A reflection on travel, grace and gratitude
I have had the privilege of travelling to several beautiful places over the course of my life thus far and hope for many more opportunities in the future. I believe travelling to be one of the best forms of education, allowing for new perspectives and a deeper understanding of the mosaic of people and cultures that make up our shared global community.
Having travelled through Europe, South & Central America, and across the United States and Canada, seeing breathtakingly beautiful geography; sweeping landscapes, snow capped mountains, and ocean views, while meeting equally beautiful people, I can say that none of these compare to my time spent in the small country in West Africa, Sierra Leone.
You may be familiar with Sierra Leone from the film starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Blood Diamond or if you have read the bestselling novel, The Book of Negroes. Both provide a glimpse into the beauty of the country; located on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, with soft, white sand beaches more stunning than any I have ever seen. The beauty does not end at the beaches or in the landscape as you move inland over the mountain range, (that gives the country its name) or across the red dusty roads, through small rural villages with thatch roofed huts scattered around communal wells. The beauty does not end within those villages, or amongst the fields of rice, cassava or palms…The real beauty extends far beyond the geography and takes root within the people of this small country. The joy, kindness, faith and spirit spills out as they welcome and embrace a stranger, quickly turning that stranger into a sister, a friend; this graciousness and joy, despite the devastation and heartbreak that most of the people within the country have experienced, seems to be innate, a natural extension of their authentic selves.
At the time of my first trip to Sierra Leone, the country, ranked 177th of 177 countries on the UN’s Human Development index; which measures things such as, life expectancy, literacy, child welfare and overall standard of living and was in the process of rebuilding from a civil war, which had lasted more than 12 years.
Lives lost and changed forever
My short time in such a beautiful country provided an experience that I will never forget…an experience, which ultimately changed my life forever.
I thought that I knew what poverty looked like; I had no idea. I thought I knew what it meant to express strength, bravery and forgiveness; I had merely a shred of understanding. During the war more than 70,000 people were killed, and over one million people displaced from there homes. More than 1/3 of the soldiers were under the age of 18. Children were taken from their homes, their families and forced to become soldiers… they were given guns & drugs and many false promises. Some were blindfolded and forced to murder their parents, brothers, sisters…others were asked with which hand they write and the answer would determine which hand was cut off. These children…7, 8, 9 year olds lived this way for more than a decade. After the war, they were asked to return to their communities and begin again…they were to return to the same communities where there lived family members of people that they had murdered…most had no parents or family to speak of and all had serious emotional and often physical scars.
Strength from the Sadness
What took place in the aftermath due to the kindness and dedication of individuals, communities and NGO’s both locally and globally is in my eyes an incredible tribute to the resiliency and strength of human kind. Through Peace and Conflict resolution programs families, impacted by the actions of these child soldiers, have been able to forgive and accept them back into their communities. Youth, that once acted as soldiers are now acting as Peace Leaders and teaching peaceful conflict resolution strategies to other youth with hopes that history will never repeat itself.
The list of struggles and challenges that people face in Sierra Leone and throughout the world, on a daily basis goes on and on…but the incredible thing that stood out to me during my time there was the beauty, optimism, & kindness continually expressed and shared by the people I met.
It brought a whole new meaning to the term ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff’, considering that here in our North American culture there is a tendency to complain about everything – our work, our pay, our coffee, our meal, our clothes; I could continue.
When we have so much it can be easy to take things for granted, to not recognize the value of clean water, an abundance of food, a bed to sleep in. Yet, people that have so little in terms of material wealth know what truly matters – relationships, connections, values, integrity and love… They express this gratitude and grace through their faith, their music and their welcoming smiles.
This grace and beauty continues to inspire me today, in countless ways.
In today’s global society there is an ever increasing need to act globally, to treat our entire planet as one community; a community, which is our responsibility, one that we have a duty to care for, protect and cause no harm. You need not travel to take responsibility – this comes through in our every day actions, the kindness we share with our neighbours, the ways we chose to spend our money, growing a garden, buying locally… everyday choices, when done collectively create a sea change of positivity and sustainability.
There is no excuse for the poverty, abuse and other human right’s violations that are taking place throughout the world each and everyday. We have more than enough natural and physical resources to go around and there is an immeasurable amount of compassion and integrity in this world to serve the needs of all living beings on this planet.
Ask yourself, what can I do to create such a world?
I have often dealt with the feeling of being overwhelmed by the vastness of our planet, the magnitude of need, sorrow and injustice – yet, rather than allowing this to stop me I like to think of this story that I will share with you as a final thought…
Once upon a time there was a wise man; he used to go to the ocean to do his writing and had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work.
One day he was walking along the shore. As he looked down the beach, he saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself to think of someone who would dance to the day. So he began to walk faster to catch up.
As he got closer, he saw that it was a young man and the young man wasn’t dancing, but instead he was reaching down to the shore, picking up something and very gently throwing it into the ocean.
As he got closer he called out, “Good morning! What are you doing?” The young man paused, looked up and replied,
“Throwing starfish in the ocean.”
“I guess I should have asked, why are you throwing starfish in the ocean?”
“The sun is up and the tide is going out. And if I don’t throw them in they’ll die.”
“But, young man, don’t you realize that there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it. You can’t possibly make a difference!”
The young man listened politely. Then bent down, picked another starfish and threw it into the sea, past the breaking waves and said,
“It made a difference for that one.”
When you feel too small to affect change, remember the starfish and know that there are people – women & children – crying out for our help, for our support, for our action and allow that knowledge to drive you forward, step by step, action by small or big action.
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has’ – Margaret Mead
Life is a gift; share it.