It’s been a while since I’ve written. It’s not because I’m out of stories to tell but simply because the lessons I feel like I’ve learned are so grand that I find it hard to put them on paper and do them justice. Here’s an attempt to one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned, I hope you enjoy it.
What surprises people most about a place like Africa is the contentment of the people. Even though they have much less in a materialistic sense than most people in the world, they seem much more content and peaceful. It’s an interesting phenomenon considering that they are amongst the poorest people in the world.
I had a chance to look into this more deeply while working on the farms with a lovely group of ladies. I figured I might as well learn a new skill and get to know a different aspect of society. Most of the farmers are women who plough and water the land, dig holes in the ground, manually distribute the seeds, and plant trees. It’s a lot of labor work. There are women who work there who range from the age of 24 to 60. When I first arrived to work on the “shamba” – farm, they all laughed asking me, “ Unaweza?” – “Are you able to?” I simply put my head down, smiled and said I’d try. With time, I showed them I was able to and soon we were all able to become friends. As they taught me how to farm, I was able to teach them a little bit of English. Not only did I learn how to farm, I learnt a bit more. These women get paid about 1.5 dollars a day for a 9-hour labor filled day and yet they spend the whole day working and laughing. They don’t know if they’ll have a job tomorrow. They barely have enough money to feed themselves. They break their backs under the African sun each day and yet they continue to smile and take care of each other.
Lack of Control
For one, I think it’s because of the lack of control and acceptance of it. A lot of these women cannot read nor write. It’s not like they can go to a bigger better company with more benefits. It’s either they work in the farms or do construction work and that’s about the end of the road for them. There is no real ray of hope. Even if they were to think of getting educated – the beginning would be learning their ABCs and they would need a teacher for that and time and commitment. Aziza is the youngest woman working there and she is 24. She has two kids and no husband. I don’t think she has the time to learn her ABCs. I think shamba work is what she’ll always do. It saddens me – we are constantly trying to climb up some kind of ladder but there isn’t much of a ladder to climb here. Yet, they’ve accepted it. They’ve accepted that this is their way of life. They do not overanalyze what is wrong with it and constantly compare to others but learn that it’s hand-to-mouth. They need to work to make sure that their next meal arrives on the table.
Not only is there a lack of control in their education level but also in the medical area. A disease like malaria is so prevalent in countries like the DRC and Tanzania. A disease that can kill you and kills so many and what carries it? A tiny insect. I remember reading a quote that went along the lines of “ If you think you’re too small to make a difference, you haven’t spent a night with a mosquito.” That can easily be molded to “ If you think you’re too small to make a difference, you’ve never had malaria.” When people are dying constantly because of a disease carried by a tiny flying insect – a feeling of no control will easily follow. They let life take its course. In the developed world, we are under the impression that we can control a lot more than I think we really can control. Things don’t always work the way we want them to and that leads to frustration and despair but maybe we need to loosen up a bit and let life take its true course.
Living in the Moment
Secondly, they live in the present. They are forced to. They are not worried about next week, month or year. They are focused on today. They live on a day-to-day basis. They need to make sure that they have a meal for today and if they do they are grateful for that. They are grateful for the fact that they have a meal and a job for that day. The image that gets painted in my head is like they are hanging right above a fire – starvation. It’s close but they are still above it – and because it is so close – they are simply grateful that they are alive. There’s a saying that goes – “It is not the happy people who are grateful but the grateful that are happy.” A lot of us are so far away from that reality of starvation that we forget to be grateful for that one meal. A lot of us are guilty of not living in the present. We are either living in the past or worrying about the future. It takes the joy of that present moment away. I remember listening to a lecture named, “What is wrong with now?” Generally, there isn’t that much wrong with the present moment, yet we are worrying and unhappy and we forget to be grateful for the simple bare necessities that we have.
Another attribute of the people here is that they are patient with their circumstances. Every woman here is working hard under the boiling sun and trying to send her child to school. She is patient with her circumstances. It’s her situation and she was born into it.
