February 28, 2007

To travel or reflect

Recently, I've felt a sort of pull between travelling and spending time with Tanzanians, and just taking time out for myself to reflect. Of course, I'm here now and I want to suck everything I can out of this experience. I've seen some great places. Last weekend on my birthday (best birthday EVER!) I went to the Pugu Hills southwest of Dar es Salaam and went camping with a few friends. It was beautiful, we hiked to a cow market through a village and through some forest and I drank only a sip of beer on my birthday and we talked about community versus the individual and cooked vegetables in a fire. Saturday I got to spend some time with my new friend Happy, who comes from near Mt. Kilimanjaro, and she took me out for meat and beer, which is what Tanzanians order when they go out. I'm so excited that I'm making friends, because I also met another Tanzanian girl on the bus the other day, and I feel like I'm finally starting to make some headway into this culture. And this weekend we are going to a game park and hiking in some mountains with waterfalls. And it's great, adventuring about the city, to the botannical gardens or to Kariakoo, the huge central market with so many people and so many shops. But then, sometimes I know that for myself, I'm not going to get as much out of this experience if I don't take time to slow down and breathe. Because it's already a little bit difficult for a semi-introverted person like myself to be in a culture where there isn't a huge concept of personal space. For example, right now we have my mama's sister and daughter staying at our home, and the daughter is in our room all the time--a beautiful child and a ton of fun, but sometimes I need rest. It's funny how it's the good things about the culture, the hospitality and friendliness, that are starting to get to me sometimes, when I'm tired. I can only take care of Aika so much. I can only go out with Happy so much, and it's not really culturally acceptable to just tell someone you're to tired to go out with them, you're too busy. You should never be too busy for people here. It's great, it's a beautiful value of the culture, people over work. But then, I just have to make sure I'm taking time for myself. Time for rest.


If this won't be a loaded post, I don't know what is. Starting classes in Tanzanian Politics and Tanzanian Social Structure has given me a lot to think about, especially when that coincides with meeting new Tanzanian friends who have opinions about development and poverty and the economy and what we should do with this broken earth. Essentially, I am baffled. Because when I went to Bangladesh, I studied agricultural modernization, which had greatly increased food production in the region through new crop varieties, irrigation, fertilizers and pesticides, and mechanized plowing. But this modernization in my opinion had also made everyone dependent on the few who controlled access to technology--the fertilizer dealer, the guy who owned the tractor or the irrigation pump. Modernization of agriculture is bad. In Tanzania, it's completely different. Based on socialist policies at the time of independence and a different sort of soil, it has not been penetrated by agricultural modernization at all. Almost everyone has access to land and farms for subsistence. Holdings are fairly equal and soil isn't being degraded by a lot of fertilizers. Almost everything is done by hand plow and organically. And yet, there still isn't enough food. 38% of children have stunted growth from malnutrition. so what is wrong? There are different theories. A lot of the Tanzanians i've talked to think they really need more foreign investment and capital to get better technology. They want to modernize, to become efficient, to end this socialist remnant of their economy and get into the global system. Me on the other hand, I'm so wary of that. I like that when I walk through the villages there is little electricity. I don't mind not having air conditioning and I like the communal feel to everything. And I don't know if it is possible to modernize agriculture and industrialize without losing some of the communal feel, without losing some of the simplicity. Of course I know this is an idealized view. It's easy for me to say that life is better without electricity and running water when I can go back to it at any time. And it's easy to hypothesize that communal agriculture could be developed, that they could get rid of some of the cash crop production and focus on food and everything would be OK, when I'm still getting enough to eat everyday (and drinking tea and coffee, the cash crops!). Maybe Tanzania really does need to be integrated into the international market or be starved. But what's the balance between that and becoming dependent on foreigners? And part of me just wonders if this isn't a case of the grass is always greener. I, who have grown up with the blessings of material and efficient economy and availability of capital, want to back away from it and just have a community that will care for each other no matter how much they have. I want equality. And Zach, my Tanzanian friend, and other villagers, who have seen the hard times that this life in the village brings--these people want money, materials to make life better, capital, for their nation not to have one of the lowest GDPs in the world...maybe we're both a little bit right and a little bit lacking. So I'll listen to these people and maybe someday be able to work towards development for their nation, and respect their not-reedy wishes for money and modernization. But I'm still holding out for something more than that, even though I'm just an abstractly-thinking star-gazing English major who can't figure out exactly what it is I think we should be aiming for.

