Thursday, May 24, 2012

So Long Tanzania

          First, a HUGE thanks to everyone who read and commented on my blog this semester. (Special shout out to my Mom and Grandma Suzie, my two most dedicated readers, and Mama Sean and Mama Eliza who I was told have been keeping up) Without your positive feedback I would likely have renounced the effort long ago. Family and friends, thank you for ungrudgingly accepting this as my main form of communication for the last four months. I cannot wait to hear your voices and see your faces in person. 
          My apologizes in advance for a long, picture-scanty last post. This final post is an opportunity to reflect, clear my mind, and collect my thoughts before getting caught up in summer. Though it is more for myself than anyone else, my hope is that each of you is able to find maybe one or two sentences or ideas that resonates inside you. Without further ado, here it goes...
          Our first ‘assignment’ of the semester was to find a quiet place to sit in Nderokowoi Ranch and respond to the prompt “Why am I in Africa”. Although I had given my decision to study aboard extensive thought, my journal page was no more than a scatterbrained mess with no coherent answer. The conclusion I eventually came to was that I came to Africa out of instinct and only being here could tell me why I had come.
          Four months later I am far from finished synthesizing my experience but I have made some progress. Coincidentally I believe the answer begins with this blog.
          I chose Tanzania Time as a title haphazardly, for lack of a better alliteration, unaware of how relevant it would turn out to be. On our first safari back in February, I discovered that this is also the slogan for Kilimanjaro beer, one of the sought-after local beers. All over northern Tanzania the catchphrase can be found plastered on buildings, T-shirts, and vehicles. 

          Aside from an alcoholic tagline, my classmates and I quickly discovered that Tanzania Time is a pace. This pace is seen in the way a ten minute wait becomes an hour or two (or five or six), the leisurely speed that my translator and I strolled down the roads of Wasso as if we had no destination in mind, and the extended greetings that often last several minutes before a conversation has even begun. As the Tanzanian proverb goes, Haraka haraka haina baraka, 'Hurry, hurry has no blessings.' (Upon entering a vehicle, this no longer applies)
          But one step further, Tanzania Time is a mindset. It is the attitude that there is always time in the day for guests and tea; the fact that when a Tanzanian is asked for directions he will personally escort you to your desired location no matter how far away it is. It’s exhibited by the willingness of taxi drivers to wait around several hours at no extra charge, the frequency with which the phrase “pole pole” (slowly, slowly) is recited, and the readiness of Tanzanians to talk morning, noon, and night, no matter the circumstance.
          Tanzanians have a way of making you feel that they have time for you— that there is nothing they would rather be doing at that very moment. They are extremely social, greeting everyone on the street and caring foremost about the people in their lives. They are proud of their collective way of living and rely on it in times of desperation.
          In the US, we often think of time as something to be spent, wasted, and consumed, but rarely is it thought of as something to offer. When I find myself running on high-speed too busy to stop to chat on campus, keep in contact with high school friends or help someone, I will find some Tanzania Time. Because I’ve realized sometimes time is the most precious gift you can give.

          When diving into an unfamiliar environment one must accept the inevitable vulnerability and dependency that come along with being a newbie. Throughout this semester, I often felt alone and lost due to my skin color, gender, and upbringing. Though our Swahili became somewhat conversational, we were constantly inhibited by the language barrier. For someone like me who thrives on independence, this helplessness was difficult to accept.
          In such situations, I came to realize that sometimes there is nothing you can do but trust— trust that the random guy showing us around town just wants to help out, trust that the taxi driver will not hit the oncoming traffic, and trust that the chickens in the house are harmless. If you want a good night’s sleep, you must have faith that the armed askari will take care of any lions that enter the campsite and if you would like to relieve your thirst, you must trust that Mama boiled the water.
          When things are going well this is not so hard to do, it is when things start to go astray that challenge arises. Even when you are sold bus tickets by a con man, mugged for the second time, sold a rip-off phone, misdiagnosed, misdirected, and screwed over repeatedly, you must learn to trust once more. For if you can’t you ought to stay in the hotel room because you won’t survive in Tanzania, or anywhere for that matter, on your own.

