Farewell Tanzania

These last few weeks have been quite the journey. From peeling potatoes at Jane’s house, buying souvenirs, planting trees, talking with adolescents, and finishing up the interviews, my last few days have been very memorable.

Now that I am approaching the end of my time here in Tanzania, some days I don’t feel like such an outsider. Of course, feeling like an outsider is inevitable- people will always stare at me when I walk down the street. But with the research I have done, and the people I have interacted with, I have been able to better understand a completely different way of living. One that isn’t so worried about efficiency, greed, and the future.  But, rather a way of life that cherishes the moment, and appreciates God in all things. One that welcomes people so warmly, shares their belongings with open arms, and is willing to help you no matter how busy they are.

I was able to buy kangas and get them stitched, all with the level of swahili I have picked up. Unlike my first experience of buying kangas, where we had to go with some of the locals, it felt good to be able to do things myself. As I waited to get them stitched by a tailor, I sat down on the curb. I starred out at the busy streets, and just for a second, I felt invisible. Everyone was busy carrying out their daily work or chores. I saw people conversing  with one another, selling fruits or peanuts, and displaying what objects they had to sell on the block of sidewalk they obtained. Since I was basically out of sight, I was able to marvel at my surroundings without being starred at. This was not something I imagined I would ever feel, considering I feel like a zebra amongst a herd of lions most days. Up until this moment, feeling invisible was a luxury I took for granted.

This week I carried out the last interviews with young adults who have dropped out of school. For them, education doesn’t come easy. Not finishing high school and securing a job isn’t a reality. They live in difficult circumstances, struggle to pay school fees and basic needs, and are left with limited opportunities once they drop out of school. Some don’t have parents, clean water, or electricity, and the majority, also have a child to care for. It was a pleasure talking with them and hearing their perspectives. I will never forget my experience at EBLI.

Tomorrow we head out to Dar es Salaam, and head to Zanzibar for a few days before heading back to Canada. Nita cucumuka Tanzania! (I will miss you)

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the disillusion of perception

I think one of the biggest struggles the interns and I have experienced is the language barrier. We’ve all picked up a decent level of Swahili, which is great, but not nearly enough to carry on a conversation longer than five minutes.

There have been times where I’ve wished I could communicate what I wanted to say, or understand what was being said to me, but there have also been times where I was glad I did not understand. Most of the time, I don’t know if people are being nice to me because they’re nice people, or because they want something from me. I don’t know if I am getting a fair price on food, or if I am being ripped off. I don’t know if they’re talking to me because they find me interesting, or solely because of my status as a foreigner. Every time I walk down the street, there are many things I don’t know and are out of my control.

The other day, a friend of ours mentioned how he had a friend who had stayed in Mwanza for three years and thought their level of Swahili was pretty good, and yet, was told that their level of Swahili was similar to that of a third grader. One of the interns also mentioned how despite trying to acclimate herself to the culture and context, she feels she would never belong, mainly because no matter how much she tries to learn the language, she will never truly understand the locals. This is a common feeling many of the interns, including myself, have felt.

Language, and being able to communicate with others using a shared tongue, is wonderful. When shared, it gives people the ability to be heard, to understand one another, and to build relationships. However, when not shared, it can inhibit people from understanding one another, serve as a barrier to building relationships, and can silence the marginalized. Thus, it can cause people to separate, build walls, and divide lives into “yours”, and “mine.” In my opinion, this is one of the root causes of many of the worlds acts of violence, terrorism, and vengeance.

Not being able to understand the locals, despite my efforts, is frustrating and emotionally draining. Other methods of communication, such as hand gestures, and facial expressions, can only go so far and can easily be misinterpreted when in a different culture and context. For example, one day while riding the dala dala, I sat next to a woman who I thought was upset because a mzungu was sitting next to her (based on her facial expressions and tone of voice). I politely greeted her and apologized by saying, “Shikamoo, Samahani.” When I got off the bus, I asked Rose if she could tell me what the woman had said. Turns out she wasn’t mad; she was actually happy because I, a mzungu, had greeted her.

