My love affair with Africa is just beginning

I want to take a pause from all things bath bombs and scrubs to share a passion of mine, and an amazing story that will hopefully inspire all my Beauty Kitchen Junkies.

My philanthropic side is one that I frequently try to weave into the Beauty Kitchen brand. My life’s dream was to be a successful female business owner who grew my company to the point where I could regularly give back. Giving a helping hand is actually a core principle of my brand—Beauty Kitchen was started as a way for regular, everyday women to enjoy luxurious, organic, chemical-free body and bath products at a fraction of the cost. And the comments I’ve received since I launched in 2012 have been heartwarming to say the least—you’ve told me your skin conditions have been cured and that you feel like a queen without the high price tag.

These kinds of comments always reassure me that I’m not only doing something I’m truly proud of that’s helping people (even in a small way), but it also pushes me to do more. That’s exactly why I signed up for something I was really nervous to do — a nearly month-long humanitarian trip to Africa.

But let’s back up. A few years ago, I was cast in Bravo TV’s new series, Tour Group. The show’s premise revolved around a group of strangers who traveled to exotic, foreign countries over two months. Filming the show and experiencing these beautiful countries was life-changing to say the least. But one particular location shook me to my core: Africa. We were lucky enough to get to explore the land, go on safaris, and go into a few African villages to see how the native population lived. In the few days we were there, I felt overcome with emotions. I couldn’t help but notice the unique dynamic of the African families. They had barren, scarce living conditions …yet they were all so happy, ruthlessly smart, and resourceful. I was really affected by seeing the kids running around and playing. Here they were with little to no clothing, no shoes, yet they were so full of joy all the time, as if they didn’t know any different. Needless to say, this intrigued me, and honestly, I wanted to come back and hang out with the cool kids who seemed to have sort of secret a recipe for happiness. Nothing phased them, which was quite unexpected for me.

From television news, we all know that parts of Africa are plagued with poverty, destruction, warfare, starvation…the list goes on. When I saw this reality up close while filming Tour Group, I immediately knew I wanted to come back on a solo humanitarian trip and explore this deeper—something where I could really get my hands dirty and connect with the locals for more than a few hours. I knew I wanted to make charitable work in Africa my life’s purpose, and perhaps greatest accomplishment.

I researched several organizations before booking my trip, which took place October 5-28. I had no idea what I was going to see or do there, but I knew that I needed to help. I knew that if I didn’t do something, it would weigh on me heavily. I knew that I had to go, so I did. As I began telling my friends, family, and associates that I had booked my humanitarian trip, I was put off by the severe judgement I received. People were not okay with it. They were close minded and blinded by the awful things they had seen on the news—I heard everything from “don’t go to Africa because you’ll get a deadly disease” to asking why I would go somewhere that requires an intense amount of shots, to discriminating comments that I can’t even bear to repeat. In a weird way, it almost made me more determined to go. Every time someone made a negative comment, my adrenaline fired up even more—and I wanted to prove them and their negative perceptions wrong.

I even unfriended a few people after their true colors were shown—they apparently don’t have a clue what’s important. From my time there on Tour Group, I knew that while Africa as a whole was corrupt, it’s people were not, and although I explained this to everyone I couldn’t believe the lack of support I was getting. This from people who lead very charmed lives, and whose worst problem in a day is a delayed GrubHub order or their Tesla not being charged. But they hadn’t seen what I saw while filming Tour Group. That glimpse was brief, but it changed my whole outlook, and in a way, changed my life. Though many parts of the show were only for TV, I am deeply indebted to Bravo for giving me the opportunity. If it wasn’t for that I wouldn’t have found my true philanthropic passion, so I wouldn’t take back the trip for anything. I prepared myself mentally and physically, and ended up getting more out of it than you’ll ever know.

