I’ve been dreading this time since the moment I landed two months ago. This time when I need to say goodye to Africa. As soon as I smelled the faintly familiar smells of this magical place – the warm earth, the charcoal fires cooking various delicacies in open air stalls, the impossible-to-describe scent of the windy air – I felt like I was home gain. Though it had been ten years since I left (in the late summer of 2005), when I arrived in Livingstone, Zambia I felt like I was where I was meant to be in this world. And now I’m sitting in Zanzibar – gazing at the aquamarine sea from our volunteer huts, staring at the calendar that is telling me I’ve been on this beautiful continent for two months and it’s time to move on to Asia. And when I think of the word “Onward” around which I’ve built this trip, my toes curl under a bit, my chest tightens, and I become a petulant little girl. I don’t wanna go.
It’s not that I’m not excited about Asia. I am. It’s just that I KNOW Africa. I have been embraced by its people. I have been moved to tears on several occasions by its wildlife. My soul has been touched deeply and I have been forever changed…
The lion handlers in Livingstone took me in as one of their own – encouraging me to join them side-by-side, hauling heavy wheelbarrows and chopping donkey meat and heaving heavy jugs of water for the lions. I felt like I belonged to a special society. And they applauded my strength. And they told me I was beautiful – even when I was standing in the hot, still afternoon sun, sweat dripping out from beneath my work gloves, my clothes and shoes spattered with blood and lion poo, my entire body powdered with red earth.
The locals in Zanzibar also welcomed me with open arms and warm smiles. Early on I befriended young Rama, our boat driver, and tried out my Swahili on him at every chance I got. After he spent three weeks navigating the choppy seas, hauling us to and from the fish market out to see the dolphins, he quietly pulled me aside on my last day, a heavy paper bag hidden behind his back. He then pulled out a beautifully carved wooden dolphin and another delicate boat resembling the Dhow fishing canoes used by so many locals – carefully painted with bright Rasta colors of red, green and yellow. He shyly looked down as he handed them to me, explaining that his friend had carved both from local Baobab trees (my favorite tree on earth, of course). You’ll likley not be surprised to learn that I teared up … but I held it together long enough to thank him in a trembling voice (Asanta Sana Rama!!!). He just kind of bowed his head and said “I will miss you madam.”
In addition to these amazing human interactions – Africa has, of course, provided me with countless gifts of communing with nature. The times spent with lions – whether just gazing at them lazing about as a wild giraffe nibbled at a tall tree behind me, or having my friend Lovewell teach me how to give them a belly rub… I sit here today shaking my head in wonder.
And the almost indescribable swim outing with the dolphins … I will never forget settling into the water, fixing my mask, placing my face into the sea and seeing four of them silently glide directly beneath me. And minutes later, viewing a lone dolphin surface near me and slowly swim by. I kicked my fins madly (though silently!), trying to keep up and he appeared to meander for a bit, at one point looking at me as if to say, “are you keeping up ok?” (And yes, I recognize I am taking huge liberties here … he wasn’t likely thinking much more than … “hmmm – is she a fish and can I eat her?”). Regardless, when my dolphin friend finally swam so deep that his body merged with the black of the sea, I came to rest and turned my face to the sunny sky. And a sob escaped as I turned away from the waiting boat … my tears mixing with the salty sea. I have never known such joy. Such gratitude.
So these are the memories that will hold strongest in my mind as my travels continue. Sure, I’ll look longingly at my photos of the brilliantly colored sea and many beautiful sights I’ve seen here in Africa. But it will be the interactions with the people, the lions, the dolphins that will burn brightest. It is my hope that I’ll commune with the people of Asia, with the elephants I’ll be with in Cambodia next month, and the monkeys I’ll get to hang out with in the trees of Laos. But my stars, will I miss Africa…