This blog post is well overdue. I sat down to start writing this in January while everything was still fresh, but I kept procrastinating and never returned to it until now. I think maybe everything just needed more time to marinate in my mind. These are the stories of my trip to Africa and Europe; I guess it’s better late than never.
I always thought about the way Africa would change me and affect me while I was there experiencing it all, but I rarely wondered how it would affect me after the trip was over. And it’s hit me like a train. I am in the process of undoing everything I’ve ever learned and believed. I am becoming a new person daily as my experience changes me in small bits and pieces. It’s the little moments, like when I’m stopped at a red light, and I look up at the sky, and all the memories and feelings rush back to me. Like, “holy shit, I went to Africa?!!”
It’s the middle of my day when all of a sudden, I remember holding little Alice and Bright so tightly and beaming with joy. It’s during my job at a salon when a wealthy white lady fusses about her hair appointment; she has absolutely no idea of the other world that exists on the other side of the earth; she has absolutely no clue that her hair appointment means absolutely nothing when people are living with nothing, who are just happy to be alive. I think this experience will change me slowly forever, but as of now, it weighs heavily inside me as I try to figure out what’s next in my life.
In school, we are taught little to nothing about the big and beautiful world that exists inside the continent of Africa. We learn about the Apartheid, the Rwanda genocide, slavery, and colonialism. But we are left to our own imaginations to wonder what parts of Africa might look like, what the people are like, what they do, what they celebrate, and what they love. We were raised to believe the entire continent of Africa is an immense desert full of people living in huts. In fact, many people before I left asked questions like, “well, where will you even stay? Are there even houses?” “Are there cities in Africa, like where did you even go”? “Did you have water or electricity ever? Were you always just out in the middle of nowhere?”
Though I know these questions were just asked out of pure curiosity, it proves how little we know about the countries in Africa. And I’ll be the first to admit; that I also knew very little about the countries in Africa; I think that was a part of the reason why I was so drawn to go there because I needed to see it all with my own eyes, I needed to experience the beauty of the cultures and people that lived there. Though I had never been to Africa, I think there has always been something inside me that knew the most special people lived there. When I was about 3 or 4, I wrote a letter about how one day I wanted to open “Gracie’s Grocery Store” in Africa, where everything was always free. I guess it’s always been a dream of mine to try and do something good with my life in Africa.
Our story begins in Ghana. The craziest part is that the rockiest travel day happened at the beginning, but I’m glad I got it out of the way so everything else could go more smoothly. I almost didn’t even make my first flight to Chicago when the check-in desk told me I needed proof of a negative covid test before I got on the plane, not when I landed in Ghana… lots of confusion. By the grace of god after sobbing and begging the lab over the phone to send me my test results, the check-in desk said I could run over and get a quick test in the airport. $200 and lots of tears later, they accepted the negative test, and I sprinted like never before, where I boarded my flight to Chicago just in time.
Landing In Accra, Ghana, the next day was such a fantastic feeling. I had successfully completed my first solo international flight, and seeing this new and unique place with my eyes felt surreal. I remember hardly being able to sleep that first night; I could not freakin believe I was asleep in Ghana, Africa. The next day we arrived in Kumasi, Ghana, where I’d spend the next 3 ½ weeks. Kumasi was like nothing I’ve ever witnessed. The number of people and building structures packed so tightly together in a land that was essentially a desert was intense. Because Kumasi is rarely visited by tourists or white presenting people, people were perplexed by the sight of a group of such pale people. I always found it so interesting to witness people’s reactions to us.
One thing I noticed quickly was how kind and hospitable people in Ghana are; they will bend backward to take care of you or get you what you need, which is genuinely humbling to see. Our living conditions at the volunteer house were similar to how most people in Kumasi live, which I appreciated because it made the experience more immersive. Our bedrooms were little rooms of 5-6 bunkbeds with some cabinets for storing belongings and a ceiling fan that worked only when it wanted to. Most nights, it would be so hot with all of us in the room that I had to fan myself with a handheld fan until I could fall asleep.