She may not be able to fix her situation but her child will hopefully be able to have a brighter future. If I ask them how they are each day, they reply with “ All Grace is to God.” Of course they want to have more money but they have learnt to be patient and hopefully a better day will come. In the developed world we are impatient in general. Our bus can’t be two minutes late, let alone our plan for our lives. A sense of failure and defeat overcomes us if we are not exactly where we are in that perfect plan of life. We find it hard to deal with the fact that there was a hiccup in the plan – something that we didn’t see coming. We become impatient and stressed.
Furthermore, the people are also very connected to their mosques and to their churches. This may be because there is no security, whether it is job security or life security. There is no system holding them up. Hopefully tomorrow their job will still be waiting for them. Hopefully a malaria-carrying mosquito will not bite their kid. Hopefully they will get enough to eat tomorrow. And where do they get that hope from? It’s the belief in a stronger just power and the belief that everything happens for a reason. These religions emphasize that one should turn to patience and prayer and never lose hope. In Islam one of the worst sins you can commit is to despair – to lose faith – and I really believe that having faith gets everyone through their hardest days.
At the end of the day, I think letting go is the key. They are neither fighting their present situation nor are they in denial of their situation. They’ve accepted it and are doing their best. They work and earn enough to barely eat and send their child to school. Their situation is not the greatest in the world but there is an acceptance of today and a hope for tomorrow.
This weekend came at a good time..it was time to get out of the city..I always need a change of scenery after a bit and be with nature..makes me feel at peace..makes me feel small in comparison to the greater things in life..humbles me
I’ve grown up in Congo but haven’t really seen the touristic part of it. Really when you think Congo, Tourism isn’t the first thing that jumps to mind. Most people are there for business and we do have the Gorillas on the East but it’s not always that safe to get there and we do have scientists looking into the dense jungles and the fascinating Congo River.
This weekend I’d get to possibly see a touristic side of Congo. Now first rule about any road trip in Congo, is make sure that you have four wheeler drives. The road’s going to get bumpy at some point and the potholes will get to you. Also travel with people who know the country, it’s always good to have someone from the country who knows how the country works. It took us about an hour to get out of the city and into the real Congo. I guess that’s the beauty of living in Africa – not as much has been developed and so there is still a lot of greenery.
The roads were pretty smooth until the last 40 km which was one of the bumpiest rides I’ve ever been . I swear there were points when I was just closing my eyes and hoping for the best. The guy who was driving didn’t really take it upon himself to go any slower..it actually seemed like he sped up..
Passing through villages
Upon finally arriving there I was pleasantly surprised at the organization of the place. I’ve never seen the tourist side of it but there were many many tents in lines – easily over 50 and then there were teepee like structures on the other side and then there were proper hotel rooms on another side. We were camping. Not camping camping – like mattresses in a tent and a proper bathroom with showers 🙂 Much to my delight. 🙂
I don’t have a pic of the tents but these are the teepee like structures…
Everything was actually fully booked. It was a long weekend and it seemed like everyone wanted to go out and enjoy a bit of nature. I was pretty impressed at how full it was and just how active it was out there. We spoke to the owner of the hotels and teepees and just the management and he said how he wasn’t trying to attract those outside of Congo or foreigners but people from within. It wasn’t important to be dependent on outside forces but strengthen from within.
After having a bit of dinner on a charcoal by the water I headed off to bed..in my tent :).I woke up in the morning and went out to explore the place a bit before we all have breakfast together..
The place at dawn..
If you look carefully at the end of the rainbow on the right and a little bit below you’ll see a bit of orange and red and those are people on the other side of the falls enjoying the mist.
After sitting at the top of the falls we hiked down to the other side of the falls so we could face the falls and enjoy the refreshing mist..
I remember one of the boys bending down to his sandal and slapping at his foot like something had just slithered in..Kind of scared me a bit..sometimes we forget that we are in the middle of an African jungle..literally..so anyways he smacked at his foot violently..and then slipped of his sandal …turned out..they were ants that were biting him..he was ok though..
After looking at these pictures I remember what I thought while looking at them:
How small we are in the grand scheme of things. If we got caught up in those waters we don’t have a chance to get out other than some miracle. The power of nature is stronger than any person and any amount of people put together. Water is so delicate yet so powerful .
