I’ve always been moved and motivated by stories, of why people do what they do. My project during this trip to Malawi has been to work on a verbal autopsy program. That is to say, I read about the stories of why people die. Although many narratives of the autopsies are clinical and the interviews are in a language I do not understand, there is something fundamentally human and heartbreaking about the common experience of death. Death has been something I have been trying to run from since I was twelve years old and here I am, at twenty, looking it right in the face. It becomes exhausting and draining. The work is filled with breathing breaks to remind myself that I am still here. Markus Zusak described this feeling perfectly, albeit ironically because it is spoken by the narrator, death, in The Book Thief: “my heart is so tired.”
As is mine.
As dusk falls and dinner wraps up, I’ve often made my way down to the beach of Lake Malawi or up the hill overlooking the lake, just to look at the stars. The stars here are different than the stars at home as a result of being in a different hemisphere. However, it is still the same sky. And, much like death, stars are a common experience. Since I’ve been here, I have seen seventeen shooting stars in total. That’s seventeen bright glimmers of hope that make my tired heart weigh a little less. I am grateful for the stars for bringing about light, even when the world seems so dark.
I am someone who considers themselves up to date and in the know about all current events. In my free time, I can be found frantically updating twitter and the NYT app to see if there is anything I’ve missed. In this day and age, something new and world-changing can happen at any moment. Lately, I have found the news overwhelming and anxiety inducing. Take this morning for instance – I woke up and made oatmeal and popped down on the couch to catch up on the news from home and around the world, as usual. The first thing I see on the NYT home page is “‘Appalling Terrorist Attack’: 22 Killed in Bombing at Pop Concert in Britain”. My oatmeal about fell out of my mouth from the awe – even on a bright Tuesday morning at six am, death is a heavy presence. I took a deep breath and caught up on the known details and felt incredibly weary although I had just woken up. Starting my day with something that heavy made reading the stories of how and why people died all day that much harder.
It is in times like these that I am reminded of the brightness of the stars and the brightness of the people I have sat and watched them with. My good friend Gaby and I laughed under the stars and made cheeky wishes on the shooting ones. We shared our heavy moments and concluded that “Hey, that’s life. It has it’s ups and downs. But we are still here, wishing on shooting stars, trying to make the world better.” Gaby is going into her fourth year of medical school and is a natural healer. Her empathy and wit will take her farther than many other soon-to-be doctors that I’ve met. As Gaby departed to continue her journey back to the capitol, I thought that I was going to be lonely, without a friend to stargaze with. I readjusted my thinking that “being alone does not mean I have to be lonely” and was mentally prepared to watch the stars by myself the next night. As luck would have it, I stumbled upon some travelers who were brighter than the stars themselves.
Tom and Warren are two South Africans who hiked Mt. Kilimanjaro and are now walking from Kili back to Johannesburg, all on a mission to raise funds and awareness for early childhood development. I forgot to mention – they are doing this all while living on $2 a day. I was astounded at their selflessness and willingness to put their own comforts to the side and push their boundaries all with only the good heart of wanting to help others. Over the few days they were on a rest in Chilumba, we hiked and swam and ate and laughed and gazed at the stars. I was happy to find people to hang out with for the long weekend but I was even more ecstatic to have found some inspiring friends. The guys reminded me of why I am here, both in Malawi and in the world. I am grateful to have been a part of their journey and to watch them continue to change the world.
Gaby, Tom, and Warren were all stars that I saw in the dark sky that is the current state of the world. And while stars might change based on where you are, the sky is still the same. Even though my heart is tired from the constant bombardment of bad news and stories of death, I am humbled and encouraged by the smaller things in life.
It is with this tired but recovering heart that I am reminded of a short poem:
Remember: you are still here and the world will continue to spin and bad things will continue to happen. But good things will too.