Travel Fears: Africa – Revelations as A White Traveler

Faces of Zambia

This is a hard and somewhat scary post to write. In part because the ideas and realizations I want to share are difficult to communicate and convey and in part because if I fail to convey them properly I’ll come across as a complete asshole.  Still, I think it’s worth it because I think the realizations, fears, and issues that this post addresses are very real ones that many of you may also secretly share and be curious about.

Mark Twain is famously quoted as saying, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

There’s a reason that this quote, or at least cropped versions of it can be found plastered across guide books, blogs, and articles dedicated to travel.  It embodies the beauty of travel. It also conveys some of the power of travel.

As a veteran traveler a lot of my prejudices and biases were eroded away a long time ago.  I was lucky enough to grow up in a household that focused heavily on education while striving to teach a message of respect, inclusion and evaluation based on individual merits – not race or ethnic origin.  Still, as I prepared for sub-Saharan Africa – a continent I had never before stepped foot upon or, to be candid, had a strong desire to visit – I was nervous and forced to admit privately, if not publicly, that I was unsure what to expect.  I had a number of what I knew to be childish  fears about simple things…dealing with my lactose intolerance, accepting local’s hospitality, squat toilets, a light case of hypochondria and underneath it all a decent chunk of racially oriented anxiety.  Because I think these are very real concerns that may resonate with many of you I’m going to do a series of posts i’m titling “Travel Fears: Africa” which will tackle each of these experiences individually.  To kick things off, let’s start with the most touchy of the various topics – race.

But, before I do, I want to clarify a quick point.  In this post I refer to Africans in a general sense. This is done because from an American and Western perspective Africa is often lumped together and treated as a homogeneous entity.  I fully realize that Africa is incredibly diverse, and that it is truly massive with vastly different cultural groups populating each nation.  For this post I’m talking about Sub-Saharan Africa and more specifically my experiences in Zambia.  However, because I think that similarly powerful experiences and realizations can be had across the majority of Africa’s sub-Saharan countries and because you, as my readers, are more likely to visit other countries such as Kenya, Nairobi, Nigeria, Namibia, Tanzania etc. I don’t want to limit this post explicitly to Zambia and Botswana so please forgive the gross generalization.

Faces of Zambia

Racial Concerns

It will probably come as no surprise to most of you that the majority of Zambia’s population is black – while I didn’t find much in the way of concrete data it looks like about 5% of the population is non-black while the remaining 95% come from traditional black African ethnic groups. A stark contrast to many of the areas I’ve lived in. Of these areas large parts of both Arizona and Denmark are not exactly known for their staggering multiculturalism. Exposed to travel at an early age and very scientifically minded I don’t consider myself as holding a racial bias.  Instead I understand “race” as a social category, differently understood in different contexts. I know the science behind pigmentation, the evolution of our species and how it shaped our outward appearance. Also, at a certain level I just don’t give a damn what someone’s racial background is though I am always fascinated by their cultural background – a key difference.  Still, our appearance does play a role in how we are perceived by others.  Attractiveness, height, hair color and ethnicity are all often easily identifiable visual markers that can sway us as we make snap judgments and seek to socially assign people to different groups and categories based on our own cultural assumptions.  To this end race is still a factor that shapes our interactions and our lives.  Not just between Black and White, but White and Asian, Indian and Black, etc.  Where it becomes especially interesting from a sociological and travel perspective is when we have members of a majority group in one region re-locate into a minority position in another. This has happened for friends who have moved from Arizona to Japan, or India, and it definitely occurred for me when visiting Africa.

