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Chithunzi (Photograph)

I’ve been traveling and volunteering in Malawi, Africa for the past ten years. Over the course of those ten years I have learned a lot!

When I took my first trip I had never traveled anywhere except Canada and Mexico. My “world travel experience” was limited…very limited. I remember on that first trip learning, or starting to learn, an important lesson regarding photos. I traveled alongside a couple from Florida (whom I won’t mention by name, but I still know and think they are amazing humans) who were much more worldly than I was. I listened as they talked about what they were and were not comfortable with when it came to taking pictures and interacting with local people. I hadn’t thought about it before so hearing them talk made me start to think…one of the great things about travel is that it does just that, makes you think.

Years later when I started leading volunteer groups I advised participants to be respectful when taking photos. I always asked that they introduce themselves and speak to someone personally before taking their picture. Ask permission, don’t assume someone wants their picture taken.

Once I began running my own non-profit organization and after many trips, my views on pictures evolved. Not only would I tell volunteers what I always had, but I also started each first volunteer day by asking volunteers to not bring their cameras that day. I also started asking volunteers to not photograph anyone as they drove through communities. It became an issue I felt passionate about. I asked volunteers to imagine what it would feel like to be shopping in their local grocery store and have someone they didn’t know taking their picture.

Asking people to go to a place they have never been, especially in this “day and age” and not bring their camera some of the time isn’t easy. I know they will see things that they will want to document. I know that there are beautiful sights, beautiful people and I know that they will want to share every moment with their friends, families and followers. However, I have found that when volunteers don’t have their cameras they are more engaged. Their experience is better and they are obviously able to do more. Some memories are cherished MORE when you have no picture. I have so many memories from my trips that are not “documented,” but it doesn’t mean that I don’t remember them.

I have a responsibility to our organization, our donors and supporters to share what we do with money that is donated and who benefits from that money. I also am responsible for showing people what the situation is in Malawi and how they might be able to help. I walk a fine line with what I will and will not photograph.

Anyway, I digress. Hopefully you can see that this is something I’ve thought a lot about over the years. My views have grown and evolved over time and I’ve done my best to be as respectful of people as I can be and encourage others to do the same.

I had an experience this past summer while I was in Malawi. I thought about sharing it, but then felt strange about it. Felt strange because I thought people wouldn’t “get it”, wouldn’t really care and ultimately I would look stupid if I told the story.

In light of events currently happening here in America I all of a sudden felt like maybe I could share this and it might help someone else the way it helped me.

Have you ever had an experience where you say something and then immediately once it comes all the way out of your mouth you wish you could press the rewind button and back things up? Where you wish you could put those words right back in your mouth? Have you ever had a moment where you all of a sudden understood something and it felt like someone hit you right over the head with it?

Well….it was a hot day. I was working to help with the construction of our school in Malawi. I had been in Malawi for a few weeks and spent almost all of my time either alone or with local people. The language barrier had been tough. I was working with a community that I had never worked with before. I was trying to build trust, make friends and figure out ways that our organization could have a long term sustainable impact. I had been busy. I had been working physically hard and of course the entire experience came with lots of emotions.

No breeze, poor choice of shoes, forgot a hair tie, heavy hoe in my hand. I was helping to break up dirt in order to prepare the ground for our garden. I had hit my foot at least once and was silently wincing in pain on the inside. I was worried I had hit my foot so hard that I probably should have stopped and investigated the damage. I didn’t want to look like a weak woman next to all of these Malawian women who I had just recently met. I wanted to work as hard as they were, I wanted to help, I wanted them to know I wasn’t just there to drop off money and that I was able to work with them.

I knew I wasn’t able, I knew I wasn’t as strong and I knew I probably looked like a fool trying. The women were wonderful. They were helping me, they were laughing with me, they were begging me to take a break…no way, I’m here and I’m going to work beside you. I felt a sense of community in those moments. I felt like I belonged there and that I was being accepted. I felt like I was one of them. We were there together, working side by side, they trusted me. I was thinking how much we were alike, I was thinking that we all have much more in common than people would believe. This is something I think a lot about. The idea that many of us have much more in common than we want to accept or believe. In a situation where I was the minority (the only non-Malawian) I had started to settle in.

Sweat dripping from my forehead and down the front of my shirt, hair stuck to my face, and digging away, I all of a sudden looked to my right and noticed something. A small crowd had gathered. Several men who were walking down the main road had stopped and began staring at me. They were happy and talking, all while pointing at me. Then one of the men got out his cell phone and began taking pictures and video of me. Regardless of what you THINK I would have done in this moment, the reality was I did exactly what I would have never expected myself to do. I almost immediately turned to the woman working next to me and said OUT LOUD…”Why is he taking my picture” I didn’t just say it, I said it in a very annoyed voice that all of a sudden I heard echo back to myself in my head. I realized she didn’t understand me (insert language barrier and my obvious stupidity here) I was SO glad in that moment that she didn’t understand me! What a completely STUPID thing to say! How could I be so naive?? I KNOW BETTER!! This is what I’ve been telling volunteers for YEARS!

I was not only disappointed in myself, but I was shocked into the reality that regardless of how many times I’ve given my “picture” speech to other people (arrogantly and as if I KNOW better than they do), I still never could have understood what that felt like, until someone did it to me.

You might interpret this experience in several ways. What I can tell you that it taught me, was that I can’t say I fully understand someone else’s experience if I have never had it myself. I can make assumptions about how I think it might feel for me, but I can’t make assumptions about what that feels like for someone else. I can be compassionate and accepting, but I can never judge the way someone behaves or should behave if I haven’t ever walked in their shoes.

So in my eyes, that is privilege. It is a privilege to have not experienced some of the things people in this country or others experience every day. It is a privilege I didn’t ask for and sometimes I may be uncomfortable with, but it is one I have. It is my job to accept it and learn from it…and I’m grateful for the opportunities when I can.

2 Comments

  1. Norma says:

    Wow, Erin, you told this story so beautifully I don’t think you should ever doubt yourself again as to what to tell and what not to tell. Every story has a lesson!

  2. David says:

    Great post Erin. Not only did you tell a great story, lesson, you reminded us of our place in the world we share.
    These trips that you plan and lead are some of the best travel experiences anyone could have. The mix of working with local people and children as well as the insightful discussions and classes you put together with local experts and cultural leaders, make With Change In Mind trips a truly unique experience that can be shared over and over (because they’re affordable too!).

    Keep up the great work and I’m looking forward to my next trip.

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