My name is Gwen and it is not an easy name to say around the world. My dear sweet country director in our Fang project, Pao Hom, reminded me of this when, shortly after I arrived, she noted that her father said, “oh dear that’s the one with the difficult name.” The good thing about that is I have been gifted many variations of my name and delightfully turn my head to Gwan, Glen and Gwoon in this corner of the world. I also know I am prone to adopt stray dogs wherever I go. The good thing about returning to these places is that I have learned dogs have fabulous memories and if for some reason I have done everything wrong in this life I will be happy to come back as a dog in my next life. My only hope would be that the dogs that have colored my life come back as dog pals or as humans for me to love as well as I’ve felt loved by them.
I know all this, yet there is much I don’t know or have failed to learn. A hundred times over I have been trying to figure out what I love about the place I am in now and although I try, the truest reason constantly eludes me. While I seem to know exactly why I have come to cherish the continent of Africa, specifically the West African region, the reason for loving this place is less clear. Regarding Africa, if the idea of past lives turns out to be true, I know deep in my heart I once lived a life there. My gut tells me I was a large graceful woman with 10 children, with magnificent head wraps and a fabulous singing voice. I also enjoyed laughing until I cried. This last quality seems to be the only quality that remains in this reincarnated life where I am called Gwen or a variation thereof. I can no longer sing and for some reason I am now fiercely independent with a bland sense of fashion. I appreciate the brazenness of Africa superimposed on its wisdom and eternal beauty. When given the opportunity, I also love to call it home.
My love for this place is different, no less powerful, but different in many ways.
What I do know is that I love the people first and then the environment. The universal character of the people here is awe inspiring and I feel deeply pleased every time someone smiles at me or says hello. Collectively they are gentle, and sweet and smart and quick to smile. They also are deeply curious, playfully sarcastic, self-deprecating and passionate about learning. The environment is beautiful no doubt, but it pales in comparison to the everyday person you meet in the street.
I also think that in this place the suffering has indeed led to amazing moments of enlightenment. I am surrounded by survivors but no one appears to be that distressed. It makes me think of the Chinese pictogram for crisis. In it is a combination of two symbols: danger and opportunity. Although there is nothing to suggest there has been opportunity here for decades, people persevere and shine and enjoy none the less.
So as I was saying I have much to learn but I have realized that there is something interesting about the quest for wisdom. It’s not the material you find on masters level examinations that matter; the art of knowing starts not in big lessons but in small nearly unremarkable experiences of everyday life.