People ask me why I love Africa so much, and this is my answer:
There is a lesson for everyone in Africa.
We could all do with a share of the qualities of African people. I am far from being a writer, but I’m writing this to try and help others understand what is so incredible about this region, about why it means so much to me, and with the hope that you will take the time to understand it for yourself. I hope this speaks in the face of stereotypes: Africa is not scary, it is not unliveable, and it and its people are certainly not any different from us in terms of their human experience. Please know that by no means am I criticising Westerners throughout this, I am one myself and so are the people I love and care about who have brought me up and made me who I am. I appreciate that we cannot compare the way we live our lives to the way most of African society live theirs, yet we can definitely aim to understand it and appreciate it. Cultural difference exists all over the world and it is not so complex in Africa that we can’t understand it, because we can.
Often, when I say to people that one day I might live in Kigali (Rwanda) or at least stay for an extended period of time, people are perplexed. They don’t know how to respond; don’t want to be judgmental but truly can’t relate. When I talk about the ‘nights out’ I had in Rwanda, people are confused that clubs similar to those in Melbourne even exist, question what alcohol I drank and how it is possible to have what we would consider a ‘large night out’.Often people say, ‘OMG LOL you went overseas, went to volunteer in Africa, did it change your life??!!!’ And as funny as that can be in a meme, I think most people who travel solo actually learn that in fact, it does have some sort of life changing element to it. You are forced to live with yourself, in a setting you may not otherwise have visited, and to realise that life at home goes on without you to quite a large extent.
When I get asked what I love so much about Africa, in response to these perplexed perspectives, I know I cannot give a one word answer, it just won’t suffice in the face of current stereotypes and people's expectation of what a visit there looks like.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m no expert on Africa. I have travelled to three countries, South Africa, Kenya and Rwanda, across two trips and spent a total of 11 weeks there so far in my life. But here’s the reasons I love it and the lessons I learnt:
Appreciation of life (perspective): It goes without saying that most people can appreciate the needs of many who live in Africa and the level of poverty that effects many of its people across the whole continent. Before going, it was very simple for me to say ‘we are so lucky to be born in this country,’ ‘we’re lucky it’s not us.’ But generally, when I said this there was not a lot of substance to it, and I used to be one of those many who didn't understand the extent of the ‘luck’ I had been born into. It was not until I experienced reversed culture shock in which I found that people complaining about the grams of ham they had received in my previous job as a check out chick really frustrated me. Standing there scanning people’s items, there were questions running through my head ‘why do these people care?’ ‘what's the difference’ ‘there are real issues out there.' After my recent trip in which I worked in a public mental health ward in Mombasa, Kenya, I walked into one of Melbourne’s elite, private hospitals, and I had never felt so empty. It is in these settings that we take so much for granted, I realised the appreciation of life I was privileged to witness in Africa. And I promise you, it is so authentic, honest and incredibly powerful in the way it constructs their life. Because I could now connect a child’s face in a hospital in Kenya to my ‘we’re so lucky in this country’ comments, I understood the gravity of those words. There are those that live in extreme poverty yes, and in the face of a large stereotype-there are also those that don't. Not one of them is deprived of an appreciation of life that we may never understand or care to look for.
Generosity: Not generosity like buying our friends a drink, or buying them a meal, but generosity of the heart. Generosity that is not of monetary value, but consists of love, support, encouragement and respect. I witnessed children in what is a kindergarten for those who are from underprivileged families in Kigali, literally share their food with those who didn’t have any at lunch time. Children, 3 or 4 years old, breaking up their own food, and genuinely passing it to those whose family could not provide them that day. This generosity does not stem from privilege, it stems from values. It stems from understanding what it means to not have anything, either from your own experience or that of people you are close to, and understanding the warmth received from passing on your kindness and what you have onto someone else no matter your relationship with them. I had a group of friends go for a feast at the family of a nurse one of them met in the public hospital we worked in, and the food I saw is equivalent of what could feed a family for a week. None of this is provided because this family could necessarily afford to do that regularly, but provided because this nurse had seen the values in my friend, appreciated her support for the hospital, and her view of these people on exactly the same level as us. Not only this, but from what I have witnessed, African people are extremely willing to provide time educating us on their history, their story and their love for life. They are willing to give us an education on life that we may never receive anywhere else.Generosity is a part of their human spirit, it is derived from a place inside them that we may never reach, and that they are willing to share infinitively.
