08 September 2015

life lessons on a bus in tanzania.

A white girl walked onto a bus in Tanzania and…

No, this isn't the opening line of a joke. This is yet another story from my life. Why do I always seems to have the best conversations on moving vehicles here in Mwanza?

In all seriousness, it's a great story and yet again, made me think about culture, specifically how we show warmth and friendliness to our fellow human beings.

So, yeah, I was on a bus (not a daladala), sitting up near the bus driver and per usual, we struck up a conversation.

Pause Scene: Do you see how that happened? We just started talking to each other. Complete strangers. No suspicion between us. Moving on.

The bus driver, Timos, asked where I was from. When I replied that I was from the United States, Timos instantly said, "I would love to go there." A pretty typical response from most Tanzanians. They see the U.S. as portrayed in movies and those lovely music videos (ahem, Jay-Z, I'm looking at you) and assume that what they see is the real deal. As Americans know, it's part-true, part-story telling, but it's hard to explain that.

When I asked Timos why he would like to visit, he said he'd heard that everything was so clean, that all of the roads were paved. "I'd just like to see it with my eyes," he said. (Side Note: Looks like Timos had a pretty good read on the U.S. I will say, compared to Tanzania, the United States is immaculate, yes, even the bad parts, and most roads are awesome.)

I started to give my usual spiel, that yes, some things in the States are great, but the culture is so different from Tanzania that…

And that's when he interrupted me.

"Oh, I have a question!" he exclaimed. "Let me tell a story…"

Timos explained that he sometimes drove tourists into the Serengeti for multiple day visits and he had observed something in our culture that was very odd. When tourists go to eat a meal in the Serengeti, they're often given boxed lunches, There's a common room, kind of like a cafeteria, where they go to eat together. Different tour companies and groups are mixed up with one another so it could be many, many Westerners in a room, eating together.

"They always do the same thing," Timos said. "They pass by without greeting each other! Sometimes, they sit next to someone to eat without greeting each other! How can you see someone who looks like you (a.k.a. white, Western) and just pass by one another? Does that really happen in your country?"

You know where I'm going with this, but ride this one out with me. "Yeah," I replied, with a sad look on my face. "That's how it is."

Timos was shocked. To him, the situation he observed of us Westerners violates the #1 cultural rule of Tanzanians: knowing your fellow human being is paramount, ESPECIALLY if that fellow human being looks like you or speaks your language.

And this has come to be my all-time favorite part about Tanzanian culture. These people are warm, y'all. Yes, literally, because we live two degrees off the Equator but more than that, culturally. Tanzanians are really, truly friendly people.

I think us Americans like to say that we're friendly. But compared to Tanzanians, as a whole, I would give our culture a C+. I realize the U.S. is huge and different regions have their own sub-cultures, but as an average, I'm sticking with C+. And Tanzania gets a big, fat A. Why?

When you get on public transportation in the United States, and someone says, "Morning," we call that friendly. If they attempt to say more to you, the social guard comes up. "What does this guy/girl want from me?" you ask yourself. "He/she better not be selling something, have an ulterior motive, be generally creepy, etc." Let's say even if you determine the other person is not creepy and is a genuinely nice person, but then, they ask you for your phone number, or where you live, the social guard goes WAY up. "Oh no, that's my private life… This girl is nice, but only weird people ask for phone numbers in public anymore! How can I get out of this one…"

Amiright? C'mon, you know I am.

But in Tanzania, this is what happens. You sit next to someone on public transportation. You say, "Morning." They say, "Morning.. How's everything at home?"

You: Everything's good! Are the kids alright?
Them: All of the kids are good. Where are you heading?
You: I'm heading to town to buy some things. Where are you heading?
Them: I'm going to visit a friend in the hospital.
You: Oh, sorry. Tell them I hope they get better.
Them: Thanks. How long have you been in Mwanza?

And this conversation will continue, without distrust or suspicion, until either myself or the other person gets off said public transportation. Of course, this doesn't happen 100% of the time, but I'm surprised how many evenings Michael and I have a story like this to tell.

I'm going to go out on a limb here. Some people are going to read this blog post and say, "Well, it's not necessarily bad that we Americans are like that." And I'm going to say, "It IS bad. We can be better than that!"

Let's not be friendly. Let's be seriously friendly. Let's not assume the worst in our fellow human being. Let's assume the best.

If Tanzania has taught me anything, it's that life is short and there's nothing more important than people. What else are we supposed to do with our time than connect? And no, your family and friends don't count. I mean, okay, they count, I want you to have family and friends but those people you don't know, the ones you pass on the street… They're not just fellow Americans, which is already awesome. They're also fellow people, people.

I'm a perfectionist. And I want an A. So what do you say? Will you try it? It's time to give Tanzanians a run for their money.

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