“I went to South Africa because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary.” (with apologies to H.D.T.)
This is the most difficult post I think I will ever write.
I’ve struggled for a long time with writing about South Africa. I came here for the first time in 2007, and it is not an exaggeration to say that it took me at least a year to “get over” that month, to integrate it into my life in the United States. I remember sitting in the pre-departure orientation with State Department officials, one of whom told our group, “Some of you will never be able to leave Africa after this experience.” Yeah, yeah, I thought. The whole Westerner-goes-home-to-Mother-Africa B.S. I’d heard that before. True, I had applied for a Fulbright to South Africa not just because of the seminar focus, but because I thought that of all the choice countries, it would be the hardest, and I wanted to go somewhere that would be difficult.
We’ve all heard that proverb about being careful what you wish for. I got difficulty. I got life-shattering. I got life-rebuilding. I got a trajectory that would lead me back over and over again.
I find myself stopping and starting this. Go to Africa for a week, you can write a novel. Go to Africa for a month, you can write a short story. Go to Africa for a year, you can’t write anything.
After my return in 2007, I felt lonelier than I could have dreamed. I have one precious friend who had spent significant time in Africa, and who affirmed the natural-ness of my turmoil. I have another friend with roots in South Africa, who did the same. But I never wrote about it to anyone other than my journal. I didn’t know how to speak of the changes that I was seeing in myself and feeling in my physical body. Not a single day passed when I didn’t think about South Africa and the people I had met here. I remember sitting on a flight once with a group of people who were coming back from Malawi. They were all laughing and joking with one another, cheerful, upbeat. I listened to their chatter and wrote in my journal despairingly. What was wrong with me? Why was I so broken? Why couldn’t I let it be?
Before that first visit, I had been, if not a devout Christian, then at least a regular church-going one who believed in a kindly, interventionist God. When I came back, though, whatever faith I had had turned to ashes. I used to rail at God in my head as I drove to work: I defended you after 9/11, when everyone talked about how religion destroyed people. I stood up for you. And you let this happen? You let those barefoot kids in the township rummage through piles of trash? You let me come back to my stupid bathroom with eight bottles of shampoo and three kinds of soap when there are people who have none of that? How dare you let this happen?
In her memoir Leaving Before the Rains Come, Alexandra Fuller writes “What did I know about the fifty-five (give or take) countries of Africa? I carried within me one deep personal thread of one small part of it, and it had changed and colored everything.”
I think the most important lesson that I learned here was that my own life in the U.S. was a choice: I could choose to forget the invisible privilege that came from my race, to ignore the things that had been done in the name of protecting women like me. I could choose to not pay attention to the brevity of life, to the certainty that our days are numbered. I could choose to sanitize death and close it off behind a clean white curtain. But South Africa, and then living through a school shooting, slapped sense into me. I couldn’t choose not to see any more. We are all teetering on the edge of the blade.
When I was deciding to come here for my sabbatical year, I lay awake at night worrying about money, my career, my pets. How could I walk away from my life in the U.S.? Was I making the biggest mistake of my life? Would I derail everything in order to have this pipe dream of really immersing myself in life here, and, at the risk of sounding utterly trite and naive, making a difference? In the end I decided that I had to come. Like H.D.T. had written, I did not want to wake up five years from now, ten years from now, wondering what I was doing and why I had not listened to that voice saying Go; living is so dear. At some point, I realized that in all my recriminations at God, I was never going to get an answer to “Why is it like this?” I could, however, get an answer to “What am I going to do about it?”
In another favorite book, The Secret History, the character Julian says “If we are strong enough in our souls we can rip away the veil and look that naked, terrible beauty right in the face; let God consume us, devour us, unstring our bones. Then spit us out reborn.” Here I am. Ready to look it in the face and be devoured, unstrung, reborn.