Announcing Our Capture Kindness Photo Contest Winner

Capturing Kindness Among Us

Taking a specific moment and being able to freeze frame it on camera can tell a story long after the precious snippet of time has dissipated. La’Nita Johnson, winner of our Capture Kindness Photo Contest, has not only shared with us beauty through pictures, but has also blessed us with sharing the beauty of her experiences and thoughts about travel.

We had the amazing opportunity to touch base with La’Nita, and truly get insight into what “capturing kindness” means to her, as well as burrow deeper into her story behind the lens.

Volunteer with local woman in Burkina Faso

With over 1000 likes on your image, it is no wonder you won the popular vote! Now, tell us a bit about the setting of the image.

First of all, I want to thank the GoAbroad Foundation for having a space where people can share kind moments from their travels. I strongly believe that through intercultural immersion and communication, we can all begin to learn more about each other!

This image was taken in the Morpougha village of Burkina Faso on the last day of our week-long mission trip. Last January 2016, I travelled to Burkina Faso with an organization called buildOn to help build a primary school in a rural community. After working alongside the women and men of Morpougha to start the initial construction of the school, the community members celebrated us before we left the village. In the photo, I am being presented a traditional Burkinabe cloth by a village elder to thank me (and my team) for our efforts and dedication for helping foster the mission of education and literacy in their community.

What inspired you to go to Burkina Faso?

I have a longstanding passion for both international travel and education. Throughout my undergraduate tenure at Pepperdine University, I had the amazing opportunity to be a Program Coordinator, leading student volunteers to teach ESL classes. However, throughout all of my global travels, I recognized that I never had the opportunity to pair my two loves, especially in a service learning capacity.

Thus, after being introduced to the buildOn organization, I did more research into the countries with whom the organization partners; and stumbled upon Burkina Faso. In reading the statistics of the country, I saw that not only did the UN rank them as the 7th poorest country in the world, they also had one of the lowest levels of literacy, with almost 73% of the population illiterate.

As I strongly believe the key to economic growth is through education.   I was inspired to work with a team to raise over $36,000 to help construct a school in one of the country’s rural villages. Little did I know that this trip would not only inspire me throughout the fundraising period, it would later change my life.

buildOn volunteers with primary school students in Burkina FasoCan you share a little more about the tragedy you experienced while abroad and how it impacted your life?

A surprising fact about this photo is it was taken just a few hours before what became a life-changing experience for me! Just hours later after this beautiful moment was captured, I would later survive the Cappuccino Café terrorist attacks on January 15, 2016. After our long day of saying goodbye to the Morpougha community and driving several hours to return to the capital city of Ouagadougou, our team was very excited to celebrate the conclusion of our mission at the popular Cappuccino Café. However, just a short hour into our arrival, at 7:30 PM, members of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) entered the restaurant with assault rifles, and executed a deadly mission of targeting Western diners.

While I was blessed to make it to the bathroom to hide, two of my group members (Ahmed Kere and Djibrila Zanga) lost their lives to senseless violence. Members of AQIM, later set the building on fire and fired shots to anyone seeking to leave the establishment. As the building began to collapse, I ran for my life with a team member (now my soul sister — Brittany Layton) and we hid in a trash-filled alley for over 15 hours until their siege of the city ended and I was rescued around 10 AM the following day. I was later rushed to the hospital for my injuries sustained in my escape, and was evacuated from the country that afternoon.

Although I  was involved in this tragic experience, I do NOT consider myself a victim—but rather a survivor! Throughout the course of my trip, I kept thinking about how blessed I was to be impacted by the children and elders in the Morpougha community, and I vowed that I would leave Corporate America to pursue my true passions of education when I returned from the mission. I think God knew my fear about leaving the conventional 9-5 workforce, so he sped up my timeline and sparked a change in me that I could have never foreseen!

Volunteer with children in Burkina Faso

In following God’s path for my life, this summer, I was awarded the 2017 Donald M. Payne International Development Fellowship, supported by USAID. This fellowship provides up to $93,000 in benefits over two years for graduate school, internships, and professional development activities, and a unique pathway to the USAID Foreign Service. Additionally, in connection with my admission to American University’s M.A. in International Training and Education program, I was awarded as the inaugural recipient of the Charles Tesconi Graduate Fellowship for Educational Equity (named after the university’s former dean of the School of Education)— and serve as a graduate assistant alongside the program’s department chair, doing research about the youth extremism and the radical right. It is such a blessing to be able to have a second chance to follow my passion and be able to be a crusader for anti-terrorism and use education as a weapon for peace.

