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!


  1. Grat blog and great way to conclude your adventure! am so impressed with your insights( and fearlessness ) kind of glad I didn't know about some of your experiences at the time as I have failed to master " no worries" especially when it comes to my daughter. You are wise well beyond your years and I am so proud of you. Glad to have you home briefly. Love, your Baba

  2. I enjoyed your blog so much Abby. While I know my experience was incredibly different from yours, I feel like I can relate on some level. I've been home from Tanzania for five months, and I have to say, I still think about it almost every day. Enjoy your memories, and here's hoping we'll both return some day! Love, Liz Snidman

  3. Welcome home, Abby. Thank you for sharing your experiences, which I have enjoyed so much through your blog.

    Though readapting from various aspects of life in Tanzania may take time, I hope your parents will respect that certain things will remain the same: one should always be allowed to burp at will. Just a bit of wisdom from your good friend Nancy. I've never seen that as a cultural thing...

    But...back to the's just beautiful. What an incredible experience for you to have for life, and your life will never be the same for having it.

    Glad you are back - now go change lives. I know you will!

    Nancy Sokolik