Pathfinders: Coming alive in Africa

Thebarefootbeat“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
-Howard Thurman

This latest story comes from my dear friend and co-volunteer Lena Wrobbel, who has written a beautiful piece about her time volunteering in Africa. Originally from Germany, she has been volunteering in Kenya and Ghana for the last six months teaching at local schools. It’s been a joy to have our paths cross, and I hope her story will inspire you as it has me! To read more about her time in Africa, you can visit her personal blog (written mostly in German). 

“I am sitting on a rock on the small mountain behind Teiman, the Ghanaian village I am currently living in, and for several minutes now I have been staring in the direction of the horizon. It is always a bit misty and dusty around here in Accra, the sky is always a little dimmish. I cannot really focus the horizon, cannot distinguish the earth from the sky, not really see where the earth ends and where the sky begins. The sun is burning again today, a drop of sweat tickles me on my upper arm. Somewhere, a bird is singing, somewhere over there in the bushes.

I don’t want to be anywhere else right now.

It is quiet up here and it took us almost two hours to hike up the mountain all the way from the village. A dusty way, rust-red, dry dust. The hike was exhausting in the heat and I feel a little weak, but at the same time so endlessly alive. Camino feelings. 

On our way back through the village we meet playing children. Ebenezer and Emanuela ride around on their BMX bike, other kids kick an empty coconut shell through the dust. Two girls lay in the shade of a tree giggling and chattering, others seem to meander and aimlessly roam around. The village is spacious here to the north, the familiar dirt roads are broad and the houses are arranged spaciously. Emanuela pedals and speeds up, Ebenezer holds on to her shoulders.

The two friends are dashing down the dirt road in a speed we would – if at all-  allow our children only when wearing a helmet, but for sure not with a five-year-old standing on the frame of the back wheel. Without having another destination but this part of the road itself, without wanting to get anywhere, without wanting to reach anything but the booming ride itself. I can feel their joy, their laughter carries their freedom of that moment to us while we walk along the road. 
Lena Wrobbel
Teiman, Ghana 2014
Photo credit Lena Wrobbel

A completely useless day? Hiking up the hill, searching for the horizon, hiking down, watching children playing, going home? I am confused because I do feel complete satisfaction. Didn’t I state just days ago that it is the usefulness of my work here that makes me happy, that completes and fullfills me? I ask myself whether I need to feel guilty, having not really accomplished anything today. When I realize that this is one of those mad and well known thoughts, so typical for our society, I dismiss it and enjoy the moment. The work for others is important, necessary and fulfilling- but there is also joy in the apparent absurdity, in the make-believe pointlessness of life. 

There is joy in hiking up the mountain, in watching the stars, in jumping from the cliffs of Mombasa, in perfecting pancakes in our shared kitchen. In weeklong hikes on the Camino de Santiago, finally realizing that this city at the end had never been the purpose of our journey, but every step and every day that had led us there. There is joy in looking for the cookies in the suitcase on the backseats of Linda’s car while being stuck in traffic on the Severinsbridge on our way home (I can still remember how we dug into that suitcase, I can still feel our giggles, still hear Linda laugh. I don’t remember how the cookies tasted, what kind of cookies they were anyway. Did we even find them?)

Lena Wrobbel
Teiman, Ghana 2014
Photo credit Lena Wrobbel

The purpose of life is life itself (J.W. Von Goethe). Paradoxical? Our whole world is paradoxical, we are paradoxical, every day. We are longing for immediate happiness, but instead of living it, we work hard so that one day we will be able to afford it. We’d rather tiredly collapse on our expensive leather sofa instead of happily sitting on a worn-out couch. When our everyday life is making us sick we doubt ourselves instead of our lifestyle and we take medication so we can function again. We forget, that nobody who gave has ever become poor (Anne Frank). We receive the nobel peace prize and invest in armaments industry. We demonstrate for a minimum wage in Germany and buy Nike shoes made in Chinese sweatshops. We think fair trade is important yet keep our money with banks that bet on food prices. We are ultra-eco-hip and don’t eat meat because it is bad for the climate footprint- but easily put up with a ten-hour-flight to Africa.

