Amy Zimmer, a social studies teacher at an international school in Santiago, believes in using school breaks to further her understanding of the world. Recently, she traveled to West Africa, drawn to the nations of Togo, Benin, and Burkina Faso.


What brought you to West Africa?

Back in my college days, I was part of the University Union Cinematic Arts division at my school. Specifically, I was on the committee that chose foreign films, and one of the films that we considered was from Burkina Faso. Although we ultimately decided not to show it, the appeal of the country stayed with me. In recent years, Burkina Faso started coming up again in my job as a social studies teacher, primarily because of soil-degradation issues there. That renewed my curiosity. The practice of voodoo was another big draw. 



Why was voodoo so interesting to you?

To be honest, voodoo (Vodun) was interesting to me because I teach religion as part of my social studies curriculum. Although I’m only responsible for Hinduism and Buddhism, teaching kids about them has made me more aware of and interested in religious practices of all sorts. I grew up without a religion myself, so I find the rituals fascinating. Also, I love African drumming and dancing, and some of the ceremonies incorporate song and dance–or movement of some sort (chasing, for example, which is probably why people have such negative connotations when it comes to voodoo–it’s a bit scary at times!). Also, I thrive on seeing things that are completely new to me. I’ve spent the last 17 years living overseas–in Asia, the Caribbean, and now in South America–so, when I travel, I like to go outside of the areas with which I’m familiar in order to get a really different experience. 


 Which countries specifically did you visit?

I visited Togo, Benin, and Burkina Faso on that particular trip. Now, I can’t wait to go back to see Mali, Senegal, and Ghana. I feel like Africa is a traveling gold mine. I have just been saving many of the countries there for when I truly have the time to devote to them. My goal is to set aside some funds and take a year off just to travel there. 


Why did you choose to go to those countries in particular?

I chose those countries because of the combination of travel opportunities there. I knew I’d get to visit small villages as well as larger cities and spend time on or near the water as well as in the driest and least fertile parts of those countries. The variety was appealing. Also, I knew there would be plenty of chances to interact with locals and really get to know more about cultures I knew very little about going into the trip. 



What were your expectations going into the trip, and how were those matched or subverted?

To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect. Those are my favorite kinds of trips–when you have few preconceived notions because the places are so foreign to you! In the end, it was one of the most fascinating trips I’ve ever taken. I found the people so welcoming, the landscape so interesting, and the practices (especially voodoo) so fascinating. It exceeded any and all expectations, and I would go back in a heartbeat. 


Describe the cultural climate and the energy of these countries.

I don’t think these countries get a lot in the way of travelers, so people were quite curious…and perhaps a little puzzled as to why I was there. Everyone was just so open and kind. What struck me the most was the extreme pride people had for their way of life. They seemed genuinely happy to show off their homes and their customs. I met numerous kings, went into many homes, and observed many voodoo ceremonies. People always met me with open arms and a smile. For me, the human interactions are always the most important part of a trip, so the memories of all of the people I came into contact with are particularly special. 

How were these places similar and how were they different?

The biggest similarity between the three countries, for me, was how extremely friendly the people were. There were many subtle differences from region to region, including the style of the homes, the style of dress, and the rituals and ceremonies.  



What was the most challenging moment of this experience?

Oddly, the trip wasn’t challenging in too many ways. It was just enjoyable all the way through. The only challenge was illness. Clean water is not always a given in West Africa, so despite being incredibly careful, I still ended up with Giardia, which was not especially fun. Luckily, the worst of the illness hit once I was back home!


Portraiture seems to be a big focus of yours. What were the challenges and rewards of taking photographs of people?

The biggest reward of taking photos of people is the connections you can make. Although I didn’t speak any common languages with the majority of the people I came into contact with, I was able to communicate though my photos. Most of the people I came across were completely fascinated by my camera and by seeing their own image on the screen. Some people didn’t want to have their own photo taken, but we bonded over looking through my other photos of their country and its people. The camera gave me a way to interact that I wouldn’t have otherwise had. 



Can you speak about the landscape that you experienced, and how it affected you?

The landscape was fascinating to me. Having grown up in a humid, green state, desert landscapes seem as strange as the moon. I think the biggest impact the landscape had on me was the realization that, although the soil was terrible and people were living in exceptionally challenging situations, they were still happy with what they had. Food was not easy to come by, and life was generally tough, but everyone seemed to have a smile on his or her face. I think we often get caught up in things that really aren’t all that important, and there’s a lot to be said for having a simple lifestyle. People there obviously don’t have a choice in the matter, but I felt like it was soul filling for me to see how happy one can be with so little. I came home both with a greater appreciation for what I do have but also a renewed commitment to simplify my own life a bit. 


How were you received as a photographer? 

People were totally captivated by the camera. Many were initially shy about having their own photos taken, but the camera definitely gave me an “in.” It was a way to communicate without words, and it was a way to show my appreciation for all I had seen and experienced in West Africa. Many people seemed touched that I wanted a photo of them, and they hammed it up for the camera at times, making a fun and enjoyable interaction for everyone involved. 


What was your takeaway from this experience?  

The biggest takeaway was the reminder that I am so, so lucky to have the chance to do the traveling I do. It is the biggest privilege in my life, and I feel like each and every trip changes me in new and unexpected ways. I would not be the person I am today if not for all of the experiences I’ve had with different cultures.