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Africa. When you tell people that you’re in Africa, or you’re going to Africa, or you’ve been to Africa, they are impressed. It has always been the most unreachable continent (excluding Antarctica). The fact that you’ve made it there says something.

Especially recently, traveling to Africa has become the “in” thing to do. It’s hip. It’s a selling point. I noticed this when both Harvard and MIT funded all of my trips to the continent. It struck me again when Harvard sent out its magazine and highlighted their Students in Africa article in the preview.

While this mentality may increase tourism and interest in Africa, I sometimes wonder if it also gives people a disillusioned view of reality.

Take volunteers, for example. Many prospective volunteers choose Africa as their destination, but then they’re lost. So they pay some organization to set everything up for them, and then they pay to volunteer. They arrive in a bubble and are transported to a rural orphanage, where they spend the next two months playing with children who were lucky enough to land in a well funded orphanage, or even any orphanage at all. They speak English and spend their nights partying with other volunteers. They head home feeling really good about the work they’ve done, and thinking they had a true and lasting impact on the African continent.

Hmm. Maybe they should think again.

Africa is composed of many cultures and many people. It is a beautifully diverse place, and should not be lumped together as it often is. It may be trendy to talk about the continent as a whole, but that all fades when you actually get on the ground and must interact with real people.

I’m glad that the world focus is starting to include Africa. I’m glad that more people want to work here. As long as we remain realistic. Getting accustom to a different culture takes time, and you can’t change the world in a three week trip. That would be like sending 20 Africans to a small town in the States for three weeks and thinking that they will solve all of our country’s problems. We laugh at the thought, but can you think of organizations in the States that follow this model? I can.

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