I reach out my arms and extend my fingers, wriggling them around in the darkness, squinting my eyes, hoping to make out the outline of my hand. A room meant for 3 suddenly becomes subdivided into separate cubicles of darkness. I look around for a light source. Window? Door? Door crack? Nothing.
“Sorry for the darkness”, I remember the waiter at the resort told us when he delivered a candle light when orange and yellow faded into a cool shade of dark blue and black outside.
I settle back into my bed and zip up my mosquito net.
The zip glowed white like a sparkler between my fingers. Amusing.
Why did he apologize? I mused. Darkness is a privilege back in Shanghai.
You know they say you can tell how developed a place is by looking down on its lights in the evening. By this standard, our little town of Bukinda would be technically one of the least developed areas on our little planet in this hour. By many development standards, actually. It really comes down to how you choose to see things: after all, love and loss both share the same bedroom of darkness. Privilege works similarly.
Step outside with me.
Look up for a change; do you see those stars? Can that not be a development indicator? When was the last time you laid on the grass hours a time to star gaze? When was the last time you took a photo of the night sky? Do you even know how? How many constellations can you point out? Have you ever wanted to become an astronaut once?
These kids looked at me utterly confused the second night when I brought out my tripod, camera, and a hoodie, and laid down on the Peace Centre field. As six kids huddle over me to look at my camera, I point to the sky and explain we’re here for what’s up there, not down here. I set my camera shutter speed to 15 seconds exposure, close down my aperture to f/4, and stopped right there because I realize I have no idea how the image would turn out to look like. I’ve never actually done this before; I couldn’t have, in a city like Shanghai. Under the same darkness, the same stars, same moon, my privilege was seeing their night sky; theirs was seeing my camera.
Look left and right. Do you see these smiling children? Do you see pictures of them hugging us? Do you see these bracelets they make us? Do you see these cards they write to us and their sponsors? Can you identify wild fruits like they can? Can you climb a tree and navigate the branches like the captain of a royal ship? Can you pick guavas and skillfully crack them open with your bare palms? Would you offer your entire guava stash to a friend you met for only a week? They’ve been through more than most adults have.
Sri taped the mic to the chair, and gave me the OK signal. I pressed record. Q: What is once advice you would give to other children? A: To focus in school and learn everything you can… Guilt hit me as I remembered how ecstatic I was to miss 5 Friday mornings for vaccination shots as well as the last week of school for this trip. What kind of privilege have I known?
Look behind. Take a step back. Especially if you have a camera. Most of you only capture what’s in front of you. Sometimes what really matters is what’s beside you. Sometimes you’re standing too close to what you care most to appreciate it; it’s your responsibility to see it and keep it beside you. Sometimes it’s not about the people, but the trail you leave behind you. Sometimes the trail is personal — memories, sweat and blood, time, effort, spent on the path to where you are standing now. Just know that the best scenery doesn’t just come to you, you ignorant nugget. You have to go towards it.
I slid my “DCS Prefect 2017” bracelet over a child’s wrist seeing they were amused by the patterns on it. For you, I said. They squealed in delight, although placed it back in my hand moments later. It’s a gift, from me to you, I explained. Keep it. Inside I thought, I printed 200 of these with our school budget. That evening she took off her wrist a bracelet she made herself from one of our DIY evening activity times and gave it to me as a gift in return.
Add these to your list of development indicators.
Tear yourself away from the world you know for a moment. Forget about the United Nations, or politics and elections, or whatever is cooking in the kitchen. Forget about your day at work, forget about your kid and your pet. Forget about the development indicators, documentaries you have seen, and the western prejudice towards Africa. Regardless of city lights or star lights, concrete jungle or banana tree forest, running water or jerry cans from wells, café latte or African tea with milk, a home is a home, happiness is happiness.
Point being, everything is right in front of you. Most of us just choose to look but not see. Things don’t change, at least not as often as we learn new information which adjust our opinions. All it takes is an open heart willing to accept a perspective change, to see things entirely differently.