Many people ask me why I travel so much to developing nations, continuously witnessing such dire human circumstances. Do I come back depressed because I could not help the people as much as I want? Do I lie in bed at night sleepless because I am thinking about what I saw? Do I ever feel joy again after living for a period of time in the bush of Africa?
Yes, there are difficult situations and living conditions where I work. I do see things that haunt me for life, wishing I could somehow eradicate the problems. But in Africa, there is a fuel that exists that blasts into my soul and spills out into my body as I dance, sing, play…and share the feeling hope found in the most trying conditions. That fuel is called “Joy” and it is found in Africa in the most pure sense. Over and over again, during the many visits to Africa and Madagascar, I see a sense of joy that is never, and I do mean never, experienced in my own home country.
I often think about this, and wonder: is it because we are so removed from the Earth that we don’t sing and dance with each other every day? Are we so individualistic that we don’t feel a tribal village sense of community? Sure, we occasionally dance and sing. Some people drum, or play instruments. But when we are most depressed, when the world seems to be ending, do we often reach inside and experience joy at these times?
Often in Africa, when I least expect it, people will break out in shouts, dance, song. Drums appear, sticks are tapped together, voices surge. And little can be done to not get completely swept up in the festive feeling. Even the most staid of people are drawn into the happy frenzy that arises. You simply can’t help but join in, even get swept away to the next village. It is, simply put, our human nature to do so.
Ethiopia is a special country, indeed. Music and dance play a large part in elating the human spirit here. Priests chant, women sing, men dance. I find myself often letting caution go to the wayside, and along with that a sense of play emerges. Camera equipment? Be gone! Shoes? Get them off of me! Hey…I did not know my body could twist like that!
And when I look into the eyes of someone I am dancing and singing with, I did not know my soul could be loved like this.
When I return home, I try to replicate this same feeling. Hip Hop lessons, shower singing, dancing with my dog. But when I play this feeling out with another human friend, my gesture is usually met with a side look and a mumbled comment such as “you are so wacky.” And right there begins my plan to return to Africa as quickly as I can.
It does not take much to instill within an African village the desire to break out in song and dance. In these images, happiness was expressed for a range of reasons, from sharing an engaged smile with a person, to excitement at a wedding ceremony, to villagers appreciating a new water system put in place by Mercy Corps donors.
And as I sit here now in my warm and comfortable home, my heart is back in Africa because I know in various places (right now!) many people are expressing pure and unadulterated elation.
And so it is, in Africa, the beat goes on.