Pour yourself a hot cup of tea, put of the song Naima by Angelique Kidjo, and get ready for an intense emotional ride through my life.
As long ago as I can remember, I have always been involved in activities that were very emotionally draining, but rewarding overall. I've always had a heart for volunteer work and helping those in need. Sometimes I was drawn to nursing homes, soup kitchens, fundraising for a cause, hospitals, rural clinics, or children in orphanages. But other times, it was a simple as listening to someone's life story, paying it forward, or going out of my way to make a small difference. Whether it was a small or large act, each experience has shaped me into who I am toady.
Pre-Peace Corps, the organization that pulled on my heart strings the most was Camp Wapiyapi. I worked with Wapiyapi for about three years before I moved to Botswana and everyone in my Wapiyapi family has left footprints in my heart. For those of you who don't know, Camp Wapiyapi is a camp for kids with cancer and their siblings. Basically, any child with cancer and their siblings are welcome to come to a week long camp full of fun, games, and just being a kid. They call it "The Best Week of the Year" and I doubt that anyone who has attended would disagree. Wapiyapi was always the highlight of my year.
Sometimes, I got the typical response… "OH! Kids with cancer? Doesn't that just break your heart?" And of course, YES, it does. But it does SO MUCH more than that. The kids are full of life, full of energy, and full of hope. If you ever want to experience life fully, spend some time with those kiddos. They know what it's like to look death straight in the eyes and say, "MOVE ON. I'm not ready to go yet." They know how to enjoy all the important things in life: a good game, spending time with family, playing outside, or encouraging others. They're absolutely incredible. Nobutseriously.
The people I've met at Camp Wapiyapi (both volunteers and kiddos alike) have inspired me to pursue new challenges in life and reminded me to always remember what really matters, and forget about the rest. I miss working with everyone since I've been in the Peace Corps - but what amazes me is how much they still love and support me while I'm a half a world away. My Wapiyapi family continues to help me through things, even when I can't be there to help them as much as I'd like.
Before accepting my invitation to Peace Corps, I remember a good friend talking to me about how heart-wrenching my job would be working in the HIV/AIDS sector. My response? Bring it on. I've always desired to be in situations that are difficult but rewarding. Sounded like a perfect fit. I felt ready to take on the challenge.
Upon my arrival, the statistics thrown at me about Botswana's current HIV epidemic were devastating. Women are having transactional sex to have money for food, rent, or to support their children. The prevalence of gender based violence is heart breaking. Intergenerational sex continues the spread of HIV. And on and on.
Long story short, it's a lot to handle emotionally. So what does that mean for volunteers here? In my eyes, I had one of two options. (1) let it tear me to pieces, emotionally exhausted by all that was happening around me or (2) to shut down. I think for a while, I really was tuned out of the reality of what was happening. I just needed to be for a while. I was adjusting to the new culture, learning to live as far away from home as I ever have, and trying to navigate my way as a successful volunteer. I had to tune things out for my survival.
But then I got to the point where I felt too apathetic. I was angry with myself for not feeling. I was disappointed that I wasn't really soaking in the reality of what was going on. And so I prayed.
I prayed for my heart to break for the things that break God's heart. I prayed to be outside of my comfort zone. I asked God to help me learn and grow through my period of grief. I asked Him to help me notice all the things that would touch my heart. I prayed that I would feel what others were feeling.
And then I waited.
As time went on, I noticed how much my heart had opened up to the pain and suffering I see so often. I could feel the desperation of one of my co-workers who has AIDS as I held her hand in the clinic ward. I could feel her relief when I brought her a cool washcloth and glass of water. I could feel her joy each time I visited her at home during the next two months of recovery.
I felt compassion (rather than annoyance) when children begged me for two pula. And I felt their understanding when I would kiss their palms and say that their hands are able to do so much more than beg.
I continued to pray. And I continued to grow. But throughout my growth, I could also see that more and more was being placed in front of me to wrap my head and my heart around.
I wept when one of my closest friends back home was diagnosed with cancer. I struggled with being away from home, tried my best to have faith and send her all the love I could. I remember wondering why life is so unfair, and then, I received a gentle reminder that all things happen the way they should. I continued to learn to have faith in Him. I won't always understand the plan, but I am learning to trust that He is in control of everything.
Not so much longer after that, I lost one of my good friends in the village to AIDS. His immune system was so compromised that TB took over as an opportunistic disease, and finally, he lost his battle against two diseases that regularly take lives here. I wept at his families house during the week of funeral preparations, prepared tea for his father who survived him, and hugged each person who needed some extra love. I laughed at his funeral when people described his vibrant personality and gave thanks for having the opportunity to know him.
I continued to find daily challenges along the way after this, up until my birthday when another shock set in. On my birthday, four good men from my village were killed in a car accident - - one of which was a dear coworker of mine. My birthday was rather solemn, and the following week was spent sharing stories about al the lives these young men touched. They played soccer together, participated in local choirs, and were actively involved in the community. It was a great loss to our village. I wept again when the soccer team carried his casket away as I asked God, WHY?!
My broken heart just keeps on breaking. Just like I asked. At our GLOW (girls leading our world) camp, young women came forward and opened up about the horrors they have faced throughout their life. The statistics I mentioned before came rushing to my mind… finally the statistics had faces and names attached to them - making them even more real than before. Hearing their stories brought me to tears and encouraged me to make all the difference I can in the lives of these women while I am here. My heart broke - again and again- as I heard about their abusive relationships, transactional sex, and lack of parental guidance. But of course - they were full of strength - faith - and joy. They sang, danced, cried, and loved each other the whole weekend.
After the camp, my mother emailed me to let me know that my Aunt Danatta passed away. My family will certainly be feeling the loss of this incredible woman, but as my mom reminded me, " Danatta's was a life well lived and well loved. She touched a lot of people with her kindness." I wish everyone had the opportunity to live as fully as my Aunt Danatta.
And most recently, my heart was broken again by the news of the death of a dear friend from Camp Wapiyapi. Anise was far too young to be taken from us, but I know that her playful spirit will be welcomed in heaven and she will be smiling down on all of us. I will miss her dearly, and my heart goes out to her family and friends.
I could write pages upon pages about each of these stories I've shared with you - - I've met extraordinary people throughout my life, and it hurts to see them go. I've been reduced to tears more often in the past six months than I can care to count - the earth shattering - push-your-back-against-the-wall-and-slide-to-the-ground-cover-your-face kind of tears. It's not usually what I care to write about on my blog because it's not uplifting … but I felt like it was time.
And despite all tears and heartache, I continue to pray. I continue to ask God to break me down and help me witness the pain and suffering other people experience. I keep pursuing his help to guide me through the chaos and help me see ways I can minimize the grief.
Asking Him to break my heart was a seriously risky thing to do, but by far the best decision I've made. I hope to never allow apathy to win again. I vow to see all the beauty in life and soak it up - - because life is fleeting. This life is so short.
So kiss your loved ones and hold them just a little bit closer. Try to understand the grief others are experiencing. Notice how blessed you really are. Stop asking for more. Be grateful for your health and actively work to keep yourself as healthy as possible. Love harder.
And I dare you to ask God to break your heart too.
A comfortable life is not one worth living. Break out of your comfort zone, learn, and grow. I'm so glad that I am. I wouldn't have it any other way.
Love & Light,
Robala ka kagiso ditsala tsame.