24 August 2015

the grass is green in tanzania.

Sometimes I lose proper perspective on life. Things become boring, routine, mundane. What was once exciting and new is the same old and irritating. Nothing has changed except my attitude. And that's in my control. The grass is always greener, right?

We recently welcomed a number of guests who visited Tanzania to see the work and life of Maryknoll Lay Missioners, and to get a firsthand encounter with another culture and way of life. Their childlike awe at all of the little things reminded me of when Ashley and I first arrived and how new and exciting everything was, and made me realize how I lost some of that fresh perspective. So it became an opportunity for me to step back and look at our life in Tanzania with fresh eyes, and I have to say, it was honestly pretty good.

Here are just a few good things about life in Tanzania:

1. People matter more than getting stuff done.

Ashley and I returned from the U.S. with all seven seasons of Mad Men (thanks Kyle!) and after a few weeks back in Tanzania we are already into Season 2. In one brief scene, Don Draper is sitting at a bar eating lunch and turns to the guy next to him who is reading a book (meditations in an emergency) and says, "It makes you feel better about sitting in a bar at lunch - makes you feel like you're getting something done," to which the stranger looks at Draper's immaculate business suit and sarcastically replies, "Yeah, it's all about getting things done."

What makes the U.S. machine so productive is that it's all about getting stuff done, and I know that I am a product of that culture. But living in Tanzania has taught me there is a lot more to life than getting stuff done. It has taught me to value presence and relationship - being fully present to the moment and those around me. This quality is difficult to articulate, but I think is best described by its emotion: calm and peaceful, unhurried and still. When Ashley and I recently visited the U.S., we found our level of anxiety increasing at times when we were in public. Why? Because everyone around us was rushing. Rushing to board the plane. Rushing to the checkout line. Rushing down the highway. With so much rushing going on it - for us - produced a heightened environment of stress and anxiety.

Sure, not a lot "gets done" in Tanzania by American standards on a given day. But there is a gift there that Tanzania has taught me - the gift of the people around you, and the time you have together, never taking it for granted.

2. Kids actually still play.

Forget the TV, smartphone, tablet, video game console, etc. Forget any kind of manufactured toy. Tanzanian kids - at least the ones in our neighborhood - just don't have them. So what do they do? They play. I mean really, actually play…like kids…outside. In many ways it feels like Tanzanians lack creative thinking abilities because they are not encouraged in that way in the school system. But Tanzanian kids? They are incredibly creative when it comes to playtime fun. Here are actual conversations with our neighborhood kids:

Us: What are you doing?
Kids: We started a restaurant! We are cooking rice with beans and vegetables and we are making tea!
Visual: Bunch of kids playing with dirt.

Us: What are you doing?
Kids: We are building a home! It has one room but we are going to rent it out!
Visual: Bunch of kids playing with dirt.

Us: What are you doing?
Kids: Wearing glasses and building a car!
Visual: Bunch of kids rummaging through the garbage we recently threw away.

Us: What are you doing?
Kids: We are playing soccer!
Visual: Bunch of kids running, one of whom is holding a string with a plastic bottle tied to the end of it.

Us: What are you doing?
Kid: Digging a hole so I can pee in it.
Visual: Kid digging a hole and then peeing in it.

little maende playing with a toilet paper roll.

3. Life is just so interesting.

I have always said that life in Tanzania is never boring. There is never a dull moment. Every day there is just too much that happens. All five senses are constantly on high alert. At times this is overwhelming, exhausting and irritating. But it also keeps life interesting - makes life exciting. Like a large bullfrog or snail coming up out of your toilet. Or a snake coming up through your shower drain. Or opening a bucket of charcoal in your yard and finding a baby porcupine inside. (We have animal and insect stories a plenty.)

Or just the other day on my way home from work I boarded the infamous public bus - the daladala - and waited for 20 minutes for it to begin moving. In those 20 minutes I watched 30 additional passengers board a vehicle with seating for 12. A group of two young men boarded carrying large sacks of potatoes, and after struggling to find a place to shove them and arguing with the guy who collects bus fare for five minutes, they just got off. Immediately another man carrying two branches of about 100 bananas each got on and I watched him make all of the children up front either move to the back or get off to make room for his fruit that he would later sell in the market that evening. Another older man boarded and was told by the fare collector to occupy a seat in the back. He was so insulted, as an elderly man, to be told to sit in the back by this younger man and he went off on a rant for all the passengers to hear about the lack of respect for the elderly lately. Then a mother with three small children, one of which was strapped to her back, attempted to crawl and body surf through the overloaded bus, making comments about the cramped conditions along the way. Eventually she just picked up on of her kids and put them in the lap of a stranger to make room for other passengers fighting to board what was apparently the last helicopter out of Vietnam.

view from inside a not-so-crowded daladala.

And during all of this I just sat and watched through the little free space I could, smashed between a large woman and the raw exposed metal of the bus wall, and I smiled to myself and could not help but cheerfully laugh at the scene unfolding around me.


  1. Kids play! Oh how I wish that was true here. Kids in the U.S. Are losing their ability to problem solve and think creatively. We need more dirt and less batteries. I have been so disappointed to see so many kids in church being handed a cell phone or iPad to play with during worship. How is that respectful. Granted they may need something to keep them occupied but what's wrong with books, crayons, pencils and paper. Parents are losing their chance to quietly explain what's going on during the service. Kids need to learn they don't need to be entertained all the time... Sometimes they need to learn how to watch, listen and wait.

    1. It's interesting you mention kids in church. One common thing in a U.S. Catholic church is to find a "cry room" or dedicated room for families with kids to sit during mass so as not to disturb others. The Tanzanian Catholic churches we have attended do not have these rooms, but plenty of young children attend, and not a peep is ever heard by a child. It seems that Tanzanian children are conditioned from a young age to sit quietly in certain settings, like in mass or school. Unfortunately, not-so-pleasant tactics are used to reinforce this desired behavior (e.g. threatening to beat a kid if they act up).


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