By Sarah Hohl
I love Africa.
It’s wild, undeveloped and beautiful.
It’s also violent, impoverished and dangerous.
It’s a place that has changed my life, giving me direction and meaning.
And it’s a place that almost killed me.
Not everyone understands why I chose to live and work here instead of climbing the corporate ladder back home, and I understand that. But I have always been attracted to adventure, to taking risks, to stepping far out of my comfort zone and into the exotic. I have also had a heart for those in need. And that’s why I seem to fit so well here, half a world away from the comforts and securities of the United States.
It’s a passion that I try to share with my friends and family back home through e-mails and letters, and last summer when my mom, dad and aunt told me they were going to spend their vacation with me here in Kenya, I was thrilled. It was a chance to share that passion with them in person. I wanted to show them all of these sides of the Africa I have come to know and love—the makeshift refugee camps whose destitute people pull at my heart and brought me to this country, as well as the wild side that regularly tugs at my emotions and begs me to come outside and play.
We went whitewater rafting down the Nile River and then tested our skills on quad bikes, moving through local villages, banana plantations and corn crops. Local children ran from their houses to greet us as we sped past, waving and smiling when we took the opportunity to say hello.
We braved the “Nile by Wire,” which involved sailing hundreds of meters above the rapidly moving river on a wire cable. And when traffic proved to be a challenge, we even took a motorcycle taxi back to town. Mototaxis are not something available in the United States, and they can be both harrowing and exhilarating as the wind rushes through your hair and the driver zips in and around the congestion.
It was a beautiful day when we took the mototaxis, each climbing onto our separate motorcycles. I borrowed my mother’s camera to capture the moments of her, Dad and Aunt Diane—open-mouthed, smiling, clutching the shoulders of their drivers—as the village scenes passed by.
It was the pinnacle of a great visit—until I lost sight of my parents. My time in Africa has changed my life, making me more compassionate to the plight of the poor and more reflective about our responsibilities to the world. And that became even more true despite what happened next.
My driver told me they took a different route, but we would all meet in town. I looked over his shoulder and saw Aunt Diane’s taxi cross the road and cut through a petrol station. My driver saw them, too, and moved quickly—recklessly—to follow. As he gunned the motorcycle, we nearly crashed into the back of a truck. Instead of hitting the brakes, though, he inexplicably, irrationally jerked the motorcycle to the right. Straight into oncoming traffic. Straight into a school bus.
I woke up in a minivan. I think it was a minivan. I was lying in the lap of a Ugandan man who was holding my hair out of my face. Tears and blood spotted the legs of his dark pants. A blurry vision of a white woman sitting in the passenger’s seat in front of us caught my eye.
“Hello?” I said. “Do you know my mom?”
“No,” she answered.
“Who are you people?”
“I’m an American missionary.”
“There’s been an accident,” said the man.
I don’t remember the collision. I don’t remember the bus stopping just inches from my body. Nor do I remember the mototaxi driver fleeing the scene or the people stealing my bag, my phone, my camera and even my earrings as I lay there in the middle of the road bleeding and unconscious. Even now, I can’t recall the face of the local man who swooped me in his arms, carried me to safety and begged a passerby to help him take me to the hospital. This—these inexplicable extremes—is Africa. And for better or worse, this is where I chose to live, and these are the people I’ve committed my life to help. When I started at Xavier, I was a dual marketing and accounting major with dreams of working for a large corporation. At the end of my freshman year, though, I saw a poster in Alter Hall about a service learning semester in Nicaragua. The students were presenting a slide show about their experiences. I attended. And I was horrified. Street kids sniffing glue, malnourished children playing games at a nutrition center before they would be fed their only meal in a day, 6-year-olds begging on the street for the equivalent of a few cents. It changed me.
I was accepted into the next service learning semester, and the reality was more desperate than the photos. I volunteered in a relocation camp that housed Nicaraguans displaced by Hurricane Mitch. They lived in plastic shacks, cardboard shanties, corrugated metal homes, many without running water or electricity. Prostitution was a main source of income for any woman over the age of 12. Aggression and anger resulted in repeated instances of domestic violence. Kids were sent to the streets to sell chewing gum or tortillas rather than attend school. My job at a preschool, I think, was to provide some kind of hope, some kindness and maybe a lesson or two to children and their families in the neighborhood.
I continued to study about gross human rights violations, and as I learned more about the world, I began to understand that a huge number of human rights violations occurred on a continent that receives a lot of media attention, but not as much aid or conflict management as it needs: Africa.
