i want to go to africa. i entered an essay contest in hopes of getting to go with a renowned ny times columnist for free. here it is. tell me i'll win! i'll find out june 1. read on!
One of the most valuable lessons I learned in college is to never take a two hour class on a summer afternoon. I missed a good deal of my Sub-Saharan African geography class due to heavy eyelids. I quickly discovered that if I gave in to the eyelids around 1:30 they'd be open again before 2:00, allowing me to at least learn something. What I learned has never left me.
I considered myself a world traveler, sensitive to international issues and aware of challenges faced by third-world countries; after all, I spent my high school years in Mexico City. As a junior, I wrote a paper about the Masai, but all I retained is that they are cattle herders. I grew up singing along to "We Are the World," and when my little brother pushed out his belly we called him an Ethiopian. In that BYU class in the summer of '93, though, my stomach dropped and my heart broke when I was introduced to the unique and serious conditions of so many people in Africa. The years of history classes I took educated me in the principles of imperialism and Western exploitation, but never had I seen the perspective of the people who were exploited. It wasn't until I faced the challenge of filling 12 pages comparing two African countries that I began to see how naïve I was. My glimpse of the complexities of just those two countries left me baffled about what it meant to be an African.
Now I teach world literature to 15 year-olds living in the aptly named city of Bountiful, Utah. The pieces we read are as new to me as they are to them. Beginning with the oldest known epic hero, Gilgamesh, we've discovered major epic heroes from all over, including Mali's Sundiata. For each piece, we ask, "How are they like us?” and “What can we learn from them?" Our goal is to recognize that no matter the time or place, all literature comes from the souls of human beings who have the same values, fears, desires, and struggles, whether Mesopotamian, African, or Utahan.
While the realities of geography prevent people from experiencing many other cultures, reading the world’s stories is the most accessible approach to understanding others. Hearing, seeing and interacting, though, enables one to share in those stories and become one with them. Ever since waking up in Sub-Saharan African geography class, I've craved the opportunity to become one of their storytellers.