30 Day Travel Series: Learning How to Feel a Story

This was different from any campfire I had ever been to because most of the stories were told through dance. It was more about feeling the stories then listening to them.

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The sun was setting and we were tired from a long day of meeting with farmers in John's village. Most of the homes in the village were mud huts and didn't have any furniture in them besides a bed. But one of the leaders in the village had a bigger hut, with two couches, so John suggested we go there to rest for a bit before the storytelling campfire began.

There were six or seven kids hanging around in front when we arrived. We greeted them, then John led me and Julian through the door. The three of us plopped down on the couches. I was really thirsty so it was nice to just relax and catch my breath for a minute. There was no electricity and the sun had set, so I could barely see John and Julian although they were only three feet away from me. Every few minutes I would see the whites of a kid's eyes peering into the living room. I would say, "Come here!" Giggles would ensue. But the longer I sat there the further inside the hut they inched. When they got close enough, I pulled them up on the couch, tickled them, and asked them their names. An older girl brought me a candle and a stack of her school notebooks. She didn't say a word and just handed them to me. I flipped through the pages looking at her beautiful handwriting and impressive line drawings. John explained to me that she was deaf and mute, but exceptionally talented in school.

I gave her a thumbs up and yelled about how good of an artist she was.

We had a half hour until we had to leave. John had notified the whole village about the storytelling campfire they were hosting in our honor and he was listing the names of the people who would be there. It was so sweet, but my thirst was worsening and I was having a hard time listening. Julian and I had drunk all of the water we brought with us during our 3-mile hike to John’s village, and I didn't know if it was appropriate to ask John for water. There wasn't any running water in the village and every family gathered their water from a spring that trickled into a pond down the hill. I hadn't seen anyone else drinking water the entire day so I didn't want to make a big deal by asking. I thought maybe they would have to build a fire to boil it or something. But I was feeling really cloudy-headed from the thirst.

I needed some fresh air, so I gathered all the kids off the couch and carried some of them with me outside. Julian followed us. The moon was shining and there was a baby wandering around who was about one-and-a-half years old. When the other kids saw him they started chanting, "Dance, baby, dance!" The baby had a routine. He tapped one foot three times, stepped back and then tapped the other foot. Julian and I cracked up. I started to clap. All the kids started to get down. I joined in and did the I'm-thirsty-but-I'm-still-dancing dance and to my horror I noticed that all the kids had abandoned their rhythm and started to copy my moves. I laughed, "No please, don't imitate me, everyone will make fun of you at school if you dance like this." They persisted. The Butterfly, the Running Man, the Mashed Potatoes, I pulled out all the dance moves I could remember and they all followed in lock step. I was sure I had offended the African dancing gods. Julian took his time in stepping in to save me because I think he was thoroughly amused with the situation. As Julian stepped into the middle, I stepped out of the circle to snap a photo and I noticed John was standing nearby watching us. He was laughing.

“Let's go to the campfire,” John said.

Under the moonlight, we made our way along the dirt road to the campfire. Dozens of people kept coming to the road from what seemed like nowhere; people were coming out to share their stories. We roasted cassava and corn on the open flame. Three women got up and opened the circle with a song. When they’d finished, twelve kids picked up the performance by dancing, stomping and singing their way around the campfire.

Steve, our emcee for the night, welcomed us to the village. He invited us to stand and introduce ourselves. We talked about the Million Person Project, about love, and about how we believed that if more people could share around campfires like this, with people as far apart and as drastically different in daily activities as we all were, we could create more peace on this planet and a better future for all of us.

The woman next to me was dressed up in full Ugandan traditional wear. She held a newborn in her arms. Steve asked her and her family to stand. They had traveled the furthest to be at the campfire; they had walked five miles. We all clapped.

This was different from any campfire I had ever been to because most of the stories were told through song or dance. It was more about feeling the stories then listening to them. I looked at Julian and I could tell he was in the same boat as me: overwhelmed, inspired, in awe, and yeah, thirsty.

Just as we made eye contact to say to each other, 'Whoa, this is very very far from San Francisco and tonight this is our life and we need to enjoy it and take it all in,' Steve shouted, "Julian, please stand!" Julian popped up, already laughing because you could tell by the way Steve said it that he was up to something. "We want to honor you and Heather tonight, the way we would honor a bride and groom!" Three guys came around and picked Julian off the ground and carried him to a table. A group of teenage girls rushed out of the 3x3 foot cooking shed carrying plate after plate of food. They set it all out on the wooden table and announced that we'd be having a wedding feast. I was to feed Julian the first bite, he would feed me the second, and then we would walk around the campfire and feed each person a bite of this bean cake that the girls had whipped up while we had all been singing around the fire. It was surreal. They brought us each a big cup of warm milk. I had heard one of the girls milking a cow that was tied to a tree nearby during the campfire. I had wondered why she was milking at night. Because of us, I understood. We sipped it cautiously, convincing each other quietly that it would quench our thirst.

It was a feast: Irish potatoes, avocados, cabbage salad, carrot and tomato relish. Every bite was amazing. John came up to the table and smiled. This meal was the fruit of the education and hard work he had been doing over the past ten years. He told us earlier that day that in his village people used to only eat corn and cassava. He had led seminars and worked with farmers one-on-one to stress the importance of food diversity and of a balanced diet both for health and food security. He said it was so inspiring to see the crops the farmers are producing these days and the meals they shared together, to see how colorful their plates were.

Before bed Steve asked us if we would like some water. Julian and I both nodded. I casually said, “Yeah, if it isn't a problem.” He brought us a yellow container full of boiled water. At first we took small sips, worrying we would get sick from it, then I said to Julian, “I'm just going to chug it, I can't bear it.” We both drank until we couldn't drink anymore.

As Julian and I cozied up next to each other on a mat in a mud hut that night, neither one of us really had anything to say. I thought back to waking up in our hostel in the capital city that morning, and it felt like weeks ago. The people we had met, the realities we had experienced, the work that John and the farmers had done, the wedding dinner … all of it was a bit too much for this little northern Californian brain to comprehend. Julian said, "We can talk about this all tomorrow, or some other time in life after we have more time to think about it." We both laughed.

We were in a place so extremely different from home, a place with no running water, no electricity, pit toilets and no stores. But laying there in bed, listening to the wind rustle through the trees I smiled because, in that moment, it didn’t feel all that different. People, stories, food and love, the rest all seemed like details…except maybe the water.

(Re-posted from MPP blog)

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This is one of 30 untold stories of launching a global project (with my boyfriend, Julian) about love, story telling and connecting change makers.

Read all 30 days here: http://www.smithmag.net/community/people.php/HBOX

Throughout Vietnam, South Africa, and Uganda, we engaged with 650 everyday people working to make the world a better place to share their stories. Inevitably, there were parts of our adventures we couldn’t tell while on the road, because we were a start up trying to prove our merits as a serious social change project or because of nervous families monitoring our journey. But the truth is while we worked passionately to bring our dream project to life we also had an adventure of a lifetime. Here are the stories behind the stories of the Million Person Project: http://www.millionpersonproject.org.

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