** I don't even know what to title this. I've been trying to write this for over a year, and even now, I'm not sure that I really understand it. I'm not sure how to write about it in a way that's real and honest. I don't know how to describe all the sights and sounds and emotions. I don't know how to talk about the people who were there. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'm not sure what this story is even about. I don't know if it's about the people or the location or the accident or what God was trying to teach me through all of it. I don't know how to tell you about it and that's why I've been largely silent. I don't know how to write about how it changed my view of God and my relationship with Him. What I'm trying to say is that this is the story I haven't been able to tell you. It's taken me a year and it's still messy, but here's my post-Namibia update. **
My time in Africa was divided between four locations: my shared bedroom, the back of pickup trucks, high schools, and hospitals.
We woke up at five every morning, a symphony of alarm clocks, groans, and shuffling sleeping bags. The air was heavy with the smells of spray deodorant, bar soap, and laundry detergent. We shared one bathroom. One toilet. One tub, used for bathing in the morning and laundry in the afternoon. One sink. One tiny mirror. We fell asleep and awoke to our laundry hanging above us, colorful as prayer flags. Six women, half Namibian, half American, each possessing only a backpack full of clothes and a sleeping bag.
Mornings meant antimalarials, which I hated. I hated the taste of them, and the fact that I rarely took them with water. I would sit on my sleeping bag, legs crossed, and put on my makeup. Every morning, even in Africa, I put on foundation and eyeliner. I would wait until the bathroom was empty and then I would quickly brush my teeth. There was very little alone time in our family and I revelled in whatever short moments of privacy I was allowed.
Stanley, our team leader, would come by to pick us up. “He’s here!”, one of my teammates would inevitably yell while the rest of us rushed around trying to get our things. Bags. Cameras. Bibles. Journals. Chapstick. Water. Jackets. Something was always forgotten, but there was more than enough to be shared.
Our team at breakfast at the boys’ house. We sat on mattresses in their living room and ate porridge. Our fatigue was never enough to keep us from exchanging hugs and cheery “good mornings”. We were always laughing, even before the sun had risen.
We climbed in the back of the truck and rode to school. It was freezing, so we huddled together for warmth, clutching our bandanas to our heads.
If I had been given the choice to stay at that high school in Namibia, I would be there to this day. My job was to talk to high school girls about relationships. Sex. Abstinence. Domestic violence. Education. Poverty. Breaking negative cycles in their society. My heart was broken by their honesty, and by knowing that I was likely the first person who had ever really listened to them. I loved those girls with my entire heart and that selflessness gave me a feeling of freedom that I had never experienced before and have yet to experience again.
At the same time, I felt unable to carry the weight of their pain. After school, or sometimes in the middle of the day, it was all too much and I needed someone with whom to share it. I found Nathan, one of my teammates. He was always ready to listen, and rarely had any answers for me; he was exactly who I needed. I talked to him daily, perplexed, often fighting back tears. He was my confidante, my friend. He made me laugh.
Sometimes I couldn’t stand myself for needing to talk so much. I felt like I was trying to make my opinions and experiences valid by speaking them into existence. In these frustrating moments, Nathan would pick up his guitar and play. I would sing; when my heart was breaking, I could barely hum harmonies. Those musical prayers are what sustained me during my time in Namibia.
More than a year later, I’m still unsure how I should describe a Namibian hospital. We visited the children’s ward. Our goal was to bring sweets, to bring smiles. The sickness wasn’t what bothered me. I’d spent weeks, months in children’s hospitals when I was a kid, and I’d long been desensitized to death and dying. What bothered me was that these children were in a hospital and they weren’t receiving medical care. The illnesses were painted over the doorways, screaming in capital letters. EXTREME MALNUTRITION. BURN UNIT. INTENSIVE CARE. There was no overpowering smell of antiseptic, no whirring and beeping of monitors, no shelves stocked with medication. All these patients had was a bed to sleep in and a nurse to watch them die.
I couldn’t let myself cry in the hospital, so I prayed. I prayed over a mother and her twins, one healthy and one dying. I prayed for a teenage girl with a bad tooth. I used my three phrases in Oshiwambo before my translator stepped in to ask an Owambo family if I could talk to them and pray with them for a while. I prayed for a newborn, barely three months old, who didn’t belong to anyone; he was covered in cigarette burns and bite marks.
As we walked away from the hospital, I swore to myself that I wouldn’t come back to Namibia until I’d learned Afrikaans or finished my nursing degree. I told Nathan later that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to be a nurse. I wasn’t sure how to plunge into the most intimate periods of strangers’ lives, when they are literally walking the line between life and death. He told me that he thought I’d make a great nurse. I wasn’t sure whether or not I believed him.
