When I was 15 years old, I spent two months in southern Africa, zig-zagging my way from South Africa, through Botswana, into Zimbabwe, and over the border to Zambia.
I was with a volunteer group—about 100 passionate, enthusiastic, inexperienced, sometimes too-proud, probably-less-than-helpful but always-wishing-to-help teenagers—as we made our way through the dusty desert roads of four different countries on an enormous open-air bus for two months, sleeping in tents on river shores, watching in horror as our bus driver tried to stomp a poisonous snake to death in flip flops, running from giant beetles to the amusement of our translators, and eating meal after meal of local porridge, often mixed with the peanut butter and jelly we’d trekked in from the states in our bags.
It was my third time out of the US (the first two being Canada and Australia) and my first time in a place so wildly different from my own. And when I trace the contours of my life, looking for the places, moments, and people that changed its course, it is that two months in Africa that always rises to the top of my thoughts.
It was the thing that changed everything, slowly at first, possibly unnoticeably to anyone but myself.
You see, I was raised in an uncompromisingly religious community. Right and wrong were easily pinpointed. Things were black and white. All or nothing. There were no exceptions. No complicated personal reasons. No context to be assessed. Just sin and salvation. Heaven and hell. Repent and be free.
And so I believed, firmly, that I knew how the world worked. That the answers to suffering and salvation were simple ones. That I—a 15-year-old girl—could save the world. It was mind-boggling to me that the world even had its problems; the answers seemed so clear.
The whole group felt that way, I think. Or at least most of us did.
I would say it was a lack of humility, but I don’t remember it that way. I hadn’t rejected humility, hadn’t dismissed the ideas and struggles and personal situations of others. I simply didn’t know them. And hadn’t ever thought that things could be complicated.
So it was that a group of 100 teenagers from the states found ourselves in Botswana, where one of our tasks was teaching AIDS awareness.
The solution, as usual, seemed simple to us kids: don’t have premarital sex and you won’t get AIDS.
Done and done.
Until someone explained to me that in the culture we were speaking to at that time, women still had very little prospects unless they married. And men absolutely would not marry a woman who was infertile. No kids meant no marriage meant no prospects.
And, of course, to prove you’re fertile, the only thing you can do is get pregnant.
Which means not only sex, but unprotected sex.
Dangerous in a place with high HIV risk. But it was also dangerous for those women to abstain. Labeled infertile, someone kindly explained to me, finding a husband would be all but impossible, making them a long-term burden on their family, as jobs and prospects for single women were scarce.
It was this complex reality that stopped my 15-year-old mind in its tracks and began a series of reevaluations that have shaped my life and my choices ever after, like the character of Leah from The Poisonwood Bible:
“There is something else I must confess about Tata Boanda: he’s a sinner. Right in the plain sight of God he has two wives, a young and an old one. Why, they all come to church! Father says we’re to pray for all three of them, but when you get down to the particulars it’s hard to know exactly what outcome to pray for. He should drop one wife, I guess, but for sure he’d drop the older one, and she already looks sad enough as it is. The younger one has all the kids, and you can’t just pray for a daddy to flat-our dump his babies, can you? I always believed any sin was easily rectified if only you let Jesus Christ into your heart, but here it gets complicated.”
In those two months, with moments like these, I realized that I didn’t know as much as I thought I knew. That the world was vastly more complicated than the churches of my youth had made it seem. That many people were doing the best they could with the hand they’d been dealt; they weren’t ignoring logic, they were simply living in a world with different logic, different rules. That perhaps I could do something good in the world, but not in the ways I’d thought. Not sweeping in with my convenient solutions based on a single worldview, an oversimplified understanding of how things work.
* * * * *
I have complicated feelings about my early travels as a volunteer. I doubt if we truly helped the people we came to help. I don’t doubt we wanted to. Or that we cared about them. But when we left, were they better than when we arrived? Perhaps not.
That’s not to say that volunteer trips are never useful. Certainly, the world needs people to build things and organize things and use their skills as nurses or doctors or dentists or engineers to take care of people regardless of place or race or culture or boundaries. But my own trips, that one in particular, were grossly arrogant. We were there to educate people who had no need for our misinformed education.
So please understand that when I talk about that trip changing my life, I do so with a conflicted heart. It changed everything for me, yes. But did it benefit the people it was supposed to benefit? Probably not. Probably not.
Africa did change things for me, though. A 15-year-old raised with a single worldview, and today a person who deeply values looking at situations from every angle. A woman who is, imperfectly I’m sure, prioritizing humility and assuming that when I have a solution or a judgement or a frustration, I may well not know the whole story.
* * * * *
I came home with a shifting worldview in so many ways.
I remember a conversation early on after my return with someone older and who I’d assumed was wiser. I was telling her about Africa, about everything that happened. About elephants and giraffes and also complicated cultural differences. I was wrestling with the journey, wrestling with my return. And somewhere along the way, I realized I was monopolizing the conversation.
So I stopped and said, “I’m sorry. I haven’t asked you about your summer at all. What did you do?”
I don’t remember her exact words, but I do remember the sinking feeling in my gut when she answered “Well, on Survivor/American Idol…”
Now, I enjoy a good guilty pleasure conversation as much as the next person. I can wax poetic about Dexter with the best of them and have watched plenty of reality TV. But at that moment, I felt sick with the knowledge that the things we care about are often vastly unaligned with the things that actually matter.
I had come from a place where getting water from the pump outside town was an affair that took hours, where people genuinely went hungry, where basic human needs were at the forefront of every mind. I was trying to wrap my so-young mind around the complexity and sadness and beauty and diversity of the world. And somehow we had digressed into a discussion about Kelly Clarkson or whatever the hell the latest reality TV show was at the time.
I felt more out of place than I ever had before.
* * * * *
This summer, while having lunch with a political journalist whose work I respect (and who is just as wonderful in person as she is online) in DC, I started thinking again about Africa. About being 15. About that dose of heartbreaking humility and the permanent change it wrought.
She was talking about education, about growing up, and about how she wishes it was a requirement for every child to travel. To go somewhere where the people are different, the place is different, the viewpoints are different.
Because there’s still so much hate, so much racism, so much of this false cultural superiority complex, much of it driven by fear and politics here in the states.
But how can you hate people who are different from you if they are also your childhood friends, your teachers, your surrogate parents? How can you be afraid of your best friend? And how can you keep your black-and-white way of thinking when you are dropped into the heart of a complicated grey situation?
Everyone should have to travel while they’re young, she said.
I agreed heartily. Travel. Travel. Travel. Especially while you’re young, while you’re forming your ideas, while you’re on a quest to understand the world you live in. Especially to a place that is nothing like your place in the world.
And don’t just travel. Listen. Listen. Listen. Stop assuming you already understand. Don’t go to educate, but to connect, to be educated, to see from another perspective.
And if you want to help, to volunteer? Don’t follow my example. Instead, do your research. Find companies that are truly helping and do something truly helpful. Build a school. Repair homes. Use your nursing skills. Teach English, which can help people secure better jobs in sectors like tourism or international business. And whatever you do, do it because that’s how the world should be, not because you think you have the answers, the better culture, the elusive truth.
* * * * *
Quite a lot recently, I’ve heard people saying that travel can’t change your life.
I’m sure this is a response to the absurd assertion that travel will always change your life.
But the truth is somewhere in between.
Travel won’t always change your life. The simple act of movement isn’t necessarily a catalyst for soul-level changes.
But sometimes it changes everything. Especially when you’re young. Especially if you ask yourself the hard questions. Especially if you are willing to change.