"I became a teacher in Africa and my whole life changed. I was happier, I had a purpose, and no one ever asked me, "What are you going to do with your life?" I had left home. I was becoming the person I wanted to be, not just a young man with a job but someone developing a sensibility. I had volunteered because I wanted to know the world and myself better. The route from New York to my destination, Nyasaland, took in Rome, Ben-ghazi (Libya), Nairobi, Salisbury (Rhodesia), and finally the tiny aerodrome at Blantyre. Flying low into that last stop, I could see tiny thatched-roof mud huts surrounded by banana groves and maize fields. This sight lifted my spirits. The thrill was intensely like being on another planet. In some ways it was just as remote, a parallel universe, but I thought of it as my Eden. It was December 1963, and I was glad to be gone. I'd been dismayed by the spirit of the times, the violence, the complacency, the racism, the militarism, the weird quest for material goods. I was well aware, with a lightness of soul, that I was unburdened. Everything I owned in the world fitted into the small suitcase I had with me. I had nothing in the bank, no property; did not own so much as a chair. I was superbly portable. I had just turned twenty-two. That first departure for Africa led me to a lifetime of travel. It shaped the way I see the world and showed me that there was more to write about than my own inner miseries. I realized that what at first seemed so alien-a schoolhouse of barefoot students at the end of a red clay road-was not so different at all. Wishing to express this experience, I became a writer. Although I joined one of the earliest Peace Corps groups to go overseas, I was not heeding the call from President John F. Kennedy. Apart from being a coastal New Englander, as he was, I felt I had nothing in common with this remote figure or the complexities of his ambitious and ruthless family. I joined instead partly because the Peace Corps was committed to helping people who were at last free from colonial control. As for the rest, it was a leap in the dark."
"Just after Christmas in 2006, I saw a familiar face in a small hamburger restaurant near where I live on the North Shore of Oahu. Apparently unrecognized by anyone in the place, Senator Obama, in an aloha shirt, sat at a large table with his sister and about seven children, on a holiday outing. After they had finished eating, I introduced myself. The senator was tall, witty, charming, the soul of friendliness. He wanted to talk. No sooner had we exchanged pleasantries than I became engaged in a conversation unlike any I have had before or since in this little surfing town. "You know, like you, I've spent a lot of time in Southeast Asia. I lived in Indonesia," the senator said, as a way of introducing himself. We talked about Africa, about Cuba, about Hawaii. He wanted me to know that not only had he read my work but he had traveled and lived in distant lands, as well as in the poorer parts of America. In the conversation that followed, we talked about books, and life in general, but most of all we talked about the richness of the places we'd seen and how they had influenced us. Senator Obama seemed to define himself by the depth and complexity of his experience as a young man looking for his place in the wider world. With a glow of sympathy that was enlarged by humor and intelligence, he was utterly at home in the world. I mentioned that he'd make a great president and that he ought to run. He said he was studying it. That was the word he used. "But there's no hurry," I said, and making a play with his name in Swahili I added, "Haraka, haraka, haina baraka." He understood and laughed at this owlish jape ("Too much of a hurry makes bad luck"-or an unsuitable Barack, since his name and luck or blessing are synonymous). This in itself was an event: the only time in twenty years when anyone in my little town showed any knowledge of Swahili. Not long after that encounter, Obama gave a speech at Cornell College, in Iowa, calling on his audience and all Americans to go out and serve their community. "Growing up, I wasn't always sure who I was or where I was going," he said, describing how he got all sorts of advice, as young adults do, just before he became a community organizer in Chicago-when he decided, as he put it, "to step into the currents of history and help people fight for their dreams."
"For the two years I was in Malawi, I never made a telephone call and my only contact with my family was in letters that took up to a month to arrive. This suited me fine. The instant connection in today's world tends to distort the experience of being far from home. What sort of a life is it when, on the days when things are going bad, you are able to dial Mom for consolation? The experience should involve remoteness, inconvenience, hardship, even risk; isn't that the whole point of being away? I don't understand a recent graduate doing a mediocre job, finding an apartment, getting into a routine in the hope of advancement. I do understand, with Huck Finn, the wish to light out for the territory ahead of the rest. I lived among people who, on the surface, seemed to have very little. Money was so scarce, they were practically existing on the barter system. The students' notebooks were always damp and penetrated by the odor of wood smoke from the cooking fires of their huts or the kerosene stink from the lamps: Electricity was rare in their villages. Though they wore a simple school uniform, my students were barefoot. Their soles were toughened by walking to school, and they played soccer barefoot. Before we developed a lunch program, lunch for most of them was a whole boiled potato or a few stalks of sugarcane that they chewed to stave off hunger. It would be easy, but misleading, to list all the things my students and their families didn't have. This is what celebrities do when they visit villages in Africa: Out of a guilty, grotesque, almost boasting self-consciousness, these wealthy visitors enumerate the insufficiencies. That's because they don't stay very long. If they stayed longer, perhaps a few years, they would see what I saw in Africa: the resiliency of the people. Africans knew neglect, drought, flood, bad harvests, hunger, disease, and-more insidious than any of these-tyrannical government; and yet in the face of these adversities they had developed survival skills, and prevailed. For more than forty years I've heard outsiders lamenting the plight of Africans-and, given AIDS and Darfur and Zimbabwe, sometimes justly; but I seldom hear, except from someone who has lived closely among them, how Africans, ignored by the world, have managed to save themselves, often in the bitterest of circumstances. My teaching had its uses for them, but what I taught was negligible compared to what I learned. Yes, after two years my students spoke and wrote English well, and some of them went on to college. But today, despite forty years of volunteer efforts, Malawi is probably worse off than it was back in 1963. The population has quadrupled to more than thirteen million (of these, one million are orphans), and the per capita income is $160 a year."