We drank our water out of packaged bags to avoid any illness from the tap water, and on most nights when the electricity and water shut off, we’d just pour the bag water over our heads to get clean, which was probably still a luxury considered to what water access most locals had. Almost every night for maybe 30min it would downpour as I’ve never seen before. So much rain that one night we just took our soap outside and had a rain shower.
In Kumasi, I was fortunate enough to volunteer at two places. I spent two weeks observing in the labor and delivery ward and the local government hospital surgical ward. I have so many insane but detailed medical stories if anyone ever wants to know more, but I’ll spare the gross details for now. I watched many natural vaginal births and a few cesarean sections at the hospital. The birthing room was a tiny room with only two birthing beds. Sometimes there would be a line of women in labor waiting outside the door for their turn in the bed.
Ten plus midwives and nurses cram into the birthing room to either help or just watch the births. There was no access to any epidurals or pain medicine, so all of the vaginal births were done 100% natural, and that was the most unique and beautiful thing I’ve ever witnessed. It proved just how strong and invincible women’s bodies are. I’ve never seen stronger and braver women. It inspired me to want to pursue a career in midwifery or women’s health, and to experience a natural birth of my own one day, hopefully.
Another of my favorite parts of the hospital experience was getting to talk with all of the midwives and doctors; they all spoke English fluently which was so helpful, especially when I had medical questions. The midwives I spoke to were passionate about their work and excited every time they got the chance to deliver a baby. They all hoped that one day they would have the opportunity to visit America and learn about our birthing practices; it made me want to find a way one day for them to have easier access to travel wherever they wanted to know more about their practices.
The second place I got to volunteer for a week and a ½ was at one of the orphanages in Kumasi. The orphanage broke my heart into a million pieces, and if I were a bit older, I know I would have quickly adopted a few of those babies. Our days there consisted of holding, feeding, and cuddling the babies, playing with the toddlers, and helping out with the children with disabilities. The most heartbreaking part was learning that sometimes in Ghana culture, children with disabilities are highly looked down upon and viewed as a curse or the devil. Most of them are abused and abandoned, which is why the orphanage has many children with disabilities. The one child that broke my heart so much was Daniel. Daniel, who at eight years old could already speak fluent English and Twi and was more intelligent than most eight-year-olds, was paralyzed from the neck down; because of this, he was forbidden to attend school, and I wanted nothing more but for him to get an education, so much so I still think about him and what I could do to help him.
Leaving the orphanage in Ghana on the last day was a sad and hard feeling to wrestle with. I so badly wanted to take home as many of those beautiful babies and children as I could, but I knew that was not possible considering the stage of life I was in. I still struggle with this feeling because I know I was able to positively impact those babies’ lives for a few weeks, but I feel like I abandoned them; I gave them love and then left them there. Though I know they don’t need “saved” by us white people because they are surrounded by good women who take care of them, I still feel as if I’m letting them down by not providing them with a better quality of life. And I think I’ll grapple with that feeling for a long time until I figure something out.
Unfortunately, my time in Ghana was cut about a week short because of the social situations in the volunteer house. There was a peculiar dynamic between most of the group of British volunteers who arrived before most of us American volunteers arrived. Some of them had the strangest superiority complex because they were there before us and refused to believe that all Americans weren’t stupid. It caused a constant storm of drama and division in the house, making it very difficult most days to live in, especially when all I wanted to do was make lifelong friends with some volunteers! Despite the drama, I became very good friends with a few people I ended up following to Tanzania a week earlier than I was supposed to. And boy, was that the best decision because Tanzania was truly the most magical and beautiful experience I’ve ever had.