The falls are actually used to produce hydroelectricity for surrounding areas.
For all the flower lovers out there…
Yup so there’s probably a side of the DRC you didn’t know much about 🙂 A little bit of adventure and fun in the heart of Africa:)
2 Months ago I finished climbing the mighty Kilimanjaro. At first all I could remember was how hard it was .. Now ..I can finally romanticize about it.:)
The top of the mountain or what seemed like the top that would only come out in the early morning and in the middle of the night. It was also a symbol of hope – a reminder of our end objective. Like how they say it’s good to visualize where you want to be – it helps you get through the struggle of getting there.
The morning sun from our camps. It always served to give us that renewed energy to conquer a new day.
When hiking and looking around you all you saw was the rest of the mountain. Larger than life.
Steepness in all its glory 🙂
Being able to see Mt Meru in the distance from Kili
Literally being above the clouds..unimaginable.
🙂 Being amongst the clouds…
To get to this spot I ventured a little bit past the camps where nobody else was and sat here for a while..just me and nature and not struggling to breathe. Trying to take in this moment right here.
The Snow-capped Peaks of Kili
I remember looking back at the sun and letting it warm me up and giving me strength to finish off the remaining part of this amazing journey. I think taking strength from the beauty that surrounded me was essential in getting me to the top.
Making our way down from the top and realizing that anything was possible with hope, patience and determination.
I went with an amazing company called safari BIG 5. If you are ever interested in making a trek of a lifetime , their website is http://www.safaribig5.com. Make sure you check them out.
I must admit that when I first came to the DRC from Tanzania – my heart wasn’t here. It was difficult to be in a car with little kids knocking at my window and not knowing how to react. Suddenly I felt above them. In Tanzania I was walking on the streets and there was no clear indication that I was even in a position to have a car. It was hard because in Tanzania I was constantly surrounded by people who were changing the world day by day ( I felt) and we saw direct results in the sense that you had an orphan at the school whose full fees was paid and got to eat, drink and sleep comfortably for at least 9 months.
Here I started to get involved with the local charity twice a week but also wanted to work because at the end of the day – you need to support yourself. It’s nice to think you can go and volunteer your whole life or just travel the world but you need to have the money to travel and it’s nice to earn your own money. It was tough to work at first -not because of the work hours or anything but just not feeling like I was making that difference. That high that I got every day in Kibaha was no longer there.
As time went on though and I started to understand how business worked in Congo I saw the difference that was being made by people who invested in this country.People need jobs here – there is no doubt about that. 10 million people live in Kinshasa.
If a Multi-national ( Coca Cola, Vodacom(phone service provider), Airtel(phone service provider) comes to
this country or someone even brings in an international product – they provide the infrastructure (factories) and advertising costs that people here don’t always have the money for.After that, people get employed directly into the company so that it operates properly. There are those who work in the factories, then the truck drivers who deliver the product and then there are even the shop managers who sell the product wholesale.These are just the people who are directly employed by the company. Then the people it affects indirectly – If it’s Vodacom or Airtel for example, there are the street vendors who sell recharge vouchers on the road. That is their income for a day that helps feed their families. In essence anyone can go buy those vouchers, or crates of Coca Cola and sell them on the street and therefore finding a way to earn a decent income.Then there is even the customer who benefits- if it’s a good product you’re allowing them to be able to experience an international product and if it provides competition to other companies – means they get more value for their money.
Being part of this – You are constantly meeting clients to see if they are facing any problems you can help with and how to increase their sales. I’ve watched people who just buy not that much of a product to making this product their main selling item. The other day I met one of these clients who went from just selling things on the street to saving and then getting his own shop and now he has 5 shops that sell a variety of things. He met me for the first time and welcomed me into this area of work and he said to me in French – “We have to help each other because without you – our business will not survive and without people like me your business will not survive.” And it was absolutely true. We are a team.
