Sunday, May 04, 2014

Since I've come home from Tanzania...

This is the fifth and final post in my commemorative mini-series about Tanzania. It's been great to go through old pictures and videos, and remember wonderful memories about my time living there.

Throughout my 29 years I have traveled quite a lot. During my childhood, my travel-loving parents were never afraid to pack up the family into a minivan or a motor home and set out on the road, and for that I am truly grateful. I don't remember everything about all the trips, but I remember some things, and those memories are special. Those road trips let me see how mountains can fade into prairies, how cool weather can gradually give way to hot weather, how accents can slide from crisp enunciation and short vowels to relaxed drawls and drawn out As, and so many more things. Even though I don't remember every detail of these trips, they have stuck with me because their main focus was not getting from point A to point B, but enjoying the journey and learning along the way.

As a teenager I began expanding my horizons and started traveling outside of North America. And because of those early cross-continent road trips, I was well-equipped to appreciate the distinct differences I saw. My nearly-16-year-old eyes passed over the dusty and garbage-strewn roads of India to drink in the brilliant-coloured saris worn by graceful women, the exuberant smiles of brown-faced children, the hardworking men who laid block alongside us Westerners and rejoiced that they would finally have a church building to worship in. That one trip to northern India with my father sealed my fate; the world amazed me and I never wanted to stop traveling, or seeing new places and learning about the people who lived there. The next year, then the next, and the next, took me to Costa Rica, Mexico, and Belize. Each a Spanish-speaking country in Central America, but each so distinctly different from the others. Spring break of my first year in university found me squished into a nine-passenger van with six other people and more luggage than should have been brought along with us to Europe. My family and my grandparents spent 14 days traveling south from Germany to Italy, then back north to England, visiting 10 countries (we count Vatican City as a does have its own postal system after all) before leaving the van at the Frankfort airport, but returning to North America with two weeks of memories of springtime in Europe. Two years later I left the rigors of university to spend three and a half months in a small children's home in Guatemala City, where overnight I became a meal-and-hygiene assistant, playmate, discipline-giver, sitting-and-walking coach, swing-pusher, book-reader, singer, storyteller, and mother to 50 babies and young children. And another three and a half years later found me sitting on a KLM jet peering out the window into the inky sky scattered with infinite stars, trying to see through the dark to the African land below where I would be living for the next eight months -- thinking back on all my previous travels, and wondering what the future held for this new adventure.

Throughout those months, I learned more about Tanzania than I had about any country outside of North America that I had visited before -- or since. But by the time I left I still felt like I had barely scratched the surface in learning all that the beautiful Eastern African country offered. This is just a little of what I did uncover about Tanzania and what I have kept close to my heart since I've left Africa.

- Fear: As you read in my first post, the travel doctor I visited before leaving for Tanzania was fearful and worried about what might happen to me if I walked around in Africa alone. Now, his fear probably wasn't exactly misplaced. Most of what we hear on the news that comes from African countries is negative (just as most news from North America is also negative). We hear about the bad things that can happen and just assume that if we are in that same place or a place similar, those things will also happen to us. What I learned in Tanzania is that most fear is imagined or misplaced. Before I arrived in TZ, I feared that seeing and/or avoiding snakes would be a major undertaking. In reality, I saw exactly two and a half snakes during the entire eight months: one was dead and two little boys had just picked it up with a stick and were looking at it as my friend and I walked by, one had been caught and purposely brought to our campus with the intent to scare me (it worked...), and the half fell from a tree a little ways in front of me as I walked from my office to my room -- it was the tail half and the best I could guess was that a stork or some other large bird had caught it and accidentally bit it in half as it was flying overhead. My fear ahead of time did not correspond at all to reality. Exactly zero of those snakes flung themselves out of the bushes and latched themselves onto my ankle as I walked by, as I had imagined they might. During my time in Tanzania I watched people pile into dala-dalas, buses, or catch a ride on a piki-piki (motorcycle taxi), despite the fairly high chance that an accident could happen. I watched young children walking to school alone, or in groups of others of similar ages, never for a minute worrying about all manners of dangers that could await them on their walk (remember, snakes could jump out at them!). Every day, some person or another would show me that, although bad things can happen in this world, worrying about them or living fearfully rarely keeps those events from happening, and always eats away the best, most beautiful moments of life. I learned (and this is something I'm still learning, still working on (as are all of these)) to let go of preconceived ideas, to try to loosen the grip that fear holds on me about so many facets of life, either big or small.

- Consumerism: It seems like these days almost no place can escape consumerism, and Tanzania is no exception. People buy and sell there, people want items that will make their lives easier, just the same as in most of the rest of the world. But I felt that the spirit of consumerism there was much more constrained. There were billboards along the highways, commercials for products on TV (from the little I saw as the Maasai guards watched TV in the kitchen/living room area while I made supper), open-air markets and dukas (shops) filled with produce and material and all manner of items, western-style grocery stores. But despite all that, I got the feeling that in Tanzania it is people, and especially family, who are the most important. I've never been all that into shopping or buying various items just because, but during that year I found myself questioning so much of the belongings that I'd acquired in my lifetime, and doing a lot of thinking about what kind of a home I wanted to create when I returned to North America and got married.

