A Piece of It All

A Piece of It All

From Chicken Soup for the Canadian Soul

A Piece of It All

I have travelled a great deal in my life. I’ve been all over the world, to every city in Canada and pretty much every juke joint in the United States. I’m on the road 250 days a year. It’s my job. It’s what I do.

Every few days, I’m off again to another town, another show. Not quite as glamorous as I had imagined it would be oh-so-many years ago. I had thought there’d be limousines and champagne and tall handsome men carrying my bags. I really did! But no, I carry my own bags, and I have learned to pack light. Yes, I thought that I, Jann Arden, a seasoned, ripened traveller, had seen it all.

I was shamefully wrong.

In 1998, I was contacted by a humanitarian organization called World Vision. They invited me to go on a media trip to Africa, to be spokesperson in the infomercials they air to raise awareness and money for child sponsorship. I could take a friend. Was I interested?

First I said yes, and then after a bit of thought, no, then yes and then another no. I was so afraid of going. I’d seen those infomercials and felt my heart break and my hope fade, wondering what I could possibly do—me—just one person, to change anything. I was horrified at the thought of seeing that hunger and sickness and poverty with my own eyes. I didn’t want to go. Why travel anywhere when I would have been so happy to just stay home during my wee bit of time off?

In my heart I knew I’d be missing the opportunity of a lifetime. So I spoke with my parents and friends, discussing the various horrible and wondrous possibilities. When I finally chose my country—Tanzania, and my travel partner, I was still frightened.

I had to get several immunizations and take malaria pills two weeks before I left. I’d heard nightmare stories about those malaria pills. That you could die from just taking them the first time. I’ll never forget popping that first pill and waiting to see the Lord.

I didn’t.

Two weeks later I was flying over Africa with my mouth hanging open. Twenty-seven hours on a plane, and voilà I was there—in the middle of nowhere. The most beautiful nowhere I’d ever seen. I fell in love with Africa looking out that tiny, nose-smudged window. I woke my friend Kerry and said, “Look, oh my God. . . . Kerry look at Africa!”

“I know,” she said.

My mission was to tell the story of the Masai in the northern plains of Tanzania. Drought had nearly wiped them out entirely over the past several years. Killed off most of their precious livestock, starved their fields, dried their treasured water holes and left them dying. I didn’t know what to expect. I surely didn’t expect these poor and starving people to change my life forever. I was there to help them, not the other way around.

The first day we awoke to a glorious breakfast of eggs and tomatoes and chicken and French fries. I had to smile. Every effort was made to make us feel at home. I myself think french fries are an excellent source of . . . breakfast. We were all starved and ate well. It was a beautiful morning. I could just make out the tip of Mount Kilamanjero—“Killy” to the locals.

We piled into the Land Rover and headed off into my wildest dreams and my deepest fears. Both would pale in comparison to what came next.

We left the main road after several hours and began our bumpy journey toward the Masai. (You need a good bra in Africa). The dust and dryness, the cracked earth and the burning sun made us all thirsty just looking at it. We drank bottle after bottle of water. I’ve never thought the same about drinking water since. As we rounded the last bit of brush, there standing proudly in the middle of their village were fifty or so members of the Masai tribe. I felt like I was in a National Geographic movie. The men were wrapped in bright red cloths and had long iron spears. The woman had children on every hip and jewelry weighing heavy everywhere else. I could not believe my eyes. Time folded over me, and I became lost in it. It seemed I had travelled back to the beginning of time.

The huts, or “bowmas,” were made of cow dung and straw and sticks. There were newborn goats dragging their umbilical cords beneath their little bellies, naked children covered in flies, dogs with large beetle-type things attached to their armpits and feeding off of their very lives. I couldn’t move. I did not want to get out of the Land Rover. I wanted to put the movie on pause and call my mother.

They stood looking at us like we had fallen off the moon. I didn’t blame them. We looked uncomfortable with our own selves. We were. My friend Kerry is a big girl, and they were so taken with her. They had seen few white women, never mind big ones, and they were fascinated. The village chief asked the translator what she ate, and Kerry told him she ate everything. We all laughed. The chief laughed, the men laughed, the women and children laughed. It was the laugh that melted the ice. We started talking as fast as the translator could go. The camera crew was shooting film the whole time, but pictures do it no justice. They cannot show with a true heart these precious, beautiful people.

