I have had a lot of people ask me what it was like to grow up in Africa, to spend my formative years in Africa. I’m not sure I can completely explain it. I think, to explain it, you have to be able to feel it, smell it, hear it, taste it, experience it.
I remember arriving in Zambia in the fall of 1985. Well, it was fall in the northern hemisphere. It was spring in the southern hemisphere. I had just celebrated my twelfth birthday. I remember getting off the plane, getting our luggage and walking outside the airport.
I felt like I had just stepped on the moon.
I cannot really describe in words that first feeling. It was exciting, terrifying, new and yet the very air felt old, ancient, deep. I knew in that moment that my life would never be the same. Never would I be able to view life through a narrow lens, a small focus. Little did I know how true this would come to be in my life and heart. See, Africa isn’t something that you experience, somewhere you live. Africa is something that gets inside you, into your mind, your heart. It pushes on your soul and stretches you to become; something new, something old, something more.
I remember my first night in the bush. The silence that descended at sundown was tactile. You could actually seem to feel the silence settling over the earth like a blanket. Not to say it was completely quiet at night but sundown was different. It was as though the entire world was holding its breath for that moment. Like drifting into a dream of silence. It was beautiful.
And the stars! I really believe that there are more stars in the southern hemisphere than there are here in the northern hemisphere. That may not be true but it feels true. I remember the first night I was outside. It was impossible not to notice the stars. Immense and immediate they seemed. I felt that I could just reach my hand up, brush the sky and the stars would cling to me. The sky was immense, epic. I cannot describe the feeling that eclipsed me when I would lie on the ground and look into the sky of Africa. I felt miniscule, insignificant, humbled. The majesty and glory of the night sky were moving to the core.
Sunrise was another experience entirely. There would be a deep silence like the breath before the plunge. Then, the sun would peek over the horizon and the world would explode! A cacophony, a symphony of sound and life erupted from the trees, the bush. Birds, monkeys, who knows what else would burst into song as though they were welcoming the world back! It felt like someone had opened a sound box of life to bring in the day!
My brother and I, my best friend and I would spend hours, days, months it seemed exploring. There was nothing out of bounds for us. Looking back now, it was very dangerous, our restless wandering urges. We would wander and hike for hours, many miles from home, from the safety of the known. We kept no track of time. Time had no meaning there in the wild. There was too much to see, too much to feel, so much to explore.
I have such sharp memories of those times spent out. Out away from everything except the staggering beauty and harsh wildness of God’s creation. It was completely wild, free and wonderful! We were child nomads, lost in the world of imagination and beauty.
Lake Naivasha, where the flamingos lived. So many that, from a distance, the lake looked pink until you got close and the birds began to fly, blanketing the sky with a pink rushing of wings, a slow rise on the wind. The rushing wind in the trees of the mountains where we lived in Kenya for school was an almost constant undertone of softness, a quiet song in our hearts. Sometimes a harsh wind, sometimes a breeze but constant it seemed. On the wind, a smell that cannot be forgotten. The smell of the forest, the dust on the air, the brush, the leopard cubs we discovered one day, the monkeys clambering in the trees overhead; the smell of home.
A waterfall named Kundalila, translated the cry of the dove, was an aching place of peace. Its beauty and simplicity surrounded you, wrapped you, and embraced you with the breathtaking cold of the water, fresh and clear. Even now, I can close my eyes and feel the mist of a thousand waterfalls. The soft caress of the mist was the touch of angels, it seemed. Ah, my soul aches, weeps with the memory!
Kilimanjaro! Above the plains it rose, majesty personified. Aloof, serene, looking out over the children of the plains in quiet watchfulness, a waiting challenge. As though it were shouting to the world, ‘Will you come to me? Will you come to know yourself on these slopes, rocky crags?’ The week I spent on the slopes of Kilimanjaro forever changed me, sharpened me, shook me. My sister and I shared that moment in time, that week which forever linked us together in more than just a biological way.
When I reached the summit of Kilimanjaro, I looked out over what felt to be the entire world. Surrounded by a sea of snow and a layer of clouds below us, I was overwhelmed. The magnitude of God’s creation, in that moment, was stunning. Humbling. Wonderful. I felt it in my heart, pushing into my soul. An embrace that cannot be described in words. I was in tears at the allure of the moment. It took my breath away. In that moment, I was enveloped in the immensity of His creation.
It has been sixteen years since I left Africa. And yet, I was there last night in my dreams, in my heart, in my soul. There will never be a place on this earth that will be home like Africa to me. Even now, I miss it; the vacancy of the missing will be with me until the day the earth is made new and I can revisit there in a perfect world. The very word Africa pushes on my heart, squeezes my soul and brings tears to my eyes.
Africa isn’t something that you experience, somewhere you live. Africa is something that gets inside you, into your mind, your heart. It pushes on your soul and stretches you to become; something new, something old, something more.
I want to go home.