Unlike my customary fiction fodder, these days I’m thumbing through the Bradt Travel Guide on Rwanda. Its colorful photos have me captivated: lush tea plantations; mountain villages; expansive volcanoes; red dusty roads winding through jungle mist; cobalt blue waters of Lake Burera; and a vast zoology of animals I’ve only seen in Lion King animations: elephants, warthogs, lions, zebras, waterbucks, impala, and mountain gorillas. Rwanda: Africa’s little heart gem.
So why am I reading about Rwanda? No, it isn’t research for my next novel. This is a journey in which I, Sarah McCoy, am the main character. This notable difference makes it a smidge more terrifying than when I write fictional characters charging off on global adventures. It’s easier to imagine your protagonist in exotic locations when you’re sitting comfortably in your WiFi, temperature-controlled, call-Papa-Johns-for-dinner habitat.
But this summer, I’m taking the plunge and joining a team headed to Africa where we’ll provide medical, educational and basic assistance to residents of our hosting cities. I’ll be accompanying the group as their documentarian, blogging, photographing, taking notes, and participating in the team’s fundamental service goals. I’d be lying if I said I was 100 percent confident and ready to be Dian Fossey scribbling my way through the bush. No, no, far from it, but there is an element of personal growth in pushing yourself beyond your perceived limits—terror can be an excellent development catalyst. Strike that: not terror so much as the conquering of that terror.
One of my earliest memories is of this very kind of surmounting experience. I believe I was about four or five years old. It was my first ballet recital. I was all gussied up in my pink kitty costume and slippers, ready to twirl and whirl as practiced. My teacher lined us up, blushing kitties in a row, when I caught my first glimpse of the stage. Or more precisely, the proscenium, curtain up, bright lights glaring, and what seemed a Goliath field of people. Strangers, quietly waiting for us to take our places, for the music to begin, for us to show them what we knew, what we learned, what we felt. No time for missteps.
My knees locked. The little girl behind me pushed at my back, “Go! Go!” But I couldn’t make my legs move. Fear literally froze me to the spot. Then I remembered a distinct moment of clarity. You will do this or you will not, said my inner Jiminy Cricket. I know it sounds absurdly simple, but to a five year old, it was a revelation from God. There were two possible outcomes and the choice was mine to make. So, I stepped out onto the stage, the music began, and I danced my heart out. When we took our curtain bow, I swear I was a good inch taller. Because I’d chosen to trounce that little fearful demon. Smashed him under my ballet toe.
I wish I could go back and tell my little self, “Honey, keep your slippers on. You’ve got a lifetime of these a-coming.” This trip to Africa being just another challenge to my courage. When approached with the offer to come on the trip and write about it, my hackles went up, stereotypical apprehensions about the living conditions, food, water, historical violence and disease. The amount of pre-journey vaccinations alone had me reeling. Yet even as they lined up the syringes with Typhoid, Yellow Fever, Polio, Tetanus, etcetera, that voice came back to me: You will do this or you will not. Eight needle pricks later, the deed was done and it wasn’t nearly as bad as I imagined. So it is with a majority of the fears that keep us from doing, from living our lives to their full potential.
The Bradt Travel Guide explains that written language was not introduced to Rwandans until the arrival of the Europeans at the end of the 19th Century; however, the country is rich with ancient oral literature in the form of myths, folk stories, legends, poetry and proverbs. Many of these are performance based— great poetic tales put to meter and dance. I’m looking forward to hearing these honored stories and perhaps participate myself. A chance to slip on my metaphoric ballet slippers and dance away the demons once again.
Yours truly, Sarah
P.S. I’ll be departing at the end of June and writing about my day-to-day experiences on the Rwanda STOMP blog. I’ll link this blog to that or you can follow my journey directly from there.