October 11, 2018
“Finish your plate. There are children starving in Africa.”
This is a cliché I was force fed throughout my youth, and in this I am no outlier. Growing up, I was constantly injected with a concept of ‘us’ versus ‘them,’ ‘fortunate” versus ‘unfortunate.’ This notion of ‘a part of it’ versus ‘apart from it’ is an opaque bubble of comfort that became transparent to me through my trip to the Room to Read schools in Tanzania.
Referring to the guilt I felt staring at my untouched plate of broccoli, I arrived in Tanzania unconsciously prepared to have my heart devoured by a world that I had only seen painted with a brush of despair. As the bus pulled up to a small school in the middle of rural land that looked far different from the paved sidewalks of my hometown, anxiety washed over me. Although eager to begin my work with Room to Read, the stigma of difference ingrained in my head resulted in a hesitance as I walked toward the classroom –what would “they” think about “me”? The idea of two worlds colliding left me feeling unstable.
Girls came pouring out of the classroom, pulling me out of my apprehensive thoughts. Some girls donned headscarves while others had hair braided or cut close to the scalp. They all came towards us while radiating smiles and warmth. Without a second thought, I threw my arms around them in greeting. Their excitement spread through the group like wildfire. Without missing a beat, we grew curious about each other. Quickly, the simplistic “What’s your favorite food?” transformed into disclosing our complex hopes and dreams.
My favorite question I often encountered was, “What’s your ambition?” This bold question mirrored the fierceness they embodied. Unveilings of inner selves intertwined with lighthearted casual questions about boyfriends and homework, which brought me to the conclusion that we are all teenage girls. Same bodies, different locations. Same dreams, different obstacles. Same desire to pull up our bootstraps, different boots walking on different paths.
It was witnessing the life skills class that cemented this belief for me. Life skills is a part of Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program curriculum that teaches girls how to determine their own futures in a world that is constantly trying to decide this for them. With lessons revolving around tactics for dealing with daily life, many of the girls expressed this as a saving grace.
Despite the overwhelming praise for the life skills class, I did not expect to be so thoroughly moved until I sat in one of the school desks myself. Hustling to their seats, I followed the girls in and sat in the back of the classroom. The day’s lesson consisted of a debate, the topic being whether or not a girl is different after she takes a life skills course. As pairs displayed how to disagree respectfully (a lesson on communications) in front of the room, it became clear why the girls raved so heavily about this class. The girls spoke confidently and happily, speaking passionately as they fought for their side. No translator could have captured every detail, because much of the value came from witnessing these girls have the rare opportunity to boldly express themselves.
Throughout the seven days, my heart had only grown. These girls took the misguided paintbrush of despair I had imagined and instead showed me a bright world not so different from my own. Although the country’s struggles are often cast in the shadow, it is also filled with people welcoming light. This hope was contagious, and their hope also gave me hope.
When we first arrived, I pondered what I wanted to take away from this journey. After heavy thought, I drew from what I knew. As a child of a single father, I always appreciated how he was an oasis of support for me, helping me reach my potential. When I arrived, I wondered how I could support these girls in their own lives.
But after interacting with them I walked away realizing these women are already empowered. They share a hunger similar to mine. They harbor a thirst to lead, to achieve, to learn, just like any young adult trying to make their way in the world. They yearn for a brighter tomorrow and it is through resources like the life skills classes that this becomes possible.
This entire experience made me realize that it is not “us” and ‘them,’ not ‘me’ versus ‘you.’ The ambition to become knows no age, no status, no race, no gender. These man made concepts draw invisible borders that isolate when we are not as separate as we believe. The borders we make are our responsibility to break. They distract us from what is truly important: we are all man, and we must care for each other alongside each other.
While building bridges with people I once viewed as vastly different from myself. I was shown how similar we truly are. Just like me, they strive to build a life for themselves; I just got favored by chance based on where I was born. Same nature, different nurtures. When we take the time to get to know each other, we are all just teenage girls.
Want to hear more about Angelina's time in Tanzania? Check out her Instagram takeover here.