I do not know when Africa first spoke to me, or even how. With my trip to Tanzania now less than three months away, I still can’t explain the longing to travel so far, on a journey of certain heartbreak and greater joy, to give so much of myself. I know I am not alone in succumbing to the allure of a continent I’ve never seen, of wanting to make a difference in the face of relentless poverty and war, disease and devastating, unimaginable loss.
People young and old have been traveling to Africa for decades to fulfill such philanthropic goals. Yet even though I am going through a program that places such volunteers, nothing about this trip feels conventional or expected. For a month, I will be working in an orphanage in or near Arusha in northern Tanzania, pitching in wherever is needed, from helping out at mealtimes or with crafts and sports to teaching English and simply playing with the kids.
And though I know nothing about these children, beyond the general overview that’s been shared with me, it feels as if my heart is already with them. In the last few weeks, I’ve been aware of its tenderness, of its steeping in a quiet awe and gratitude every time I imagine myself there, try to picture the faces I will encounter – young and curious, haunted and hopeful – seeking what sweetness they can despite the shadowed stories that trail them.
I used to think Africa was a dream planted when I had the opportunity to interview Uganda’s Samite almost a decade ago. As I chatted with the New York-based musician, himself a former refugee, about his travels to Africa’s war-ravaged and stricken countries to work with former child soldiers and AIDS orphans, tears came to my eyes. To hear him talk about the immense suffering of these children and how connecting with them through music would become a bridge to their healing and joy moved me like nothing had before. I wanted to know what that was like, to place myself in that stream of sorrow and see the turning tides. I wanted to absorb the power of a simple touch, a kind word, a genuine expression of hope to cut loose the darkness and call on the brightness of dreams. But mostly, I wanted to know that kind of love, selfless, generous, immediate – the filling up of the giver and receiver from such a pure, resilient space.
I signed up to travel to Africa with Samite through his nonprofit Musicians for World Harmony. At the time, he would take small groups with him to refugee camps in places like Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. But just a few months before I would have departed, the trip was canceled, with no indication of another opportunity in the near future.
Despite the undeniable soul stirring I’d felt anticipating and preparing for such a transformational voyage, I put Africa away.
Less than two years later, as part of a leadership course I’d been encouraged to take, we were tasked with launching a community service project, the execution of which would culminate our six-month program. I can still remember the day I stood in the poetry aisle at a local bookstore, that assignment far from my mind as I perused the titles and stumbled across a collection of poems gathered by two volunteers who had spent time with India’s street children and orphans, helping them to express their emotions through the written word.
Holding the book in my hands, I felt my eyes filling, that inexplicable ribbon of longing unfurling once again. I didn’t expect to travel to Africa within six months but as others in my class planned charity walks, donation drives, and other local fundraisers, I again unpacked my dream. I imagined traveling to a country in Africa with other writers and musicians, using, much like Samite does, the power of art to inspire a healing apart from the very necessary tangible aid so many communities receive.
It was a project of intimidating scope but buoyed by the enthusiasm of everyone whose support I solicited, I dove in. I lined up some interested musicians, reached out to countless organizations already doing similar work to investigate possible collaborations and seek their guidance, contacted anybody and everybody who expressed a desire to be involved. Some offered to help with marketing or sit on a future board, some brainstormed and shared their proposals with me, based on their own volunteer projects. In those months, it seemed I couldn’t go anywhere without running into an individual who could be of benefit in some way.
I was moved and inspired by such an affirming response. My goal by the end of the class was to have targeted a country, written my own proposal and taken a week-long course in transforming lives through the creative arts. But once the leadership program was over, despite having accomplished those objectives, momentum stalled. The musicians got caught up in their own lives, and without the weekly structure of assignments and timelines to hold me accountable, so did I.
This time, however, Africa wouldn’t slip back into the silence, settle into the dust of the futile and abandoned. Yes, it seemed like I had let go once more, but now I talked steadily of that some day, wondered if perhaps the hows of traveling there were less important than the why that beckoned. Love was my only calling and if I had to package that in an elaborate program or go bearing my agenda for what I believed was possible, then I was not honoring that initial impulse sparked beyond the mind’s egotistical wrangling and need for rationale.
I considered traveling with other musicians, other groups – contemplated jumping aboard those extravagant but no less transformative journeys that packed in as many sightseeing and cultural excursions as they did charitable works. But something about those opportunities, while exciting, didn’t resonate.
Or maybe it was that I simply wasn’t ready.
Because when I signed up to volunteer in Tanzania last year, there was no vacillating, no debating whether I’d chosen the right organization or placement or even the right country. I didn’t think about the relinquished arts program I’d dubbed Words With Wings or the fact that I’d cast myself into the company of strangers for an entire month, with nothing even vaguely familiar to ease that settling in.
No, there was simply the immediate pull of these words: “If you’ve got a lot of love to give and want to make the impact of a lifetime…” As I read on, attuned to a tremulous but vibrant knowing, I heard the echo of my own core longing: “You should be prepared to open your arms and your heart to… become a beacon of hope, fun and most importantly, love.”
The love that wells when I volunteer annually at a holiday party for hundreds of Philadelphia’s underprivileged kids and watch the shy and sullen ones light up by the end of the day, suddenly eager to reach for my hands, to be clasped in my arms.
The love that leaks in surprising tears when I listen to the voices of African artists like Vusi Mahlasela and Angelique Kidjo, whose music speaks to healing and reconciliation, joy and fortitude, empowerment and hope. It doesn’t matter that I do not understand their native tongues. They are singing from the depths of a love that knows, as its other face, indescribable suffering.
And within minutes of hearing that call, I committed myself to follow. After years of talking about volunteering in Africa, always pushing that dream ahead of me, in less than 10 minutes I’d placed it fully in my palms.
Now I know Samite was merely the catalyst for me to unearth this yearning, our interaction shedding the first layer of what had always been with me, awaiting my discovery.
So it is when we tap into those desires that are uniquely ours, the ones we’ve come here to express. We may recognize that first flicker for what it really is, the soul’s imprint offering up its gifts. Or we may flirt with that whisper, try it on and then dismiss it, as if such purpose couldn’t possibly be ours. We may run from the ripples, distract ourselves carving a life from conventional expectation, or the deliberate reconfiguring of our priorities.
But the dream still sprouts, every misstep and near-step a ripening preparing us for the moment when we’ll finally stand in its embrace. Sometimes we are thrust into those arms, sometimes we come willingly. All that matters is we trust the voice that’s been with us all along, and the molding that awaits – to reshape our lives with a purpose for which we’ve been born.