“If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”

Rome, April 2013. The lesson of Public Law had just finished and, walking towards the university exit door, my attention was captured by some colored posters on the wall. I stopped to have a look at them: a seminar of a No- profit organization called Mais Onlus. Never heard about them, never been interested in no-profit activity; nevertheless, without knowing why I decided to enter the seminar.

A women called Jacky, the former director of the Onlus, was giving a speech explaining the commitments and responsibilities of her organization in developing countries. Listening to her speech made me think about what I have done in life for other people: maybe nothing or at least not enough. I had spent my entire life thinking exclusively about me, my studies and future: it was time to look beyond myself! For the first time I felt it was the right thing to do: I did follow my gut and I went to Africa.

The organization proposed me to support the children of a school in Mahamba (Swaziland) with both Math and English for one month. On July 15th I took my flights to Johannesburg; then a weird minibus took me to Mahamba. When I got there, I found the whole community gathered to welcome me; they really knew how to treat hosts: I felt at home from day one.

The first day a waterfall of emotions was shaking both my mind and body….I really did not know how to behave. I asked Jacky for some advice; her words still echoing in my mind: “Sofia, just follow your heart… do your best to help my “babies”; for them having you here is very important, you will see it..”

As a volunteer I was also in charge of organizing afternoon sport and social events. My class was made up of 10 years old children always keen to learn new stuff. Their curiosity left me speechless; I still remember when I asked them to describe animals: surprisingly they only cited dogs, chickens and cows…It seemed me strange until I understood they did not know what there was outside their hometown. I will never forget their incredulous expression when discovered the existence of other animals: I could never thought someone could be so happy to listen about lions and elephants. In that moment, I realized that I was the descent there.

Teaching and spending time with them was costless. For the first time I really felt in peace with my-self and I tried to give them all my time and efforts. I understood that the most priceless present you can give to those you love is not your money but rather your time, wisdom and dedication.

Each single day in Africa was a life lesson: I learned how shamefully we complain about our lives without understanding the luck we have. What is normal for us, is not normal in most of Africa: we are used to simply opening a faucet and see the water flowing; in Africa people have to travel miles to get some. Africa is a country of excesses, from breath-taking landscapes, dreams and hope to war, hunger, deadly illness, abuses on women and children, whose conditions are really critical. The school dropout rate is very high because they prefer to work so that they can help their family. What shocked me is the fact that they will never experience the love of a mother making them the school breakfast, the sense of safety of a parent’s hug or the joy of a family holiday (most of them are the results of rapes).

My experience taught me the true meaning of empathy and solidarity; theoretically speaking I was the teacher; but I ended to be the student, the student of the hardest subject: life. I do believe my students gave me more than what I actually gave them: I learnt to enjoy every single moment, every smile, every word as if it was the last one. I learnt that paying compliments is important because you are implicitly making somebody’s day. For the first time in my life I felt really useful and important for someone.

The following quote of the Johannesburg airport perfectly synthesizes that: if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.

I strongly believe that everybody can be useful for others and there are many ways to help people in need with your talent; you don’t have to book a flight to Africa to feel special and unique, you can “serve” your hometown, you can be more present at home or as Adam Grant said you can help connecting your friends.

When I look back at my experience, the only emotions coming up are a sense carefreeness, joyfulness and freedom. I learnt that humans are made to help each others, giving is part of our DNA. Philosophy (e.g. Aristoteles), Sociology, scientific researches claim that human is a sociable animal: we need others to fulfill our happiness. As Dr. Robert Waldinger said during his speech at TED talk, the quality of our relations is the main driver of happiness.

As many others who returned from Africa, I had the so called “longing” for Africa. It is a feeling hard to describe, but I will try to explain the “effects” of my return from Africa. Since the experience in Swaziland I have started to think a lot, maybe even too much sometimes. Who are you? What type of life are you looking for? Are you really happy? What does happiness mean for you?

I have to admit that even if three years have passed by since then, the answer to some questions is still not clear, but at least I have started to think about it.

Now it is your turn…

Always dream, learn and do something new.

Sofia Viola

Originally published at medium.com