As a little girl, the woman had perused the Africa issues of National Geographic with longing. She felt the desert heat, walked along well-worn jungle paths, and climbed the heights of Kilimanjaro, all from the living room of her Little Rock home. Early in life, she promised she would get there.
The opportunity came in an unexpected way. Somehow, the woman bequeathed her interest in Africa to her daughter, a high school student. Somehow, the daughter inherited the longing to experience Africa's unique stamp on the world. The daughter found a volunteer teaching program called African Impact. In exchange for housing and board, the mother and daughter could journey to Tanzania to teach English to children and Masai, with elder care at the Wazee Project. This made the trip both affordable and more meaningful.
The journey to Moshi took 20 hours by plane and two by car. Excitement quelled the exhaustion as the pair dove into their labors. Tanzanian children blossomed with each lesson. The elderly told stories in Swahili and pointed to old photographs with crooked fingers. Their smiles and longing to be heard warmed the mother. The daughter preferred the classroom full of children with their energy and buoyancy in the face of the world's heavy burdens.
But life's cycles are raw in Tanzania and each moment produces the opportunity to experience the sensation of joy or sorrow. Maria, a resident in the elderly home, passed away. The mother and daughter joined the African Impact crew for the funeral. Boarding a large, top-heavy van with few actual seats, the pair swayed and bumped along the dangerous dirt paths to an open field. Stepping out of the van, they watched a pickup laden with a wooden box drive up. It was a coffin.
A Catholic priest dressed in purple robes materialized. He swayed with hands held aloft, beseeching a loving God to take Maria's soul to paradise. Even though the prayers tumbled forth in Swahili, the mother and daughter understood every word.
As the prayers continued, the mother looked around the little field for a grave. All she saw was a single shovel. She also noticed they were surrounded. Masai stood in their colorful tunics. Muslim men bowed their kofia-covered heads. Catholics and other Christians prayed forcefully. The community was fully present.
At the conclusion of prayer, one of the Masai stepped forward and picked up the shovel. Slowly, deliberately, he began to dig a grave to swallow Maria's temporary body. After a while, he tired and handed the shovel to a Muslim man whose brow sweated under his skullcap. Then, a Catholic congregant stepped forth. Then, another Masai. The shovel passed hands until the ground was ready to receive Maria. They piled the dirt on top of the coffin with bare hands, then stepped away and received roses from a woman wearing a dust hemmed tunic. Each member of the community stuck a rose stem-first into the newly turned dirt so that the tomb resembled a spring garden.
A potluck of sorts was held after the ceremony and a communal bowl of gristly meat paste made the circle of mourners, each one receiving the food by dipping fingers into the bowl and eating out of hands. The mother dipped her fingers fully into the bowl, discarding sanitary hesitation because she would not allow herself to miss out on the community.
Life is precious. The closer one is to death, the layers of luxury peel back, the reality of interdependence lies bare. Where were the invisible walls that separate cultures and beliefs? Where were the bricks of religious dogma and political platforms that form those walls?
In the United States, we handle death similarly. We attend funerals and send memorials regardless of religious or political beliefs. But do we pick up shovels and honor each other through our labor in life?
The latest political drama has us fired up and barriers have been built in word, action, and social media posts. We've picked up shovels but only to deepen the divide. The Political Industrial Complex, as one commentator called it, smiled. Those who thrive on antagonism, who make money when we hate each other reside in the lowest rung of Dante's Inferno. Dante put them there with a name: sowers of discord.
One group, Better Angels, stands in contrast. A group of liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, devote themselves to dialogue. United in community, they disagree without demonizing. Their goal is a restoration of civil discourse. American politics has always featured politicians throwing roundhouses and knockout punches. Now those blows are delivered neighbor to neighbor. Better Angels (better-angels.org) implores us that it doesn't have to be that way.
And they are not alone. Mack McLarty offered a piece in this newspaper earlier this week highlighting the same work done by No Labels, a group of Republicans and Democrats employing the politics of problem-solving and collaboration (nolabels.org). Within his essay, he invited us to encourage our elected to sign on.
When the session at African Impact had ended, the mother and daughter took time to explore the Ngorongoro Crater, they climbed Kilimanjaro, they slept in huts with lions sniffing outside.
They traveled all the way to Africa, taught English to schoolchildren, engaged the elderly, walked the Great Rift escarpment, and heard the hoof-pounding noise of giraffes and zebras. But they kept coming back to a simple funeral. And a community. And the beautiful display of better angels.
Steve Straessle, whose column appears every other Saturday, is the principal of Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editorial on 11/30/2019