A Million Different Realities.

SMC was created to be a space where readers can explore questions of meaning, purpose, and close-to-the ground, practical spirituality. I am excited this week, just like last week, to welcome someone from my own children’s generation to offer a reflection. Mattie Gottbrath started off as a college roommate with my daughter, Annalise. She is now an extended member of my family! Over the years, I’ve watched Mattie give her time, treasure, intelligence, and effort to volunteer and philanthropic efforts. She currently works within the Gates foundation in Seattle, WA.

After one missed connecting flight and some determined negotiating with the airline in the Amsterdam airport, my two coworkers and I finally arrived at our hotel in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania at 3:30AM. It had been over 30 hours since we had left our own homes in Seattle. Thankfully, the adrenaline and curiosity kept the jetlag and exhaustion at bay throughout my trip. It was my first journey to Africa, and I was attending a three-day conference hosted by the non-profit, Women Lift Health, which offers career development programs for women in the health sector worldwide. I spent my days at the conference listening to panels on topics such as youth leadership in reproductive health and the vulnerabilities of frontline healthcare workers, as well as participating in workshops on inclusive and authentic leadership. 

Prior to the conference, I had interacted via email with female scientists who my team works with around the world. I had known theoretically that even in Africa and Asia, there were plenty of brilliant and powerful women working as researchers in labs, doctors in hospitals, and community health workers on the ground traveling from home to home to check-in on patients. But meeting such women in-person impacted me much more deeply than any other virtual encounter could. I was able to hear them speak on panels, meet their personalities, laugh at their humor, and feel my heart race with excitement when they spoke of their inspiring realities. It was the kind of mind- and heart-opening that occurs only when the reality of another collides with my own.

I was immensely grateful that I began my time in Africa meeting such incredible women, before I experienced anything else. It is very easy for those who live in high-income countries to go to communities that are financially poorer, and only focus on what there is not, and be blind to all that such communities have to offer the world (and I’m not talking about natural resources and other commodities that capitalism exploits). I had the privilege of witnessing the power and voice of Africa before witnessing the challenges, which allowed me to ground myself in hope even when I later learned of the heartbreaking history of the land. 

After the conference was over, I took a quick flight to the island of Zanzibar for a quick two-day personal trip. Other coworkers were also going to Zanzibar to relax on one of the paradise beaches. Although I appreciate the need to detox and truly “vacation,” I wanted to use my first trip to Africa as an opportunity to learn about the history and the land. 

On my second day on the island, I headed to the The East African Slave Trade Exhibit, which is located at the site of the former slave market. I walked through two of the 75 dungeons where slaves were kept before sale, the Anglican cathedral that was built after the slave trade was abolished, and two rooms recounting the history of the slave trade. In my schooling, I was taught the general narrative of the Transatlantic Slave Trade between West Africa, North and South America, and Europe: white people enslaving Africans, robbing them of their culture and freedom, and often converting them to Christianity while they were at it. What the exhibit taught me, that was absent from my schooling (so far as I can remember), was the prevalence of Black and brown people doing exactly the same thing in East Africa: certain African tribes enslaving other tribes, Arab slave traders amassing wealth, and often converting slaves to Islam while they were at it. It turns out greed for money and power is not exclusive to one race, one religion, or one nation: it is, unfortunately, a human condition that we must learn to address.

Just as personally meeting all the woman at the conference had made a deeper impact on me than emailing with them from across the world, learning the history of the slave trade while standing on the very grounds of one of Eastern Africa’s largest slave markets, dug deep into my humanity and surfaced so many visceral emotions and questions that will remain in a way that the material of history books never has. Despite all that I learned, and all of the realities that collided with my own, my key takeaway from my time in Africa was simply how much I do not know, just how much I will never know. There will always be millions more realities left to discover and attempt to understand.

Questions for reflection:

Can you think of a time when you experienced the reality of another person or community that was different from your reality? How did you do it? What was the impact on your life?

How can you commit to opening your mind and heart to another reality today, no matter where you are in the world? 

When you have the chance to travel, do you make an effort to learn about the land, the people, and the history before enjoying the beauty? Do you admire what the people and the land have to offer, in addition to mourning what they might lack?

Has there been a time when you had a first-hand experience that taught you more than you learned in books, classes, and videos? What impact did it have on your life?

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