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The Vacation That Changed Everything

Melinda Gates’ first visit to Africa inspired a lifetime of giving

spinner image Melinda Gates on Africa & Travel
The Gateses in Zanzibar, 1993
Gates Archive

Growing up, I never traveled very far. Summer vacations meant escaping the Dallas heat with family road trips to a national park. When I was in my mid-20s, I took my first trip to Europe, with my friend Mary.

We stretched our shoestring budget as far as we could — riding the rails, staying in hostels and having the time of our lives. The more I traveled, the more curious I got about the world.

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In the fall of 1993, when I was 29, Bill and I made our first visit to Africa. We were recently engaged and had decided to go on a safari to celebrate. I will never forget how small I felt under that huge, stretching sky, surrounded by nature. The world seemed so much wider, and I wanted to take it in, as deeply as I could.

I will never forget how small I felt under that huge, stretching sky, surrounded by nature. The world seemed so much wider, and I wanted to take it in...

But what was most memorable about that trip wasn’t the savanna. It was the people we met. Our time in East Africa was my first real encounter with extreme poverty. It was both eye-opening and heartbreaking. I have vivid memories of watching women walking down the street, babies on their backs, and wondering what their lives were like. What did they hope for and worry about? What were the barriers keeping them trapped in poverty?

Before we left, Bill and I took a walk on a beach in Zanzibar and had the conversation that would end up changing our lives.

We’d already decided to give away most of the resources from Microsoft, but weren’t sure how. Now we had a sense of purpose — and urgency.

spinner image Melinda Gates on Africa & Travel
Melinda Gates
Gates Archive

When we got home to Seattle, we began learning all we could about what we’d seen. We dug into the data on poverty, disease and inequality, and consulted experts who’d been working on these issues long before we got started. In 2000, we opened the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, focused on solving the challenges facing the world’s poorest people. We wanted to help find solutions.

These days I travel a lot, and whenever I can, I bring our three kids, now 21, 18 and 15, along. I want them to experience my favorite part of travel: the way that being far from home can pull you closer to other things — like the people you love and the version of yourself you hope to become.

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