Editor’s Note: President Obama made his first visit to Sub Saharan Africa as President this past weekend. He and his family visited Ghana where the president gave a wide-ranging address to the parliament of Ghana, a western African nation seen as a model of democracy and growth for the rest of the continent. Obama’s visit prompted AC360° contributor Chris Guillebeau, to reflect on his four years working in the region.
West Africa is the kind of place that is largely unknown to most people who haven't made a deliberate effort to study it. Travel writers struggle to describe the region without the clichéd contrasts: hope, despair, joy, sorrow. That's what you get when you combine a poverty-stricken area with some of the world’s happiest people.
Many people ask how they can get started in international development work. My answer: carry boxes.
Depressed after 9/11, I surfed the internet looking for volunteer jobs as far away from America as possible. I found one in a medical charity that needed a warehouse manager, which turned out to be a euphemism for box-carrier. Technically I managed a slew of donated goods for refugee camps and nurses, but mostly I shuffled boxes back and forth in a Land Rover every day.
No matter. It was the best job ever. I went to West Africa in 2002 with a two-year volunteer commitment. Before the end of the first year, I ended up running more than the warehouse. The organization needed a Programs Director to oversee the field work and coordinate relationships with host governments throughout the region. “Pick me,” I said, and for some reason they did.
All told, I spent four years in West Africa, beginning in Sierra Leone and ending in Ghana. I worked with presidents and warlords – who sometimes turned out to be the same people. I encountered all the clichéd contrasts writers are supposed to avoid, and struggled to avoid using them myself. Mostly, I encountered remarkable people in extremely difficult circumstances.
Here are a few of the lessons I learned from my time in the region:
Corruption is the greatest factor that holds Africa back. I saw it over and over, from embassy officials who put my $100 visa fees – always paid in cash – directly in their back pocket, to cabinet ministers who billed the central government for tens of thousands of non-existent expenses on a routine basis. Corruption is why most foreign aid never reaches the people it's intended to help, and why most African countries continue to be poor four decades after the end of colonialism.
For extreme travel training, head to West Africa. If you can successfully travel within that difficult region, you can travel anywhere. In my quest to visit every country in the world, I've been to more than 100 countries so far – but few adventures have been as challenging as hopping between Guinea and Togo, or the overland border crossing between Benin and Nigeria.
When confronted with hardship, gratitude is the best response. I travel a lot these days, and sometimes things go wrong. When I leave my iPod in the back of a Peruvian taxi (last week) or nearly get deported from Saudi Arabia (this week), I try to think back to the challenges faced by people who live on less than $1 a day. It's all a matter of perspective - something I acquired many times over during those years in West Africa.
The best time to leave the best job in the world is right before you get tired of it. In my final year overseas, I found my attention drifting to other things. I also noticed that some of my colleagues who remained in post-conflict settings more than a few years became bitter about international development or Africa in general. I don't blame them – the work can be draining, with little external reward – but I didn't want that to happen to me. I was ready to move on.
Except for one thing – part of me will never move on. The funny thing about transformation is that it usually involves permanent change. When you freely give of yourself and allow your world to be turned upside down for a while, you usually come out of the experience a much wiser and humble person.
Try it sometime. Feel free to start by carrying boxes.
Editor’s Note: Chris Guillebeau is a writer, entrepreneur, and world traveler with the goal of visiting every country in the world (111 down, 86 to go). When not traveling, he lives in Portland, Oregon and publishes the Art of Nonconformity blog at ChrisGuillebeau.com. Follow Chris on Twitter @chrisguillebeau.
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