08 September 2014

one of these things is not like the other.

In an attempt to make some friends, Michael and I have been stretching ourselves to get out of our comfort zone and meet new people. Although we live in a neighborhood that is overwhelmingly Tanzanian, we’re finding more ex-pats like ourselves each time we step out of our small bubble. 

On one hand, it’s a great opportunity to mix and mingle with Americans and Westerners. We get the chance to speak our own language and relax in a multi-cultural setting where we largely share the same values, norms, and even, traditions.

At the same time, we’ve struggled with these get-togethers. It seems that the more we explore, the less we fit in.

When we attended our Orientation Program last year, we were reminded that we would not be short-term volunteers in our new countries of residence. Neither would we be employees on the international development scene. We would be “missioners”. I remember, at the time, thinking that sounded a bit pretentious. “That doesn’t make us better than anyone,” I would think to myself. “What are they getting at?

Now, I think I get it. Or I’m beginning to.

When Michael and I signed up for MKLM, we signed up for three and a half years of living in a developing country. We didn’t get to pick where. We didn’t get to pick our work. Signing up was a sheer act of faith. Looking back, I kind of can’t believe I did it. In some ways, it’s similar to marriage. When we say, “I do,” do any of us truly understand what we’re signing up for? It’s as the years go by that we understand more about our commitment to one another and we appreciate more deeply the tradition we’ve entered into.

throw back!
That’s a lot like being a missioner.

We had visions in our head of what life would be like. But the vision doesn’t match reality at all, particularly when it comes to our friendships. I naively thought I would be able to make friends with Tanzanians and ex-pats alike, but I’m finding that relationships with either group are fraught with challenges. I spoke two weeks ago about how the issue of money hampers our ability to make friends with the locals. This week, I’m pondering our interactions with ex-pats and how “being a missioner” really is a unique experience.

When Michael and I arrived at a recent ex-pat get-together, we were shocked to find almost 20 Westerners, Americans included (!), who we had never seen before. We were speechless. “How do you all know each other?!” we asked them. For some of them, they told us, they’re next door neighbors. You see, there are areas of Mwanza that cater more to ex-pat clients: modern housing, private yards, and easy-to-access roads. To find a community, all they have to do is look across their street.

what we see when we look across our "street".
As missioners, we don’t live in those neighborhoods. One of our core values is accompaniment, which is a big word that boils down to the fact that we try to live and work alongside locals. This does not mean our lives are equal. Because of our privileged background and circumstances, that would never be possible. But we dedicate ourselves to living amongst Tanzanians, in a middle-class house that we can drive to, but is by no means easy-to-access. Most of the time, this means we do not live next door to other Westerners, because most, although not all, can afford to live in places catering to Westerners.

Some of the folks we met at the ex-pat get-together knew each other through work. A few work as teachers at the local international school and most of the others work at international non-profits in the area. Again, as missioners, we usually aren’t placed at a large non-governmental organization. Our work doesn’t come fully funded with large grants and extensive networks of donors. We focus on projects with the poor and marginalized that often begin in small ways. We seek to enrich their lives but we also seek to learn from Tanzanians, allowing our values and opinions to be questioned, challenged, and ultimately, strengthened. Like big non-governmental organizations, we too have goals and objectives but our offices look nothing like OXFAM or UNICEF.

the look of my office.
Lastly, even outside of living and working, our experiences can be different. We met many ex-pats who’ve been in Tanzania for a shorter period of time than us but who have seen more of the country. Either for work or for pleasure, they’ve had more opportunities to travel, which in turn, broadens their perspective of Tanzania. We, on the other hand, have had to be more realistic about what travel looks like for us. Don’t get me wrong, we were extremely grateful to go to Dar es Salaam in July and we do have more travel planned for this year. But we’re not able to afford most of what “normal tourists” do here: climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, relaxing on the beaches of Zanzibar, or trekking through the Serengeti. We’ll do them some day, but for the near future, they’re just not in the cards.

All of these realities have, at times, made me step back and question my choice to be a missioner. “Should have I just gone the NGO route?” I wonder. “Would I have been happier?” But when we invite the neighborhood children over to play or I get to sit down on the curb with street kids and try to understand their lives through my broken Kiswahili, I know we’ve made the right decision for us. All of us, no matter who we are, are trying to do good work here in Tanzania. I truly believe that.

Yet I feel my life is richer as a missioner, as I get to see Tanzanian life more through the eyes of a local and less through the eyes of an American.


  1. We had a very similar experience last year. A British friend invited us to a party in Isamilo. We thought it was just a small gathering, but when we arrived at the (VERY NICE) house we were shocked to find about 30-40 Westerners all chatting, laughing, and dancing to the new Daft Punk album that had just been released. We'd seen a few of the folks, but by and large we didn't know many folks at all. Almost every time we introduced ourselves, people would say "Nice to meet you. Welcome to Mwanza! How long have you been here?" When we would answer "A year and half" it was their turn to be shocked. "How do we not know you?!" Two reasons: 1) We have no children, and almost everyone there knew each other because their kids were all at the international school. But 2) we didn't live in the same areas, just like you reference in your post. When they would ask where we lived and we replied "Mabatini" almost invariably they would look confused and say "Where is that?" Now, there were super great people at this party, some folks that have been here for YEARS and have deeper connections than I will have in my stint here. But the decision to live outside the normal expat areas really does set us apart from other communities. there's no right or wrong, just a difference in lifestyle.

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