Africa attracts a certain type of backpacker.
There is a sense of familial connection between both tourists and volunteers in our hearts’ collective response to the Motherland’s calling.
We are unified by the unabashedly raw beauty of Her land and Her people, alike.
We are hypnotized by Her abundance, Her mourning, and Her most simplistic joys.
And, we are magnetized to the depth of Her roots as we learn to sing in harmony with even the eldest of Her songs.
We are a tribe of people in and of ourselves.
After venturing to this wildly wonderful continent five times now (staying in six countries), I can say with certainty that the bonds I’ve forged with those I’ve met along the way have claimed a uniquely deep quality, even if after only a couple of days.
Our hearts have been tethered through our experiences of both fulfillment and horror. Empowering one another during those inevitable moments of fleeting defeat- as the weight of the world threatens to suffocate our greatest dreams with insurmountable doubt.
We challenge one another- through inspired thoughts rather than condescending beliefs- unlocking both our minds and our hearts to depths we perhaps did not know were even accessible before.
I’ve found that more often than not, we are people who have dedicated our lives to a greater need or cause, people who promote conservancy and equality, and people who are- at the end of each day-
are driven by love.
Throughout my time in Malawi, I came to know a married couple called Christoff and Sophie.
Although I chatted with them briefly during our nightly communal dinners at the volunteer accommodation where we stayed; it wasn’t until my final 48 hours in the country (when they so graciously offered me a ride from Nkhata Bay back to Lilongwe) that I had a chance to actually get to know them.
Sophie insisted that I sit comfortably up front in their roomy Land Cruiser for the entire 7-hour journey South, giving me a chance to talk with Christoff about everything under the African sun.
We went from chatting about GLOW’s projects, to our most horrid wounds, to our greatest wild animal sightings, to our upbringings and families, then back to the challenges and rewards of non-profit work. The ever-present theme, resurfacing with each changing topic- was the notion of love.
Throughout their nine months of traveling the Motherland (all by land, in that very vehicle), Christoff would ask nearly every person they met the same question:
"What is your definition of love?"
I wasn’t caught off-guard by his question, as it had circulated countless times already at the lodge on the lake- but that also didn’t mean I had any sort of answer prepared for when he finally asked.
I thought about it for a moment, before replying, “I don’t have a definition, really. I mean, I couldn’t just say that love is…and simply fill in that blank. But I do know that- for me- the most important component in love is compassion.”
He looked and me and simply said, “That word has been popping up a lot in the past few days.”
We went on to discuss our encounters with compassion- or the lack thereof- within the local villages and towns.
Don’t get me wrong, I have met some incredibly lovely African people who have displayed outrageous displays of compassion in an effort to help both myself, and their own people, in really wonderful ways.
However, generally speaking- there is a certain kind of indifference to suffering.
It seems this numbness is a likely result of commonality in that people are constantly exposed to pain and struggle- so it is no longer jarring, but simply the way of life.
There is also a large element of lacking education- especially related to issues of mental help and/or disabilities.
I’ve worked with young adults in slums who were locked in closets for the first 20 years of their lives because they were born with a disability.
I’ve been saturated in the tears of young girls who were raped by men infected with HIV in desperate attempts to rid themselves of the life-threatening virus.
I’ve bathed, fed, and laughed endlessly with orphaned children who were shoved in latrines or dumpsters just hours after their birth.
I’ve recorded the testimonies of hundreds Internally Displaced People who were brutally driven from their homes, raped, tortured, and nearly killed as a result of a Presidential Election.
I’ve visited the gravesites of boys who bled to death after being kidnapped and circumcised by their own classmates, simply because they looked different.
I’ve seen an autistic boy tied to a tree, and believed to be possessed by the devil- wetting himself in his helpless captivity.
These are the instances which really confuse my tangled meaning of love and compassion.
Is the opportunity for education suddenly an element that contributes to the cultivation of compassion?
Do the most basic needs of survival swallow the possibility of compassionate love, or do they simply morph these ideals into something which we- as Westerners- struggle to understand?
