It was just a wooden giraffe. A broken, wooden giraffe.
Mom was ready to throw it out because its ears were missing. Someone had bumped the giraffe’s bookshelf and it had plummeted to destruction. Not that anyone cared; things break often in a house of six kids and innumerable pets. Besides, wooden giraffes were easy to come by in Uganda, our home.
But I cared. I begged Mom to give the giraffe to me. I made a personal commitment that this giraffe would be my travel buddy. When I slept in a different bed each week, waking up in new time zones, exchanging mosquito nets for tent flaps for quilts, the giraffe would stand close by. Maybe I would have a little bedside table to set it on. Maybe it would keep guard from the dirt floor. But eventually this giraffe would grace a bookshelf in my own home…wherever that would be.
As a young child of missionary parents I already knew that when you left one place to go to another, you left everything precious behind. Pet goats and enormous teddy bears don’t travel well. But this giraffe was small. It wasn’t beauty I was seeking from its smooth black body. No, I needed consistency.
I kept the giraffe.
Years later it became a Mommy. I bought a smaller carved giraffe so it wouldn’t be lonely. The baby had ears.
My earliest memory is the smell and sound of packing tape. My life, I sometimes think, is like a game of ping pong. Bounce on the Africa side: ping. Whack it back to Canada: pong. But each time I found myself walking wintery sidewalks instead of dusty footpaths; each time I kissed my mango trees goodbye and learned again to distinguish oaks and maples; each time Africa faded into memory and Canada was my new home; each time it felt like I was being torn to shreds.
When I was 17, we boarded an international flight to Canada: my passport country that I had last seen four years ago. I took the giraffes with me. They stood simply and elegantly on my windowsill. If they were surprised at the tree outside shamelessly losing all its covering and the grass being swallowed up in an abundance of cold white substance, their carved eyes did not show it.
One day my Canadian friend came into my room. “Where are these from?” she asked. I opened my mouth to reply but stopped. She noticed? She cared?
I needed visible reminders of who I was and where I had been. I knew that. But now, unexpectedly, these giraffes had become keys in another person’s hands to unlock my past.
I learned early on that the idea of a Dutch Canadian who has grown up in four African countries kind of makes people’s minds go blank – and only a few progress beyond geography. I learned, too, the intimidation of confronting a stereotyped image with a universe of surprises in two minutes of conversation. The intimidation, yes, but also the folly. The polite people making conversation do not expect to smell crushed eucalyptus leaves, drum termites out of their subterranean tunnels in a misty morning, roam barefoot on dusty roads with friends, or shriek as they slide down rock faces in old yellow jerry cans. “What is Africa like?” is often an indirect way of asking; what bugs have you eaten? and how many lions have you hunted? There is folly in expecting this tea cup of a question to hold my ocean.
Floods don’t appeal to me. For years I have kept answers vague so no one gets wet. My teddies and goats were left behind for British Airway’s 50 pound suitcase requirements, yes. But there was so much more: the people, the sky, the land, and the food. I did not vocalize my language, my thoughts, my longings and my fears. Africa-girl went underground. It was easiest that way.
Easy is not always right. My Canadian friend saw something that day she didn’t recognize and asked a simple question. I can answer a question like that – and if she follows up, maybe I will have the courage to wade with her into the rhythm of life under the tropical sun.
Sometimes, the key to the first conversation is just a broken giraffe.