Celebration of Life, Loss of Innocence, and ‘Out of Africa’

In my upper-division literature classes, we always end up talking about those astonishing moments when characters understand that their fates are indeed in their own hands, and we also end up spending lots of time discussing those equally shattering moments when characters lose their innocence. Sometimes these moments coincide in a narrative–or in a life. Often they do not.

Greta Scheibel, who graduated from UConn a few years ago, joined the Peace Corps, and is now Executive Director of United Planet Tanzania. She wrote two pieces that illustrate these moments. I’d like to give Greta the microphone today so that you hear her voice as she describes her experiences. The first is an excerpt from her essay in Make Mine a Double and it gives you a sense of what her time in Africa was like when she was first fully accepted into her village as a respected adult and member of the community–being offered, in other words, the chance to take a risk and accept responsibility fully–and was invited, as no other women were, to drink along with the men:

“My only prior pombe experience was with pombe ya mahindi, corn brew—a taste similar to what I imagine fermented dirty sock water might taste like.  I’d considered this when I first pondered my plan, but committed myself to drinking a full liter, just like the men did, no matter what the taste; this one was for the girls.  The cup to my lips, I sipped cautiously. Then I sipped again, relaxing my senses.  Then I sipped a third time just to make sure—it was delicious!! I told them as much, ‘Kitamu sana!!’ I said ‘Nipe lita mbili‘ (very sweet, give me two liters i.e. make mine a double, boys).”

And this next excerpt is from a recent email. I found it enormously moving, and I found it to be exactly representative of the kinds of letters and messages I get from many students, men and women alike, when they bein to experience life as an authentic adult in any culture. Elizabeth Bowen once wrote that experience can hardly be called experience until it begins to repeat itself. What Greta describes here is what she, other students, and I would have talked about as a loss of innocence–but a gaining of perspective and a deeper understanding–had it been said by a character in a book:

“I watched Out of Africa for the first time in years.  I love that movie. I have always loved that movie–the plains of Africa, Meryl Streep making it work, bursting into the men’s club, romantic safaris, plane rides, and Robert Redford–that version of the beautiful, rugged American Robert Redford.  Not that I’ve been sitting around waiting for Robert Redford to hop off a train into my life, but I did think that maybe some nice American boy could take me out on a date and dropbox me a good music mix. But good men in Dar are a limited resource.  Men in my age range are either playboys, married, or transient.  They have their pick of a large rotating population of female aid workers.  Over the course of an entire year in Dar, I have only seen one friend commit to a relationship.  The social scene is more communal: I have a large group of friends who are more long-term and we all hang out and go dancing. We’ve had flings with the same guy friends.  It’s a small town.  Saturday I watched Out of Africa with a friend who had never seen the film.  I was excited to re-live the love story and we settled in with a cheap bottle of South African wine.  Having witnessed nearly four years of life in Africa, I was watching the movie with seasoned eyes. Oh! Gina, what a disappointment. Robert Redford, though cute, IS every guy in Dar.  And Meryl, to an extent, is that transient aid worker.  Robert wants his easy breezey East Africa lifestyle and his wonderful, beautiful, independent lady in town for whenever he pops in.  Oh, Robert. I didn’t realize. I didn’t understand until now.”

Greta wasn’t sure she wanted to be an English major until she was finishing up her senior year with a Bachelor of Science, having majored in animal sciences. She stayed an additional two semesters to get the English degree as well. Greta, and her small glimpses into innocence and experience, make this teaching business worth the effort, don’t you think?

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