I am going to Africa. I do not know the how or when of it. And sometimes I’m not even fully sure of the why. But I do know that Africa, in all its vibrancy and tumult, has been beckoning to me for some time now. And I don’t mean in the traditional sense of grand safari adventures and sightseeing excursions.
While I know I would enjoy those experiences, I hunger for a deeper connection, for an immersion in the land that has already claimed a piece of my heart, despite my never having set foot on the continent. I yearn, like so many others drawn there, to make a difference beyond my financial contributions to help fund myriad relief and development projects.
Three years ago, I signed up for a trip to visit some of the AIDS orphanages and refugee camps in Tanzania and Uganda with a Ugandan musician living in New York. Several months before we were to depart, it was canceled. Perhaps the seed was planted then, listening to him talk about the healing impact the music he brought to those places had on children whose lives had been ravaged by war, poverty and illness. Or perhaps my interest sprung from a buried longing, waiting for the right moment to be stirred.
But I put Africa aside that year, disappointed in the crumbling of my plans and I admit rather easily swayed when an opportunity to travel to Peru came along instead. In 2009, however, when taking a course in leadership development that required each participant to come up with a community project, after weeks of tossing around various ideas, I was moved to tears when it hit me that I wanted to go Africa. I wanted to build on the premise of my aborted trip by organizing my own group of musicians and poets to use the arts to inspire healing and hope in a community of children.
My thought was that we could create a safe and loving space for them to express their feelings through music and poetry, and that upon our return, I would collect their poems for a book, the musicians would compile the songs inspired by our journey for a CD and we would sell both to raise money for that community.
It was an ambitious idea, considering the course was only six months long and that my peers were largely focused on launching projects in their cities, schools and neighborhoods. But I was so exhilarated by the potential of such an undertaking that I would not let it go.
So I began building a dream. I shared my vision with friends, family, acquaintances and people I believed could help me get it off the ground. I reached out to organizations that had experience doing the work I wanted to do, sitting in on poetry workshops and taking part in a five-day academy that trains individuals to use the arts for transformation and community development.
Encouraged by a surge of support and an enlivening sense of purpose, I extended myself beyond my comfort zone, launching conversations with strangers and weaving through a growing network that connected me to a host of potential collaborators and experienced philanthropists, from two Philadelphia area sisters who had opened a secondary school for girls in Tanzania to a musician who shared with me her entire proposal for her multicultural music program.
In a matter of weeks, I had individuals pledging to help with publicity, grant research, proposal writing and setting up a board. One friend even began purchasing supplies I would need for the kids. With every step, the universe seemed to be affirming that I was on the right track. I had a group of musicians who’d committed to the project — one of whom even had access to a recording studio — and while it was more challenging to round up the poets, I stumbled upon an organization that certifies individuals to use poetry as a healing art, and decided this was something I wished to pursue.
While I wasn’t sure where in Africa I wished to travel, the director of BuildaBridge, the Philadelphia arts education nonprofit whose training academy I’d attended, suggested Liberia. When I met a guest while officiating a wedding who was from the West African nation and able to connect me with a Philadelphia group that worked extensively with Liberian immigrants, I took that as a sign: Liberia it would be.
And so my project gathered great momentum — until life intervened. The musicians I had lined up got busy with their own careers, I gave most of my free time to a hectic wedding season and the financial logistics of getting us all to Liberia began to overwhelm. When I started house-hunting a few months after completing my course, Words With Wings, as I’d dubbed my endeavor, was close to becoming a frustrated dream.
Yet I do not believe that any of the energy or time I invested was a waste. I saw the power of what is possible when we pursue a dream with passion, vision and a genuine belief in what we have to offer. I learned that we can indeed create magic, and that when we find something we are meant to do, the universe truly will support us in all manner of astounding and unexpected ways. I am also realizing now that a dream denied or deferred isn’t necessarily one that should be abandoned.
A few weeks ago, I went to see South African singer Vusi Mahlasela in concert. Before he was even finished his first song, I was in tears, feeling the inexplicable tug on my heart. Much of the time, he sang in Zulu and Xhosa, but every word somehow struck a tender longing, carrying me across oceans to a land I believe has something waiting for me, something that will shape me, and my future, in ways that, though unknown, promise to be profound.
It often is daunting to give ourselves to the thing that calls to us most insistently, the one that feels too big for the limits of our lives or too improbable for the person we think we are. But if under all of our excuses and distractions, our fearful rationalizing and doubts, even a flicker of longing still burns, it could be that whatever that dream is, and however it calls us to express ourselves, is what the world most needs from us.
So I will go to Africa. It would be incredible to travel there under the auspices of Words With Wings and I believe I still will one day. But long before that vision, I had a simple goal: to open my heart to a community of children there. Now, I have let go of how this should look, trusting that whatever is calling me there will also reveal the next step in this mission and master plan.
– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times