How Travel to Africa Changed Me


Children near the Kibera slum at Nairobi

I've done a lot of traveling in my life.  From humble beginnings in a Chicago suburb to being an exchange student in Denmark, to an Air Force Career, and then marrying a man born on another continent.  It has served me well. When we planned trips in the past, I always tried to make the most of every day.  Find adventures.  Meet people.  Share stories.

The thing about travel is that you tend to lose your innocence at some point.  That's usually a good thing.  The more you travel, the more your mind is open to new experiences.  You lose ignorance, idealism, misconceptions and gain an understanding about your fellow man.  When you travel, you consider other people and their contributions to the world.  You feel a responsibility to the global community.   I have found that the more I venture into new situations, the more my heart and mind are open.  I've become more curious about the world around me.  I have more compassion.  I appreciate what I experience and know I have more to learn.  I've realized I really don't know much.

I remember a few years ago we visited Uganda.  I'd ride in a nice car through the shacks on dirt roads watching road construction being done by men with shovels, but sleep in a gated luxury hotel where we had a huge buffet waiting for us every morning. Or we'd visited schools in South Africa where the kids walked for miles without shoes, feeling it was important to get there because it was the only meal they'd eat all day.  They were being raised by an older sibling, who was maybe 12, because their parents were dead from AIDS. There were women sleeping on sidewalks with babies crawling towards traffic.

I've been face to face with poverty. Heard horrendous stories about escaping war.  Lived in some shabby places.  I always felt I was on the outside looking in.  I wasn't feeling a part of it.  I did as the tour books advise and walked past the beggars.  I could sleep at night dreaming about the comforts of my own home, knowing I'd return to my own life, pretty much unchanged.  Most of the time, we sleep in some pretty nice hotels with all the comforts of home. And in many cases, the hotels are better than we have at home.  Going to Ethiopia this summer was a life changer for me though.  We lived in a neighborhood where we saw how real people lived.  I experienced life as they live it.  I lived with people who had escaped war in Somalia with just their lives.  They lost loved ones and all their material possessions. Somehow they felt blessed and were moving on in life.  Omar befriended the gate guard for a gated community who was living in the small guard shack with no blanket.  He didn't even have shoes that fit.  It's a tough existence.
Omar with the gate guard and one of the local boys

We visited the mountain top village of Lalibela where we spent a day with a local man meeting people and just seeing how they lived.  It was like going back 600 years.  The ancient rock hewn churches were still being used by priests today. The people lived in huts made of sticks and manure.  Donkeys and goats shared the streets with tuktuks. Women carried large bundles of firewood on their backs.  Men shined shoes and carried the luggage of tourists.  Life was very simple.
Desale, our tour guide in Lalibela

I did something different this time.  I made connections.  These people I met at Lalibela came home with me in spirit.  I remembered their stories.  The internet has made it easy for us to write to each other every day.  Our lives are enmeshed now.  I know about the struggle to find food.  I know how the weather affects what they do.  I hear first hand how their poverty affects choices for education and future jobs.  I hear about how they lost family to massacres and drought. And I have to act.  I can't sleep if I don't do something.  Now it's on a personal level.  I realize I can't fix the entire world, so I have chosen just a few and do what I can to help them, but they are helping me too.  Having a real friend who treats you like a mother or sister on the other side of the world is so enriching.

There are two guys I hear from nearly every day.  Eyayaw is a student at an elementary school who lives with a friend, like himself.  They came to the village to attend school but they are from very rural homes.  His choice would be to continue school but his family wants him to come home and take care of the farm. His needs are few, so I can help him by myself.
Eyayaw, the student who calls me mother

The other is a young man Desale - our tour guide.  Omar loved him.  He was like a son to me immediately. I want them both to see success in their lives, so I help them when I can.  I started a Crowdrise account to raise money for a used vehicle for Desale.  He is an excellent tour guide but needs a vehicle so he can take tourists outside of the village and earn a living for himself and the village orphans.  Desale's name means 'happy' so his new travel agency would be called Happy Day Travel.  I hope if you've read this far, you'll click on the Crowdrise account and add your donation to the fund.  Every little bit helps.

I find now that all the stuff I have means nothing.  I want to live more simply.  So much of what we do in the first world is superfluous.  I want to live more authentically.

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