Photo Essay

There is Beauty in the Breakdown

Beautiful Face

Theres a song out there by Frou Frou called "Let Go". In the song, they talk about finding the beauty in the break down. I pretended to know what it was talking about for a long time, even claiming I could see the beauty in the breakdown. That was not true at all. That became blatantly apparent this past summer.

I traveled to southern Africa this summer with 120 other late teen/college aged kids. We had one mission, to live our lives in such a way that we would change the world. I don't think that we had any idea what we were getting ourselves into. I don't think that anyone could have expected what we saw.

We saw that there was beauty in the breakdown.

Africa is breaking down.

Its breaking apart as I type (and you, subsequently, read this). An entire generation, a whole entire group of people is missing. An epidemic of plague proportions is sweeping across the continent, robbing children of parents, parents of children, and families of loved ones.

War rips across the continent, the ever present reminder of human greed and selfishness.

That is the breakdown.

I knew all that. I lived in South Africa for just short of a year, in a white neighborhood. Never had war touched this region, never had AIDS wiped out the population. The "help" came and went, completing a vicious cycle that people are either too lazy or not educated enough to end. People of color walked up and down the streets, as if wandering on a foreign planet, unsure of their surroundings, just trying to make a living.

But what I saw could never have prepared me for the journey that I was about to embark on.

We landed in Lusaka. My group arrived later, due to a day and a half plane delay, which just added to the confusion and chaotic-ness that was already ever present. The saying, "This is Africa" comes to my mind over and over again.

Africa seems to have a smell about it. Its a smell of something burning in a fire that shouldn't be there, mixed with the strong smell of B.O. You may not get this if you're just passing through, but venture deep into Zambia's Main city of Lusaka, and you'll smell it. And its a beautiful smell. I can't really explain why, but it just is. You look around, and the poverty overwhelms you, but you can't let it stop you. You just have to keep going, keep moving. I remember moments where I just wanted to sit down and cry, but you can't. Not until you're with a friend, in your cold and smelly tent, and even then it has to be brief, because you have places to go, people to see. You can cry when you get home.

We met the orphans we would be working with the day before. We had no idea who they were, or at least I didn't, and we just thought a lot of kids had shown up to see what all these crazy white people are doing.

We were holding camps to get the kids away from what ever was going on at home. Many of these kids, especially if they had lost both parents, were abused, either physically, mentally, or sexually. Usually it was some combination of the three. These camps got them away from abusive and often very cruel families, and gave them a break.

This is where I first saw beauty in the breakdown.

These kids left you no room to think that they were any different from any other kid. They were smiling, happy kids who loved to play a bit more violent version of "duck duck goose" where you threw things at the goose (hopefully jackets). They smiled and laughed and never hinted at the fact that most had watched a parent die.

Everyone from that trip has a story of one kid or another rocking their world. Mine happened when one of the kids, not even in my small group, came up to me and mumbled something. It was the day after father's day, and so my mind was on my family and the fact that I had missed the last father's day also while I was traveling. So I thought he had said, "Mother's Day, Father's Day." So I went on to explain that Father's day was yesterday day. And he fervently told me that, no, that wasn't what he said, and he repeated the phrase again. Well since that he was obviously wasn't saying what I thought he was saying, I asked him to repeat it again, this time, with me at his height. As he said it a third time, it smacked me like a fright train what he was saying. He had said, "Mother's dead, Father's dead."

I am at a loss for words, as tears build in my eyes, to explain how I felt at the time.

All I could do was grasp onto him and pray that he would be okay. And I held in the tears.

I remember me trying to get back in with the group, and trying to sing songs and jump around and be happy, and I couldn't. I really couldn't muster the energy to smile, and I couldn't. I could hardly not weep at the thought. And I waited till I had a free minute, took a friend, and wept in my tent. I wept for Africa, I wept for that kid.

The funny thing was that when I asked if he was okay, he said yes, and ran off to play. Every kid has a story like that. He wasn't different. And that's a scary thought. But I looked at him, playing soccer with all his friends, smiling and laughing, and I looked at my group of kids, and I saw the beauty. I saw it there.

There was the beauty in the break down.

And it showed itself through out the rest of the trip. In the townships in South Africa, where the smell alone could make a newcomer puke on the spot to the cold desolate beauty of Botswana, and the collapsed chaos of Zimbabwe.

My reason for telling you this?

Look for the beauty in the breakdown.

It may be hard for you to see, but it's there. You just have to look for it.

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—The JPG team