I checked two bags at the airport, both bursting at the seams, and boarded a flight with a heart that was just as full. My soul was brimming with eager expectancy and apprehension. There were equal parts passion and fear, joy and sadness, excitement and hesitation. Like most people following God’s promptings in their lives, I faced a whole continent of unknowns.
I was moving to Africa.
I was 19.
In high school, I’d spent every summer traveling overseas on mission trips. First it was Central and South America, experiences which made my heart come alive as I discovered and embraced other cultures for the first time. But nothing compared to the way my life changed when I set foot on African soil.
The summer I turned 16, I spent two full months in rural Botswana, a landlocked country in Southern Africa. I was this city girl from Long Island who preferred to pass a gorgeous day indoors, reading or watching TV. I had never been camping, and, quite honestly, I avoided the outdoors as much as possible. But there I was, spending eight weeks living in a tent, cooking over a campfire, and dealing with unimaginable amounts of dirt and insects—and I loved it.
I remember sitting on the dirt floor of a hut constructed with mud, dung, and thatch, having a conversation with a beautiful Motswana woman. The lines on her weathered face and hands told stories of a long and hard life. Her clothes were tattered, her shoes peppered with holes, and her simple home bare except for a few essentials: a pile of neatly folded blankets, a tea kettle, some metal camping mugs, a broom. She had welcomed us in warmly and apologized for not having chairs to offer us. After she served us hot tea, I watched her make her own using one of our already-used tea bags.
She joined us on the floor and, with the aid of a translator, we talked about the Bible, following Christ, and what faith means to each of us. As she spoke, her smile lit up her dark, windowless home. Her face radiated joy and hope from a source deep within her, far below the surface of her outward circumstances.
This beautiful Motswana woman’s steadfast faith challenged and inspired me.
I wanted my life to be marked with that same kind of unswerving trust. I had gone to Africa with the hope of making a difference, and yet God was using Africa to make a difference in me.
Later that week, people from the village gathered in the open square to visit with our team. I watched a young girl approach, holding the arm of her elderly grandmother, guiding her over from a nearby hut. The woman’s body was frail and bent, and she walked slowly but deliberately straight toward me.
“Mma?” She called me with the respectful Setswana word for addressing a woman, and looked up at me with milky, cataract-veiled eyes. Through my translator she explained, “I cannot see anymore. Everything is cloudy. But I know Jesus heals. Pray for me, Mma?”
With my mustard-seed teenage faith and a firm belief in a God who heals, I placed my hands on her eyes and prayed. My heart ached for this woman and her incredible faith, and I begged God for a miracle.
The woman began crying and I wiped her tears gently as I prayed. At my “Amen,” she lifted her calloused fingers to her face and rubbed her eyes. She wiped her hands on her dust-stained green sweater and reached into her pocket for a handkerchief. She blinked repeatedly and continued rubbing her eyes, wiping away a thick, filmy substance. A smile spread wide across her face and she began speaking excitedly in Setswana.
My interpreter translated for me. “I can see! I can see!”
“Go over there,” she told me, pointing to the tin snack shop about 10 feet away. I walked over. “I can still see you. Go farther!” I continued taking steps back until I was unnervingly far from the rest of my group, about 50 yards away. The translator shouted to echo the old woman’s excited voice, “I can still see you!”
I will never forget that woman’s smile and the sight of her walking home without the guiding arm of her granddaughter. And I will never forget the growing seed of faith that burrowed deeper into my heart that day.
It was these sorts of experiences that captivated my heart for Africa and her people, who overflowed with joy and faith from a well than ran deep, even in a dry and desperate land.
Africa changed me far more than I ever changed her.
So I kept going back, sensing even as a shy teenager that God was calling me to live in Africa. Not because I thought I had something to offer, or even that I wanted to do something courageous, but simply because I was convinced it was where I belonged. It felt like home.
And so, while friends were buying used books for college and adjusting their class schedules, I was saying my goodbyes and boarding a 17-hour flight to South Africa. 15 years ago today, I arrived in a country that quickly became home, that captivated my heart in every possible way, that became the source of my greatest loves and deepest losses.
I haven't ever felt as sure about anything as I did that day—so long ago and yet seemingly just yesterday. Part of me hopes that I'll someday feel that same confident "knowing" again and the other part of me doubts I ever will... and is absolutely okay with that. That I had one life-changing assurance, experience, and journey is enough—it's actually more than I could have hoped for or imagined.
Regardless of where I am in the world—or in life—this will always remain my Africaversary. My heart is tender, vacillating wildly between gratitude and grief, joy and sorrow.
But mostly—mostly—I am acutely aware of the once-in-a-lifetime story I've lived, born from the seed of faith planted deep in my heart one dusty summer in Botswana.