If I wanted to be an expert on developing world politics and rights violations, I needed to feel what it was like, to talk to the people, to live the life, to immerse myself into the culture.
So after I graduated in 2002, I joined the Peace Corps. I was assigned to a village of 425 people in Senegal named Coke Can—pronounced Choe-Kee-Chan by the locals. I lived in a mud hut with a thatched roof, a two-hour bicycle ride to the closest town with electricity, a telephone or post office. I carried water in a bucket on my head from the well each day. I learned to speak the local language of Pulaar, how to pound corn with a mortar and pestle and how to wash my T-shirts by banging them on a rock in the stream. It was exactly what I wanted.
I woke up in a hallway. There were malnourished and crying children, Ugandan mothers and people in white uniforms pacing the area around me. The same Ugandan man still cradled me in his arms. I was crying and panicked.
“I need my mom. Have you seen my mom? I just saw her. She was here. I’m sure she was here.”
“You’ve had an accident,” he said.
“Am I alive?”
Another man approached.
“Sarah, you need stitches in your face. You’ve been hit by a car.”
“No, no. I’m fine. Please, where is my mom? I had a bag. Have you seen my bag?”
Africa is unbearably hot. In the desert, the wind blows sand from every direction and each breath seems to burn holes in your nose and lungs. It is at once serene and beautiful, but also unfathomably poor and horribly violent. My work here involves interviewing refugees throughout the continent, asking them about their home countries and why they were forced to flee. From the time I leave my flat in the morning, I listen to firsthand accounts of civil war and personal attacks, accounts of gang rapes, pillage, destruction of homes, neighborhoods and even entire towns. I’ve been here five years now—first in Senegal with the Peace Corps and now in Kenya with the Joint Voluntary Agency—and each day I wonder how humans can be so incredibly horrible to each other. And how some of these refugees gain the strength to carry on. Each ethnic group, each story, each person is entirely different from the next, each equally enlightening and saddening.
Recently, the region has suffered through a drought, and it shows. Thorn bushes have lost their color. Decaying livestock lie scattered in each direction. Children clad in tattered clothing run alongside our vehicle asking not for gifts, but instead beg, “Water, water.” That’s the part that touches me most about living here—the innocence of the children and the horror they have been dealt in life.
I woke up on a hospital cot. The cracked walls were stained and yellow, but there was a window with a view of a nearly empty parking lot. A nurse was bandaging my leg. “We need to give you some shots,” the nurse said.
I felt a sense of panic. I am alone in this small, rural hospital in Africa with strange people who want to stick needles in me. Who is going to protect me? To make sure these drugs are legitimate? To make sure these needles are clean?
“I don’t do drugs,” I told her.
“What is your name?” she asked.
“Sarah Diane Hohl. Sarah Diane Hohl. Sarah Diane Hohl. Have you seen my mom? I really need my mom.”
“My name is Sarah, too. I won’t hurt you, I promise. But you’ve had an accident and you need a lot of medical attention, so you need to help us here.”
The Ugandan man who saved me returned, carrying a small notebook and a pen.
“Sarah, I need you to think carefully here and tell me about yourself. We want to help you, but you must give us some information.”
“Have you seen my bag? I think a man stole my bag.”
I spend a great deal of my time in Dadaab, Kenya, which came into existence 15 years ago to house Somalis escaping their war-torn country about 50 kilometers to the north. The town itself has a primary school, airstrip and a market with no more than 15 kiosks, which are made of wood from the freshly deforested desert that surrounds the town, with thatch or plastic roofs sheltering the merchants from the unforgiving sun. Livestock roam the town, feasting on the fresh garbage delivered to one of the many public dumps. Children spout off a mix of Somali, Swahili and English as they play. Goats and 3-foot-tall marabout storks scavenge the area, looking for trash on which to feast.
Refugee camps ring three sides of the city, with as many as 200,000 people living in the camps. There is a high incidence of warlords driving into the camps, forcing girls to marry, kidnapping and creating general insecurity.
I usually travel with a team from my office, made up of Kenyans and Americans who conduct interviews with the refugees who live in these and other camps scattered about the country.
Traveling to remote locations is extremely hard on one’s physical and mental health. I spent two months on the Eritrea-Ethiopia border, and within seven weeks nearly half of my team was evacuated for medical or personal reasons.
My work centers around community health extension—teaching the basics that are taken for granted in America. It sounds relatively simple. It isn’t.
