Tanzania — Uniterra
It was cloudy that day. But it was normal for that time of year in Tanzania. The seasons are backward south of the equator. Back home, in that familiar northern hemisphere, July and August mean hot weather and plenty of sunshine. The Manyara region on the other hand, along with the rest of the country, was just starting its winter season. Of course that doesn’t mean snow, but winter in Tanzania has its quirks. Breezy in the mornings and evenings, mild during the afternoon, the weather can vary from scorching hot to uncomfortably cold in a matter of minutes. The only places that experience constant heat are the coastal towns and cities, and of course, the idyllic island of Zanzibar.
The land cruiser skidded to a stop on the pale-red dirt. The doors screeched open as two men got out, one Tanzanian, and one foreigner. In front of them stood a single story, paint chipped, beige building that would offend Western sensibilities. The Foreigner walked inside to find an empty room. The lack of artificial light was supplemented by a few natural rays poking through large barred windows. The whole town was filled with similar structures. The Tanzanian, Matthew, unloaded their supplies and followed The Foreigner inside. It was 9:05am. The air was crisp, the birds were chirping.
In broken Kiswahili The Foreigner greeted some of the farmers who had come to learn about running a small business. The women wore beautifully coloured dresses with intricate designs, while the men sported simple dress shirts and fall jackets. The Foreigner was happy to draw a few smiles and exchange pleasantries, but beneath each handshake and toothy grin lay a thought, a feeling, a weight he’d been wondering about in the still moments before the day begins just after waking: should he be here?
He couldn’t communicate with the community members, nor did he know the slightest thing about farming. All he could do was take a few pictures and hope to learn one or two new words. The opportunities to immerse himself in another culture had been few and far between, a reality that fed his reservations about his place abroad. After all, what does a white man from halfway across the world have in common with Tanzanians? The Foreigner couldn’t put these thoughts into words, but still, his thumbs hovered anxiously over the note titled ‘feelings’ in his iPhone, hoping something would materialize. Not today.
“Habari za asubuhi!” Good morning everyone! Matthew, field officer and seminar facilitator extraordinaire, said.
“Nzuri!” We are fine! The room of farmers greeted back in unison.
After a brief introduction of what the day would look like, Matthew asked The Foreigner to introduce himself to the group. Caught off guard, he froze in place. A few thawing seconds allowed him to step to the front of the room and explain where he was from and what he was doing there. The nodding heads that responded helped to evaporate his anxiety. Undeterred by whatever stress The Foreigner felt, Matthew dove into his lesson on marketing. The Foreigner shuffled to the back of the room with his camera, out of sight, out of mind.
A muffled version of Beethoven’s Für Elise suddenly filled the room and one of the farmers got up to take the phone call. No one flinched except The Foreigner. Even Matthew kept talking through his point about branding one’s crop and, as the day went on, various symphonic tunes filled the air until the room began to resemble a game of musical chairs as the farmers came and went.
Morning tea arrived. Audible, angry grumblings from The Foreigner’s stomach served up a reminder. Everyone got up and exited the room with purpose. The Foreigner stayed behind, too focused on deciphering the bold, box lettered words that Matthew was writing on his chart paper to have realized two hours had already passed. However simple Tanzanian food may be, it was no less delicious. The servers dished out dozens of chapatti to the hungry farmers. Chapatti is a cross between a crape and a tortilla, with the former’s texture, and the latter’s thickness, but far greasier – just how The Foreigner liked it.
After the farmers settled back into their seats, The Foreigner took his place at the back of the room and focused in on Matthew, trying to follow his explanations once again. Once again he failed. His shortcoming made his mind wander. Through the back windows he saw young children walking by, some running, some playing. Many of them wore European football jerseys. Red, blue, white. Familiar colours from some of the best English Premiere League teams. In the short time he’d been in Tanzania he’d seen several adults wearing jerseys too; public transit buses were also plastered with football stickers, presumably from the owners’ favourite teams; even the work books the farmers wrote notes in had Lionel Messi and Christiano Ronaldo on their covers.