Driving home that evening was the first time I’d ever considered my own mortality. I realized that if our truck crashed, I was never going to make it home. Medical care was wholly insufficient. If I died in Namibia, I would do it without a single regret.
Some two weeks later, our team was preparing to go home. We had gone on safari and stayed at a resort for a night. We were at our headquarters, waiting for the other half of our team to meet us before the Americans flew home. We’d been separated for the duration of our trip, but we’d trained together. We’d flown from Washington D.C. to London and then onto Johannesburg. We’d laughed and prayed and shared and anticipated. I knew their life stories. My half of the team was excited to see them, but a bit apprehensive. Would we have anything in common with them anymore? Were they feeling the same way about us?
Two nights before we were to leave Namibia, my team had a celebratory dinner. It was the first and last time we would go to a restaurant in Africa. We ordered pizza and drank Cokes and reminisced about our time together. We made broad, sweeping oaths about how we would all see each other again. It was one of the happiest times of my life. We went back to camp to wrap up our trip and wait for the other half of the team.
Stanley told each one of us what he appreciated about us, what he would remember, what he would miss. We laughed loudly and cried without shame. He told me that I had fit in with the Namibian side of the team, almost as if I belonged there. He called me brave and told me that I was joyful. He had equally heartfelt speeches for each member of the team. We had just finished our meeting and were about to start praying when Ashwin, the fiance of one of my teammates, rushed in.
He said something in Afrikaans, and immediately Bonita, his fiancee, started wailing. The only two words I had caught were “Rico” and “Max”. Rico was the leader of the other half of the team and The Max was the motorhome they had been traveling in.
Stanley explained that The Max had been in an accident. It had rolled three times. There had been fifteen people inside, including Bonita’s brother, sister-in-law, and two baby nieces. No seatbelts. They were unsure who was injured and how badly. They had no idea when emergency assistance would arrive. They needed us to come help.
Everything was spinning, but I felt like the whole world was slowing down, freezing. I thought that we would stay at camp and pray. What would we be able to help with anyway? But they told us to grab anything we could and get into the truck. The next thing I remember is being in our room, and hearing myself yelling at my teammates. "Grab your sleeping bags, flashlights, jackets, first aid kits. Grab anything you think we might need."
I don’t like praying out loud, but I don’t think that I stopped praying from the second we heard about the accident until the time we arrived at the scene. On the drive there, Robin, another one of our leaders, said that four of us were in charge. I was one of the four. I was terrified. I didn’t know if I would find my friends bleeding, screaming, dying. I didn’t have any real skills or knowledge. So I prayed. I prayed for everyone to be safe, alert, unhurt, alive. I prayed for Leslie, who was allergic to all antibiotics. I thanked God for Jake, who was always calm and composed, who at that very moment was probably taking control of the situation. I prayed for each team member by name, seeing his or her face. I never started crying and I never stopped shaking. A few of my teammates asked what they should do when we got there. "Keep them warm. Keep them awake. Stop any bleeding. Don’t move them."
We all jumped out of the truck before it stopped moving. The other team was laid out on the ground, covered by their own sleeping bags, resting on their own backpacks. I walked around, surveying the crash. Everyone was conscious. Everyone was alive. Johnny, the driver, was hurt the worst. I didn’t see him, but I heard that he had a pretty serious head injury. I talked to Accas for a while, who was on the brink of unconsciousness. He was always serious; I tried to joke with him, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t catch any of my jokes. I saw Anna talking to a pile of blankets. I knew the voice before I saw the face. It was Lane, who was probably my best friend on the other half of the team. We’d spent hours on the phone before we’d met in D.C. He was laughing, telling a story about trying to jump out of the truck while he was on safari.
The ambulances arrived. I was shocked to see that they were moving my teammates without backboards. These were people who more than likely had spinal injuries, and the EMTs were acting as if it were no big deal. I was furious, but there was nothing I could do. I watched as the ambulances came in shifts, taking my teammates to the county hospital and the hospital in Windhoek, the capital city.
I don’t think I started breathing until I saw the last ambulance leave. Nathan walked up to me in his brother’s grey sweater. “I’m really impressed by how calm you stayed the whole time. You’re a born nurse.” He hugged me. At that point, I wanted to collapse and cry, but instead, I bundled up in my sleeping bag and tried to stay warm until the cars came back to pick up everyone who had not been injured.