          Throughout middle school and high school I dreaded going to French class, counting down the years until my requirements were fulfilled. Until recently, I viewed language as a static tool which enables people to express themselves but has little use beyond the practical. This semester, I gained a new appreciation for language as a reflection of a culture’s attitudes and values.
          Although my Swahili vocabulary coming into the semester was limited to the phrases from the Lion King, it turns out hakuna matata (meaning ‘There are no worries’) and rafiki (meaning ‘friend’) weren’t bad words to know. Although the former is actually only used by businesspeople to attract the attention of Disney-loving tourists, the phrases hamna shida, hakuna matatizo, and haina shinda have the same meaning. Tanzanians have options when they want to express that there 'ain’t no worries,' which happens on an hourly basis.
          One night on our walk home from dinner, fed up with relentlessly being called rafiki by strangers, a friend of mine half-jokingly replied, Mimi si rafiki yako (meaning “I am not your friend”). The Tanzanian man calmly went on to explain, “In America, you have to know someone for years before you call them your friend. In Tanzania, everyone is your friend.” From then on it didn’t bother us.
          Similarly, people are referred to by their age group or position in the family. All women are addressed as Mama, men as Baba, young girls as Dada, boys as Kaka, elderly people as Bibi or Babu. Although these generic names seem unpersonalized and being called “Mama” or “Bibi” would likely insult many women in the US, the names take on an endearing quality. As you watch a woman get on a daladala and hand her baby to a stranger in the back seat to hold, the language is manifested. A Tanzanian woman is not just responsible for her children and her household, she’s everyones Mama.
          By the time I ventured to Wasso, I thought I had finally picked up on all the common greetings. I’d be getting along just fine until someone would throw in Upo? and I’d freeze with a look of confusion, mumbling my best guess at an appropriate response. After a few days of snickering as I floundered, my translator decided to tell me what it meant.
          Turns out Upo? means “Are you here?” to which one responds Nipo, “I am here.” Similarly, one may say Tupo, to which another person echos Tupo, “We are here.” These are frequently used in greetings as well as during pauses in dialogue. It is a way of acknowledging your full presence in a conversation... refreshing in this age of mobile distractions. 
          But perhaps the linguistic nuance I will miss the most is one four-letter word: pole. The word may be voiced when someone is harvesting crops, rolling a heavy wheelbarrow uphill, or suffering from an eye infection (see below). It is often uttered when one trips on a crack in the ground, is robbed, or for a plethora of other reasons. It is an expression of empathy for which English has no substitute. It is meant to be comforting, like a heartfelt ‘sorry’ but without the pity. It is a reminder that others have been in your situation before and it will soon pass.

          Don’t get me wrong, Tanzania is no nirvana. In fact, it is a place with infinite problems; few people have electricity, possessions and opportunities are limited, men loiter around the streets jobless, the education system is a mess, women are second-class citizens, people die everyday from treatable diseases, clean water is harder to come by than Coke in many areas... the list goes on and on. I do not aim to paint a false, photoshopped portrait of the country.
          There are many things that I will not miss about life in Tanzania— sleeping inside a mosquito net, going to the bathroom without toilet paper, investing in bottled water, or hand-washing clothes.  I will not miss reckless city driving accompanied by excessive honking, being seen as a bipedal bank, worrying about walking around town with my laptop, and eating only carbs.
          On the other hand, the list of things I will miss about Tanzania is much longer. I will miss the wide array of fresh tropical fruit and the nightly street corn lathered in pilipili salt. I will miss the inadvertent conservation seen in the spectacular use of land, solar-powered phone charging stations, and reusable glass bottles. I will miss waking up looking forward to breakfast from the chapati mamas and sitting on the roof of Meru House Inn in the evenings watching the sunset with Mt. Meru over our shoulders. I will miss the bright colors and beautiful patterns of kangas hanging out to dry, perfectly contrasted by the green and brown villages. I will miss openly burping during meals, picking my nose in public without receiving looks of disgust, and using blunt language that does not offend (to get someone’s attention in Swahili you literally say Wewe!, “You!”).
          At the same time there are those things that fall in an 'in between' category, that I was eager to escape yet imagine I will grow to miss overtime. These include ridiculously crowded daladala rides, the constant attention of being white, the title ‘Muzungu’ (or ‘Tanzania’ when wearing a soccer jersey), and being run over by street peddlers. I have already found myself nostalgic of bargaining and long greetings, two things I once swore I would never miss. Funny how that is.
          Although Baba Jack would argue SIT’s ‘experiential learning’ claim is simply an advertising ploy, it is hard for me to believe that there is no difference between classroom learning and immersing oneself in a foreign country for four months. I think it comes down to the senses.
          One can study the politics, culture, and biology of an area from a textbook, yet you cannot fully understand the Maasai without knowing the milky smell of their bomas, the sound of dancing and chanting at Esoto, or the sweat brought on by the blazing afternoon heat. You cannot comprehend the need for a tarmac road in Wasso without experiencing the long bumpy trek yourself, crossing a waste-high river by foot, or talking to villagers with malaria who walked for hours to get to the hospital. You cannot study giraffe behaviors without also spotting the male impala unfailingly nearby or feeling the sting of the Acacia thorns they feed on. Only by dealing with street salesmen, responding to requests for money, pens and marriage, or having your Muzungu hair admired by a young girl, can one understand the true meaning of ‘whiteness’.