The Africa Cup of Nations had started just after The Foreigner arrived. It was a big deal. Tanzania’s last – and only appearance – came in 1980, and now, the anticipation for their return turned viewings into mono-culture. Although they were eliminated early on, the hype continued as the locals cheered for their neighbouring countries. “How,” he wondered, “how have I never heard of this tournament before?” This spectacle that brought communities together; this event that changed schedules. Never had he been a huge football fan. His favourite sport, after all, being athletics. But still the ‘how’ lingered. Had he been that sheltered? They weren’t questions that necessitated simple answers, he searched on.
Thoughts of football were interrupted by multiple pairs of eyes staring at him. The children had stopped playing. After a week of living in the country it was clear his melanin deprivation made him stick out like a sore thumb. One young man even came up to him on the street to stroke his messy, dirty blonde hair. “Mzungu, mzungu” the children whispered under their breaths. The Kiswahili word for ‘foreigner’. At first the attention made him uncomfortable, but now it was amusing. He waved and smiled at them. They scurried off, laughing.
Just as Matthew concluded his explanation of book keeping, there was a knock on the door letting them know lunch was here. The farmers’ postures stiffened, and hungry murmurs filled the classroom. They eagerly lined up to see what they would be eating. Rice, beef, beans, vegetables. For some, a delight. For others, a favourite. For The Foreigner, the same meal he’d eaten for five days in a row.
Before The Foreigner was able to fill his plate, a tall, young man approached. He introduced himself as Christian. The Foreigner stumbled through Kiswahili sentences, managing to ask whether the young man was a driver or a cook since he had arrived with the staff preparing the food. Neither. Christian explained he was a coal miner from the Northern lakeside town of Mwanza. Excited by the news, The Foreigner pulled his iPhone from his dust covered kakis to show Christian pictures from his hike the evening prior. The mountain he climbed is home to multiple abandoned coal mines. Christian was impressed.
Their conversation, assisted by Christian’s Facebook page, went on for a few minutes. But ended, abruptly, when Christian asked The Foreigner to buy his iPhone. He wasn’t the first person to ask. The foreigner refused, as he had all the times before and would all the times after. Although his eyes weren’t glued to his phone screen as they had been back home, it was the most important life line to his friends and family. Despite feeling slightly used, like a means to an end, he was happy he had just had his first real conversation with someone who only knew Swahili. Progress.
Progress, as it turned out though, was taxing. Each thought came with resistance, each word a chance to tumble, like an obstacle course through quick sand. He needed a mental breather. Running was his escape back home. The routine of putting one foot in front of the other is therapeutic, it’s one thing you can control. But The Foreigner wasn’t able to access this outlet. When you’re the only foreigner around, each stride is met with a stare or a taunt. Sometimes even worse.
Some weeks prior, The Foreigner and the field team traveled to a rural town for a similar training session. At the end of the day he was excited to lace up his running shoes and find a dirt road to get lost on. And that’s just what happened. He found himself on a narrow path flanked by trees. A young boy walked a few hundred meters ahead. He wore a blue pull over, army green shorts, and had a bag of school books pulled over one shoulder. As The Foreigner approached, the boy turned around. Terror. The Foreigner had only seen such a look in horror movies. The boy dropped his school bag and bolted as fast as he could, screaming at the top of his lungs. Completely disoriented, The Foreigner stopped running, his heart rate soared, blood pounded in his ears. He picked up the boy’s school bag, and slowly walked down the path, hoping to be able to prove he wasn’t some colonial kidnapper.
After a few minutes of cautious walking, he found the boy’s house. The boy’s mother stood out front with a stone cold stare, the boy sheltering behind her. The Foreigner handed the bag over, apologized and ran off, shock still engulfing over his body. By some stroke of luck he found his way back to town. He locked himself in his hotel room, sat down on the bed, and stared at the floor. Familiar therapies didn’t work here.
The Foreigner and Matthew sat in the company truck peeling their bananas. A familiar and soothing midday prayer call echoed in the distance. It was Friday, or Jumu’ah, the most important day for Islamic prayer. Some of the farmers excused themselves to go to the local mosque. A large portion of Tanzanians are Muslim, with the other major faiths being Christianity and Indigenous beliefs.
