After winning the Karen Snyder Sullivan Travel Award through Mount Holyoke College, Barbara McAlister was able to travel throughout Africa.
I visited Ghana, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Tanzania during my two and a half month summer abroad. I went to Ghana because I had many friends in college from Ghana and wanted to experience their country. I stayed with the family of a recently graduated friend who, though their daughter was still in the states, welcomed me as though I were their own. Ethiopia was on the itinerary for similar reasons. One of my dear friends growing up had been adopted from Ethiopia. My parents were in the process of adopting a sibling pair from the same orphanage when I won the travel scholarship so I decided to meet them while traveling. While visiting them I also volunteered at the orphanage, teaching dance classes to the children and the teachers.
In Kenya I volunteered for Engineers Without Borders because one of my best friends was running a spring box project in the southeast corner of the country. I spent a couple of weeks digging trenches in the wild country side and got so brown that I thought I’d finally achieved a super tan. When I finally had a real shower two weeks later, the “tan” washed off. It’s rather dusty in the countryside, I guess.
Tanzania was a purely touristic experience, whereas the others all involved some sort of volunteer experience. In Tanzania I went on a three-day safari and saw more zebras than I thought could possibly exist. I traveled each country pretty extensively considering the amount of time I spent in each. The following summer I returned to Ethiopia for another two and a half months. I still hope to go back one day and visit Zimbabwe, more of Ghana, the Ethiopian countryside, and Southern Sudan.
Regarding the continent in general, I heard that Africa was not a place for a woman to go around traveling by herself. I didn’t know many people who had ever been to any of those countries. I was going in blind, doing the best I could with research and trusting that once I arrived I would be able to make my way around despite language barriers. (I did not speak any of the tribal languages, though I tried hard to learn! Most everyone spoke some level of English. It took some time for me to adjust to the Pidgin English, but I did alright.) Looking back now as a 23-year-old, I realize that I had an incredible amount of faith in my 19-year-old self as well as in humanity in general.
I’d imagine that my parents were a bit nervous about me traveling to Africa, but they were very good about keeping it to themselves. They did not push me too much toward one country or another, though my mother did make it clear she did not like the idea of me visiting Egypt, which I was never able to get to anyway.
I was utterly overwhelmed the first time I stepped out in the streets of Ghana by the aggressive street vendors. My very first impression was most unfortunate because it happened in the airport. I arrived and went to get my visa because I had read on the country’s official website that I could easily obtain a visa at the airport. My passport was devoid of stamps, indicating that I had never traveled before, and the immigration office had a field day trying to extort money from me to be let into the country. They refused to tell me how much a visa cost (I had looked it up ahead of time and was prepared to argue about the price) and threatened multiple times to put me on the next flight back to the U.K. Then they would ignore me and go back to brushing each other’s hair, flirting, and eating dried pieces of mango while I sat on the wooden bench waiting for some kind of verdict. Every hour or so I would repeat my request for a visa and the whole rigmarole would begin all over again. I never could figure out how much of this was in good humor or if they really did plan to keep me there until I handed over all my cash. As it was, the guard had already demanded, and unfortunately received, his $20.00 “fee” for taking me to immigration. That was the first and the last time during my stay in Africa that I ever gave a bribe.
After several hours of this, I requested that my host brother be let in to vouch for me. It took another thirty minutes of fuss for the roomful of secretaries, soldiers, and their boss to decide that was allowable. I couldn’t let immigration know that I’d never met my host brother, so I leaped to my feet. “Godfre!” I cried out, and wrapped my arms around him in a warm hug. My savior had come. Poor boy. He didn’t know me from Eve, but I was an American girl in a red shirt and he had been told to wait for such a girl. He didn’t miss a beat.
“My sister!” came the warm and immediate response. “So good to see you.” He hugged back. The room seemed to relinquish some of its suspicion. They took his license and made him repeat all the information that I had already given him, and finally, finally, let us out the door with severe warnings that he was responsible for me and if I did anything, anything, wrong, that he would be held responsible. And that is how I entered through the gateway to Africa.
In Ghana I lived with a Mount Holyoke student’s family in their home. It’s impossible not to feel culture shock. What is shocking is not how people do things, it’s that there exists the possibility of doing things differently. I had never considered the number of habits and practices that could possibly differ in another country and in another family. The most difficult part for me was not being able to participate in family chores. In my family we bond by working together. It felt uncomfortable being told to sit and rest while other people washed my dishes, cooked my food, and did my laundry.
During my month in Ghana I did manage to form some very close bonds with the family I lived with as well as some of the people with whom they worked. I’m still in touch with some of them today. I spent the most time with my host brother and the nephews, eventually learning to cook (Fried plantains were my favorite! Delicious!), split coconuts, peel mangoes, and navigate the area. It took a while, but one day I knew that when I walked into the room, they saw me – Barbara – not just Priscilla’s American friend. They saw me.
In Ghana, my most memorable experience was in the canopy walk. I went with my friend Aba and my host brother. I’ve never seen a grown man so afraid of heights. I raced back and forth on the rope and slatted bridges, enjoying the rush as they swung side to side. I nearly shocked my poor brother to death when I gave his bridge a little nudge and it rocked back and forth. It felt like miles of canopy walk – like treading no air. Because Godfre made his way so slowly, I had time to dash from point to point and back again. I’ve always wanted to feel like I could fly; walking on air is the next best thing!
I loved the local music scene! Godfre took me salsa dancing with some of the other friends I made while there. We had a blast. The DJ and I tore up the floor for a good hour before I wore out. The boys at home were always singing some popular local music and I took home some CDs of my favorites. I tried to get involved in a workshop in local dance but unfortunately since it was rainy season and school was out for the summer, not much of that was going on. In Kenya I actually got to work with some local musicians and make a recording with them in Swahili that is still floating around the local scene in Nairobi.
I came into the study abroad experience with an anthropological perspective: that people had their own ways of living and I wanted to understand what it was to walk a mile in their shoes. While I was there, I had to have an extensive amount of patience with myself for not fitting in right away. I just wanted to feel at home because I loved the humanity of so many of the people I met. It has made me more merciful and gracious to other travelers. The kindness of strangers has made me reach out to strangers back home in the states. I brought back pieces of the culture that I related to, including the emphasis on purposefully socializing. Our East coast workaholic culture frowns on building in time without cell phones and laptops, without “connection.” But our obsession with connection disconnects us from our own.
I miss that people took time to stop and ask you how you were and how your family was doing. I miss the mangoes and pineapples. They were perfect. I miss the kids playing soccer instead of watching TV. I miss the warmth of the people I spent my days with. A culture that doesn’t thrive on and that isn’t driven by stress. As for some things I don’t miss: Taxi drivers who drive way too fast. I’ve jumped out of more than a few taxis because of this. I don’t miss that it sometimes took two hours to get anything done that normally takes ten minutes because stopping to talk can get way too involved. I don’t miss the frustration of being teased, cajoled, and berated in immigration.
My advice for students thinking of studying abroad in the region I visited would be to not think of waiting as waiting; think of waiting as time to just be. Time in Africa doesn’t work like it does in America. Also, be wary of people who have “special deals” for you. Before you go, make sure that there is going to be someone already there whom you can trust for sound advice. That won’t always be the case. For me, I often had to trust humanity and make decisions on my own. So above all, trust your gut. You would be surprised how welcoming strangers can be. If you are a woman, ask women for directions. It’s usually safer.
Three words I would use to sum my experience are courage, self-awareness, and compassion.