The long process of transformation of my journey in life

My Becoming

“One of the most cowardly things ordinary people do is to shut their eyes to the facts.”  C. S. Lewis

I was 10 years old when I discovered in my village’s library in northern Romania an old book.  It had yellow pages and it reeked of the typical smell of old books.  It said: ‘The Journal of David Livingstone.’  I had no idea who that was, but I got intrigued by the scratched photo on the cover.  In 1980 in Communist Romania we were reading with great excitement adventure stories like Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island, 20.000 leagues under the sea, 5 weeks in a balloon and also Alexandre Dumas’ – The Three Mousquetaires.  Most of these books were printed in large format, with hard covers and lots of hand drawn images inside.  It was fascinating to complete a chapter and explore those images.

This book appealed to me from the painting on the cover: a rather stout man, with a thick moustache, safari clothing and leather boots, standing defiantly in front of a lioness.  The picture alone might not have been enough to convince me to borrow the book, but in small letters, under the title, it said: “the man who defied civilization and opened up dark Africa.”

I had a very vague idea what and where Africa was; my father had a world atlas and I would spend hours looking at it and I knew Africa was a large continent but not much else.  I picked the book up… it changed the course of my life.

Livingstone, by all standards, was a missionary, initially.  He grew up in Blantyre, Scotland.  At 9, he was employed by his local church to push air under the organ, so that the lady on the keyboard can play hymns.  That night, an old missionary from India was visiting and the church was full.  The man was Robert Moffat (Moffat eventually became David’s father in law, when he married his daughter, Mary).  Moffat’s presentation was short, because he was quite disappointed that the church was full of only old ladies and he was intent on encouraging the young men to go overseas as missionaries.  Moffat had no idea that the little boy was hiding under the organ, but in David’s heart, the flame was lit.  He would go to Africa when he would grow up.

At 27, after a failed attempt to go to China as a missionary doctor (due to the Opium War, China was closed to foreigners), he arrived in Cape Town, under the umbrella of the prestigious (and a bit pompous) London Missionary Society.  Once there, he soon realized that his fellow “missionaries” were not at all interested in going to the natives to preach the “good news”.  He was shocked by the dancing balls, the high-life and the indifference of his fellow Englishmen towards the purpose they were sent there.

Therefore, David decided to leave this high society and head north.  What followed was an extraordinary tale of one man, walking 19.000 km by foot, exploring the “dark” Africa, discovering the greatest landmarks we know today, from the Victoria Falls to lake Tanganyika, Lake Malawi, Lake Victoria, the source of the Congo river  (he mistakenly thought he found the source of the Nile), suffering attacks of lions, of men and of Arab slave traders, losing his wife and three children to malaria and he himself dying eventually of dysentery in Northern Zambia.  During his travels in Africa, realizing how narrow and dogmatic the LMS (London Missionary Society)’s vision was, he gave up his initial plan to preach the gospel to the natives and moved onto opening up Africa from a scientific point of view.  He was instrumental in the abolishment of slavery, convincing the queen that this was a shameful practice.  He mapped everything he explored so accurately, that most routes we follow today in Africa are still based on his findings.  He painted landscapes and landmarks; he crossed the Kalahari by foot (still the only man to do that to this day) with 2 San Bushmen by his side and he managed to bring light to the darkest corner of the world at the time.  In those days, some maps of Africa were showing only the south and the north, while in the middle of the continent they painted a demon, thinking this was the throne of the devil, the dark, dangerous, evil Africa.  Livingstone changed all that, begging his ‘civilized’ fellows in Europe to remove the ignorance they had towards the continent and look at these people in the true light: kind, happy, welcoming and willing to meet other kinds of people.  Livingstone found established societies in Africa, with excellent administration and hierarchy.  Peaceful societies, where people had plenty to eat and beautiful villages to live in, and they were not the demons the rest of the world portrayed them.

After 33 years in Africa, he was so revered and respected in Africa, that the entire African sub-continent, from Uganda all the way to Cape Town and from Angola to Zanzibar knew who he was.

