A Change of Place and Mind
After about a hundred years of raising 3 kids as a divorced single parent (OK -- it wasn't QUITE that long. It just seemed like it at times), I decided to treat myself to a rather unique present for my 65th birthday. I've been a nature photographer for a long time, and like many people, fell in love with Africa. Most of my friends will tell you that I never do things "half-way," so I decided to volunteer for 3 months in Tanzania to celebrate this auspicious occasion. I worked for a not-for-profit company based in New York, who has volunteers working for them from all over the world in many different countries. It was necessary for me to pay for my own flights as well as a "program fee" to off-set housing and food expenses. It took many months for me to raise the funds necessary and I'm eternally grateful to special friends who helped with donations, as well as my photography customers.
People who don't know me well came up with myriad reasons why I shouldn't be doing this. After all, I have Osteoarthritis -- I've had 5 surgeries and joint replacements so far due to this and I have at least 2 more on my upcoming docket. Some said, "Aren't you too old????" Others said, "Are you sure you can physically do this?" My response to all, was "NO! I'm NOT sure I can do it, but I'll try. I'll give it all I've got!!!"
It was the toughest thing I've ever done in my life -- and the most rewarding!!! I worked primarily with teens who had been street kids and arrests were usually misdemeanors. With all of the farming we did (growing food for kids who were literally starving), lots of hugs, tears and laughter, I was given the unique opportunity to make a big difference in kids' lives!!! But they have had a lasting impact on me, too! I left for Africa thinking I was a terminally average American with enough clothes, shoes, and so forth to meet my needs. I didn't realize that, by African standards, I would be considered incredibly wealthy. I have a house. I have furniture that I'm embarrassed to admit I haven't sat on in years. I have way too many clothes (OK, I'm not exactly a fashion explosion, but I do have alternatives to jackets, shoes, hiking boots, etc. Most of my guys were lucky IF they had 1 shirt, 1 pair of pants, and many had never owned shoes). Many of my guys were grateful to be in prison, because they had a bed, finally (even though they had to share it). They quite often got something to eat (although it was watery gruel and they got it only every other day). They had a "Mama Pati," me, a good listener and quick with a hug.
I returned to America, somewhat confused with life. For 3 months, I'd been living in a very poor area. The kids had no medical or dental care (but also didn't eat junk food or sugar and were definitely NOT overweight), but the Tanzanians all believe "be grateful for what you have!"
So, I'm lightening the "proverbial load." I've given away many of my clothes, coats, and boots (haven't worn them anyway because of the steel plate in my ankle!) I'm an American with far more than anyone really needs or should have. I find that I need to avoid stores due to the upcoming holiday seasons. I really can't be around the kids whining for that EXTRA dolly or toy, the adults I've encountered who can be downright unpleasant when the store doesn't have "that color or the right size!" I will admit that I've discovered how much money I tend to "blow" on things I really didn't need. In Africa money wasn't wasted, simply because "things" weren't available. How many times have you climbed into your car and gone to the store and ONLY bought the 1 thing you actually needed? This morning I hopped in my truck to run an errand that probably wasn't really important, then discovered my vehicle was having a nervous breakdown and needed a new battery! After I quit complaining to myself, I realized that, at least I DO have a vehicle -- many of my guys had never even been in a car!
So, I'm trying very hard to live more of the Tanzanian way. I will actually think twice before I pick up that whatever that wasn't on my list.
I'm grateful that I live in a country where medical help is readily available to me as an arthritis patient. Life expectancy in that part of Africa is only 50 and medical help is seldom available.
I am definitely NOT a candidate anytime soon for sainthood, but I feel strongly that it is my responsibility to make this a better happier world when and where I can.