How could these starving poor people without a spoon or a bowl or a chair to sit on, laugh like that? These people whose skin hung from them like a sheet.

They had nothing, but somehow they seemed to me to have everything. It showed in their eyes. The peacefulness. The calm. The serenity. This was not what I thought I would find. Everything I knew I wanted, but didn’t know how to get, they had. They had more joy in their hearts than I had ever known in my life. They knew who they were. Why they were. Where they were.

They didn’t think of themselves as poor. They were hungry because nature had been cruel these few years, and they were thirsty and their children were dying. Everyone at some point in their life needs help. Everyone.

We began our filming, concentrating our profiles on the lives of two little girls. We would tell their stories as accurately as possible: Who they were and why they needed our help. How our helping them would benefit the entire village. How through child sponsorship we would somehow be saving ourselves. But I didn’t know that yet.

Eight-year-old Nariamu had never been to school or seen a doctor or bathed in clean water. She walked up to fifteen kilometres everyday to fetch wood, and did it with one horribly disfigured clubfoot.

We began with her. As you can imagine, she was very shy, not really understanding what we were trying to do. It was hard for me. I tried to be as comforting as possible, but ironically, it was she who comforted me, making me feel welcome and safe and fine. She always wanted to hold my hand. I felt so special and honoured. I don’t know how else to explain it. It’s hard to find the words.

We followed Nariamu around for four days—while she gathered wood and fetched water. I’ve never seen a more disgusting pool of disease and sickness anywhere than the water hole where she dipped her old plastic detergent bottle. The water she collected for the family to cook with and to drink was green and thick with animal feces floating in it. I’d been drinking clear, clean, bottled water for days, and she was about to drink this slop. She was grateful to have any water at all. I was ashamed.

I can’t explain how sick I felt seeing her carry that water home on her head. I was so moved at her pride and how brave and accepting of her life she was. She knew nothing else. No heroine in a book or movie ever compared with her dignity and grace. After that visit to the water hole, I never again heard the camera crew complain about carrying their gear. In fact, I never heard anyone complain again about anything.

Their laughter and generosity dumbfounded us all. I remember Kerry telling me how much my life would change by going to Africa. She said I’d never be the same, and she was right. I think I’m a much better version of me now. I’m trying to understand the circle I’m in, and that I’m that little girl in Africa, and she is me.

On our last day, the entire village gathered, shined up like new pennies in their finest, to sing us a song. I felt a tear climb up through my stomach, through my lungs, past my heart and into my eyes. I cried like I was ten years old. I wailed. I soaked the earth with my gratitude. I felt the presence of God, the universe; I felt eternity behind me and eternity before me. I was emptied out right there on the dry plains where all humanity was born. It felt like I had returned home. The song they sang said how glad they were I had come, and they hoped I would return and bring news of the world. The song said they were alive and they were together and that nothing—not famine or hatred or the modern world or death—could keep them from living out their destiny. I understood something that has no name.

I cried until an old grandmother cupped her hands over my eyes, saying one word over and over. “Poli” has a lot of meanings. One is to slow down. Another meant they knew of my sorrow. That old grandmother cared about me—this visitor with strange hair and skin and talk, and I cared about her. I cared about all of them.

One world.

One white flag.

We were the same person for a split second.

I went to Africa to help, but these people helped me more than they will ever know. When I returned home to Canada, I fired my management of eleven years, ended a horrible relationship and moved to the country to be closer to my family. I changed everything. I started again and felt wonderful about doing so.

Through World Vision I was able to get Nariamu’s foot fixed in Nairobi. It’s now perfect in every way and will help her live a normal and active life. I was so happy to be able to do that. The last thing her father said to me was, “Will you help fix my daughter’s foot?” “Yes,” I replied, “I will. No matter what it takes, I will do that for her.”

I now know the meaning of what a promise is. I don’t think I ever did before. That promise is the bar for me now. To be a person whose word can be counted on. That, in itself changed my life and would have been enough. I am still counting the blessings, the lessons, the wisdom given me by the richest people I will ever know.

Someday, I will go back to meet the woman who taught me how to live without fear, the little girl named Nariamu.

Jann Arden
Calgary, Alberta

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