So How Was It? Explaining a Life-changing Trip

Upon my return to campus this fall, I received all the typical post-study abroad questions, the majority of which were: How was Africa?

My first reaction was that I didn’t actually go to Africa – I went to Tanzania. But finding someone who could identify the Tanzanian coast along the Indian Ocean was evidently a tall order. I chalked this unawareness up to a gross lack of education about African culture and realized that in telling about my study abroad experience, I had a chance to give authentic, first-hand information about east Africa.

But, in spite of this fantastic opportunity to educate and inform, I found myself conflicted as I searched for the words:

How could I condense an entire month of life-changing experiences into mere sentences?

How could I summarize an entire culture, an entire lifestyle, climate and language?

And even then, how could I articulate what I saw and learned in terms to which my peers could connect?

I thought back to the stifling heat, the beautiful and malnourished children we worked with, the joy and frustration of trying to express myself in Swahili, the easy walks to and from my village and the market… I thought of missing home, of getting sick when I was a continent away from my mom, the moments when I felt infinite and the moments when I wished I could melt away into my simple and effortless life in the States.

My friends stood there as I contemplated a tsunami of thought and feeling, lost in nostalgia and reflection as they waited for my stock answer, the one I always gave:

“It was great! I spoke a lot of Swahili and worked with adorable kids. I had so much fun,” I said as they asked me in the middle of the Diag, the first week of school upon us now.

With each false telling, the words left an unsavory and guilty taste in my mouth, the feelings and truths I glossed over burning brighter and brighter in my memory – the things that truly mattered… the ways that my world-view became more holistic and compassionate and selfless and how my life goals were forever altered.

The truth begged to be told, but I had no idea how even to begin. My friends – the ones who fantasize about dating the handsome stranger in chemistry class, and spend weekends tailgating for football games and writing English essays; how could they possibly understand? My friends, the beautiful and sweet people that they are, asked me with all the best intentions: How was Africa?

And in my head, I screamed: I cried for the infants I fed whose mothers had died in labor and the way their malnourished bellies made my stomach sick with guilt and anger, and I wept for the fact that men in traditional cultures still think it’s okay to harass women and that my white skin made me somehow more important than locals because whiteness equates to goodness for so many in this world. I wept, I wept, I wept; but truly, I lived.

And as those words clamored in my head, all that I said was: “It was such a great experience. Tough, but amazing.”

Telling of my trip is hard. There is no way to comprehend it, and, as I attempt to piece it all together 4 months later, I share less and less of my actual experience. For now, I have settled on this: Wherever you go, you will not come back the same as when you left.

— Britt Boyle

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One thought on “So How Was It? Explaining a Life-changing Trip

  1. Britt–thanks for sharing candidly about how hard it can be / is to convey the totality of one’s experiences abroad, perhaps particularly in a culture that’s so different from home. I hope you can continue to reflect on your experiences and find people with whom you can truly share–even if no one else will be able to fully understand because it was your experience. Thanks for sharing this post.

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