I thought about packing today. I really did. I was just giving a presentation to some high school students about my experiences in South Africa and got so pumped up about traveling in Africa again that I decided “Today is the day, Mikaela! Today, you will pack!” And then I made a cup of coffee and decided to blog instead. With only 19 days to go, I’m a chronic procrastinator. How do you fit everything you need for two years into two bags that weigh under 100 pounds? It’s hitting me that I’m moving to Africa.
In May 2015 I sat on my bed in Moorpark, California (where I was farming at the time) and finished what was my second PeaceCorps application. I had initially applied in 2014 while I was still at Middlebury College. After graduating, I moved to the Dominican Republic to serve with the Mariposa Foundation. My contract was from September-June. The PeaceCorps had asked me to serve in the health sector in Mozambique in April 2015, but because of my commitment to Mariposa (which ended up falling through unfortunately) I said no. So there I was again, filling out more PeaceCorps applications. I wasn’t even sure if I really wanted to do PeaceCorps anymore because I had experienced the volunteer life abroad already, and it was the most challenging experience of my life. After, I was living outside of Los Angeles in a cushy American life. Moving to a remote, dusty village far from home seemed less than ideal. But in my heart, I have known since high school that PeaceCorps is for me. And on July 27th, I was invited to serve as an agriculture volunteer in Tanzania, the perfect placement. It took me less than 24 hours to accept my decision and turn down another job offer in Northern California…I’m moving to Africa.
I love that line. “I’m moving to Africa.” I’ve tested it out in almost every situation imaginable and I love the different reactions I get. Every now and then, I encounter someone who knows their African geography and is able to ask “where?” This makes my heart sing. But the majority of the time, I get a wide-eyed, gaping mouthed stare, followed by a question, which can range from intrigued, to humorous, to downright offensive. This is my favorite part. One of PeaceCorps’ missions is to educate fellow Americans about other cultures. I had no idea my job would start as soon as I accepted my invitation. So in response to all of these questions…here’s what I think about “moving to Africa.”
I first and foremost want to remind everyone that Africa is a continent. In fact, it is the second largest continent in the world! It is extremely diverse. There are thousands of languages, cultures, ethnicities, and religions. Remember the images in your mind that you got when you had to read “The Heart of Darkness” in high school? Throw those out the window! Africa is not one big dark jungle full of savages. It is a continent full of varied climates, including savannah, desert, snow, and yes, most of the countries in Africa have urban landscapes! Cities just like we know them in the US! I know it is hard to redefine your image of “Africa,” but the reality is that most countries are more “modern” and “developed” than the average American expects them to be. Just to show how large Africa actually is…
Yes, it’s huge. So now that we have that covered…
Another common response I get when I say “I’m moving to Africa” is “Don’t get Ebola!” I cringe when I hear this because I know this is a direct response from Western media, who usually only focuses on the bad things that happen in Africa and ignores all of the amazing things that are happening across the continent. The Ebola epidemic occurred in 2014 and was a very serious outbreak; however, this occurred in West Africa, almost 5,000 miles from where I’ll be. In fact, those in Spain are closer to where the outbreak occurred than where I’ll be. I don’t anticipate encountering Ebola while there, or any other deadly diseases, in fact. I am more likely to encounter a typical flu virus or get food poisoning than I am of contracting a deadly disease.
“I’m moving to Africa.” “Oh, will you have to eat dog/chimpanzee/bugs/snake/etc. etc.?!” Probably not. I have never traveled to Tanzania, but I have been in South Africa, Burundi, and Morocco, and I have never had an African friend or host family let me leave their house without enjoying at least some tea or a very delicious meal. In Morocco I enjoyed couscous Fridays with roasted vegetables and chicken, in South Africa I was often treated to braai which featured amazing sausages and chakalaka (my favorite!), and in Burundi I was constantly treated with fresh fruits, fried plantains, delicious chicken, and amazing vegetables, topped off with beer at every meal. I know that I will be living on a volunteer stipend in Tanzania and will not be eating gourmet meals for my two year stay, but I also know that the food will probably be delicious.
“I’m moving to Africa.” “Are you scared of ISIS/Al-Shabab/Terrorists/Getting raped/Crime?” No. I’m not scared. In terms of ISIS, I feel safer going to Tanzania than I would if I was moving to a major American city. Bad things can happen anywhere in the world. Life can be taken from us at any instant. It is fragile. I am following my dream, and would rather know that than stay in the Northeast Kingdom out of fear of all the bad things occurring in the world. As a PeaceCorps volunteer, I know that my safety is a priority. I will work hard to be integrated into my community so that I will be even safer. Life is too short to worry about stuff like that. So what do I worry about? How many lizards I’ll be sharing my house with, what I will do if I get food poisoning and can’t make it to my outdoor pit latrine, if my clothes will be nice enough for the PeaceCorps dress code, whether my host family will like me, if I’ll still remember my Spanish after learning Swahili, if I’ll even pick up Swahili fast enough…the petty stuff. And I know in a couple months I’ll be laughing at these worries, and I’ll have different worries.
So…I’m moving to Africa! A place of sunshine, laughter, and love. I cannot wait. I am a bundle of mixed emotions, but I am certain this will be one of the best experiences of my life. I have never been so mentally or emotionally prepared for something. If only I was actually prepared…which reminds me, I should get packing. Karibu (welcome) to my blog. If you care to learn more about Tanzania, follow along. Asante Sana.
With love, Mzungu Mikaela ❤