INTERNATIONAL: From East Baltimore to the Streets of Addis Ababa by DK Graves
(ADDIS ABABA - May 7, 2012) - Who would have believed that the loud, young girl that grew up in the housing projects in East Baltimore would have made it to the streets of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia or Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania and most recently Juba, South Sudan? I still can’t believe it myself. You see pictures and have ideas in your mind growing up of how other parts of the world will look like and be, and then, years later, you are there to see and experience it for yourself. How magnificent is that?
It was so unbelievable that I had to chronicle these experiences to share with others. In September 2011, I made my fourth trip to Africa. No, I’m not wealthy or doing any type of research. Let me explain…I work for an international non-governmental organization (NGO) based in my hometown of Baltimore, Maryland. I started working as a Financial Analyst for the organization in 2004, after being unemployed and a bit discouraged and frustrated for a few years. The organization is dedicated to improving the health of women and families in Africa, Asia and other countries.
Upon entering the organization, I heard of stories of villages and saw the beautiful artifacts brought back from these countries. I was instantly fascinated with the stories that my colleagues choose to share with me. Needless to say, I was swept away and really hoped that I, too, would be able to travel abroad to those places one day. In June, 2010 I got my first opportunity to travel to Africa. The trip was to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania to work with a team for two weeks. Some employees’ trips had been cancelled or some of the people had been removed from the teams. So, upon seeing my name listed, I tried not to get too excited, since things change quickly. I can’t really interpret all that felt at the time; however, it was quite exciting and a bit exhausting. Again, this was a place that I had always dreamed of going to as a child. I would meet people from Nigeria and Kenya and be so inspired and interested to see the motherland. My mother would call me her ‘African Princess’ and made up an African-inspired name for me so this was beyond special.
I collected African art and always showed an interest in the culture and the people and wanted to know more. As I look back to an entry in my journal from the 1990’s of how I so wanted to travel to Africa and how ‘happy’ I was for a local artist and friend, Sean Montague, when he got the opportunity to travel to Senegal. I believe all things are possible. It’s like coming full-circle; my desires have been granted, my heavenly father. Now, I can’t say I am the first in my family to go to Africa since my father traveled there as a merchant marine. My mother reminded me prior to my trip about my dad’s travel. However, this journey was nonetheless something that I had wanted to do for quite a while and by the grace of God I was given the opportunity via work.
Everything from the preparation to go to actually getting on the plane was so much to take in and a bit exhausting since it’s wasn’t a vacation, but a working trip. The planning starts months in advance with the trip to the travel clinic for those dreaded shots that seem to be massive. I can’t tell you how many; I just know I feel like my CDC yellow card is ‘full’. You don’t just get shots; the nurse talks to you and I can remember that she actually ‘scared’ the life out of me with all the ‘warnings and things to adhered to.’ They tell you all about getting malaria, not touching any animals, eating off the street and the list goes on and on. It’s quite overwhelming and although I had traveled before, this seemed so massive. As I look back, no shots were required for France or Italy, where I had traveled before with a friend who introduced me to international traveling. So, this trip to Africa seemed completely frightening.
For that first trip, my employer made sure I traveled with someone; however, since it was my first time (and I was not coming right back since I didn’t know if I would ever reach the Motherland again…), I stayed a few extra days using vacation time just to be able to take the scenery in and enjoy myself. I traveled back alone…and that can be a bit scary as well being in airports that you know nothing about and also in a country where English isn’t necessary spoken. All this to say, I have now been five times - so a bit of the novelty wears off. My colleagues have started sharing pointers on everything from packing to what airlines, connections, hotels, are acceptable. For the first couple of trips, I wasn’t earning any mileage for my air travel until a colleague mentioned it and got me enrolled. Now I earn frequent flier credits and, who knows, perhaps I can get a ‘free’ or reduced trip for my future travel.
