Heart of Whiteness

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The sight of the massive spider clinging to the roof of our tent, illuminated by a flashlight, made us all jump. By calling it “massive” maybe I’m exaggerating a tad. It was probably about as big as a Loonie… with legs. But in our eyes it was so big it deserved its own postal code. Our tent was pitched conveniently on the village football pitch but still near the webbed tangle of African jungle that surrounded the field. For all we knew, that adenoidal eight-legged freak could’ve crawled from the heart of darkness itself.

For a group of young, white college kids this foray into the depths of the Liberian forests had its moments that made Conrad’s boat-ride-from-hell seem very plausible: there was the inky black road into the village on the first night where occasionally the headlights of our car would dance on the ghostly-white, painted face of a tribal girl by the roadside, looking like a vengeful tree spirit; there was the thin black line on an undulating march over a walking path – a gigantic army in miniature – ants by the millions who would scale your pant leg if you stepped on them; there was the thick air that settled down on you like a musty wet blanket, making it hard to breathe and causing your skin to constantly bead up with sweat. At times it was easy to see how this place could make you go Kurtz all over. Or at least make you desperate for a hot shower.

The village seemed to us to be part of another world. But the reality was that real people lived here; people who loved and died and had babies and worked hard and laughed and danced and cried and played football. It was a land of children, children, children everywhere, some with just the tattered remnants of t-shirts hanging off their bony frames. Women here had broad shoulders and strong arms that would be the envy of any North American gym-rat, developed the hard way through years of pounding cassava and yams. Men gathered under the shade of the common hut, their faces uniquely carved with decorative scars. Their environment had produced a resilient version of humanity, to which we were both literally and figuratively pale in comparison. In their hearts we didn’t see darkness but light – inexhaustible, inextinguishable light. They were people who endured and would endure.

We were people who craved a shower. Our visit was only for a few days, following on the heels of our white-haired, rail-thin, eccentric professor who knew these people and this village very well. His heart was alit by this place and these people and he wanted us to experience that luminance for ourselves. To that end we mingled with the villagers; we attended a spirited football match between the village team and a nearby rival; we danced and sang into the late hours, making the children laugh at our bizarre approximation of their fluid movements; we rode to market on an overloaded truck, clinging to the roof beside dead porcupines for sale; we made a trek to the local chief’s village and ate food so hot it made our eyes, nose and sweat glands run. In just a few days we had many experiences that would cling to us for a lifetime. However, with a western sense of immediacy, it was the other stuff clinging to us that we were thinking about.

The insistent and nagging North American need for a good washing is hard to ignore, especially when you’re young and concerned about body odor, even in the middle of the Liberian jungle. To people of this village, where indoor plumbing is a tale from a distant land, washing took place in a little stream on a path that ran from their town to the next. We had seen the mothers dutifully take their young ones there to scrub off the dirt that seems to follow children the world over. So one morning, the men in our group, including our professor, made our way down to the stream. We each stripped down to the way God made us in all our pasty glory, the better to scrub each crack and crevice free of grime. The cool water felt heavenly and for a brief moment our longings for a shower stall were forgotten.

“Turn your backs, guys.”

It was a softly spoken command from our leader. Glancing down the path we could see a group of African women heading our way, from our village to the next, carrying their goods perched on their heads. Irresolutely marching and never faltering, the women came on. We tried in vain to hide our own goods as they passed by. The women blithely greeted us as they continued on to their destination.

There was a pause as they disappeared into the jungle. Then our professor lightly proclaimed, “I bet that’s more white skin than they’ve ever seen at one time.”

As for me, a young man exposed in an ancient continent, I could only mutter, “The horror! The horror!”

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