Now those who know me—or have even seen me on My Shopping Addiction—know that I can be a little high maintenance. (Okay, a LOT high maintenance.) I am known to carry at least 4 to 5 bags just for a weekend trip! Between my outfit changes, hair, makeup, and anything for work, I end up bringing enough to fill a house anytime I travel. Obviously with this humanitarian trip, I was going to have to strip it down to just the very basics. Besides, I’m used to getting glamorous on a daily basis, so it was nice to just let my hair down without cameras and people around. I knew I’d likely be working in limited conditions with little running water and just the bare minimum of everything. I brought one pair of flip flops and one pair of tennis shoes. I didn’t bring makeup. Even my hairbrush was travel sized — although after two weeks I couldn’t take that anymore and ended up using a fork. You have to be resourceful right? I only brought a few clothes, and ended up giving a few of them to some lucky girls in Africa who adorably called them “America fashion fashion.” The only thing I wish I had brought more of were face wipes for the humidity! I also wanted to bag up plenty of my soaps and products to give to them, as most can barely afford food, let alone hygiene products. I brought along an 80 pound bag full of supplies, which was all I was allowed to carry on the small prop plane flights.

The global humanitarian organization I signed up with did frequent trips to plagued areas, so I selected a trip to the African region of Tanzania. Since I was already going to be flying to that side of the world, I decided to make a quick stop in Dubai to experience some of the culture and sightseeing there. With my limited supply of clothing and almost no cosmetics, I didn’t end up going out much but was still happy I got to see it for a few days, because Dubai had always been one of my top Bucket List items. Then, I boarded a plane, ready to spend half of my trip in a place called Mkalanga before moving on to Impalawa for the second half, both in Tanzania. By the time I got off my last plane home three weeks later, I was a changed person.

I threw myself into the experience and spent one night in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania — the calm before the storm, if you will. I stayed at the Ramada Encore Dar es Salaam near the beach and had a full day to soak in and get my footing. I walked around the town, not sure what I would encounter since Dar es Salaam is known as one of the poorest countries in Africa. The muddy streets were packed with residents selling anything and everything they could, from towels to toilet seats. Although it was a busy, buzzing town, I felt extremely safe, and even slipped off to the beach alone to enjoy a scenic sunset as I mentally prepared for the full day of traveling ahead. Honestly, the next morning was the hardest one of the entire trip. My mental state was already in shambles from the long travels just getting to Africa, and not knowing what was ahead was unnerving. The day involved a three hour car ride from my hotel to what turned out to be the wrong airport (cue my complete ugly cry meltdown) and another five hour drive to get into the town of Mkalanga, where I would be staying for several days. Located outside of Iringa in Tanzania, the town is diverse in economic status. In addition to selling goods and teaching, many natives work in vegetation or farming due to the abundance of fruit trees, avocado trees, and animals such as goats and pigs.

I stayed in a small dorm-style room by myself, with a limited supply of running water. Everyday, functional resources, from the spoon I ate my avocados with each morning, to the fork that I eventually used as a hairbrush—were few and far between. In both towns, I had two main tasks: to assist in the medical clinics and to teach in school classrooms. I wound up splitting most days between these. It gave me the perfect opportunity not only to converse with the residents, but to explore the town and take in every sight in this whole new world, miles from the place I call home.

Obviously, the difference in lifestyle there compared to my own struck me right away, in every sense. No matter how much my heart was breaking at each shocking thing I witnessed, I swallowed my tears and carried on, keeping myself busy. At the actual clinics, people lined up for hours needing medical attention for everything from advanced labor for babies with Malaria, to huge burns from falling pots of boiling water. I tried to be strong as I listened to many of their stories, some walking two hours, barefoot, just with the hope of getting treatment. Whereas most Americans think of hospitals as state-of-the-art facilities, these hospitals were basically rooms with basic medical equipment, and little of it. They even consider something as basic as a hand washing station to be technology.

It’s difficult, even today, to get some of these images out of my head. Teaching in the classrooms was one thing, but the life or death situations that presented themselves while at the clinics were gut wrenching. Sometimes I still have nightmares about the women in labor or the people that were turned away. One of the worst “rules” I discovered was that if you are in labor, you cannot get medical attention for delivery unless you bring 100% of the required items with you: a cloth, an outfit for the baby to go home in, a meal for the doctors, and rubber gloves. One pregnant woman in the Mkalanga village was so afraid to give birth because she didn’t have the essentials and was going to be turned away, so I brought her food, a cloth for her and baby-to-be, and a little money. We got to chatting and she kindly welcomed me into her home. In between her cries of gratitude, I ended up talking to her for a while, and she told me some pretty fascinating stories. Her neighbor was apparently a witch who killed off her husband’s other wives – what?! I left feeling a sense of heartwarming joy mixed with dread. Although I knew I had helped her out, I also knew there were thousands like her in the region that still needed help.

