Column: The View From Here: Out of Berkeley . . . and on to Africa

By P.M. Price
Friday June 30, 2006

My daughter beat me to Africa. On Monday morning, “Liana” (her pseudonym in this sometimes embarrassing column), along with 10 other students and two teachers from Berkeley High School, arrived in Shirati, a small village in the East African country of Tanzania. 

Liana, a 16-year-old who cannot live without her cell phone, whose text messaging has tripled our phone bill, who appears not to be able to survive a single day without spending at least an hour of it on MySpace, this typical teenager and her similarly situated friends will be living in a home generously hosted by former BHS Swahili teacher Christine Nyada-Chacha, with no cell phones, no Internet, very little electricity and no running water.  

There will be no hanging out on Shattuck or Telegraph, no late night runs to Walgreen’s or Blockbuster. No Mom to chauffeur her to Target, no little brother to play tricks on her and perhaps most importantly, no boyfriend by her side (or on the other end of the phone call, text message or MySpace update). 

“Hopefully she’ll come back with a heightened sense of appreciation for all the little things in life, all the things she so readily takes for granted,” I affirm knowingly, as I take another sip of my soy hazelnut mocha latte. My learned friends nod their heads in solemn agreement. 

“This trip will cause her to see herself differently, from a world perspective,” I proclaim as I anxiously check my watch. I don’t want to miss the beginning of “Law & Order.” 

As we parents gathered with our offspring at the San Francisco International Airport at 6 a.m. last Friday, we all felt a mixture of separation anxiety and profound excitement. Our children—our precious babies (Liana would be puking about now) were heading off to the other side of the world—without us! For four long weeks! This is the longest period of time my daughter will have ever spent away from home. I began missing her before she even made it through security.  

I grinned and waved and tried not to show it. But we were all a little weepy, even a few of the kids.  

Not Liana though. She was beaming. 

These dedicated, compassionate, eager young people are students of CAS, one of Berkeley High’s small schools within the larger metropolis. CAS, which stands for Communications, Arts and Sciences, is one of Berkeley High’s more socially conscious factions and proud of it. It follows, then, that this trip has a purpose. After changing planes in Montreal and London and then landing in Nairobi to take a nine-hour bus ride to Shirati, these students are going to build a brick school room, engage in AIDS education, volunteer in the community’s AIDS clinic, teach some English and play a little soccer. 

The phrase: “an African country devastated by AIDS” will become real to them. They will come to know children orphaned by the disease by name. I am certain they will do their very best to make their days brighter, to bring them some joy and take away the same. 

Liana and her classmates have spent months fundraising, doing everything from running parking lots to selling student-designed T-shirts and homemade cookies. They organized two tasty feasts (with parental suppport; I cooked the greens—they were fabulous) and held a successful silent auction.  

They’ve worked hard to earn this trip so that they can not only give of themselves to people in need, but can learn from and befriend these very same people, rich in history and culture, tradition and spirit.  

This has been a season of transitions for my family. My son entered the raging, deep waters of middle school. My husband and I separated and are heading toward divorce. My daughter embarked on her most serious relationship to date (I’m not quite sure how that sounds. They’re 16.) I’m still not used to my mother’s unavailability; she died of breast cancer two Augusts ago. And now my daughter has disappeared through the gates; out of sight; out of reach; out of the illusion of control, headed for the adventure of a lifetime. And I let go. Again.