Life Lessons on the Serengeti Plains
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Life Lessons on the Serengeti Plains

The 2010 Next Generation Leaders learn about life and leadership on a 9-day journey to Tanzania

Send a group of teenagers to the Serengeti, and you might expect them to return with enthusiastic tales of big game sightings—extraordinary moments that bring childhood fantasies of the wilderness to life. It's a powerful experience for a traveler of any age … but for one group of college-bound students, a very different facet of Africa proved far more meaningful: the encounters they shared with the local people.

Grand Circle's 2010 Next Generation LeadersRodney Galvao, Yelithza Galvez, Jamel Langston, Myesha Neely, Darryl Soto, Hakeem Yaya, and Amy Zahlaway—visited Tanzania in July as the culmination of an intense seven-week leadership program. During their time at Grand Circle, the students experienced on-the-job training, seminars, and outdoor team-building events, with Harriet and Alan Lewis serving as their mentors. (Read more about it here.) While the trip was certainly intended to be an experience the young leaders would remember forever, it was by no means a vacation. The nine-day journey encapsulated community service, team building, and the application of their newly developed leadership skills—challenges that were greatly intensified after traveling half a world away from their comfort zones.

Accompanied by Foundation associates Serah Makka and Brian Gannon, the team departed Grand Circle headquarters to great fanfare, with associates from throughout the company gathered to see them off. "At first, I was a bit scared leaving my family and traveling into another country," says Rodney—who was almost equally scared about not liking the food. It was just one of many unknowns that would test the students' ability to take risks and thrive in change—two of the core values that Grand Circle encourages associates to live by every day.

Learning to expect the unexpected

In fact, thriving in change became a necessity from the moment the group landed on African soil and crossed the dusty border into Tanzania. "From the beginning, I could see that most days—if not every day—were going to change in some way," says Hakeem. That first day changed considerably when the group's drivers got lost and crisscrossed the bumpy trails for hours in search of the correct ravine to cross. It's a lesson best learned quickly in the African wilderness: always be prepared to expect the unexpected.

After enjoying a bit of the traditional safari experience during a day of game viewing, the group visited the village of Karatu to participate in community service—first at the Banjika Secondary School, and then at the Bashay Primary School. Alan and Harriet joined them for this portion of the trip—and considering the enormous impact Grand Circle Foundation has had on the community, it's not surprising that the village pulled out all the stops to give the group a hero's welcome. Two choirs, 600 students, community elders, and the schools' principals all came out for a huge ceremony complete with speeches, awards, and music. "It was really the epitome of what Grand Circle Foundation is all about," says Brian Gannon, a mentor to the Next Generation Leaders and Database Coordinator for the Foundation. "Here we were, pulling into the Banjika School, which was literally built by the Foundation and OAT travelers—in particular, Susan Rickert," he says. "And we were accompanied by seven young adults who represent the Boston community organizations that we support."

"I will never forget that moment," says Yelithza, "seeing all the kids with their beautiful smiling faces, giving us a welcome fit for a king and queen." Moving though the ceremony was, it gave the students yet another opportunity to thrive in change: because the whole affair was a surprise, the team had to shorten their community service event by two hours.

Seeing the world differently

Immediately, Amy experienced some apprehension—and not because they were short on time. "I was nervous about the language barrier," she admits. "I thought it would be impossible to enjoy our time together without being able to talk." She began to think of other ways to express herself—and the idea of a fist pound popped into her mind. "I made a fist, and reached out to the child in front of me," Amy remembers. "To my surprise, he did the same." Soon, more and more children joined in the greeting as waves of laughter broke out. "At that moment, I truly felt like a leader," says Amy, "because I brought together a group of children of all different ages who I couldn't otherwise communicate with."

Myesha, on the other hand, made connections just by introducing herself. "My name means 'life' in Kiswahili, it's just spelled differently," she says. "Every time I introduced myself to the children and adults, their eyes lit up!" The welcome made her feel special … but it actually had little to do with her name. "We were treated with respect everywhere we went," she says. "It's so different to see people who are always happy, even though they own nothing compared to Americans."

Over the course of two days, the team led 600 Karatu students in art classes, served them lunch, and challenged them to soccer matches. For Rodney, who began his adventure worried about what kinds of food he'd be eating, lunch was a revelation. "When I was serving, I accidentally gave one boy a bone with no meat on it," Rodney remembers. "Instead of complaining, he was happy with what he received and began to walk off." Rodney immediately called the child back and served him a generous portion of chicken. "Here in America, kids complain about what cell phone they have, what sneakers they want, etc.," says Rodney. "While American kids complain that they need new shoes, the kids here in Africa are walking barefoot with smiles on their faces. It made me see the world differently."

Jamel had similar sentiments after his time at the school. "The kids there are very grateful for what they have and don't complain about anything," he says. "Some kids only eat once a day because they can't afford school lunch. Experiencing how they live every day made me appreciate the most basic things I have, like an education, a home, and three meals a day."

When it comes to making an impact, however, material contributions aren't always necessary—as Darryl learned upon meeting a secondary student at Banjika School. "We both shared a passion for helping others, and we aimed to further our education and careers by becoming doctors," says Darryl. He realized he had made a connection, but didn't think too much of it until the following day at Bashay Primary School. "This little boy kept calling my name," Darryl remembers. "When I looked at him, I recognized him, but I didn't know from where." The boy then explained that his older brother David had met Darryl the day before at the secondary school—and that their meeting had made such a strong impression, David told his family about it that night. "I was stunned," Darryl says. "I didn't know what to say as I looked at this young boy who looked so much like his older brother.

Redefining "responsibility"

The team gained yet another perspective on African life during a visit to a Maasai village. "This visit impacted me deeply," says Hakeem. "It increased my appreciation for everything, including just being alive." While the Next Generation Leaders were each chosen for the program because of their strong sense of responsibility, witnessing the expectations of their Maasai peers gave new meaning to the word. "From the time the boys are able to walk, they have the responsibility of looking after three or four goats," says Hakeem. "But when they reach the age of 18, they have the responsibility of becoming a man." Among the challenges they face during this transition is circumcision—during which they cannot flinch, cry, or show any emotion, under the penalty of being shunned by their village. "I am no stranger to rough times and hardship," says Hakeem, "and I can't even begin to fathom how I would go through a procedure like this."

Lessons in life and leadership

Now back on U.S. soil, the Next Generation Leaders are all preparing for their next great journey: heading off to college in the fall. It's an opportunity they'll appreciate now more than ever, having met children who are privileged just to go to secondary school. They'll also appreciate the leadership lessons they're taking away from Grand Circle—which will serve them well as they learn to thrive in some momentous life changes. Yelithza remembers perhaps the most important lesson of all: "I learned that it's okay to make mistakes," she says. "Even the best of leaders make them … but the important thing is to learn from them."

Spoken like a true leader, from any generation.