Through New Eyes

By Sydney Vander Waerdt

As I sit here and reflect on this trip, I am thinking about who I was when I first arrived in Africa and who I am now. At the beginning, I was shy, afraid to talk to the people that live here. I was the stranger, out of place and unsure of myself. I cared too much about being laughed and stared at. It has taken days upon days of overstimulation to get to how I feel now. And thinking about this whole experience, the homestay was the most transforming part. It completely changed how I think about interacting, using resources, and how I go about everyday life.

After the homestay, I find myself thinking so consciously about everything I do. As I shower I think of all the people who were bathing in a tub of water out in the open. As I walk around luxurious places, I think about how most of the people living in the village have never been outside of it. As I stuff my face with many different and diversely cooked foods, I think about the people that mostly live on pap. When I look at the clothes on everyone’s back, I think of the holes in all the kids’ dirt-stained clothing. When I look down at my Chaco sandals, I think of the teenage girls who were sharing a single pair of flip flops with each other. When I start to feel sad, I think of how happy the people in the Damboni village were despite their lack of resources. Their smiles and laughs were so genuine. They were loving and caring in a way I have never experienced before. And what was so crazy about that was how young the people were -  picking each other up when they were down, girls taking care of the babies that were barely walking - engaging in what we would think of as more grown up activities and behaviors but with the innocence of youth.

It was really hard to wrap my brain around the contrast of our cultures. Experiencing the way they live has oddly brought me a lot of confidence. Now, I find it comfortable and engaging to be laughed at by people that don’t speak the same language. I may not know what they are saying, but I love listening and trying to figure it out. The comfort I feel when talking to people from a different culture has grown tremendously. I am now walking around with ease, comfort, and open arms. Being immersed in the culture here is what made this experience so transforming. Not only has this experience impacted how I will live my life, but it has also made me want to approach problem solving differently. Complex problems require complex solutions that include diverse knowledge and perspectives. The work we do here as scientists would mean nothing without understanding who these people are and where they come from. Knowledge, experiences, and understanding go hand and hand if we want to make an impact on both ourselves and the world beyond our own - whether that is in the next neighborhood or on another continent.

Natalie Miller