I returned from an eight-week trek through east Africa more than three months ago thinking I had enough material to fill a book. After all, I could tell of the time bandits attacked us in Kenya late at night on a public bus, or the time we found ourselves in the midst of a tribal battle in remote Ethiopia. Or the time I watched a crowd beat and strip a man naked for stealing in Uganda. Or about the starving, homeless children everywhere, or the medical anomalies I don’t have words to describe.
Or perhaps I could write about the horrendous living conditions or the desperation of people who live on $1 a day. I could even write about the magnificent beauty of the land, the wild animals, the colorful attire, the way women strap babies to their backs with a strip of cloth and the babies never cry, or the way no one forms lines and buses leave when they’re full, not at any given time. I could describe people walking all day from tiny villages to carry home bags of wheat and other staples marked USAID, some bringing tiny donkeys to bear the burden.
click here to read about the history of conflict in Rwanda
Maybe I could tell about Rwanda, recovered only a little more than a decade ago from a genocide, about seeing dozens of bodies stacked on tables, sprinkled with lime to keep them from decomposing, or about the invisible, unspoken tension between Hutus and Tutsis, still so thick it’s suffocating, though on the surface they smile and do business with one another as though nothing happened.I could describe the constant bombardment by beggars, who, seeing my white face, assumed I had excess money. I could tell how I learned to walk past them, knowing they were too great in number for me to make a difference, and how it made me feel sick inside each time.
I could tell how I learned to walk past them, knowing they were too great in number for me to make a difference, and how it made me feel sick inside each time.
But it never occurred to me the experience so impacted me that I wouldn’t be able to write about it adequately. I realized that, no matter how poignant my description of what I saw, felt, experienced, it wouldn’t change the horror, the corruption, the hunger, the sickness, the desperation that is Africa. I first realized how great my sense of fear had been the first night I slept in my own bed at home. I awoke in a complete panic in the dark, feeling for my passport, which had been around my waist for eight weeks.
Not finding it there, my heart raced as I tried desperately to recall where I was. After a few minutes, I remembered I was home. The experience continued for three or four nights before I finally relaxed enough to sleep well. And when friends and family asked me about my trip, I told them many things, but each time when the well of emotion began to rise from inside, I pushed it down again. I was afraid if I let it surface it would consume me, overwhelm me, perhaps even incapacitate me.
And when friends and family asked me about my trip, I told them many things, but each time when the well of emotion began to rise from inside, I pushed it down again. I was afraid if I let it surface it would consume me, overwhelm me, perhaps even incapacitate me.
The memories are all intact, though when I try to describe them, they come in flashes of color, sound, smell, emotions. Like remembering a dream when I’ve awakened suddenly, I can’t put all the details on my experience. I went to Africa with my friend for an adventure. I came back burdened with a sadness I can’t alleviate, with a world view I never imagined before. I’m forever changed and, strangely, grateful. And I’d do it all again.
~Kim Spencer teaches in the Department of Journalism and Technical Communication at Colorado State University and is a former Greeley Tribune City Editor.