June 6, 2016 — By: Ricky.
We all have our reasons for leaving the U.S. this summer. Some of us are especially interested in pursuing international law or some other sector in which we’re now working. Some of us wanted a truly epic talking point on our resume. Some of us have ties to the countries for which we left. Some of us might jump off a bridge if Gash said it was safe. And some of us have uniquely personal motivations for our endeavors abroad. But there is one desire that binds us all in our travels- we all want adventure.
No matter which country each of us is in, we all flew hundreds or thousands of miles (and dozens of hours) to get where we are. Some of us left by ourselves…some with the knowledge of likely danger at our destinations…some without any idea of where to live when we arrived…some pioneering entire new programs that Pepperdine is developing as this program matures. These are things most sane people do not do.
But here we are. Different cultures, different currencies, different laws, different food, different water, different mentalities, which we by necessity cultivate into our own endlessly developing understanding of the human experience. When we’re not really paying attention, we see the vast differences between our countries. When we’re paying some attention, we note the footprints that Western culture has imperialistically stamped upon soils near and far. When we’re looking really close, we see the beauty in these differences and similarities- the things we need to take home with us and adapt to the way we perceive the world around us, regardless of where we are.
Yesterday, Mark and I rented an SUV from a colleague’s friend and drove east, aiming for Akagera National Park on the border with Tanzania. I obtained an international permit prior to leaving the States, so I was excited to see how terrifying the roads here are, where driving laws are driving suggestions. Google Maps, however, was apparently avid to force exploration upon us. Following its directions to the park, we ended up off-roading through a small village in Northeast Rwanda…these are words I never thought I would type. We knew things might be awry when a notably plump hen sprinted across the dirt-topped thoroughfare before us, which obviously prompted from me, “Why DID the chicken…cross…the road? Like…what?” We were being chased by a hoard of children, laughing and throwing sticks at our car, when we agreed that we weren’t in Kansas anymore. Once we were a solid hour or 75 minutes from our first wrong turn per GMaps, we turned around on a steep, uneven hill which overlooked a number of pyramidal brick stacks, one of which had something on fire within its inner, presumably oven-like, cavity. Villagers were gathered and looking at us, whispering into one another’s ears as though Kinyarwanda-ing “there goes the neighborhood.” About three hours after this U-turn, we actually did make it to the lodge.
Baboons traipsed the hotel grounds, and our room’s balcony overlooked not only the pool, but the African savanna and an expansive lake whose opposite shore’s ripples ended on Tanzanian silt. Late that night, Mark was in bed and I was restless. I heard a boisterous group near a bonfire by the pool, and decided to grab a beer and see who might be yelling English things at an east African sky. The crew was motley in the best of ways. A Canadian/Floridian, New Jerseyan, South African, Italian, Rwandan, and another American.
Flash forward to the next morning- I’m actually driving through an African safari, wondering if this is real life. Our guide, Leo, is an amazing local and an encyclopedia of wildlife knowledge. He also knew about American gangster rap, so the three of us had plenty to discuss. Within 10 minutes we’re driving alongside zebras and giraffes- we’re actually witnessing what each of these animals looks like drinking from a watering hole and then galloping away from our wheeled, metal contraption. Have you seen a giraffe run? I have. Only about 10 meters before he realized we weren’t predatory, but those 10 meters were really, really cool. And surprisingly quick.
About 45 minutes in, we came upon my new friends from the prior night. Their rented safari vehicle’s suspension was shot to the river Styx by means of busted suspension. Three of them hadn’t been living in Kigali long, and this was their first time in the park…so when they asked if they could roll with us, we obviously took them in with open arms. About six hours later, we had seen elephants, Masai giraffes, zebras, buffalo, pumbaas, hippos, waterbuck, eland (several alive, one dead), topi, mongoose, baboons (running away, fighting, jumping from tree to tree, you name it), enough impalas to stop taking pictures of them, and a number of birds that only South African Simon could identify.
We exited out the north end of the park and drove until we reached Jambo Beach, a lake-side restaurant and bar right on the water. From the right angle at Jambo, Lac Muhazi mirrors a crepuscular reflection, the likes of which I had never seen. Somehow-exotic goats and cows peruse the opposite coast for feed, premature waves lap up against the land, and you can enjoy a coke for less than one USD as you stand around watching the sun’s daily demise.
