On the last day of kindergarten, my teacher gave me a kiss on the cheek. I loved that gift; it made me feel important and special. That night my mother washed my face and I burst into tears because I was afraid she had washed off that precious kiss. Being the good mom that she is, she calmly explained that kisses never wash off; they are with you always. I thought of this today as I prepared to take the shower I had dreamed of for two days.
I had just returned from ten days in Chad where I learned about the lives of the splintered Sudanese families that had survived the ongoing holocaust in their country and the programs offered to them by American non-government organizations. The gritty dirt of the African high desert accompanied me home along with the stench of garbage on the streets of N'djamena, the pesticide sprayed on us as we left Chad courtesy of Air France and the stress of 48 hours of travel in the same clothing through the number one most corrupt country on the planet. This combined to form a most peculiar odor that needed to be removed immediately.
The water reached that delicious temperature of tingly steamy heat and I turned it off. What if this shower washed off too much of Africa? I had been dreaming about this since the five-hour X games version of off-roading from Guereda to Abeche. I was relishing the moment I could loofah myself clean with grapefruit peppermint soap and apply globs of mango conditioner to my hair. Remembering my mother's words, I turned on the water and jumped in. At that moment the symbolic history of cleansing oneself became apparent. What would it take to wash away enough of the dirt of Africa to prepare myself for the stories to be told of my Yom Kippur experience? I remembered my beit din when I was 8 months pregnant with my eldest child Leo. My big belly and I submerged in the mikvah, reciting prayers and promises for a clean start and a commitment to a new way of life.
I knew I could never be as clean as I was before I went to Chad because now I had the unbearable weight of bearing witness. What was the point in going if I was going to stand idly by? As a mother, how could I allow the children the same age as my own who fought to hold my hand that day in Kounoungo exist in limbo? Right now they have no future. They live day-by-day tending the small herds of goats and sheep they managed to bring across the border two years ago or by making bricks for their huts in the camps. They exist on rations given out by the US government. They are painfully thin and hungry all the time. They get diarrhea from not knowing proper hygiene and are soon to be very cold at night because they do not have blankets and warm clothing. They do not have an education, they don't have homes and some have had their parents slaughtered in front of them. I could spend my time blaming others for this, but it's not my style. I have to clean up, gather my strength and tell my stories because what I saw was not acceptable. No child should live like this.
I spent Yom Kippur in our host compound with the rabbi who led the trip, my travel mates, a Muslim Lebanese couple who were therapists at one of the camps and a British girl who was a volunteer. We took turns reading passages that were meaningful to us. I spent that time thinking about ways to atone for crimes committed against these people. I decided for myself to make amends I needed to be proactive. I knew then that the dirt I brought home with me is now part of my soul and there is no amount of oatmeal almond scrub that could remove it.
The smell of clean dry air in the middle of the desert at sundown is unrivaled. The stench of the latrines at the Kounoungo refugee camp or the fresh cut lamb for sale at the refugee market remains permanently in my nostrils and the smell of malnourished humanity is lodged there for eternity. At home, being dirty is my job. I tend my own livestock and garden. I have my hands in the earth daily protecting my plants from pests and coaxing tomatoes in winter. The earth is in my blood. But the dirt of Africa is different. Like the kiss I got from my kindergarten teacher, nothing can wash that away.
It will take weeks for me to be able to recount my tales. I have to stop myself when talking about the children; telling it is too painful. Once I harness the sadness and turn it into a positive mission, I can tell the stories about the lives that need to be saved and cultures that need to survive. One lifetime is not enough to change it. Hopefully I can make a start and leave a path for future generations. Africa needs healing and it is the world's responsibility to take care of that. We all have to work together for Africa to have a solid future and I plan on making it my mission to begin that right now.