Distended bellies, babies with fly covered faces, men with machine guns, naked women with loincloths covering their intimate regions, and danger lurking in every corner.
That is the picture I had accumulated from a combination of blockbusters like Blood Diamond, commercials for Save the Children, and the words of eager journalists and aid workers I studied in school. So I was utterly confused when I landed in the small Entebbe airport in July of 2013 and was greeted by friendly Ugandan faces and unexpected kindness.
Which is why 2 years later when I stepped into the thick Tanzanian air on the tarmac in Dar es Salaam, I knew better.
There is a complexity to the African continent that I still don’t understand. Hunger, disease, inequality are very much alive in many places. Beyond that though, there is a world that Hollywood could never accurately depict. It is a cluster of countries that often get lumped together, and I have only personally begun to scratch the surface of the intriguing cultures that make up the mysterious landmass.
I wish I could give a more satisfying answer to my friends and family who ask: “What is it like there? What will you miss the most? “
For me, Tanzania has been a warm blur of smiles, tears, frustration, despair and hope. It is a lump sum of all the radiant smiles from locals, goodnight hugs from 45 girls that I grew to love, deep discussions with coworkers that end with empty wine glasses, and long days that make the age-old adage “anything is possible” seem like a cruel joke.
It is a collage of purple sunsets with cotton candy clouds and sunrises that light the sky on fire. It is being mesmerized by the flames of fisherman’s boats, and the twinkle of stars reflecting off the dark water of Lake Victoria. It is the sound of dogs persistently barking at the moon, pigs squealing, locus sirening, the patter of rain on tin roofs and the hum of hopeful voices singing “Mambo Sawa Sawa” while they clap in unison between the versus.
I will always fondly remember the days when the sunshine sneakily tricked me into believing that location alone can sustain happiness. And I will forever cherish the moments of bliss that filled in the missing pieces of my heart that I have left around the world and with people I have loved along the way.
There is freedom in this life; hidden away on the fertile shores of a water mass so big it could be excusably mistaken as the ocean. It is easy to lose one’s self in paradise amongst the lively backdrop of tradition, gently sung Swahili songs and colorful kangas. But as an outsider looking in, the harsh reality I have come to know, is that paradise comes at a price. Even with all the beauty I have fallen in love with here, I have been forced to swallow some difficult truths about the world and myself.
I have learned that foreign aid may have the ability to build impressive structures, and temporarily feed and educate a community, but it is not sustainable unless solutions come from within. Education is the only way to overcome gender inequality and empower women. There is bureaucracy in every level of development work. Morality is not black and white, but rather an infinite gray beast that haunts my conscious. Culture gives people a false sense of security. Tradition is more than a piece of identity; it is something to live for. Love is ubiquitous, but unfortunately so is ignorance and hate. Most importantly I have learned that life is more fleeting than our fragile minds can comprehend and more precious than our hearts will allow us to feel.
Having previously spent time living in a mud hut in Uganda, and living as an expat in Peru, I realize that my 6 months working in rural Tanzania were sheltered. I had luxuries that many aid workers would not. I spent the majority of my time encompassed by other Americans, therefore the language barrier hardly affected me. The few times I did venture “off campus”, I made the trip in a private car with a driver. Consequently, I missed out on the “real local experience” cramming into Dalla Dallas (taxi vans) that I had enjoyed so much in Uganda, negotiating with boda boda drivers about how much I would pay to hug the back of their motorcycle without a helmet.
Short of a spotty internet connection, occasional power outages, and difficulty with availability of gluten-free food, my time was rather comfortable. Certainly not the rural Tanzanian experience one would envision.
Overall I faced many barriers and obstacles to success and general fulfillment, but none had much to do with the fact that I have been living in a developing country under a corrupt government. I had prepared myself for cold showers, squatty potties, bland food, and lack of resources; but in reality those were the easy parts.
I learned that living, working, and spending your free time with the same 6 people, day-in-and-day-out, is a recipe for frustration. Feelings emerge in unexpected places, and love and hate become blurry lines within friendships. There is no room for hiding when you are stuck in a world cut off from reality. You see the best and worst in the people around you, and you inevitably expose your own flaws in the process. You begin to question your morality and your strength. But on the other hand, you are forced to face it all: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
At the end of the day, I have grown in unexpected ways. My limits have been tested and I have established new boundaries. I have questioned my beliefs, and I have a stronger grasp of who I am and what I want. For that I am thankful, and I owe that clarity to the life-changing months I spent forging through rainy days and basking in the Tanzanian sun.
Beyond the deep void from the absence of the girls’ smiles, I will miss the little things about my life in Tanzania. I will miss my soothing morning routine of drinking tea while looking out at Lake Victoria. I will miss tucking in my mosquito net before bed, and I will miss the repetitiveness of greeting locals with “Habari za asubuhi” (one of the few Swahili phrases I managed to retain).
There are aspects I am glad to be moving on from as well. I certainly won’t miss having to wear skirts and dresses below my knees. Even though I understand the importance of respecting culture, I resent the hypocrisy in trying to empower the minds of young girls, while I condone the sexist notion that women should wear dresses. I also won’t miss cold showers, endless plates of Ugali and beans, or the constant itch from mosquito bites.
The hardest thing for me to accept, was that assimilating into rural Tanzanian culture is no easy feat, and a goal that I all but gave up on. It is near impossible to have an authentic cultural experience, when the American in me clings to the familiar luxuries of Western civilization. I thoroughly enjoy escaping into the screen of my laptop, and plugging it into the solar-powered wall outlet to recharge when the battery runs low. I also begrudgingly admit that I am not cut out for hauling heavy buckets of water on the crown of my head like the sturdy African women I admire walking through the village. Nor do I dare presume that my core is strong enough to hold the weight of an infant wrapped around my back and tied in a knot at my chest. I will never truly know real hunger, inequality, the brunt of corruption, or the burden of being a woman in a fatally misogynistic society. In these ways, I have always known that I will never fit in here.
I have seen strength in places where you would expect none, and witnessed kindness from people who have only known injustice. Tanzania is an amazing country with a lot to offer, but the most beautiful part I found is in the smiles of the 45 girls that forever changed me. I hope I never forget the life lessons I have learned, and that I will always stay humble and strong.