I have done quite a bit of writing since my return, and having returned to situations in my life and work as pathetic as they are infuriating, I find my expressions are quite effectively blocked... I sat down with a Liberian man last week to talk of his homeland, which he escaped in the early 90's, and his kind, anguished face streaked with tears as he talked of family and hometown filled me with word-stopping remorse. The only thing I could do was cry with him.
There are a thousand vibrant images in my head, and I am afraid I will forget. Incredible voices of Liberians mid-hymn, the irresistible natural rhythm the possess, the grace of people who have witnessed, endured, and been victimized by horrors that we watch in films. An underwear-clad girl-child shrinking against heavy rain, still standing the empty road with her little pile of green mangoes, eager to sell even one to the passing vehicle. Hands with mangoes, bananas, roasted ears of corn, and water bottles dripping with condensation, all shoved through the open window of the truck - eager. Beggar boys from Koranic schools, red tomato paste cans under arm, trying to collect enough to avoid physical abuse should they return without money. Sitting in a dark, curtained bedroom on the bed of our host - a Senegalese man - a cultural custom reserved as a gesture of honour and respect for a guest. Jumping strong ocean waves hand-in-hand with a four-year-old. Sipping a steaming glass of incredibly sweet tea in the chill blackness of a desert night. The surprising coolness of a mud-walled home. Kids following you, watching you, teasing and sometimes taunting, everywhere we went. A kid frightened to death of me - running away naked on flying little legs, a backward glance over his shoulder, howling with fear.
I sit here and smile, thinking of the other kids laughing as we watched him blaze a trail of dust across the village to his home.
It was an intense, short experience, and writing is good therapy: eases the fear that too much of these precious things will be lost somewhere between unloading my damp, stinking backpack and giving PowerPoint presentations to a group of professionals in business-casual.
There was a feeling of dread when I left from Canada: picturing myself as the epitome of rich North American, inquisitive, invasive, notebook in hand, pen scribbling, weak, plump, naive. And I was blessed with the grace of people who treated us with respect, understanding, and conversation. I was humbled by the honour with which we were treated. Who was I? We were shown deference and served the best they had. I felt ashamed.
Senegal, a scape of thick sand, sparse trees, and hazy horizons. My perception of Muslim community in Africa was undone and knit in a completely different way, my desire to better understand Islam lit. In Liberia, my own faith was refreshed, witnessing the visible joy on people's faces, despite war, poverty and injustice. There were endless random experiences: A lecture on having children, in French, from a Senegalese pastor, a beer on the roof of a hotel in the afternoon, a car full to the seat-tops with mangoes, fish guts and animal carcasses hanging at roadside. Walking a former five-star hotel - perched at the top of Monrovia with a wide view of sparkling coast and dim-looking free port - inhabited by women, men, children, the elderly, living in abject poverty. The tile pool filled with refuse, laundry hanging behind the diving board, banana peels and excrement on the deck, and a little girl watching us, squatting in a former hotel room, a tiny smile on her mouth.
I return with a renewed and healthy sense of insignificance. That I am still powerless, useless, hopeless without God. That we've corrupted Eden and live in a world full of our intent and little of it what God intended. And we are still inspired, compelled, driven, spirit-filled creatures. We still seek out hope and justice and peace. The things that were intended for us we all desire. I keep thinking these things, and the story deadlines keep blowing by.