Remember the dilemma from Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” where a prisoner was released into an unfamiliar, bright world? Seeing only dark and shadows created by a single fire behind him, the cave was the only world the prisoner had known. The unchained prisoner only returned to the cave to enlighten his fellow prisoners and was unable to adjust back to the dark, chained environment.
Similarly, it is hard to experience something new, to see poverty and pain, and then return to an extravagant lifestyle and wasteful culture.
Delhi to Nairobi, Kenya was a long flight with a short layover in Dubai. The Versace, fluorescent lights, flowing water, glittering diamonds, glass walls, and bottles of expensive liquor just didn’t have the same appeal after Delhi. The sharp contrast between the camps and this airport in an extravagant city would have been noticeable even to an infant. Adapting to different cultures can be challenging. When the changes are so extreme, can you ever return to living in the dark and ignore the pains and problems facing the world?
Many of the students I interviewed were worried about how they would adapt back to the American culture after living in a developing country for one to two months. Taking short showers, eating fresh food, enjoying a slower way of life — we had adjusted to life in a developing country. How could we go back to our 30 minute showers, processed foods, and incessant preparation for the future? When you have seen freedom, it is hard to return to chains.
Nairobi was also very different from Delhi. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Nairobi was much cleaner and more developed than the part of India I had visited. It even felt safer.
Mario A. Bollini ’09, who was there to work on a multiple gear hand-powered tricycle, made two friends during his first few weeks, Samir and Phillippe. All three of them were staying at the same campground. Samir, 28, was a British Kenyan and a professional photojournalist who had just returned from assignment in Sudan. Phillippe was a Canadian student who had come to work in a laboratory and teach biology to children in the slums. They both felt that they were finally seeing the light and found it impossible to return to the cave. They too struggled to convince those they had left behind to enter a new world and gaze in a different direction.
Returning to a society that is focused so much on the individual and material success can be frustrating. Most people do not want to hear about the issues in the outside world. You can try to free them and drag them out of the cave, but they may resist and turn back at the first opportunity. How can you convince someone who sees the dark as their light to step outside? How can you keep yourself from adjusting back to the dark and letting your memory of the light fade?