In the end, when he was found dead in his tent in Zambia, by his 2 trusted friends, Susi and Chuma, they removed his heart and buried it under a large Baobab tree, writing on the tree’s trunk: ‘Under this giant, lies the heart of a giant himself!’

They mummified his body and carried it, by foot, all the way to the port of Zanzibar, 4500 km away, a perilous journey in any century, much more then.  Arriving at the English ship in Zanzibar, the captain asked where is David’s heart?  Susi replied:

‘His body belongs to the English, but his heart belongs to Africa.’

His story fueled a fire in my heart when I was 10, a small, insignificant boy, in a tiny village in the mountains in northern Romania.  No script, imagination or dream could have predicted what would happen in my life and how deep my connection with Africa would become.  No one would know about this fire either, as it sat hidden in my heart for another 15 years.

My experience in Africa started as a missionary also.  I was 25 years, greatly excited to change the world and naively thinking that religion would be the vehicle to do it.  I was passionate, full of ideas and ready for action.  After suffering tremendously at the hands of the Communists, beaten and tortured at the age of 18 in a military unit for 18 months, I got out at the fall of Communism, shortly after December 1989.  I was 6.2, weighing a mere 90 pounds and I was broken inside.  I searched for answers in many different fields and at 22, while I was a history teacher in a village in Romania, I was given a lesson in humility and purity by one of my students, a 12-year-old girl who showed me a side of religion that I’ve never seen before.  I looked at her discipline, her beliefs and her convictions and she inspired me.  I knew that this is the answer I was looking for and it had to be right, because it came through a little child.

Excited about my new discovery, I started on this journey, with great enthusiasm and trust.  Everyone I met in that church seemed to me to be true saints.  I was so trusting that I let my guard down and went into this whole-heartedly.

Unfortunately, I soon realized that, while the ideology behind my church was of great substance and depth (promoting freedom of choice, questioning the status quo, searching for answers independently and encouraging people to think for themselves), in practice there was a conflict between my ideas of working with people around the world and the traditional approach of the church.  Yes, I now understand that there needs to be a structure, a global rule of working for any member of any institution, not just churches but any organization, but I found in my work and travels that there is a large grey area that is customarily not accepted as norm.

My approach to my work was soon discredited and shunned everywhere.  I was very popular with the individual members of various churches worldwide, but officially, I was considered an off-shoot, a guy who is breaking the standards of the church and not following the strict vision of the headquarters.

As the time passed, my experience grew; I learned incredible things from the nations I lived with or visited.  As my travel experience increased, so did my knowledge of cultures, tribes and nations.  I read extensively on various subjects I was dealing with.  I was not the child that dreamed of Africa anymore; I was becoming a man who understood what goes behind the mentality of each tribe I encountered.  I opened my mind to all possibilities and all experiences.  Yes, in the process, mistakes were made, mistakes that I wish I never allowed to happen.  But even those mistakes were part of my becoming, shaping my mind, my heart and my vision.

After 25 years of travel to more than 150 countries,  I realized that there is a huge difference between religion and spirituality; in my travels and work around the world, I met deeply spiritual people with absolutely no connection to any institutionalized religion and I met deeply religious people with no connection to spirituality.  There is something undeniably beautiful in all of us, something that connects us with eternity and it is not dependent or conditioned by belonging to an institution, it is self sufficient and, while I will always have my beliefs, I will not adjust my life according to an organized institution.

I had to decide to go back to who I was at 10 years old, when David Livingstone entered my life.  Wide-eyed, inquisitive and ready to explore new things; with no evil intention towards anyone and with a natural inclination to help others.

That will always be my direction and it took me 40 years to complete this circle.  Through trial and error, searching, exploring, looking at different ways to see things, I learned all my life that we are all trying to find ourselves, our path and our destiny, all in our own ways.  No one has the definitive answer, no one.  Those that claim they have the whole truth, have not read enough or traveled enough.

Snippets from the life of a Pilgrim

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