Laurel Buchi-Fotre

Laurel Buchi-Fotre was humbled during an 8-month service trip in Africa

Class of 2012 | Cultural Anthropology

At the end of the spring quarter in 2007, Laurel Buchi-Fotre decided to take her second year off and looked for opportunities that allowed her to travel to a country where she would participate in social service.

"I had a death in my family that was pretty close to me and my first boyfriend from college broke up with me," Buchi-Fotre, a Cultural Anthropology major. "Things sort of spiraled. It seemed like a really good time to sort of step back and try something else for a little bit."

That "something else" became an eight-month service-oriented trip to Africa from December 2007 to August 2008 during which Buchi-Fotre spent four months apiece in Nigeria and Zambia. She put the trip together herself but received substantial donations for her flight and living expenses from The University of Chicago chapter of the sorority Delta Gamma.

Buchi-Fotre described her trip to Nigeria as "incredibly eye-opening," "challenging," and "frustrating." At times, she felt unequipped to handle the constant scrutiny that she received because of her skin color. For the first month, Buchi-Fotre lived with a host family, then she moved into a hotel. She spent a considerable amount of time navigating the city by herself during which she learned conversational phrases in pidgin English, British English, Yoruba, Hausa, and Ijaw. Communicating with the locals was Buchi-Fotre’s favorite daily habit. 

“It was a joy to discover the subtleties of communication and the value in paying attention to them,” said Buchi-Fotre. “Having a sense of humor about the challenges of communication also created all kinds of opportunities to share a laugh and break the ice with the people I met.”

She interned for the Niger Delta Blind Students Association (NDBSA), a non-governmental organization that focuses on improving the plight of blind people in Nigeria. Her primary duty consisted of fundraising which entailed soliciting both the local and the international banks as well as businesses in Lagos in order to attain corporate sponsorships for an arts exhibit that would be hosted by NDBSA.

"If I could sum it up into a single life lesson, which is a terrible thing to do for someone with such a limited experience, I'd say that it was probably humbling," said Buchi-Fotre. "It just made me realize that there was a lot there that I don't know about. I am one person coming from one experience and I don't know that much."

In Zambia, Buchi-Fotre lived in an orphanage called the Chishawasha Children Home near the city of Lusaka. The population consisted of many more expatriates and, consequently, she stood out less in Zambia than in Nigeria. Buchi-Fotre worked at the orphanage where she taught Math to third graders, African Social Studies to second graders, and occasionally served as a sub for ill teachers.

"Working with kids, you get to see changes happen more quickly. In four months, a kid can grow up a lot," Buchi-Fotre said. "There is more of an opportunity to see your efforts blooming and blossoming."

The cultural anthropology courses that she took at The University of Chicago helped Buchi-Fotre work through certain moments during the trip. Buchi-Fotre also found that the trip resulted in her taking a greater amount of care when discussing theories and problems in the classroom. 

“Traveling has brought classroom learning to life and has helped me to see how something that can seem abstract in a text can actually have very real applications,” said Buchi-Fotre.

For example, Buchi-Fotre tells "dorky, but true" story in which, while in Zambia, she would thumb through Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of Religious Life—one of the required book readings for Self, Culture, and Society—in order to better understand the cultural and communicative differences between herself and the locals.

On the whole, Buchi-Fotre viewed the eight month trip as a wonderful experience, one that she will cherish for the rest of her life.

"I'm so glad that I did it. It was a huge part of constructing the person that I want to be and it has really informed my awareness of the world."

By Chika Okafor, AB'11. 

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