The ancient Swahili proverb Kila shetani na mbuyu wake (Every baobab has its demons) was first whispered to me by a Tanzanian journalist directing media relations for the second major project I worked on in Africa. Halima Shariff, wise beyond her years (some say that’s what journalism does for you), was explaining why none of the baobabs in the neighborhood where I was living were cut down to make way for the new roads being built in 1994 and 1995. She was also explaining why most bad apples find a home no matter how bad they are, but that’s another story.
Coastal Tanzanians believe their giant baobabs are sacred homes to the spirits of the dead and memories of the past, and cannot be cut down. Or so Halima said. We humans store our spirits and memories, too, like they are something sacred. We house people and beliefs that won’t let us go. Every mbuyu has shetani she loves and those that aren’t so kind to her. It’s when the bad ones begin to take over and complicate our present that we have to run for help, to trade madness for belief.
In a childhood dominated by punitive spirits, I didn’t realize that there were good spirits surrounding me, whispering my name. I was shocked the first time someone told me I was smart. The first time someone told me I was beautiful. And the first time someone told me I was the nicest person he knew. How surprised I was to hear good things about myself each time someone thought to say them to me. I felt wicked, stupid, and ugly. I felt cursed and innately crazy. Part of the family inheritance, and part of its destiny.
Despite the fact that I ‘did my time’ and my share of good for humanity, my past haunted me and wouldn’t let go. I was a victim just like those children I was trying to help, and orphan, an outsider. I was dedicated to those victims, personified by those orphans, projecting on them. I’d projected my deepest sense of victimhood on those children.
The most complicated things you face in the aid business are your own feelings, your own sense of worth and value about what you do. Your constant sense of guilt. Your constant awareness that you have so much, living near people that have so bloody little. That in the end you can leave. In the end you have someplace else to go, someplace else you call home. That you have your resources to lean on. They don’t. You can escape. They can’t. This is their home. This is their life. They live everyday up against the grinding impact of poverty. Perpetual hopelessness. Perpetual dismay. And you live with perpetual, in-your-face guilt.
Until several years ago, my memories of Africa were like vicious shetani that took turns waking me at night and shaking me hard. Every night, when I woke, I entered a vast and frightening cavern of loneliness and despair, and it fed on itself. Sleep deprivation was worsening my depression, and depression worsened my sleep patterns. Two years ago, my memories were my enemies, the worst of shetani, appearing without bidding in the middle of the night and in the middle of the day. Twenty years living and working in Africa ages you at least thirty. You just see too many things you can never forget.
I tried everything to forget them, to rid my mind of the the painful pictures that haunted my dreams with increasingly regularity until I found that sleep deprivation, a form of PTSD and was increasing the severity of my depression. Then, one day, during the day, I recalled a wonderful memory I had of Uganda, of wonderful village women giving all they had and more to see to the well-being and future of their children, and decided to welcome it, to enlarge it, enrich it. I think I’d cried enough buckets of tears and screamed enough epitaphs heavenward that I could turn around and look. I remembered every detail, and the first and last names, so I created a novella to honor their work in a time when AIDS was a relentless scourge.
Finally, a few years ago, I stopped doing battle within my own mind. Changing my relationship with my memory is one of the most important things I’ve ever done. Fighting it was killing me. Accepting it, loving it, writing about me allowed me to rid my branches of the shetanis that were haunting my dreams.
In 2012, I left Africa twenty-three years after I first went to Uganda to live. I was going crazy again and I knew it. I had to go home, once and for all. I’d lived in three East African countries and worked in thirteen others.
The Uganda of 1989 was still in conflict, although it was emerging from more than two decades of chaos. People were grateful for what little peace they could garner. But a second horseman of the Apocalypse had arrived on the heels of war: the worst AIDS epidemic in the world had taken advantage of chaos to set its roots deep before anyone knew what AIDS was, how to diagnose it. Before there were drugs, treatment, the plague had arrived in force. This was my home for two years, at this pivotal moment, when communities had to decide what to do when one scourge piled on top of another.
Some would say the Uganda of today isn’t much different than it was in 1989. Tyrants and plutocrats continue to battle over the resources of the continent. Think Somalia, the Central African Republic, northern Nigeria, Niger, Sudan, Chad. Millions of adults and children are still being permanently traumatized by decades-long conflict, their lives ruined and potential wasted, by conflicts fueled by outsiders who want its resources.
In the words of South African musician Vusi Mahlasela, “When will you stop taking from her?” The brief history of Africa I’ll feature in a future post shows how relentlessly and completely Africa has been defiled to serve the interests of other parts of the planet, and how it goes on today.
But now, let’s step back in time and visit the Uganda where AIDS was first identified in Africa, when it was a poorly diagnosed and completely untreatable plague on their verdant earth.