It was 2007, at the height of the HIV epidemic, and I read a book that fed me stories of real people – personal, individual stories. Each came with the portrait of the individual whose story I was entering. The stories reflected their strengths, joys, hopes and fears. The stories connected modern lives with their historical context. That book changed my life and left me hungry for more, for actual hands to hold. I wanted to connect myself with those stories and walk into the future with them.
A year later, four little hands entered my life, entered my family. My family adopted two children who were likely orphaned due to HIV/AIDS. Africa became my family, and I was able to visit the place for the first time.
I wasn’t captured by the hints of modernization I saw in the capital city of Addis Ababa, but by rural Southern Ethiopia. I was captivated by freedom from technology. I saw what I felt was the very essence of what it meant to be a human – connected with God, the Earth, and other people. I listened to the song “Redemption” by Jars of Clay and didn’t feel heartbreak or pity but wonder and longing, for I craved what I found there for myself. I was 18, and I wondered if I was being selfish. But I looked around and saw redemption for all I was disillusioned with in Western society – convenience, obsession with technology, luxury, media, individualism, constant entertainment, disconnection and even destruction of nature, the ever- promised up&up. I saw poverty in these things. Not poverty that was defined by lack of material things, but a brokenness of relationships, self identity, and culture. It bothered me. I know there’s a lot of valuable pieces of Western society, but this had been bothering me, as a teenager.
I began to wonder if, indeed, Africa could bring healing to the non-material poverty faced in America.
If their beautiful strength of dependence on community and group identity could touch the deep isolation, loneliness, and self-reliance I saw back at home. If the wide open land and skies and the vital, tangible connection with the produce of the earth could shine light on our addictions to artificial food and entertainment, and neglect of creation. And if the vibrant, growing, African Church could share their wisdom and experiences with the Christians in America, as their brothers and sisters.
When I went to Africa for the first time, I expected to find desolation and heartbreak. And I saw material poverty, sure, but I found a people who didn’t find a need for the excess that Westerners often consider to be “not enough.” I found innovation and simplicity, deep human connections, natural wonder, simplicity, wisdom and rich history. I wanted to make my life more like that. I started making so many friends from East Africa, and I have learned so much from them. They have spoken into my life. They have prayed with me and for me, and for you (since if you’re reading, you’re probably my friend). Africa has brought so much healing to my life.
I talk a lot about how as Under the Same Tree we partner with and support communities in East Africa. But the truth is that I want the same for the communities I am connected with here in the US. We work to tell stories of how communities in Africa are building on their strengths and maximizing their potential, because I really want you to know them, because I love them. But also because I believe it can transform you, because I care about you too, and I want the same for you 🙂