Hopefully you’ve got friends from a different ethnic background than you and at some point you’ve also had an honest conversation with them about the cultural dynamics of your local community. While these conversations may discuss more visible issues like racism they can also cover other topics like differences in familial or cultural expectations,  regional cultural norms, etc.  Personally, I’ve always found these conversations informative and enlightening. Given that the majority of my travel has been confined to North America, Europe, Central America and South America this trip to Africa was my first opportunity to really dive head-long into being an easily identified/absolute minority somewhere. Frankly that made it a pretty scary.  Especially in light of the stories I’ve heard from other travelers, volunteers and expats.  After all, for all the racial issues the United States has between whites and blacks, Zambia has many similar challenges…only in reverse.  I had heard from friends that I’d be targeted by beggars and for bribes from corrupt officials alike, that there would be an added assumption that because I was white I’d have money, and that there were some legitimate safety concerns that I’d need to take into account strictly because of my skin color.

Beyond that though, and perhaps even more disturbing on a personal level, was the realization that while I did not hold a racial bias I did draw a cultural distinction which fell generally along racial lines. Phrased slightly differently, while I didn’t have a racial bias against minorities in situations where I was a member of the majority, the thought of being a minority among what still registered internally as a very different racial majority made me somewhat uncomfortable. I think this can be traced in large part back to an inherent racial bias which is still ingrained in American culture with ties back to segregation and the slave era. This semi-emotional response flew in the face of what I know at a cognitive level – that people are people, cultures are cultures, and that physical differences in skin tone don’t have anything to do with anything of importance.  Yet I found myself annoyed with myself and wondering if I wasn’t just falling victim to that age old pat yourself on the back racism that says, “I’ve got black friends…obviously I can’t be racist”.  The end result was that as I prepared to leave I found myself wondering just how many of the racial myths and biases that I thought I had overcome, I had…well….never completely internalized?

Faces of Zambia

What Zambia and Botswana Taught Me

Fast forward a week into my visit.  I found myself in a tiny village in the north western part of northern Zambia sitting on the stoop of my brother’s hut.  My parents and I were very likely the third, fourth, and fifth white people many of the local village kids had ever seen.  My brother and another nearby Peace Corps volunteer being the other two. We were unusual. We were different. We were a curiosity and we were definitely a minority. The kids would stand for as long as an hour at the end of the path to my brother’s hut just watching us as we went about our daily business. It was an odd experience and hence forth I’ll forever have an added bit of sympathy for celebrities facing off with the paparazzi.  Later, when joining his counterparts for a meal or conversation the local kids would pause their football games to stand nervously watching us.  Eventually, if we approached them they’d shyly introduce themselves unsure just what to make of us.  With the older kids and adults the invisible wall was different, more thickly disguised, but still present.

Now that I’ve returned to Denmark and had the time to digest my experience, I’ve come to realize that one of the best parts of the trip was the time I spent as an absolute minority. Not because I liked it, or I particularly cared for the differences in how I was treated, but rather because it gave me the opportunity to truly be immersed and exposed to almost entirely black communities. As I reflect on my relationships with friends many of whom are a mixture of both blacks and African Americans, I’ve come to realize that my relationships with these individuals are wonderful relationships but have done little to break down my own personal version of the African school children’s exotic uncertainty.  Until Africa I had never had the chance to be truly immersed in a fully functional black community that showcased individuals of all trades, social classes, and ages.  My interactions before the trip had largely fallen within the extreme’s: Most of them were either with blacks who were well educated, motivated, driven individuals like myself, and who were usually around my age or regrettable interactions with individuals who had a penchant for relying upon their physicality to get what they wanted, not base levels of education or personal drive.

That type of contrast makes it almost impossible to truly understand and relate to a group – no matter what type of group it is.  It also polarizes the nature of our interactions.  It is interesting then and to our own detriment that we often pretend that this isn’t the case.  Which isn’t to assume that everyone reading this is a white American from a heavily Caucasian community – I know you all are not. But, hopefully you’ll be able to draw parallels with your own experiences and communities.

