What I Learned From My Trip to Africa
The hot African sun beat down on me as I poured jug after jug of yellowish water into several large purifiers. I couldn’t help but stare wide-eyed at the liquid waiting to be cleaned. It was amazing to see something I have so frequently and easily—in Poland Spring bottles or swirling in a glass cup with ice and lemon—now bubbling with pieces of dirt floating in the yellow-brown opaqueness.
I was in Kakemega County, Kenya, with the staff of a global health company called Vestergaard, distributing safe water filters called LifeStraws to schools in need. My mom is the communications director for the company and managed to get me—an aspiring journalist—a volunteer spot in the campaign. The purpose of the trip was to help fight waterborne illnesses, which kill 6,000 children worldwide every day. In Kenya, only 37 percent of schools have access to safe drinking water within 200 meters of school grounds, according to UNICEF. That's why these schools desperately needed water filters.
I loved helping to make a difference in these students' lives, but my trip also pushed me out of my comfort zone. Throughout the four-day experience, I thought a lot about the word “foreign,” which by definition means something strange or unfamiliar. I was strange to these people; as a white girl from northern New Jersey, I was completely out of place in their culture. Their language, clothing, and traditions all put me at a loss of familiarity. I didn’t know how to fit in—just like they didn’t know what to make of my foreignness.
In western Kenya, there are women in patterned dresses moving through the roads with heavy water jugs balanced on their heads. The people struggle with contaminated water, droughts, and extreme poverty. And most Kenyans, particularly the kids, have never seen a white person. When we went to the schools, students would encircle us, laughing at my flat voice, my long hair, and my pale white skin. They would literally gawk and point at me and call me "mzungo" (white person). When I was forced to stand in front of 1,000 plus students and teachers and introduce myself, my voice cracked and my palms began to sweat. For a shy high school girl who refuses to participate in a classroom of 20 peers, this was the be-all and end-all of nightmares.
In my comfortable, suburban life I have never really feel out of place. I have always been the judge, a member of the “us,” rather than the “them,” and I understood the culture I was submerged in. Never before had I been exposed to such a foreign lifestyle—but I found that I could grow comfortable with it. After a day or two, I jokingly waved at a group of wide-eyed kids who bounced and smiled in return. I eventually looked forward to introducing myself in front of row after row of students. I came to the conclusion that feeling unfamiliar, or being foreign, is not a negative thing. In fact, it's unifying. It makes us more aware, understanding, keen, and accepting.
Before I went to Africa, for instance, I had wildly false misconceptions of this continent. I thought it was one big mess of deathly illnesses, gut-wrenching poverty, and radical violence. But my trip amended these false ideas that have derived from a life of privileged ignorance. I quickly learned that Africa is amazing and beautiful. More importantly, my journey showed me how big the world is and that it's okay to feel strange and different. In fact, I encourage people to feel this way by stepping out of their comfort zones or challenging themselves to projects and adventures they never would have thought to attempt. Not everyone can travel the world, clearly, but even going to a new place near your hometown or talking to different people can help you learn from diverse perspectives.
We can’t hide away in our comfortable worlds all the time. Instead, we need to embrace what it means to be foreign. Even if it means feeling nervous and wishing you were hidden under a mountain of blankets on your bed. Even if it means swallowing your timidity and saying hello to an audience of strangers, forced to embrace hundreds and hundreds of gaping eyes.