Strength: The Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi saw at least one million people killed by those they trusted, those they believed would never hurt them or their children, and those who were their neighbours. I cannot comment on the direct aftermath of this atrocity, but I can comment on Rwanda today. It is not only of the safest places I have been, but is so incredibly beautiful, so rich with culture and the image of genocide is only recognisable in the form of memorial sites and testimony. The Rwandan people carry on with day to day life and those who are not aware, would never know their story or how they built back the relationships within their society today. Obviously, a great amount of healing still needs to occur, and I do not mean to talk on behalf of any Rwandan nor will I ever attempt to understand what it was like to live through 1994, but the progress of this nation is a testament to the strength of its people. Every day many Rwandans wake up knowing that they won’t see their family again, or the killer of their family is back living next door. Those who have chosen to forgive, and those who haven’t, are continuously struggling with these facts, yet that does not impact the way you will externally see them live their lives today. Yet, it is not only mass atrocities that give Africa its strength, but the sheer determination to stand up against the life some were born into, and continue to work for freedom, quality of life and people they love. It is strength that comes through the sense of community that surrounds any African person I have met and I’m sure many others; the sense that those around you will support you through your pain, and ensure you never feel alone.
Courage: I heard many stories in the hospital setting from fellow interns who were shadowing nurses and doctors, who struggled with what appeared as a complete lack of attention to seriously detrimental conditions and a lack of care for patients who deserved it and were in desperate need of it the most. The lack of emotion from surgeons and doctors when telling family members that they couldn’t save the life of their child, and the lack of sympathy they appeared to give patients as they treated them was often hard to witness. Yet, across time, we understood the cultural difference in portraying emotion, most of which stemmed from a severe lack of services and facilities for medical requirements. And we realised that placing a Western doctor with all the expertise in the world when given the tools, would not necessarily perform with the same investment and determination under the conditions. We realised that those doctors were working not for money, but for the love of their patients and their country, in extremely difficult conditions that we were struggling to even witness. Considering what they have, these hospitals are functioning on quite an incredible level to deal with a large number of patients, as well as for quite minimal wage. Additionally, the people I met were always ready to face the day. Whether their families had passed away in the Rwandan genocide, or they were going to work to put food on their family’s plate for another day, they stood in the face of fear. They stood ready to fight, and ready to act for those they loved. The things that make us squirm, and the things that we ask others to do, they would all accomplish with amazing passion and courage, in ways that can’t compare to anything I’ve seen before. With this courage comes extraordinary hope, hope for a better future, hope for their country’s strength, and hope for those around them.
Happiness: Often I find myself searching for happiness in day to day life. I find myself yearning for the next event on the weekend that will distract me from uni and work. Those that know me will know that I have thrived in the environment I was surrounded by overseas, and that due to where I can see my career going this is where I will probably find myself in the future to some degree. However, I don’t necessarily think it is for the reasons most people probably think. It’s not because I’m necessarily trying to ‘escape’ or for my simple love of travel, but because why would I not want to surround myself with people who value happiness as a rich part of life, ensure they find it in day to day life and do not let it go for someone else’s benefit. Happiness and joy is a way of life that people appreciate and value, rather than continuously aim to seek. It is almost a personality trait that is inherited by so many. The happiness is pure, it is strong and it is evident. It drives the bane and growth of society and it is encouraged. I cannot argue that I experienced the complete opposite of happiness working in a mental health hospital, in which people are highly stigmatised by their community and family, but there is a constant awareness that you can seek it somewhere the next day. Everyone deserves this form of happiness, and it isn’t found in materialistic values or our friend’s next 21st birthday event, but within ourselves and the people around us, no matter how clichéd that may sound. In the face of pain, it is important to laugh and to allow yourself to believe that the next day may get better, and that is what I learnt in both a post-conflict society, and a public hospital setting.
Do not get me wrong, I am not a fool and I do understand that not everyone is perfect. But as a generalisation, these are the types of things I have been taught about Africa. I also understand that each country is unique, has its own culture, and different lifestyles, but this is about how I feel about the region as a whole. This continent has taught me so much about myself and the world around me, making my life as ‘changed’ as the stereotype says travel will do. I would love for people to learn, to re-think their current view of what this region looks like and is often depicted as, and get to know it.
A word I learnt in South Africa, in Zulu language, is ‘ubuntu' which surrounds the idea that we share one humanity, and I would not be how I am without you being the way you are, in a plural sense. We have a human responsibility to recognise this. This is why Africa is special to me, maybe only those that have visited will really know what I mean, but I hope I’ve provided a little bit of insight. Those who live there are the same as us. My friends there are no different to my friends in any other part of the world, I value them and cherish them as though they live here, andthe region is not to be feared.
Yes, cultural shock may confront most people on arrival, but once you understand the heart of Africa, you never look back.