"Aren't you scared?" people often ask me. Or, more bluntly, "Are you f*cking nuts?"
By many people's standards, I travel to so-called dangerous places by seemingly "unsafe" means. Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo by bus, boat, and motorcycle. Or 14,000 kilometers across east Africa by public transportation, typically squeezed between livestock and a breastfeeding mother on the leaky, standing-room-only tragic excuses for transportation I've come to fondly adore in a suicidal nostalgia. It can be taxing, not to mention scary as hell at some points.
These may not be the romanticized vacations most Americans dream of, yet in my opinion, they are the real, honest and true experiences that can connect us to other cultures. The elements of fear and danger which keep many away from places like DRC, Northern Kenya -- or even, right now, my home base of Nairobi -- are mostly misguided perceptions.
Lately I've come to understand that there are really two kinds of fear we experience: A fear of the "known," and a fear of the "unknown." Sometimes, fear has embedded elements of known truth and science (like a fear of heights -- we scientifically know gravity is not in our favor if we fall), and other times fear is a provisional perception based on incongruent facts and figures, and half-baked narratives. When it comes to Africa, and travel in Africa, I believe that much of the "fear" surrounding the continent fits in the latter category.
Several hundred years ago, most of European civilization was in agreement that the world was flat (and not in the Thomas Friedman kind of way). If you went too far, you would fall off. Society had developed an unfounded fear of the vast unknown. One day someone named Ferdinand Magellan happened to challenge this perception, and in doing so proved in fact the world is round -- thereby opening a world of opportunity.
America is a country born from adventurers, explorers, and those fearless enough to take enormous risks like Magellan and Christopher Columbus. From America's native inhabitants to early pilgrims and settlers -- all the way up to the first major waves of European immigrants -- America was built by the fearless.
Yet somewhere along the way, America lost its way. We have become a culture obsessed with and driven by fear. We now fear a single hair in our blueberry pancakes, we fear our water, vaccines, dirt, ADHD children, bee stings, air, germs and public toilet seats. It's as if a bunch of hypochondriacs have taken hold of our politics, media, and marketing, creating a hyper-inflated culture of fear that is neurotic at best, downright wrong at worst. We fear people, strangers, when they are the ones we should have the most faith in.
When it comes to Africa (the "unknown" land of grass huts, guns, and animals to most), the American media thrives on selling fear. All Somalis are insane. Congo is a land of rape and AK-47s. Nairobi is about to get bombed.... The list goes on -- with some truth, but a lot of hype.
Where I live in Nairobi can be dangerous, sure. But so can New York City. Granted, the Upper East Side doesn't border Somalia, but hey, Jersey isn't paradise, and even Somalia is improving. And Washington D.C.'s murder rate? Don't get me started. I might get my phone pickpocketed in Nairobi, but my chances of being shot are far less than in some American cities.
I can understand this public perception of fear to some degree. My father's high school history textbook in the '60s simply labeled Africa as "Dark Continent," offering nothing more. Ever since, America hasn't exactly sought out or published much good news or representations of the continent.
Yet "Africa" as a word/concept/continent/place is not something to fear. The continent is being re-discovered by businesses, investors, travelers, entrepreneurs, and the global media. It is moving forward, progressing -- fast. For me, it is no longer filled with places I simply read about and watch on the news, but places, people, and experiences I live with and absorb each day.
I am not "fearless." As a photojournalist I live a life of calculated risks. And since I'm always doing the calculations, it usually comes out in my favor -- even if it is a bit dangerous. The trouble is most people allow the calculations to be done for them. They digest sound bites of danger and alarm, and from them paint an entire picture with the wrong-colored ink.
There is no reason to fear the unknown. The great unknown presents great opportunity -- to understand yourself, others, and the beautiful world we live in. If a place seems dangerous, or an excursion treacherous, do your homework. Seek the reality behind the perception. Make your own calculations, and venture beyond the comfortable. Your adventures, travels, and even daily life will be filled with much richer experiences.
What personal lessons have you learned about fear and fearlessness? Comment below, or tweet us all about it @HealthyLiving using the hashtag #becomingfearless. If you tweet, you will automatically be entered into Toyota Corolla's Most Fearless Tweet Contest! (Click here for the Official Rules.)