We are disgusted by our childrens’ and students’ need to compare and to wear certain labels, but we ourselves post every of our own tiny little joys on Facebook in order to show the world that we aren’t as messed up as the others out there, and in order to prove to ourselves that we don’t suck too bad at living a fulfilling life. But actually we are waiting for the Friday afternoons and for the holidays. Sunday evening and at the end of the vacation we are tired and disappointed since we did not make it, since we failed again in catching up on what we have missed during the week. We read inspiring books, spend money on workshops where they tell us about how to enjoy life and we pin inspiring quotes on the internet. We hit the like-button on videos of poetry slammers who in a pretty poem talk about the truth we all know, and yet we don’t pick ourselves up.

We find a thousand excuses for why we cannot quit our job now or why we cannot start living the life that would bring us happiness. And we call all those ‘naive dreamers’ who reminds us of this. We are desperate for life, but we do not even dare to dream of it.
Lena WrobbelNairobi, Kenya 2014
Photo credit Anja Luethi

For me, here in Africa, talk is cheap. Here, where the sun is so big and the moon upside down, things are easily said. Surrounded by dreamers and visionaries, by young hippies and self-proclaimed do-gooders, by backpackers who leave everything behind and take off to look for the purpose of life in the filth of cheap hostels. Wearing wide colorful pants  and sharing stories, gathered under candle light and incense. Surrounded by 19-year-olds who hitchhike from England to Kenya on their own, and by 80-year-olds who use their wheelchair fund to explore West Africa. Stepped out of old roles and taken a big step back to be able to see better what’s going on in our society and in that system that so often makes us sick and already makes our primary schoolers become depressive.
Lena WrobbelVoi Hill, Kenya 2014
Photo credit Gabriel Hibberd

On no account do I own the truth, on no account have I found the truth, neither in the salty ocean water on Ghana’s coast nor in the dry dirt of Kenya’s Savannas. I have only found myself, unexpectedly and accidentally. When we looked at the green snake under the rocks on Voi Hill. When we had a cheap rice-and-coconut-bean-dish under millions and millions of stars and planets, when we cold-sweatedly tried to tame a group of thirty exuberant children (in vain), neighbors and parents uncomprehendingly observing us. In the hut at night, rain pattering down on the metal roof, thunder and lightening around us. In the bus from Mbita to Nairobi, our backpacks soaked with fishy water in the trunk and ourselves squeezed into tiny seats. Bumpy roads, music too loud, invasive hawkers at the bus stop in the middle of the night.

When the sun set over Tsavo East and everything was immersed in golden light, when there was nothing before us but the endless skies and the vast Savanna and nothing could be heard but the birds at the waterhole. When barefootedly making Chapati in the kitchen, which was more about fooling around with the siblings than about the Chapati. With sister Anja in the tent during the rain. When composing, “Cool cruising kids kindly carried on a kenyan Camel”, and when riding the piki-piki on dirt roads. We compared ants and climbed trees and we collected words and phrases that we thought would sound great. We found “rooftop romance and coconut rice“ and Gabriel discovered “chocablock with knick knacks”. Pointless all this, foolish? Maybe.

Lena Wrobbel

Voi, Kenya 2014
Photo credit Lena Wrobbel

And maybe somebody is now thinking, “Right, let her just come back. Let her just come back, I’ll make her an appointment at the hairdresser right away. Let her be in my situation, let her start her teaching job in May, crammed with curricular demands; exhausting students and nights of preparing for classes.” Maybe, maybe that person is a bit right. Yes, maybe in two, ten, or fifty years I will find myself laughing about the naive texts I wrote, about my attempts to teach in Ghanaian village schools and about my idea that I could actually make a difference. 

But I don’t want to leave this ease behind when soon returning to Europe.
Lena WrobbelTeiman, Ghana 2014

Maybe I only wake up when being pushed in the cold water at home, and then maybe I feel ashamed for telling you all these lightheaded things. Sometimes I’d rather say smart things, things that sound like the intelligent woman that high school and university made me become. I would then tell you about how proud I am of my students’ essays and how efficient and awesome my math classes are (Ha!). But I know so little at the moment yet feel so alive. And to live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong (J.C. Pearce). Lose both our fear and our memory of being wrong.”
Lena WrobbelMombassa, Kenya 2014
Photo credit Anja Luethi 

Are you someone who is charting your own authentic path in life? I’d love to hear your story and feature it here. Send me an email ( if you’re interested in submitting a guest post to the Pathfinders series.

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