Photo courtesy of Steve Stoddard.
Rather than my watch alarm bringing me out of sleep, it was roosters and cows. Instead of bundling up to get out of my tent and start boiling water for my cook group, I was waking up in someone else’s home.
This was all pretty different than what I had gotten accustomed to during the previous six weeks of backpacking on my NOLS semester.
I was on the homestay section of my NOLS Semester in East Africa, where I spent 12 days living with a host family. We spent time cooking, tending to the family livestock, working at the local school, running errands in town, and playing games around the home.
Mornings were their own routine: my host siblings would fling open the bedroom door and meet me with eager smiles. Before I could even offer to help, breakfast was brought into the room: hot chai and fresh mandazi, a fried pastry. Sharing breakfast with two of the youngest, as we got ready to go to school, was always exciting. It’s hard for things not to be exciting when that many people are around the house!
While living with my host family, I dove into household chores: laundry, cooking, feeding the cows, fetching water. My entire family got a kick out of this, as I looked like a fool doing all of these things—especially milking the cows and chasing chickens.
This was humbling, as I never had these type of chores during my upbringing in the U.S. The efficiency and ease with which my 5-year-old host sister was able to complete these chores was amazing, and really inspired me—it inspired me to jump in and try. Just try.
This mindset went for everything, from struggling through chores to learning Kiswahili. My Swahili was good, which I was proud of, but I still struggled to communicate with my host family.
Every day, I worked hard at improving my language skills, stumbling over pronunciation and taking forever to ask a simple question. But by the end of the homestay, I was able to have conversations with family members, children at the school where my group and I were volunteering, teachers, and other members of the community.
I attempted to help in the kitchen, much to the amusement of my host family. Despite my struggles, I learned some recipes that I still make at home. When I cook, I remember being crowded in the kitchen with my family as we smiled, laughed, and shared meals together.
My homestay experience also showed me that with more effort comes a bigger payoff. For example, my coursemates and I spent 8 days constructing a new classroom at the local school.
We moved boulders; made, mixed, and poured concrete; built walls; and then taught classes and played soccer during our down time. It was exhausting. Despite that, when I look back on my semester in Tanzania, I reflect on my decision to embrace the challenges and cross through the doors which that “leap of faith” opened for me.
My perspective on what defines happiness or success changed greatly during this time. At home, in America, I'm surrounded by material items and technology—which are often associated with success. But during my homestay, I barely realized that we didn’t have those things. What I realized was that I was placed in a real, tangible, loving, accepting family. One that opened their doors to a stranger.
Near the end of my stay, my host family told me: “We are excited to share our home, our food, and our stories with someone from the other side of the world. We love to learn. We hope you have learned something while staying with us.”
I realized that, for me, positive experiences are not about gear, or technology—they’re about people. People who are present. My host family, and the students I taught how to beatbox in the Karatu Elementary school, will always be in my memories.
This change in perspective inspired me to re-prioritize the things I deemed important in my life. When I got home, I purged my closet and donated things I rarely used. I have cut down on material possessions and been able to give back to those who need them more.
I have also cut down on my use of resources: being mindful of water when bathing, washing clothes by hand to conserve energy, and altering my commute to work from driving to walking or biking. My time on my NOLS course showed me that I can live extremely comfortably while needing, and using, very little. As the desire for money and things went away, it ignited a new desire for experiencing places and people, and being fully present for them.
On the last day of the homestay, my coursemates and I had some time to silently reflect on our experience. This is a snippet of a long journal entry I wrote that night:
“What NOLS provides for the U.S. students is a look into the lives of how many people around the world live. The U.S. is a bubble for its citizens that are born there. We are incredibly privileged in so many aspects. Having this experience that pushed us out of our comfort zone will provide a lot of perspective for our future decisions.”
Here's what became extremely clear to me while living with a family from the other side of the world: happiness is found in adventure.
I found happiness in a home full of adventure.