Pepperdine Voice Magazine
by Gary Selby
Gary Selby is the Blanche E. Seaver Professor in Communication at Seaver College. This summer he traveled to East Africa with 19 Pepperdine students to study economic development, cross-cultural communication, and global poverty in Pepperdine's first-ever East Africa study abroad opportunity. This is his story.
The journey began with three weeks in Jinja, Uganda, famed source of the Nile River. Each morning we gathered for breakfast and several hours of class, after which students scattered for lunch and an afternoon of working in a variety of relief and development projects.
They did everything from playing with children at an orphanage and shadowing counselors working with AIDS patients, to helping construct a school and participating in a program to bring clean water to villages. Each evening we gathered for dinner and had class until 9 p.m. On the weekends we went to church in the villages or had a wild day of whitewater rafting on the Nile. For most, the high point was the "bonding experience," through which each student spent a night with a family in a remote village—complete with mud huts, thatched roofs, pit toilets, and dinner cooked over an open fire.
After three weeks in Jinja, we boarded a bus for the two-day journey to Rwanda, the "country of a thousand hills." There we visited memorials to the victims of the 1994 genocide, and saw amazing signs of hope and resilience—a "microfinance community" of women gathered under a tree working to successfully pay back their small loans, or the workshop of a businesswoman named Joy who trains village women to weave traditional Rwandan baskets for export all over the world (including one shipment already tagged for Macy's). Our journey ended with a safari—four days touring game parks in Tanzania.
For our students, the experience was life changing. In class they read about how nonverbal communication differs from culture to culture, but there they learned to communicate with Africans who give directions by pointing with their lips instead of their fingers and who signal "yes" by raising their eyebrows instead of nodding their heads. Students saw firsthand the challenges of poverty and development that confront so much of our world. But they also received some of the richest hospitality of their lives, as the Ugandans they visited welcomed them joyfully, gave them the best beds in their homes, and interrupted all other activity in order to attend to their honored guests.
One student summed up the trip's transformative effect in this way: "Once you step out of the box, you can never step back in. I won't be able to look at a kitchen without seeing a smoky cooking hut with chickens walking in and out. I don't think I will ever hear the number 5,000 without thinking about the number of people who were murdered at the small Ntarama church during the Rwandan genocide. I won't be able to say the words 'How are you?' without remembering how important the greeting process is to Ugandans. My perspective on this life and the culture I live in will never be the same."