Last spring I spent 2 weeks in Africa. I didn’t go live in the jungle without electricity, nor did I help rehabilitate cities for an extended period of time. I wish I could confirm that I spent a year of my life giving back to a community that needs it. I went with a study abroad opportunity to learn about public health and how care is managed in this part of the world, more specifically Ghana. While we didn’t volunteer our services, the information gained was incredibly eye-opening and perspective broadening. We focused on major diseases like HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.Throughout our stay we were able to travel to clinics,hospitals, and related organizations to meet with health and medical professionals (and tons more than I can fit in this little background shindig).
I have thought a lot about why I wanted to travel to Africa. I guess it wasn’t because I have always had some deep desire to fix the world and save lives. I can’t even say that I went because I wanted to help the children (please don’t get me wrong here! I would have loved to help and volunteer at a site, but it was a general public health trip). I think I went because I needed to see it first hand. To understand why and how a region on the same planet with the same people could live in such an entirely different situation. I needed to see the poverty, abundance, and infrastructure (or lack thereof) to grasp how I felt about it all. You see the commercials and hear heart warming tales of how someone came to aid and lives were changed. But then that someone leave to go home, the money runs out, and then what? What happens in the day to day? Does the help make a difference, or enhance the problem? I wanted to face the big health issues from the ground level and try to imagine some shred of a possible solution.
It was hard while there to face the blaring possibility that there is no single quick fix. We think the answer is a vaccine, or volunteers, or money. While all of those are positive steps in the right direction the issues go much deeper than that. There are deeply rooted variances in thought processes that hinder a mindset towards universal problem solving. When it comes to health there is no single answer, but more so a lifestyle shift that must occur. Lifestyles and societal norms must be addressed. You can sit all day and consider every “if-then” scenario and wind up not having arrived at a conclusion, but opened one hundred more doors towards problems that must be overcome. When people as me why Africa I really can only say “to know what things are really like.” Here are a few things I learned as a college student in Africa. They aren’t necessarily understandings that tackle the big ideas, but simply are lessons that matter to a 20 something looking for answers.
10 things you realize after visiting Africa in college
1. Value your health: health is something denied to many and is not a guarantee. While finding time
to go to the doctor can seem like the worlds most inconvenient and bank account draining burden we need to remember that we live in a culture where even the grocery store has a clinic. We can literally go buy break-n-bake cookies and then go get a check up. In most of Ghana there are only about 1.5 doctors per 100,000 people. It is easy to forget what a luxury it is that we have the information available at the mere tap of an iPhone or trip to Kroger.
2. Having options is not a burden: I was honestly stressed out yesterday because three of my favorite yoga classes are now scheduled at the same time. You get upset when the grocery store is out of one of your 10 favorite types of shredded cheese (sorry clearly groceries are on my mind). I feel so ridiculous when I get overwhelmed by the fact that I have more electronics than I know what to do with. The majority of the world doesn’t know what a twitter handle or Pop Chips are.
3. We live in a ‘me’ centered society: At this point in life we are so focused on answering questions like “what will I do after college?” “how can I make the most money?” “why don’t I have more likes on this status?” A huge difference that struck me about Ghanaian was their communal mentality. They live in a culture where you have an obligation to serve your family, or your community. While the environment may not give people living in east Africa much of a choice, seeing this mentality from the outside is a beautiful thing.
4. Your roommates aren’t as bad as you think: Not even having a sink where dishes can pile up, a shower to clean because you run so much water in it, or never having space on the DVR are the age old roomie disputes that accentuate and reinforce the ‘me’ focus discussed above. They, believe it or not, are not issues in other parts of the world because they simply don’t have those things.
5. Embrace help: This one was interesting to see. How willingly help was sought after, and how graciously it was received. As a young college aged person you feel conditioned to fiercely guard your successes and do it all on your own. From dislocating your shoulder carrying 20 bags up the stairs to landing a big job we have a hard time accepting counseling and aid when needed. It is hard to consider letting someone assist you; any more you are just terrified that they are going to tell you there is a service charge (thanks for that Time Warner). In the Ghanaian culture many people genuinely helped one another out for the sake of doing the right thing.
6. Independence is empowering: We get choices. You can say what you want to say and think whatever you want. In fact not taking advantage of this is viewed as downright wasteful. It is taken for granted that we live in a society that embraces these freedoms.
7. The world is bigger than your 2 bedroom whatever: I am talking thousands of people crammed into the smallest of public spaces. There are more people in this world than we can even comprehend who live in areas that don’t make the nightly news. It is so easy to forget about the rest of the world outside your bedroom door.
8.You won’t always have an answer: In life there will be problems bigger than you can solve. They will cause your head to spin. Even the best bullshitters have to admit defeat sometimes. We spent much of our time in Ghana considering the big issues and for the first time in a long time, I didn’t have an answer. Discussion and experiences like this give people the ability to ponder these answers and a perspective that is capable of contributing more than what happened on the Real Housewives of New Jersey last night.
9. Reality isn’t easy to face: Just like it wasn’t easy learning the truth about the tooth fairy, the reality of global regions can pose a discomforting picture. In life we are challenged to live truthfully and build a future that encompasses success. Being present in the reality of your life is incredibly important while accomplishing future goals or working towards change.
10. There is not a Sarah McLaughlin song playing when you do a good deed: Difficult situations and facing challenges are a part of being human and growing into who you are meant to be. You may not receive the recognition that you feel you deserve, or obtain the positive feelings you anticipated from giving your time or aid and that is okay. We expect glamor. If only John Mayer songs played when we fell in love and Josh Groban raised you up when you finished running a marathon.
This may all sound a little deep for what is normally up on here, but these are lessons that I think have helped change my thinking for the better. Maybe some of them can apply to you also :]