I never realized how many people can be affected though. Even when one of my friends came to work for his dad one of the workers from the company (who maintained quite a low rank – he cleaned the office everyday ) said to him, ” I’m so glad you are done your studies and you have come to work and help maintain this company . After all We have kids too and need to support them to make sure they go to school so we need these jobs.” I smiled.Every person mattered and every person is affected. Every person you employ is that starfish you throw back into the Ocean.
At the end of the day anyone can come and approach a company and ask if they can sell their product. They don’t need to buy a whole bunch just enough for them to be able to sell and get enough money to bring home. Like this anyone can really learn to support themselves in a sustainable manner. This is the “teaching the man to fish” way vs “giving a man a fish.”
By also being part of a company everyone has an opportunity to rise in the ranks and learn different things. For example one of the factory workers may show potential and then he is put in charge of a shop where he starts doing accounting and selling the product. Papa Theo (we say Papa as a sign of respect) ,who was my driver as a kid, got a bit older, and now he works in an air conditioned office taking stock. There is always room for growth.
There are different aspects to development. Different ways to help it happen. Business is a great way to make things happen. You give that father a means to send his kids to school without feeling like he got anything for free. If you sponsor a kid that’s nice but then they are dependent on that for the next year..it’s not always that sustainable.
Every person in society matters and contributes to the economy and the only way to Grow is to do it TOGETHER.
Tara and I got back at about 3 that afternoon from Matemwe. After our dive we were suppose to get back to our shuttle bus which was at the next hotel. The scuba diving people offered us a ride ( it was about a ten minute walk) but I opted for walking by the beach instead. Even though the driver of the shuttle could leave without us (if we took too long) I was in the whole ” nothing really matters – I’m alive ” mood. We walked barefoot on the sand and reached the hotel and got back on the shuttle bus.
Now that we had one whole afternoon free and nothing particular to do ( now that we had crossed Jambiani and scuba diving off our list) I texted Sabrina. It was pretty cool – I had hung out with her in Kibaha where there were rules on where on campus she could go ( because of boys) and there was only a limited space I could hang out with her in. Here I had the whole island to hang out with her on. Anyways I told her a place that we could meet. It was a park in the centre of Zanzibar. She came and met us there and gave me a big hug. She told me that she was praying for me and was worried when I didn’t reply to her text. I laughed and thanked her for her prayers ..then she told us to come home. Her house was just down the road. I remember in Kibaha she had told me to come meet her family ( she was actually staying with a friend and that was her friend’s family. Zanzibar used to be Sabrina’s home when her parents were alive but now her sponsor lived in Dar es Salaam so she was here only for a week staying with a friend.) So me and Tara figured why not..it would be an experience. This part of town was not alleyways or high walls but just dusty roads and houses. She meandered her way through houses and we entered a house. It was much more than I expected. It was actually quite normal. There were 3 rooms if I remember correctly a big siting room which was empty if I remember correctly and a TV. Her aunt was there and there were many women around her. Her aunt had actually just come back from Hajj and all these women had come to see her. I smiled. How amazing that the richest man in the world can go for Hajj and a woman living in the streets of Zanzibar :). Anyways we entered and she welcomed us in and hugged us both. We let her be with the women and followed Sabrina to the outside where her other aunt was mixing something up over the fire. We said our Salaams and sat there with them outside.They offered us Kahawa – which is the coffee they drink. I think we tried to say no but you know Tanzania and no – there’s never know. Sabrina brought both of us Kahawa and
then her aunt gave us a piece of the Kasahata she was making. Kashata is a snack that is made of nuts and grated cocunut – kind of like an energy bar or a cookie.We all sat together and talked and laughed. I spoke the Swahili that made everyone laugh and we took a couple of pictures. Her aunt asked me if I had ever gone for Hajj and I replied that I hadn’t and if she could pray that I do go soon and she said ” Don’t worry Inshallah you will go soon .” I felt humbled just being there with her. I felt humbled just being in their home – welcomed the way I was and treated like family. Tara and I were in awe. WE were both so glad we were here. We were doing Zanzibar Zanzibari Style. We were having Kahawa and Kachata with Zanzibaris in their homes. What else could we ask for ?