What I found so powerful about my time in Zambia and Botswana was that it allowed me to truly immerse myself in a way that was lethal to those stereotypes.  It exposed me to wonderful people of all ages, professions, backgrounds, and ideologies in a way that fully rounded out my previously limited experiences with black people.  The sheer contrast was a key part of this experience, and helped differentiate it from my time spent in Belize which while populated by a large black population lacked the extreme contrast and immersion that made my time in Zambia so meaningful. I’m not sure if this was because I spent more time confined to the tourist trail, general expectations, a combination of the two, or some other factor but it does seem to have been a drastically different experience.  So, while I don’t think that I entered Africa with a pronounced case of, as Twain put it, “prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness” I know that by the time I left Africa what ghosts of these traits I may have still possessed had been brought out into the open and largely banished. It simultaneously opened up a new area of exploration – one that focuses on Euro-American-African relations, history, and the issues of race and culture that go with it.

My goal in sharing these musings and observations with you is to help encourage you to be honest with yourself, to be honest about your motivations, about your preconceptions and what they mean for you as you go to organize and plan a potential trip.  Keep in mind that while these experiences and realizations reflect my personal insights as I explored Zambia you may find similar ones as you venture into different cultural regions.  It is also worth noting that in many ways the essence of these same realizations may hold true in reverse for Zambians making their first trip to the United States or Europe.  Regardless, I hope you’ll embrace the challenge, welcome it, and push yourself to connect with the local people.  To reach out to them.  To understand them. To learn from them and eventually to allow whatever deeply buried prejudice, bigotry, or well intentioned ignorance you may harbor to be burned away by the experience.

My time in Africa not only offered rich experiences and improved my internal person, but it left me better prepared to be a better brother to my fellow human.

Have you had a similar experience?  I hope you’ll consider sharing it in a comment below.


Moving to Study and Live Abroad: Why I Chose Europe for My Masters Degree

The Old Harbor - Copenhagen, Denmark

If everything goes according to plan with my Visa and class registration I’ll be starting my two year Masters in Communication and Cognition at the University of Copenhagen in just under a Month.  Eager to get settled and begin the culture shock process I jumped the Atlantic and came over a bit early. So far I’ve got two weeks as a Danish resident under my belt and am starting to get my bearings.

While worlds apart I’ve found that the Danes and Arizonans have at least one thing in common.  When I tell them I’ve chosen to re-locate to Copenhagen I always get a quizzical look and the question, “Why Denmark?”.  Most follow the question up with “Why the University of Copenhagen?”, especially when they find out I passed up on an invitation from Georgetown in Washington D.C. to attend.

A lot of factors went into my decision making process and I’ll try and share some of them with you in this post in the hope that they help those of you facing similar decisions and perhaps offer insights into the process for everyone else.

The Application Process

In applying for Graduate programs I knew I didn’t need to return to Grad School. I had a good job, a great resume, decent job security, and a network that allowed me the luxury of turning down several jobs over the course of the recession. Simply put, I missed the academic environment and felt that there was significant potential to improve my social circle, resume, and future prospects with a return to academia.  Especially one that would allow me to work on my existing passions and projects while getting extra credit for them.  I studied lazily for a week for the GRE, took it and operated on the assumption that my resume and body of work would be far more valuable than test scores.  I also knew that the difference between a PhD and a Masters was significant, both in cost and weight so I decided to split my energy between the two.

To select the Schools I’d apply for I made a list of schools that I felt had a very respectable reputation and then pulled up several University lists and rankings.  With these lists in hand I made my way through them making note of the Universities which were in a location I’d be willing to move to and which ranked in the top 50-75 world wide. From there I researched the University’s list of programs and looked for schools with a Communication oriented program or something that would allow me to study social media, virtual worlds, and online education. It is important to note that the one consideration I didn’t take into account was my chances of getting accepted.  I didn’t need to go back, and so as a result the $75 application fee and $15 transcript fee was a small cost to pay for an application and the chance to explore my curiosity.

I was surprised that several of the schools I was most interested in (Harvard, Cambridge) didn’t have any programs remotely connected to the area I wanted to study.  On the opposite end of the spectrum others (Columbia, Edinburgh) had programs focused in my area, but which were taught exclusively online.  Something I wasn’t interested in despite that being one of my central areas of research. I wanted to improve online courses, not struggle through existing ones.

