If you went to a liberal arts college in the United States, it’s very likely that you turned twenty-one in a foreign (to you) city, trying to find yourself and meanwhile getting lost in a new language.
I turned twenty-one in Nairobi, Kenya – and not the one we think of today, packed with coffee chains, internet cafes, art galleries and thriving businesses. No, I turned twenty-one in a pre-Y2K Nairobi, sans cell phone, internet, espresso, or television. My classmates and I cranked tunes from old boom boxes on the roof of our dormitory, watched strange birds fly over head, peered down at family life transpiring in the slums below, tucked away behind Mamlaka Road.
What was it that led me to Kenya in 1996? It was probably my naive wanderlust and map-panting. Going to Kenya would be my Midwestern dream come true, a release from the soporific splendour that was my suburban life. By following my older sister’s Zimbabwe-bound footsteps, I knew that leaving home could mean an eventual return to a greater version of my future self. And the idea at the time was any place is better than here.
Just a few months into my semester in Nairobi clued me into the chilling contradictions of the developing world and its tangled relationship with those deemed more developed. Most of that semester I spent eating grilled sweet potatoes, wandering through a gigantic park frequented by naked madmen, waiting for actual classes to begin, and befriending a girl named Irene who thought God loved wazungu more than Africans.
That semester, when a student activist was set on fire in his dorm room because of his allegedly scandalous leadership in the student opposition party on campus, I learned about tear gas and terror. I learned about hiding and expulsion. I learned how it might feel for a life to unravel.
The boy had been set on fire in his dorm room but it had been announced as a headline in the daily paper as an “accidental fire.” A family request for autopsy was refused. And then I learned about irrational beatings and student protests resorting to chains and fire. I learned about a government’s resp onse to protest, a rush of men with guns on horses that trotted through our leafy campus looking for students who dared defy them.
I was afraid. I smoked Marlboros in my tiny dorm room, occasionally walking upstairs to peer out from the rooftop down below at a student exodus, classmates carrying overstuffed suitcases on their heads, following a decree from the university to leave or else face fatal consequence.
This was under Moi’s regime, well before Kenya’s groundbreaking constitutional reforms or the election violence that followed. The mood in Nairobi was wiry and tense in those days. We saw policemen beating elders selling fruit and fried fish on the street. They tear gassed the YWCA across the road from us.
During this time, most of our Kenyan classmates returned to their farms and villages, but all the foreign students remained behind in dormitory – Dutch, Americans, Koreans, Rwandans, and others with no place to go. Those days, we whispered, called home from chunky, grimy payphones outside, and ate ugali in the cafeteria with a feeling of emptiness.
Of course, life did go on. School resumed, we attended classes in cavernous lecture halls with insecure but fierce professors. I was a student at the University of Nairobi in their Sociology Department but the most powerful lessons happened on rooftops and in backyards, dorm hallways and dimly lit shops. I left Nairobi in the Spring of 1997 with the certainty that I would never be the same, and that leaving home would always be an essential part of being (defining) home.
And maybe that’s why, after years in the fields of arts and education, I decided to accept a position as the resident director of a study abroad program for Swahili language students in Zanzibar. Something about coming full circle, having the chance to lead in a context where I once sought leaders and mentors who could help me understand cultural dissonance.
Last month, I said goodbye to twenty-six ambitious Americans who had been awarded by the United States government to study Kiswahili in Zanzibar at the State University of Zanzibar. I was their resident director, perhaps otherwise known as therapist, dean, mama, guide, adviser and on the rare occasion, disciplinarian. For the last four months, my job had basically been to make sure that everyone stayed out of trouble, sharpened their Swahili chops, and left without accident or injury.
On that level, I think we all did pretty well. We managed to navigate a tiny, shared office space, a challenging academic culture, and, as a large group of impassioned, competitive individuals, our own intense dynamics. The students left with impressive Swahili test scores and the satisfaction of having navigated a culture quite different than their own not just by dress and food but values and beliefs.
