This fall marks the 8-year anniversary of an adventure that redefined me. Eight years ago, I packed a few changes of clothes, sunscreen, and notebooks and boarded the first of several planes that would bring me to Tanzania, the first stop in a two-country study abroad experience. It was my first time travelling on a plane without my family, my first time leaving the country, and the first step in a new direction for my life.
I spent the fall semester of 2012 in Tanzania and Kenya (very distinct countries from one another, though I’ll describe my experiences with the broader term East Africa) with a group of 29 other students studying wildlife management, ecology, the Kiswahili language, and the interactions of humans and the environment. Witnessing elephants and lions in their natural habitats, being immersed in new culture, and being away from my comfort zone profoundly moved me. Until this point in my life, I floated confidently through college classes with a close-knit group of friends around me and a faith in God that had not been put through any difficult tests. I thought I would graduate college and go onto a graduate degree in wildlife management to find a job in the National Park Service. Upon returning from studying abroad, I found my life upended.
Eight years down the road, I’m reflecting back on the ways my life was impacted by my semester abroad. I’ll be reflecting on faith, my worldview, my relationship with environmental issues, and general life direction in this four-part series. This is Part 3: Worldview.
Reflecting on how my worldview was influenced by my time in East Africa has been personal and challenging. It has been particularly challenging to do so in 2020, a year where society has been reckoning with issues such as racism and nationalism. As a person who naturally withdraws from conflict, I am always concerned about how any of my words are taken and attempt to keep from being divisive. I do believe there is a difference between sharing my experience and being divisive, however. I hope that though I am reflecting on challenging topics, that I can share what I have learned in an honest way.
Spending a semester in East Africa confronted two things in particular in my worldview: racism and nationalism. As I discussed in earlier reflections, my semester abroad pushed me out of a comfort zone. It revealed both parts of me and a world I didn’t know. With the benefit of eight years of learning and hindsight, much of what I initially confronted in East Africa revolved around privilege, specially racial and ethnic privilege.
Conversations around privilege often push us into a defensive mode. Feeling defensive is understandable because acknowledging privilege is confronting something we’re stuck with (our skin color or ethnicity) or something we feel we have gained through hard work (education or wealth). But privilege is a broad term that attempts to measure our ability to fare and advance in society. Privilege encompasses both characteristics we’re born with and environmental factors. For example, the American system was built by white men who were educated and wealthy. As such, they created a system that made sense to them and favored other people like them – educated, wealthy, white males – these characteristics were inherent but also gained throughout their lives. So do we living in the modern age all have different types of privilege. My level of education, middle-class upbringing, and whiteness have all translated into opportunities and advancement for me. However, I have also felt looked over and lost opportunities because I am a woman. Conversations of privilege are not meant to attack one another but to make us aware of how we may consciously or unconsciously cash our privilege in for advantages, sometimes at the expense of others. As a follower of Christ, I believe we’re supposed to “be devoted to one another in love. Honoring one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:10). Loving one another is being willing to acknowledge that these seen and unseen forces of privilege can harm others and be willing to give preference to others.
I first saw racial privilege play out in Kenya and Tanzania where my white skin clearly made me stand out. Whenever our group of thirty students would travel, we would be heralded by shouts of “mzungu” or “white person”, especially from children. Trips to the market would lead to crowds gathering around us to watch how we fumbled our way through bartering in Kiswahili. At first, the treatment was novel. Eventually, however I grew frustrated and just wanted to blend in. However, no matter the frustration or discomfort I felt over being casually observed, I never felt in danger. Even in a return trip to Kenya in 2014 where I was one of two white people everywhere I went, I have always felt safe and accommodated. This is the most obvious example of my racial privilege, especially in a time where our culture is addressing violence against our black brothers and sisters in particular. Instead of feeling nervous about being the one of the only white persons in a crowd or my skin color causing scared looks, comments, or even violence, my white skin engendered respect and accommodation. And far more than I was due.
