I recently finished reading Tracy Kidder’s Strength in What Remains, which highlights one man’s journey from the genocide in Burundi and Rwanda to becoming a refugee in New York City. Some chapters are quite graphic in their descriptions of the slaughtering of Hutus and Tutsis — the pain, suffering and atrocities he witnessed. These deaths seemed nothing like being on a morphine drip in an ICU bed or falling into a final deep sleep as your family surrounds you with tears and prayers. Instead they seemed gruesome and inhumane.
Shortly before returning to the United States for the holidays from Malawi, a truck full of police and military men pulled up next to my car as I was driving and demanded my driver’s license. They claimed I was “dangerously parked” while stopped in a long queue of traffic to let my friends hop out across from a bus station and would, therefore, be fined K10,000 (approximately $18).
Before my year abroad, I decided to pursue a masters of public health at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University. During the weeklong MPH orientation last fall, we had an eight-hour mandatory session on cultural awareness, which included drawing our cultures with crayons on blank sheets of paper and sharing them with the group. Throughout the day, one of the students kept emphasizing how much she has been grappling with her white privilege lately. At the time, I had trouble appreciating what she was referring to, but after almost four months in Africa, my “whiteness” is part of my daily thoughts.
One of my housemates and I decided early on in my time in Malawi that we needed a code word that would mean, “Austin, stop worrying about money and schedules. Just enjoy the experience and let go.” We decided that “chocolate chips” would be our secret phrase for capturing this sentiment. That way, regardless of the social situation, my housemate could remind me to let go of control and just be.
In undergrad chemistry lab, you likely were introduced to the terms accuracy and precision, often represented visually by the spread of darts on a dartboard. You were told to keep track of significant figures based on how well the various graduated cylinders and titration pipettes could measure volumes. The goal was to express the answer with as much certainty as possible, given the tools at your disposal.