Jess Ainlay: What are the biggest lessons you learned while in Sao Tome?
Beth Santos: While in DC, I met a family friend at a picnic who had been the Director of the Peace Corps in Sao Tome in the 90s. He told me about his non-profit and said he would give me a roof over my head and three meals a day to volunteer. I said, “Sure, why not?”
When I went to Sao Tome, my friends said, “Oh my parents would never let me do that.” And I said, “Never let you? Well who cares if they say no. You just do it anyway.”
My first day in São Tomé, I went to Ned’s house. He sent me right away to help a middle school have issues “with their computers or something.” The principal was waiting for me (I didn’t even know anyone knew I was in the country), and shows me a room with one hundred new computers in boxes. He looks at me and says, “What do we do?”
Remember it's my first day ever in São Tomé. I've never been to the African continent at all before. Then he takes me to a classroom with one hundred students, waiting for me and says to them, “I’d like to introduce you to Profesora Elizabeth. She's come from the States. She's going to give your computer class. Okay Beth, go ahead.” I've never been a teacher before. I'm 22 years old. I just showed up in West Africa. I didn’t know where I was. I didn’t know anything about these computers.
I just said, “Give me the chalk,” and started, “Alright today we're going to talk about computers. Who's used a computer before?” And off I went.
Jess Ainlay: Just figuring it out’ is a common theme for The Postnomadic Project. Were you often confronted with this?
Beth Santos: I had been through this fish out of water feeling before. In Portugal, I was doing an internship at Voice of America in the Portuguese to Africa division, and two weeks into my internship, my boss up and went away for the summer, leaving me no instructions. I started a show, broadcasting in Portuguese to the Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) countries of Africa about health and family issues, calling people and interviewing them in Portuguese. I had to just figure it out.
Earlier that year, someone in the town passed away, I didn’t know him, but the family was taking me to the funeral. I didn’t know what to wear, but saw my cousin wearing pink and all these colors. I figured you didn’t have to wear black so I didn’t. When I came out, the family was shocked and said I had to wear black. The cousin wasn’t going to the funeral. But when you live abroad, you just figure that things are probably different to what you know, and you roll with it. You say, “Let’s just see what happens. What’s the worst that could happen.”
Having these hyperlocal experiences, being thrown into the local culture, leaves you so open. You have to throw every preconception you have to the wind. Since then, I've had this willingness to just check something out, see what it has to offer and learn along the way.