In time, it was Maghrib time (evening prayers). The electricity had just gone off actually. Sabrina and her friend brought candles inside. Even though Tara and I were in proper attire to pray Sabrina and her friend ( Tamima) were determined to dress me in and her in a Kanga which is basically a big piece of cloth. And so they put one on us as a skirt and another on top as a big scarf.
I had promised Abbas ( Kaneez Aunty’s( the woman we were staying with) son ) I would get him a mishkaki ( which is meat on a stick). SO after prayers, Sabrina and Tamima were allowed to come with us and so we went and looked for some mishkaki! Tara was also looking for some Cinnamon to take home with her. Zanzibar is known for its spices. We walked through the streets and found a mishkaki and waited for it to be made. Next we were on a mission to find Tara’s cinnamon. But by this point everything had started to close and people told us to come the next morning. We were leaving the next morning on the 11am ferry but figured we would give it a shot.
Because of the meandering streets of Zanzibar we needed the girls to drop us to familiar territory – like where the docks were because there was no way we would find our way through those streets and it was almost 8 pm. They left us and we decided we would meet the next day and Tara and I walked back to our house which we had figured how to get to after the docks.
If I remember correctly we both passed out. It had been an eventful day. The fear about diving that had plagued me for the last 2 nights was finally over with. I was grateful I was alive. I had just had the most amazing afternoon having Kahawa and Kashata at Sabrina’s place and had met her wonderful aunts and there was really nothing more I could ask for..:)
The next day in Zanzibar would prove to be just as eventful. Tara and I woke up early to catch the shuttle bus to the North Eastern side of the island where we would be going Scuba Diving. I was actually scared out of my mind. All kinds of questions raced through my mind and all kinds of scenarios popped up in my head.
We had met up with Sabrina the day before for dinner and I had asked her to keep me in her prayers and pray that I live through the day lol. She just laughed and told me it would be fine. I think I even sneaked in a “I love you” message to my family just in case :).
Our shuttle took about an hour to get to the other side of the island. In our boat we had people from all over the world including Finland, Germany and the States. My trip so far had been quite untouristic up to this point so it was different but also nice to me amongst them.
I was nervous though, really really nervous.When I told Simon and Julie ( our friends on the island ) who I had met the previous time I had come to Zanzibar they were taken aback. We had met on the dolphin tour. That trip is a blog on its own but there was no fear in me when we had to dive into the middle of the Ocean with the dolphins without life jackets even though the water was rough. They had to pull me out of the water each time. Every time we saw the dolphins I was the first to dive into the water and the last to come back and now I was scared of going scuba diving. But this was different. This was being underwater for 45 minutes. It was the underwater part that scared me.
They had gone scuba diving before us as they were living in Zanzibar and so recommended a company and we had gone with them. We had spent the previous day with Simon and Julie in Jambiani and anything we had questions about we asked them. They went over a couple of things and sometimes we didn’t know something they had been taught and I got even more scared but they were all there to reassure me. I think it was just me and Tara who were diving it for the first time. She was pretty chill about it – then again she’s jumped out of a plane alone.
But I wasn’t going to back out of this -I figured I would want to experience this once in my life and would have to face this one day and might as well be now. The whole concept that freaked me out was that if your respirator doesn’t work properly underwater it is highly dangerous to shoot up to the surface of the water because your lungs need to expand slowly and it is important to go up slowly. SO …if you can’t breathe underwater and you can’t go up straight away for air…you’re left without oxygen..that’s scary.
We put on all our gear on the boat getting ready for the dive. Apart from our wet suit – which helped you float – everything else worked to help you sink. Ah having faith is a scary thing. Having faith that your oxygen tank would not run out of air or your respirator would not fall out and you wouldn’t freak out and not know which chord to pull on to get it back or that your instructor will be watching you in case something goes wrong. A minute underwater could be the difference between life and death.
I was really surprised at the fact that I was scared of this – I remember watching the movie “Zindagi na milegi doobara“( You wont get life back again) which is basically about 3 guys doing things that they fear and scuba diving was one of them and I remember wondering why he was so scared but at that moment in the middle of the Ocean, I understood. I also think that the fact that I didn’t feel 110 % confident with what the guy had taught us in the pool and felt like he had rushed it all made me even more nervous. Still went on with putting on all the “sinking gear”.
