ARUSHA, Tanzania — I walked carefully through the concrete doorway, carefully moving the tattered piece of material to one side.
I was told, in broken English, that I would find a restroom, but I was terrified that I’d mistakenly taken the route to someone’s bedroom or private living space. When I stepped inside, it was indeed a restroom with a toilet in the center of a filthy, concrete room.
My teenage daughter appeared behind me asking where she could wash her hands before our breakfast. I did not need to answer. There was nowhere to wash one’s hands.
In fact, if we were at home in the USA, we’d likely leave without using this toilet knowing we could find cleaner, more inviting facilities at a nearby business. We would ask where the soap and sink were because, well, every restaurant has one, right?
But we were on a beach on Zanzibar Island, and as we’d learned in our nearly three weeks in Africa, we make due with whatever is offered. So we used the facilities with gratitude, and then we sat down to a meal prepared for us by people who offered a group of strangers more food than some would consume in a day — maybe two days.
We were afraid it might make us sick, even as we were overwhelmed by their generosity. We felt like gluttons, ashamed of our fear, of our expectations, even as we savored the tropical fruit and handmade bread.
I have had many moments of clarity in my three weeks in Africa, but this was among the most painful and the most beautiful. It was the beginning of our strangest day in a land I’d dreamed about visiting all of my life.
People often ask me why I am so captivated by Africa, and this is a question I cannot answer. I do not know when or why this continent captivated me; but for as long as I can remember, I have been in love with a land I didn’t really know.
That’s why, when I made the decision last year to visit Rwanda with Kids Play International, a nonprofit that uses sports to teach and discuss gender equity, I immediately made plans to tack some personal adventures onto the end of our one-week service trip.
I booked a safari in Tanzania and, after that, a five-day trip to Zanzibar Island. Most people know Zanzibar Island as ‘Spice Island’ for the communal spice farms that provide many villages with work and income through both the sale of spices and the tourists who want to see the origins of the flavors they love like vanilla and black pepper.
The island had been of interest to me for a much more sinister reason. Several years ago I read an article that referenced the island’s darker history. Zanzibar is one of the places where Africans — either sold by their own tribal chiefs or kidnapped — were collected, imprisoned and sold to foreign governments.
But before I could enjoy a vacation with my family, I spent a week in Rwandan villages, and every day I felt need in ways I’d never experienced it before. I feel like I’ve known yearning. I am familiar with disappointment, and I thought I knew what it was like to go without — both needs and desires.
But it was clear to me after just one day, that there are people in this world that live with a level of need that I can’t even begin to comprehend. Several times I had to find a quiet place so I could sob.
The tears were such a mixture of emotion that I’m still sorting them out as I prepare to leave Africa. Because while I felt a desperation almost constantly, I also felt their joy. I saw their beauty and I experienced their generosity.
I admire their resilience, their ingenuity and their generosity.
In all three places I saw beautiful communities full of people who find such fulfillment and pleasure in what I might judge the smallest, simplest human activities — holding hands with a friend, playing soccer until it’s too dark to see the ball, and dancing until the exhaustion forces one to become an enthusiastic spectator.
I long ago stopped being a fan of "life is relative." Life is whatever it is where you are at. If you are sad, it’s OK to cry. If you are lonely, you should reach out for support. If you are happy, go ahead and laugh until you snort.
I tried to see the people I met where they were at, to accept their kindness or their rudeness for what it was — without comparing it to what I might see or experience at home. I told myself many times, “You are visiting someone else’s home, so seek to understand and be grateful for this opportunity to see how other people live.”
Maybe I will write about our strangest day in Zanzibar in another column. Right now, I feel like the details aren’t as important as what I learned from the paradoxes.
Beauty can exist alongside cruelty. Kindness coexists with desperation. Desire and generosity often inhabit the same breath.
As I prepare to leave Africa, I am once again overwhelmed with emotion. I feel gratitude so immense it feels like a newly discovered emotion.
Some of my appreciation is for the people of Africa. I smile, almost involuntarily, when one of them opens his or her arms and says, “You are welcome.” I have, in every place, in every way, felt completely welcome in this country I still don’t understand but love even more.
Some of my thankfulness, however, belongs to the opportunity to see my life from a different angle.
I feel like I am grateful for how blessed my life has been. But to see it from another vantage point, to miss it all, including every small, seemingly insignificant thing, in a new, unexpected way, is a gift I am just beginning to understand.