Reflections on AfrikaBurn, Peace Corps service, and life

Recently, I’ve had time to reflect. We had our COS conference last week. Three weeks ago, I was galavanting in the Karoo desert during the experience that is AfrikaBurn. Last month marked eight years since my mother died after a long illness.

As I’ve been reflecting, some things became clearer to me. These are five recurring themes that I’ve learned from burns, service, and life.

Embrace impermanence

There’s a saying that there is no time like the present. Strike while the iron is hot. While it’s true that no moment lasts forever, it’s also true that life and all the things in it (including AfrikaBurn and Peace Corps) are mere moments. Admitting to ourselves that nothing is permanent (including us) allows us to fully engage in the now. Now is all we have. Why not love now? Forgive now. Embrace now. AfrikaBurn is seven days in a desert. Peace Corps is more than two years in an foreign community. While those moments won’t last, the memories do.

For the first time since I’ve started going to burns, I was ready to depart from the burn last month. AfrikaBurn was still magical. And it still left me high on life and the awesomeness of humanity. But while the high might be long lasting, it isn’t permanent. The need for a constant, permanent high is addiction.

Don’t try to recreate experiences

I remember discussing my first year at Burning Man with a friend of mine. He was excited as I recounted fond memories. I remember him expressing his desire to recreate my Burning Man experience for himself. When I was doing research on Peace Corps before I joined, I saw many volunteers doing amazing work. I arrived in Swaziland, and thought of replicating the work being done by the previous group. It makes sense. They are successful. I want to be successful. I need to do what they’re doing. I believe that the experience we have is heavily influenced by many factors including where we are in life at that time. The factors that made my first year at Burning Man so amazing might not be present in your life at this time. And that’s okay. I believe inspiration and aspirations are powerful, but they don’t have to dictate our path and experience. You are the creator of your own experience. Which leads me to…

It’s all made up

Everything that we see, hear, do and experience is all made up. JFK made up the Peace Corps. Larry Harvey made up Burning Man. Al Gore made up the internet. When wild imaginations are left in childhood, we try to create a better today instead innovating an exciting tomorrow. Life, like AfrikaBurn and Peace Corps, encourages experimentation and innovation. There’s even a camp at Burning Man called, “It’s All Made Up”. Shouts to the IAMU crew. Again, it’s up to us to create and co-create this thing called life.

Sit face to face with people

We live in a world with many things competing for our attention. Partially because of that, sensationalism abounds. We end up with strong opinions of people we’ve never met and know very little about. Real life people become the nameless, faceless “them” or “they”. This changes when we sit with someone, formerly known as strange(r), and experience their humaness through interactions. Suddenly, Burners aren’t a bunch of naked hippies doing drugs in a desert and Swazis (and by extension, Africans) aren’t a bunch of unintelligent, poor people living in mud huts. When we meet face to face, there is often some common ground. We get to deconstruct the single story bestowed on those who want to share their own stories. Even without common language, interests, and/or ideologies, we’re all humans sharing this planet.

Community Interaction

One of the principles of Burning Man culture is “participation”. To me, a large part of that participation is done through interacting with the space and the people in it. Through interaction, we co-create the life experience. In Peace Corps, I’ve found that magic happens when I am a participant in my community. Interacting with the community promotes growth and gets things done. Interaction also promotes relationships and seeing people as more than simple mediums if transaction.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

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Me. As a feminist. 

A few years ago, I was hanging out with a friend after happy hour. Somehow, we got on the topic of feminism. She identified as a feminist. I did not. I viewed feminists as anti-male, and I couldn’t see why I would advocate for the antithesis of my identity. My friend tried to explain to me that my view of feminism greatly differed from what it is. She explained that feminism was about equality. That made sense. I support equality. The problem was that I didn’t see inequalities. I still resisted the term, “feminist”. My friend was patient with me. 

The following year, I moved to Swaziland to begin my service in the Peace Corps. I was reminded throughout my first year in Swaziland that part of privilege is being able to not notice (or not pay attention to) something because it doesn’t adversely affect you. I have no doubt that parts of my experience are correlated to me being a man. During my time here, there have been several instances of gender inequality. Some have been shared or pointed out to me. Others have been blatant. There’s a point when not noticing becomes negligence. It’s possible that the point for me was explaining to various men that I cannot give you any of my women colleagues or friends. Sometimes, discussions ensue regarding me wanting to “keep all the women for myself”. I try to explain that women are not property or rewards, and that women aren’t owned. At some point during my service, something from the past finally made sense. Years ago, a different friend described feminism as “the radical idea that women are human beings.” 

During my service, I’ve had the opportunity to read some of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s books. Most recently, I finished “We Should All Be Feminists”, which was an expanded version of a TED talk by the same name. I saw myself in some of the stories she told. I heard pieces of my story in her descriptive tales of folks with singular viewpoints on feminism, or the ‘single story’, as Adichie calls it. I was reminded of those micro-aggressions toward women that I’ve seen at home and abroad. I was reminded of many earlier conversations explaining that Black people in America are savages, and that not all Americans have great financial wealth. I still refer to myself as a Black American despite the negative images conjured in the minds of some people. For years, I’ve understood that Blackness eschews monoculturalism and the single story. There’s no definitive way to be Black. Letting go of some old thoughts has pushed me to the idea that feminism isn’t a single story. It is many things to many people. For me, it’s “the radical idea that women are human beings”. 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward.