The moon, large, yellow, rises slowly above the trees, sounds of the jungle can be heard in the early evening, strange and foreign to my ears. Sitting on the cement flooring that marks the porch edge for the school we are building, I have a moment of clarity, my place on the earth. I see it on a globe, glowing brightly, so far away from everything I know. Rising with the moon, an urge in my heart, to walk into the forest, disappearing from all that is known, into a place where everything familiar to me no longer exists. Into a place where everything unnecessary, unessential, is stripped away.
Sitting on this porch, my life rolls out before me, a road I can follow along, expected, going where everyone always goes. The urge beckons me into the forest, to leave the path completely, to step fully into the unknown. Excitement and fear stir in my heart, feeling life propel me into a nexus from which I will emerge, changed. Unknown to me, in three short weeks I will face death at the hands of something so very small it takes a microscope to see it. The malaria parasite will take hold, bringing me to my knees. A moment of indiscretion, a break in the usual pattern of protection from mosquito bites, a night without netting, to sleep in a gentle breeze that can make its way to my hot skin. I am not alone in the indiscretion that night, and when the malaria comes, I am not alone in my suffering.
Sitting on the school porch, none of this is known. Listening to the evening sounds of the jungle, I consider walking into the forest but do not rise from my seat. I feel the distance home, feel the space between all that I know and all that is foreign. A white face in a sea of color, I am outside myself and outside my understanding. This village we are working in is poor, poor in a way I have never seen. Cinder blocks made of dirt, sand, and cement are fashioned together as we work. The dirt comes from the well we dig by hand deep into the red earth. Ten meters down, heat and humidity are somehow heavier, digging and filling one bucket at a time, raised and lowered, filled and emptied. In time, the footing becomes wet mud, then water. We are standing knee deep in water, soon waist deep. The water is cool, and when we are done, it is clear and clean.
The Ghanaian way is to sing as you work. They teach us their work songs to lighten the effort. The songs are happy, joyful, and seem to stand in contrast to the poverty surrounding me. In my mind, happiness comes from the things that you have, the comforts of life, yet in this place, with these people, I am happier, more content than I have ever been. They have relatively little yet share what they have freely. We are guests, and they treat us with all the kindness that a person can possess. In my mind, this dissonance reverberates, shaking loose patterns of thought, patterns of belief that guide my life. I find myself looking into the forest wondering which path I will take, which way I will go, feeling lost without map or compass, curious as to what I will do in my life.
The crises that is coming is outside of my view. Not knowing the degree to which I will be tested, I am content to ponder where happiness comes from, why the Ghanaians are so happy, with so little, and such hard lives. The joy and satisfaction I see in the children running around outside the school, in the parents as they go about their work, do not fit with my world view, they do not fit my patterns of understanding. I find myself drifting along wondering what it all means and feeling the pilings that support my point of view begin to shift.
Sitting on my cushion, sunlight beams through the window, the stained-glass glows brightly, there is warmth where it lands upon me. The old cat maneuvers herself to the perfect place so she can get the warmest spot, her old bones seem stiff this winter. It happens like this, one day you notice that you cannot get up from the cushion as easily, the knees make sounds that you have not heard before, sounds heard more often from the stairs as they creak under foot. I find myself remembering those days in Ghana, where I did not yet know what would become of my life. From this place, this time, I see how Africa changed my life forever. I can see how my brush with death opened up doors unseen, how my confusion over the happiness that surrounded me amidst such poverty propelled choices to understand where happiness comes from, and how my time as an outsider in West Africa opened up my point of view so I could set out upon my walk through the jungle of self-exploration. A smile crosses my face as I find myself humming one of the old work tunes, words long forgotten, but the melody and the lessons remain.
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