A Letter to Michelle

This week, I’m sharing with you a letter that I wrote to my friend Mike’s sister, Michelle, who is working in an African country for the first time.  Mike was worried about Michelle after reading about her experience with culture shock on her blog.  I am honored that he thought that I might be able to help with a few encouraging words.

As I composed my letter to Michelle, I thought that she might actually be coping with life in a developing country and enjoying Tanzania more than her blogs indicate.  I know what it’s like to sit at a keyboard in a faraway country.  Sometimes the most pronounced difficult experiences are the ones that come out first when you are thinking about home.  The daily joy of being in an African country comes out second but there’s not always time for “second” if an internet cafe’s clock is ticking.

I’ve been in touch with Michelle a few more times and she easily agreed that I could post what I wrote to her.  You should definitely check out Michelle’s excellent blog  by clicking here.  She’s teaching English at a small not-for-profit school and is meeting some extraordinary young students.  And please leave her a message if venture onto her blog.  She might not have enough internet time to respond to you but trust me, she’ll appreciate it so much.


Dear Michelle,

I’m Erin, a friend of your brother Mike’s.  Mike and I spend many hours running together.  He asked me to write you a quick note after he read your blogs. I’ve spent 3 summers in countries in Africa and can relate so much to what you are going through.  I meant to keep this short because I know that it’s like to log onto a shaky internet network with precious little time but I love to write, especially about Africa, and now that I’m ready to hit send, I can see that I got a little carried away.  So skim this only if you want and don’t use your precious time to reply.

elementary school kids in The Gambia

School kids in The Gambia

Nothing truly prepares you for most of what Africa offers when you arrive.  Nothing prepares you for the dust.  For what it feels like to stand in front of your bed (whatever that may look like) with the dirtiest feet you’ve ever had, no water to wash your feet, and an internal war over whether or not you want to relieve your full bladder inside, outside or at all.  Nothing prepares you for the beauty of standing in front of gorgeous, incredibly well behaved young pupils who have the most ferocious appetite for learning you’ve ever seen.  Or for knowing that these are the lucky kids.  They have peers who are just as bright and love learning just as much but their families don’t have money for school fees.

You learn things quickly in Africa, the only place where you can learn these lessons.  You learn that nothing is truly clean or smells good for more than 5 minutes.  Your students look fresh every morning because they’ve had 14 years more practice than you at appearing fresh despite the dust and the heat. You learn to celebrate your few hours of electricity and to bid it calmly goodbye when it goes, just like your African friends do (maybe you allow yourself to think ironically about the shit-storm of calls that NS Power receives if the power goes out for 10 minutes in Dartmouth). You learn to look more at the beauty of life in an Africa village, not at the complexity and hardship.  I can read from your blogs that you are doing this already.

Before your left, I’m sure many people in your life told you that they were so “jealous.” That they “want to go to Africa.”  That they are proud of you because you’re going to “save kids’ lives.”  And maybe “see a lion” while you’re at it.  Most of them will never go to Africa.  When you get home, too many will be more interested in the lions than your students’ amazing survival through a complex life. Their jealously would deflate on their third night with no electricity.  But you, you are the kind and generous one in Africa, making a difference.  You chose to go there when you could stay home and teach kids who want the new iPhone, want a car when they turn 16 and want less homework so that they can drive said car on smooth, paved, non-chaotic roads. You’ll get through this experience because you have a generous soul.

I loved when you wrote “Life is hard but beautiful” in your blog.  Many African villages are poor in resources but so rich in things that we don’t have in Canada.  In family, in community, in love for each other, in love and care for strangers because that’s what community is.  I think that Africa holds the most beautiful example humanity left on this planet. What you will get to witness over the next 3.5 months, in very hard conditions, will be so incredible if you can let it.

I’ve been where you’ve are.  I remember lying in my bed at 2pm in Bwiam, The Gambia just 7 weeks ago.  I had run 25km a day for the past 14 days.  I was so tired and would have traded anything to be unconscious, asleep. It was 47 degrees indoors.  There was a fan in front of me but I couldn’t turn it on because there was no electricity.  I was unreasonably mad at all of my friends and family in Canada who had gone to work that morning and never even considered what a luxury it was to walk out the door and leave the fridge, the washing machine, the tv plugged into functioning outlets.  I think anger is ok in small measures.  I always got over it by paying attention to my African friends and to the youth I worked with.  I would watch them rise gloriously above conditions that would break people in my Canadian life.  I would let some of their strength become mine.

a mother carries a child on her back and wood on her head in Africa

Rural Gambia

The last things that I say, you’ve probably figured out already. It’s easier to use cold water for washing (body and clothes). If you have long hair, it’s easiest to put your whole head in the wash bucket first so that all of your hair gets wet at once. Hire someone to do your laundry- they will value the income. Life is better when you have African friends to learn from, to love with. Make some African friends. There is beauty everywhere that you are lucky to witness.  You get to balance the amount of time that you spend seeing the richness and humanity with the time you spend seeing the lack of resources and harshness of the conditions.

Love Erin

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3 Responses to A Letter to Michelle

  1. Kathryn says:

    Thanks for posting this. Wanted to check out Michelle’s blog but link not working.

  2. Dawn Hughes says:

    Great blog Erin. Stops and makes you think.

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