27 January 2014

the first heartbreak.

Ashley and I have been in Tanzania for three weeks, but today feels like the first day we lived here.

I say this because today we removed ourselves from the bubble of language school and entered into the home of a neighboring Tanzanian family, deliberating choosing to immerse ourselves in the reality of life known by so many of the local people.

A family of nine – two parents and seven children – lives just down the road from our language school. We always pass by their home on our late afternoon walks. While still a long way off, the children often run to greet us. Children are great for practicing our KiSwahili language skills, and we spend about 30 minutes walking and chatting with them on a regular basis. Most of the time we don’t understand each other, but it’s still great fun.

Last week, we met the mother of the children and she invited us back to her home this past Sunday for a mid-day meal. “Karibu nyumbani,” she repeated, which effectively means, “You are welcome in our home.”

Ashley and I arrived at noon, greeted each member of the family individually as is custom, and spent time sitting under the shade of a tree outside chatting as best we could in KiSwahili. Awkward pauses abounded, but we continued the conversation by drawing pictures of people (“watu”) and animals (“wanyama”) in the dirt with the children.

After the passing of half an hour, the mother welcomed us inside. “Karibu ndani.”

The family home consists of four cement walls, a cement floor, and three humble rooms, each lacking furniture, electricity and plumbing. Two of the children carried the only two chairs they possess into one of the rooms.

There Ashley and I sat – just the two of us – eating ugali and dagaa, the standard local fare, off of a tiny wooden stool. Although it is customary for Tanzanians to feed their guests first, it still felt odd that the nine family members largely remained outside – eating nothing – while we ate the food prepared especially for us.

The room was dark. The cement walls were cracked. The screen on the solitary window was punctured, easily allowing insects into the home.

There was no furniture. No pictures hanging on the wall. No rug on the floor. No overhead light.

Sitting in that room, Ashley and I were overwhelmed with the simultaneous guilt and humbled awe of eating the only food they had. This family had given not from their surplus, but from their poverty.

Ashley and I left their home not only humbled, but also frustrated and confused.

What is our role in this situation?

We left the United States and moved to Tanzania to accompany the poor and marginalized in their journey, and offer our skills in response to local needs in order to combat unjust structures and promote peace and justice – something that, in light of today, feels like a lot of fuzzy gibberish.

Today’s experience left us wondering what we can offer the people of Tanzania. After all, there is a seemingly endless line of families behind the one we met today living in similar circumstances.

What good are notions of “presence” and “accompaniment” among such destitute poverty?

How can our skills bring about sustainable opportunity – food, education, work, etc. – for people like this Tanzanian family?

Isn’t money all that is really needed?

Money for food. Money for clean water. Money for electricity and plumbing. Money for school fees. Money for home repairs. Etc.

Of course, money will help. But I believe it will take more than money, and I guess that is why we are living here – not because we are the solution, but because we want to struggle alongside those living on the margins.

From the perspective of today, it is difficult to see where this road will take us and what our role will be, but we continue onward, despite the challenges, knowing that all human wisdom is contained in these two words: “wait” and “hope.”*

*Edmond Dant├Ęs in The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

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