It doesn’t smell like I thought it would here, nor is the sound quite right. On my first morning in Africa, I rise to a smell reminiscent of my hometown after a spring rain, and a sound distinctly that of my current home in Qingdao, China: a syncopated symphony of construction complete with the pounding of hammers, the buzzing of power saws, and the sporadic voices calling commands over the din. I must confess that my expectations were something more stereotyped; I wrongly expected smells akin to an Indian spice shop: pungent and exotic, and sounds more quiet and peaceful, more Karen Blixen, more bird sanctuary, and less like a city on the rise.
I spend a long day waiting for my friend to arrive. I haven’t seen her in more than 20 years. Not since the birth of her first child have I looked in her eyes, unless you count those few moments at our 10th high school reunion when in a fit of moral superiority, I made an unjustified judgement. Perhaps she remembers my transgression or maybe she never noticed, but 20 years later I still feel guilty for my intolerance and for the assumption that I knew better than she. I am not the same person I was twenty, or even ten, years ago, and I have an apology to make. I have traveled a long way to make it.
I breakfast in the atrium, discomfited by the banality of it all. After living in Asia for more than six years, I am unaccustomed to blending in, as I am typically one of the few fair-headed blues in a sea of wiry-haired browns. Today, though, I am one among many Westerners in this most African of cities. At the table next to me is a salt-and-pepper professorial type nearing the final pages of a scholarly thousand-page book. Scattered around the perimeter of the room are the singles like myself, the ones here alone on business who seem accustomed to breakfasting alone in far-flung places. Nearer the center of the room are the groups of four, eight, even ten, who are clearly colleagues, NGO development wonks, judging from their chatter. I feel simultaneously invisible and out of place. I look no different from any of them, but I am suddenly painfully conscious of my career-less status. I, who left a career in public health to trail my husband to the life of a housewife living overseas; I, who six years ago suffered the painful loss of professional identity, and subsequent recovery, only to relapse amongst this group of enthusiastic and idealistic international professionals.
Breakfast begins a long day of waiting, a day in which I have plenty of opportunity and cause for reflection. I remember the first time I met her. It was my first day at a new school, in a new life, a transfer student in 11th grade. Then, as now, I didn’t fit in very well with my community; I wore my hair short and spiky, dyed a vibrant red, wearing heavy black work boots with my fringed suede jacket, a confused yet bold small-town blend of punk and hippie. She was nothing like me; tall, confident, and a rare beauty, she made her mark on me for her looks as well as her kindness, for on that day, she became my first new friend. She sought me out across a crowded cafeteria, for reasons I have never questioned, and made that first day bearable.
We became close friends and confidantes, but we were not destined to share our lives for long. With her looks, poise, and intelligence, she was on a trajectory to the life of a beautiful person in New York City. For my part, I was on my way to university and I aspired to the life of a smart person: scientist, doctor, wonk, I didn’t really care as long as it made me look smart. She made her mark in the fashion world then I lost her as she created a life and a family somewhere far from me. I built a career, only to abandon it for the transient life of an expatriate in Asia. The passing years intervened.
I sit under the dappled shade of the acacia tree and order a White Cap Lager as I think of our reunion, more than a year in the making and now only moments away. Tomorrow we will travel south, to a region near the Kenya-Tanzania border, and start digging a well to serve a community in need. I get to witness my friend's vision first-hand, and the good she has done in the world. She has seen a need in Africa, and garnered all her resources to help fill it. Somewhere along the way, perhaps through shared toil in the blazing African sun, twenty years of lost friendship will be redeemed.
You can learn more about Carmen's vision and work at A Voice is Heard. Please consider making a generous contribution to this organization and help us make a difference for a community in need.