Heads up! This post is continued from Part 1/2: Giraffe in the homeland – 8 weeks volunteering overseas in Tanzania. Here we go!
White Girl on the Run
Mzungu. The term was first used to describe someone who wanders around aimlessly, and thereafter became used to refer to white people in their attempts to colonize the African continent. Every morning, when I would go running with one of my fellow volunteers, we would hear Mzungu shouted through the streets. Running every morning was a great way to familiarize ourselves with the village. Often young people would run beside us laughing as we took to the paths in our sneakers and running gear, only to get showed up completely by some guy blowing past us in flip flops. The area around the village used to be inhabited by a diversity of wildlife including giraffe, antelope, lion etc. but nowadays the only animals seen by the villagers were the odd hyena, snake or smaller animal wandering the bush. Thankfully, the hyenas were nowhere to be seen during out visit or this story may have been told in the form of a memoir instead of part of an ongoing blog.
As we got to know the people we worked with and lived with in the village, we soon acquired kiswahili nicknames. This is how I became Twiga, kiswahili for giraffe. With a nickname like Twiga, I was a hit with all the kids in the village. Okay, in all fairness, it may have had more to do with the soccer ball I carried with me everywhere I went and less to do with the nickname I had acquired.
Regardless, the kids in Mvumi were sensational. Whether it was kicking the soccer ball around in the street, or having a swarm of children, and I mean swarm, running at full speed up and down the street preparing themselves to lunge into your arms, seeing the kids in the village never failed to brighten up your day.
You could be feeling saddened with the state of things in Tanzania or melancholic about the reality of things back home, but as soon as one of the children wrapped their limbs around you, all your troubles disappeared and you were right where you were supposed to be. Children in Tanzania have a lot of responsibilities. Five years old’s walk around with five month old’s on their back as they walk hundreds of yards to fetch water or gather fruits and vegetables from the market. Unlike kids in North America who are coddled for years before let loose to walk alone to the bus stop or venture down the road to a friend’s house, children in Mvumi would often be alone or taking care of siblings by the time they have learned to walk.
On the whole, our lifestyle in Mvumi was very comfortable in comparison with that of most village inhabitants. We had well water that was collected for drinking and for toilet use, we had a shower that functioned (no hot water) and had meals on the table every day thanks to Anna, our cook. While were all a bit uncomfortable having someone in the house to cook/clean for us on a regular basis, it is quite common in Tanzania and is often seeing as providing employment and additional income to a member of the community. Tucked in a stable to the side of the house was a cow, a pig, and a few chickens that wandered about. These animals quickly became better known to me as Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner (I thought it was funny). Myself and the other female volunteers would all pitch in around the kitchen, curious as to Tanzanian people cooked with and how meals were prepared. What we soon learnt is that the Tanzanian diet consists of a lot of oil. We had to pretend that one of the girls was allergic to oil just so Anna would half the amount of oil used to cook breakfast.
Rising to the occasion and wanting to experience the ‘real Tanzania’, I was determined to prepare the dinner for one our meals. And I did it! I plucked and boiled my very own chicken. I had been planning on carrying through the execution, but in the end my feeble heart couldn’t take it, and poor Anna had to slice the chicken’s neck, but left the rest for me. I was terrified when Anna was outside waving her knife around yelling Twiga and cowered indoors to cover my ears as the chicken become fodder for the giraffe.
Nearly every day, after I had returned from my morning run, Anna would be up cooking Chapati (delicious fried pancake or flatbread) first thing in the morning and we would chat about many things, as women do. Topics of conversation covered relationships, kids, marriage, as well as more controversial topics such as our respective views on female circumcision, a common practice in Tanzania even today. Anna was of the opinion that female circumcision made women want sex less which, in turn, made them better wives and women of the Church. I was of a different opinion of course, outraged at the pain and health risks suffered by young women who often had no choice in the matter, but then again, who was I to butt my nose in where it didn’t belong? As a student of development, you soon learn that there is a fine line between which cultural practices are morally wrong, in that they abuse or remove ones human rights and which are simply different than those commonly practiced within your own country.
This enters into the complicated debate of universal human rights, a topic for another post altogether.
Anna’s personal life was rarely a topic up for discussion. Her husband had left one day to the city to find work and had since taken a mistress in town, returning only once in a while to bring home money and stay with Anna and her children. To earn extra wages, Anna cooked and cleaned for various clients and sold drinks out of her home (Coke, Fanta, Water etc). It brought in a little extra income and helped even out an imbalance of power between herself and her husband. I was very surprised to hear that Anna’s position was not unique. Many men left Mvumi only to take up jobs and sex partners elsewhere in the region, an unfortunate reality that stems from the poverty that plagues villages throughout Tanzania, a nation with a life expectancy of 56.9, and ranked 148 on the International Human Development Index.