On another clinic day I saw a women turned away because she didn’t have the proper items, but the question is, if they are poor village residents, where and how are they supposed to get these items? I just couldn’t believe it. Every day, it haunts me to think of that same exact scenario playing out, person after person, all because of their economic and financial situation. The villages greatly rely on buying and selling basic food and clothing. Depending on how many goods you have to sell, you may make a little money, or barely some change for the day. One woman in particular owned the village’s largest store, located in a hut with a lock on the door and her own security guard. I bought out her store and stacked up piles of everything I could get my hands on, from rice to pencils, and delivered it to women in need. (We were not allowed to give direct gifts, but I may have done a few covert drop offs.)

When it was time for classroom volunteering, I helped teach the kids English, though I have to admit that I loved chatting with the kids and doing activities with them more. (I’m more of a “keep my hands busy,” boots-on-ground type of girl.) I loved the innocence of the kids, still not jaded by life, and happy for something as simple as a new pencil. It was a nice break from the harshness of clinic work, and their curiosity about Americans and other worlds was endearing. I admittedly picked a favorite child, and my maternal instincts kicked in. I ended up talking with her and playing with her a lot. She was the one that made me saddest to leave.

It’s December as I write this, and I honestly still haven’t begun to process everything I witnessed. Until you’re up close and personally seeing the extent of the horrific conditions and lack of basic necessities, it’s hard to really understand how much we take for granted. While their day-to-day lives are nothing like the luxuries we have in the average American home or city, these citizens were some of the strongest, most joyful people I’ve ever met. Their rural homelands and lush landscapes are stunningly beautiful. Their villages bond together, looking out for each other, collectively striving to do better for themselves and their young children. One truth I really want to share with people is that although the continent of Africa as a whole is definitely run by corrupt people, the residents are not corrupt. They are are the most gracious, kind, and generous people I have ever encountered. I noticed Ipalamwa is very influenced by the church, and very family oriented. Though it’s an even poorer area, this sort of brings about a compassionate bond for the people. They are unified in their struggles, and everyone does what they can to help each other out.

Being in business, I’ve met a lot of so-called “brilliant minds,” but they are nothing compared to the kids I met in Africa. The kids are doing organic chemistry with no pens, in classrooms with no windows, and go “home” to a place with no roof over their heads.

While they may have never seen what we call simple things, like the spray bottles I use so often in my own business, it’s not their fault – they’re a product of their environment. The women are offering me the very fruit from their trees when that they probably need to sell to make money. It’s unfortunate that the leaders of these African nations don’t realize what a powerhouse they can be. The farming alone could probably feed the entire world, but they just have no way of transporting it. Most of these rural villages don’t have a road system, so they can’t even transport it within the continent to help other nations. I find it so crazy how there is extreme poor, opposite extreme rich there, and why no one in government is trying to reform any of these issues. It’s just beyond me.

I stare at the ceiling at night thinking about that one woman who was so scared to give birth because she was poor and didn’t have the necessary items required for delivery. Though I gave her the items she needed, I haven’t stopped wondering if it all turned out okay for her since the second I left her. (I also think about her witch neighbor and wonder if she has cast any spells lately!) I also lay awake at night thinking about the kids there, wondering if they are getting what they need, and about the woman who walked 45 minutes in labor, only to be turned away.

I have always felt this desire in my soul to help people. Although I’ve always been involved with charities and giving back my whole life, going there I know that this is now my life goal. I think my biggest lesson from the trip is that I am completely okay being alone. As someone who usually always needs someone around, being there alone, when I wasn’t working, was actually nice. I could go to sleep at night knowing I made a difference. I want to take every single opportunity I can to help, and I am working my butt off to be able to go back there again someday. Inspired by my trip, I am now also setting aside 10% of the store’s earnings to donate to charities who help the efforts in Africa and to further my efforts there.

 

“The wild dogs cry out in the night

  As they grow restless, longing for some solitary company

  I know that I must do what’s right

  As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti

  I seek to cure what’s deep inside, frightened of this thing that I’ve become”

-“Africa” by Toto

 

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