It is fascinating to explore the nature of relativity while traveling internationally; more specifically, the differences between two cultures’ interpretations of the same word. Our experiences in Africa have offered several opportunities to see this contrast firsthand–our time at Meserani Snake Park these past 2 weeks especially. We built relationships with the nurses Jane and Rorin in the health clinic, our guide Ole, and our homestay host Alex and his family. On the outskirts of Arusha we interacted daily with Maasai locals, a traditionally nomadic people whose heritage has immense cultural depth, and for a brief moment we got to see the world through their lens.
This week our feet were the only way of getting around. Whether it was a 5 minute stroll to the education center or a 50 minute walk to visit the neighboring compound, it soon became clear how significant walking is as an aspect of Maasai life.
In my northwest Chicago suburb walking is considered either a recreation or a chore. Since cars are the undeniable form of transportation, when people walk longer than 30 minutes at a time it typically means they are either exhausting their dog’s energy or trying to lose weight. And so, waiting in anticipation for the day that was scheduled solely for the kindergarten outreach center, a recurring concern for us was the trek totaling 4 hours there and back. The path seemed endless.
Yet as I walked with Ole on the way back to the snake park, he told me this was a casual visit in the community for him. He walks an average of 6 kilometers on a down day. And while this reality about his lifestyle shocked me at first, I now understand that the Maasai don’t think twice about walking far distances for simple daily tasks like fetching water–this is their lifestyle and always has been.
Upon our arrival to Alex’s compound we were greeted by men wearing colorful shukas and large grins. Within 10 minutes of walking through the gate, a group of us stood gawking as the same men sliced off a goat’s head. Hours later the goat meat finished cooking on sticks over the fire, and the Maasai elders arranged us into a circle on their cow skins. Soon there were three men sitting in the middle, facing outward, holding goat legs on sticks. They shaved off pieces of meat and individually handed them to us.
No table, no utensils, and no English.
In my house, though eating is not considered an inherently communal event, it is expected that we eat dinner as a family when possible. This is designated time for everyone to share discussions, reflect on their day, and simply spend time together.
But reaching out to take my share of goat, it occurred to me how inviting the eating environment was even in the absence of conversation. Surrounding and being surrounded by Maasai men, being hand-fed our meal as a form of welcoming, brought us together in a way small talk never could have.
During the service days at Meserani, we all had the chance to sit in on an English class at the education center. On the day I went, the students were brainstorming questions that could be asked in a job interview and practicing their answers through interpersonal speaking presentations. The students’ ages ranged from 17 to 25.
Our group split up to different tables and worked one-on-one with them to answer any questions they had about the interview process. Many of us have work experience that we shared with them, including tips on body language and having a confident presence. Their eagerness to learn was evident as they listened intently. To them, school is a pathway to a future career; to them, education opens doors to greater opportunities down the road.
I attended a public high school where the majority of students are motivated by numbers: for many, their standardized test scores and GPA define them. And when the next test rolls around, the grade holds exponentially more value than the content of the exam in their eyes. I approached school with this same attitude for most of my high school career because it is easy to be sucked into the culture of competition in an academic setting and forget the real purpose of school.
With this mindset, classes simply become a series of obstacles to overcome, with no ultimate goal other than the satisfaction of a good grade.
There is something to be learned from these students’ integrity and drive in the classroom. While I used to groan at the thought of interpersonal speaking assignments in French class, these students accepted it as an opportunity to grow closer to their end goal of employment.
This trip has given all 14 of us the raw exposure to a culture radically different from our own. Our hosts here have given us a window into their world for us to observe and absorb; our experiences here have challenged our worldview and forced us to expand our minds to new ideas and approaches to life. But the most important thing to acknowledge as an international traveler is that when you see variances between an unknown community and your own, it is not your responsibility to “fix” them. Immersion is about educating yourself on a unique culture and its values in an effort to think more globally, so you should abstain from thrusting whatever knowledge you have onto them in attempt to mold their lifestyle into yours. Just because a certain way of life works for you doesn’t mean it should be accepted worldwide; just because a community does not practice your lifestyle does not mean it is an any less functioning society. Instead, we should be absorbing as much as we can from every community we encounter, growing as global citizens rather than just American (or Colombian).