Monday, August 10, 2015

holding pictures in my heart

Our second night in Kenya, I didn't sleep. I knew this might happen. In my experience, the first night after more than 24 hours of travel, exhaustion covers me like a lullaby and heavy blanket. Then the second night my body resists the cues of dark and night, insists on its own internal timekeeping.

I slept (or tried to) in a tent with the seven others on my team, pitched in the middle of nowhere, Kenya, near the Tanzanian border. We'd staked it in a clearing of dirt next to the new clinic my friend's nonprofit had helped to build, a small three-room building a few hundred yards from the teacher's quarters, and then the small four-room school a few hundred more yards off in the distance. The ground surrounding the clinic had been mostly cleared of rocks and stones surrounding the clinic, though some stubborn rocks remained. By the light of our headlamps, we carefully felt around for a space that was flat and clear so that our tent wouldn't get a hole, and we wouldn't get bruised during the night.

First, it was my bladder that kept me awake, though I had peed just before settling into the tent for the night. I woke my friend, and with headlamps and baby wipes in hand, we unzipped the tent door and stumbled just far enough from the tent to not disturb the others. Back in the tent, we tried to not trip over the strangling limbs and curled bodies of those still sleeping. I settled into my space in the corner and hoped I'd still get a few hours of sleep. But then the wind started whipping the side of the tent, and some strange alarm that only activates my imagination when I am overtired in the middle of the night told me that an animal might be making the tapping noises I knew I kept hearing. Just as I drifted off to sleep, another whip or tap woke me again and reminded me of my irrational fear. I started to give up on sleep.

I turned from my side to lie on my back. I looked up through the mesh ceiling of the tent and, without my glasses, saw what seemed to be bright blurry dots poking through the night sky. I found my glasses next to me and put them on. The sky was more full than I'd ever seen it before. It burst with stars. And I did what I had been doing for so much of the trip so far - I reached for my phone to take a photo. But the light of the stars was too far away for a camera phone, and the image came up all dark.

I put my phone down and just kept looking. My teammates snored and shifted in their sleeping bags. They all slept while I tried my hardest to imprint this view of the sky in my mind. How would I describe what it was like to wake up to this incredible sky to my friends at home without a photo to show them? And how would I remember it for myself?

The truth is that even our photos are too flat, too still to capture the truest things about being in Kenya. I worry that the same is true of my words. How do I say what what it's like to look out the van window and see the red red dirt, the green grass and fruit trees, the women selling bananas, the same huge sky that somehow, amazingly, seems to stretch even further here? How do I tell you what it feels like to be welcomed so warmly by people who are so different, who laugh when we say their words and give us goats when we care for their children and mothers and sisters? How do I make you understand how full a heart feels, and yet how it wants to hold so much more, after being in this place? I try to hold these pictures in my heart and describe them to you the best I can.

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