Wednesday, June 11, 2008
25 years ago
I spent a summer in what was then called Zaire back in 1983. I joined a group of college kids led by Campus Crusade for Christ to show the Jesus Film in remote villages. The experience of that summer remains one of the most powerful in my memory. There was something about Africa: jungly, wild, unwilling to be American yet the Zairois (as they were called) were fascinated by our money, our privilege, our ability to leave at will.
We Campus Crusaders slept in huts with bats in them, we made beef stew with grizzled meat, a few carrots and potatoes and tomato paste over an open flame in a big black pot. We recruited villagers to watch the film by parading past little huts, marching through the dirt, holding signs. We'd draw children like magnets.
Many nights, I'd look up at the most starry sky I'd ever seen, watching the moon, amazed that it was the same moon I knew in smoggy Los Angeles. I've never felt so far away from the world I knew as I did in Africa.
I still remember how to say "God is good" in Lingala: Nzambe Malamu.
The people were good, and sneaky, and friendly, and under privileged, and desperate, and content, and so interesting to me. I never got enough of them.
Africa got under my skin.
Our team of college kids helped to paint and upgrade the Crusade HQ during days and weeks between outings to the bush. I got to know the staff pretty well because I spoke French, unlike the rest of the kids (got to a level of fluency I haven't duplicated since). Staff kids played with dirt clods, sticks and tire rims and bits of broken plastic. The two boys in this photograph were staff kids. They begged me to scoop them up, so I did, and one of my friends grabbed my camera and "clicked" the shot. One take. Perfect timing.
The photo hangs in my bathroom. Every day I see it in reverse reflection in the mirror as I put on my make-up. Makes me miss Zaire, that world. I also miss the "me" in that photo. The summer of 1983 represents a time in my life when I handled myself independently, when I stretched myself to do and be without reference to other people. I was as fully myself as I could be at that point in time.
In August 1983, when I boarded the plane to exit Kinshasa (capital) and head back to Europe, I remember thinking: before I know it, it will be 25 years and I will not have been back and I'll miss Zaire, wondering why I never returned. Shore 'nuff.
Where were you 25 years ago? Do you miss it?