By Carpe Diem Education Alumni Breezy Zins
On my first night back in America after a three-month-long journey through East Africa, I opened up my closet doors, looked at all the clothes I had – so many they all wouldn’t fit on hangers and had to be folded on shelves – and I cried.
I’d seen such incredible poverty it seemed so unfair, so confusing, to have so many beautiful things hanging in my closet when just one day prior I had been living in a developing country. Within two hours, I had filled three trash bags with clothes ready to be given away or donated.
I hadn’t expected to react in such a way. My gap year group leaders had, of course, tried to prepare me and my group for the reverse culture shock that can sometimes affect travelers. I’ve always been able to adapt to new surroundings and situations easily, however, and hadn’t paid much attention.
I hadn’t realized just how much my time in East Africa had impacted me.
My first night home brought back three months of images of hardship and poverty: children wearing their fathers’ dirtied shirts – still much too big for their tiny bodies – as dresses, my own Tanzanian host family and the two – two outfits each family member owned, rotated every three or four days.
When you travel abroad, you’re told that you’ll never see the world in quite the same way again.
I heard it countless times as I prepared for my Carpe Diem gap semester but was never able to figure out exactly what would change. As I traveled through Uganda, then Rwanda, and, finally, Tanzania, I was unaware of the changes happening within me. I wasn’t cognizant of the subtle ways the things I was experiencing were impacting not only how I thought about myself, but about the world as a whole.
It wasn’t until I was home, back in a culture so, so different from the cultures that surrounded me in Africa, that I was able to realize just how powerful my Carpe Diem gap year had been.
There were the small things I learned, like how to make enough chapati for fourteen-plus people on a single burner. (It involves a lot of oil, a lot of patience, and a lot of dedication – the waking up four hours before breakfast kind of dedication.)
I learned how to take a bucket shower, how to plant trees (and ignore the spiders crawling across the grass towards me), how to tie a kitenge (still not mastered), and how to scuba dive (dramamine is a beautiful thing.) These things are important, if only because they are small pieces of what make me me, and they are what I expected to learn during my gap year.
What I didn’t expect to learn, however, were the deeper, less obvious lessons. The ones that led to me crying over a closet full of clothes.
These lessons were the culmination of three months of cultural immersion; there was not any single incident that led me to them, and they happened so subtly I didn’t even notice learning them until my semester was over. Still, it is impossible to deny that I did learn them.
They are what makes me so grateful for my possessions and so aware of the difference between “want” and “need.”
They are why I now refuse to spend more than $25 on any single item of clothing, why I make sure to learn both sides of every story, why I continue to remind people that Africa is a continent rather than a country, and why that distinction really does matter. They are why I corrected a friend when she claimed a trip to South Africa would give her Ebola, why I care about Europe’s treatment of the African refugees sailing into its waters, and why I am so passionate about access to education for all.
Without my Carpe Diem experience, I never would have learned these lessons.
They cannot be taught in a classroom; no matter how many pictures of poverty I was shown, I never would have understood it without witnessing it for myself. In three months I learned more about the world and my place within it than many people ever have the opportunity to do. I was able to experience a new culture, fall in love with it, and realize that I want to spend my life connected to it, that my life is forever connected to it.
A year and a half after my gap year with Carpe Diem I’m entering my junior year of college. I am working with two friends from school on a documentary about HIV/ AIDs in rural Zambia and I have plans to enter the Peace Corps and work in East Africa as soon as I graduate.
In many ways, I am the person I am today because of my time with Carpe Diem. The experiences and lessons I learned while abroad have shaped me into a more empathetic, more culturally sensitive and understanding person. I may not have understood the amazing impact my gap year semester would have on me while I was still abroad, but I have no doubt of its power today. I will never forget – and cherish- the things I learned while in East Africa, nor would I ever want to.
Breezy Zins traveled to East Africa with Carpe Diem Education on her gap year in the Spring of 2014. She is currently a creative writing student at Emerson College in Boston. She enjoys kayaking through the Delaware Water Gap, singing (loudly) in the car, laughing at terrible puns, and telling people that “Slaughter House Five” changed her life, man. She works for Jumpstart and thinks you should, too. It’s a wonderful organization. If you have questions, comments, or bad jokes (especially bad jokes), email her at firstname.lastname@example.org<mailto:email@example.com>