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.


  1. i love you pictures of you and your friend you are so awesome parson ever had your pictures are funny today
    love Sara Bailey

    p.s. i love your picture they funny and sweet

  2. Ab I am so happy you met so many angels in Tanzania!!! My favorite was Seuri! I wish I could have thanked him myself!!! I am sure it will be sad to leave this wonderful country tomorrow. but obviously, as you so gratiously treated us to, you leave with a heart and memory filled to the brim with wonderful adventures, awesome scenery, exciting challenges new friends that you will cherrish forever and so much kindness! and we back here in the good ole US of A are blank slates waiting to seep up any more stories you will share with us!!! so I am looking very, very forward to seeing this new Abby Sophir come out of at terminal at Lambert airport tomorrow!!! I will be the little Mama American trying not to burst into tears when Inlay eyes on you...but that never works. Please be safe and smart tomorrow when you are alone. I hope you have a nice trip home! we love you s much!!!!!! Mom