Today marks my one week anniversary of being home from a whirlwind tour of Benin, West Africa with the executive director of Unseen Stories. I’m sorry that I didn’t write as much as I anticipated doing. I had enough time to shoot off two emails to my family, one to let them know that I had safely arrived (four days after I had safely arrived) and one about two thirds of the way through the trip to let them know a little bit about what I was experiencing, much of which I even now have yet to process.
There was never any internet connection. Our cell phones didn’t always work. The electricity would go out for days at a time. People would choose not to show up for the scheduled meetings, or want to reschedule, unable to understand that we were there for a very limited amount of time and that rescheduling was not an option. We got sick. We were hot and dirty. We smelled really bad. We were always moving, always tired, and always hungry. We were a spectacle, walking around white and unable to speak the language.
I have a good friend who has lived and done quite a bit of work in Africa. When I serendipitously ran into him this morning at a coffee shop, he asked about my trip. I had trouble explaining to him, as I still have trouble wrapping my head around myself. He sent me a follow up email to tell me that although he didn’t live my experience while I was there, he has somewhat of a working understanding of what it is like, “I’ve been dancing with the devil for a while now going back and forth trying to live and give in a way that I hope contributes on some real level. Whether or not I’ve even come close is up for debate, but what’s not in question is that I’ve never returned without feeling as though I was upside down and made of paper mache.” If that’s the standard to measure whether you have a chance at coming out of this with a trail of good behind you, then I think we might get to classify our trip as a raging success…..
And as I’m getting older I’m humbly beginning to recognize a new pattern…When I can confidently label something a raging success, often times it is not as a result not of my own careful planning and diligence, but more so instead, as a result of throwing everything into a universe-sized Cuisinart and then pouring it all out on the counter to fall as it may… which tends to be exactly as it’s supposed to be… The best way… The most amazing and unthinkable way… One that works better than anything that I could have ever planned… Thus the case with our trip.
Our interactions with different government and non-profit relief agencies and humanitarian aid workers were typically the same, “wait, you came back?!?! Nobody ever comes back.” After allowing them to touch us to ensure that we were not apparitions, we were able to settle down and brainstorm ways to partner with them to make sure that the needs of their specific populations would be met this summer during the educational tour of the short film. Under resourced and overworked, they were grateful to have people stand beside them in the fight and continually pledged support, resources, and prayers to our efforts.
One NGO that we worked had won an Africa-wide humanitarian award as the best Children’s Rights Advocacy Agency two years in a row. Their Executive Director was so pleased with the progress that Unseen Stories had made and was so impressed with our plans for the summer tour that he offered his agency’s two vehicles and offered to travel with the teams this summer as their driver in order to help ensure that this initiative happens as planned. ….
Although I will not succumb to the broad generalization that I’ve been fed so far in all of my trainings that Africa as a whole is “relationship first,” I will say that my experience there was quite different that what I might have encountered in the US. In what I learned to expect soon into my trip, social connections are loosely interchangeable with business connections. It was not surprising at all for someone to give us the personal cell phone number of someone that they knew who might also be interested. It was also not uncommon for them to call that someone and have that someone just drop what they were doing and show up at our meeting. So even as we were there on a reconnaissance mission for strategic planning for this summer, we were still exponentially expanding our network of anti-trafficking allies and garnering new support for this summer.
In one of those encounters, we were meeting with a hotel owner to negotiate rates and reservations for the teams during the summer when they are in his area of the country. It just so happened that while we were meeting him at his hotel for drinks, down the road at his massive house, his son Charlie was playing with Alba, the daughter of Florent, the head of an orphanage that houses children rescued from trafficking until they can find permanent placements for them. (That last sentence explaining all of the connections made me feel like the omniscient, faceless narrator of Pushing Daisies “…the facts were these…”) Suddenly, Florent was at our meeting and we were scheduling a tour of his facility and a meeting with him in the city the next week.
When we got to his facility, whose name translates to The Center for Childhood Happiness, I was instantly assailed by droves of children who repeatedly asked me whose parents I was going to be. They fought over holding my hand, supposing that it might increase their chances. One child kept talking to me, but I wasn’t able to answer. I didn’t ignore him, but I wasn’t providing him with responses that he thought were appropriate to his questions. So he interrupted Florent and said, “I keep talking to this lady, but she doesn’t answer me back like she’s supposed to.” Florent explained (rather roughly) that I don’t speak French, only English. This satisfied the little guy, but didn’t keep him from jockeying for my left hand.
My right hand was locked into the grasp of a two year old girl with no pants. I think that had she been wearing them, I would have assumed that she was a boy because she was almost bald, but the bare bottom clued me in. She followed me around, not even looking at me, but holding on to my hand with a death grip—to the point that it was really uncomfortable and awkward. When it was time for us to go inside and leave the children to start our meeting, I had to use my left hand to peel her from my right hand. As soon as she succumbed to my gentle but forcible unravel, she grabbed my left hand, which I had been using to free myself from her grasp. I was overwhelmed momentarily by the desperation and then also what must be behind it to make it manifest with such overwhelming, unadulterated vehemence.
She was rescued from trafficking sometime before she reached age two. I’m not sure that she had the physical capacity to be used for hard labor as many trafficked children are. I can only imagine what a two year old might be sold for and the secrets that she is holding on to. I hope that she can’t remember…..
Later in the trip, we went to another center for children rescued from trafficking. This center catered to much older children and didn’t function as an orphanage seeking to place them with families. This center focused on preparing them for independent living, teaching them life skills, providing them with education, and putting them into apprenticeships with artisans from the community so that they might have some marketable skills such as carpentry, animal husbandry, etc. By this point in the trip, it was already established that I was a USA STAR and I was continually introduced as so, much to my chagrin.
At this center, there was a boy who was celebrated as a singer. He sang for me the first night. I don’t know his name. I don’t know what he sang. And the truth is, he wasn’t a spectacular singer, but he was so sincere that it just pierced my soul. And I was just standing there—far too close for my American sense of personal space—staring at a face I didn’t know and weeping. Then he wanted me to sing for him. So I did about a minute’s worth of Summertime. When I opened my eyes, he was still there. Again… invasively close… staring at me silently with tears rolling down his face.
We never spoke. Just stared at each other crying. All I could think of was, “this could be the most significant moment that I have ever experienced.” Then he walked off, stopping maybe ten yards out to turn around and stare again for what felt like my entire life. Then he smiled at me and walked away. And I’m still not sure what happened…
My friend summed it up in his email to me this morning, “the only thing that keeps me going back is that from time to time I’m blessed with a glimpse of that which is best about our world… know that there were moments where you were able to take a child away, even if for a second, from a context that was more than likely working to keep a smile from shining through. In truth that’s probably the greatest thing any of us have ever achieved in trying to go into a place like that and affect change.”
With that, I invite you to visit the Unseen Stories website to find out more about the summer education initiative that Jen and I lost a lot of sleep to organize over the last month. Look at pictures. Get excited. Get inspired. Think about ways that you can get involved. Be someone’s change.