“What unites us is greater than what divides us,” is one of the most important pieces of information I learned in my studies that has helped me understand much of the suffering I have seen, and hardships I have felt over these past few months. If anything, this experience has given me the ability to truly understand what this quote means. Ultimately, I think it is up to one to decipher what they see. Thus, whether I learn the language or not, won’t make a difference because regardless, it won’t be the clothes I wear, the country I am from, or the language I am speaking that will divide me, but my perception. Two people can be looking at the same picture and get totally different meanings based on their perceptions.

Similarly, I can view the challenges and differences I experience, and develop the notion that I will never be able to understand certain individuals or communities. To some extent, that is true. Human beings are different from one another in many ways- no single human being on earth is the exact same. But, being different doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Being different makes life interesting.

Additionally, among differences, human beings are also similar- in their ability to love, hate, grieve, laugh, believe, or disbelieve. Though we may experience things differently, the essence of being a human is something that unites us all. Our society divides one another by creating methods of classification, such as classes, races, IQ, etc., that are set up to persuade the human that they are different from another. History allows people to become blind to the illusion, making it seem almost impossible to view the world as anything different. However, if we look at the world through a different lens, I think we have the ability to see anything we want. A world where being different doesn’t divide one another, but rather, brings people together.

 

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SRHR Education

Today officially marks the beginning of my last month here in Mwanza, Tanzania. Time has flown. It’s hard to believe I have been here for two months. One of the things I am looking forward to the most is being able to eat vegetables. It’s not that there is a shortage of vegetables in Tanzania, there are plenty. However, the lack of sanitary water poses a risk for coming in contact with water-borne diseases, such as typhoid. Thus, I can definitely say I will leave Tanzania with a greater appreciation for the food I have access to.

Lately, I have been visiting secondary schools across the Mwanza region, and conducting interviews with the students. The interviews are conducted in Swahili and translated by Rose, the project manager and head of the Behavior Change Process program. The program is called, Kijana Chagua Maisha, and is carried out in ten secondary schools in the Mwanza region. It is one of two projects I am including in my evaluation of EBLI.

It focuses on behavior change, and addresses the barrier of inadequate sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) education. It does this by conducting training’s on various topics, such as the behavior change process, SRHR, and leadership and facilitation skills. SRHR education is a right all adolescents should have access to, yet, not all receive. So far, most of the opinions of the students are positive and very eye-opening.

It is hard to believe that there are adolescents who are unaware of their rights and lack education on knowing what actions or behaviors are right, and which ones are wrong. I’ve tried to put myself in the shoes of the lives of some of the students, but it is difficult. I can’t imagine not receiving an education, let alone not knowing about my SRHR. I find it very hard to fathom the fact that many adolescents grow up without knowing what behaviours are good, and/or bad for their health. Health, for me, is an important and crucial part of my life. Thus, if I did not have access to this education, today I would be a different person. Yet, this is a reality many adolescents in Mwanza face.

For example, during one of the interviews, Rose asked the students if before participating in EBLI’s program, if they knew about their SRHR. Most, if not all, of the students said no. I proceeded with documenting their responses, but alarms were going on inside my head. How can adolescents not know that they have a right to their bodies, and that they have a right to receive SRHR education?!

Going to the schools has shown me how far we have yet to go in reducing global health inequalities, such as access to SRHR education. It also makes me further appreciate the two women who help me conduct the interviews, Rose & Gerturde. They are two admirable individuals who have thrived, and have had to overcome numerous hurdles in order to get to where they are today. And, they have done so amongst an environment that is tied to traditional norms and cultural customs that challenge, and sometimes, degrade the African woman.  Conducting the interviews has also helped me discover my passion for SRHR education, which I hope to continue pursuing in post-secondary education and my future endeavors.

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Cobra: the Portuguese word for snake

Cobras are also a venomous species that in a single bite can deliver enough neurotoxin to kill 20 people or one elephant. Little did I know that these snakes can be found in Tanzania in the exact location, precisely one metre away, from where I was today. Fun fact: synthetic cobra venom is used in pain relievers and arthritis medication.

