I will never forget my first view of Africa. I saw it from the plane window at about 1200 feet in the summer of my twenty-third year. It was a land so flat, so desolate, so endlessly dry I wanted to cry… to water it with my tears… Where were the coffee plantations, the grasses, the jungles? Was there nothing green? Things were not as I had imagined. So I should I have known then that Africa would be full of surprises, heartaches, discoveries… things that would change the landscape of my heart and leave me longing to one day return.
The cricket cries, the year changes.
I remember when it all began, when I got the notion that I must go to Africa. I wish I could say that I had longed for it since childhood, or that I had acquired the dream in a noble way, but that would not be true. I was not wanting to go to feed the hungry, spread the gospel, or to do some peace corps kind of thing. I was a dreamer not a lover of reality. I was a poetry reader and a wish maker. I was always hoping for what was unrealistic and longing for the stuff fairy tales are made of.
I was twenty-one and should have been done with dreams when I saw the movie Out of Africa. I sat in a green velvet seat four rows from the screen. It was a sad movie, but I paid no attention to the sadness. I was lost in the scenery. From the moment Baroness Blixen first tried to “shoo” the elephants to a final scene with her reciting over Denys’ grave “The time you won your town the race, we chaired you through the market-place…” I wanted to pack up my Limoge, my crystal and my beautiful starched cotton outfits (though I had none of these things) and go myself to plant coffee, and to dance with Denys Finch-Hatton on New Year’s Eve. My dad said I just wanted to go and have Robert Redford wash my hair in a river.
Hannah was my best friend, and the sister I never had. When I would spend the night at her apartment we might end the evening in the bathroom where she would lay pajama clad in an empty bathtub loudly reciting Robert Frost’s poems, while I sat on the vanity soaking my ever cold feet in a sink of hot water. Hannah could always be counted on to embrace my dreams wholeheartedly. We had both memorized lines from Out of Africa and when we would see each other on the cold and snowy campus of the University of Minnesota, we used those lines to greet one another. How funny people must have thought it was to hear us saying, “Oh let it go, this water lives in Mombasa anyway” or “Insurance is for pessimists.” Yes, that’s how it all began.
For a year I held tight to my dream of going to Africa. I purchased khakis and put a carved zebra on my Christmas list. While working at Trout Lake Camp I often skipped lunch in the dining hall to eat Wheat Thins and underline beautiful phrases in the book Out of Africa. (“If I know a song of Africa… does Africa know a song of me?” page 83.)
And so I longed for Africa, but how would I get there? I had no money. And what would I do? I certainly didn’t know how to run a farm.
I had just finished my degree in elementary education when it dawned on me that I might be able to go to Africa as a teacher. So, I signed up with an overseas placement service in order to receive vacancy bulletins for teaching positions around the world.
But, my hopes were soon dashed as I repeatedly read the awful words written by each listing “two years experience required.” Discouraged I stopped opening the bulletins and began throwing them away as soon as they arrived. With reality encroaching in the form of bills to be paid, I moved my zebra to the bottom shelf, replaced my khakis with jeans and went to work at a daycare since the teaching market in Minnesota was saturated. My dream of Africa began to die.
The pleasure of the true dreamer does
not lie in the substance of the dream
but in this: that things happen…
all together out of his control.
(Out of Africa page 91)
Weeks went by then months. I spent my days wiping runny noses and monitoring nap time, but each night I found myself on my knees by my bed talking to God. I felt small as I asked Him what I should do, where I should go. I asked God to give me the courage to go anywhere and the willingness to be pushed to my limits. And I ended each prayer by saying “Dear Lord, please give me the courage to keep praying this prayer.”
The prayer was not without effect. For one day when another vacancy bulletin arrived, without really thinking, I opened it. And I found a position available at The American Embassy School of Lusaka, Zambia. “No experience required.”
Could it be true? And Zambia? That sounded kind of African. Was it? My heart began to race as I stood on my chair and fingered my way across the giant blow up globe my father had given me for graduation. Was Zambia in Africa?
It was! There, right smack in the middle of Africa, was a “vacancy!”
My dream began to stir.
I had no resume, but I quickly developed one and sent it, along with a letter, to a Dr. Keller who was in Wisconsin taking applications for the job. I was not expecting the call I promptly received.
The night Dr. Keller called is etched in my memory as we had a most unusual conversation beginning with his question, “Are you promiscuous?”
Did I hear him correctly? Wasn’t there supposed to be some kind of question about classroom management or how to meet the individual needs of students? “Excuse me?”
“Are you promiscuous?” Silence.
Somewhat flustered, slightly offended, and unsure of how to respond I said, “Well… I don’t believe in premarital sex… and I have never had sex… if that is what you mean.”
Dr. Keller went on to explain that according to the state department, since they were responsible for hiring me, this was a priority issue. “We cannot be hiring people who run around breaking up family units overseas,” he explained.
“Oh,” I said.
Next, he asked me about being a Baptist. He noticed on my resume that I had taught Sunday School in a Baptist church. He thought this was good as there were some Baptists my age, “Journeymen” he called them, working in Lusaka. He suggested I might hang out with them since finding a social life in Zambia could be a problem.
That was it. Dr. Keller didn’t ask me any questions related to teaching and having discussed those two items he ended the conversation by telling me that he would get back to me for an interview if my transcripts checked out.
That night the girl I shared a house with gave me the news that her parents were moving back in and I would have to move out.
I then knew two things. God had heard my prayers. And I was going to Africa.