The whole basis of the word ‘experiential’ is focusing on the doing, not simply passivity. In travel, it’s the active participation in communities that best enables us to understand a country, its people, and its culture (s).
But here’s the important thing that we all too often forget: participating shouldn’t just be about you. If you participate in hoping to only gain something for yourself that inherently puts yourself, rather than the community, at the heart of the interaction. Rather, if you participate because you genuinely wish to spread love, show kindness, and learn about a community, with the lens of empowerment as your guide, you will give the person with whom you are participating the opportunity to gain from the exchange, too.
I always felt this to be true, but my visit to Senegal really pushed me in a few ways. Firstly, before I left for Dakar from Toronto, the NGO with whom I was working wrote to inquire if I was still coming – the country was in a state of unrest in the lead-up to the Presidential elections. So there was forever an air of caution whenever leaving one’s place of residence and travelling. In fact I had to leave a day early because there was speculation that that airport would be closed. Thus, I had to focus on truly participate and getting to know people, rather than the very evident brewing conflict.
sharing some amazing hysterical laughs with beautiful Senegalese women
Secondly, I encountered two very distinct situations that forced me to step out of my comfort zone:
1 – The NGO with which I was working had, among its many arms, an after-school programme for street youth boys (literally meaning boys who would otherwise be living on the street). The programme was amazing: games, activities, a place to sleep, food provided, and lessons in French and English language training. As silly as it probably seems, I really had to push myself outside of my comfort zone to truly participate and engage in socializing with these boys. Half of this I blame on my own social awkwardness; the other half I blame on my complete lack of tomboy-ness growing up. When meeting someone my initial reaction is to ask them lots of deep, personal questions. Teenage boys just want to watch TV and play games. So, these were the things I had to do if I were to build any sort of relationship with them.
me and my mad fussball skills…which aren’t actually mad at all!
2 – The same NGO also enacted a micro-credit scheme in rural areas, mainly for women. Yay women – these were interactions in which I was better equipped to engage! And how best to engage with women? CHATTING & EATING! The chatting? Awesome! I could practice my French with beautiful Senegalese ladies. But the eating…Senegal practices communal eating. A very large circular plate is brought out and the dish is shared, by hand of course, with all sitting around the circle. Every health warning was lighting up in my ears as I engaged in discussion with these women. But I had to swallow my pride and my own feelings of doubt to ensure that I gave the women the respect they DESERVED, and to give all of us the opportunity to truly interact! I didn’t eat much – blaming my poor little western stomach (which is always a good trick by the way if you don’t wish to offend) – but I took a couple of bites, which broke down barriers and enabled us to simply interact and have a great time (see photo evidence!)
enjoying some rice and milk with my new friends: once you eat together, barriers are broken
So what’s my point? You can’t engage, you can’t empower, and you sure you can’t get to know people if you just observe them. Breaking down barriers, be it through food, through play, through practicing new cultural norms, are important ways to start! And as long as it doesn’t go against your values or put you in danger, ask yourself…why not me?!?!?!
Don’t just observe…participate! People deserve to be known…including you 🙂