By Fr. Patrick Baraza
Just having read the blog from the students and faculty who spent a few weeks in Zambia, I was so very impressed with their fascination for the country and their love of the people they met. Everyone mentioned how this trip to Zambia has changed their lives.
Why go to Africa? It’s a long trip, costs a lot of money, removes one from easily obtaining a summer job and is spent in a hot dusty place with few creature comforts. I teach classes in African Catholicism and I have never ceased to be amazed at the intense curiosity my students have for Africa. I believe GU students are so very interested in culture; they want to know how other cultures can speak to them.
Today the world is a smaller place due to technology. Traveling to distant places is common, and the Internet can bring other worlds into one’s home. Many college students have already traveled to Europe by the time they are 18. Europe, being the ancestral home of most Americans, is not really “foreign.” The cities are older, the buildings more elaborate in most cases, the language may be different, but really… Europeans and Americans are cut from the same cloth.
Africa is a different story entirely.
Spending a summer abroad in Africa takes a student out of his/her comfort zone. The environment is totally different – from the color of one’s skin, to living conditions, the food and the way of life. Time takes on a different meaning. African people live in the moment. Women must get water, collect firewood, build a fire to cook their food, cultivate the land; men tend their cows and goats. Outside of large cities, homes are very simple; generally there is no running water or electricity. African lives revolve, not around a clock, but around events that are tied to the rising and setting sun. They have little in the way of food or personal possessions, but they willingly share what they have.
African people live communal lives; that is, they are not a family in the American sense. In Africa, people are tied by extended families, clans and tribes. If parents die, the children are immediately absorbed into a relative’s family. Adoptions are rarely heard of. In America, many children live hundreds if not thousands of miles from their parents, siblings or grandparents. Unheard of in Africa!
Many people think of Africa as an exotic place full of wild animals and where people herding cows wear brightly colored clothing. While this is true, this is not just what Africa is about. Students who travel to Africa will find poverty, dust and mud, a lack of educational facilities (never mind flushing toilets in most places). They also will discover the wonderful warmth of the people, the children with heart-melting smiles, and the opportunity to make a change – not only in their own lives, but in the lives of others.
Students will have the opportunity to challenge themselves physically and mentally, forgetting about cell phones, texting, iPods and even clean clothes. In exchange, they will have the opportunity of a lifetime. They will return with new outlook and a concern for others. These students will more readily carry out the GU mission; and as they seek to fulfill their own life’s aspirations, they will actively support the aspirations of others by a generous sharing of their gifts.
The students I have taught know I am a storyteller. In order to summarize, here is a story: The teacher asks her third graders, “How many points has a compass?” A small boy raises his hand and says, “Five.” The teacher asks him to name them. Using his fingers he says, “North, South, East, West,” and pointing to the floor says, “And where I am.”
One’s comfort zone is where “I am.” Traveling away from home, family and friends teaches sacrifice, self confidence, love and appreciation for the lives and cultures of others. What a rewarding and lifelong gift.
[Fr. Patrick Wanakuta Baraza is a Roman Catholic priest who was born in western Kenya. He was raised by Roman Catholic parents and a Muslim grandfather, all the while including traditional African religious ways as part of his life. Fr. Baraza was ordained in Kenya and spent eight years among the nomadic pastoralist Pokot people. After these difficult years, he came to America where he attended the Graduate Theological Union and the University of California at Berkeley where he received his S.T.L and doctoral degree in Islamic Studies. Fr. Baraza teaches Islam and African Catholicism at Gonzaga.]