I can’t even try to explain Tanzania’s beauty in words if I try thoroughly. It’s this amazing combination of safari deserts, lush greenery, flowers and trees, big beautiful mountains including Kilimanjaro, which is the largest mountain in all of Africa, and then to top it all, just right off the coast of Tanzania in the Indian Ocean lies Zanzibar which has the bluest waters you’ll ever see. Truly Tanzania is all of God’s best creations in one country. My journey to Tanzania from Ghana was a long one, and it was the traveling portion of the trip that I was most worried about because it was almost two days crossing over Africa in airports where I knew I would not always understand what was going on. I had about an 18hr layover in Ethiopia, which sounded awful. Still, it ended up being cool because I stayed overnight in a hotel that allowed me to see the capital Addis Ababa, which almost gives off the vibes of a mini Dubai. Also, a little fun fact, ladies, if you start your period in Addis Ababa, they have no idea what a tampon is no matter how hard you try to explain, haha. Apparently, they only have pads, and I wonder if this is from a lack of resources or because their religion prevents it?
Finally, after many hours of traveling, I landed at Kilimanjaro airport, and instantly you feel like you are in a scene of the Lion King. The desert land was so hot, but once you drove an hour into Arusha, where the volunteer house was, the vegetation and mountains made the weather so perfect. There was always a nice breeze to cool you down. It was amazing going from sleeping in only a t-shirt and waking up in a pool of sweat in Ghana to wrapping yourself up in a cozy duvet and sleeping with a breeze in Tanzania; it was heaven. But let’s be real, the most heavenly part of my time in Tanzania was spending time with the kids at Rafiki School and Orphanage.
And the craziest part is that I went to Tanzania signed up for the medical program to continue observing midwives. But the hospital in Arusha, Tanzania, differed significantly from the hospital in Kumasi, Ghana. The hospital in Arusha welcomed lots of licensed nurses and doctors who wanted to use their skills in another country; they did not typically welcome volunteers who were not licensed medical professionals like myself, and because I was not licensed, the woman who ran the hospital did not want me in the delivery room, which makes complete sense, and was truly a gift in disguise because I then switched my volunteer placement to help out at Rafiki.
“Rafiki School and Orphanage” where do I even begin… I’ve never experienced such a joyful and beautiful community. Rafiki is the purest example of God’s love on this earth, and to witness and participate in that, is something that I’ll always cherish. Rafiki in Swahili means “friend.” Joseph and Josephine, the founders of Rafiki, wanted Rafiki to be a place where everyone feels like friends and family, a place anyone can call home.
Rafiki started because Joseph and Josephine, both teachers and lovers of children, saw a need in their community for a place where children without parents could have a place to live and learn and a place for children who have parents who can’t afford local school to also have a place to learn. I’ve never met two people with bigger hearts than Joseph and Josephine. They are known in their community as caregivers who will find a way to meet anyone’s needs. They often spend most weekends making visits to homes delivering food and medicine to people, telling stories, and showing us photos of all the people they were trying to help.
If a child came to Rafiki with a medical condition that needed treatment, Joseph and Josephine would do everything in their power to try and find a doctor who could treat the child. While there, a young boy was suffering from severe eczema all over his body. Everyone thought he had some sort of contagious disease, and so they decided to keep him out of school for months. Joseph wanted us to look at this young boy to see if we had any medical advice. We immediately could tell that this boy was not a danger to anyone; he just had terrible eczema and needed some proper lotion and treatment. The next day after our consult, the boy could start attending Rafiki again, which was a powerful experience!
Another highlight of my stay in Tanzania was my friendships with the other volunteers I got to live with, some of the best people I’ve ever met, and friends I hope to travel with again soon. In the middle of my stay, we all decided to venture to Zanzibar for a week. Zanzibar is an island off the coast of Tanzania in the Indian Ocean. Full of the whitest sand and the most transparent crystal blue turquoise waters, this place was a true paradise, heaven on earth. You must get to Zanzibar one day if you’re a beach lover. We had so much fun hanging out on the beach, exploring, snorkeling, getting tattoos together, meeting people from all over the world, and hearing their stories. I also got to spend my 20th birthday there with all of them, which was a birthday I’ll never forget.
