Honest Advice for Your Semester Abroad in Africa

You see, not only have I personally spent a semester in Africa, but I also refuse to deceive myself or others about the nature of that experience. I went to Cameroon seeking adventure and a reprieve from the banal hedonism that had defined my college experience in the spring of my junior year. Also, I didn’t have enough French credits to go to Paris. During my program orientation (held in a small African village where we were instructed to always wear shoes lest parasitic insects lay eggs in the soles of our feet) we were told that while many students are nervous during their first few weeks in Africa, all of the several hundred students who previously participated in the program ultimately reported a highly positive experience. Not me. When my harrowing, disagreeable, grisly African sojourn reached it’s (sic) sweet, sweet conclusion, I felt so positively celebratory about finally leaving that the airline stewardess had to cut me off before we even hit the Atlantic.

How could it be that my experience was so radically different? I submit that some of these students were being dishonest. Not that they were willfully giving others an account they knew to be untrue; but rather that the social pressure to appreciate African study abroad is so strong that they were unable to realize how unmitigatedly horrific they found the experience.

An excerpt from a longer piece in Vice magazine titled “An Honest Man’s Advice for Studying Abroad in Africa,” and which captures a sentiment I believe is more pervasive than most people who have spent a semester in Africa care to admit.

The Vice piece hits close to my view of the American college experience, where life is treated as a buffet from which one should sample as much as possible, and in portion sizes of six weeks if possible. Six weeks asking people how they feel about HIV/AIDS in Botswana, six weeks teaching disadvantaged kids in Texas, six weeks working in investment banking, and so on. The dilettante approach.

Whatever happened to finding one thing that you like, and doing that one thing well? When I was in college, my one thing was the student newspaper. I started as a reporter, only to become “Campus” desk editor, then editor, which left no time for anything else (no, not even classes, most of the time). I must be getting old.

HT: Nathan Paxton, via Facebook.

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  1. Alanna

    When I was in Uzbekistan, rural Uzbeks were mystified by Peace Corps Volunteers. They didn’t live in Uzbek villages by choice. Given their druthers they’d all have moved to Moscow. So why would an American be living there on purpose?

    I think it’s pretty normal to discover you prefer a comfortable life to poverty and poor infrastructure. Isn’t that the whole point of development?

  2. GP

    I imagine most students do a lot of things without necessarily understanding why or how they are useful. As you suggest, a checklist approach: to fill out my CV, I must check off as many as possible from a list of whatever right now is “good”. This does not mean students don’t mean well.

    Growing up in Central Africa because my parents worked for the Canadian international development agency (CIDA), it seemed to me straightforward that we were trying to help by offering expertise in areas where it was under-supplied. Did it help? I don’t know.

    I can honestly say that although the people were kind and wonderful, and I made many friends, every day was painful — usually literally. And we were living very comfortably compared with the vast majority of people.