My African Experience: Lessons Learned Abroad

Cameron hugs a domesticated elephant in a Zimbabwean wildlife orphanage

In May 2018, I traveled to Malawi, a small country in eastern Africa, with students and professors from Otterbein University. The group was small but mighty - just five students and two faculty members.

Dr. Glenna Jackson led the charge using her combined knowledge of more than a dozen African adventures. Denise Shively, the communications department chair and one of my academic advisors, convinced me to make the journey. She said that this experience would be life-changing. I’m a sucker for emotional appeal - and a university-funded scholarship that would pay over half of my travel expenses.

Prior to the Africa trip, I had never been camping without an RV, stayed in a less-than-Holiday-Inn hotel room or traveled outside of North America. Boy, was that about to change!

The following excerpt is from my post-Malawi reflection essay. This purpose of this document was to identify the lessons that we learned abroad.

Life-changing is an understatement. Africa was life-annihilating, meaning that it totally wiped away my preconceived ideas and opinions. It truly transformed my views and shaped the Cameron I am today.

The Africa I Came to See

I expected tall grass and flat plains. I expected headdress-wearing natives and starving children. I expected lions running amuck and elephants around every corner. This was the Africa I came to see, but not the Africa I saw.  

I saw lush, green landscapes and rocky hilltops. I saw beautiful people who value the intangible love, relationships and family more than anything else. I saw lions and elephants – thank goodness they weren’t around every corner!

There isn’t a textbook, lecture or PowerPoint presentation that could have prepared me for the experiences in Africa. My expectations were challenged, exceeded and shattered. One of the first lessons I learned was that this trip was not meant to make Cameron feel comfortable. Luckily, I realized early that in order to truly experience Africa – the real Africa – I needed to be vulnerable. 

We nervously walked across the runway, unaware of the adventures ahead. We quickly met Justice and Nyathipa, our local hosts and soon-to-be best friends.

 

Nyathipa, Ernest, Mwenecho and Justice pose with students at the top of Mount Nkhoma

 

Their waving arms beaconing from the airport balcony were the ultimate greeting to Malawian hospitality. One of my first uncomfortable moments was entering Nyathipa’s home. I expected to feel like an outsider. I remember nervously sitting on the couch, staring at the pixilated TV playing last year’s blockbuster hit. We were immediately greeted by each member of the family. It didn’t seem just like a greeting; it was sincere, wholesome and without hesitation. I felt like I had known these people since I was a baby! This moment marked the second lesson in my African journey: some cultures don’t make visitors feel like the outsider. In Malawi, guests are treated like family - and I was ready to change my last name and make it official! 

Nyathipa, Maggie, Karly and Sophia prepare fabric to make hospital blankets

The first night was rough. We ventured to a nearby market to see how locals purchased food and goods. The isles of tattered tents and tarps winded endlessly; the people stared and we stared back. It was hard to imagine living in such conditions. I held my breath around the stinky fish and tried not to touch anything. I was so judgmental.

By the end of the trip, markets were no big deal and I was a master negotiator. I started to understand the work and creativity necessary to provide for a family in Africa. The merchants had to physically pick, grow, catch, kill, capture or create their products. I guess a snazzy storefront was the least of concern. The third lesson I learned was that effectiveness and efficiency trumps beauty. People in Malawi have a lot going on - who am I to judge that they sell smelly fish on a piece of plywood? I would probably do the same if I had to fish all night and then carry said fish on my head a thousand miles to the market.

One of the greatest moments was reaching the top of Mount Nkhoma with Nyathipa and Justice. I think the lives of many Malawians are similar to that mountain - full of ups and downs. I was surprised to learn that Justice, Nyathipa and Dennis, our bus driver, had not received a paycheck for the previous month’s work. I can’t imagine the claims, lawsuits and Hell that would break loose if someone forgot to pay me for last month’s work! Financially, I realized that it’s tough to get ahead in Malawi. Justice, Nyathipa and Dennis provide for so many people and are consistently climbing a mountain of expenses that never seems to end. Although I wanted to drop out of school, sell all of my belongings and give all of my money to my new friends, I realized that I couldn’t. And, that was the hardest lesson of all. There is no limit to what Justice, Nyathipa and Dennis deserve. But, it was unfair to assume that my money could take away their hardships. I realized that any contribution, regardless of value, was appreciated. This trip was not meant to make me feel good about myself. 

Mwenecho tells stories at the base of Mount Nkhoma

I loved everyone I met in Malawi. But, Mwenecho changed my life. I’ll never forget when Justice announced that I would be staying in his house and Mwenecho screamed, “YES!” from inside the window. I’ve never met someone, especially so young, with such curiosity, intelligence and understanding. One of my favorite conversations with Mwenecho was about Halloween. He started the topic by saying, “Please don’t take offense, but I do not know why you dress up for the devil in America.” I, obviously, laughed hysterically and explained that Halloween is more of a celebration and has little ties to religion for most Americans. 

Mwenecho was curious - about everything. But, he also had a vivid imagination and playful spirit. I think he’s stuck in a tough spot - having the mind and experiences of an adult while stuck in the body of a child. I can remember feeling the same way growing up without my mom. I will never forget him.

The Africa I came to see was different than the Africa I saw. And, I’m so thankful that I got to see the real thing - not just a fancy game resort in South Africa like most privileged people with a hefty travel budget. I know that my heart will lead me back someday. But, until then, I’ll stay connected with my new friends across the globe and continue to share a little Malawian love with the rest of the world.

Cameron West