of parking attendants outside that's different, although no one at the tiny, packed church I attend in Goma would believe it if they saw it. No, what struck me the most was the prayer time. My parents' church has a time in which the deacons and anyone else who wants to goes down to the altar to pray. Everyone else sits quietly in their pews, and except for the background music, it's quiet as midnight.
Contrast that with prayers in church in Goma, where they take the admonition to cry out to the Lord quite literally. I can't hear my own thoughts - much less the preacher - during the prayer time there.
This morning I signed a contract for my second job, at the small Christian university at which I teach one class. The contract brought the great news that I've gotten a raise. It's not much, but every penny counts when you're a starving grad student, and the raise will pay for my plane ticket to a friend's wedding in October.
Here's what else it would pay for: full sponsorship of three street children in C & E's program for a year, tuition at Goma's private Baptist university for six students for a year, and three years' worth of Olivier's school fees and uniforms.
I have been making this journey from Africa back to America for nine years now. In some respects, it gets simpler every time. I know what to expect, what to do first, what not to do until I've had a chance to settle in. I know that it's important to spend time with family and friends, but that it's also important to really rest. And to pay attention, because it won't be long before normal starts to seem normal again.
I've learned, too, that it isn't ever easy, and that the contrast between home and Africa is as much a part of me as my brown eyes or my Baptistness. And I've learned that there is value in living in the contradictions. For there is light and goodness, as well as greed and darkness, on each side of the wide ocean that separates us.
This is a hard time, but it is a good time. The ease of travel between these two worlds makes their differences stand out in black and white, but if I'm not careful, I'll forget to live as if my choices have consequences for those on the other side of the world. I'll forget to notice the affluence that is so much a part of my daily life. I'll forget to let the contrasts break my heart.