Like Anna’s situation, there are a number of realities that hit you hard when enter the developing world. One of the hardest things to witness is the onslaught of disease that is made obvious around every corner and in every household. Polio, malaria, AIDS, dehydration, undernourishment, the list goes on and on and on. The most noticeable are the victims of polio sitting in twisted heaps on the roads or outside the stores, asking for money or something to eat. The least visible of course, are the victims of HIV/AIDS who wander around untested or unaware of the disease growing from the inside. One of the hardest things to bear was the noises made by women in the maternity ward of the village hospital. Women were put in one waiting room until their time had come to start the delivery process at which point they were laid down on a cold metal table (not separated from one another), with no drugs to ease the pain or hand to squeeze in comfort. The noise that escaped from these women was excruciating. Left alone to endure the agony of childbirth, these brave women let out moans and cries that would make any young North American girl think twice about engaging in unprotected sex.. Unfortunately, teenage pregnancy was the number one reason for young girls missing out on a secondary education. Girls rarely made it to high school without getting pregnant, getting married or having to take care of sick family members who were unable to work themselves. Many women became pregnant by accident, either themselves or their partner unaware of the repercussions of having unprotected sex.
Let’s talk about Sex
Sex in itself was an interesting topic among the people of Mvumi. Speaking about sex in general is fairly taboo in most African countries, but when discussing HIV/AIDS, sex was bound to pop up sooner or later. Unfortunately, one of the most prevalent myths related to HIV/AIDS promotes sleeping with a virgin in order to rid yourself of the disease. It was an exceptionally hard topic to tackle, but that didn’t mean that we didn’t try. One of the most difficult parts of promoting HIV/AIDS awareness in any religious country is the obstacle raised by the Church, especially when it comes to contraceptive use, i.e. THE CONDOM. I have very strong opinions about this particular stance taken by the Catholic Church, particularly since millions of followers who don’t sit perched and chaste on the Vatican throne are highly susceptible and die because of STIs, including HIV/AIDS. In certain countries, like Ghana, programs and campaigns promoting abstinence have replaced those promoting contraceptive use. These programs exist because they are funded by the U.S agency for international development, who, under former administrations were banned from promoting contraceptive use. Try telling a horny teenage boy that sex is bad in any country. I dare you.
We don’t say Goodbye, we say Badaye
After 8 incredible weeks in Mvumi, myself and the other volunteers headed off towards a bit of relaxation and repose. Following a debrief back in Dar Es Salaam, we ventured onward to the plains of the Serengeti for a tour of the park and an encounter with the Africa we’d all read about and seen reflected in Hollywood movies time and time again. Compare it to Out of Africa, compare it to the Lion King, compare it to whatever you want, but nothing beats the real thing.
The colours and the splendor that simply engulf the Tanzanian landscape are too much for anyone to put into words. Everything is greener, every bird sings louder and every voice contains within it the hint of a smile that ushers you back to the country where they say Hakuna Matata and mean it!
Following our time spent in the village, we were very uncomfortable being treated like Wazungus from the outside. We, with our swahili nicknames and our unique experiences inland felt much too integrated to mingle with the onslaught of French tourists hoping into safari keep and German mountaineers dawning expensive climbing apparel at the base camp of Kilimanjaro. We spoke swahili with the driver, and begged him to forego the VIP treatment.
Despite his efforts to appease our urge to blend in, we still got dropped off at the souvenir shop at the end of the ride only to find wooden statues and figurines that we had previously bought for 1/5th of the price back in Mvumi. Tourists… you’ve been scammed.
Visiting the Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Crater were exactly what we needed to relax and recuperate from two months in the village. From seeing elephants running in herds, hippos bathing in the waterhole, and lions relaxing under the shade of the Baobab Tree to visiting a Masai steppe deep within the Crater, we were completely awed by this natural wonder, and the insane beauty of the land.
We were all sad to leave such an amazing place, but we had little choice other than to move onward and upwards…. literally!
“Kilimanjaro, kilimanjaro, kilimanjaro…. kilimanjaro mlima mrefu sana…”
Following a lazy tour of the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater, we headed towards Mogadishu and the legendary silhouette of Mount Kilimanjaro. Kilimanjaro is the highest point in all of Africa, and we had signed up for the 6 day climb. Together we popped our altitude sickness pills and made head way to base camp. We trekked through jungle, dry terrain, rocks (including zebra rocks) and finally made it to the camp from where we were to depart at midnight for the final climb.
After what seemed like an eternity, we reached the edge of the crater that circled the highest point on Kilimanjaro. After losing one team member to altitude sickness the day before, one during the summit (vomiting and fatigue), and one to hallucination (they started seeing people in the rocks), I became a bit nervous when halfway around the crater I began losing consciousness and felt increasingly likely to faint on the spot. Unfortunate as it was, I had to turn around at Stella Point, 18,000 feet high but 170 meters short of Uhuru, the highest peak of Africa. And so I slid, down a hill of ash and slowly made my down the mountain towards home.
Volunteering in Tanzania was one of the best experiences of my life, and one that I appreciated more in hindsight than during my time spent working with the people of Mvumi. One of the biggest lessons I took with me from my time in Tanzania was the realization that people are just people. Mothers care for their children. Young people court and fall in love. Children smile when they’re happy and scream in pain when something is wrong. The world is full of differences but it is the similarities that really count. They are after all, what make all of us human.