Africa 1984: Life and Death

Lisa OkavangoDelta1984

 

 

I had for so long taken for granted that I would not live past 40 that nowhere on my radar screen appeared any such thing as a long-term goal.  Imbued with unbridled curiosity, I was a perpetually impassioned learner exploring multiple interests but with no reason to sink roots.   A vague sense of a spectre at my shoulder was never far, calmly ready should that crucial moment arise, not in a way that was morbid, merely watchful, an aspect of myself through which I looked out at the world.  Periodically from out there would come small jagged reminders.  Once in my early twenties when my then-husband and I were on a road trip through the Southwest on his Harley, the stretch of freeway we were on was quaking with the tonnage of commercial transport trucks which sandwiched us all around.  The mud flaps of the rumbling behemoth directly in front bore the dirt-splotched message, “At road’s end you will see Jesus”.  A ripple of fear snaked through me.  And just as quickly, knowing I had no control over this situation and nothing I could do to change it, I resigned my life to whatever the outcome… and the moment passed.  Much later as integration closed the gaps of my wholeness, the alerts morphed organically into gentle inner reminders whenever the day of any anticipated event came and went: so too will come and go the day of my death.

At 40 I left for Africa to fulfill a life-long dream.  Since I was a toddler crawling among hens, animals have always accompanied me and taught me, and I yearned to experience Africa, its creatures and the land in all their mythic wildness.  I’d arranged to hook up in Johannesburg, South Africa, with a seven-week overland expedition.  That open-sided army-convoy-type truck trundled us through several countries including Botswana (home of my coveted Okavango Delta, first sighted on TV’s National Geographic), crossing the Kalahari desert, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and winding up in Nairobi, Kenya. Along the way stopping in villages to buy supplies, sleeping most nights under mosquito nets strung from trees, exploring whatever invited our attention.  Such exquisite intoxication this previously inconceivable freedom…

Because I had no certainty if or how I’d be returning home, no reason existed to hold back anything.  In no way was I courting death but neither skirting it.  Into or out of that blithe unquestioning openness spilled experiences which, to this day, the mere memory enfolds me with wonder, leaving me suspended in numinous reverie.  But the me at journey’s inception was a physical, secular me focused on the grand adventure I’d envisioned, not yet aware of how much more lay beyond my own knowing.  My primal bond with the earth and with animals profoundly stirred my soul, soothed and delighted me and gave me a sense of belonging.  But I did not perceive in those feelings anything other than natural.  Because I had early on vehemently rejected religion, forced on me in my youth, and with that rejection unknowingly discarded the spiritual reality to which religions attempt to point, I had developed a deeply ethical way of being in the world that relied on me, on my mind and heart, my intuition and instinct, and I could not conceive or experience a formless plenitude out of which I originated, from which I was inseparable, and that in any fashion took note of me.

All that I had expected to be thrilling –the elephants, the lions, the zebras, the hippos, the land and sky– turned out to be almost breathlessly entrancing, beyond anything I could have dreamed.  But even before encountering the animals, almost from the moment Johannesburg’s painful and surreal apartheid-era oppressiveness was left behind, once out on rural roads, seemingly out of nowhere something other became detectable.  Something.. a vibrational quickening altogether unexpected which I had never contemplated because even as I’d stitched together every detail of preparation for the trip I’d been in a kind of inner tunnel.  On crossing out of South Africa into Gaborone, Botswana we pulled off-road on a rise overlooking an open-air market that seemed an energetic sea of black faces and brilliant-hued textiles.  Something I can’t fully describe broke open in me, a mix of rootedness and freedom, elation and quiet sense of coming home, and along with it the long-buried crust around the memory of my family’s pride in its European heritage while denying our Miskito roots –and I the dark-skinned child overhearing it all and absorbing the rejection.

And it hit me.  That humming presence I’d been feeling in the air, gathering strength the farther we got from Johannesburg, was the life-force of Africans themselves, their unfettered vibrancy and generosity and rainbow colors, their warm simplicity and robust engagement with life, their inextricable connection to the land and to the immediacy and joy of the moment in spite of conditions often ranging from meager to numbing.  Again and again ordinary situations –a mid-day stop for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches under the one tree in a vast Tanzanian plain, watching two tiny figures on foot way in the far off distance– turned out to reveal immense and indelible richness.  Arriving dusty and accepting water, these Maasai men, regal in their traditional red garb and serious faces, broke into wide smiles at the Swahili I’d been nurturing for nine months. In the course of our conversation –they feeding me the words I lacked– it came to light that one of them, the more chatty of the two, counted among his four languages, the clipped British English he’d acquired as a student at Oxford.  Drawn back to Africa by the love of the land, he wore dangling from his neck the tiny beaded leather pouch filled with a pinch of soil and the dried golden grass of his wide savannah…

I returned home cracked open… unrecognizable even to myself.  For weeks afterwards weeping in the shower for more than could yet be known… feeling like all the pieces that had made up who I once was had flung themselves into the air and when they fell back rearranged themselves in ways that even the simplest procedures had to be re-membered.

That venture at age 40 turned out to be, up to that time, my most conscious surrender to the all-encompassing nature of life, eyes wide open as I waded in to meet what I believed would be my physical death –and encountered instead a passage through a form of death, a transition that initiates, that lifts the veil on a yet larger reality.  I see now that it was my first true baptism –into the World, a world expanded light-years beyond the cocoon of my American-acculturated self with its generally unrecognized buffers of privilege and the self-soothing therapy of consumerism.  Only later would I come to find that during that entire year, synchronistically, Jupiter (expansion) had been transiting my natal Venus (values) in my 9th House of foreign travel…

That paradigm-altering leap into the unknown whetted a thirst in me to know more.  Africa initiated me into a decade of traveling solo and shoestring in Earth-based cultures.  In most of those travels it was a deep inner directive that prompted the journey and the destination.  I merely heeded the call, showing up with little more than a general sense of an itinerary, rarely with reserved accommodations or transport connections, allowing the journey to unfold through the synchronicities that confirmed I was being led.  Always at the core was my desire to see for myself parts of the whole unknown to me and, in doing so, to come  to recognize my own deepest values.

Out of this emerged an intention to live exuberantly and to whole-heartedly celebrate the primal life-force first encountered in Africa.  As I write this it becomes ever more clear this is what my life wants of me –to be present to whatever touches my heart, always letting the learning gift me with new eyes, and to listen closely among all that speaks to me for that one most subtle call that slows me to my most attentive stillness, not knowing where it will lead me…

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The young man in the photo, whose name my memory can no longer retrieve, was one of the wonderful guides who accompanied us, a group of seven women, into the Okavango Delta.  They poled the dugouts that took us through the tall reeds of the flooded plain to an island in the delta, and they made home out of our bare camp for the several days of our stay.  What I most remember were our lovely evenings under bright stars, amidst the music of night birds and insects, all of us hunched on the  ground around the campfire, talking, sharing stories, eating fish the men caught and grilled, later when conversation had quieted, one of them strumming honeyed notes out of a simple wood and string harp-like instrument as the glow of fire played on our faces…  Magical… and a dream come true…

 

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