Matthew turned to The Foreigner and casually invited him to church that coming Sunday. Little did he know, The Foreigner had only been to church a handful of times in his life. Regardless, he excitedly accepted. Saying no to an opportunity was faux-pas while traveling. Kiswahili prayers filled the room, draping the foreigner in an unusual solace. The words weren’t familiar, but the Tanzanian services rhymed with what he knew of the ones that took place on Canadian Sundays.
Matthew threw his banana peel on the ground and the Foreigner uncomfortably held onto his so he could find a garbage can. Full from the local cuisine, the farmers slowly filed back into workshop to finish up the day. Eyes open, pen held patiently to paper and ready to write, they were re-energized by the food. It’s clear no seminar is complete without it. The session finished with Matthew summarizing the topics and opening the floor for open discussion. One enthusiastic woman thanked Matthew and The Foreigner for coming so far to educate them. She thanked them for caring. Gratitude rushed up The Foreigner’s spine, filling him with warmth he hadn’t known until that day.
Jerry, the organization’s driver and comic relief, helped The Foreigner load their supplies back into the truck. A small man, maybe 60 years old, approached them just as they were about to start the journey home. He shakily stretched a wrinkled hand out in front of them, palm facing up. Presumably, his way of asking for spare change. The Foreigner remembered he had a few coins in his camera bag.
The man put the coin in his mouth, and from under the blanket draped over his body he produced a stub where a hand should have been. The man used the stub to press against the outside of his unbuttoned shirt, while the one hand he did have held the inside pocket open, and dropped the coin in the pouch.
Many people live with birth defects in Tanzania. The week before, The Foreigner, Matthew, and Jerry, were passing through a nearby town and decided to stop for a beer. Excited for a cold drink, The Foreigner jumped out of the car and B-lined towards the bar. From around the corner of the bar a small boy crawled towards The Foreigner. Startled, he jumped. There were things to expect on bar room floors, especially here, but crawling boys didn’t make the list. Intrigued, he smiled at the boy. Then, as he bent down to play with him, his heart fell. The little boy had flip flops on his hands and was using them to pull himself around. He was born without any feet.
The Foreigner slipped in and out of a quiet slumber on the car ride home from the training session. His thoughts drifted between Christian, the old man, the crippled boy, their circumstances, his own. The privilege plagued lottery ticket that let him be where he is instead of where they are. A chasm of immeasurable difference.
BEEP BEEP! The chasm would have to wait. Jerry laid on the horn as they came across a heard of cows on the dusty dirt road. They walked towards the truck like a group of Wild West bandits, not breaking eye contact. But their courage didn’t last long. Jerry inched closer and they dispersed with grace. Off they sped back home. It was tough to get shut-eye in the truck between the cattle bandits and the bumpy roads. The sun was setting.
Instead of sleep, evenings turned into times for necessary, quiet reflection on the days. Each one different, everything always changing, nothing was a given. This night, the reflection seemed especially needed. A world’s worth of new people to meet, endless new experiences, the pressure and fear of missing any of them, or worse, being a part of them without being present for each moment and detail. It was a lot. And it was catching up with him.
The nature of his work kept burning in his mind.
“Should I be here?”, “is this even making a difference?” These were questions he had explored with his fellow expatriates again and again, these were questions without answers. Hopeful ideas surfaced in their conversations, but they were always thwarted by the stark realization of their realities.
An upper class mzungu restaurant near Mount Kilimanjaro a few weeks later was the last place The Foreigner expected to stumble onto these answers. But the unexpected is commonplace when you’re far from home. The middle-aged German man he shared a margarita pizza with had quit his job to travel around Africa. What a life. From the metropolis of Cape Town to the slums of Ouagadougou, he had seen it all.
“Sometimes you need a break from it all” the man sighed, “a vacation from your vacation.” Unconsciously, The Foreigner played with his silverware. This resonated.
