Bernard Pollack: Use your time off to see the real Africa

GW taught me many things, but one of the most important lessons I learned was to look beyond the classroom. From taking advantage of D.C. through internships or employment, choosing from nearly a hundred countries for study abroad programs, or through involvement in student groups and organizations, GW offers us countless ways to apply what we learn.

For those graduating or just embarking on the summer holidays, as you decide what to do next, consider exploring, traveling and volunteering in parts of the world that deserve more attention from us. Consider going to Africa.

From political conflicts, to HIV/AIDs, to famine, most of what we hear about Africa in the classroom or on the news is negative. For many of us, images of starving children covered in flies are burned into our brains after years of watching infomercials asking for monetary help. And while these problems are very real, they do not represent everything the continent has to offer.

When my travel partner, Danielle Nierenberg, and I departed last October to visit nearly every country on the African continent, I really didn’t know what to expect. I was like many Americans who previously chose not to travel there – beyond a vacation safari or the World Cup – out of fear of the unknown.

Yet, as we travel from rural villages to cities, we are seeing incredible innovations where African-led projects are lifting entire communities from poverty. We are traveling on a shoestring budget. We are meeting with farmers, NGOs, workers, governments, and other organizations. Throughout it all, we are sharing our experiences through Danielle’s blog for the Worldwatch Institute’s “Nourishing the Planet” project. The project will culminate in Worldwatch’s annual flagship publication, State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet, which will provide a road map for alleviating hunger and poverty.

The people here are genuine and go out of their way to welcome us into their communities, open up their homes and share their stories. Also, we nearly always feel safe, with no incidents (knock on wood) of theft or crime. Finally, every day we are learning so much – far more than I ever learned in the classroom. Interacting with people in their communities, breaking bread and sharing hopes and dreams is unlike any education you can get anywhere else.

As the spring semester comes to an end, I urge you to consider seeing Africa for yourselves. Here are some innovative ways and tips to help you get your hands on African soil, while safely traveling the continent no matter what stage of college you are at.

If you are looking for something this summer and curious about Madagascar – we fell in love with the capital city Antanarivo – you might want to check out Reef Doctor (www.reefdoctor.org). You can get free diving training and certification and conduct hands-on marine research, all while working with local fishing communities in the third largest coral reef system in the world.

If you are looking for something this fall, WorldTeach runs a terrific semester program in Namibia. You can teach a number of different courses for elementary and high school children, including English, math, science, and computer studies. At the end of the experience, make sure to hang out in Africa a bit longer by taking the Intercape bus company to Cape Town for winter break.

Africa is waiting for you to discover her. It will not only change your lives, but connect you to a continent that feels so far away and is rarely understood.

The writer, a GW alumnus of the Graduate School of Political Management, is a blogger for BorderJumpers and is currently based in Dakar, Senegal.

Readers can visit the Forum to comment on this op-ed.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.