We took Piki Piki’s to Rafiki every morning, and it’s funny how such a simple thing can bring you so much joy. In Arusha, there are three primary forms of public transportation. There’s the Dali Dali, a big van with maybe nine seats. But man, they stuffed those things to the brim with as many people as they could. Not my favorite form of transportation, haha. Next, they had Tuk Tuk’s, which were little cars on three wheels, and lastly, they had Piki Piki’s, which are motorcycles. Something about taking a bike through town every morning with the cool breeze running through your hair and the view of mountains on your left side was just so magical; there were so many moments on those daily rides where I would just think to myself, “damn this is what true living feels like, I’m so glad I left school for this.”
Our days at Rafiki were spent teaching lessons to the kindergartners, playing games with all the kids, and my personal favorite, walking into the toddler room every morning and getting swarmed with hugs and requests to be held; they always wanted to be held and cuddled, and it was my favorite thing ever. As I got to know most of the kids, it was so fun to see their little personalities shine through. They all could speak fluent English and Swahili, which was so impressive. At recess, they taught us all their songs and games; they would always sing the sweetest song: “Be happy, be happy! Be happy, be happy!” in return, we taught them games like tag and how to play jump rope. Sometimes I would sit down, and all the girls loved to braid and play with our hair; most of them already knew how to do small, tight braids, and they were so fast and good at it!
Though each child at Rafiki touched my heart differently, two children specifically left a distinctive and significant mark on my heart. Alice and Bright. On my first day at Rafiki, Joseph explained that three five-year-old orphans still needed to be sponsored to begin primary school in January. Joseph introduced me to Bright, a shy little boy with the sweetest face and smile. I had no clue how I would come up with the money in only a few weeks to sponsor Bright, but I knew I had to find a way.
Over the next few days, Bright quickly warmed up to me, and I looked forward to each morning when he would run into my arms and give me the biggest hug and smile. I noticed baby Alice one morning when I walked into the toddler room, and she was sitting on the floor crying. I would later come to figure out Alice just wanted to be held and loved 24/7. I spent lots of time most days holding Alice and walking her around until she would fall asleep in my arms; seriously, there was nothing more sweet and pure than those moments. I feel honored that both Bright and Alice allowed me into their worlds and allowed a connection that I believe is the root of true goodness and love in this world.
In my final days at Rafiki, I knew I wanted to do more than just give my time, I also wanted to give money, and thanks to a bunch of very gracious donors in my life, I was able to raise enough money to buy the school new toys and bikes, re-paint the new toddler classroom they were renovating and send Bright to primary school with the help of my boyfriend, Sam. The feeling that I was able to give them things they could use long after I had left was so fulfilling, and if you donated and are reading this blog, please know your contributions meant so much to the kids and me!!
My last few days in Tanzania were very bittersweet. During my last week at Rafiki, I got super sick with what we think might have been the original strand of Omicron?? I had multiple blood tests done, and nothing came back positive; the doctors said it was probably just the flu, but I’m convinced that the gnarly cough I had (the worst I’ve had in my entire life) was more than just some flu, hahaha.
I dreaded the last day at Rafiki, I knew it had to come, but of course, I couldn’t imagine saying goodbye to everyone, especially my little Alice and Bright 😦 Joseph and Josephine showered me with so much love and gifted me with a beautiful piece of clothing that was the traditional female outfit of the Massi tribe. I took my final photos with the kids and gave out so many hugs and kisses. Though I was heartbroken, I knew this would only be a temporary goodbye; I had found the most special place on earth and a forever home. As I hoped on a Pikki Pikki to drive off, I looked behind me one more time and saw Bright crying in Joseph’s arms, and that image has been in my head ever since; it’s my motivation to get back to that sweet little boy.
The final leg of this journey took place in Europe, and though I was only there for two weeks, I think I learned so much about myself and the world in the most challenging way possible. If you spend time in an impoverished place, I do not recommend going to some of the fanciest and wealthiest cities right afterward, or maybe I do recommend it because it will turn your whole world upside down and change your perspective forever. The idea of going to Europe after being in Africa came from an excited girl who just wanted to see the world and did not think about how the two vast experiences might mix weirdly.