“The Lusaka bus station made for a good spot to relax and observe.” the man continued, “For three days I went to the station in the morning, and sat in a corner until dusk. The way Zambians crowded the buses reminded me of rush hour back in Hamburg.”
“Anything notable about the people?” The Foreigner asked between bites with mild curiosity. There was a short silence. The man’s eyes slowly fell to the table, his posture tightening as the answer to The Foreigner’s question formulated in his mind.
“Sure” he said slowly, his eyes still focused on the table. “I saw a woman with two children huddled together on the ground near me the first day, the children lay down on their mother’s lap as she looked around aimlessly.” He loosened a bit and took a bite of pizza.
“I didn’t think much of them until I recognized the family the second day I was there. They were at the station from sun up to sun down, and even into part of the night. They were homeless” he said with a heavy heart. The Foreigner finished eating and shifted his attention to the story.
“About halfway through the day I got up to get some lunch,” he continued, “and on the way the back from the food stand outside the station, I walked by a small shop selling kids toys. There was a teddy bear for a couple bucks and I thought maybe the children would appreciate it. It didn’t seem like they had any toys. The children were excited when I gave them the bear, and the mother, who had had a pretty blank face for the whole day cracked a smile” he laughed. The Foreigner, feeling hopeful, sat up in his chair.
“I went back to my hostel that second night feeling good about myself for bringing a little joy to those poor children. But it didn’t last” he said sharply. “The next morning, I arrived at the bus station and the family was in the same spot, but the teddy bear was gone, and the children had the same blank look as the mother had the previous day. I don’t know where it went.” he exhaled, leaning back in his chair. “I can only imagine the mother sold it to buy some food. Children in this part of the world don’t have the same luxuries we did.”
There was so much truth in this.
“I play my part, donate what I can to charity and try my best to be a global citizen, but it’s all for nothing, the system is broken” the man said with finality, as if he had also had this conversation a hundred times before. “I admire what you and your friends are doing here, but do you see what I mean? It’s not our place to be here or to try to change things. We can try to understand how life works here, but it’s impossible to get a true grasp on it” he said, looking expectantly at The Foreigner.
The Foreigner looked down at his hands, not sure what to say. If a conversation could reach rock bottom, this was it. His first instinct was to be offended by the man’s lack of consideration for The Foreigner’s purpose abroad, but it dissipated as he soaked up the rawness of the truth he had just heard.
“Damn. You know how to make someone lose faith in the world.” The Foreigner chuckled. The German man laughed and they happily diverted the conversation towards Tanzanian food, safe from more pessimistic thoughts.
But The Foreigner wallowed in the truths of the man’s tale for a time. Weeks went by and he couldn’t shake the knot in his stomach.
One month later, Matthew and The Foreigner sat under only the moonlight in a courtyard restaurant. They enjoyed some roasted chicken and a couple beers. As the server cleared the table, Matthew looked at the foreigner.
“Jambo, are you alright?” he asked with a puzzled look. The Foreigner wasn’t sad or upset, his mind had just wandered off for a moment. Startled, he looked up. “This is Tanzania, be happy!” Matthew belted with a big smile.
It may be one of the poorest countries in the world, but Tanzanians are whole hell of a lot happier than anyone The Foreigner had met back home.
Attitude is a curious thing, capable of making or breaking someone’s day, week, month, year, or even life. It shapes our outlook, it determines how we perceive ideas and challenges. It’s not easily swayed, nor is it prudent to try and force a change. There are structures that govern the world, structures that, for better and for worse were here before us and will be here long after we’re gone. To despair at that, though, is to miss the point: Find the mundane and magical moments in each day; find some measure of meaning in your actions – no matter how small they may seem.
Going to work, fruitful conversations, and sharing great food. Laughing with your friends, kicking around a football, and growing up. Life, and death. A few things that nearly the entire world shares in common. The Foreigner found comfort in these through lines. It made him feel a little more connected.
He took a breezy boda boda motorcycle ride back home after they finished eating dinner. He fell asleep quickly that night. He dreamed of people who had come in and out of his life. He dreamed of competing again against his best friend. He dreamed of home.
In the morning he woke to another cloudy day.