The Power of Culture to Connect

The the best place to be born in 2013 is Switzerland, according to a report published in the Economist  [1]. When my family returned to Switzerland after having lived in Africa until 1997, I would have vehemently disagreed with that statement: Not only was all my pocket money, painstakingly saved during seven years, of no worth, once converted into Swiss Francs, but I had to leave all my good friends behind. And like the weather, the people seemed cold and distant. There was no more running around out in the sun or rain during the whole year, and I had trouble fitting in at school, where I had no idea how to behave and act. In short: I experienced a culture shock, coming “home”.

It took me a while to understand the differences between Swiss and Cameroon culture, but this process taught me much about humbleness and compassion. Compassion with people who emmigrate from their home and find Europe nothing like they dreamed, and have hard times coping with a place so foreign to them. Humbleness for being one of the lucky ones who gets to be born in an affluent country and to be given opportunities most can only dream of.

But our cultural heritage does not only divide us into different people – Culture can also connect us to humans originating from all over the world. While I was letting myself being enchanted by Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” in New York, the awe I felt was voiced by the Japanese tourist standing beside myself, bridging any language differences we might otherwise have had. Listening to African music together with my old acquaintances in Canada brings us both back to our shared childhoods in a place, that no longer exists, but lives on in our memories.

Human culture – the ability of preserving the knowledge of our ancestors – is what sets humankind apart from animals. It also divides ourselves into different people. Or, as Harvard Professor Doris Sommer put it: “Culture has enormous capacity to make and to resolve conflict.” [2]. This means, that there is an infinite world to be explored. That, wherever we go, we will be able to learn new ways and expand our horizon. And even when our bones are put to rest, our soul can live on through the stories our lives have told, through the encounters we have made, and the memories we have forged.

Living in Switzerland has taught me that it is not sufficient to stay in the bubble where one is born, that it is necessary to travel and experience the world in order to understand it. Growing up in Africa has taught me hospitality, that one should always have a spare bed or couch for a friend who has embarked on the journey to discover the world.

Therefore, travel. Experience the world, and may you always be welcome wherever your feet carry you.


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