“This is awful,” I huffed to my cousin, adjusting my backpack crammed with supplies for our hike up a mountain in Tanzania, Africa.
“Tell me about it,” she gasped.
Straining my legs, I forced another step up the 70-degree incline. Step. The gravel and sand slipped beneath my swollen feet. Step. How in the world am I going to drag myself up this mountain? Step.
Along the trail, I met a young girl trudging up the path behind us with her family. I watched her struggle with a bundle of possessions strapped to her back. Her orange-colored hair — a sign of malnutrition my mom said — glinted in the sunlight.
This week in my undergraduate health communication class we examined the topic of culture and health. In the midst of discussing health disparities in the U.S., cultural conceptions of illness and health, and cultural competency in healthcare interactions, I was reminded of this hike I took with my family many years ago.
This trek was my parents’ brilliant idea to “conquer the impossible,” an excursion during our extraordinary family trip to visit relatives after my mother’s breast cancer experience.
Growing up, instead of buying a new car or new carpet, my parents would buy airline tickets. During our travels, like this one to Tanzania, I became fascinated with learning about communication between and among cultures as well as international health issues.
Throughout my childhood, my parents strived to show the U.S. and the world to my brother and me — to help us see how many people live, what is important to them, and why they make the choices they do. They wanted us to see the value and worth of all people.
Little did I know how much that exhausting hike up a mountain in Tanzania would impact my long-term perceptions about health, culture, and communication.
To this day I continue to see that girl’s face. Seeing her — hiking in the hot sun with no shoes, no water, and no hat — challenged me to think outside my ethnocentric box. A child gazing into another child’s eyes, I remember realizing how extremely privileged I was.
This young girl heightened my compassion, creating a new awareness of international health issues. She climbed the mountain because her family had to find fertile ground and clean water. I climbed for fun. This girl had to move her whole life just to find food, while all I had to do was open my pantry door.
Her hunger and poverty collided with my daily comforts: their two-meal-a-day beans and rice, my Oreo cookies between three meals; their outdoor kitchen fire pit — with two cracked cooking pots, my kitchen with a dishwasher, stove, and fridge. Staring into her face, my young privileged American self caught up to me.
I learned so much about myself that day. It solidified the importance of my desire to be global citizen — someone who strives for understanding among local and global contexts with goals of universal equality and care for all people. That young Tanzanian girl created a desire in me to be a part of raising awareness about cultural health issues in the U.S. and the world.
Throughout my travels, I have seen not only pain and hunger but also strength and hope. I hope to live a life that young girl would be proud of. Each day I strive to show kindness and love to others, by being involved in service projects and supporting others whose circumstances in life have not given them basic necessities to live. As a researcher, I hope my work helps people with their health issues. And as a teacher, I hope to encourage my students to respect other cultures and be cognizant of the world around them.
Then perhaps, through combined strength and hope, we can create a chain reaction to better the communication and life situations of people in our diverse world. Mahatma Gandhi says, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
As I reflect on that hike so many years ago, I remember my dad asking if he could take a picture of the girl and my cousin speaking in Swahili to the African mother:
“Tunaweza kupiga picha pamoja. Asante. Pole na safari.”
She nodded yes. At first, I was upset with my dad for taking a picture; I thought it might offend the family, but now I am glad he took it. Whenever I pull out our scrapbook and gaze into the eyes of that little girl, I remember that was when I realized how privileged I am. This girl helped me be conscious of how others live, reminding me that I will not be able to understand what it is like to be in the shoes of a hungry African child, but at least I can try; I can try to help people understand others across cultures.
Some people may say this desire to “change the world” is far-fetched. Perhaps. On the other hand — perhaps — I can help to change the lives of my students and impact the world through research. I would not have learned these life lessons without the help of that young Tanzanian girl.