We fell backwards into the water because that’s how you’re suppose to do it. Our instructor ( who was different from the guy who taught us in the pool) went down to anchor. We would go down this rope slowly and whenever we felt pressure in our ears we would have to equalize by pinching our nose and blowing or moving our jaw and attempting to swallow. There was also a little oxygen meter that we would have to look at every now and again to make sure we weren’t running out of oxygen and every time our instructor would ask us how much we had we would have to signal with our fingers. We descended slowly, one instructor for the two of us.We could hear each breath we took – the inhaling and the exhaling and you breathe in deeply to not finish you oxygen quickly- maybe the way we are suppose to breathe in normal life.
The instructor kept an eye on both of us but we were going at different paces ( me and Tara- not purposefully though) and so he would be looking back to whoever was behind and looking forward to the person who was in front. As he swam ahead with Tara I realized I was starting to float to the top. I tried to swim down but I think my suit was pulling me up an my weights weren’t bringing me down and as I got closer and closer to the surface I started getting worried that this was bad for my lungs and kept trying to come down and signalling to the instructor. Since you can’t speak underwater and you’re floating above the instructor – there’s really not much you can do. I watched as he finally looked behind and couldn’t find me. He and tara looked around for me but I was nowhere to be seen. And there I was above them waving my hands trying to signal that I was surfacing quickly. Now that I look back on it it’s pretty funny.Anyways he ended up looking up and pulling me down and giving me an extra weight.
I remember one thing I was totally in love with was the fact that you could see the sun’s rays penetrate the water and light it up from below. I remember being totally surprised with every breath I took. I was amazed at the fact that I could breathe underwater with such facility yet still did not take one breath for granted – every breath counted and every time I took a new one I prayed that my next one would come too. I don’t think I’ve appreciated breathing so much in my life. Even after looking at my oxygen meter and realizing that we had already completed half of our dive – I reminded myself – ok Saara Just because you made it through the first half doesn’t mean you’ll make it through the second. I think I started enjoying the second bit more because I tried to push through my fear and be in the moment. We went up close to the coral and swam amongst schools of colorful fish.I even remember the instructor trying to show me something on the coral and by mistake I touched one or suddenly a fish came out of there and I was surprised and let out a little scream – yeah I tried to scream underwater :). beautiful it truly is. The water was clear which is exactly what you want for a dive. We were diving near the Mnemba Atoll. It’s actually a marine conservation area and people can’t go to the island but are allowed to dive in its reefs.Unfortunately we didn’t take a camera with us for pictures but make sure you google Mnemba Atoll to see how truly beautiful it is.
Soon it was time to surface and as we got to the top I really breathed a sense of relief. I really wasn’t sure that I would make it. On the boat ride back everyone asked me how it was because they knew I had been nervous and I just had the biggest smile on my face and just said – “I’m alive! so it was amazing.” For me, it really didn’t matter what we saw down there, it was the fact that I was alive. Those 45 minutes underwater were the longest 45 minutes of my life because I was just waiting for something to go wrong but coming out alive made me so eternally grateful. I think at that moment I was the happiest person alive and each person who asked me how it went I just replied with a huge smile .
One of the ladies said ” Isn’t it amazing how there is a whole world down there?” And I laughed. As if the world was not vast enough – as if there was enough to see above water – now there was a whole world below water and then there’s a whole world in space. It would take at least a 100 lifetimes to even see half of the world’s beauty.
I remember sitting at the front of the boat basking in the sun and looking out into the turquoise waters.
I thought about how we take the facility of breathing for granted. Down there, in the water, every breath was a blessing. With each breath that went by I wondered if the next one would come and if it did I was eternally grateful.I could hear each breath that I took and it really slowed things down.You could literally hear yourself living. Hearing your breath, being underwater and being completely dependent on a tank for oxygen really puts things into perspective and makes you realize how fragile your life really is.