In late May 2010, a group of 12 students participated in Louisiana State University's Swahili Study Abroad program. We traveled to the country of Tanzania located on the east coast of Africa. There, we studied Swahili under the tutelage of Mwalimu Deo Tungaraza, who was not only a LSU Professor, but a native of Dar-es-Salaam.
In Africa, we visited three different cities: Dar-es-Salaam, Bagamoyo, and Zanzibar. We also visited Mikumi National Park while in Dar-es-Salaam. We lived with host families. They were extremely gracious to us. [In this picture I stand to the left, my roommate, friend, and brother, Scott stands all the way to the right holding the cat. Our host family is standing between us.] We learned to appreciate certain luxuries we didn't understand were luxuries, such as air conditioning and plumbing.
In the absence of the luxuries I was accustomed to, I was able to begin to embrace something more. What I discovered was that the luxuries I enjoyed back home only served as a distraction for what was around me all the while: life. I see life not by what I have but what I give. Though our host family we lived with was impoverished by American standards, they were rich in love. That love they shared with us abundantly.
There was something else I noticed after being here for a while. I wasn't black anymore. My blackness didn't matter here. No one here would treat me as a "less than." No one here would accuse me of using the delusional weapon of the privileged called the "race card." I was free from all of that. I could finally just be me. I could finally just be a human being in search for something real and lasting. Now I felt comfortable embarking on my journey of self-discovery. I wasn't afraid to let go anymore.
I began opening my eyes up to the beauty in life. As I let go of who I thought I was, I begin to digest the possibilities of who I could be. The realities of all this caused such a strong emotional reaction that I was brought to tears. On my professor's porch one night, I confessed to him that I felt unworthy of such a blessing to be in a place like this and experience all the beauty that surrounded me. Mwalimu Deo not only assured me that I was worthy, but he told me that my life is not an accident. He stressed to me that I have a purpose and that I have to let go of the emotional baggage I carried to see it clearly.
I began opening up to my friends on the trip. They became family to me. They helped me to better understand what it was to have fun as an adult again. They also helped me immensely with understanding Swahili, as it had been approximately 7 years since my last enrollment in the course. Immersed in the culture, I began to catch on quickly, particularly noting the words bei ghali, which means too much/expensive, and nzuri sana, which means very good. Mwalimu Deo was especially proud of my progress.
I was able to enjoy and participate in some of the local dancing. Our group also went on a safari in Mukumi National Park. In Zanzibar, we went to a spice farm where we could literally pull the spices off of the trees and two other places I'll mention later. I remember being handed moist wood our tour guide cut off the tree in front of us, which was a cinnamon tree. It tasted like cinnamon flavored gum. The excursions we were allowed to experience were amazing. It was the excursion in Stone Town that left me forever changed.
Make no assumptions by the title, I believe freedom is a right to life. But nothing in life exists without its opposite. We must accept the duality of life. If we are to given the gift of our own free will, we must also carry the burden of the gift as well. Stone Town reminded me of that. In Stone Town, we walked through the former chambers where enslaved Africans were held before being taken to foreign places around the world, never seeing their homes and family again. As I walked through the chambers, I experienced the energy that was there. It was so heavy I was again filled with emotions so strong I became immobilized. Tears drenched my cheeks. I felt the spirit of the people of Africa and what they'd been through and continue to go through. I felt my ancestors. As I allowed myself to feel freely, later I could tune into the suffering of people from across the globe.
It was the culmination of everything I experienced in Africa that changed me and provided direction for my life's purpose. I wanted to be an advocate for marginalized and oppressed people everywhere. I knew after my experience in Africa that this was my life's calling. This is my purpose. Mahatma Gandhi said, "The wealthy must live more simply so that the poor can simply live." The suffering we see, and many of us ignore, is unnecessary. It is the product of greed and indifference. We must allow ourselves freedom to see truth beyond what we have been told is truth. Freedom must exist in our minds and hearts before it can ever exist in the world.
After I returned back to America, I developed an insatiable thirst for knowledge. The thirst for knowledge began with understanding my cultural heritage. As I grew more knowledgeable of the mechanisms that govern us, my focus broadened into understanding the root causes of the suffering people are forced to endure. As I mentioned previously, I believe indifference, greed, and ethnocentrism to be the catalysts for institutional policies and practices as well as individual prejudices that corrupt the hearts and minds of our fellow man and woman. Darkness is not the opposite of light. It is the absence of light. Where light exists, darkness must flee. Evil is not the opposite of good. It is the absence of good. When good people sit idle, evil prevails. The organization I created is to serve as a contagious light that will be a catalyst for the light in others to shine as we serve as a guide in their journey of self-discovery. Life stands for Love Is For Everyone. Spread love. Activate your light. See your connection to all human beings and realize there is no you without me and there is no me without you. Love and peace always. - Harry J Turner, MSW, LCSW