Decolonizing Our Mind: A Traveller’s Responsibility
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ESSAY BY SARA LOPEZ

We all know what it is like getting ready for a trip or a visit somewhere new and exciting. So many emotions come up when we are about to embark on a new adventure. After all, exploration is a beautiful and exciting part of the human experience.

No matter how exciting, discovery and exploration also have other sides to them. When we travel or find ourselves in different parts of the world, it is crucial to ask ourselves these questions: Whose land am I stepping into? What history has occurred on this land? How might this history impact the local population? How might this impact (my) interactions with the local people? I am not suggesting that we make clear, concrete judgments or decisions based on information we have read beforehand. What I am saying— from my experience—do some research. And most importantly, after arriving in a place, be open and speak with its people. Ask important questions, and have open and honest conversations. This is when we begin to understand more. We gain access to deeper truths this way, ones we cannot find in a book or online, and they are from the source— the very people who have experienced life in their lands. 

Behind the romanticization, there is an opportunity to see a place in its totality. When I use the word “totality,” I mean that we can see a place for all it contains. The “good” and the “bad”. The overarching themes and nuances. The advantages and the disadvantages. The positives and negatives. The inbetweens and the gray areas. We place ourselves in a position where we can hold all of these viewpoints simultaneously. In this approach, we do not put people or cultures in boxes. We can begin to understand a larger picture, opening the blinds to our limited perception. Through this approach, we can also examine how our privilege impacts our thought patterns and, therefore, our experiences. Once we have begun this process— there is less control of wanting things done a certain way, there is less need to have others accommodate us and our “needs”. This way, we can better respect the land and its people. As a visitor in a foreign land, this is a crucial process in order to have a more whole and reciprocal experience between ourselves and the locals.

Perhaps when we jet off, whether we are rewarding ourselves for working very hard or we are taking that first vacation we only ever dreamed of having, we get tempted to go full-on “vacation mode.” Abandoning any inhibitions and all responsibilities. I say this— balance. We need balance. There is still room for both enjoyment and awareness of our environments and the spaces we occupy. I find that being in a position to afford international travel, we have a responsibility once we have reached our destination. Even at times, we are challenged by wanting to form judgments and criticisms onto a place, community, or people. I challenge everyone to dive into a deeper truth, one that is beyond black and white thinking—the truth of something as simple as acceptance. My desire is that the following paragraphs serve as examples to provide context to other layers and perspectives for greater understanding.

What I am suggesting is that we can hold our opinions, convictions, and morals while accepting that others have different ones. This step is an integral part of the decolonizing process. There are steps in this process. Part of that process involves deconstructing our value system. Observing how much was given to us by society or family and communities. We question things around us, educate ourselves more on topics we are passionate about. We find “our voice.” We take what we find true and aligned with ourselves and discard what does not work. Most importantly— we do not force any of it on others. This is a revolutionary step in overcoming a colonialist mindset and getting ourselves out of the trap of black and white thinking. For example, in both the Masaai and Samburu communities, polyamorous relationships are very normal. One of the young men in the community shared that he was looking forward to having several wives. I do not practice polyamory, but we could still speak freely and openly about his vision for his future family. He was not trying to push his culture’s values, nor was I trying to change his view on relationships.

Maybe at some point on the journey or trip, we are faced with topics that are less cultural but rather concern us more as a global family. I am talking about topics of environmental concern. These issues are never simple and, at times, can be highly complex as they mainly concern the involvement of many. Let us first use the example of pollution. However one categorizes the failures in institutional responsibility or lack of concern over pollution, it is important not to judge the people. The mind will form ideas of a place based on what we see in images and pictures and then this will communicate with the ego and our minds will want to judge. Again, this is how we place people, communities, and countries into a box. As I have said before, there are much deeper layers to many of the problems we witness on the surface. In the case of the issue with pollution, which impacts humans, the air we breathe, the land we walk on and any type of water source we drink from— one realizes what has arrived in the industrialized West might not have arrived in a location we are visiting. Before passing judgment and disappointment, we need to zoom out our perspectives.

Sometimes it is beyond the failure of a government in implementing environmental policy. Many of the issues we see today are consequences of colonialism perpetuated by capitalism and neocolonialsim (but that is for another conversation). Under these pre- texts we see that capitalism exists in different places and in different ways. It has become transnational. Companies from the west often get their raw materials from continents like say, Africa. Mainly these companies take raw materials for an unbelievably cheap price so that they can produce and profit more in the end. Not only is this unjust in terms of economic gaps, but additionally the raw material extraction process always impacts the environment, resulting in some of the following: soil degradation, water shortages, biodiversity loss, damage to ecosystem functions and global warming exacerbation. It’s no coincidence the locals are faced with the ecological consequences. The aftermath becomes challenging to manage by these countries.