Today, myself and another intern, went to EBLI (Education for Better Living) to talk to Makachia (the executive director) about the interview questions I had written for the evaluation I will be carrying out this summer. During our visit, he told us how a few days prior to our visit, he had seen something below his desk near his feet. He picked it up, not knowing what it was, and dropped it on the floor next to him so he could have a better look. It was a cobra snake, and according to him, killing the snake was “hamna shida” (no problem). Just another casual day at the office.

I like knowing why people think certain ways, so I asked him if he thought fear was real, or if it was just a concept that people make up in their mind. I got the impression nothing scared him, considering he had encountered a snake known to be extremely dangerous.“Yes, fear is real. Without fear, there is no courage,” he said. Hearing this made me reconsider my own fears, which at that point, seemed trivial. If we, as Canadians living in a competitive society that views weakness as a flaw, are always trying to conquer our fears or act fearlessly, are we missing the point?

Another incidence that happened today I want to reflect on occurred as we were walking back to St. Dominic’s. Every time we take this route back to our hostel, the same street boys come up to us asking for food or money. I have never given them food or money, even though, I usually always have food and money in my backpack. Because of this, I often continue walking feeling like a horrible person that should be going to jail or something (not that extreme, but truly, it is not a pleasant feeling). Many times, I also continue walking feeling frustrated, angry, and slightly annoyed due to the inequality and demeaning lifestyle these boys endure in order to live.

I’ve been trying to understand why I haven’t given these boys, and similar people who regularly ask me for food or money, a few coins or food. Am I really someone who wants to work with marginalized populations but won’t have the decency to share what little street kids, disabled elders, and mothers with children, ask of me?

The answer is, yes.

I could easily give them some change or extra food to make me feel better about myself and like I actually, “changed a person’s life.” However, if they are lucky to survive another day, they will continue to face the same challenges daily, until another individual walks by. So, in reality, I did not, “change a life,” I merely just reacted, similar to a band-aid solution, to the cycle of poverty. However, today, I asked one of the street boys his name (and forgot it shortly after, but that’s not the point). I don’t want to just give people food or money because I feel bad, guilty, or want to make myself feel better.

I want to give food or money to people once they get to know me, and I get to know them, or until hopefully, they see me as a friend, and not as a privileged foreigner coming to, “save the day.” I want them to look at me as another human being giving a small token of appreciation to another, and perhaps gratitude, for simply taking the time to share with me a bit of their story. I think everyone should be treated with dignity and respect. And, yes, it sucks seeing people on the street and walking by them, but by me giving them something every time they hold their hand out, I am validating their lower status/worth, compared to mine.  But, when we see each other as friends, partners, or equals, than things are different- the dignity and respect of human life is validated.

By the end of the summer, I hope to learn some of the names of the people I encounter daily on the street who ask me for food and water. Perhaps then, I will share with them some food and water.

 

 

 

 

Dear______,

I hear that life is short and time is fragile, which is why I try and never hold back from telling people I care about them. However, distance, unpredictability, and the inevitable battles of life that can present themselves in one’s life at any time, challenge this belief. So here is a letter to those I wish I could be with physically but can only be with spiritually.

Dear _______,

Even though we are million miles away, I am thinking of you and praying for your safety and happiness.

When you feel sad, alone, and heartbroken, know that you are never alone. All over the world, there are people battling similar battles and conquering similar hardships as you. You will get through this.

You may feel lost and confused as to what comes next or who you are supposed to be, it will be okay. Don’t be so hard on yourself. It’s okay to not know, or to be still amongst a still-less lifestyle. I think you are doing okay.

Let go. Seek forgiveness, forgive, and learn from your pain. Everything has a purpose.

I’m sorry if I’ve ever hurt you, or made you feel like you didn’t matter. You are amazing and I’m sorry I didn’t stay in touch with you.

Believe in love, even if you have fallen down many times because of it. Don’t give up on love because it is the only thing that endures, even when we are gone or miles apart.