Here I am, a single woman with no children or husband, from a faraway land, offering advice on what pregnant mothers need to eat, what and when they need to feed their children, how they must diversify their diets, use mosquito nets, wash their hands with soap, filter water before drinking it, prevent illness before treating it. Sometimes they listen. Often they don’t.
I woke up when I heard American voices outside of my window. I tried to get up from the cot, but felt stuck. Nurse Sarah reprimanded me.
“What are you doing? Stay in this bed.”
“My mom. There she is. It’s my mom.”
I wailed like a 7-year-old instead of a 27-year-old.
I was devastated when the first infant in my village died from dehydration. I was angry at her mother for not heeding my advice—for taking me as a joke.
Another family had three severely malnourished daughters. As I gathered them to take them to the feeding clinic, one of the daughters, 3-year-old Kadisha, died in my arms. I was crushed.
I just held her in my arms. No child should ever die of hunger. Ever. The sad reality, though, is nearly every family in this area has a child die, usually of malnutrition. This was a turning point for me. Nutrition became my most important focus in health education. Rarely was any food available other than maize, rice, peanuts and edible leaves. Though my knowledge stemmed from reading a book, I encouraged and aided a women’s group to start a community garden in the center of the village. It took off, with 10 different kinds of vegetables. Many refused to eat the food after the first harvest, but they were nearly fighting over the food by the second year.
I woke up in another hospital room. Dad was rubbing my head, asking me questions. Rather than answer correctly, I relayed to him the sordid affair of Molly and Chuck, two of my friends. In reality, I don’t know anyone named Chuck.
When asked my phone number, I offered close to 10 different possibilities, none of which was the number of the phone that had been stolen. Most were United States lines, including my parents’ and best friends’. I had no idea what day of the week it was. I rambled sentence after sentence of nonsense, with the occasional lucid thought.
Success, however you want to define it, doesn’t come easily or often here. But occasionally it comes, and when it does the feeling lifts you up and reminds you that hard work and dedication make the journey to this faraway land and the difficulties that come with it worth it.
One of my favorite pre-adolescent girls was betrothed to marry a man 20 years her senior. I became close to her mother and eventually convinced the family to keep her in school. She is now in high school in the closest town.
I remember going to the well in the heat of the afternoon once and feeling so thirsty I had to take a drink straight from my bucket. One of the village women came to me, shocked. “That water is dirty,” she screamed. “You must filter.”
Another time, after a health presentation in a nearby village, I noticed a very pregnant woman in the crowd. I was certain she would have twins, and when I told her, she laughed and said it was impossible. I checked on her routinely for the next few months and advised her to go to the hospital as soon as she felt her first contractions. Senegalese villagers traditionally give birth in their huts, but this would have been extremely risky if she really was going to have twins. I was sure she would ignore me, but I turned out to be wrong. She went to the hospital and they told her she was going to have twins. The doctor had to perform an emergency C-section, but both babies survived, a boy and a girl. The girl’s name? Sarah.
I woke up with gauze on the left side of my face from my forehead to my mouth. My jeans had been removed and bandages covered my legs. The dirt had been largely wiped out of the road rash across my elbows, hands, wrists and shoulder. An IV was planted in my left hand. My father sent my mother to the hotel as he oversaw the medical attention that a mother should never have to witness for her child.
“Dad? Can you touch my head?”
He ran his fingers over my head in such a careful way so as not to touch the damaged parts. He didn’t leave my bedside.
“Your mother will come soon,” he said.
I recently interviewed a single mother and three of her teenage daughters. As is common in refugee camps, her husband abandoned the family several years ago. They have no idea where he is. They’ve been living alone, and single women are not safe in these camps. The youngest daughter suffers from polio and was raped last year. The amount of rape and torture—the result of continued tribalism and patriotism—is abominable. It’s disgusting and sad, but it’s better than what they left, we tell ourselves.
As I interviewed one of the daughters, Fowsiya, she broke down into tears and began begging me for help. She’s 19 years old and rail thin. Her lips were cracked with dryness and she bore dark circles under her eyes. I could see where she had been beautiful at one time.
“I’m pregnant,” she said, “and I can’t tell my mother because she will beat me. My friends will judge me. I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, I need your help.”
“Where was the father?” I asked. Through the tears, she told me he deserted her as soon as he found out. She thought they were going to get married. She was alone and pregnant and living in a devout Muslim community that verbally and physically attacks unwed mothers. We eventually called in her mother and told her the news.
“I know this is difficult for you, but your daughter is not the first unwed mother in the camp,” I said. “This was the will of Allah. Allah has forgiven her and now it is important that you do, too. She’s been fighting this alone for four months, and she needs your love and support more than ever.” I tried to think of anything to say that might help. Soon, everyone was in tears.
