Africa: Whatever You Thought, Think Again

January 1, 2011
I walked into the Marriott hotel in Washington DC, hand in hand with my dad. A pang of nervousness swept through me as I neared the hotel room where my future classmates awaited me. I prepared to step further out of my comfort zone than ever before. The next day, I would board a plane to Southern Africa with 17 strangers. Together, we formed The Traveling School. I separated from my dad, took a deep breath and stepped through the open hotel room door. The other students packed their bags anxiously, ensuring they had not forgotten anything that would be essential to our semester abroad. They paused for a moment to smile at me. I smiled back and introduced myself; my journey begun.
As days in Africa flew by, I grew closer with the girls than I ever thought possible. We began to tell each other everything, and to trust the group with our deepest emotions. I experienced an Africa I didn’t picture before my arrival. We traveled through Southern Africa, where we saw people from various areas, some lived in wealthy areas, while others lived in townships. Townships are areas originally established during Apartheid to separate races. During our first experience in a township, we didn’t know what to expect. We drove down the dusty road with tin houses flying by on either side of us. They were multi-colored with doors made of scrap metal. that looked as if they would fly away at any second. Most of these homes lacked running water and electricity, but the smiles that radiated off of the faces we passed suggested they were happy.
Our van skidded to a halt outside of a small food stand where roasted cows heads dangled, waiting to be sol. Our guide, Toni, told us to step out of the van to walk down the townships crowded roads .The looks on the other girls faces mirrored my thoughts. doubting the safety of the township, but once our teachers began exiting, we concluded it was acceptable. We walked down the dirt path with caution, observing the world surrounding us while stray dogs ran at our heels. The residents of the township stared at our group as we walked by, as if to ask “why are you here?”. As we neared the end of the road a young boy approached us, his black hood drawn over his eyes. His wide smile revealed glowing white teeth as he shouted “Toni, I’ve lost your number!”. When he reached our group, Toni pulled his hood from his face, “what are you hiding from?” he asked. The boy giggled and waved to me and my classmates. “Hello, how are you?” he asked. Toni continued to talk to him for a dew minutes before bidding him farewell. They boy smiled at us one last time and skipped into the distance, swallowed by a cloud of dust. “Great kid, isn’t he? Toni beamed. We smiled in agreement, the boys smile seemed to be contagious. A few moments later Toni stopped again. “He is HIV positive. He also has fetal alcohol syndrome.” The smiles that once radiated off of our faced disappeared. We had all heard of HIV, but had yet to knowingly encounter someone effected. Our guide explained the boys passion for music, and his natural talent. Colleges, however, refuse to grant him any scholarship money due to his health, and without financial aid, he can’t afford to attend.
The experience of meeting someone someone with HIV impacted me significantly. The disease I’ve learned so much about for years now had a face. HIV took away the physical health of the boy, along with his ability to peruse his dreams of college. His smile and positive energy replayed in my head. I envied his optimistic attitude, and wished I could find a way to help him go to school. Unfortunately, he does not stand alone. South Africa has the highest rated of HIV/AIDS in the world, and I met other children that fight the same battle the boy does everyday.
As our trip went on, we continued to become closer to each other. We learned by doing, unlike any school at home. We did service work, including teaching classes, and the manual labor of building. I learned about various education systems in different parts of Africa by talking to local teachers and getting to know students. I witnessed the struggles students face to receive an education. By listening to the stories of people i met, I gained knowledge textbooks can not provide. They told me stories of hardships they have faced personally, and have me their perspective on the politics of their country. I no longer needed to read facts online or in a book about the South African government, I heard various perspectives of people effected by it on a daily basis instead.
Africa left me with cultural experiences and lessons I will carry with me for a lifetime. My peers and teachers challenged my thought process, and provided new perspectives that advances my thinking. i learned what it means to work in a group, and to live in a community. Our motto for our trip proved to be true; Africa, whatever you thought, think again.

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