I also felt that it was important that I not fight the language barrier any more than I had to. So, I focused on researching Universities that had English based programs or were based in English speaking countries.  I was surprised at just how many Universities world wide offer courses and programs in English. They’re out there, the trick is finding them.

After doing my research (which took much longer than I expected), I ended up with a list of 8 Universities.  Of those I found 4 PhD programs and 4 Masters programs to apply to. I targeted faculty in the programs I was interested in and sent out a barrage of e-mails asking questions and introducing myself.

Though unorthodox I felt it was worth the effort to apply directly to a few PhD programs as they offered better financial support and would have provided an accelerated program.  Of the 8 Schools I applied to the 4 PhDs were Stanford, Cornell, University of Pennsylvania and University of Washington. The 4 Masters I applied to were Georgetown, University of Copenhagen, Oxford, and a joint program between University of Southern California and the London School of Economics.  Key elements in my application were strong statements of purpose and letters of recommendation, my undergraduate participation in Arizona State’s Barrett, The Honors College w/ Honors Thesis, my professional research and expertise, and my GRE scores which were mediocre with a 530 Math, 590 Verbal and a 5 on the Essay portion.

To make things more challenging I later learned that I had applied during one of, if not the hardest application cycles in the last 50 years.  Ultimately, I received compelling invitations from Georgetown and University of Copenhagen.  Both offered cities and experiences completely different from Arizona, storied histories, and excellent reputations.  However, where Georgetown was only able to offer student loans and $30,000 a year in tuition fees University of Copenhagen offered a complete tuition waiver.  After additional research I also learned that Copenhagen ranked 40th/45th on the lists of Global Universities which was significantly higher than Georgetown. Additionally, the University is a member of the International Alliance of Research Universities which consists of 10 of the world’s leading academic institutions: Cambridge, Oxford, Yale, Australian National University, Berkley, Peking University, National University of Singapore, University of Tokyo, ETH Zurich.

This is when it became real. I wasn’t just enjoying fanciful dreams of applying at the major universities around the world. I was faced with a very compelling opportunity to actually live those dreams and see them brought to reality.  Frankly, it was absolutely terrifying.  That may shock some of you, as a veteran traveler and repeat solo traveler, but the prospect of a trip is vastly different than the prospect of 2 years in a foreign education system, in a alien country. Even the age of the University was mind boggling. University of Copenhagen was founded in 1479 – keep in mind that Columbus didn’t even sail until 1492.

I wasn’t sure if I had the balls to do it. Then I thought through how much I regretted never spending a semester or year abroad during my undergrad, about how incredible the opportunity laid out before me was, and how fear aside it was something I truly wanted to do.  I fired off my letter of acceptance and began researching just what exactly I had signed up for.

The Role of Location and Culture

I moved to Arizona from Colorado when I was six.  I spent the next 18 years of my life in various parts of the state where I lived in Sedona, Prescott, Tempe and Scottsdale.  During that time I spent an additional two years on the road. The first was in place of 5th grade and was a year spent home schooled and backpacking with my parents through Europe. The second was in place of 7th grade and a year spent RVing and home schooled through the US.

The one thing all that time in Arizona taught me was that Arizona and I aren’t kindred spirits. The state has some incredible people, world class natural beauty and a bucket of potential. Unfortunately, it is also dominated by a world view and behavioral culture which is 180 degrees from me.  The state as a whole is anti-education, anti-intellectualism, anti-entrepreneurship, anti-humanism, anti-multiculturalism and the embodiment of what happens when you have 30 years of the GOP party line in action.  As someone who takes a strong humanistic approach to life, values education, curiosity and intellectual pursuits, isn’t religious, values science and history, has a global world view, relishes different cultures and fiscal responsibility Arizona left me miserable.  Outside of my group of friends I found myself surrounded by people who actively embraced and relished in waging war on everything I view as important and essential for progress, sound governance, and a healthy population.

