Lately I've been bouncing around southern Africa, I’m currently in Kenya. You do a lot of hopscotch flying here. As you zoom over familiar cities, it gives you time to think about where you’ve been and where you’re going both mentally and geographically. It’s been a long day. You've hugged goodbye to friends heading back to Guelph—friends who have never been more than 20 feet away from you for the last few weeks.
As I wing through the air, I look on the little map on the back of the seat in front of me, following the bouncing ball, as it were. Names of magical places pop up, places you've visited like Lake Turkana, Mombasa and Dakar or Khartoum, and places you think twice before going again like Mogadishu and Kinshasa. Somewhere between Lake Tana and Dar es Salaam, I looked out my window into the cloudless African night. There is a surprising amount of darkness out there, a lot of places with few lights or no light at all. Each glimmer represents the lives of those eking out an existence—fighting drought perhaps, trying to maintain the family unit that we all hold so dear.
Somewhere over one of those cities with a funny name to Westerners, you are reminded of thoughts you've had before. That, regardless of which world you live in, first world, second or third, from up high, we all look alike. We are all lighting our way through life, using whatever means we have at our disposal to hold it together. The difference is that many in Africa don’t have much at their disposal. Two sets of clothes, one pair of shoes and a room in which to keep your stuff. That’s all. It’s humbling. My closet could clothe a small village.
Mid-way through the trip we land late at night to change planes. As we deplane, spilling onto the tarmac in Addis Ababa, a flight attendant calls out locations from the darkness "Dubai, Cairo, Jeddah," and mine, "Nairobi." Flight schedules are so tight they sort us on the runway, trundling us off to a variety of buses. I feel like I’m living the life of Harry Potter being sorted by the sorting hat. You feel immediate kinship for those headed to your destination as you step up onto the bus. "The smart ones are headed for Nairobi," you think. As fast as you jump on, another attendant starts hauling folks off. "Cairo, Cairo who is going to Cairo, leaving in 20 minutes,” like he’s selling carpets and figs. I had just enough time with the lone Cairo passenger to learn that he's headed to Egypt to buy lemons, oranges and other fruits for Australia, China and other places where they are out of season.
The bus eventually stops near a lurking wing. I drop my bag on the tarmac as I dig for my ticket in the darkness, using my cell phone to light the way as I rummage through my knapsack.
We are corralled up the stairs to a hot, well-worn Ethiopian Airlines 737. Flight attendants are typically Ethiopian, petite women, soft spoken with sweet dispositions. They add dignity to an otherwise undignified airplane.
Despite the short 2.5-hour flight to Nairobi, they scramble to deliver an ambitious full dinner. Even during turbulence, they forge on, committed to the cause. I give the attendant a warm smile. “You work hard,” I remark. She accepts my compassion. “Thank you, you have no idea,” she responds.
And, really, that is Africa. We have no idea. Everything is complicated and sometimes it seems like each day can be a fight. But my colleagues forge on regardless, fighting to get the job done, working and raising their families. And that is what I love most about this continent—and especially about the people who live here. Despite the hardships, they never give up.
We have so much to learn from Africans.