Why do you think it is important to keep travelling even when we face unknown challenges in doing so?

One of the number one questions that I got from friends and family when I shared my exciting news about being a prospective Education Officer in the Foreign Service is “Why do you want to go abroad again after what you suffered?” And the answer was very simple — one bad experience is not indicative of all of the experiences I will have in travelling!

It is very important to recognize that there may always be uncertainty while travelling anywhere, not just internationally. However, in my opinion, you gain much more than you lose in taking that risk. There is beauty in experiencing new cultures—food, language, historical sites. You have the potential to learn and grow from meeting people different from you. Traveling helps to broaden your worldview and inspires personal growth in thought.

My advice would be to anyone who is nervous about travelling, start doing a little research about where you travel. Look at the news, find blogs and reviews from individuals who have travelled to that country, and consider what you want from your own international experience!

You have become an advocate for anti-terrorism and peace since your time in Burkina Faso. What do you think the best way to combat terrorism is in the world today?

Education, education, and more education! But this education can be taught in both formal and non-formal settings. While no one would argue about the importance of widespread, international access to education through both infrastructure and resources, terrorism often stems from one party’s views not being adequately observed—thus, creating a desire to find a sense of belonging with those that share similar perspectives.

Volunteer cleaning a pot in Burkina Faso

It is very important for individuals around the world to learn more about others, because knowledge helps develop both understanding and tolerance. When you are introduced to cultures/ethnicities different than your own, stereotypes that you once held, have the potential to dissipate. I am such a huge advocate on traveling—even if it’s just outside of your hometown to explore different cultures, make friends whom are different from you, and have the tough conversations about ideologies that you may hold. Whether you take the steps to educate yourself about issues through a formalized advanced degree or inquiring about the nuances of someone’s culture, that is how we can begin to eradicate hate and move towards peace, compassion, and compromise.

What made you choose your charity?

After my return from Burkina Faso, I learned more about the incident in which I was involved. In my research, I stumbled across a picture that AQIM released of the “martyrs” who carried out the massacre—and they looked to be no more than 18-20 years old. This got me thinking about how such young men could be roped into committing such an atrocity and living a life filled with hate. The thought saddened me—but what scared me even more was thinking about the children that are being recruited by extremist organizations and have been brainwashed into believing only those ideologies. Thus, I became extremely interested in learning about the existence and successes of de-radicalization programs and exploring if any organizations seek to address the root problems of hate and violence.

Girls trying to make a clay pot in Burkina Faso

Luckily, I stumbled upon Muflehun and I fell in love with both their mission and approach. Not only do they help develop solutions to the issue of hate in our society, they bring these issues to policy makers to help intact change at a higher level. The organization has a 4-tier approach to countering violent extremism through prevention, intervention, mitigation, and re-entry. They are best known for their championing efforts for re-entry programs and hope to continue making headway in that space! This multi-faceted approach takes a less security-based focus and highlights the need to address root causes—which is what I love and am honored to be in a capacity to which I can contribute!

After seeing your image, what do you want people to remember?

Every time I look at that picture, I remember some of the last joyous moments that I had in the village! The village elders sent us off with a blessing and told us that they never could have imagined Westerners could be this kind. Those lasting conversations remind me of the power that intercultural communication can have on one’s preconceived notions and stereotypes. I strongly encourage people to get outside of their comfort zones by talking to people from different cultures and traveling to places you never thought you would!

So, when people look at my picture, I want them to know that I always chose to think of the amazing mission I completed in the Morpougha village—and not dwell on my tragic encounter with hate! Choosing love over hate is an important lesson, especially in the current divisive climate.

“Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can.” 

If you would like to get involved in helping put a stop to violent extremism, please look into donating to Muflehun, a cause that has the power to help humanity on a global level. Thank you once again La’Nita, for sharing your story and enabling us to capture the real kindness present in our world.