- Creativity: As is often the case in regions where the people have less resources to work with, the people I met and observed in Tanzania were remarkably talented in creative thinking and problem solving. Need a bucket to carry home cooking oil, but don't have money to buy one? Well, just find an empty plastic container that was originally used for something completely different, cut it into the shape that you need, and put it to work doing what you need it to do. This way of thinking was seen in so many different ways, and I was often pleasantly surprised at the ways I saw the Tanzanian people using creative means to adapt to a situation. I was very impressed, and since then have found myself wanting to solve a problem in the typical North American way before I finally remember that often times I could simply take stock of what I already have, and brainstorm ways to use these items or ideas to solve my dilemma.

- Strength & fortitude:
 When you think of a North American, strength of character and fortitude of spirit are seldom the first virtues that cross your mind. As I lived and worked among the people of Tanzania, I realized that they are amazingly strong and resilient. Men who lose jobs travel hundreds of miles looking for another job so they can take care of their families. Pregnant women work full days doing hard physical labour. Some of these same women walk for miles during labour to get to a hospital or a clinic to have their babies in a place that might give their children a better chance of survival. Once the birth is over, they wrap up their babies in colourful lengths of material, and walk back home again. Children work hard on their family's property or looking after younger siblings or cooking the family's meals or getting jobs to help support their families. Of course I'm not trying to say that every member of society is upstanding and hardworking. Obviously every community has some members who don't pull their own weight, or don't do as they're expected. I am simply saying that I met and observed so many people during my time in Tanzania who showed amazing strength of character and who had seen numerous obstacles, but had persevered and overcome. And it made me want to be more like these remarkable individuals.

- Time: No one can deny that North American society (and I'm sure many other societies as well, but I will stick with talking about the countries I know best) highly values the concept of busy. Hardly a conversation ends without one participant or the other using the term, and although the word is often used in a negative context, behind the actual words spoken there is a strong sense that busy is actually a positive attribute. [Now, before you think that I want society to sway to the opposite end of the spectrum and laziness to be the prevailing theme, I will make it clear that this is not my intent. I strongly believe in balance in all things, and this is why I mention time and busyness, in this post.] While in Tanzania, I noticed that the people there worked hard. They worked hard every day doing things that most people in North America have only heard about in stories their grandparents or great-grandparents told them when they were young. But when talking to these same people, the word busy was seldom, if ever, used. It just simply wasn't needed. You saw them work. You saw that they had a lot of work to do, that they needed to work hard and work fast to get their duties completed. But you also saw them doing things that would baffle most North Americans. Walking slowly down the road, seeming to be completely enjoying a relaxing walk. Sitting in groups around a coal cookstove, exchanging stories, their voices rushing, but their body language saying that they were in no hurry to leave. Patiently sitting on buses or dala-dalas, waiting without complaint for the vehicle to fill up to bursting before it left. And by watching these scenes day in and day out, I slowly came to realize something that must have been buried way down there in my soul, something I remembered from childhood, but that, over time, I had been encouraged to push down, cover up, and forget about. My realization was this: Life is best enjoyed when you work hard then relax freely, when you allow your time to be appropriately balanced. I saw the contrast between this mentality and the "go, go, go or you'll get behind" mentality very clearly half a year after leaving Tanzania, when Jonathan and I spent eight months living and working in South Korea. If you think North America values busy, try moving to S. Korea for a while. During our time there, I learned many more wonderful life lessons, but this was not one of them. I've spent a lot of time thinking about these two far ends of the spectrum and have come to a conclusion. For now, at this time in my life, I want to sit near the middle, but lean a little bit closer to the "work hard, relax freely" side. I want to tire myself out with work (either physically or mentally), then enjoy the sweet reward of free time, time to chose activities that will rejuvenate my spirit, rather than further tire myself.

Tanzanian dadas (sisters) forever!
During the ride to the airport on the evening I left Tanzania ~ April 24, 2011

By far, the most life-changing part of living in Tanzania was definitely the opportunity and privilege I had in observing and meeting the people in my community, or in my greater travels throughout the country. I am so glad for the experiences I have had in my life to travel, and to be able to live for bits of time in various different countries. And to learn and grow from my experiences and the people I met along the way.


Thank you so much for taking this blogging journey with me. If you missed any of the posts in this mini-series, use the links below to read them.

Read Part 1 here - Before I left for Tanzania...
Read Part 2 here - While I was in Tanzania... Part A
Read Part 3 here - While I was in Tanzania... Part B

1 comment:

  1. Great post! I haven't heard some of this before, so it's really good to read it. :)