Five days later, I saw Fowsiya. The bags under her eyes had faded and shrunk. She was smiling, even laughing. She and her mother came and shook my hand.
I woke up feeling nauseated and suffocated by a mosquito net lying across my face. It was dark outside, and I felt alone.
“Hello?” I cried. “Am I alive? I’m scared.”
“I’m here, Sarah.”
She held a bowl to my lips, into which I promptly vomited.
“Everything hurts, Mom. How did this happen?”
Aunt Diane, who spent 17 years as a Catholic nun and had nursing experience, cleaned up without complaint. Nor did she complain when I called her to my bed several times to say, “Aunt Diane? I’m really f—– up. Everything’s really f—– up. We’re all just f—– up.” She did comment later, however, on my colorful choice of language. The Ugandan man who saved me—who turned out to be a Pentecostal pastor named Justus—came back several times throughout the night, once to provide me with a mosquito net and again to pray with my family. In my convoluted mind, I was certain he was reading me my Last Rites.
Yesterday I had a case of a single mother with four children. One of her children, 12-year-old Fatumo, is severally mentally handicapped. She’s not violent, but she’s erratic, disruptive and loud. And extremely curious. Within two minutes of entering the interview room, she had thrown my hole punch on the floor, painted herself with my ink pad, taped three Post-it notes to her T-shirt and shaken my hand six or seven times.
Eventually we had to send her outside to sit with a distant family member while I completed the interview in relative peace. As the story evolved, her mother told me that she almost drowned in a lake on two occasions. People would find her wandering in the mountains in Turkana territory. Not knowing how to control her, her mother resorted to chaining her by her ankle to a tree in their compound. One day, her 13-year old sister discovered an adult male refugee raping her.
My supervisor sent me to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) office to help get the family personal attention and a guarded home within the camp. The next day, the family was guaranteed a spot in the protection facility, and UNHCR also promised to look into education prospects for the entire family so they can contend with Fatumo’s illness in ways other than beating her with a stick and padlocking her to a tree.
I felt like I was making a difference.
I woke up the next morning and I couldn’t remember why I was in the hospital. “I’m scared, and I want to go home,” I told Aunt Diane. “I don’t need to stay here. We are going horseback riding today.”
She just smiled. Then she and Mom held me as I tentatively walked to the bathroom. I looked in the mirror for the first time to see myself. I was a disaster.
Pastor Justus came by the day I left the hospital. We were sitting at a picnic table as my mother encouraged me to eat yogurt.
“I came to finish what I started,” he told us. “I needed to make sure she is going to be OK.”
He explained that my taxi driver probably fled the scene because he was scared. In Uganda, if you kill someone in a road accident, it is customary to leave the area as soon as possible or you may be killed yourself. Pastor Justus offered to go to the police, but we didn’t want the man to be arrested or tortured.
“We are just happy she is alive,” my parents said. “No need to follow up with the police.” Pastor Justus was convinced God has special plans for me. “Why else would she survive this?” he asked. “This Sarah is a very lucky girl.”
I am still recovering from the accident and still haunted by the death of Kadisha. But I don’t harbor any hate or disdain for the continent or its people because of these experiences, only the drive to make myself the best person I can be to initiate positive change. Even so, I have come to realize I need a change. I need a break from Africa.
So at the beginning of next year, I will study at a yoga university in India before I return to the U.S. to further my more traditional education. I thought about law school, and even toured a few East Coast colleges, but realized such a life was not what I needed after spending so much time here, in the thick of things.
After seeing all of the malnourished children, the exhaustion of my co-workers and the general tone created by difficult work, I am inspired to choose another path—one not completely unrelated to international human rights. I have applied for grad school to study public nutrition. Since coming to Kenya, I have realized how important it is to recognize the relationship between physical and mental health as well as our ability—to a huge extent—to control our own health.
For myself, though beaten and bruised, I maintained my ability to walk, to see, to read, to write, to speak without slurring. Head scans revealed reparable damage to the parts of my brain that affect memory, speech, taste and smell. But because I am young, resilient and physically fit, the doctors told me, all of these things will come back to me in full.
And though I may be a bit damaged in this moment, I love my life, my experiences and the satisfaction of being a part of a process for the greater good. That hasn’t changed. And once I earn my degree, I’ll bring my newfound knowledge and my previous experiences back here, back to Africa. I have to. I can’t stay away. It’s as though the continent needs me as much as I need it.