The most amazing part of this work is watching others grow in the short time I get to spend time with them, and in turn, watching myself grow, too. It’s not easy crossing cultural borders, let alone immersing yourself in that other world once you’re there. Striving for a deeper experience means calling on all of one’s inner resources to cope with the unexpected triggers of living within a culture that is not your own.
I’m still left with questions, though, about the kind of impact these programs make on culture and identity, nation-building and peace-keeping. Who benefits from these exchanges? Can we even call it an exchange? What kind of cultural imprint do we make on a tiny town already saturated with students from around the world? And how do we as individuals wrangle ourselves away from stereotypes that hunt us down and hold us hostage to behaviours we wish we could deny?
Now that the dust has cleared, I’m also wondering how Americans (or any nationality, really) leave and return gracefully to cultures and places that are not their own, especially when that potential grace gets spoiled by inadvertent isms?
There’s a really fine (dotted) line between volunteers, missionaries, students, researchers, and the average backpacker or tourist wandering the streets of foreign cities. Travelling by choice is the measured gesture of the privileged, no matter what the intention.
If backpackers and tourists care a little less about making strong connections with local people – it might be their lack of interest, time, or awareness that keeps them from crossing (straddling) cultural fences. But there is a kind of traveller who knows the potential benefits of meeting at the edges of a cultural encounter, and usually it’s that student who doesn’t want to be categorized as a traveller but more so a temporary resident.
And despite these nuances that only the travellers themselves are willing to define or debate, there’s a booming industry eager to accommodate every kind of traveller. Those who want to participate in local culture rather than simply photograph or marvel it from a distance can now do so with ease. The concept of the “culture safari”” or “human safari” is one gaining traction in the developing world, as more and more travellers express a willingness to pay (dare I say, purchase) a cultural experience (or should we call it a performance).
We can’t ignore questions of power here – and agency. Who is buying and what exactly is being sold? People mostly coming from the “first” or “developed” world seek out opportunities to engage in the “third” or “developing” world (written in quotes because these labels are, of course, problematic). Often these travellers pay to volunteer, study the language, take a local cooking class, learn to fish and farm, are healed by traditional doctors, and beat on traditional drums.
Whether you’re a student, a “voluntourist,” a missionary, student, or emboldened researcher, everyone seems to come to Zanzibar wanting something relatively harmless from the experience – to grow, discover, learn, to make meaningful relationships, to be meaningful.
Yet, so many contradictions exist in that bracketed volunteer-student-researcher space. I can’t begin to dole out any judgements on anyone’s behaviour, or think even for a moment that I might be categorically different as someone who lives an “expat” life here on the island. If you’re wearing a bikini on the weekends and a buibui to work during the week, so be it.
As far as I can tell, anyone from another place who attempts to live here must also confront daily the challenges of cultural dissonance and questions of belonging. It’s an island after all. The borders have been naturally defined (and debated) and redefined. We can only run so far. Kindness matters. Respect counts.
As I’ve said on repeat to my students, I’m not an expert on these matters, but I’ve come to realize in the last few years that there’s a way to travel and a kind of study abroad student, who, at his or her best, can work to hold all these contradictions and still manage to make meaningful connections with the world around us by becoming more conscious of the relationships, questions, perceived fears, and ultimate norms of a place.
And if we’re willing to go there – to be critical and self-aware of all the contradictions — then we are also willing to be humbled, admit when we are wrong, apologize for our transgressions, and work to be ourselves in context.
So, I’m ending this little essay with ten things I say to myself and my students every time things get a little insane or difficult as a student traveller. Half the time we’re talking about stuff like this after the fact, while sorting out some challenging cultural conundrum. But, if we talk about it enough, it becomes a daily practice, and we remember where we are, and who we want to be in the world, at home or far away.
