In a random European Airport, under the harsh lights, at some ungodly hour, somewhere between the comfort of home and the great unknown, a group are huddled together for reassurance, uniform in cotton t-shirts, with big eyes and sturdy backpacks from Bass Pro Shops. Eager beavers, goats before the slaughter. Their thick backs bear the inscription ‘Malawi 2009’. Their armour is weak for the journey they have yet to begin.
Characteristically pudgy and pale, stodgy raw sausage ankles push out from under sensible cotton trousers and long modest skirts, stuffed into Dr. Scholls and Tevas for comfort. Their packs, like them, are stuffed, taut. Unscented sunblock, mosquito spray and bed nets; and ‘little gifts for the children’- and Dairy Milk fruit and nut bars for themselves. For strength.
They are jovial, yet a tangible nervous energy hangs over them like animals devoid of instinct, when the forest around them knows there is danger ahead. They have no idea. They decide to sing.
They hover, docile and domesticated around their guide. He is confident and all-knowing. He has actually BEEN TO AFRICA before, and he will lead this unprepared motley crew into the wild. His cheeks are a deeper red than the others, his enthusiasm rehearsed. He knows what lies ahead, but has pledged himself to a make believe cause…
The bland mass are willing but not able, well-meaning but insincere, sheltered and softened by processed foods and years of inactivity. They have emerged from the warm dark cave where they’ve been nurtured on clean running water and Starbucks, electricity and mod-cons, the frivolity of Hallmark love and television emotions.
There is not a muscle in sight. The sinews of these creatures have never strained. Never pulsed against the enemy that awaits.
Poverty the rat will mock them and eat it’s children with wanton fangs, and these soft bellied creatures will weep and mourn and look up to the Hosanna they’ve had inscribed on their XL tees. Cheek flesh will tremble, hot tears will well up and spill uselessly on the dry crusted surface of the African slum.
And the naïve smiles painted on their blank faces will be replaced. Temporarily smudged.
They will return a few weeks or months later, believing they’ve been changed forever. Licking their wounds they will retreat. They will cling limply to the belief that something has changed. That their mission has had a higher purpose…
They will remember the bright saucer eyes in the tiny brown faces atop spindly limbs, and believe there was connection, love, hope… while countless faceless rats scurry underfoot.
When our group are back in their warm caves, baking Pilsbury chocolate chip cookies, the trip to the wild will slip into a pocket of memory, a conversation for tea. A flash reflection before excess and indulgence overcome them once again. Swallowed by mountains and mountains of things.