Similarly, Arizona has absolutely zero long-term plan for economic development.  The State has been bleeding all of their top talent for years due to dreadful policies and their short sighted approach to business and education.  The job prospects and opportunities for people 25-45 in the state are nearly non-existent beyond the basic service industries or a job with Intel, and the chances of that changing any time soon in the current environment are non-existent.

So, when it came time to relocate for my Masters I knew I wanted a destination that would provide a community and culture that valued long-term thinking, that took a humanistic approach to life, which had significant potential for professional development and networking, as well as an area that put heavy emphasis on cultural and educational development.

With these criteria in mind the Scandinavian countries immediately jumped to the top of the list.  You’ve probably heard that Denmark (and Scandinavia at large) are some of the happiest countries in the world.  That’s with good reason.  They’ve spent the last 30 years investing heavily in education, infrastructure, health care and innovation while embracing a  humanistic approach to governance and policy.  To a person they are some of the best educated, friendly, helpful and least religious people in the world.

During my 18 day trip to Scandinavia in July of 2010 I was absolutely floored by how helpful, friendly, and genuine the Norwegians and Danes I met were.  Their willingness to have a conversation, answer questions, and to look out for each other was refreshing.  As was the ease I found when seeking out stimulating conversations that were based in well educated, global perspective and insight.  In the three days I spent in Copenhagen during that trip I fell in love with the city and developed an incredible respect for the Danish people.  That feeling and experience has only been magnified over the past two weeks as I’ve gotten settled and worked to navigate the city.

The city itself is a perfect reflection of its people.  With beautiful ancient architecture the city is clean, well laid out, has a great public transportation system, is lined with canals that nearly rival Amsterdam, and is one of the greatest biking cities I’ve ever experienced.  Some 36% of the population commutes to work by bicycle every day. Despite being an ancient city, efforts have been taken to clean up the harbor and river system and the water in the inner harbor is so clean it is safe for swimming.  The coast is decorated by massive wind turbines, and the general feeling is one of an ancient city that is retaining its spirit and essence while charging into the future.

A Global Network

Ultimately one of the biggest resources in life is your social and professional network. It is what drives a successful career, business venture, and makes for a rich and informative personal network.  I developed an incredible network of friends, peers, and professional contacts during my time in Arizona many of whom have since re-located further diversifying the information they can share and the insights they are able to offer.  But, I knew that to truly live the life I want to live I need a network of friends and professional contacts who are truly global and as diverse as the places they were born, educated and raised.  I knew that that by relocating either abroad or to one of the coasts that I’d be exposed to a completely different mixture of people to share, collaborate, relax, learn from and explore with.

The opportunity to live, study, and socialize abroad offers me an chance to develop an entirely new network from the ground up, while maintaining the existing networks I cherish. It provides me the opportunity to radically re-structure the aspects of society I engage with regularly, as well as the cultures, nationalities, and professional backgrounds of my peer group all in a way which wouldn’t have been possible if I stayed in the same region and the same communities I’ve spent the last 20 years in.

So, Why Denmark?

Obviously, there isn’t a simple answer.  We’ll see how I feel about the decision as I start my classes and start to integrate into the local culture and truly see it as a local instead of just a visitor.  That said, it’s amazing to be surrounded by wonderful people who truly seem to understand the importance of charting a path forward, of looking toward the horizon and of embracing new information and relishing it, not trying to quash or discredit it.  I’ll tell you one thing, it sure is nice being surrounded by people who don’t live their lives believing the earth is 6,000 years old and that corporations will always have their best interests at heart.

I’ll be continuing to write on the experiences, revelations, and lessons learned during this adventure so stay tuned. Also, if you’ve got a question you’ve always wondered about or a challenge in your own process don’t hesitate to reach out.

Interested in doing more research? Consider browsing Amazon’s assorted titles on Denmark or Study Abroad.