Beginnings are a funny thing.
I oftentimes wonder if they even exist in and of themselves at all.
Perhaps they are notable only because they make us take notice of the existence of something. As humans we need ritual to mark events in our shared and infinitely long story.
I am divided in writing this for it is unethical and impure to claim this as a beginning, but in my imperfection I need to start somewhere.
So welcome to this beginning, a folded page corner in a vast and expansive book. A small makeshift indicator to mark one human experience in our deliciously large and unfolding novel.
I would like to start with a snippet of a personal story, although the truth is that no story is solely my own.
My mentor and beautiful friend Angela recently e-mailed me a poem that begins as follows:
‘When you set out for Ithaca
ask that your way be long,
full of adventure, full of instruction...’
(Ithaca by C. Cavafy)
I enhale and feebly attempt to embrace the wisdom of these words as I sit in a jolting metal box in the sky hurdling towards Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. After countless vaccinations and 6 hurried weeks of preparation, I am on my way with my wits half about me and 400 malaria pills in tow.
Although I have been in transit for 14 hours and have received two very 'up-close and personal' airport security checks, I am only a portion way through the beginning of this journey. Here are the details:
Final destination: Lilongwe, Malawi (not quite Ithaca!)
Mandate: Policy advocacy and research with Malawian HIV/AIDS NGOs.
Length of assignment: 1 year
Sponsor organization: Uniterra
Is this really happening!?
I have looked into the faces of smiling and excited friends and family and feebly attempted to appear excited. I have hugged concerned and upset loved ones and hoped that my lack of emotion about my assignment didn’t seem ingenuine.
The reality is I don’t know what to expect. I have numbed myself to the impending reality of my new life. I don’t expect this to be easy, but I don’t know what to brace myself for.
In the past 2 days the location of my volunteer mandate has changed and expanded. Although I will still be doing policy advocacy and research, I am now scheduled to spend the first portion of the year in Lilongwe, the capital city. There I will share my time between the Malawi Network of People Living With AIDS (MANET +) and the Forum for African Woman Educationalists in Malawi (FAWEMA).
The second portion of my assignment will be the southern Malawian city of Blantyre, the country's commercial and economic hub. There I will volunteer with MANASO, Malawi’s Network of AIDS Service Organizations.
I acknowledge these facts mentally although they elicit a flatline emotional response.
I remind myself why I am doing this. My passion is social justice in a health and human rights context. I am specifically interested in policy level responses to HIV/AIDS. Rotary International has a ‘4-way test’ which asks 4 questions to help guide decision making. I use the test in the context of the HIV/AIDS epidemic to remember why I am on this airplane.
(1) Is it the truth? / (2) Is it fair to all involved?
It is NOT the truth or fair to all involved that the most marginalized communities and individuals in the world deserve to carry the burden of a preventable virus.
(3) Will it build goodwill and better friendships?
The stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS does the opposite of building goodwill and bettering friendships - it propagates fear, violence and hatred.
(4) Will it be beneficial to all concerned?
AIDS related illness is the number one cause of death in women of reproductive age worldwide. It devastates families, communities and continents by causing drought, death and by crippling economies.
I sign off for now in gratitude for all of the beautiful people who have nourished me emotionally in preparation for this journey. My family moved me cities and offered up their basement for my things. My extended family showered me with encouragement and useful gifts.
Members of the United Church of Canada have provided me with over 50 pounds worth of useful items (soap, tooth brushes, etc) to donate on the ground.
My friends have been a garden of rocks. Firm in their support and freely giving in their love.
I ask that my way be long and full of learning.