So, how is Africa, really? Do I live in a mud hut? Do I sweat miserably all the time? Have I ridden a rhino? Have I gotten a weave yet? How am I doing? Really?
I bought a dress recently that brought on some good, old-fashioned introspection. And for those of you who want to know how I’m doing here—surviving or thriving—this is post is for you.
Recently I went to the fabric market, one of my favorite places here, and I spent the $15-ish for a favorite piece of fabric and a tailor-made dress to match the style here. I LOVE the bright orange and yellow and the crazy pattern. I love the colors and the shape and how much it makes me feel in my element. As I took some pictures for family and friends to see the finished product, the dress reminded me somehow of a chrysalis, my entrée into ownership of my new life here.
My first three months in Africa have tanned my skin, slimmed my waist, strengthened my endurance, made me treasure my laugh. Life is hard here in some ways. But it’s beautiful in so many more. And I love it. Some quality of life here refines things and chips away at the rough edges to help you find a beauty and a wildness underneath. Looking at my dress and my wide smile in the only mirror in our house that I can see myself in, the thought occurred to me that through the sometimes difficult adjustment, I’m becoming more of the Caroline I was meant to be.
I always feel that way when I’m overseas because I love being immersed in new cultures. Something in this crazy nomad life makes me feel more alive because I think it’s what I was created to do. But that feeling is somehow stronger here in Africa than it was in Bulgaria, where I lived before for two years.
To help explain, let me give you some pictures, photos and narratives, of what I mean.
Like I said before, life can be hard here, and the adjustment did not come naturally.
While I’ll never have to pound grains like my African friends, or have arm muscles as defined as theirs, my life still isn’t very ‘cushioned’ here. It’s taken work to become comfortable making nearly every meal completely from scratch, to learn which ingredients I can and can’t find here, to become a pro at kitchen substitutions and same-day market trips so I know how to navigate my way in a world without steady refrigeration, a world that laughs at the suggestion of a freezer.
I arrived in my new Ugandan hometown as dry season escalated to its peak, when the winds that would bring rain instead dry and crack the ground and slowly burn away at our water sources. I live hours from the nearest AC unit, and our hydro-electric power grid gives us an average of 2-5 hours of electricity out of every 24. Sometimes during worse dry spells we can go without power for nearly a week. Fans are often out of the question, so I’ve grown familiar with dripping sweat from more places than I knew possible. On particularly hot days the butter at our market and in our homes sloshes around in its containers, more liquid than solid. The nice, imported chocolate bars are more like chocolate sauce.
I have a home with screened windows and a mosquito net for every bed frame, but we aren’t completely critter-proof. Colonies of ants and I are at war, battling to claim the house as our territory. We fight over rights to our food, for clear food preparation spaces, for a floor to sit or lay on without fear of being crawled-upon. I also harbor strong murderous feelings toward mosquitos, especially after my first (false alarm) malaria scare. The number of mosquitos killed from inside the net around my bed is frankly alarming, but not nearly as high as the amount of bites I’ve received. The geckos are my allies in this war, and I happily rent them residence in my house for the price of eating their weight in the little blood-suckers. I’ve become an avid lizard-rescuer, doing my best to save them from mop buckets, shoes, and ant swarms.
I don’t, by any stretch of the imagination, actually live in The Bush of Africa. I can go to restaurants in town when I can’t bring myself to cook. During rainy season I’m told we’ll have electricity more often than not. The freezer now sitting dormant in my pantry will stay always below room temperature instead of above. But these small ‘hardships’ of life—now or in rainy season—more than pay for themselves.
Living so simply has made me immensely grateful for basic needs that so often before I overlooked. A simple breeze or the cool of a shade tree cracks a smile wide across my face. Sure, I grumble when the water tanks for my house are empty, but I am grateful for every cup of water, recognizing it for the luxury that it is. In a life like this that pushes me to limits of heat, dehydration, patience, and ingenuity so often, I am thriving. I am living my best life now.
The heat and dust and sweltering sun are so extreme they are beautiful. Every fresh sunrise or sunset I see strikes me with its fierce, undomesticated beauty. Something in the harsh extremes and severe intensities is perfectly home for my wild spirit—the same wild spirit that found itself at home among the loud and dramatic Roma people in Bulgaria, or in the blazing, miles-long sunsets of Oklahoma grasslands, or hidden forests and rivers of North Carolina.
The wildness in me that loves to decorate with zebra stripes or wear purple lipstick is perfectly at home here. I wear giant earrings that orbit my head like small moons. I love the freedom of wind in my hair when I travel through town on a motorcycle taxi. The thrill of driving our 4×4 across the ruts and holes and boulders in our roads awakens my sense of adventure. Safari in the bush is one of the quickest ways to make me feel like myself again. I find it impossible to imagine that I could ever lose my awe over the flight of some of the world’s largest bats across the sunset in the evenings.
But my lack of domestication has not only found a home here; it has made one. Finding new and different ways to bake from scratch stokes my creativity and keeps me on my toes. I love to share what I have and to build friendships scattered with muffin crumbs and dusted with flour. I feel my ramshackle house to be a home most fervently when it is full of the smell of fresh yeast rising. But I also feel satisfied and contented in those full, quiet moments walking through the fabric market and soaking in all the colors and the steady clicking of manually powered sewing machines. I feel at home in this untamed landscape whenever I get the chance to look out over the Nile at sunset and silently meditate on its power, steadiness, and lifeblood for the land. I have already grown to love calling everyone ‘sister’ in the market as I barter for fresh produce so full of color, texture, and smell that I can’t help but touch everything to soak in the vitality of the place.
The community here, the incredible hospitality, the food and smiles and vibrant worship on Sundays that kicks up clouds of dust—these make me feel comfortably at home here, even if the heat or the bugs are anything but comfortable. The inconveniences of life here make me cherish its joys all the more. This strangely incongruous life is so unique, spirited, dynamic, and vivid. Its hardships make it all the more dear. Its inconveniences make it all the more precious to me. It is a life of extremes and ironies, of charging your smartphone by a solar panel, of introducing your African friends to the Lion King, of white skin truly belonging in an African dress.
So no, I don’t live in a mud hut. But I do quite enjoy swinging in my hammock in the grass hut in our yard. And no, I haven’t ridden a rhino or gotten a weave or fulfilled my promise to get a pet zebra for my backyard. Yet.
But I do feel undeniably good here: healthy, whole, home.