15 December 2014

five ways i have… and haven’t adapted to tanzania.

Wow, friends, it’s officially December. Or Desemba, as Tanzanians say. Maybe where you’re sitting, the snow is falling, you’re cozied up by a fire with hot cocoa, listening to your first Christmas song.

For us, the holiday season looks a little different. The weather is still… hot, with some long, tropical rainstorms interspersed. Mangoes are being sold everywhere, piled up in huge mounds at the marketplace, sorted by size.

december in tanzania.

And we've almost been in Tanzania for a whole year! So instead of posting about a weighty cultural issue, I thought I’d share with you five ways I have and haven’t adapted to Tanzania since we moved to Africa.

First up, the five ways I have adapted:

1. Non-verbal communication, done and done.

First, can I just say: We speak Kiswahili?!?! Ay carumba. That’s been a trip and a half. Second, aside from learning the actual words that make up Kiswahili, I’ve learned a lot from observing Tanzanians’ non-verbal communication and it’s just as fascinating. I know they say Italians are the masters of speaking non-verbally but I think Tanzanians may give them a good run for their money.

One particular gesture I’ve adapted is the eyebrow raise. In Tanzania, when you raise both of your eyebrows and give a little nod, all at the same time, it’s as if you’re agreeing to whatever is being said. For example, if you ask a kid, “Hey, is your mom around?” you’ll often get the eyebrow raise in response, acknowledging that yes, Mom is around somewhere.

michael flawlessly demonstrating the eyebrow raise.

I realized recently I was unintentionally doing this in conversation with Michael! We rarely speak Kiswahili to one another, but I guess Tanzania has impacted our communication in other ways.

2. Beyonce ain’t got nothing on me.

As soon as we arrived in Tanzania, we knew we would never be able to blend in. No matter how good we are at speaking Kiswahili, we will always be wazungu (foreigners) and at least in Mwanza, a certain type of treatment comes along with that.

I used to have to summon the courage and energy to leave my front door because of this. I knew what would come as soon as I met with the outside world: stares, shouts of “Mzungu!”, poorly spoken English yelled in my direction, and lots and lots of questions. It intimidated me. Now, we're completely used to life as celebrities. I could walk on the red carpet in Hollywood and feel no anxiety. That’s our daily life in Mwanza. As Michael likes to say, “We exist to entertain the locals.” And we do it with pride.

3. Breastfeeding and picking noses in public does not faze us.

Yep. This is just what you think it is. Many norms in the West are simply not the case here: breastfeeding and picking your nose. With so many babies here, breastfeeding is a part of everyday life. While breastfeeding has become more accepted in public in the United States over the last fifteen years or so, you still wouldn’t see a woman openly breastfeed without covering herself and her baby, right? Not so here. This is also met with the fact that breasts are not nearly as sexualized here as in the US. (Other parts of the female body are sexualized here, but that’s a topic for another day.) Breasts are largely functional, especially once a woman has a child, so to breastfeed openly in public is just like she’s giving her child a piece of bread. Nothing to see here.

Picking your nose? Well, I don’t have much cultural context to add to that one. They just do. And it’s an unnerving thing to get used to. Now? I rarely notice it.

in the beginning...


4. Running water and electricity are luxuries.

Michael’s coworker often says, “Everything in Mwanza is a privilege, not a right.” And it's something we've taken to heart. For example, running water is a privilege, not a right. Working internet, albeit slow, is a privilege, not a right. A drive-able dirt road to your house that’s accessible all year? That’s a privilege, not a right.

our lifeline to clean water.

This statement is so true, but particularly for running water and electricity. As I write this blog post, we have no power (and the battery on my computer is getting rather low). It’s only a matter of time until the water goes out as well. (They always go out together. Double joy!) So when we’re able to make it through a full week with power and water, we truly feel like getting down on our knees and thanking sweet Jesus for a Tanzanian miracle. Water coming out of the faucet? These days, that’s enough to make my day.

