IN A NUTSHELL
My background, my trip to Kenya, and a rant on religion.
I have been extremely fortunate in my 21 years to have had the opportunity for quite a bit of travel in a variety of contexts. I have traveled for vacation, service, education, and adventure. I have traveled with groups, individually, with family, and with friends. These contexts have given me an interesting glimpse at international travel from many angles. They have also given me many confusing and conflicting thoughts and feelings about the authenticity, sustainability, and implications of international travel in certain areas and methods, specifically in places like East Africa, where long standing traditions are melding with the world economic system to create many issues as well as intriguing possibilities moving forward. In addition to my travel experiences, studying as an International Studies major with an extremely strong passion for all things related to culture, people, places, languages, and nature has left me yearning for more concrete answers.
I was raised in a suburban, middle-class, Christian family, where my sheltered and happy existence knew nothing of the world apart from what I saw on the television, in history textbooks, and in the novels I read constantly. Stories, history, and culture were a key fascination for me growing up, and I used them as an escape. Always independent, I jumped at the chance to begin traveling when I was in my teens and continued to do so until the perfect little world that I thought existed around me looked drastically different. I quickly discovered that there is no right or wrong way to live, but only a difference in value systems that exist around the world. I also discovered that the small affluent corner of the world where I grew up was not the norm, and I had, by a mere act of fate, been born into a place where one doesn’t know their neighbors and greed and materialism rule all. I had returned from my trip to Kenya during senior year of high school with a completely different outlook on the world, life, people, and what is truly important. Now, the place I called home looked materialistic, greedy, and deluded. Seeing these places in contrast made me bitter for a while, but then it made me passionate. It made me want to learn, help, and just do as much as I could to broaden my previously narrow mind. At University of Oregon, I took classes on culture, language, anthropology, international development, and communication. I chose Swahili as my language of study, did a couple of international service trips, and studied abroad in Europe. Through these, the stages were set for a life of learning, travel, discovery, and adventure.
The “white savior complex” had integrated into my mind in those early trips, and before taking classes in the International Studies classes at UO, I was pretty sure that I wanted to be a missionary. I later realized that I had confused religion with service and the joy of cross-cultural communication and still knew next to nothing about the complications of aid and development, especially coming from a Western perspective. I have only recently begun to realize that what I may construe as “help” may be completely ineffective or insensitive to communities who know what they need much more than I do. When traveling and working abroad it is so important to do so in a way that is both respectful and also celebrates the local culture. Equally important is maintaining the mindset that the people of a community know what is best for themselves, and outside interaction and intervention should be done so in partnership, as opposed to, say, a group of affluent teens hoping to “save” people in the week they are in another country. Just because a place looks different, that doesn’t make it wrong. I have come to these general conclusions, but learning is never over and I hope to delve deeper into the issues and complications of international travel and aid throughout this paper, with a specific focus on Sub-saharan Africa, using books, articles, media, and personal experiences.
My Trip to Kenya
As mentioned, I traveled to Kenya just before the start of my senior year of high school. It was a “missionary” trip with a group of high schoolers from my church, and we spent the two weeks playing with kids from our sister school in Nakuru, visiting hospitals, orphanages, and villages, and other acts of general “helpful” volunteerism. I put “missionary” in quotation marks because I think differently about the trip now than I did then, but I digress. Regardless of the deeper implications that I now believe accompany short-term and religious volunteerism, what I experienced in Kenya altered the course of my life and began my interest in international issues and travel.
Kenya is a country in East Africa that is bordered by Ethiopia, South Sudan and Somalia to the north, Uganda to the west, and Tanzania to the south. Its official languages are Swahili and English, but over 40 ethnic and language groups exist in the country. Kenya was colonized by the British, a fact which continues to influence the cultural, institutional, and economic trends of the nation to the present day. These are facts that have been both researched and learned, but only a brief part of the whole story. And while as a Westerner I could never describe the African experience faithfully, or even have the right to try, the story of Africa is one filtered with histories, viewpoints and solutions from every possible angle, proponent, or opponent.
Misconceptions and realizations are an important aspect of any education, and have been extremely significant in my journey through my travels and the International Studies program at University of Oregon, beginning with my time in Kenya. It is interesting to observe the differences in my own perceptions from then and now; also intriguing is the fact that so many people carry misguided perceptions of the world simply because they have not experienced it. During my time in Kenya, I operated and experienced things through a religious and Western lens. I saw a shooting on my first day and blamed a corrupt government. I looked at starving people on the street and blamed fate. I saw a Maasai performance and rejoiced in the assumed authenticity. I looked at happy children, felt jealousy in the simplicity of their happiness, and blamed materialism for the way I had grown up. In my naivety, I thought that what these people needed were God, Western intervention, and donations. I was amazed and happy in the fact that the high schoolers there talked about Beyonce and Obama. I thought, I am connecting to these people. Connecting I was, but I also failed to look at the broader reasons of why all of these things were so different from the United States and other more “developed” countries I had traveled to and learned about.
Brief Rant on Religion
When I first traveled to Kenya with members of my church in 2009, there was a call to help. We were encouraged to find our own meaning in our experiences, and no matter how harshly I might discuss the fundamental issues I find with religion, missionaries, and “the church,” I do not mean in any way to diminish the importance and significance of my trip for me or for my team. I believe in a greater power in this universe, I believe in love, and I believe in the inherent goodness of people all around the world. Though, I also do not believe that my slight lack of trust in this human-constructed cultural practice means that I myself need saving.
There is no denying that religion offers community, something to believe in during the constant search for meaning that humans embark on, and an invisible comfort during dark times. Studying my own and other religions has taught me that it is a core aspect of culture and is really interesting and beautiful. Most of the people I have met growing up in the Christian church have been kind, compassionate, and all around good people. There is nothing wrong with religion when it perpetuates the love, security, and acceptance that everyone craves. Problems, however, arise when instead of love and acceptance comes exclusivity, hate, and a misguided need to “save” people. Newsflash: local spirituality in African societies was present hundreds of thousands of years before Christianity. If God is love, then why was there a lack of appreciation for the existing beliefs and value systems that “plagued” the African continent even prior to colonialism? Religion has been used to justify war and bloodshed throughout the centuries and it is no surprise to me that it was used to justify slavery and colonialism, as well.
I am not an expert on this topic, but I thought it might be useful to explain some of the questions I am still confronted with as I attempt to better define my own system of beliefs and values. I am mentioning this in my paper, because my studies on cultures and the African continent throughout my time here at University of Oregon, as well as my travels to other places around the world, have influenced and fostered these questions. I believe my experience at UO has opened my eyes and forced me to think critically and reassess what I believe in. Many people I am close to may consider these thought changes detrimental to my “spiritual path” with God, but I think it is an important step in my progression both as a human being as well as in my (hopeful) future career in something travel-related. To work with and understand people on a broader scale and on a personal level in cross-cultural settings requires an open mind and a willingness to accept core differences in another person’s truth, however uncomfortable or different that truth may be. This is how I am approaching religion and also how I hope to approach human interaction moving forward: with complete open-mindedness.