We also see plastic pollution as a problem around the world. With the spread of interna- tional products and materials such as plastic, we see newly formed “desires” that did not exist before in these countries, and then we see the consequences of those said “desires.” In this case, the introduction of plastic, and specifically discarding this plastic has become an issue. Some locals find that discarding plastic is no different from discarding a banana peel. It gets tossed on the ground—just as everything had before the invention of manufactured products. Composting is natural. It is a part of our human instinct. Food waste (meaning anything containing the food and the food itself) was thrown on the ground to decompose. This was and is a habit still for many people around the world especially living outside industrialized nations.

Nevertheless, at times there is slow policy implementation and a lack of responsibility on behalf of the companies producing this plastic to educate people on managing the waste of their products. Initiatives and movements arrive differently and at different intervals in certain places. Not everywhere is going to do it the same. However, movement is still happening. Single-use plastic, for example, is banned or taxed in many parts of Africa, with Kenya leading the strictest ban.

Additionally, as we navigate the complexities and impacts of colonialism on ourselves and others, perhaps now is an appropriate time to bring up another topic in this web of subjects— wildlife. Before creating this second volume, there were many late-night conversations, discussions with strangers in restaurants, and passionate debates over this subject. My partner and I met a man in Uganda, originally from Europe, who worked in animal conservation, and inevitably we discussed the issue of poaching. He was very invested and passionate about combating the nearing extinction of particular animals. He was very devoted to saving them— and understandably so, the extinction of any species is incredibly tragic as it impacts the web of life. Yet, I found myself approaching this tragedy from a very different perspective. I was upset. But, I did not feel quite the same as this man. I was upset about what has been done to Africa. The impacts that colonialism and neocolonialism have had on the continent. I told the man that I was not against trying to help curb the issue of species loss, but I felt that the investment and empowerment of the people in regions where poaching is prevalent was an even more pressing task.

The transactional nature of foreign greed and disregard of human life is what I believe to be breaking issues, and namely the extinctions happening in Africa.

It took years of familiarizing myself with the unfortunate ways animals are impacted and exploited by human consumption, behavior, and demand. The issues that created illegal poaching and hunting as an industry reflect how we have lost our humanity towards each other. Some might be asking, “What does ha- ving humanity towards each other have to do with animals?” I believe it has everything to do with animals. Our relationship to wildlife and nature itself mirrors how we treat each other. We are a part of nature, thus it is important to see how we are treating each other. We have neglected each other. We have disregarded each other and, therefore, other life forms. We have sought more the benefit of the individual and not the collective good.

The activism for animals and wildlife is nothing I am criticizing. I am criticizing that we have led so astray that we have created a system that has led people into desperation—working in poaching and hunting as an industry has become a means of putting food on the table for many families. Needless to say, we live in a complicated web of action and reaction, impact and consequence.

Moreover, much of the demands these industries or black markets fulfill come from outside the country that displays the unfortunate results. So much so is the demand for hunting in Africa by Westerners, animals are bred solely for this sport. Who are we to judge the locals meeting a demand to feed their families? A demand they did not create? What we need to examine is our demands themselves. We need to look at the impact of foreign investment on local populations. Examine the companies and interests who are taking more than they are putting back into the communities and lands they extract from.

The interconnectedness of a globalized world means our demands can impact someone far away, thus, perpetuating a broken system. A system that does not have a collective benefit. So at some point down the line, desperation for cash flow is created. Some people who do not benefit from the system, or even worse, have been psychologically and mentally tainted by a system or conflict resort to questionable actions. Many of us cannot comment on these actions because we sit and experience life from a privileged position— and let’s face it, many of us have never been forced to make difficult decisions rooted in survival. In the case of Africa, so many foreign interests take from Africa but refuse to invest in her people. Until we learn to invest in the collective good, we will see these black market industries continue to exploit and the business of breeding “hunting” animals continue to operate. Digging deeper into the layers, we can familiarize ourselves with the roots.

These examples only begin to open the door for further research and further investigation. The impacts are many and it is only my desire to shed to light a few issues I encountered repeatedly during my time in Africa. After offering these different examples, let us travel back up from these dense and broken layers of human making. Not all hope is lost. What was created and no longer functional for the human race can be allowed to decay. New seeds can be planted to grow new possibilities. It comes down to the individual. Our impacts have a rippling effect on those around us. Once we achieve these milestones of understanding, followed by proactive action, it is easier to head toward redemption. We can initiate global conversations about what we can do collectively to help curb or solve these problems. Collective compassion is one of the directions towards solving global issues, rather than blaming local populations, whether for the fate of a species or fragile environmental policies. Once we peel back the layers, we see things differently. We start to realize the real problem, which goes beyond the surface.

Sara Elisa Lopez
Co-Funder of The Jungle Journal & TJJ Expeditions

@saraelisalopez

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