1. Turn every challenge into a question. No matter where you are, it’s likely that there are people, ideas, behaviours, and laws that annoy or offend you. Extract one, as an example, and see if you can translate it into a research question. Spend the next few months (or years) tracking down the various iterations of your findings. Seek data. When we turn frustrations into questions we are led some amazing cultural treks through a wide expanse of diverse values and beliefs.
2. Before you complain, ask yourself if you can imagine a possible solution. This is a shout out to any of us who have been conditioned to believe that complaining will actually achieve favorable results. Complaining as in whining. The newsflash is that in most parts of the world, complaining is really ineffective and a major turn off to anyone who would otherwise be willing to assist us. Stop complaining and approach each challenge with the expectation that there are solutions. Complaining is just a fancy or immature way to show off your perceived sense of power over others.
3. Give everyone around you the benefit of the doubt—including yourself, especially when it comes to language, communication, and cultural differences. Resist that initial impulse to judge yourself or someone else for the unwieldy range of feelings unleashed by bad communication or just – simply – a difference in approach or command.
4. You don’t have to love everything about a culture, but you can still respect, appreciate, and attempt to understand it. You’re not coming from a better place; you’re coming from a different place. Again, it’s about holding contradiction, not about taking a spatula to the cultural landscape and attempting to even things out.
5. If you’re not uncomfortable at some point, you’re probably not growing. This is true enough even if you never leave home. But, really –why leave one country for another if we want to live exactly as we did at home? If you’re not challenged at all during your time in another country, it probably means you’re doing little to grow as a person.
6. For every cultural judgement you make, hold up a mirror to your own cultural behaviours. It’s always easier to judge someone else’s behaviour more than your own, but usually when we’re hyper critical of a particular cultural pattern or value, it’s usually because it has the potential to bring us closer to critical questions about our own lives and perceptions.
7. Expect the unexpected. The verb of life triggers the reality of it. Very rarely is something truly as it seems, especially living between two or more cultural ideas about time, money, values, work, quality, and fairness. Listen, bring a book. Be prepared to wait, laugh and be kind. Things might not be as they seem, but sometimes reality is so much better than the dream. Even if you’re roadside with a flat tire.
8. Be humbled by what you don’t know. Sometimes students on study abroad programs tend to get angry or frustrated with what they don’t know. They may get competitive, self-absorbed, or controlling about the facts and feelings of a place. Without a doubt you’ll know some things and not others. Let this be a real exchange. When you don’t know something, lean into that vulnerability. Pick up a book or map, ask a question, and do more to learn more. There is so much you don’t know, and that’s exciting.
9. Stop comparing yourself. How good you are at the local language, how well you can bargain at the market, how often you’ve been here or there, how many princes and bandits you’ve had drinks with at the lobby of the fancy hotel. Um, yeah. Get over that. Be where you are, be who you are in context, and those stories will come to you, too, however tightly wound or lose and unbounded, depending on your disposition.
10. Travel with the disposition to be pleased. My mentor and friend Cynthia Weiss taught me about the “disposition to be pleased”” — to travel, however far or near, with the assumption that the world will not disappoint you. Beloved astrologist Rob Brezney calls it a kind of “pronoia” – believing wholeheartedly that the world is conspiring in all our favour around the basic principle of good. I’ve often referenced this phrase as a kind of roadmap to good teaching and learning, and its message extends to all of us who, as poet Antonio Machado wrote, “make the road by walking.”
Do I sound preachy? Maybe. Have I countless times failed to take my own advice? Yes. Is study abroad laced and loaded with post-colonial overtones and diplomatic legacies that are a world away from the innocence of a language proficiency test? Probably. Like I said, I’m not an expert but I know that living any other way abroad makes the whole experience kind of grim, and really frustrating. I’d much rather try and fail to be a mindful traveller than to sip my chai (or beer) seaside somewhere, totally oblivious to the beauty that comes with the clank and disaffection of travel beyond one’s personal comforts.