The Eastsider Goes to East Africa

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Every year, I fly across the world to various parts of Africa. Africa is more than three times the size of the United States. It is a labyrinth of wonder and the reasons to visit and revisit are countless. Returning to East Africa to care for orphans, enhancing sustainability, assisting with charitable initiatives, and spending time with friends that have become family will always be at the top of my list.

This year marks my fourth year traveling with Anji Degante. Each year she curates a travel experience that introduces travelers to East Africa. This year, my experience has pushed me to a new level of introspection.

Here is a list of five things that traveling through East Africa has taught me:

  1. Remember to check my privilege. The word “privilege” is an interesting term and commonly ascribed to white or white passing folks. Which is why many readers may be surprised by its application to my travel experience. Anyone can have privilege. According to an article I read in The New Yorker by Joshua Rotham, “the idea of “privilege” is that some people benefit from unearned, and largely unacknowledged, advantages, even when those advantages aren’t discriminatory.” During my travels, I was constantly conducting privilege checks. Reminding myself, it’s expensive to fly back and forth, I am an American passport holder, I am proficient in standard English, and all of these privileges that I did not work for positively impact my experience in East Africa. My understanding of this allows me to leverage my privilege to make East Africa and my community East of the River better. We all have privilege. But we are all not willing to use it to be an ally. During this group trip, we collectively donated over 120 lbs of rice, 80 lbs of cooking oil, toys, groceries, hygiene items, and school supplies to an orphanage in Kasarani, Kenya. These donations will radically improve the quality of life of these children.
  2. Be open to new friendships. I met Jamelle Harris, a Ward 8 neighbor and entrepreneurial powerhouse, a few weeks before I was planning to embark for Africa. We met in one of the most unexpected places under the most stressful circumstances. In the midst of surrounding chaos and uncertainty we bonded. We connected over many topics, but our shared love for the continent sealed our friendship. Our friendship is a beautiful reminder to build bridges and friendships at every juncture in life, especially the hard ones. On the day I met Jamelle, I didn’t expect we would be traveling the world together. Over the time span of 16 epic days, we explored 15 cities and 3 counties. We have unschooled ourselves of untrue information about East Africa and developed a tool kit that we will use to make ourselves and communities in Ward 7 and 8 better.
  3. Rest is an act of rebellion. Freedom of transportation, access to fresh produce and grocery stores, reduction in gun violence, and environmental justice issues have been points of contention raised by community advocates and myself. Intentionally finding moments to rest in an ecosystem that seems to demand exhaustion in exchange for marginal results is hard. Thankfully, I am learning that rest is a form of activism. And when I am rested, I show up clearer, stronger, and better for myself, community, and others.
  4. Be present. I did not  religiously post on social media during my time abroad. Most likely, many folks will learn about my expedition via this article. We can miss the moment, reaching for our phones and editing the lighting of special moments in our lives. My time abroad has been a continued exercise of being present for things and people that matter.
  5.  Be Honest. Truthful storytelling is critical and urgently needed. While traveling I made a brief visit to Rwanda. Like most, my only introduction to this very small country was via the movie “Hotel Rwanda.” This blockbuster inspirational fiction drama has been a global hit. It tells a story about a Hutu hotel owner and his Tutsi wife that allow Tutsi minorities to take refuge in their hotel during what is now known as the Rwandan genocide. The opinion of locals that I talked to is that the movie is a horrible depiction of the tragic events that transpired between April 7th through July 15th, 1994. The locals expressed personal accounts of brutal tribal warfare, massive loss of entire families, gripping fear, and continued grief. I reached Rwanda a little after the 100 days of national mourning. The firsthand accounts gripped me with sadness and served as an unexpected reminder of how powerful the work is that I do. This leg of my travel reaffirmed why I loved writing, particularly for the East of the River News.

My time abroad is coming to an end. The crisp air, exotic safaris, and warm chapatis will soon be sweet memories. However, the lessons Africa continues to teach me are timeless.

Leniqua’dominique Jenkins works on the DC Council. The views expressed here are her own. She can be reached at jenkinseastoftheriver@gmail.com.