          I know that I have been absorbed in this new culture because I have forgotten American manners— waiting to eat until everyone is served, politely refusing food (this is considered rude in Tanzania), saying “bless you” after someone sneezes. I have lost the natural tendency to put on a seatbelt and my perceptions of appropriate eye-contact and personal space are skewed. I sat next to a Tanzanian man on my return flight to Amsterdam who was going Sweden to work for a month. It was his first time going to a Western country and I noticed him observing my behaviors, taking note of any nuances he should adopt to fit in. The strange part was, I found myself looking to others, having forgotten my own cultural norms. 
          Tanzania is a poor country but a proud country. Tanzanians are proud of their country’s peaceful history, language, and friendliness. Material possessions are few but friends are plentiful. You can decide which is more important.

          I will end this blog with a quote I came across months ago by the Italian poet Cesare Pavese. Although I can’t remember where I found it, I wrote it down in the back of my journal before leaving the US and my eyes skimmed across it several times throughout the semester.
“If you wish to travel far and fast, travel light. Take off all your envies, jealousies, unforgiveness, selfishness and fears.”
         No one embodies this quote more than Tanzanians— the most nonjudgemental, forgiving, selfless group of people I have ever met. As I begin this next stage of my life, it will be with a cup of tea in hand and a full pot warm on the stove for anyone who wishes to sit down and chat.

         Thank you for welcoming us with open arms to your beautiful country, Tanzania. Your impression will forever be a part of me.

         Lastly, to those who shared the challenges, frustrations, and joys of this semester, you guys are the best. What a ride it has been!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Flavors of Zanzibar

          Upon conclusion of an academic semester spent scoffing at tourists, trying to distinguish ourselves from them, we decided to do the most touristy thing of all: head to Zanzibar for the week.
          Following a teary-eyed goodbye with many of our classmates, seven friends and I woke before sunrise on the 10th for a ten-hour bus ride to Dar es Saalam, the biggest city in Tanzania. We spent the night at the Salvation Army Hostel where we were joined by our new travel companions, itchy bed bugs, just in time for the ferry across the Indian Ocean early the next morning. The boat ride turned into an exciting rescue mission as we picked up a fisherman who’s boat had sunk.
Dar es Saalam, the biggest city in Tanzania
Zoe hiding from the insects in the room at the Salvation Army Hostel
          With street lights, guaranteed electricity and air conditioning, it is hard to believe Zanzaibar and mainland Tanzania are two parts of the same country. The narrow, windy roads give the island a European feel rather than an African one. Though Serengeti safaris attract copious visitors every year, the tourism industry of mainland Tanzania is dwarfed by that of Zanzibar. Tourists in summer clothing and skimpy bikinis stand out like sore thumbs among the local women, the large majority of whom are Muslim.

