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By Renee Geiger

I went to Africa in September. I am beginning to realize that many people have been to Africa, but the journey can bring a variety of experiences, cultures, and venues for each of us. My travels were with two couples who had adopted orphans in Tanzania and who were the vehicles for distributing much-needed funds and supplies to various organizations and individuals.

In other words, we often experienced visiting with the poorest of the poor at boarding schools and churches, where we met with support groups and many children who have lost their parents through AIDS. The term “orphans and widows (usually grandmothers)” has taken on new meaning for me.

My sojourn in Tanzania took me from Arusha, Mwanza, Bukoba, Moshi, and the safari sights of Tarangire National Park and Ngorongoro Crater. The weather was hot and humid; the streets were often dusty, crowded and bumpy. Goats meandered through neighborhoods as though they owned the road while circumventing drivers whose only prerequisite was hardcore intuitive boldness.

There were no lights, no street signs, and no speed limits as far as I could see. Two lanes became three as long as you had the guts to make it so. Shoes, fruit, vegetables, clothes and cloth for kangas were in every open space, and little barefoot children waved heartily as we drove by, shouting “muzungus” (white people)!  Jarred and bumping in our Land Rover, I was thrilled to see so much of the vibrant and often difficult life of the Tanzanian.

However, the most memorable times were when we were in the homes and environments of those who had so little. Grandmothers and often abandoned mothers were living on a day-to-day basis in trying to feed their seven to sometimes ten children.

We visited schools with four students to a desk with no supplies, no books, and no paper. Many of these children had had no breakfast, walked miles to school, and wouldn’t return home until after2:30. We witnessed these same children responsible for carrying water to their homes from a spring or river.

Renee enjoying Africa

This was their life. Even so, their faces were shining and open, their eyes bright and intent on seeing who we were and asking why we would come there and why we would want to see them. Were they not invisible to those who came “like movie stars?”

I knew why I was there. I came to learn from them. I came to be changed. I came to discern the difference between charity for the poor from those who already have so much and the mutuality of gift and community that comes from open hearts.

When we entered homes, they would offer us all that they had. We would sit on the ground on plastic that covered a dirt floor. We would divide a few bottles of orange soda, or pass a bowl of raw peanuts.

The children would sing for us and sometimes dance. We would attempt to draw out the shy ones and hold them in our laps if they would allow us, and then thank them for their kindness.

Yes, we would leave some clothes and money given from folks from the States.  Yet, we could not escape from that fact that even though what we brought was desperately needed, their gift to us seemed greater. They would give us a gift at our departing, often a stalk of sugar cane wrapped in banana leaves, or a bag with three eggs in it. It was all that they had. They gave it with ceremony and respect, and we received these gifts in kind.

My heart is full in thinking about these moments. These folks, hidden in the rocky hills, had become part of me and I of them.  In an unspoken exchange we were conveying the words, “Take these gifts knowing that we go with you, and we receive your gift so that you might know that you go with us. We are community.”

There was no commerce, no owing, no comparing, and no value other than the spirit of the giving and shared gratitude.

Those moments continue to remind me that our health and wholeness come from our generous openness to one another and from knowing that in community giving and receiving hold a spiritual value of belonging and presence for one another.

This is the kind of community that I believe is the vision and intent of Civano. After all, it was born of the “ground” of the American Indians who hold these same gift-giving values. I am grateful for that!

Asante sana, Civano

Thank you, Africa