I recently just read a testimonial of a service trip to the Dominican Republic that an old friend and I went on last year. It was an amazing experience that feels so far away right now as I sit in my tiny cement house in the middle of the bush in West Africa. It's truly interesting how fast memories can escape us, yet we are always able to hold on to tastes and smells, or the slightest touch of something that can conjure up nostalgic flashbacks, and words that become that voyage we went on and have left behind years and years ago.
This old friend used a quote by the great philosopher Gandhi, "The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others", to describe how she was able to unearth this passion of service that was suppressed by "real world hustle and bustle". It is amazing how close my experience and this old friend feels right now just by hearing these simplistic yet pure words. I recently just found out what this quote truly means. I recently just lost myself.
Women's Day 2011 was the first annual celebration of women in my village. For about two months I had planned for thirty women in my community, and twenty girls who go to the local high school to gather at our "Maison Des Jeunes", which is French for youth center. I planned an open panel discussion in which there were four professionals who are the experts on the topic they were presenting. The open panel discussion started with the Sage Femme and Assistant to the Doctor who collaborated nicely. I was half expecting the Sage Femme, which is French for midwife, to sort of take the lead and run the show because of two reason. One, she is a great resource and asset in my community. She is motivated and also does discussions at the health center about a number of issues and is truly invested in the health of the people of Aklampa. Two, because men in high positions, in my village, tend to be really slack and the people under them do most of the grunt work while they take all the glory. However, it was a beautiful "melange", meaning mix in French of the two personalities. I even had four girls who are in the equivalent of 11th grade ask me in the middle of the presentation if they could share an HIV/AIDS song they learned at a Peace Corps camp they attended the year before which was the icing on the cake for me.
During the presentation we also talked about the environment and the importance of a girls education. Finding a speaker for this topic was at first difficult since I am one of two female professors now in my community. I, obviously, couldn't do it because the whole open panel discussion was in Mahi, which is our local language. The other female professor who is married to another professor and has children was very difficult to wrangle into the presentation. It's interesting because even women who have a high position in society are nervous about stepping up and speaking their mind. However, her husband ,who is my friend and strong supporter of women's rights, asked if he could help and gave an amazing speech. He spoke of not only the importance of a girls education but also, how we as a community and women need to support the girls. Obviously, this issue sits heavy on my heart as I am a professor in my community. I see girls who drop out left and right and to be honest my heart swelled with pride as the young girls stood up and clapped as their male professor demanded a change in all homes and schools, not only in Aklampa but all over Benin. It was my first event in my village and although the women showed up about an hour and a half late, which is normal in African cultures but had me biting off my nails and pacing like a mad women, it was a fabulous event in which we the facilitators weren't just throwing loads of new information at the girls and women but at time of discussion and reflection. After the open panel discussion we reflected over soda and cookies which I purchased in the town about an hour away from me. This is a big deal in my village, no one but the men go to the "buvettes" and that is only if they can afford it. Buvette is a West African French term for a bar. So, to have a soda was a big deal and I can say they weren't the only ones happy at that time to crack open a cold Coke!
I can't say that I found myself that day, or even today I know who I really am. But I can say I am on the road to self-discovery and I can't wait to lose myself again.