If there is one expected sentiment when traveling in Africa, it is that people anticipate that they will feel sad and sorry for the people they meet. I surely expected this my first trip to Africa (now almost a decade ago!). I thought I would certainly feel such sadness — pity even — for the people living in what I thought would be some sort of squalor, isolation, and disquiet. I was wrong.
More than anything in my travels, I have been faced with the expecation of feeling this sentiment (both internal, expected by myself, and externally, expected by others). The problem is that I have not found it to be true.
The truth is: most people here are (very) poor. They live in conditions that many folks back home would find immeasureably difficult. There are problems with access to health care and education. Life is, at times, unstable — governments, currency valuation, and donors’ investment changes.
In the face of all of this, however, people survive — and not just that, they thrive. Most people I have had extended and meaningful interactions with here and other places are hard-working, family-oriented, normal people. They might have different living conditions (which *should* be changed) but that does not change the underlying dignity and humanity that we share as normal people, trying to make our way in this world as best we know how – as individuals, for our families, and for our communities.
This experience/feeling was captured a while back on a blog that I read. It highlighted Jill Biden’s visit and the photos she took during a visit to the Kabeira slum in Nairobi. The money quote: Biden’s pictures “are striking not for their desperation or because of how they conform to popular ideas about slums. They don’t. What they reveal are the vibrancy and humanity of the people she met there, instead. The West needs more of these kinds of images — images that transcend the conventional view of poverty, in which inhabitants of slums like Kibera’s are portrayed as hapless and stricken individuals (picture a child spooning porridge-like meal into her mouth with frail hands). On the contrary, the people we write about on this site lead lives just like the rest of us — only they do it with a fraction of the money we spend on any given day. Without schools, neighbors and communities become their educators. Even amid disease and poor sanitation, children like the one Dr. Biden met in Kibera find the strength to survive and lead their lives. … [This is] yet another reminder that in the West, blaming the poor for their poverty — or perceiving the poor as somehow less full of initiative and drive — is not an acceptable frame of mind. The real question is: What can we do to ensure more people living in poverty have the chance to succeed?”
(Full text here: http://globalpoverty.change.org/blog/view/jill_biden_reminds_us_voters_what_poverty_really_looks_like)
Part of travel is the internal challenge to think more creatively and truthfully about the world in which we live. The accumulation of experiences with people here have done just that: challenged me to think about the world and my expectations of it differently.