As my airplane takes off for what is bound to be a big journey, measured both in miles and in terms of impact on me as a person, I cannot help but think about all of the farewells and wishes I received before leaving. People always had memorable reactions when I told them that I was going to Kenya. Almost everyone reacted with surprise, but some people’s surprise seemed to stem from the unspoken question: “Why would you go there?” To be honest, I was expecting to encounter this mentality… How could I not? It is the mentality plastered all over the media and in every depiction of any country in Africa ever. When most people think about Africa (because according to this mentality, Africa is the country I am going to—not Kenya), they think of diseases, HIV/AIDS, poverty, conflict, crime, etc. This string of negatives almost involuntarily enters the minds of people—a result of the single story of this continent that dominates people’s conceptions of it. Unfortunately, many of my close friends and family members exhibited this mentality as well, but in a form that made it more covert. Often, my family members reacted with worry and fear. Of course, in one way, these feelings come from a place of love for me. My family members said they were worried for my safety and wellbeing. However, I know my friends and family well enough to know that these words of theirs were also laden with degrading stereotypes about the place where I was going and the people who lived there. To them, it does not matter that there are higher rates of random crime in my hometown of Houston than in Muhuru Bay where I will be staying. To them, that place is bad, different, and dangerous.
When we treat an entire region of the world as a monolithic swath of land/people, or even worse, as a place only filled with disease and corruption and all things bad about humanity, we dehumanize the people who live there. We completely ignore the facts of history, as well as our own people’s role in causing or exacerbating many of the problems that African communities face, including those in Kenya. Most importantly, we reduce their identity, the whole of their lives, their worth to one of problems. We only see the bad and deny the existence of any good.
To a certain extent, it is not our fault. That is what we have been taught to do… by past generations, by our government, by the media. On the other hand though, I would like to believe that we (my loved ones and I here in the U.S.) are smarter and more loving than that. I believe we have the responsibility to not take the single story of “the tragedy” of Africa at face value. We have the responsibility to really get to know communities, like those in Kenya, that are metaphorically spit on by the rest of the world for problems largely not of their own design. I can honestly say that aside from the incredible opportunity that this trip is, the main reason I decided to come to Kenya was to find the value in the country and its people—the value that the rest of the world largely denies or ignores. I chose to come to meet the incredibly friendly and generous individuals that make up this community. I chose to come to learn their unique traditions and valuable cultural insights. I chose to come to appreciate the natural beauty of their homeland. I made this decision to do all of these things in a spirit of humility, wonder, and love that makes me politely reject all of the mentalities I just discussed above. To my friends, my family, and the complete strangers who reacted to my summer plans with this mentality, I say the following:
Thanks, but no thanks.
I appreciate your good intentions. I really do. But I do not need or want your fear or worry. All I need and want is your happiness for me and your openness to the beauty and value in the people and experiences I will encounter on my trip.