Since our time in Zanzibar was limited, our days were jam-packed with activities, hitting all the main tourist attractions: a spice tour, snorkeling on Prison Island, hanging out with Red Colobus Monkeys in the forest (which are endemic to Zanzibar), petting sea turtles. We laid on a beautiful, white-sand beach with pina coladas in hand and spoiled ourselves with nightly happy hour cocktails. We walked into a cave where slaves were hidden after the abolition of the East African slave trade, visited a community butterfly project, and watched tortoises mate (quite the spectacle!).

          Zanzibar is a beautiful place, perhaps one of the most beautiful I have ever been, and it would be hard for anyone to argue differently.

          I could easily spend weeks just walking around the shops where craftsmen carve wooden chests and remarkable, intricate doors seen throughout Stone Town, artists paint inside their shops, and the clothing and fabric selection is endless and reasonably priced if you know how to bargain. The streets smell of fresh cardamom, nutmeg, vanilla, lemon grass, saffron, cumin, and cinnamon, sold at prices that would make any serious cook high off excitement. Every evening from 6 PM until midnight there is a seafood market at a park nearby the port where local fish, shark, and shellfish are cooked in front of you. The people of Zanzibar are incredibly friendly and the salespeople not overly-pushy. I left Zanzibar thrilled that I decided to extend my stay in Tanzania, invigorated after an exhausting last week of presentations and goodbyes, and smelling much better than I had when I arrived thanks to warm showers and the spices I acquired.

Vanilla bean!
Cinnamon sticks are made from pieces of bark 
          After spending four months in a only a small portion of northern Tanzania, I realize that it is impossible to truly understand a place, especially an environment so rich in history and culture, in just one week. Simply put, Zanzibar was a vacation— a great one at that! I could not have asked for a more exhilarating destination or better company. At the same time, it was a preview of the culture shock that I anticipate will soon come.
Zoe, Kate and I. The cleanest we've looked since January
          As we cringed at shops with set prices and the inflated costs of food and taxi rides, Addie’s dad, who joined us from the US for the week, could not believe the bargain. When prices were given in American dollars, we found ourselves converting the amounts into Tanzanian shillings in order to determine the real cost. The hotels, restaurants, and shops lining the streets all seemed luxurious. For the first time in months, we saw people sporting designer clothing, were expected to tip, and were able to count on the lights in our hotel room turning on. None of these things were necessarily good or bad, just different.

          The last of my classmates to present his Independent Study Project, did his study on the power dynamic of studying abroad, using our program as a case example. At the end of his presentation, he concluded that each of us must make the choice of what to do with this semester-long experience— how we want to incorporate it into our lives and allow it to affect our futures.
          In Zanzibar, we were confronted with the choice to use our spotty Swahili or resort back to English. We had the choice to splurge on fancy American foods or continue eating local dishes. We had the choice to pay $200 per night for a four star hotel or $10 per night for a local one. Although these decisions seem trivial and one, two, or even 100 of them will have no significant affect on our lives (aside from our wallets), this semester has made me well-aware of the nuanced undertones of such choices.

          While there is no right or wrong answers per se, as my classmate eloquently put it, how we allow awarenesses to affect our lives is up to each and every individual. Zanzibar was one glimpse of this challenge.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Not So Alone in the Bush

          In late March, our group of 28 stopped in a small village called Wasso for the night to give the camp crew a break. Antsy after hours in a car, looking to satisfy our guilty chocolate pleasures after two weeks void of civilization, and with a free afternoon on our hands, a friend and I ventured about the village.

          As we walked around we encountered a small room crowded with men vehemently watching a soccer game (the week’s schedule posted on the door), a church group singing and dancing with rolling hills in the backdrop, and a small fruit and grain market. We followed dirt paths to beautiful fields of maize, beans, and sunflowers, filled with villagers eager to talk. I immediately knew that I wanted to return to this place.

