An Honest Man's Advice for Studying Abroad in Africa

By Steven T. Gravatt

It’s an interesting inconsistency of liberal American culture that in spite of happily organizing our lives around First World technology and creature comforts, we encourage youths to experience life in the Developing World firsthand. In the olden days there were only two reasons why a white person would ever consider venturing to such gnarly climes: to convert heathens to Christianity or to get rich exploiting local resources. But times have changed. Today, students are encouraged to visit Africa for such ostensibly noble purposes as learning about soil preservation, examining village micro-finance, or to study evolving attitudes towards HIV/AIDS. A semester abroad is not regarded just as a short-term sacrifice in quality of life or a means to allay liberal guilt. It's supposed to be a genuinely pleasurable experience, one that makes the voyager a better person.

When you inform your friend’s mother, splayed on her chaise longue in Santa Monica, that you’ll be embarking for an African country well known to be infested with deadly snakes and diseases where parasitic worms crawl around in your eyeballs, she will beam at you and coo, “That’s going to be a wonderful experience.” I suppose there are many sociopolitical insights that could be drawn by examining the liberal caste’s affection for Third World study, but I’ll put those aside for now. My singular purpose in the following paragraphs is to offer some advice—an honest man’s advice—to those considering a semester studying abroad in Africa.

I believe I am uniquely well credentialed to offer advice on this matter. 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 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. Let me relay a few stories from my days studying in Africa to provide some context.



THE AMERICAN HERO AND THE LARGE COCKROACH.


There’s universal a truism that if you’re afraid of something then you should face that thing head on. Let me share with you a tale about a young man in my program who tried this approach while in Africa—with terrifying results. Among my cohort was a certain handsome, intelligent, charming and socially conscious young man with a budding interest in labor organization. At his homestay he slept every night on a dirty twin mattress on the floor of a little concrete room. The young man had many cockroach roommates who he refused to kill—not because he was merciful but because he was afraid. Having always been a fearless young man, he resolved to rectify this singular fault in his otherwise flawless character. As he lay on his mattress one evening immersed in a tract on African labor unions, he heard the familiar tap dancing sound of a large cockroach crawling up one of the room’s concrete walls. Stirred simultaneously by both terror and a sense of opportunity, the young man grabbed a sneaker and tippy-toed to the wall where this unusually robust, reddish-brown, vestigial-winged cockroach tarried at about human eye level. He swatted the shoe, sole first, at the insect. But the monster, ill disposed to being vanquished, ducked the blow, scurried down the wall, and bolted beneath the mattress. Our hero knew he had to complete his quest to quell his fear. So heart racing, knees buckling, head spinning, he bent to the ground, lifted the mattress, and what did he find? A big snake!



Image via CDC

THE AUTHOR GETS A DISEASE.

Perhaps you’re the type of person who isn’t especially put off by vile insects and deadly snakes. If this is the case, let me try to rattle you with a tale about how I contracted a debilitating sub-tropical disease. Some might claim it wasn’t a debilitating disease but rather a minor, easily treated ailment. Semantics, really. If I were a huckster I’d bet you that you couldn’t guess which gnarly African disease I got. You see there’s so many of them the smart money’s always with the house. Malaria, cholera, the one where the worms crawl around your eyeballs, this other one aptly dubbed River Blindness—and that’s just the tip of the gruesome Sub-Saharan disease iceberg. While I claim to have been afflicted by at least 30 or 40 such diseases during my four-month sojourn in Africa, I was only ever officially diagnosed with one. According to the doctor the official medical name for my ailment was Flesh Eating Amoeba.


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THE AUTHOR IS REBUFFED WHEN HE TRIES TO FIND SOLACE IN THE ARMS OF A WOMAN.

Now some of you are no doubt thinking, “This guy is a shameful coward. I, for one, am not scared off by pestilence and disease. You see I’m the sort of person who prefers adventure and excitement to comfort and safety.” And you may think you’ve got me backed into a corner here; but rest assured, I’m one step ahead of you. Because in addition to being scary and dangerous, studying abroad in Africa is dead boring. I mean a real snooze. I’ll now discuss two sources of this sprit-extinguishing boredom. One is that you’re not allowed to go out at night. When I was in Africa we were informed both by the program director and our homestay families that white people out at night were frequent and easy targets for bandit murderers. So I spent most of my evenings watching network television in French and dodging roaches as they darted about the floor and furniture.

A second reason studying abroad in Africa is no fun is that most or all of the other students in your program will have deeply misguided priorities regarding how best to spend one’s time abroad. As is my habit, I’ll demonstrate this point with a single story while offering no reason the reader should believe me that this instance is generalizable. While in the throes of profound suffering, it occurred to me that a young woman in my group and I might comfort each another by holing up in a hotel room, drinking a mess of booze and then humping. Sadly this plan never came to pass, as the young woman felt her time would be better spent immersing herself in African culture, making friends with African people, and exploring the ethical and practical complexities of the developing world. And rest assured, she was not unique among my fellow travelers in this mixed up sort of thinking.

So here we are at the point we’ve all been waiting for—the point where I finally give my advice. Ready? Here we go. My advice to youngsters considering study abroad in Africa is:

Have you thought about London? I understand it’s lovely in the spring. Or better yet, why not succumb to one of those college-age nervous breakdowns, hardly at all stigmatized these days, and spend a relaxing semester in the bosom of your family? Or, if you feel like being a maverick little prick, you can ignore my wise and generously offered advice and go to Africa. Maybe, if you’re real lucky, you’ll be among the overwhelming majority who find African study abroad hugely rewarding. Or think they do, anyway. 

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