Written from 24-27 August 2015
On Curiosity before Judgement
Looking back at my summer, I remember numerous conversations that seemed to follow the exact same script:
JACKSON walking down the street, enter FRIEND/FAMILY/FAMILY FRIEND/ETC.
FRIEND: “So, when do you leave for school?”
JACKSON: “Actually, I’m taking a bridge year before college.”
FRIEND: With concern. “A gap year? What’re you going to be doing?”
JACKSON: “It’s this program where I go to Senegal for eight months–“
JACKSON: “Senegal, in West Africa–“
FRIEND: “Oh Africa! You know, it’s really dangerous over there. You need to be careful.”
JACKSON: “Thanks, will do.”
If you were unable to tell, these conversations frustrated me in a way that I have a tough time articulating. Here my friends and supporters were offering caring and genuine advice. Yet, the idea that we have of Africa is absurd. From my experience, the majority of Americans have artificial conceptions of Africa crafted from age-old sayings–“Finish your plate, there are starving children in Africa.”–and unbalanced media coverage of radical groups. This often results in the association of the continent with a single image: barefoot, starving children playing in the Saharan sunset.
The ‘single story’ is the true danger. We know that Californians are different from Texans. We even know that Placervillians are different from San Franciscons. In America, we value individuality more than almost any other quality. From a young age, each child is taught that he or she is special. It would offend many to state that all 318 million Americans share a socioeconomic background or a religion, and yet, we are satisfied in accepting a single image of a continent comprised of more than a billion individuals.
In particular, Senegal is (both politically and economically) one of the most stable countries in Africa. This is what frustrates me most about the warnings I’ve received. Sure, they are intended to keep me safe, but they are said before taking the time to learn any information about the country. Had I said that I would be spending the year somewhere like New York City, the likelihood that I would be encouraged to have fun would be much higher than the likelihood of being warned about pickpockets or violent gangs. Why is Senegal any different?
We judge before we understand. At Pre-Departure Training (where I’ve been for the past week), we’ve had some very stimulating conversations about curiosity before judgment. In order to become a citizen of the world, it is so important to ask questions before making assertions. I am choosing to spend my next eight months in Senegal because it is so very different from the United States. As I sit writing this in the airport, about to board a plane and fly across the Atlantic, I can’t help feeling excitement for these differences. I thrive to ask questions and to discover the truths of a different way of life.
While many exhausted and frustrated me, I do remember a few refreshing conversations.
For instance, as we were preparing lunches for the day’s rafters, my Brazilian coworker ambushed me with a question that I was trying my best to avoid.
“Você sai para a África em três semanas?”
After a pause (longer than I’d care to admit), I pieced together the Portugese and affirmed that, in three weeks, I would indeed leave for Africa.“Sim.”
Gabriel launched another one, partially to watch me struggle and partially to help me learn: “Você já esteve fora de os EUA?”
I gave up. “Quê?”
Taking pity on me, he repeated the question in English. “Have you ever been out of the United States?”
He chuckled and made a comment that has been in the back of my mind ever since.
“In three weeks, welcome to the world.”