As far back as the third grade, I dreamed of being a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa. My patriotic granddaddy tried to convince me that we had more than enough problems to tackle here in ‘Merica, but I always had a global calling.
The year after my graduation from Duke, I joined the Peace Corps and worked as a health educator with village health workers in Togo, West Africa. Together we built wells and latrines and educated people about clean water, sanitation and other health concerns.
When I first set off for Togo, I was a zealous and admittedly self-righteous American feminist who thought she was going to empower women, bring about gender equality and save lives. It wasn’t until later that I learned that you can’t empower anyone else, and it’s inherently disempowering to think that you can.
I chose my village, Langabou, because it was the only one with a cheftaine, or female village chief. I had romantic visions of bonding with my sister in the struggle and working side by side to empower women. As it turned out, la cheftaine did not actually want to be a chief, nor was she a feminist. In fact, she treated other women as second-class citizens.
A memorable example of this was when la cheftaine invited all of the village health workers to an appreciation luncheon. I went with my best friend, Afi, the village pharmacist, and we were the only women at the luncheon. When we arrived, they immediately assumed that Afi should join the cheftaine’s women in serving the men and me, even though she was an invited guest. Afi began doing so without hesitation. As you can imagine, I was outraged and indignant and insisted that it had to stop. But Afi kept telling me that it was fine and not to intervene. After several unsuccessful attempts to stop the injustice, I became so distraught that I left in tears. Everyone else was mortified that the American had left, crying, and they came after me and begged me to return. I did come back, and la cheftaine’s women served Afi. I felt like I had won the battle for women’s rights that day!
But as Afi explained on my last day in the village, “Kat, you planned to come to Togo and have life-changing experiences. But for me, you just dropped in on my life, and because of our friendship, I’ve changed. I think about myself and other women differently now. But I’m still going to be living here among these men for the rest of my life, long after you’ve returned to America.”
Through cross-cultural experiences and relationships, we have the opportunity to learn cultural humility, the myth of white American superiority, about feminism in a global context and the ethical responsibility in our development work to “first do no harm.” I now understand that you can’t empower anyone else, and it’s inherently disempowering to think that you can.
Love - unconditional, love thy neighbor as thyself kind of love - is something that we can learn to impart, even to strangers. Earlier, I boycotted travel to South Africa because of apartheid. Later, when I joined Ipas, my Ipas South Africa colleagues organized a cultural heritage day tour when we were visiting in Johannesburg. The whole time, as we were re-experiencing the realities and horrors of apartheid, my heart felt like it was lodged in my throat, and I was acutely aware of my whiteness and unearned privilege in ways I had never been before.
At Nelson Mandela’s former home in Soweto, which is now a museum, I stopped by the gift shop to find a “stay-at-home present” for my son, Jaidan. An older black woman working there showed me around. Suddenly a t-shirt caught my eye that had an image of a small brown child with a bright rainbow over him and the words: “Child of the rainbow nation.” I was intrigued, and so I asked her, “What does this mean?” I immediately thought of my biracial son. She explained that South Africans consider themselves a rainbow nation because there are so many diverse ethnicities. “Oh,” I sputtered, suddenly completely oblivious to my own race, “This is perfect. My son is definitely a child of the rainbow nation.” She smiled kindly, placed her hand on my arm and pulled me slightly towards her. “So are you, my dear.”
I was floored. My heart burst open, and I started sobbing uncontrollably. I felt awed, humbled, and yes, even blessed by her love. Words can’t describe the incredible grace I felt having this beautiful black woman in Soweto, who had endured unspeakable cruelty perpetuated by white people, considering me part of her rainbow nation.
Our rainbow nation. I founded my consulting firm, Global Citizen, LLC, on the belief that with greater awareness, understanding, sensitivity and ethical practice, we can develop a global competence and effect social transformation. My aim is for each of us to recognize that, no matter where we were born or what our lives are like, we are all interconnected and we all have a responsibility to each other. My aim is for the word “foreigner” to lose its meaning.
It’s up to us to raise the next generation of global citizens and to help them understand their place in the world. It’s been heartening for me to be able to take Jaidan on a number of my international travels and to see him connect with kids in all parts of the world, even when their circumstances are incredibly different. There was a time in Lake Tana, Ethiopia where he connected with a boy who was selling handmade boats. This boy earned a living selling his handcrafted boats, and my son comes from a relatively privileged background, but when the boy smiled and put his arm around Jaidan, and Jaidan smiled back and leaned in, suddenly the world shrank, and the boys were no longer strangers, but friends. Seeing this, a nearby older woman exclaimed that Jaidan must also be Ethiopian. “No,” I said, he’s not. But they are brothers.
The world “foreigner” is losing its meaning, and a globally-competent world is possible.
Presented on April 18, 2015 at Duke Talks, a storytelling event at my Duke University 25th reunion. See the video of my talk below.