We work at the grassroots level throughout the Muslim World to counter violent extremism before it takes hold, to promote tolerance and understanding, and to foster better relations with the United States.
Camila is volunteering with America’s Unofficial Ambassadors through its Professionals in Service program. She is a Proposal Specialist at Creative Associates International and will be working with the Forum for African Women Educationalists in Zanzibar.
On My Way
My 13-hour flight had just deposited me in Addis Ababa on my way to Zanzibar. The sight of snow-topped mountains and tin roofs had been my first visual of Africa, seen through jet-lagged and bleary eyes. My internal clock reminded me it was 4:30 in the morning but the day was just beginning in Addis. I exited the plane to find every traveler with a connecting flight’s worst nightmare – a security line so long you cannot see where it begins. I raced to the end of the line, pulled out a book, and settled into what I knew was going to be a long wait.
Sandwiched between two groups speaking languages I couldn’t recognize, I was disoriented. We stood with barely any space between us, hoping that minimizing distance would improve our prospects. My neighbors and I waited patiently, keeping to ourselves for the next hour. As we neared the security checkpoint, I noticed a man about 10 people behind me, as he was carrying a grocery bag full of Marlboros and had nothing else with him. “European tourist?”, I thought, and returned to my book. The next time I noticed him, he was directly behind me. Having place his grocery bag on the floor, he was kicking it into people’s standing space and using it to crowd them out. In a short-time, he’d surpassed everyone behind me.
I will blame it on my jetlag, but I was not feeling very forgiving at this point. Neither was the woman behind me. She put out her hand to stop him as she didn’t speak English, which he promptly ignored. This earned glares from both of us but he wasn’t deterred. I kept inching myself forward, trying to prevent him from passing me. I caught the woman behind me doing the same, and we shared a big smile knowing we were in cahoots. It was a small battle of wills and tiny movements, as we attempted to edge ourselves forward. As we neared the end of the line, the group of men in front of me had noticed our struggles. In a move that was so subtle it appeared unintentional, they blocked him out as we advanced. In fact, I would have thought it was unintentional, if they hadn’t waved the two of us in front of them, which was returned with more big grins on our part.
It was one of those simple exchanges that will immediately set you at ease in a new place. Traveling to a new country, or in this case, even a new continent, is incredibly daunting in how much you don’t know. In my case, I don’t know much at all about life in Zanzibar. But a language barrier doesn’t prevent human connection. My partners in crime (or more like our own small form of justice) and I understood one another just fine without words. Your perceived inability to communicate is never a reason to not try; and I’m going to try and make this my guiding principle over the next two weeks.
I’m on a shorter timeline than the other unofficial ambassadors who will be here for six weeks. In order to get the most out of my time here, I want to get the most out of the people here. In a sense, my intentions are very general: I want to learn as much as I can, and where I can, contribute back. And I believe the first step to succeeding in this will be forcing myself to reach out in small and large ways for these kinds of experiences and interactions. I want to begin each day with the purpose and the courage to challenge what I don’t know rather than hide behind it, and take as much pleasure from those small victories as I did from exchanging smiles with strangers in the security line.