20 May 2014

i am an outsider.

I'll admit it. Ashley and I thought that moving to Tanzania was going to be this great big adventure.

And it is...

…but it is not an adventure in the "Wow! Isn't hang gliding over the mountains of New Zealand amazing?" kind of way.

Nope, not that.

Rather, it has been an adventure in the, "Wow, life here is really crazy." kind of way.

And it has not been easy.

As another put it, traveling to the third world is great and also it sucks. Seriously.

Like Ashley commented in her post on living among suffering, we received some good preparation on cross-cultural transition during our ten-week Orientation Program in New York last Fall.

But how prepared can you be for life in another world? 

Because that is how it feels right now - like we are living in another world.

It feels that way because I have come to recognize that we are outsiders in every way imaginable. We are reminded of this daily.
  • Nothing is familiar.
  • Unsure how locals feel about me.
  • I don't belong.
Those are some of the feelings of being an outsider. It's tough, but we deliberately chose to enter a foreign culture and become outsiders, and these feelings come with the territory.

What does being an outsider look like in Mwanza, Tanzania?

1. It looks like being called "mzungu."

Wherever we go, people shout "mzungu!" when they see us. What's an mzungu? Basically it's a white person. So people yell "white person!" when we walk down the street. It's kind of weird and irritating.

2. It looks like gossip.

Did I mention that we don't look like locals? This means we stand out and get called "mzungu." It also means locals assume we cannot speak or understand Kiswahili. So from time to time they gossip about us in front of our face. You know what makes you feel really good in that situation? Being able to respond right back in Kiswahili to let them know you are understand every word they are saying. Boo-yah!

3. It looks like limited experience with diversity.

Just as I have limited experience with the Tanzanian culture, I think that Tanzanians have limited experience with diversity in their midst. Despite Swahili cultural influences stemming from a variety of origins, the population remains fairly homogeneous, the education system is lacking, few tourists visit Mwanza, and hardly any Tanzanian has the means to receive global news via the TV or internet, let alone travel outside their country to experience a foreign culture firsthand.

Being an outsider is tough.

This experience has given us much to reflect on, particularly the plight of immigrants the world over and the challenges they face.

So where do we go from here?

I think we get out and walk around. After all, I am an mzungu and that name derives from "someone who walks around."

Avoiding the stimuli that remind me I am an outsider would be to live a sheltered life. That's not why we are here. That's not why we exist. We exist to go out. To go out to the streets where the people are and embrace the reality of life among us. (Thanks to Pope Francis for the inspiration!)

Misery is not a government requirement when you visit a country like Tanzania. It is the byproduct of perpetually avoiding the uncomfortable and the unfamiliar. We need to keep stepping into it, pushing ourselves to be stretched and challenged in ways we never could have imagined.

After all, I never could have imagined I'd be writing this post from this place, but here I am.


  1. Thank you for writing this, I totally identify as a brown African mzungu living in another part of the continent (Burundi). Keep writing.

    1. Thanks so much for the encouragement, and sorry for my delay in response (the internet has been a bit challenged here lately). Being an outsider is not easy. I wish you all the best in Burundi.

  2. We are distant relatives, I am the daughter of Tim McLaughin (son of James McLaughlin). I have been enjoying watching your adventures. My family and I have been missionaries in South America for the last 3 1/2 years. 4 months in Peru learning Spanish and the remaining time we have been in Cali, Colombia. We facilitate the training of our church plant teams. We have assisted in planting churches in Peru, Ecuador and we are now moving into Argentina and Chile. It is rewarding work. I can relate to many things in your posts about being the "outsiders". I wanted to share with you a blog that really resonated with us and helped us to further understand how we can explain it to others. Here is the link, https://medium.com/repatriation-after-the-shipment-is-unpacked/3b9fd76169f2. It makes things even more interesting having a child growing up in this new kind of world not fully fitting in as a North American or a Colombian. Our son will be 5 in August and is bilingual. We moved to S.A. when he was only 15 months old. We are also in the process of adopting a young 11 year old boy from Colombia who is afro-colobmian. We are continuing a very interesting life lead by God and we love it. If you want to check out our journey we have a personal blog www.hotelcork.wordpress.com and a ministry blog www.extremenazarene.wordpress.org. We have a wonderful friend named Erick Oguta in Mwanza that has an amazing ministry. We have had the desire to visit him one day, it is in God's hands. Blessings - Alyson Cork

    1. Thanks for sharing those links. The article on "I am a triangle" was very interesting and makes a complicated matter very simple to understand. Sounds like you are on quite the adventure of your own. It takes a special couple to raise a child in such a cross-cultural context, not to mention adopt one as well.