The value of temporary ‘unbelonging’
Ever experienced that feeling of loss the moment you make a big decision? Like loosing your grip on something valuable and not knowing if you will ever get it back again? Last week I experienced just that. I quite impulsively bought a ticket to Amsterdam for an approximately two month working stay. Not such a biggie one might think. Two months is anything but a lifetime, and apart from falling off your city bike, the Netherlands is not exactly the most dangerous place to visit.
Ironically, the call to go work in Amsterdam was born in Africa. For the past four years I’ve sporadically volunteered in rural Mozambique where I’ve met locals experiencing a tremendous amount of uncertainty in their lives. Within the same period, I’ve ventured further off the beaten track by co-producing documentaries about people undergoing similar degrees of uncertainty: folks not knowing if they’ll survive yet another malaria infection, if the much needed rain will arrive next week, or if the clinic will supply them with medication.
The other day, this ‘uncertainty’ reminded me of the time I went shopping in Amsterdam during a previous visit. I was cheerfully strolling down one of Amsterdam’s most extravagant streets to buy myself a hoodie. Between the tyranny of tourists strutting their stuff, a young girl in an oversized t-shirt approached me and asked, ‘Sir, allow me the chance to tell you more about the fate of these children in Botswana?’ She pointed towards pictures of seemingly unhappy toddlers, and as her story progressed, Africa became this doomed continent of misery and misfortune. I tried interrupting her, but the girl politely shoved a contract in my hand: ‘Sir, by signing this contract and donating only ten Euros a month, you pledge to save the uncertain plight of these children.’
In a hunch of scepticism I raised an eyebrow and had a sudden realisation within the somewhat awkward silence that followed. I remembered the one thing that constantly surfaced in my African encounters. Most people I had interviewed, most people I had befriended in rural parts of Africa were holding onto this peculiar hybrid of hope. Amidst their specific mix of uncertainty, I remember them maintaining a sense of trust that is neither routed in the mechanisms by which we try and regulate our own lives nor directed towards the structural comfort we often aspire to in the future.
It’s a hope that we can all associate with at different points in our lives. Right now in this break-up, undergoing this divorce, passing this exam, diving through this wave, lying on this sickbed, taking this risk, embarking on this adventure. It’s stuff we can influence to some degree, but once there, we never fully have control over.
That day on the corner of Amsterdam’s viby Rokin Street, I saw that pity and power are often the currencies by which we try to control Africa. By painting pathetic pictures of the people living in this continent, we assume that our help is the saving grace of Africa. And in the same way we invent unsustainable methods of aid, we often paint pathetic pictures of our own predicaments, to justify cheap remedies for the complexity of our own situations.
In the Netherlands I’ll be speaking to influential non-profits about a more holistic portrayal of Africans through their media channels: that is documentaries in which Africans are shown for the multi-dimensional beings they truly are. Why? Because if Christian writer Richard Rohr is on to something when he says ‘you only really know that which you first love’, sincere portrayals of people will help us to better relate with ‘their’ lives.
In going to Amsterdam I’m also leaving behind a sense of predictability, even if it’s only for a short while: steady financial income, valuable relationships. But way more than this, is the adventure of stepping out of my shoes, exchanging it for temporary ‘unbelonging’ and having a good comeback at the girl in the oversized t-shirt.
Follow Francois and Philip’s adventures on Instagram towards the run-up for TEDxStellenbosch on 5 September.
#TEDxStellenbosch (#think #experience #africa) #UnravellingExplorers
Photo taken by documentary photographer Archie Leeming for www.stopaidsnow.nl