07 March 2016

why did the goats cross the road?

After over two years of living in Tanzania, life has really normalized for Michael and me. Things or circumstances that once inspired shock, surprise, or even fear are now completely commonplace.

I was reminded of this at the beginning of January, when we hosted a new missioner for his first week in Tanzania. After going on a walk through our neighborhood, he remarked, "That walk would be overwhelming to anyone visiting here for the first time!" Our response was, "Seriously? What's so weird about it?"

Just like everything in life, eventually, it becomes routine. Every once in a while, however, I still have experiences or conversations that shock me back into mission life. In those moments, I'm reminded, "Oh yeah… we're not in Kansas anymore."

how you build a house in mwanza, tanzania.

During a recent visit to one of our nine LULU groups here in Mwanza, I was sitting with some LULU girls, working on different handcraft products. This is one of my favorite parts of my work because I so often get to hear or explain interesting cultural insights about Tanzania or the United States. This day was no different.

With all of the rain we've been getting this year, the conversation had turned to farming and how local farmers were failing to bring expected items to market or surprised to find new crops growing in their fields. Since about 70% of Tanzanians still live rurally, most of the agriculture is done in villages.

One of the LULU girls, Winnie, turned to me and asked, "Are the villages in the United States like the villages in Tanzania?"

I did my best to answer succinctly a surprisingly difficult question. "We do have some villages," I replied. "But not like here in Tanzania. They are very few compared to how many we had one hundred years ago."

"But in these villages, are most people farmers?" Winnie went on to ask.

"Some are still farmers," I replied. "But a small percentage compared to Tanzania."

One girl instantly chimed in, "But American farmers wear out so quickly!"

Confused by her use of "wear out," I tried to clarify, "Do you think American farmers wear out because of the sun?"

"Yes!" she replied, as if to question why I was confused. "Your skin isn't used to it!"

This is when it dawned on me. When my Tanzanian LULU girls envision Americans farming, all they have to draw upon is how Tanzanians farm: by hand. In my two years of life in Tanzania, I have only seen one tractor ploughing in a field, and that was in Arusha, a city over 200 miles from Mwanza. Every other farmer I've seen has gone out to the field with nothing but a hoe and maybe, a container of water.

credit: africa agribusiness magazine

So this young woman pictured American farmers, heading out to the field, hoisting a hoe over their shoulder. Then, after days, months and years spent doing so, she imagined that our skin would get red, wrinkly, and worn out quickly, because of all the time spent in the sun. (I should also mention that Tanzanians have no need for sunscreen, so that concept is lost on them as well.)

I gently tried to explain the real situation in the United States. "Actually," I said, "I've only seen farmers in the United States sitting in machines to farm. I've never seen one use a hoe, like here in Tanzania."

She looked at me and I could see her brain trying to process this information.

"So most of the time, farmers aren't in the sun," I continued. "They're inside of the machine."

I could have been explaining farming on a different planet, let alone in the United States. And often, when I try to explain life in the United States, I often feel like I'm describing how an alternate life form lives.

When I left the group that evening, I couldn't forget this conversation. Even after two years of living here, I'm still struck by conversations like this: how little we all know about how "the other half" lives and how we can only assume based on what we know about the life we lead.

In the Western world, we often look down on lesser developed nations because of how seemingly "small" their world view is. But aren't we the same? Do we really know any more about the way they live than they know about our lives?

Let me describe one last, slightly more lighthearted, moment of surprise at living in Tanzania. I was racing home after work one day in the car and as I was almost two hours late to my next appointment, I was focused on getting to my destination as quickly as possible. At one point, I looked up ahead and groaned, as I saw 30 or so goats in my path. Most of the time, the herder, usually a young child, is nearby and will quickly whistle, yell or use a stick to get the animals to one side of the road.

Unfortunately, when I needed one most, there was no such person in sight. People stood around watching, of course, but no one came to my aid.

I tried honking the horn. I tried inching the car forward. I tried swerving to the right and the left. These goats were not moving. In frustration, I yelled to no one in particular, "WHO OWNS THESE GOATS?!?"

Almost instantly after the words left my lips, I started cracking up. What alternate world am I in, where it is completely normal, almost expected, for me to say the words, "Who owns these goats?" Really, can you think of any situation in the United States where that would be even slightly in the realm of possibility?

Yes, folks, we're in Tanzania. And by the way, who does own these goats?


  1. Love it! Hugs from Karen and Hang!

    1. Hugs to you both as well from the Leen's!

  2. Did u ever find out who owned those goats? :-)

  3. If you're with Maryknoll I'd love to quote from your blog for our Maryknoll Affiliate newsletter. NsfaMary@gmail.com

  4. If you're with Maryknoll I'd love to quote from your blog for our Maryknoll Affiliate newsletter. NsfaMary@gmail.com

    1. Yes, my wife and I are Maryknoll Lay Missioners in Tanzania. If you are with Maryknoll Affiliates then yes you may quote from our blog in your newsletter. Thanks for reaching out.


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