Wednesday, August 13, 2008

African dreams


Some dreams really do come true.

To this day I hear echoes of Jiminy Cricket singing "When I Wish Upon a Star" from Pinocchio. He might even still sit on my shoulder telling me to behave. Jiminy promised to the child I was that if I set my mind to it—if I wished fervently enough—I would get results.

However, I still think that growing up is sometimes a process of losing certain false illusions about ourselves: I couldn't be an Olympic athlete ever because I don't have the early training, the body shape and even the desire to be one, though I greatly admire them all. Philip Carey, the hero of Somerset Maugham's "Of Human Bondage," learns this sad fact early on. His uncle, a vicar, has told him that the Bible is true when it promises that one can move mountains if one only prays enough. So Phillip prays every night and most days for his clubfeet to be healed before he returns to the taunts of his boarding school classmates. It doesn't happen, of course, and he becomes aware of certain limitations that we all have, in spite of our wishes.

On the other hand, some early dreams and wishes can be realized if one is flexible and pays attention to opportunities. Well, I'm here to attest to that hopeful truth. Ever since I was 5 years old and wanted to set out for Africa with my piano and interact with other tiny children, I have dreamed of this journey.

I have traveled many places in my life and known many cultures and each time learned something I can treasure forever. But I have never been to Africa. As you read this, I will be coming home from an experience which, I am sure, will once again change me in subtle ways and add to my lust to see the world and its peoples.

I am going to Africa at last.

I wish that this trip included a safari; I wish that I could visit other parts of the huge continent as well, and I wish I had more time and money to support my travel bug. When I joined the Peace Corps as an older woman I was first assigned to Rabat, Morocco, to work with teachers at the university level on methods of teaching English as a foreign language. I didn't wind up there, because of a childhood illness that the Peace Corps country director thought might crop up again. Instead, I was sent to the "Beverly Hills" of the Peace Corps—Thailand—and have never regretted that change of plans. Nonetheless, one of the reasons that the prospect of Morocco excited me (in addition to childhood imaginings about the exotic Casbah) was that the rest of Africa beckoned, that perhaps I could extend my time to include forays into the rich diversity of that country.

So I am volunteering once again and unable to use that first two weeks as a jumping off point to explore Africa. I am going with three other women from the Wood River Valley to work with children in an AIDS orphanage in Tanzania.

While daunted by the actual travel time, I am overwhelmed with gratitude that this opportunity presented itself at a time when I needed once again to get away from myself and do something positive. The orphanage is sponsored by Make a Difference and is run by a woman with close ties to the Wood River Valley, Theresa Grant. I have a feeling that she is doing what I regret not doing when I was her age, immersing herself in a selfless pursuit with people who need her.

Of course I will report on this experience when I return. When I worked at The Community School, several of the children knew I liked elephants, so my office was festooned with drawings of galloping behemoths. I was even often called "The Elephant Lady." I hope that isn't because I looked like the main character of The Elephant Man but because of my obvious affection for these giant creatures.

I do hope I may get to see some elephants in the wild while I am there, but if not this time, than maybe next year.

At least I will have a sense, through meeting some of the children, of the heart of Africa—a dream come true.

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