          So on a whim, I decided to change my Independent Study Project location from Bangata— only an hour’s walk from Arusha, where there are lots of familiar faces— to Wasso— where I knew not a single person by name and no SIT student had ever done their project before. Instead of studying ‘perceptions of community’ as I had planned during ISP preparation week and written my proposal on, I changed my study to look at the controversial Serengeti Road which if passed would cross directly through Wasso. To my parents dismay, I decided to go alone.
          Although my rash decision-making sounds somewhat crazy in retrospect, it made sense at the time. I was semi-dreading returning to Bangata for three more weeks while my peers set out across northern Tanzania and I craved the adventure of exploring new grounds. With only a month left of the program, it seemed there was so much left of northern Tanzania to see and by staying in Bangata I felt I would be taking the easy way out. I was uncertain with my original study topic and beginning to doubt working with secondary school students who are infamous for giving white people trouble. I had never travelled alone and my body and mind were hungry for the challenge. Turns out, it was perhaps the best decision I’ve ever made.
          Baba Jack gave me the heads up that Wasso is difficult to get to but I did not fully appreciate his precautionary warning until experiencing the journey myself. After 12 hours on a crowded bus (with a cat in a bag under my feet) that nearly flipped multiple times and eventually got stuck due to rocky road conditions, and an additional three hours hanging on the top of a Land Rover in the dark and rain, I arrived in Wasso cold, wet, and more excited than ever to climb into bed.
          The following day was spent arranging food and accommodations for the next two weeks at the Peace and Love Guesthouse, getting permission for my study from the village chairman, and finding Seuri (pronounced SAY-uri), my translator, who I had met atop the Land Rover the night before.
Seuri and I

The back of the guesthouse. The hot hangout spot of the village. Music playing 24/7.

          Although the daylong trek made the village seem a world away from Arusha, I later found out that it is only 400 km or a 45 minute helicopter flight— the current road is just that bad. If this didn’t justify my study and the need for a tarmac road, my next two weeks of interviews certainly did. As I spoke with businesspeople, teachers, healthcare professionals, government workers, reverends, and villagers about a new road as an ‘agent of development,’ it became obvious that that two were synonymous and mutually dependent in my study site— you cannot have ‘development’ in Wasso without a paved road, and a road will not come without ‘development’. 

The dirt path to the secondary school after a big rain.
          Currently, the village of approximately 1,500 to 2,000 people is considered ‘in the bush.’ Although it is home to a secondary school and district hospital, teachers and doctors who are assigned to work in Wasso run away, literally. During the rainy season, the dirt road is often not traversable and I was told many horror stories of buses getting stuck for days in the Serengeti. Poor transport infrastructure has resulted in scare and overpriced goods, sparse access to electricity and water, insufficient social services, and limited competition. The direction of my study shifted to look less at the specifics of the Serengeti Road and more at an ‘underdeveloped’ populations’ views on ‘development’, turning vague language into concrete manifestations brought about by a road.