February 20, 2007


Zanzibar is an island off the coast of Tanzania, which was once a part of the Omani empire, later colonized by the British, and always very important to Indian Ocean trading networks. It's also one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. I went there this weekend, and we toured the old Omani buildings, the sultan's palace and the old slave markets (somehow being here has made the reality of slavery's brutality more clear to me...you learn to say how horrific it is starting in 2nd grade, but then maybe it's seeing the place where the slaves were kept, 50 of them to a room in these tiny underground caverns until they were sold, hearing about the slave master TipoTipo who would shoot his slaves to see if his gun was working, looking around and knowing these people around me are just the kind of people who were sold and owned and abused and stripped of all freedom...and they are such beautiful and free people), the fish markets along the beach where they cook you fantastic fresh kalamari and swordfish, the spice farms where the Omanis established a network of growing nutmeg and ginger and tea...oh it's all so beautiful. We took a boat to get there; we ate all kinds of fresh fruit and drank spiced tea after the spice tour, and there were guys following us around on the spice tour giving us necklaces made out of grasses and spices and baskets of the flowers. Of course sometimes the number of teenagers and young men asking for my phone number gets to me, but it's one of those things you just have to deal with in this culture. The best part of Zanzibar, I think, was lying on the beach until 2:30 on Saturday night, looking at the incredible stars like none I've ever seen before. I'm telling you, the southern hemisphere has really got it. The strange part of that experience was when a drunk man came up to us to tell us his life story, and said that we come here thinking it's a paradise with stars and ocean, but the people here can't enjoy it because they are so poor. And so then you have to wonder, because there really are so many tourists there, and it's such a dichotomy between the Europeans on the beach swimming and looking at the stars, and the inland parts where the kids have to quit school because they can't afford shoes. But is it really true they can't enjoy it? This guy's story was tempered by the fact that he was drunk and his plan is to marry a European woman to get away from here. But you can never get away from the poverty and the begging for something more. You always have to wonder what the balance is, between the loveliness of this place and how it is insufficient to keep the people fed and healthy...

February 7, 2007

Politics and Religion

Everyone has strong opinions here, and there is a lot to talk about, which makes it fun. I know there are people from all political and religious backgrounds potentially reading this blog, so I'm a little nervous to write my thoughts, but here goes. Of course, in terms of politics the Tanzanians are pretty uniform, at least in terms of what they think of the US. The war in Iraq is horrible, Bush is horrible, Bush loves war. Tanzanians are peaceful people who have only fought one real war, and it was to defend their country against Ugandan invasion. Then, the interesting thing is that most of them while completely disagreeing with the war are also staunchly against homosexuality. So that's politics. But I've really had a lot more conversations about religion, because it is so interesting to me, because I have so many questions to ask, and there have been lots of great conversations and experiences. Here the population is about half and half Muslim and Christian. And they live in peace. There is really no extremism here. I have found it really beautiful to walk past the church and the mosque on campus and smile at people in both places, I've loved hearing the Muslim call to prayer which always evokes in me something quite emotional, something that feels the genuine cry for mercy in it even though I can't understand the words, and meanwhile I've loved singing in the church choir this past Sunday, singing about the kingdom of God in Swahili, and how all will see it. And in my host family, my Baba comes from a Muslim family and my Mama from a Christian, and one maid is Christian and one Muslim ( I LOVE MY MAIDS SO MUCH THEY ARE THE BEST FRIENDS EVER AND SO MUCH FUN TO TALK TO!) And I have had many conversations, mostly with Americans so far, about missionaries, about tolerance. There is a lot to think about and my time is out now so I guess I'll continue to think about this later!


There's really only one possible response when someone here asks you how you're doing: Nzuri. It's the Swahili word for good, well, beautiful, and most other postive attributes. How are you? You always respond nzuri, even if you were dying, according to my professor you'd say, "nzuri, but i'm dying." I guess it's not all that different than the way most people answer how are you in America...although it seems more defined. The thing is, I've realized, most of the time when I answer nzuri (99% of the time?) it's really true. I'm good. I have found so much joy here in this country, for the little things I love: the way my head bounces on the bumpy road to where I live, the children in my neighborhood who everyday play this game where they ball up some plastic bags and throw them at each other, taking a shower from a bucket, the perpetual sweat while I know it's 100 degrees colder in Minnesota, having 10 friends over to our house to watch the Super Bowl at 2:30am, eating by lantern when the power goes out, monkeys all over campus. And I'm not even beginning to capture it. And there are bigger things, the new joys of conversing and building relationships in a new language (slowly!), and of having time to sit and think and sort things out, of teaching a Tanzanian student piano and making a friend through that, and of finding how much joy is returning to me, how big the world can be and all it's possibilities. So for me, it is almost always true that I am nzuri sana. But then I wonder, what's probably more important, are the people I'm meeting just as truthful? Are they really doing well? I've started to see a few children and thin people, sick people--it's still occasional but I pass by them sometimes. And I know the smiles I see on the surface aren't the whole picture. So when they say nzuri sana, is it real? Good, but I'm hungry? Good, but I'm sick? Are they still happy, because no matter if they're hungry they still have this amazing sense of family and community that transcends the physical? Or are they unhappy if they're sick or poor? Or is it even as simple as classifying them that way, sick or poor. This is what I want to know while I am here. I know Tanzania is beautiful and kind and refreshing for me. I want to know if it is the same to its people. I want to know if they want our help for anything, or if they think things need to change in any way. What is there that I can learn from them so that more often in American I can honestly say i am "nzuri," and what, if anything, can I give them so that they can say that just as honestly?