Would you go outside the camp?

As I was preparing what I would speak about at the Chinese University in Hong Kong, I wondered how do you find yet another way to express to people the idea, that making a tangible difference in their generation and culture is not a random, ethereal concept which stirs the hearts of the few. It is a decision. A decision? That sounds just too simple though. For many of us, our lives enfold around our daily experiences – both planned and unexpected. We work, we study, we relax, we relate to others. We decide many things in the course of a day – we decide how we feel about certain issues or people – whether we are conscious of that or not.

So… can we actually decide to be a person who will care enough about something or someone to allow that to change the way we live out our days?

I shared a story with the nearly 1000 students and faculty that crowded into the beautiful chapel hall of the university that February morning  three weeks ago. In the year that I lived in Zimbabwe back in the early 1990’s, I was challenged in very personal ways on many issues. It was an unforgettable time, both in its joys and difficulties. Zimbabwe then was a place that very quickly became home to me.If ‘falling in love’ can happen between a person and a place, it happened with me – and deeply.

I recalled the extraordinary time spent on the banks of the Zambezi River, with friends who had become family to me. A ‘holiday’ no travel brochure could have painted or even provided – just a handful of people experiencing the wonders of Africa without guides, fences or curfews. One night, John came up to me with a whiskey glass in his hand and said, “Do you want to go for a walk?” A walk? At night? In the middle of – here? I may have made the comment,’But isn’t it dangerous to go outside the camp?” John was an ex-Rhodesian army guy, which may or may not explain his impromptu invitation, and his answer to me, “It’s alright, and anyway we won’t be long.”

What happened in the next hour is as fresh and vivid in my mind as if it took place today. We left the camp and the familiar sights and sounds of people talking and making preparations for dinner. I do remember thinking, make the most of this because it may never happen again. As dusk gently made way for evening, John and I walked, and I breathed in the wonder I felt at just being there, an Aussie girl, seeing and hearing and smelling the Africa that most people will only ever experience through a television screen.

I don’t think either of us really hoped to see anything, and then we saw 2 elephants emerge from behind the trees.So close, we could hear their presence as they tugged at the leaves and began a feast just several meters away from us. The profound grandeur and unexpectedness of those moments photographed  themselves on my soul. To just have been witness to this, I thought, was worth the risk of leaving the camp. And oh, I so wanted the others to be there, with John and I, so they could taste these moments for themselves.

Suddenly the peace and stillness were broken. From somewhere, buffalo appeared – but not quietly. A rush of movement, a panic caused by some unknown source. John and I watched as the buffalo seemed to come from nowhere and stampede before our eyes. “Time to go,” John muttered and we turned for camp. The elephants in those few moments had disappeared and suddenly being outside the camp took on a slightly ominous shade. As we walked quickly I noted that John still carried his whiskey glass, long empty, and that strolling was no longer an option. A voice called out from camp, carried clearly through the stillness that had now settled over the landscape. “John, there’s a shumba on the ridge, get back to camp – hurry!” I only knew a few words in Shona, so I asked John the obvious question. “A lion”, he replied and grabbed my hand suddenly. “Listen’, he said as he pulled me along, ” if you see the lion, run for the river”. It amazed me that even in those circumstances I could almost joke – ” I’ve seen the crocodiles in that river, I’ll take my chances with the lion.”  John also seemed able to muster humour in that moment. “Ok, but it’s every man for himself – and I’ve heard lions prefer well built Aussie girls to thin Zimbabwe men!” We didn’t run, but I did wonder as we trampled through the brush, just what we would do if we met the lion, or lions. An empty whiskey glass didn’t quite give me the sense of comfort that perhaps a gun might have.

We reached the campsite, thankful and breathless. After the initial much expressed relief from everyone, we noticed a distinct coolness in relations for the next several hours. “How could you go out like that and take such a risk?” everyone said, both by their words and in their body language. John, I think, poured himself another drink and meekly waited for his beautiful wife, Jenny, to forgive him, which of course she did in her characteristically gracious way.

Is it worth leaving the camp, I asked the CU students and faculty, to experience something you never would by staying inside?  Is it worth leaving the camp, and even risking one’s physical safety, just to glimpse something grand and beautiful and majestic and real?

I believe it is. In fact, I believe we MUST leave the camp if we are to do something grand and beautiful and real with our days and our talents. In our Global North culture, we have created our individual camps where we can be – be secure, be invulnerable to discomfort, be remote voyeurs of the issues that oppress and destroy most of the rest of humanity daily. And in the perceived safety of our camps we can then justify, to ourselves mostly, that it is only foolish and reckless individuals who venture outside, who would take ridiculous risks in the hope of glimpsing wild elephant.

When Jim and I packed up our kids and our house in country Australia and came to Hong Kong, we left the camp. When Jim gave up working for a salary so he could work for nothing, he left the camp. When our children, Georgie and Isaac, had the privilege of spending a week in a Philippine slum, helping and encouraging orphans and street kids, they left the camp. A decision is all it takes – to go outside the camp. And you may hear of a lion on the ridge, and you may only have a whiskey glass in your hand, but you will also experience what you never could if you stayed inside.

One Response to “Would you go outside the camp?”

  • Debbie:

    A decision! Now there is a novel idea.

    I want to leave the camp and then I get bogged down in all the detail of packing up this house first and kids schooling etc.

    Yet it truly is just decision following decision.

    Thank you Helen.

    P.S. I am writing from Laurieton 🙂

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