My most memorable trip would be to Ethiopia, which was especially special given the history of the land, the people and the fact that I had lost my grandmother in December, 2010 and this was the only thing about Africa that I heard my grandmother ever speak of and I so wanted her here so I could share my experience. She never really acknowledged the Afro –centric pride that I had developed over the years, however it was my remembering her watching documentaries about Ethiopia and saying, "That’s where I believe my people/heritage come from." She would talk about their appearance and gentle mannerism. She had adapted a link to Ethiopians that really surprised me and listening to her share it with her brother when he came to town to visit always surprised me, and I’ll just say, shocked me since I never heard her talk about anything remotely African.
So now, I’ve been to Ethiopia twice and I must tell you all my Ethiopian colleagues made me feel so at home - welcoming me into their culture and making sure I felt at home and at ease. This is not to say that I did not feel the same type of hospitality while in other countries but as I said, Ethiopia held a special place in my heart since I’m still wrapping my mind around my elderly grandmother’s views and thoughts. It was even more special since now I had the opportunity to experience Addis Ababa, Ethiopia twice in my travels and the trips were back to back. The feeling of comfort and ease was not just from those I knew or worked with but those in the coffee shops, stores and in my daily walks and travels thru out Addis Ababa and when I ventured off with my colleagues to Awaska (another part of the country).
You have never tasted coffee until you have had authentic Ethiopia brewed coffee or participated in a coffee ceremony similar to the one held in honor of my summer birthday, which was a total shock and surprise to me that had tears in my eyes. I did everything to hold back the tears. However, yes I really cried but didn’t want anyone to see the tears…I’m in a foreign country and little did they know I had never had a birthday party in my life…just family and most recently friends around me for my birthday in all my 46 years. So, I’m in this special place to me with people I barely know and they thought enough of me to give me a birthday celebration – with the traditional coffee ceremony, including cake - which is so American, a card, and the singing of 'Happy Birthday'. I’m still a bit teary eyed as I think about it. It made turning 46 a true welcoming treat.
It was like my grandmother was in heaven looking down sharing this moment with me, telling me…see how my people treat you. I also adored the shopping experience and the opportunity to just get out and see the city and its people and sights. From day one, the food was a big hit with me…I couldn’t always communicate what I was partaking but I enjoyed the meals. They fast for religious reasons on Wednesdays and Fridays. On those days, the meals don’t include any meat or dairy, I believe. Also, I noticed that they don’t tend to talk about work as much as we do…
Life seems simple and not fast and hurried as it does here in America. They stop after eating lunch to have a cup of coffee or tea, then go back to work. This is not to say that they don’t work hard, which they do…they are focused and determined individuals, structured, polished and professional…yet so tender and loving.
One day, I must have seemed a bit stressed, as I do from time to time when working on such life-changing projects that could affect the workforce within that country and also the lives of women and children. With that said, one can imagine the tremendous amount of stress and toll on one’s personal life, health and well-being during the trips. The work and tasks at-hand are intricate. So, my face and actions must have really triggered something with my Ethiopian colleague.
My colleague, who I had limited contact with while on the trip, asked me had I ‘been to church’. She didn’t asked what religion I believed in…she simply said ‘Have you been to church? ‘ You should go to church? ‘ That really touched my spirit since I often don’t feel complete or at ease unless I meditate and pray, and yes, attend Sunday service to hear some encouraging words. That is something that I really miss while traveling.
I think that statement touched me more than anything during my trip. I smiled at her and later told her I went to church that Sunday and was thinking about going back. She told me they had service every morning…
This was my first time in my travels that I went to church and I did it alone and felt so welcome and at home. I sat and meditated alone and that day I posted a comment on my Facebook page…and made sure I forwarded my church family a postcard. Traveling abroad can be exciting, yet it can also be lonely and isolating given the language boundaries and culture. Yes, you are usually with other people, but for me I, can only talk about work but for so long. I have embraced these new experiences and phase of my life since I would have never imagined that the young girl who grew up in those housing projects would be in Africa. This is just a testament that God is alive and able to do so much more than we can imagine. We just need to move over and let Him work through and for us.