After all, these are the same people who invite their sick parents into their one-bedroom mud huts (already full with at least 5 children), and care for them until they take their last breath.
These are the people who struggle to provide just one meal a day to their families, yet provide feasts larger than your stomach can even contain upon the arrival of any guest or visitor.
These are the people who work 12 hours each day to be paid less than what we have the opportunity to make in just one hour- all in an effort to fund their children’s education, in hopes that this gift will create a new life for them.
These are the people who see that you’re cold, and insist for you take the only blanket in their home- halting their own quaking bones for the sake of a visitor’s warmth.
All of which are certainly acts of compassionate love, right?
Which leads me to Sophie- a woman whose vast heart is consumed by a fierce passion for animals of any shape or size.
She hopes to spread awareness to people in the developing world about the interconnection all living beings.
And, how a thriving animals can, in turn, positively affect (as well as increase the most basic survival needs) of a human.
During one conversation about her struggle to focus solely on her passion (animals) in a place where so many people were suffering just as badly (or worse), she spoke a simple string of words which really resonated with me.
“Conservation is a luxury.”
I couldn’t agree more.
And, I bring this up due to the fact that (I believe) the promotion of conservation stems from compassion.
Whether it comes from a place of caring fiercely about the Earth, or about the animals which are becoming extinct, or the people who are affected by deforestation- the common denominator is simply caring about various lives outside of your own.
The same can be said for something like the dietary choice to be vegan. For me, I choose to veganism in an effort to incorporate love in every arena of my life, even on my plate.
However, imagine each hour of your day revolving around maintaining basic survival needs (typically not only for yourself, but also for other family members, as well) such as: gathering enough food and water, providing sufficient shelter and clothing, sustaining general health, etc- how is there time and/or energy to care about external hardships of other living beings?
In the Western world, the NEED to apply our survival instincts has been stripped away- allowing us the OPPORTUNITY to learn about, and then focus on, the preservation of other living beings.
Is compassion- like the notion of conservation- a luxury?
A passage written by an incredibly talented Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, further amplifies Sophie’s statement, but from the perspective of an African, instead:
“There was a certain luxury to charity that she could not identify with and did not have. To take ‘charity’ for granted, to revel in this charity towards people whom one did not know- perhaps it came from having had yesterday and having today and expecting to have tomorrow. She envied them this.” (Americanah, p.209)
It’s quite typical for Westerners to observe developing countries with criticism, pity, or unspoken authority.
But, the truth is- we are the ones with the resources, the means, and the opportunities to devote our energy to lives outside of our own.
Yet, even with these luxuries at our fingertips- the majority of us still chose to cocoon ourselves with selfishness, falsely cloaking the heart’s innate desires with worldly possessions upon the infinite climb of society’s ladder that so hollowly defines our success.
What if we started seeing the idea of compassion and charitable outreach (whether domestically or abroad) as the luxury, instead?
As a gift that we were so undeservingly given, simply by winning the ovarian lottery of life.
Do you think, then, more love would be spread?
And- continuing to play with this hypothetical- by increasing the amount of time, energy, and resources which are given back to various communities in need-wouldn’t the overall quality of life, financial stability, health, and education of our worldwide population be elevated as a whole?
In turn, don’t you think those same recipients would more likely be inspired to pay it forward (charitably speaking), once armed with the mindful tools of how and WHY it’s important.
Until meeting Sophie and Christoff, I never fully considered the impacts of education, environment, and economic status as contributing factors to such a complex emotion.
It seems to me that no matter where we’re born, we come into this world with love in our hearts.
That same love is influenced, transformed, sometimes completely shattered, destroyed, and then rebuilt again and again as we progress through life.
From what I can tell, we have so much to learn from one another in order to tap into our greatest potential for love; and more specifically- compassionate love.
Perhaps, as Westerners, we can bring forth the luxury of our increased opportunity for education- offering long-lasting, sustainable solutions with a gaze broader than an immediate survivalist bubble.
And from the developing world, we can soak in the loving qualities of family values, hospitality, and happiness in simplicity.
And, from this tapestry woven of global hearts will the purest kind of love radiate with boundless reach.