In 2009 I ventured to West Africa for a three months sabbatical. Little did I know that this trip will change me forever. Let alone did I ever think, that it changes the course of my life. What is it about Africa, that is so life-changing?
1. Africa makes you curious again about life
It already started the very first moment, I stepped foot on African soil. Africa stimulates all your senses as everything is different! The smell in the air. The vibrant street life. The colours everywhere. The shouting, singing and laughing of people on the streets or on public transport. It always makes me giggle when I see the signs on European trains or the tube “No Phone” or “No Music”.
My thoughts always wander back to sitting in a tro tro in Ghana. Hustlers shove loo-paper, bananas and other items for sale under your nose as soon as the bus stops. Never mind the chickens and goats under your seat!
I had a good life in Melbourne, don’t get me wrong… but I felt dead inside! Africa made me feel alive and sparked up my curiosity about life again. It made me realise, there is more to life than working 60 hours a week and having no work-life-balance.
2. Africa teaches you gratitude
I’ve traveled through some very poor countries. If you’ve never seen it with your own eyes, you can’t imagine the poverty people are faced with. More than once I’ve wondered how people can live under such circumstances.
It doesn’t surprise you, that there are still so many diseases prevalent that are eradicated in other parts of the world. There was often no hygiene and during my travels I’ve been sick more than once with Giardia. It made me feel very grateful for all the little things I took for granted! Hot and cold running water with the turn of a tab. Reliable electricity with the flick of a switch. A roof over my head that keeps me safe from rainy days, cold days or hot days. A healthcare system that looks after me when I fall ill.
3. Africa develops your mindfulness
Mindfulness means to be in the present moment. You do not worry about your past. Or feel anxious about your future. You. Just. Be.
During my sabbatical, I lived in the here and now.
Was it because there was always so much to see? Perhaps my mind was caught in what was happening around me and didn’t have a chance to wander off? Or was it the fact that you were able to buy everything in small quantities? A tea spoon of salt or sugar, enough for today. Is it because you feel so tiny on this vast continent that makes you forget about all your problems?
I don’t know. All I know is, that whenever I’m in Africa, my mind is much calmer and I live more in the here and now.
4. Africa shows you that you’re unhappy for no reason
I’ve met people who hardly have anything. Still, they come across as happy. I had everything. But I was unhappy. More than once I felt ashamed for feeling so miserable back home.
Am not going into the debate if people in Africa are truly more happy than us. There are so many conflicting studies and findings.
To me it was an eye opener that I should feel more happy simply because my basic needs are covered. We all know that you can’t buy happiness with money. Africa is the best proof for that. Still, it took me a long time to find my own happiness – part of this journey was to discover ikigai.
5. Africa makes you realise, that you only have first world problems
Every day you see people going through hardship to get by their daily life. The woman on the left is pounding maze with a pestle and mortary to prepare the traditional starch staples. Such hard work. I open a bag of pasta – done. This fellow walks every day for several kilometres to earn his meager living as a tailor. I complain if the train is running late.
We struggle to decide which latest mobile phone to buy. Or if the black or silver speaker would look better with the laptop! I became so much more aware that, most of the time I worry about nothing. Our challenges are first world problems. What a relief…
6. Africa teaches you to celebrate life
The reason why I went to West Africa in the first place, was to attend a West African dance and drumming working. A hobby I took up while living in Melbourne.
It was amazing to learn different kind of dances and rhythms. There are songs and dances to celebrate weddings, births or deaths. Other dances are praying for a good harvest or celebrating maturing into adulthood. Spend a night out in Dakar and you feel it even more. At 2am drummers congregate at an open space. As soon as you hear the drums, people – young and old – come from all directions and showcase their moves!
Africans celebrate life: anytime and anywhere!
7. Africa forces you to slow down
My life in Melbourne was hectic! I rushed from one meeting to the other. I was always under pressure. I’ve always felt, there’s not enough time in the day to do everything I had to do. Also, I’ve never been a patient person! Boy, did Africa test me! You want to take public transport at 2pm? Maybe. Maybe not. You’ve to wait until the bus is full and then you leave. Ordering a meal. It may come in half an hour or an hour or an hour after that. Just wait. It will come at some point. I usually walk relatively fast! Have you ever walked behind an African? Try it, you’ll learn that you also get from a to b in a much slower and mindful pace. Perhaps that’s another reason, why I’m more mindful in Africa. The pace of life simply slows down.