Rico pulled up in a car and cranked up the radio. And then, he started dancing. Praising the Lord. In the middle of the night. In the middle of this empty highway. I wouldn’t have believed if I hadn’t been there. We all started dancing, because we were victorious. The Devil had tried to kill, steal, and destroy, but God had won. We danced. We believed that in the end, God always wins.
We stayed at the hospital until early morning, eating bread, Coke, and garlic fries. We tried to laugh and succeeded in smiling. We had won. We were all alive. We were all safe.
The next day, we were supposed to go on a trip to the capital, but no one felt much like going. I stayed at camp with Nathan. We laid in the grass and laughed all afternoon. We took a walk and talked about what the next year would bring for each of us.
When everyone returned to camp that night, we had a braai, a barbecue. We sang and danced and praised the Lord. That night was magical, and we all tried to pretend not to realize that we would be leaving in the morning.
The next morning, we ate our last plates of porridge together. Nathan played with his food and I sat with him until everyone else had left. We talked about flying home, what we would miss about Africa. We talked about our teammates, a few of whom were still in the hospital. Johnny had been transferred to a private hospital and I was happy to hear it.
“I’m going to miss you,” I said. I hadn’t meant to tell him that, but somehow it had come out.
“I’ll miss you, too. I didn’t want to tell you that, but I will.”
We hugged and prayed. I didn’t cry.
The rest of the team came back in. We were supposed to debrief, to prepare for culture shock. Stanley came to the microphone.
“I have some sad news. Johnny died this morning.”
I don’t know how to forget the way that the women wailed that morning. It was a visceral cry, as if all their pain had manifested itself physically. I was too shocked to cry as everyone else around me broke down. Francis, my warrior from Zimbabwe, crumbled into me, weeping. Bonita and Auntie Kat ran from the room. Everyone was in tears and I wanted everything to stop. Every part of my heart hurt. I knew that God was still victorious, but it was harder to believe it when we had just lost one of our brothers.
It was four hours before we had to leave for the airport and I don’t think that the crying ever stopped. Nathan and a few others had an earlier flight to catch. We all waved goodbye with bloodshot eyes and runny noses.
I walked around camp with Cierra. We went to visit Lane, who thought he had broken his leg. He was staying in Africa for another couple of weeks. He made us laugh, like always. He had heard the news about Johnny and hadn’t cried yet. I don’t think he knew how to start. I didn’t, either.
I saw Pamela break down. She sank to the ground. I sat there with her, my arms around her, tears streaming down both of our faces.
We weren’t ready to leave, especially not in light of the previous forty-eight hours, but we said our goodbyes and climbed into the van. We nearly missed our first flight, but an hour and a half later, we were in Johannesburg, drinking coffee and trying to pretend that life would be normal when we got home.
We flew together from Johannesburg to London, and then I had to fly from London to Phoenix by myself. My flight was delayed by three hours, then four. Then it was cancelled. A hundred and forty international flights were cancelled that day. I was nineteen years old and stranded in London, where I didn’t know a single person.
I was standing in line, alone, when it finally hit me. I called my mom. As soon as she picked up the phone, I started bawling. I tried to tell her about the accident and the hospital and Johnny’s death and that I was now stuck in London and that they were telling me it might take as long as a week for another flight. She told me it would all be okay, that she would make sure that I got home.
When I got off the phone with her, I called my dad. I tried to tell him the story, but I’m sure he couldn’t understand half of it through my sobs. He told me that he would find me a ticket.
I hung up the phone, emotionally exhausted. The man behind me in line asked if I was okay. I smiled, a bit ashamed, and told him that it had been a rough three days. He talked to me for an hour, until I had calmed down enough to figure out a plan for the night. Thank God for kind strangers.
I spent that night on the floor at Heathrow, sleeping next to a mother and daughter who were on their way home from India.
My second flight was delayed six hours. I bought the latest Harry Potter book, which had been released that day, and ate some Thai food. I read the book without finding any pleasure and ate the food without experiencing any taste.
I was sandwiched between businessmen on my flight home. It was early afternoon and they were already drunk off the complimentary wine. I fell asleep because I didn’t want to start crying. I woke up in San Francisco.
I don’t remember Immigration or Customs. I must have floated by both of them. I remember seeing my dad. It was nearly eleven at night and he was the only person waiting at the end of the terminal.
I didn’t even have any tears left to cry. I was so empty that I couldn’t even feel relief.
“You’re never going back” was the first thing he said to me.
I didn’t even have the energy to fight him.