Monday, January 16, 2012

Trying to make a comparison and striking out.

I've been thinking a lot about Martin Luther King, Jr. in the days leading up to our 'day off' in celebration of his birthday.  I've been thinking that a thoughtful reflection would be perfect for today - something that brings together some past experience of mine and the ideas behind this holiday and the work of MLK and others in the same war.

And then it hit me - I've had an experience that fits the bill.  In 1995, I cashed in my teacher's retirement (there was not a lot there and thankfully my Papa and Nana never knew) and began planning a trip to Africa.  I have absolutely no idea where I came up with that idea, but I remember just knowing that it was the trip I needed to take.  My role as a parent today gives me a hint at how amazingly hard this craziness must have been to my Dad, but I definitely did not get that at the time!

Plans went along swimmingly; and it seemed that with each day leading up to the trip, the details got better and better.  I intended to be gone for just over six weeks and to have a journey that consisted of different 'mini experiences.'  I could not wait to board the plane.  Somehow, at the time, the idea of boarding the plane alone to fly to the other side of the world and be met at the Nairobi airport by someone I did not know seemed perfectly normal!  I was met in the middle of the night by the driver for the sister of a friend of a friend, who turned out to be an invaluable help through much of my time there.

My travels were varied; to say that what I learned on this trip changed my life is an understatement.  That's not newsy, though.  Any voyage by an 'awake' human is life-changing.  One cannot see the world through different eyes and step on foreign soil without being different.  All of our travels stay with us, altering our daily lives forever and ever.  While in East Africa I got to know a few families of expats from the US and then spent three weeks with a group called, "Global Volunteers", in a village in south central Tanzania.  The stories from those three weeks are numerous and deserve their own airtime, but today I'm remembering a different part of the trip.

In the last few days of my month and a half away I enjoyed casually moving in and out of different areas of Nairobi.  I had met fantastic folks by that time and loved having lazy time to discover this city far from my home.  There were good times with laughter, many good meals, a few awesome short trips I will never forget, and this time was the perfect ending to an unbelievable trip.  These last few days I've remembered a certain day trip into the city center of Kenya's capital.

The day was easy, laid-back and non-stressful.  I was beginning to get excited about returning home with my new stories of safaris and new discoveries and also starting to regret that I would soon leave.  I wanted to do a bit more poking around before I left, spend the day casually strolling the city streets and peer into shops of all types looking for art, some of which peers at me now in my house far from that day.  I don't remember what I ate for lunch, but I do recall that I had meaningful conversations with two different artists and loved being able to take the time to hear about their crafts.  I was almost whistling along the sidewalks, enjoying being such a 'world traveler' and loving the memories I was making.  There are times in life when one thrives on being alone and this was one of those times.  It was a good day.  It was an easy day.

And then, as I ambled along a street I hadn't been on before, I realized something I've never felt before.  I realized that I was the only 'white' person I could see.  I saw no one who looked like me.  I marveled at the realization.  I couldn't believe it.  What an experience I was having.  How proud I was.  What a moment - wow, how it was changing me.  I would never forget it.

I thought about this moment when I prepared to write on this MLK holiday.  And then I realized what a fool I was.  There was absolutely nothing about this experience that had anything remotely similar to the ideals for which the bright and open minded people of the civil rights movement fought.  Nothing at all.  I strolled along the streets of Nairobi in perfect comfort, new treasures in hand, and met friendly faces at every turn.  I moved as I wished, stopping and starting at my own will and paused to eat or shop when I was ready.  I was excited and intrigued, and each few minutes offered new opportunities for me to learn more about this small world.  Folks with faces different from mine smiled at me, asked me endearing questions and helped me along the way when I was lost.  I knew little about the people I met that day and they knew little about me, though I conducted my day in just the way I wanted.  I had no feeling remotely close to fear.

There is NO similarity between my 'really cool day' in Nairobi at the end of my amazing journey and the horrific days of brothers and sisters of another skin color on any given day in history.  My walk as the only caucasian on a block in Nairobi who met with only friendly or indifferent faces holds no comparison to the walks of so many African Americans who walked into the faces of hate for so long.  I contend to be understanding, but I cannot truly have an idea of what it feels like to walk strongly and continue fighting when one is met with stupidity and violence at every turn.  I have no idea about that.  I have no idea why I was born with skin of one color and another was born with skin of a different color.  I know that one day that won't matter, and I hope I'm alive to see it.

I thank God for courageous people who give all that they have for ideals that help us get closer to the way we could live peaceably together.  I thank God that I grew up with parents who shared that dream with me, and I pray that Tim and I are doing the same for our children.  We are trying, but we can't tell them what it's like to walk down the street barraged by hate because we don't know how it feels.

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