I figured if I was already on the other side of the world, why not jump over to some places I’ve always wanted to see in Europe? Like most girls, I’ve wanted to go to Paris since I was little. I had my mom paint an Eiffel tower in my room; I hung Paris pictures for years and collected little Eiffel towers. So, of course, Paris had to be my first stop. Though I was meeting up with a friend, I got to spend two days alone in Paris before they arrived, and boy, were those just the best (and the only good two days) I had on my Europe trip.
Going to Paris felt like a true fever dream; I was living out one of my first childhood dreams, fulfilling a part of me that had wondered about this place for so long, and I don’t regret that part of the trip. Paris was truly beautiful in all of its old architecture. I got to my air b n b with no winter clothes except one pair of jeans and a long-sleeve shirt, so I went on a mission to change my appearance. I wanted to have that French look. So I found a little hole-in-the-wall hair salon run by two old french ladies who didn’t speak a lick of English; this will be a story I tell for ages 🙂
I had pictures on my phone of what I wanted; thankfully, that was enough to get the job done. She placed my head in a shampoo bowl, pouring bleach straight on my head and massaging that sucker in. I then had to let it sit, of course, and when my head was on fire from the chemical burn, I had no way to communicate but make some noise and point to my head. Their methods seemed strange, but the French are good man. I came out of that salon after an hour looking like a new woman, a very, very blonde one.
I spent the next two days wandering around Paris, shopping, eating lots of pastries, and conquering the metro system. I spoke no french but made my way around the city like a pro; I can thank the NYC metro system (the most confusing metro system in the world) for that one! The first time I saw the Eiffel Tower up close, I cried; I felt extremely happy for the seven-year-old girl inside me who wanted nothing more but to see the Eiffel tower; it was a dream come true.
Things were beautiful until about day 4 in Paris; at this point, I was not alone, other people accompanied me, and this is where things became a bit more complicated and a little bit less beautiful. I remember vividly walking through a fancy part of Paris with designer stores and signs surrounding me everywhere. And at that moment, I wanted nothing more but to be home with my family. I felt disgusted and confused. I realized then that I had just flown to a new world where money, brands, and materialistic items are valued most. I wanted to run as fast as I could. Europe was not where my soul and heart belonged at the moment, and realizing I was stuck there for another two weeks before I could return to my boyfriend and family was a harsh reality to face.
I could go on and on about the details and the stories that made the rest of my time in Europe quite miserable, but for the respect of other people, I’ll just share how the tragic end of my trip became beautiful and perfect. In our second to the last city, Copenhagen, I became super sick the night we got to our air b n b. When you’re sick, all you want is your bed and your mom, so my longing to be home heightened. I woke up the following day with the worst pain in my throat I’ve ever felt, and I knew the only way to fix the pain was to get some prescription medicine. But there’s just one issue: Denmark has free healthcare for its citizens, so it’s tough luck for you if you aren’t a citizen. After spending $200 in taxi fares jumping from clinic to hospital all day trying to find a doctor who would see me, I finally found an emergency room that would see me. Needless to say, the whole thing was a mess just to get some penicillin.
We got back to our air b n b that night, and with basically no money left in my bank account, I had no energy, desire, or means to go to our last stop, London. I did not want to buy another expensive taxi, so I decided to walk 30min in the cold to the nearest pharmacy to pick up my medicine. And on the walk to the pharmacy listening to Taylor Swift’s new Red album, I had an epiphany. I believe it was a Wednesday. I was supposed to be arriving in NYC that following Tuesday to finally see my boyfriend, Sam, after being apart for almost four months. Then I remembered that on that Saturday night, Sam was going to be performing in a monologue show at his college while another performer was going to perform the story that Sam wrote about our time doing international long distance. I was super sad that I was going to miss the show until I realized on my walk, “wait, why don’t I just see if I can change my flight and fly from Copenhagen to NYC on Friday and surprise Sam??” And so I did! I knew London could wait; all I wanted was to finally be reunited with Sam anyways.
