I never made it there with him.
At one point, as we flew over D.C. I looked out of the window at the landscape below. Somewhere down there was Gabriel. And he was most likely alone. Sick. Lonely, a shell of a man who never quite realized his dream to liberate Africa. And I was on my way to the place that he never thought I'd make it to on my own. And he was right. I didn't make it on my own.
I am grateful for grace, and friends who are saturated with it.
I did not gloat as I passed him somewhere below. I did not whisper, "Hi Gabriel! I'm off to Africa even though you never thought I'd make it, and take that!" I simply noted he was down there somewhere, and I was on my way home. Simply that.
* * *
It was a long ride from D.C. to JoBurg. I had lots of time to think, pray, bond, and share secrets with people who are now so important to me that I ache from missing them and can scarcely wait for our reunion. I prayed the rosary many times, often with tears streaming down my face. I know. Some of you have a real issue with asking Jesus' mom for prayers. But not me. Not anymore. I find great comfort in the communion of saints, and she's His mom, for goodness' sake. In that garland of roses in which I ask her to pray for me now and in the hour of my death, I walk through the entire life of Christ. From annunciation, to his agonizing death, and ultimately to His glorious resurrection. If the devil is in that, he's one dumb devil because it makes me fall in love with Jesus so much more.
When we finally flew over Africa Elysa alerted me, though I'd followed the plane's course on a navigation screen in front of me. And I had all kinds of feelings. Wonder and amazement. Peace. Even nervousness. Gabriel told me once that every time he went to Africa, all the African Americans on the plane meeting the Motherland for the first time wept. I thought I'd weep. I'm a weeper. But dear Lord, I had no idea.
I got started weeping days before my journey, but I'd stifle those tears as quickly as they came. It's good to live in the moment. I wanted my experience to be authentic and firmly rooted in the now. I wondered what my own feelings would be, free from what I was supposed to feel and I didn't want to cry just because I thought I was supposed to. But I did cry, lovies, when it was time. I was going to the place my ancestors long , it is said, many of them, on their own black and shining wings, flew away to. There are testimonies of it:
Some people said that when a Negro died he went back to Africa, but this is a lie. How could a dead man go to Africa? It was living men who flew there, from a tribe the Spanish stopped importing as slaves because so many of them flew away that it was bad for business.
--Esteban Montejo, The Autobiography of a Runaway Slave
--Ishmael Webster, qtd. in Alas, Alas, Kongo
Yes, I cried on that plane descending down to Africa soil. I cried for a thousand, thousand ancestors crowded in my heart. And for millions of brothers and sisters in the States right now who have yet to make it home. I took them with me. Their dreams, their hopes, their longing. And I took with my ancestors stolen names and virtues. Talk about a communion! I wept for every one of my African grandmothers and fathers, now asleep in graves with no markers, who's blood is mingled with American soil. And I wept for those who's bones have rested in the Atlantic Ocean since the Middle Passage. My entire body was wracked with sobs as I experienced the sweet relief that says, "At long last, home."
We made it. Finally.
Dany and I chuckle together as we land. We look outside, and it looks like every other airport in the whole freakin' world. I want to touch African soil so badly I want to run off the plane and out of the airport, but there's only concrete as far as I can see. I'm finally in Africa, and I can't even see the soil, much less touch it, or kiss it!
Ah, well. Hazy gray African skies with a fine mist of rain will have to suffice. It is the first indication that every romantic dream I have of Africa will be shattered. But at the moment, I took great consolation in the fact that I'd arrived.
I gave thanks.
After several delays, we step outside the of the airport and finally there is soil. I thought I would cry. Kneel reverently and kiss the ground. The ground was muddy and wet. Even I was not that romantic. I kissed my fingertips and touched them to my Africa. One for me, and one for my friend Jen Lemen, who feel in love with South Africa on her mondo beyondo trip last year. I didn't cry. I laughed, the kind of joyful outburst you feel in every part of your being.
I was in Africa!
I think God laughed with me.
Barbed wire is everywhere. It affirms the facts that I'd read. Johannesburg is one of the most violent places in the world. It can eat Detroit's murder capital stats over the years like a mid-day snack. The barb wire strikes a fear in me that I'd revisit again on my trip.
I didn't want to think about my Africa as a violent place. I know about Rwanda and Burundi. I know about the Sudan, and now Kenya. I know about the sins of abject poverty. But I need this trip to be joyful. Beautiful. I don't mind if meeting Jesus in His distressing disguises will break my heart. I expect and even embrace that kind of suffering, but dear God, don't let the people of Africa break my heart because I'm so disappointed in them. How would I endure it?
Africa is astoundingly beautiful. Some say that life began in Africa. I could see their point. It is a garden of lush life. We arrived in the middle of summer, and the land was as excruciatingly alive as any Eden I'd ever seen. Life began in Africa. I know in many ways life began for me in that exquisite place of beauty and terror. And it began in ways I could not have dreamed.