By Tsholo Tlhoaele
In the final instalment of Tsholo’s East African travel diary, she shares her personal reflections on the lessons that have shaped her since. These include learning to trust yourself, taking risks, seeing that the world is not a binary of black and white and, perhaps most importantly, learning that you are indeed an interesting person whose story is worthy of sharing.
‘Africa for an African’. That was the self-given theme of my trip. It is so much to absorb, the thought that you have just travelled over several thousand kilometers to places you never even thought about. It’s always other people who get to travel and come back with interesting stories. But this time – for once, I was the other person.
Here are a few things that I learnt from my trip:
1. Taking a risk and trusting yourself:
Starting off my journey with someone asking me exactly why I am travelling – I was honestly surprised by the thought that some people may not actually have the desire to travel. Travelling can be the most glamorous experience and also the least fancy, especially when driving through some parts of the continent. But this is it – this is why you want to do it. The fact that it’s different from your usual – hop on one plane to the next – kind of experience, where everyone is rehearsed and anticipating your arrival, and, of course, your money.
You shouldn’t do it just to say you did. I would strongly advice that you do an emotionally and mentally taxing travel trip such as this one, when you are of a mature enough age to really understand yourself better and make conscious meaning of your experiences, surroundings and choices. Many of my natural dispositions had been stripped by the time I arrived in the third country – Malawi. For some time, I was questioning exactly who I am and what I stand for. Even more often, I kept asking myself why I did this without reaching any distinct explanation. Travelling pulls you towards yourself. You are forced to learn what your limits are, understand exactly what it is you stand for and make meaning of who you think you are.
Even though I knew that this was what I had wanted to do and that I was going to do it for the longest time, I kept wondering if I really wanted to do it. The lesson here was to take risks but even more than that – to trust myself. I knew that I wanted to do it, in the end didn’t see any other reason why I shouldn’t and I only reached that point by trusting myself.
2. Black, white AND grey!
It’s so easy to think that your way is the only way of understanding and doing things. A culture shock is the best thing that could happen to you. Just seeing how different people run their lives and understand the world can really help you be open minded to accepting people’s differences. I remember, prior to this trip, I was very set in my ways and mostly saw the world as either black or white. This meant that anything that I didn’t understand or couldn’t associate with I completely wrote off. Now when you are most vulnerable in another world and environment, you trend to loosen your guard just a little bit more. It’s not because you aren’t strong willed or anything like that, but it’s because you realise that your way is not the only way. For a lot of people, this comes as the biggest shock with travelling. This experience of feeling that everything that you have learnt and that you know may not be the only narrative, can really weigh you down. For an African women like myself, coming to terms with the differences of the meaning of beauty and gender roles across Africa can be challenging. But being open minded while travelling can really strengthen your experience. You are more inclined to want to learn and try out different things. This gives you a chance to have a fuller and honest experience for the game. This is a skill that will help you through life’s unfair punishments when you return home.
3. Common differences: We are the same in a different way
When you meet more people and engage and learn about different cultures, you realize that there actually isn’t that much of a difference between us. The colour, race, ethnicity, status and fortunes are constructed differences that we have to define and separate our identities, but the more people you meet from completely different walks of life with a different narrative, the more you see yourself in each of their stories. This taught me empathy and sensitivity. I learnt the importance of listening to peoples stories and understanding their struggles, respecting them and consciously accepting them for who they are.
4. Seriously, don’t take yourself so seriously!
When you are in a place where no one knows you you have nothing to lose. No reason to want to be liked, remembered or even noticed. Let go of all your walls, pretences, impressions and expectations. Let go of your past, your expectations, your anticipations or even your imaginations. It’s the most refreshing feeling being yourself in the most honest way, where you don’t have to think about showing a particular side of yourself. I know that my conversations with the people that I met wouldn’t be the same had I tried to make an effort to sound smart or educated. Here, I had an opportunity to be as dumb and ill-informed as I wanted without risking my reputation or harsh judgment. I could just be. There were many parts of the trip where I felt like everything that I had studied and read about these African countries was a myth. It was like reading a book and then watching a poorly depicted movie about it. Nothing can compare to what is real. I had to put myself in a position of doubt and uncertainty of everything that I had known and really embrace a different way of thinking and seeing. The peak of my trip arrived when I eventually let go of everything I thought was or could have been and just let the experience happen to me without trying to have control over anything.
5. I am actually a really interesting person!
I don’t mean this in a vain manner but the premature 22 odd years that I had lived never seemed to be anything amazing to me. I mean, I had done everything by the book so what could possibly be of interest with the predictable life I have lived? That’s the thing – everything that has happened in my life and around it has shaped everything about me and why should that be any less important or significant than anyone else who has done things differently to me. When you travel and meet people, you need to own your story. It being different is enough to carry you through conversations. As much as you want to hear other people’s stories, you need to share your own story too. My honest conversations added value to the way I see myself in comparison to others and how I make meaning of everything that has happened to me.
Nothing prepared me for this trip – and even more, nothing warned me about what would happen to me after it. The overarching experience was so refreshing, I often wondered why I didn’t do this earlier. Like Alanis Morissette says, “it’s the ten housand spoons, when all you need is a knife”. Travelling through certain parts of the continent is not the easiest thing to do, but there has been so much more about it that can strengthen you, and that has truly transformed me with lessons I still make use of years later.