I wasn’t expecting much for my birthday. I actually was planning on pretending like it was just another day… but it didn’t turn out as such!
When I woke up in the morning, Autumn and Scott had woken up early and put on “Maggie May” by Rod Stewart… So I literally woke up to “Wake up Magi, I think I got something to saaaay to you…” When I went to the fridge to grab my daily serving of yogurt and an orange, I found a pretty little cupcake, a wrapped present, and some “Breezers” (the closest comparison I can think of are raspberry Mike’s Hard Lemonades). I was astonished!!! I really wasn’t expecting anything at all, let alone something so thoughtful and sweet. I opened up the present and it was a typical African dress from the market shaded in beautiful oranges with black swirls. I quickly downed the cupcake, because it’s my birthday– why not?!, and ran out the door to work. At the office, Leticia (from Equatorial Guinea) and Coline (from France) both knew it was my birthday and wished me a good one! And when Nuno arrived, he had seen on my facebook and commented as well. The people in the office are SUPER kind and down to earth– it hardly feels like I’m working in such an important place.
At mid-day, I had my first UNCT meeting to attend. It was four hours long… no break… and exhausting… but, it was SO interesting, and exactly the type of thing that I am geared towards and interested in pursuing long-term. The UNCT is the “United Nations Country Team” comprised of all the heads of representatives for the in-country organizations, such as FAO, UNICEF, UNDP, and UNFPA, with the Resident Representative presiding over the meeting. I still can’t believe that lil, ‘ol me gets to sit in a room with the heads of all UN organizations, really important people, taking notes and creating reports on really important things. If I told you what they were, I would have to kill you…… Just kidding, I think. We talked about briefing the President for an AID’s program that would be organized into a presentation for the public, the new UN building, and the progress on certain goals and some internal affairs. Witnessing the diplomacy and the action behind such a powerful and positive organization changes my perspective. It’s not all rainbows and butterflies in development work, especially in a third world country. Although all the organizations are UN agencies, each branch has their different agenda, and likewise pushes it and weighs value in it more so than the others, and everybody needs money to function… There’s definitely an interesting dynamic in the group, especially because they are all working under the same main goals and intentions, or at least you would think, but severely disagree on decisions such as money allocation and priorities. I’m learning a lot about professionalism, coordination, management, diplomatic relations, and hands on development work. Since it’s such a small office, I’ve had a ton of work thrown at me that is actually some pretty heavy stuff. I still don’t think that I’ve processed that I’m dealing directly with a third-world government through the United Nations, under the Resident Representative… Only here would I get such an opportunity and experience! The words I type on official documents are actually transmitted to the President for approval and the Government Ministries, and the Code of Conduct I developed guides the actions of the head representatives of all the main organizations here. Seemingly minor, yet impactful in it’s weight. I feel good having responsibilities and I tend to want to stay at work past the time that I’m obliged too, just because I like helping and getting things done, and the work is satisfying. Sitting in a long meeting conducted mostly in French allowed me to zone out for awhile, and re-connect with my own thoughts, and I started to feel truly blessed to be here in Africa with all the experiences and people I have already encountered. I always have the greatest epiphanies when sitting in a room surrounded by faces, probably with the look on my face that I’m listening, but in actuality, quietly thinking to myself. I felt really, really lucky.
After the meeting, I was starved and decided to go get a sandwich to go with my GIANT orange from the market. As I was walking out of the office, a small boy dressed in someone’s old clothes covered in dirt looked at me with the saddest eyes I’ve ever seen and said “tengo hambre” (I’m hungry). After some conversation, I discovered that his name is Yogi, he’s only 6 years old, and he looooves orange Fanta. I invited to come along with me down the street to the bocadilla shop and he cautiously followed, making small talk in Spanish along the way about his hermanos in his casa with his mama and how they have no comida. [Spanglish, man, spanglish…] We shared a sandwich together (with no picante for him) and then went our separate ways… This was the first birthday that I had the chance to give, rather than receive, and it was such a gift in and of itself, occuring simply by chance. After feeling so grateful for the things I have and the hospitality, experiences, and opportunites that have been given to me while in Africa, and I think that the universe conspired a little, aligning and allowing me to give something in return today. It surely was a small deed, and some may argue that it wasn’t the right thing to do (since it was teaching him to keep begging) but at least he wasn’t hungry anymore, and his little gap-toothed smile made my heart sing.
When I left work that day, my neighbor who has an Western African shop stopped me to talk, as usual. “Que tal?!” I excitedly responded that it was my birthday! I immediately regretted saying so. Although I insisted no and no and no, he gave me an African carved necklace from Cameroon. I feel really bad taking, not giving… especially here. But there was no way around this one. I really do love it and can’t wait to wear it at home. It’s one of those few material things that I will always treasure.
Hisham decided last week to throw a dinner party for me, although I told him it wasn’t necessary to do so. He too insisted, and what he prepared was way more than I expected!! I think he’s lonely here, and I know he enjoys cooking, so the night brought us both joy and satisfaction, which made me feel a lot less guilty. He’s an extremely hospitable host! He spent the afternoon cooking chicken and pasta, preparing a salad, vegetables, and all sorts of delicious food. He even bought two cakes for me from the Hilton, the only high-end place hear in Africa where the super-rich businessmen stay when arriving for business prospects, most likely in oil. I was floored, especially because of the friends that were in attendance. I’ve only been here a few short weeks, and the room was filled with good vibes… even if they were verbally transmitted in French and Spanish, the tone was an overall positive, enjoyable hum. [Arturo, Danila, Adriano, Maria from Madrid and Maria from Andalucia, Dianis, Rosa, Manu, Jean-Michelle, and of course Autumn and Scott.] Everyone mingled well, as conversations drifted from Spanish into French and then back into English for me. It was a beautiful thing to see. Dianis even made Spanish omelets for an appetizer! I’m really really lucky to have met such awesome people. I already love them all. (The only person missing was Gaafar… unfortunately, he couldn’t come because he has been sick with malaria for the last week–the second person I know with Malaria! It’s becoming more normal/ less shocking, and thus I have less fear of it… but of course I’m still taking my anti-maliaral pills every day.)
Sometimes I don’t even feel like I’m in Africa– I’ve been introduced to lifestyles and accommodations more extravagant than some I’ve experienced in the States, and they treated me abundantly in their lavish ways, whether it’s cooking or picking me up, or taking me under their wing in the simplest of ways… even the people who don’t have much to give do so in some way. I came to Africa expecting nothing, but what means the most to me are the human connections I’ve formed. Today, the importance of these human connections and the radiating, loving vibes was such a gift and a blessing.
Thank you friends of Malabo.