          Over the two week period, I conducted 38 interviews with the help of Seuri, each about 40 minutes to an hour long, which provoked many great discussions and really interesting results (in my opinion at least). After another full week typing up a 30-page report and preparing a presentation to share with my classmates, I am exhausted by the subject matter so I will not bore you with the details of my study. That said, I am more than happy to discuss my methods or findings at a later date or lend the printed copy to all who are interested in reading!
          While a good slice of my time in Wasso was spent conducting interviews and organizing responses in my notebook, in truth, the study was more of a subsidiary to my experience. What made my time in Wasso truly memorable was the people that I met along the way.
          On day one, I realized that paying for meals in advance was a mistake. Since I had come without a passport, I needed to go to the neighboring village of Loliondo (10 km away) to get a stamp of approval from the police chief before beginning my study. When Seuri and I got out of the car in Loliondo, we were greeted by Reverend Isaya, who spent the next two hours walking around town with us trying to get my situation settled. Afterwards, he invited us back to his home for lunch and demanded that I return again for dinner... and the next day to learn to cook ugali from his wife... and insisted that I stay at his home for free for the next two weeks. Although I turned down his gracious offer, he allowed Seuri to stay at his home while working with me, saving him the daily travel time and cost to go from Wasso to Loliondo where his family lives.
          As I sat around that first night with Seuri, the reverend, and his beautiful family, eating corncobs and discussing education, safety, Obama (whom his youngest son ‘Barak’ was named after), poverty, and Martin Luther King Jr. in Swa-English, I could not have felt more welcome. The reverend and his wife refused to call me ‘Abby’, nicknaming me the Maasai word for 'Always happy' — apparently I could not stop smiling.
          Around 10 PM, the entire family walked me back to the guesthouse by flashlight to ensure I arrived safely. Although Reverend Isaya left to walk to Kenya for a conference the next morning and was yet to return when I left Wasso, I believe that if there are angels on Earth, he is one.
          Although I went to Wasso by my lonesome, I quickly discovered that I was far from alone. If I sat on the stoop of the guesthouse, people young and old immediately came to chat (or ask my hand in marriage). When I sat down to eat a meal someone would undoubtedly pull up a chair usually offering to buy me a drink. When I got an eye infection, everybody we encountered expressed their empathy. Although I only asked Seuri to work a few hours each day, he voluntarily kept me company all afternoon, happily introducing me to his friends and family. The number of people on the street who stopped to talk and welcome me to Tanzania and their homes was truly remarkable. Everyone was eager to lend a hand and a warm cup of tea. The villagers had a way of making me feel welcome and wanted. I went to bed every night overwhelmed with kindness.
          Towards the end of my stay I was introduced to Reverend Yonah, who invited Seuri and I over for dinner every night thereafter. Each evening we sat around a wooden table in his cozy, one-room home illuminated by a hanging flashlight, as his “beloved wife” cooked dinner on a small stove in the corner. The house was neatly organized with belongings and decorations— enough to live comfortably but not excessive. As the reverend swung his adorable 3-year-old daughter ‘B’ up and down, he would say, “This is Tanzanian Life”, followed by a chuckle.
          It was moments like this that I will never forget; that made me want to rip down the the wall-painting outside of the tailor’s shop that read, “It’s big fun to be rich,” next to a boy in a USA flag t-shirt; that made my blood rage through my veins when villagers discussed how poor they are and how badly they want to be like Americans. There is so much more to life than monetary wealth.
          The villagers of Wasso were more than willing to talk and take time out of their day to help a stranger. The sheer joy on the street is unlike anything I have experienced in the US. It is no wonder that of the 38 people I interviewed, every single one said they want to live in Wasso kabisa (forever). I do not blame them.
          Although compiling and analyzing the data from my interviews was no easy feat and meeting my page requirement was a bit of a struggle, my acknowledgements section could have gone on for pages. To quote my final project, because I believe these people deserve another shout out...
          “To everyone that graciously welcomed me to their homes– thank you for the tea, soda, beer, and nyama choma, for the exchange of ideas, and for speaking slowly so that I might understand. Thank you for sharing yourselves and your beautiful village with the lone Muzungu girl from America. Your unparalleled hospitality will never be forgotten.”

          In the days leading up to my ISP I was jumped in Arusha, my purse and phone stolen and shirt sleeve ripped. Although I was physically unharmed, I was shaken and anxious to travel alone. After my stay in Wasso, my faith in fellow human beings had never been so strong.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Karibu Mt. Meru!

          Upon reuniting with the other students, some friends and I took a short break from laboring (okay, hardly) over our Independent Study Projects to climb Mt. Meru. After three days of much-needed exercise, whimsical delusion from the high altitude, majestic views and too much Advil for anyone's good, we are now paying the price, grinding out our papers and presentations. Therefore, an update from two weeks as a lone traveler to Wasso COMING SOON.

          In the meantime, as I was catching up on friends' adventures across the world (admittedly via Facebook and Tumblr) I came across this Kurt Vonnegut quote—shout out to Emily Miles!

"I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.' "

          Mt. Meru was our first glimpse of Tanzania, as we eagerly crawled out of our tents at Ndarakwai Ranch back in January. At the time, the rocky mountain was a big, stunning stranger. 

Taken Week 1 in Tanzania
          After three months admiring its striking allure each time we return to Arusha from safari, drinking its snowmelt, and sharing a home, its presence and significance are visceral. As the semester winds to an end, the climb seemed to be the perfect farewell. 

Mt. Kilimanjaro in the distance

Standing on the summit with some of the coolest, most-selfless people I know, overlooking this vast, beautiful country, I could not have been more genuinely happy.