At the heart of me, are racist thoughts and beliefs. Whether they have been learned or present from the time of my birth isn’t the point, I’ve participated with the deadly cancer of racism. In my head is a shameful catalogue of racist words and deeds. I’m not brave enough to write them here, but I imagine they’ll stay with me my whole life. And unfortunately, I’ll probably continue to add to the catalogue. Racism is a corporate and individual sin from which none of us are exempt. Racism denies the divine nature present in all humans. And it keeps us from a central command from God to love each other as ourself. After realizing I never felt in danger despite being in a “minority” in East Africa, I returned to the U.S. wanting to learn about racism. Learning about racism is hard. Confronting it in my heart has been harder. I want to deny my participation, but racism is a cancer that reproduces in the dark corners. It’s not enough to learn about racism. Like treatment for cancer, there must be action taken to confront the racism in our hearts and replace it with the truth of every person’s worth and value. Confronting racism is a slow, arduous process. But if we believe every life has worth – whether born or unborn, black or white – then it is a journey worth taking.
Tanzania and Kenya were the first places outside the United States I had ever traveled. Without the chance to travel, I don’t think I would have understood the privilege that comes from an American passport. All countries have patriotism and pride, but the sway of being an American is strong. We were in Nairobi in November 2012, the day of the election between President Obama and Mitt Romney. In a grocery store in Nairobi, I remember being stopped at least five times by different Kenyans who wanted to talk to me about the election. When we went to a cafe, election coverage was on the TV. I met people throughout Tanzania and Kenya, before and after that election who were heavily interested in American politics and would often know more about our political system than I did. At the time, I had no clue who the Kenyan or Tanzania presidents were, much less the leaders of any other countries. I met many people who had spent time and effort learning about our country and systems, but I hardly knew anyone back home who learned about other countries – myself including.
More than just learning about our systems, though, I experienced an often unearned esteem from being an American. One time in Tanzania, we visited a local village called Koinam. In Koinam, we sat under a tree and learned from the village elders about the governance and management of the village. After they had shared with us, they turned to us and asked a group of 20-year-olds how they could improve their governance. Not surprisingly, we had no good ideas for them. At the time, I felt a sense of awkwardness and discomfort that a group of elders, who were running their village with humility, wisdom, and care, turned to a group of 20-year-olds who didn’t have anything in life figured out. While there is an element of sincere consideration for guests in Tanzanian culture and the elders may have been being polite and gracious, the insistence that Americans had the answers was not a one-time experience for us. At times it seemed to me that the attitude of American exceptionalism spilled across borders and led to non-Americans truly believing America was the most important country in the globe.
America has also done a lot of good both domestically and abroad and I’m well aware of the fact that merely being born in the United States allowed me countless opportunities not afforded to others – like my semester abroad. The problem with privilege is the temptation to only see the good – the good person, the good acts, the good intentions – without also acknowledging and repenting for the bad and striving for better. Ethnic privilege especially comes at the expense of many people and countries around the world. In the continent of Africa alone, America averted its eyes from the Rwandan Genocide and South African apartheid, participated in the assassination of democratically elected leaders like Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, and propped up numerous dictators in other African nations. As Americans, we need to learn about the hurt we have caused and hold leaders accountable to do better. Privilege allows us to stay in our bubble of only caring about America. Once more, my faith in Christ compels me to acknowledge the privilege I have being American and to look beyond. We’re told that in Christ “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Jesus may have come to earth in the form of a poor, Jewish man but he came to wipe the human distinctions away.
Studying in East Africa wasn’t a magic tool to reveal my privilege and racism. Instead it allowed me to interact with a different part of the world and realize different ideas or world views. Addressing challenging issues like racism requires a lifelong journey to keep learning and keep repenting when we make mistakes. I’ll forever be grateful for the nudge into that journey that studying abroad gave me.