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  • Writer's pictureGabriel Turano

A bridge to the future: The 3 greatest lessons I've learned during my journey



July 2021 - I left Brazil for one of the greatest adventures of my life: seeking personal transformation through unconventional experiences.


Since then, I've traveled through more than 15 countries. I contributed to social projects in Kenya and Tanzania. I volunteered on a farm in South Africa and in the countryside of Turkey. I was in Ethiopia during the civil war between the government and rebels and witnessed poverty up close in places like Malawi, Eswatini, Lesotho, Laos, and Cambodia.


I also became a "dive master" in Thailand and worked as a diving guide on one of the most paradisiacal islands in the world.

From the beginning, I aimed to travel with purpose. Leaving behind a stable and comfortable life in Brazil required clear objectives. I wasn't seeking a vacation or a period of rest, but rather an internal revolution of everything that had been ingrained in me for so many years.

Modern society struggles to deal with contradictions, which is a symptom of ideological polarization and the radicalization of ideas. In fact, I believe this is the paradox of the 21st century: while we have achieved success in democratizing information and knowledge, we have also become more alienated and less open to opposing views.


I also must confess and take responsibility for the aforementioned behavior. For many years, I held sectarian opinions, especially regarding social policies and the meritocracy system.


Today I see with clarity the reason for this past: I didn't know the reality of millions of people and, although I was aware of the social abyss that humanity faces, I didn't know their true reality and the difficulty in prospering without the basic conditions that every one of us should have, especially education and opportunity. For this reason, public policies aimed at reducing poverty and income distribution should be goals of any government. Well, we will discuss more of this topic later.


Below, I list the three most significant lessons I've learned during my journey of self-discovery:


  1. My privileges

I grew up in a middle-class family in the ABC region of São Paulo, Brazil. During my childhood and adolescence, thanks to the support of my mom, I had the opportunity to study in private schools, escaping the reality of the low quality of Brazilian public education. In college, I also attended a well-ranked private university, and following these privileges, at the age of 19, I embarked on a study abroad program in Australia, followed by two shorter ones in Costa Rica and Peru.

I grew up with all the conditions to obtain a good education to ensure good employability in the professional market.

Commercial manager

And so it happened: at the age of 26, I assumed a managerial position in a multinational company, a role I held until the beginning of this text when I left my comfortable and stable life for my current journey of self-discovery.

When I encountered the reality of children and teenagers in the largest slum in the African continent, in Nairobi, I deconstructed much of what I believed.


After all, we are products of our environment. Those children and young people are reflections of a reality vastly different from the one I belong to. Their education is ensured thanks to NGOs that, although far from providing quality education, are the only source of hope for an entire generation living on the margins of society.


Many of them attend school with the sole purpose of getting off the streets and ensuring, at least, two meals a day. The challenge doesn't end there: how to secure job opportunities in a country with an unemployment rate above 40% and on the brink of social chaos? Experiencing the day-to-day reality of these circumstances reminded me of the opportunities I had during my childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. My parents ensured my education was taken care of.

Mathare community in Nairobi, Kenya

I had the opportunity to attend university and study abroad. Children and young people living in communities around the world do not have such opportunities.


The situation is particularly challenging in continents like Africa, due to factors such as racism, political exploitation, authoritarianism, lack of access to basic services, and more.


In this context, imagine discussing meritocracy with someone who didn't have the minimum conditions to compete with someone like myself, for instance. I had all the necessary resources to compete in an increasingly competitive world. Naturally, people don't get to choose where they are born and the context and environment they are born into. This is something that is not granted to them. The reality is that some have a much more favorable starting point than others, and this tendency is likely to increase over time unless public policy efforts are made.


Therefore, an initial pedagogical policy is necessary to mitigate these differences. Maintaining these social divides has ethical, moral, and social implications since these people express themselves through the ballot and can easily be seduced and enchanted by populism, with promises destined to go unfulfilled.


Now, imagine a typical Malawian citizen, residing in the fourth poorest country in the world, managing to secure a scholarship abroad for some reason. Simply requesting a passport from their government would be an incredibly Herculean task.

A school in Arusha, Tanzania

Unlike us, for whom it's a matter of filling out a form, paying a fee, and picking up a passport at the federal police office, authoritarian countries like Malawi do not grant passports to the general population. Only government officials and the country's elite have such privileges.


Now, imagine that this same citizen manages to obtain a passport. How can they use it to obtain a visa in a European country, which requires numerous proofs and documents for an African citizen to be granted a visitation permit? Well, this is another privilege that I used to overlook. I am privileged because of my access to education and the passport I carry. I am privileged to have been born into a family that provided me with the necessary conditions to compete in an increasingly competitive world. Understanding this privilege has brought responsibilities that I believed I didn't have. How can I, as a citizen, contribute to a more equal world?


