When I think about my first trip overseas I cringe at all the things I did not know and the ridiculous stereotypes I thought about Kenya, Africa, and the world at large.Thinking back at that time, I realized how much of a bubble I had lived in up to that point. Before that first trip to Kenya the only other places I had been to were Disneyland and Hawaii. Not exactly the most unique of places.
I guess when I look at it now it was understandable why I had such backward and untrue assumptions about a place I had never been. When the very limited information you do get comes from TV and a couple days of history class the depth of knowledge isn’t quite there. It’s much like any topic we don’t live through our own personal life experience. I had, and still have, a limited understanding of people’s lives, views, and histories that I have not lived myself. This is the beauty of travel and learning, you step out of your bubble and put yourself in spaces where you can learn from other’s life experience, knowledge, and truth.
Sadly this is missing in so many aspects of our modern world. Even when we are more connected than we have ever been, we know less about each other than ever before. Our desire and our ability to listen with empathy and learn from others seems to have been traded for some mythical technological utopia where we can have everything we think we want in the snap of our fingers. This is how myths become truths. This is how people become headlines. This is how we lose our way.
So, for my firsts time out out of the country I boarded a plane and headed to Kenya with no idea what I really was getting into. I had so many ideas that ended up being wrong, but I thought I would share just a few to show you that with a little intentional effort we can learn so much about each other.
Everywhere In Africa is Dangerous
Growing up in the 80’s and 90’s the most you learned about Africa was it was a dangerous continent, always at war and always struggling through conflict. In my mind danger was lurking around every corner, and the people there live on the verge of something bad happening. When we landed in Kenya, honestly, I was nervous and not sure what to expect. But to my surprise, after we settled into our guesthouse and woke up to the sun the next day, I felt a sense of peace. A calm that I felt emanating from the people we met on the street, those we spent time with, and the collective spirit of the Kenyan people. It was a place of love, laughter, happiness, and people going about their day just like you and I. I spent time on and off for the next 5 years in Kenya and never once did I feel in more danger than I would in other places. Sure, we encountered some challenges and had to use our common sense, just like we do at home, but the idea that people in Africa live under a cloud of danger was just not true. This was a big life lesson to me, that I need to go out and experience something before I decide what is true.
Everyone In Africa Lives In Poverty
Yes, Africa as a whole, and Kenya to a degree, continue to struggle with poverty and inequality. This is true. But the belief that everyone lives on the brink of destitution and are hopeless, again proved to be a false narrative. Like I said, if you get your knowledge from mainstream media you would think all people are starving, all children are dying, and there is no hope in African people. So this was my outlook on my first trip. This is the danger or what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the single story of Africa.” When we allow a single narrative to define how we see a people we lose so much of the nuance and beauty that exists. I have spent time living and staying with the locals in Kisumu, Kenya and yes, by some standards you could say the people there live in poverty, but there is so much more to the story. The people we met were living a happy and healthy life, striving for the best possible world for the communities and families. People were taking care of each other, providing for each other, and creating a beautiful life with what they have. It was a humbling moment and also forced me to look at myself and redefine how I understand the world around me. In every situation the truth of the matter lies within each person, and to make assumptions about people or places I know little about is something I had to stop doing.
No One Is Trying To Solve Problems
This stereotype was probably the worst of them all. I held, just as many people do, that Africa was in need of help. That people of Kenya did not know how to improve their lives or want better for themselves and their families. I believed I had to go there and help those poor people. This has been called “The Savior Complex.” This is a line of thinking that WE know better than THEM and WE need to go and try to help them fix THEM. That those people can’t do it without me. This is not only untrue, but immensely damaging to both the people we aim to serve and to those who are serving as well. When I first went to Kenya I was lucky to spend time working with an organization that was ran by a local Kenyan leader. He saw and believed in the power of his community and his people. He welcomed support but knew and worked on the premise that for Kenya to ever return to its pre-colonial glory, that Kenyans would have to lift themselves up. This quickly educated me on an understanding that our job is not “fix” anyone. The skills, knowledge, talent, and determination to solve Africa’s problems exists in Africa and I am not the answer to the question. Once I understood this my service was so much more impactful, for both the people I spent time with and for me as a person.
Africa Needs To Be “Saved”
This is a tough topic that I understand has passion on all sides and points of view. But if we come to it from a place of love and understanding, we can explore the problematic parts of this misconception. Much like the previous myth, the idea that African people are without faith or need to be shown how to commune with a higher power just isn’t true. The people I have spent time with have showed me what true faith is. They live and breath it daily, and have a deep understanding of trust that I think most of us with a more comfortable life might not be able to understand. True faith, true belief in the goodness of people and the life we live, pours from the people I have spent time with in Kenya and other parts of Africa. Religions and ways of worship are as varied as anything else in Africa, but at the root of all of those ways of living is a firm belief in community and in compassion. Confronting my own bias’ forced me to dig deeper into what I understood faith to be and what it truly means to live it every day of my life.
No Rain In Africa
Don’t get me wrong it is HOT in Kenya a lot of the time, and the humidity can be oppressive. But I have been few other places that boast the variety of landscapes and climates that I saw in Kenya. They definitely have their dry seasons and drought has become a real danger with climate change affecting most of the continent. But it rained harder and for longer on my first trip to Kenya than I have ever seen, even being from Seattle! We walked through lush jungle and saw the rich bounty of food and flowers that grow in the fertile soil. We spent time in the the Masai Mara, Serengeti, and other parks that had plenty of water for the animals. Kenya is a beautiful place, and the land, just like the people, can tell many different stories.
When I look back at my first trip, I was naive and I am embarrassed about many of the stereotypes I thought were true. But this first trip taught me so much and has shaped who I am and how I move through the world now. I’m so grateful for this. I also have learned that it is not fair of me to use another country and its people to learn these lessons. Travel is the great teacher, but we also have to meet the people of the world equipped with our own varied knowledge. Now I do research and learn as much as possible before I go anywhere. I know that there is always going to be learning in a country which is what should happen, but not at the expense of the people. I hope by writing this I can help others be more mindful in how they travel and what stereotypes they hold when they go to another country.