I’ve had a bucket list for as long as I can remember, long before Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson made it cool. It includes things like going to every major sporting event in the world (I have a long way to go), but also focuses on my desire to see the world. It’s pretty awesome when your company can help make your dreams come true and provide that satisfying feeling every PR professional feels when something is officially crossed off a list. I went to Africa. Check.

When I was selected as a winner of the No Boundaries program this past September, I had no idea what the trip would look like. I quickly realized “going to Africa” is pretty dang vague. Africa is larger than China, the U.S, Western Europe, India, Argentina, three Scandinavian countries and the British Isles. (source: Big Think).  I was lucky enough to match my dream with a sanitation story gathering trip for a client and see three very different regions of Africa – Ouagadougou (Wah-gah-doo-goo), Burkina Faso in West Africa (clearly the best named city in the world), Nairobi, Kenya in East Africa, and both Johannesburg and Capetown, South Africa over the course of three weeks.

While I could probably write a novel on lessons learned and life-changing stories, I’ll keep this short to my key takeaways. I’m clearly no expert after three weeks on this monstrous continent, but the following are my top four takeaways.

1) Happiness. There is a lot of poverty, sickness and gross disparities in Africa. This is what I expected to see — and I saw it. But what is significantly more telling is despite this, people are happy. I’ve often referred to myself as self-defined “empathoholic”. One who experiences empathy almost to a fault. I admittedly went in expecting to see shocking conditions and sadness and to subsequently feel deep sadness. But what I saw were children, men, and women who were happy – genuinely happy — and I walked away also feeling happy and inspired. Would the people I met like more money to feed their children? To build an improved toilet? To secure the leaking roof over their head? Absolutely, without a doubt. But the bottom line is, the inspiring people I met along the way take one day at a time, thankful for what they do have, and the optimism about life and the drive to improve conditions is infectious.

2) Pace. Life is slower in Africa. Americans move fast. Really fast. It’s our way of life – we don’t have three hour leisurely brunches. In fact, we want our check the moment the last scone has been devoured and expect our server to arrive on demand. We want to be connected, to everyone, everywhere, always. It’s to a point where I find myself getting frustrated if I can’t check my email while flying 30,000 feet in the air or if I can’t upload the incredible photo of a woman carrying a hundred of strawberries on her head for 900 of my closest friends. I feel inadequate.

But guess what? All of the work that needed to be done still got done and I didn’t lose a single friend on Facebook for not uploading my photos immediately. While I’m not suggesting that I’m prepared to give up the immediate gratification that we’ve come to know, love and above all – expect, it was a nice breath of fresh air to put things in perspective. I was on the other side of the world in one of the poorest countries, eating brunch, drinking a Coca-Cola Light, while checking my email, even if it is a bit slower than usual.

3) Communications. Although a bit more sporadic in consistent service than I’m used to, it’s no secret that Africa is one of the fastest growing mobile markets. According to the BBC, there are nearly 650 million mobile phone subscribers with the number expected to reach 735 million by the end of 2012. And it’s true, on average particularly in Ouaga, I was asked to buy a SIM card multiple times throughout a day. Nearly everyone I met had not one, but two cell phones, so that they could talk on whatever network their friends and family were used.

The number one request we received for something from the United States was…an iPhone of course. In Nairobi, I met a beautiful community health worker named Zuhura. We spent an afternoon with Zuhuru in one of Africa’s biggest slums, Kibera. Zuhura explained to us how she makes sure TB patients are taking their medication and gets people the treatment they need using her mobile phone. Truly amazing the ways mobile phones are improving healthcare and quality of life.

4) Beauty. I won’t be as deep on this one. But Africa is BEAU-TI-FUL. From the colors of the fabrics, to the smiles of the people, to the craziness of animals (how crazy are giraffes and zebras when you really think of it), to the diverse landscape of coastline, mountains, rolling hills, etc. etc. And no joke, the sky really looked like the Lion King.

People told me this trip would change my life and it did. I’m thankful I had this opportunity and am able to apply life lessons to my work and bring back stories if incredible people to share with the world. My bucket list also grew ten-fold adding more African countries to visit. So much for crossing it off.

Image courtesy of Jeff Attaway.

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