I came across a shallow 5×5 pool with two turtles in it, and showed it to everyone because…”wildlife.” Leo, however, having heard me use that word, felt compelled to succinctly comment about their lack of freedom. “But…they are not free.” He stood, mesmerized by the spectacle of the Skol-logo-ridden edifice so near a pool mimicking the act of wildlife preservation. I said nothing of this to Mark and Co. in the moment, but something in the sadness of his eyes struck me. He was legitimately sad that these turtles, these things we keep in terra-aquariums back home, were only given 25 square feet to play with. He said nothing else beyond that original sentence, but he seemed to take it as a personal affront that these creatures were confined so near to where he put on a pedestal the freedom that the continent’s megafauna should rightfully enjoy. Realizing that he spent every day working for a nature preserve, I found myself suddenly quite reflective regarding the true nature of what we had just witnessed. I had been so busy driving over roads that people in America wouldn’t call ‘roads’ and trying to make sure that our car remained in one piece that I hadn’t fully processed the actual meaning of everything I’d seen in the last 7 hours.
I was quiet for the majority of the rest of the drive. I had things to deal with…vehicles on the wrong side of the road, bicycles carrying, laterally, bales of 8 foot long vegetables and grass, beat up cars that couldn’t even match the speed limit, pedestrians crossing at both opportune and inopportune moments, a semi-truck sideways across the road, and of course dozens of miles of dirt road before I got to any of the more modern obstacles. But also, that nagging thought. The fact that some of us go to these places and fail to take in the actual beauty. Some people go here and see another zoo. Locals and safari-veterans see one of the less densely populated game drives in Africa by comparison. What I saw was something else.
I saw a landscape unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. I saw animals that I’d only seen in the most popular zoo exhibits, whose diets and habits are pre-determined by predominantly well-intended humans. I saw baboons fight. I saw an elephant considering charging our vehicle, looking at us and stomping its feet in shallow water. I saw the gas tank reach half full as we were driving through a field of 4 foot grass, with only trenches of void dug into the savanna by the wheels that preceded my own. I saw hippos surface for air and hang out together while keeping cool in the waters of Lake Ihema.
The average law student doesn’t get to see these things.
We’re the lucky ones.
We chose to do something different, and if we look for benefits, they’re abundant, usually verdant, and biologically diversified.
Personally, we’ve settled into a more or less comfortable pattern when it comes to work. We each have a long-term assignment, and a short term assignment consisting of an actual advisory memo for the actual Supreme Court here. The schedule is comfortable, but the work is not easy. With every new task, we spend days trying to understand the local law, days deciding how it should apply, and days providing an American-law perspective to the same situation, per the prompt of our assignment.
But that’s why you look close. You look for the differences and the similarities. You don’t choose one over the other- you just accept them. There are punches that you roll with, and there’s unexpected help that you learn to accept- you see the full spectrum. You make friends- both from Rwanda and elsewhere.
Those comparisons and contrasts- we inevitably apply our American ideals to them, but ultimately we bring them back with us. They may not broadly define our legal ideologies, but they certainly shape the marginal edges of the moralistic construct by which we determine our political leanings, our legal judgments, the lens through which we view the world, and the code by which we treat the people around us.
But when we abandon ‘adventure’ as an individualistic motivation, what other reasons can we claim to share for leaving the US for our work abroad? I nominate ‘change.’ Our hands have (all) been guided by some desire to better understand how foreign legal systems provide for the benefit or detriment of individual sovereignties, (sometimes) how to implement successful progressive Western ideals in developing nations, and (always) how foreign tenets might lend some much-needed perspective to our application of justice in America.
Like it or not, change is coming- change is always coming and always happening. It’s our generation’s responsibility to take the square that the baby-boomers and Gen X’ers have engrained into American mentality and geometrically force it to fit within the circle that the Millennials want. This is difficult in its own right, and it means something very different in America than it does in Africa. There is, however, a definite ripple effect to be observed when considering the legal tide in the United States. While our system is many kilometers short of perfect, it still reflects, in many ways, a shift away from the ebb tide of human rights. We’ve made giant steps- leaps even, and many of us have developed an American reputation for consistently pushing the envelope in terms of people being happy. It’s our responsibility to understand how the world works outside of our domestic bubble, it’s our responsibility to learn from other cultures, and it’s our charge to combine these inputs so that we may make whatever place we practice in a better place, regardless of our sphere of influence.
Go on adventures. Learn about the people around you. Think about where you’re from, and skeptically.
How better can we identify what needs change in our system aside from seeing what’s done abroad?