Tanzania will forever feel like a home to me. I spent three months living and studying in Arusha, a beautiful city close to Kilimanjaro, and yet I hadn’t even heard of the country before I discovered it in a list of options for study abroad. I am forever grateful to my 20-year-old self for choosing Arusha — I’ve never had a more formative experience of growth, healing, and personal transformation.
When I think of my time in Tanzania, I think of warm, freshly baked bread from my favorite bakery on Mondays; the sound of the morning prayers drifting from the mosque near my apartment; the constant sound of music floating from every direction; the children in their green and white school uniforms; the dala dalas whizzing by; riding in those same dala dalas, often on the laps of smiling old women; the taste of Masala chai; the warmth; our rescued pet hedgehog Shags; walking from my apartment to the history museum where we took classes; the kitchen staff who fed us every day with food and kindness; the craft markets with their endless aisles, endless treasures; and the smell of flowers and dirt and something else I can’t quite name. Sometimes, just a handful of times since I left, I smell that combination of smells and my heart stops and I feel the rush of longing for Arusha. It is a beautiful, hopeful place.
I’d love to share some brief information about Tanzania: Tanzania is in East Africa (the EAC is composed of Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi) bordered by the Indian Ocean to the east, Kenya to the north, Mozambique to the south, and a few countries including the DRC and Burundi to the west. Tanzania was originally two separate countries, Zanzibar (an island off the coast) and Tanganyika, that merged in 1964 to form Tanzania. There are Portuguese, Arab, British, and German influences in Tanzania due to the rule and/or colonization of these groups at different points since the 16th century. Tanzania officially became an independent country in 1961 (that’s less than 100 years ago!) under the leadership of Julius Nyerere, who died in 1999 but seems to be beloved by most of the country to this day.
And why did I study abroad? The answer is complicated, and I answer it differently now after years of deep introspection and a new way of thinking.
When I was in high school I read The Constant Gardener, a novel about corrupt pharmaceutical companies and government agencies set in Kenya. After reading the novel and then watching the film, still one of my favorites, I dreamed of studying abroad in “Africa.” I finally made my dream study abroad trip happen my senior year of college. I was so excited to go to that big place where so many people need help. My condescending view came from a place of deep care, but also deep ignorance.
Looking back, I believe my goals were to learn and to help. I wanted to learn about Tanzania, I wanted to learn about East Africa, I wanted to learn about the problems, and I wanted to consider solutions (I’m a classic Reformer). I think most people who make the kind of choices I made feel similarly. My understanding of the motivations white Americans have when going to Africa has evolved and changed significantly during and since my time in Tanzania. My understanding of the way to discuss solutions has also changed — I strongly believe in internal community solution-making with external support. That means that when a community has a need, they can come to the table together with the support and assistance of others, perhaps, to find a meaningful solution that fits the specific need of the community. The organization ASAP (African Solutions to African Problems) has a mission statement that uses similar language:
ASAP believes in the value of home-grown solutions and that sustainable development begins with people and the ownership and realization of their ideas. Any change and intervention must stand in organic relationship to what the people on the ground are already doing.
While I didn’t realize it at the time, my brazen belief that I was going to swoop in to Tanzania, learn a bit about the culture, and figure out how to help them was in direct conflict with the basic principles of advocacy and sustainable community development. These were hard lessons to learn, and they aren’t the only ones. While I was in Tanzania I volunteered with an orphanage for children living with HIV/AIDS; I interned at an NGO that provided funding for sustainable community projects benefiting women in Arusha; I visited a small organization that empowered individuals living with physical disabilities and gave them the opportunity to work by recycling old glass into beautiful jewelry; and I took classes on public health, peace and conflict in East Africa, and gender inequality in the region. When I started these projects I thought I would learn and then teach, learn and then make change. Instead I learned and then learned more, and then slowly abandoned the idea that I somehow knew better than this strong community, that as a privileged American I could do more for them than they could do for themselves.
I say all this not to dissuade others from visiting or living in different places in Africa — I obviously benefited from my time there, and I think others did as well. I do believe, however, that as white folks from a developed nation with specific ideas about how to live, we must be cognizant of the autonomy of others (both individuals and communities). What works in my community does not necessarily work in yours. Rather than unintentionally bulldozing over the good work being done in other communities, let’s empower those communities and support them based on their own needs in order to learn, grow, and “get better” together.
*I place Africa in quotation marks because a lot of people, my younger self included, use Africa as if it’s a place you can go, that big Africa. As if it’s all the same. Most of the time when people think of Africa they think of places like Kenya, Ghana, Ethiopia. But there are also places like Libya, Morocco, Egypt, and South Africa. Each country, each region, even, is so unique and so complex. They all have stories to tell, and those stories are often lost in the idea of “Africa.”
**If you’re ever interested in talking more about anything in my posts, please feel free to email me!