Learning How It Feels to Truly Smile

By Meaghan Coffey

September 2011

In the minds of many Americans, Africa is subconsciously and unintentionally summarized by the gallery of photographs we absorb from news reports, blogs, documentaries, and public service announcements. The starving bloated-belly child, lacking the energy to swat away the colony of flies that has taken up residence on his sand-caked skin; the teenage boy with a gun unceremoniously strapped to his chest; the frail elderly woman patting her son’s forehead with a rag as he wastes away from AIDS. Through these images, Americans have composed a collage that depicts what it must be like to be there. Even if we find the time to wonder what lies beyond the edges of our neat 3×5 frame of Africa, we are only further plagued by this system of generalizations. Just beyond the child soldier in the brush, there must be other boys crying in agony for their mothers. On the other side of the withering young man’s slapdash medical tent, surely there is a starving and suffering village that cries, collectively and continuously. Surely, the pain exceeds what many in the first world thought possible.

My decision to travel to Africa was, in many ways, prompted by my desire to combat these generalizations about an entire continent. With a scholarship from my school, I chose a tour that provided community service and cultural interaction opportunities throughout South Africa, Zambia, and Botswana. For my first experience in a land I seemed to have “seen” already, I wanted to cover as much as possible.

In South Africa, I found children who invade the schoolyard during winter vacation, decorating the chalkboard with complex math equations. Proud, grinning mothers dutifully swept barren front yards made up entirely of dust and twigs. Barefoot children filled the channels in between properties, hollering and kicking an affordable version of a can: a tightly bound up pile of plastic wrappers and rubber bands. These children, with their names often picked at random from English dictionaries in the school’s library—names like Rotation, Testify, Celebrate, Chief, Below, and Answer—first approached me with a strange cocktail of fear and respect, which quickly boiled down to a genuine desire for amity and as much of a conversation as I could muster with hand signals. Though I couldn’t understand any chatter between the children, I never heard a tone of voice that implied malice or ill-intent. The dominant personalities on the schoolyard were not the children from families with a source of income; if you could start a game or stir up a good laugh, you were a cherished commodity in the community.

In Botswana, I found a city that was shockingly deficient in orphanages; with an unwritten cultural motto of “everyone has someone”, the abandoned—though their numbers are great—are raised by altruistic and magnanimous neighbors. Though southern Africa is notorious for intense homophobia, I unearthed a book on homosexuality and acceptance in a school library. In their culture, it is considered a compliment to congratulate a friend on weight gain; excess weight implies you have simply achieved the financial stability needed to afford an extra meal. Students proudly kept the white collared shirts of their uniforms clean, despite the ever-present kicked-up sand and dust. One schoolboy whistled the national anthem under his breath while he waited in line for his ration of government-funded maize meal, or pap, and beans. This patriotic hymn says nothing of battles or a country’s ability to rise victorious through violence and bloodshed—the chorus reads, “together we shall work and serve this land, this happy land…through our unity and harmony, we shall remain at peace as one!” One teenager—particularly proficient in his English studies—stared proudly into the lens of my video camera and whispered, “This is Botswana! This is my home! This is Africa!” He held his hand over his heart before panning his arm out emphatically across the uninterrupted horizon.

Before my trip, the mere mention of Africa conjured up what seemed like synonyms: AIDS, poverty, starvation, famine. How is it, then, that I often forgot all of these plagues when I was standing in their supposed heartland? I would spend days on the campus without noticing the gaping holes in shoes and the occasional distended stomach—a clear sign of starvation. Half of the children we encountered had HIV; the same disease orphaned many. Why, how, could I ever forget this in their presence? The hard truth is…these children simply were not acting as someone with HIV “should”. So, I began to wonder—where were my ideas about Africa actually coming from?

Have bloggers’ obsessions with negativity and convenient forgetfulness to include the positive aspects of any situation veiled the dignity and joy of entire cultures? Are humanitarians and organizations afraid that, if this side of Africa is revealed in place of this shroud of negativity and despair, our altruism and attention will seek out a new tragedy elsewhere? Shouldn’t the opposite happen? Shouldn’t we be even more offended that such grateful and resilient people are kept down by famine and denied the opportunities that would allow them to rise to the greater destinies they deserve? Shouldn’t we be comforted that our donations would effect greater change because the people receiving them are irrepressibly determined and proud?

This train of thought brought me to a new conclusion, and new look at humanitarianism in Africa: the food we ship, the shelter we build, the clothes we drop into bins at the grocery store, the loose change we absentmindedly toss into the buckets at the register—these proceeds help the bodies and physical existence of these people; these bodies house vivacious, dignified, resilient, naturally exuberant souls. If we could set this immense concentration of passion free by providing basic human rights, the ripple effect would be immeasurable. We would, then and finally, learn something Africa has been longing to teach us from behind that gallery of photos: the art of unconditional and resilient happiness. We may not know how it feels to be hungry, but we also may not know how it feels to truly smile in the face of adversity, and that is a tragedy in and of itself.

Written and Edited by Meaghan Coffey

Photography by Meaghan Coffey

Design by Devon Pentz


Pages 1-8:

Africa, 2011, Photography by Meaghan Coffey

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