In February 2009, my son Mike announced he’d be going to Africa as a volunteer with Engineers Without Borders for 4 months. He’d worked hard on the application and was thrilled to have made the cut. We were pleased for him. EWB had already transformed him from a jock-cum-party-animal into a young man with a social conscience. This was his opportunity to start changing the world. If only it weren`t so far away, in so unfamiliar a setting …
As his departure drew nearer, my anxiety increased. He would be in Zambia. We researched the country: relatively stable, average life expectancy of about 45, 40% of the population with HIV/AIDS, malaria rampant, more than 50% of the population living in poverty, very very far away. Suddenly it seemed a dangerous undertaking. But he was 21, full of confidence, inspired – it was his life after all. And what an adventure, I kept telling myself.
Not wanting to sound like an over-protective mother, I tentatively asked where he would live. He wasn’t sure. Mostly EWB volunteers found families who would accommodate them. I imagined my young white son in the wilds of Africa, not speaking the language, trying to persuade poverty-stricken strangers to shelter and feed him up for a few months. Why would anyone do that? What if he couldn’t find a home? Images of him alone, hungry, lonely and possibly lost haunted me.
He shrugged, certain he’d figure it out. Lots of other EWB volunteers had done so. “Don`t worry, Mom.” He smiled and hugged me. Right, don’t worry.
As he prepared to go, I fussed. Did he have enough clothes? What would the weather be like? He needed mosquito netting and anti-malarial medications and …
“It’s okay, Mom. EWB has that all covered.” He went to travel clinics for inoculations and specialty shops to purchase Africa-essential supplies. He bought a tiny laptop. He’d be issued a cell phone as soon as he arrived. He’d be in touch.
EWB sent us a document ”For Parents”. The document contained phone numbers of people I could call 24/7 if I needed to contact Mike. They’d know where to find him. My heart rate slowed a little.
In his pre-departure training, he learned the five “don’t”s of living in Africa:
Don’t get bit (or you could get malaria)
Don’t get hit (e.g. by a car – hospitals might be inaccessible)
Don’t get lit (drunk or high; keep your wits about you)
Don’t eat shit (well, no kidding)
Don’t do it (AIDS!)
I jokingly threatened to wrap him in saran wrap AND mosquito netting before he left. He laughed, but obviously took the “rules” seriously.
Then he left – pumped with energy and enthusiasm – on a 30 hour trip from Toronto to Malawi with a dozen other junior fellows.
I tried to keep my panic at bay.
Two days later I received an email from Ashley, who introduced herself as Mike’s mentor in Zambia. He’d arrived, all was well, he was travelling from Malawi to Zambia, where he’d get his cell phone. If ever I had any questions, I could contact Ashley. I breathed again.
And so Mike’s adventure began. We spoke to him every week, although the connection was often crackly and sometimes we could not get through. Mostly, we read his blog and marvelled at his experiences.
In Malawi, he wrote about the Lilongwe market:
“I was immediately blown away by the sheer number of people, walking in all directions at all speeds with the full spectrum of dress from a full pin-stripe suit to tattered rags. The hustle and bustle of the market was intense, as we squeezed our way between wooden stalls and makeshift displays. We met an amazing pair of men named Ben and Hussein who both live in Lilongwe. After they tried to teach us some more Chichewa [the local language] we got shown around to the real market – a crazy winding labyrinth filled with food, clothes, electronics, fish, tailors and so much more!
“I felt so out of place. It was like being transported into another world, but wearing the wrong skin colour. I also felt very insignificant, as I spent all my energy just trying to keep up with the flow of pedestrian traffic without falling into an open sewer or getting hit by a car on the left side of the road. Trying to speak Chichewa was a really important thing to focus on, because it made people’s faces light up! Of course it created plenty of laughter too, as I managed to butcher the few words that I did learn. As I picked up a little more, it was like being let in on a big secret – in only a few hours I went from the full out “thumbs up” to actual multiple word exchanges while passing people. It’s not only the words, but also the pace, the tempo, the delivery, the emphasis and the body language. We learned the standard handshake, and made use of it at every instance!”
Wow, I thought. He’s plunged right in. He’s loving it!
A week or so later, he embarked on a trip into the countryside for what EWBers call a “village stay” with a rural family:
“I found a truck which was going to Macha (small village 65 km away), which claimed to be leaving at 11. After arguing with the driver to let me sit on the back of the big truck with all the people (as opposed to the white privileged front seat he offered), we proceeded to wait over 2 hours for it to fill up. I am sitting in the corner near the front of the truck, which luckily for me proves to be a shady spot. I’m surrounded by people and bags on all sides, and getting many smiles and laughs – a white man jam-packed in with all the Zambians, haha! Riding the back of a rickety farmers truck, crammed in with over 30 other people. After I explain where I am going, and that I want to learn Tonga, I jump right into another impromptu lesson. There is an old lady who must be over 60 years old, who every 5 minutes tells me another random translation which seems very important to her! Everything from ‘mother’ to ‘goat’ to ‘nose’ to ‘thank you’ – I’m LOVIN IT!”
And at last I did relax. He wasn’t lost or lonely. He was figuring it out. I couldn’t imagine insisting on being in the back of a truck full of Zambians; he’d done it!
In the course of three and a half months, he learned Tonga and lived with two different families, one in town, one under the mango trees. He became very close to his host families. He ran workshops in villages, met chieftains and elders and government and NGO workers. In August 2009, he returned invigorated, healthy and brim-full of ideas.
Today Mike left for Ghana.
He’ll be there for two years as a long-term volunteer. He will mentor the junior fellows this time, which means no Ashley will email and reassure me. He’s older, he has African experience and tons of knowledge; he’s a problem solver and great communicator.
Am I worried? Yes. I can’t help but be; I’m still his mother and it is still far away and foreign and he’ll be there much longer. But I’m not panicking; I’ll just miss him terribly.
Still, I will also get to share in his adventure, his efforts to help Ghanaians achieve freedom of choice. I look forward to reading his new blog.
Most of all, right now, I look forward to hearing he has arrived safe and sound in Ghana.