2. Education must be hand in hand with opportunity

The world has surpassed the milestone of 8 billion people. Projections indicate that we will reach 10 billion by the year 2050. Africa, the most underprivileged continent in the world, is leading this growth. It is estimated that the continent's population will double by the end of the century, reaching 3 billion people. The Earth has never been as densely populated as it is today. Adding to this, we are going through a technological revolution.

In a recent reading, a text caught my attention. Hypothetically, if we were to take someone born in the 13th century and teleport them to the 15th century, few changes in their daily life would be noticed.

Peasant working in rice fields in Laos.

But if, instead, we were to transport someone born in the 19th century to the 21st century, this person would probably be driven to madness due to the revolution we are experiencing in our lives.


This is precisely the technological challenge we are facing. More and more jobs are being automated, while the demand for qualified labor to fill increasingly competitive spaces is also growing. How to include this entire population in paid jobs?

In my point of view, this is one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. Education alone is not enough as a tool to reduce poverty and distribute income. Unfortunately, it is ineffective without the simultaneous creation of opportunities.

Student in Sri Lanka

Here, I allow myself to use the example of a Malawian citizen again. Imagine that this citizen manages to obtain quality education, attend university, learn other languages, and prosper from an educational standpoint. If the country is unable to provide job opportunities, all this investment becomes futile. To illustrate this scenario, I inform you that 84% of Malawi's population lives in rural areas, where jobs are mostly unskilled and limited.


In this regard, public policies are of utmost importance to attract and encourage foreign investment, market competitiveness, and legal security. Implementing liberal yet progressive economic policies on a continent where political exploitation is prevalent might be the main challenge to be overcome.


3. Accepting setbacks is not a sign of weakness.

In another book I recently read, a phrase struck me: "Not everything that is good is truly good, and not everything that is bad is necessarily bad."


I had the opportunity to experience this statement several times during my journey. Indeed, it is always very challenging to understand setbacks while we are still experiencing them, but a hiatus is enough to draw lessons and, more than that, weigh the costs and benefits of what happened.


It was March 2022, and I found myself in a country avoided by almost everyone currently: Ethiopia. Due to the clashes between the government and Tigray rebels, the country was going through a bloody civil war, leading dozens of people to their deaths.

Lift with a truck driver in Ethiopia

The government, led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate in 2019 for ending conflicts with Eritrea, paradoxically was using food shortages as a weapon of war, leading the civilian population to extreme hunger in the northern part of the country. I had been traveling in the country for over two weeks and found myself in a region that had been inaccessible until recently due to the conflicts. Lalibela is located in the Amhara region in the north of the country and had no electricity as the rebels had cut off the city's power supply when they arrived.


My arrival was tough. With no public transportation available, I had managed to hitch a ride with a truck driver passing through the city. After a long day of travel, I had a questionable meal that led to a food infection, leaving me incapacitated for almost four days in a city with no infrastructure.

The local hospital, lacking electricity, offered little help. Extremely weak, I gathered enough strength to fly to the capital, Addis Ababa, with the intention of taking another flight to Portugal to recover.

Hospital in Lalibela, Ethiopia

For a long time, I questioned my decision. I had plans to stay in Africa and even visit other countries after Ethiopia; however, due to the food infection, I chose to leave the continent, concerned about my health. This decision led me to one of the most enriching and beautiful experiences during my journey. Once in Portugal, I searched for other destinations to continue my adventure and chose Nepal. In this country, I had the opportunity to reach the Annapurna base camp and, more importantly, connect with people I still maintain contact with to this day. If it weren't for that food poisoning incident, I wouldn't have flown to Nepal and, much less, made the friendships I had the opportunity to make.


Concluding...


To conclude this article, I've come to understand that personal transformation has no beginning, middle, or end. On the contrary, it is a living organism in constant mutation. To paraphrase Albert Einstein, "The mind that opens to a new idea never returns to its original size." Indeed, it has become quite challenging to coexist with the lukewarm and the singular. What makes the world so beautiful and appealing is precisely its plurality and diversity. Embracing contradictions is now more important than ever to mitigate the divisive stances prevalent in today's society. We must, more than ever, look at differences through similarities and not through antagonism, incompatibility, and discordance.


Finally, I've come to understand that hard-won rights are not lifelong guarantees. We must be vigilant and watchful against authoritarian regimes disguised as ideologies, whatever they may be. The concentration of power is the greatest risk to a democracy. It is, in fact, the rise of authoritarianism.

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