Live your life the way you want to. If it means going against the status quo or going with the flow, screw everyone’s expectations of you.

You are worthy and capable of achieving anything you set your mind to. Happiness starts within the mind. I hope one day you are able to love yourself and find that peace.

When you question your existence or think to yourself, “What do I have to offer the world?” Know that I’ve learned something from you, and like me, others have too. Give yourself credit.

I miss you, so much sometimes that I even despise it.

I miss our friendship, being next to you, or being able to hug you, but I’ve learned that being vulnerable is a sign of strength. I wish for you to be happy, even amongst your struggles- for the opportunity to feel all sensations and emotions of life is a blessing. Otherwise, life would be senseless and very cold.

Keep smiling.

Enjoy life, and live in the moment. Today is a new day.

I care about you. I love you.

P.S. And if our paths never cross again, I’m thankful for having once shared a moment with you.

Sincerely,

Nuri Rojas

Unanticipated Realizations

I am currently sitting outside, enjoying the cool breeze and the sounds of birds chirping. Another week has gone by here in Tanzania. One of the interns is sick with malaria and typhoid so we’ve been staying in. One would think with all the vaccinations and pills we had to take and bring with us that we would never get sick. I was wrong, getting sick is inevitable. Diseases are everywhere and in everyone. Trying to avoid them is an endless and pointless battle, but we are managing.

I crave adventure and new things intrigue me. I often like going on the path less traveled by, and enjoy moments of quiet solitude and simplicity. These are some of the reasons why I am in Tanzania in the first place. I wanted to broaden my experiences, challenge my perspectives, and expand my comfort zone. I enjoy doing so because I aspire to be a great leader someday. Pushing myself to reach new boundaries allows me to grow, and gives me the opportunity to deepen my understanding of self and the world.

However, it has been challenging at times being away from the festivities at home, and life experiences of those I love. Even though I am not there, my friends and family continue to live their lives without me. They go on spontaneous adventures, dates and festivals (social media makes sure I stay in the loop). Life moves on and continues to present you and me with times of love and grief, whether we are ready for it, or not. Some days, I miss being able to go on walks with my mom, sit at a restaurant with my friends, and simply having a face-to-face conversation with someone I care about. Since I have never been away from home for longer than two weeks, I hadn’t anticipated this. Don’t get me wrong, I am happy to be here and feel very blessed in many ways, but there is also a sadness from being far away from those I love I didn’t expect to feel.

 

June 24, 2016

Today marks 39 days of being in Tanzania.

I’am currently sitting outside with another intern, a bit tired, but completely at peace. Despite all the pressures of travelling, expectations, and internal struggles of working in the humanitarian field, I’m doing okay. Since the first day I stepped on Tanzanian ground, I can already tell I have grown so much. The people I’ve meet on the street, my peers, and community partners have all a played a part in my growth. Everyone that has crossed my path has taught me something. I just hope I have taught them something in return.

One thing I’ve learned is that much of the struggles one faces are struggles inflicted upon oneself. We are our biggest criticizers. Lately, I have put a lot of pressure on myself merely because I want to produce a report of value and significance. The last thing I want to do is contribute something that seems relevant to me, but to the organization is insignificant. Nevertheless, much of my worry comes from within and my own expectations of myself, even though, I know I have every capability of achieving my expectations. In university, much of what I’ve learned is based on hypothetical situations or cases. So, now that I am faced with a real life experience where I have to actually apply what I’ve learned to a project I am responsible for, “What if I can’t do it?”

And I think this is something most people can relate to. At some point, we all have moments where we doubt ourselves and allow our expectations of ourselves, or what we think society expects of us, to control us. As a result, we curl up in our bed all day wanting no human interaction, and mindlessly tuning out the outside world with distractions. Sometimes being so stressful, instead of pushing us forward, pushes us back. Lately, I’ve felt this way and I know the other interns have as well.

We all have those days, and they’re not always the best, but we need them. As long as by the end of the week, you’re able to get yourself out of bed and step forward, I think you’ll be okay too.

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“Change your thinking and change your life.”

Les Brown