When I tell you it was indeed the work of God that I made it on time to Sam’s show that Saturday night!! I had to take two flights and two trains to make it to Poughkeepsie, New York, from Copenhagen, Denmark, and it was all planned out to a T to make it in time. I would not arrive in time if any flight or train got delayed. Indeed it was one of the craziest 24 hours. I left the air b n b in Copenhagen at 4 am that Friday morning. I then flew to Lisbon and boarded my flight to NYC. Because it was an 8-hour flight and because of the time difference, I landed in NYC that Saturday afternoon.
I didn’t know if I could pull off the surprise since I couldn’t text Sam for 8 hours while I was on my flight, but I had this man fooled. I turned off my location the day before, which I knew would be suspicious, but I told him my location app was broken, lol. He thought I was in London, so I took a screenshot of the air b nb photo online and sent it to him saying, “just arrived in London; look how nice our house is!” And he fell for that too! Lastly, I told him that since I was still sick, I would be sleeping and wouldn’t be on my phone for a while since I could not text on the plane. It was a perfect scheme, and he was too distracted by his performance to read into it.
Once I landed in NYC, it was crunch time to make it through customs, get ready in the airport bathroom then bolt it to train #1 and train #2. Time could not go by any slower. I was so excited to see the look on Sam’s face when I surprised him. Finally, an hour before the show started, I made it to Poughkeepsie, NY, where Sam’s parents picked me up. Seeing some familiar faces after being away from home for ten weeks was so lovely.
We went inside Sam’s college before the show started, but obviously, we needed a way to get Sam downstairs. So while I hid behind a wall, Sam’s mom called him to come downstairs because she had “twisted her ankle.” He, of course, rushed downstairs, and I popped out behind the wall! His reaction was priceless and made all of the traveling so worth it. He was so surprised, and finally, being able to hug him was the best feeling ever. We will remember that story forever, and it’s just another reason to be thankful the Europe trip went awful because if it weren’t, I would have gone to London, and we would have never had that particular moment of surprise.
It was the perfect way to end an amazing and life-altering trip. I’m so thankful that my life path guided me to take this trip. I’m grateful that Sarah Lawrence College was not the right place for me because the doors to this trip would have never opened. I’m thankful for all the beautiful people and children I met in Ghana and Tanzania. The people and friends who I will have relationships with for many years to come. Though this blog has been in the works since January of 2022, I’m writing the ending to this piece a week before I take another trip back to Tanzania.
My heart is so full as I think of the way my first trip to Tanzania changed me and how it will continue to shape and change me as I go back time after time. This time I’ll solely be in Tanzania for about five weeks. I’ll be living with Joseph and Josephine, the owners of Rafiki Orphanage and School, who graciously opened up their home to me, and Katie and Naima, my friends who I met there last year, that are going back with me! I am beyond excited to live within the Rafiki community; this will allow me to spend much more time with the kids and see more of their daily lives.
Naima, Katie, and I will also embark on a crazy adventure by climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa!! The first time I saw Mt. Kilimanajro last fall, I told myself I would come back one day and climb it, I didn’t think it would be this soon, but this feels like the perfect time for me to do it. I’m constantly processing what my next steps in life should be right now, and I have a fantastic feeling that climbing this mountain and connecting to a miraculous part of God’s creation will help me process many things.
Lastly, I want to thank you all for being a part of this journey with me! Whether reading my blog posts, interacting with my Instagram posts about my travels, donating to Rafiki, or encouraging me and being excited about my adventure, you all have a part of this journey. I hope, if anything, it inspires you to get out and see the world, travel to distant places, and find a community of people to love and give back to. I will continue to post updates on my Instagram @gracieshanklin, but I have also made a new Instagram dedicated to all my travels that you can follow for photos, stories, and how to travel on a budget @gracietravelstheworld. Once again, I’ll see you on the flip side!