5. Eating with our hands.

From chapati (Tanzanian-style tortillas) to ugali (a ball of carbohydrates that tastes like cardboard), Tanzania certainly has its own cuisine. When we first arrived in Tanzania, I nibbled at everything and wasn't even sure how to eat some things, like dagaa. Do I eat the whole fish? Just the head? How does this work?!? And although utensils are always available at restaurants, it's not unheard of to find yourself at a local's house with no fork or spoon. And a plate of rice.

I used to feel like a toddler, trying to ball up the rice with my hands and deftly toss it into my mouth. I'm still no expert but I was pretty proud the other day when a Tanzanian told me I was a real mwenyeji (native) for eating with my hands. Score.

But we’re still Americans, right? We’re still us. We may walk like Tanzanians and (try to) talk like Tanzanians, but we sure as heck don’t think like Tanzanians. Here are five ways I still haven’t adjusted.

1. I still feel hot and sweaty. Most of the time.

For a Minnesotan, it's just hot here. The weather is absolutely gorgeous, compared to our former home in Texas, so I really shouldn't complain. It rarely goes below 70 degrees Fahrenheit or above 80, without humidity, so it's pretty much paradise. But when you factor in walks in the hot sun to and from the daladala, then piling yourself onto a daladala with 30 other non-deodorant-wearing folks, where you are literally standing on your tiptoes because there isn't even room to put the heels of your feet on the ground, unless you want to smash someone else's feet… and then, Ashley starts to sweat.

Sunscreen and sweating are part of my daily routine now. But I still don't like it.

2. Noise. Everywhere.

At this moment, from where I sit inside my home, I can hear roosters crowing, birds chirping, one of the neighbor kids crying, the evangelical Christian pastor at the church nearby yelling and screaming at someone's demon, and an ongoing recording coming from the market of a guy saying, "Everything here, 300 shillings, 300 shillings, you're very welcome," repeating over and over again until the battery on the loudspeaker will (please God) eventually run out.

It's. Just. So. Loud. Here.

We naively thought peace and quiet came with African life. And it probably does, in some faraway magical village. But in this city of over one million people, chickens, daladalas, pikipikis, churches, and mosques, it is just not the case. The only way to get away from noise in Mwanza is to get out of Mwanza. And we've realized that doing just that is really important for us, and not something we should feel guilty about. We need to keep our sanity so we're making a better point about trying to get out a couple of times a month, just to turn down the volume.

maybe we have to go out here to find quiet.

3. Lateness is still not cool in my book.

"There's no hurry in Africa," is a phrase my coworkers are constantly telling me. They know how upset I get when someone is late, even though I'm fully aware that we are on African Time here in Tanzania.

I know Tanzanians don't mean to insult me when they're late. They don't mean to infuriate me. But they do, even though I know being on time has absolutely no cultural significance. Old habits die hard.

4. People know my business all the time.

Tanzanians love watching out for each other. They believe in a fundamentally communal way of life, where children are regularly left at the neighbors to be taken care of and food is shared. This all sounds nice, until you realize this also means that everyone's business is also shared.

Take us, for example. We largely live outside of this communal way of life. Yet everyone still knows our business. When Michael and I come home from work, one of our neighbors will always tell us, "Oh, Ashley's not home yet," or "Michael's already inside." That's a little creepy but it gets worse. How about "Where's your guard? He's late." Ummmm. This usually results in a lot of lying on our part and I'm sure, disbelief on theirs. I truly believe our neighbors think they're giving us information we want to know, but instead, it just makes us attempt to slink in and out of the house unnoticed - a virtually impossible task.

5. The myriad of deep-seated cultural issues I will never understand.

Although most of this post has been lighthearted, there are so many deep cultural, political and religious factors about living in Tanzania that I will never even begin to understand, accept, or adapt to. Having to speak with my coworkers about not hitting children at our after-school program? Putting up with neighbors telling me to go home to cook for my husband? Women on the dalaldala telling me I’m far too old to have children? These are just a few of the situations I've found myself in that I can only handle to the best of my ability and then, be on my merry way.

I've committed myself to living in and attempting to love Tanzania but that comes with the knowledge that I will never be completely one with the place. Instead of banging my head against the wall in frustration, I've found it's better to accept the fact that we do think differently in more ways than one. And that's okay. Me being here and trying to love Tanzania is enough.

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