Finding meaning in Africa

I was on the way to Rwanda. My seat mate turned out to be an attractive, obviously wealthy woman, in her mid 50s. Before she even took her seat I knew she was going to be a talker. “Your first time to Africa?” she asked. No no, I’ve spent quite a bit of time there actually. “Oh, I’m going through a really ugly divorce,” she said, getting settled in and buckling her seatbelt, emphasizing “ugly” by widening her eyes. “I’m on a spiritual journey with a group of women. We’re going to see the gorillas and visit projects in Rwanda and Kenya for women victims of rape and violence. I know my life seems hard, but I’m really so lucky to be where I am. I am going to help women in Africa as part of my own healing process. I really need to find meaning and purpose in my life.” I inwardly rolled my eyes, thinking this woman was in no mental or emotional place to help anyone, let alone women who had been battered, raped or otherwise gotten a bad rap in life. I wondered why it was “Africa” that she needed in order to find “meaning and purpose.”

We talked the entire flight, and she kind of grew on me, despite the concerns I had about her reasons for going to “Africa.”

I saw a beautiful woman who had been in an abusive and destructive marriage, had a self-admitted and externally-obvious low self-esteem, a series of plastic surgeries and that kind of wealth- and power-based bad relationship with her children and ex-husband that I’d only seen in movies about rich people. I felt bad for the women that she was going to “help.” I imagined them feeling obliged to be kind to her as she got teary-eyed, bringing her own drama into it, feeling sorry for them, hugging them, “bonding with them,” taking pictures with them and telling them that despite their differences, they had something in common simply because they were women. She wasn’t a bad person, just perhaps misguided. I actually did hope that somehow her trip to “Africa” would help her heal the damage that had been done to her as a beautiful, rich woman from the West Coast of the US. I didn’t agree with her motives, but if she was going to be there anyway, I hoped at least she would come out of it stronger and healthier somehow.

As we parted ways upon arriving to Kigali, we realized that strangely enough, we were on the same flight back to the US, so we arranged to meet in the airport pre-flight for a bite or a beer. I found her at the airport with a group of wealthy, new-agey, middle-aged US women who were, like herself, seeking spiritual healing from Africa. They’d been to see the gorillas. They’d visited Kibera, a large slum in Nairobi. They’d gone through some kind of 5 or 7 or 12-step program to strengthen their womanhood and heal the spiritual and emotional vacuum inside them, to address the emptiness that often comes along with the life of plenty, privilege and pressure that only the wealthy understand.

She gushed about her trip to see the gorillas, and a long discussion ensued with the rest of the women about whether the guide was Hutu or Tutsi, and what that meant, and how they couldn’t help but think he must be Hutu, and they secretly didn’t trust him, though he was actually very intelligent. They talked about how the whole country of Rwanda needed healing. One of the tour operators explained a program that she was running to help women who had been raped “shake.” This “shaking,” she said, cures them of the emotional scars associated with the horrible experiences of having been raped, watching family members killed or otherwise experiencing the terror of living through a genocide. She said a similar program had been very successful in the DRC. I politely smiled and nodded at the appropriate times, feeling uncomfortable.

My airplane friend pulled out her iPhone and started flipping through pictures of gorillas and their adorable babies. Then her eyes welled up. “We went to Kibera” she said. “It’s a terrible place. Oh, these women. You have no idea what they go through. Look at this….” she said. “This girl was raped 7 times.” “This girl, she has HIV and her older sister is all she has left to take care of her.” “This woman started a home for raped girls, she was raped too, 12 times.” She quickly flipped through a series of pictures of girls and women that she had met and who had sad, sad stories that she repeated as if reciting facts from a text-book. I wondered if she saw them as human, or if they were just more photos to document her own experience of seeing the horrors found in “Africa.”

She talked about all her goals of helping these women. She was going to start a charity in Kibera for them and she wanted me to help, since I knew a lot about this kind of thing. I was at a loss for words. I didn’t even know where to start so I smiled and said we’d talk once we got home. We didn’t.

Maybe @kiwanja‘s right, and there should be a “finding Africa gave my life meaning tax.”


About Shotgun Shack

INGO worker hailing from the crossroads of America, and so far from home in so many ways. I blog about life and the depths and ironies of INGO work. View all posts by Shotgun Shack

13 responses to “Finding meaning in Africa

  • angelica

    funny….. and sad. The idea of having a photo gallery of raped women next to the one of gorillas is kind of sickening… beautifully written though

    (sorry, went off unfinished before…)

  • Dave Algoso

    I think there is a “finding meaning in Africa” tax: visiting gorillas in Rwanda costs $500.

  • Jennifer Lentfer

    Great post! You treat the well-intentioned do-gooders with the compassion I wish they could have shown on their trip.

  • Hudin

    SS, you have seen Ms. Jackson’s “The Greatest Rape in the Congo, Silence” (seriously that’s how the poster reads) or have you not had that pleasure?

    And now I’m double pissed about my rookie getting sunstroke and not seeing the gorillas move. Thanks for reopening up old wounds…

  • Carol

    Beautifully written, as usual. You should write a book. And great post, though it has made me feel a little nauseous and put me in a kind of solemn mood.

    I think this Finding Meaning in Africa tax shouldn’t be a monetary one. Something more along the lines of a qualification– you should have to take a special course of study and then submit an application to go find the meaning of your life in Africa. Then you’d be accepted or rejected by a group of mostly African Africa experts.

  • emily

    Wonderful post.

    I’m sure you are too polite, but I wonder if an honest conversation with her would have been helpful. Explaining to her some of the things she may not have fully understood – she probably thinks she did good, and I’m sure she thinks starting a charity is good, and I’m MORE than sure her entire circle of friends and family are telling her what a wonderful, giving, generous, helpful woman she is.

    When I did my volunteer stint in Kenya, I remember being blown away at how many people just fawned all over me about how wonderful of a person I was. I also remember explaining to them that the most important contribution I made was monetary and that I didn’t do much except play with HIV/AIDS orphans and that volunteering didn’t make any real, lasting change for anyone, except me. I truly opened the eyes of my family and friends about how volunteering is not really about helping others, its often about feeling good about yourself.

    As I said, I’m sure its a tough conversation to have with a stranger, but she legitimately thinks she did some real good on her trip. She could use the wake up call.

  • Meg

    Jennifer’s right — so much compassion in this piece.
    Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  • UNSocial

    Nicely written post. You showed amazing patience.

    I wonder though that many experienced (and cynical) aid workers started out the journey with aid in some similar way, wanting to find “Africa” (or wherever) and find themselves. A bit of contact with the real world fixes that though (or does it?)

    Second random thought. This was on the radio yesterday which prompted me to comment on this post:

    And by the way I was driving

    • Shotgun Shack

      Could be… one hopes that after a bit of time the walls come down and the caricatures held of “the poor” transfer into more realistic versions of living, breathing, feeling people. Maybe that doesn’t happen for everyone though. And maybe if you live in the big house on the hill with the servants it never happens? Not really sure. You might enjoy this other version of Toto’s Africa:

      • UNSocial

        Genius. Although I wonder how many songs I like could copy with that kind of lyrical scrutiny.

        And “As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus over the Serengeti” must be the most strained rime I’ve ever heard. It took him six months to write it too. I’m glad he’s not writing our funding appeals.

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