At this moment, I am sitting at a table and enjoying a cup of chai on the roof of the Hotel Kingdom in Mwanza. We have been here for a little over a week, and there are noted differences in our environment and, subsequently, our emotions (as Jimmy Buffet once put it, “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes”). My living arrangements have gone from the very basics to luxurious. For example, I now have the option of hot water in my shower. This is just a stopover for everyone except James, who will be settling in here to work at the Archdiocese office. The rest of us will be leaving for Bukoba very soon. We met with His Eminence Metropolitan Jeronymos a few days ago and were told that our house in Bukoba is ready for us. This house is where the Metropolitan had planned on living before the Archdiocese Headquarters was relocated from Bukoba to Mwanza. We have been told that the house is “huge” and “nice,” so we’re all very excited to finally check it out.
Our departure from Dar es Salaam was preceded by a medical emergency that not only caught all of us off guard, but it gave us our first big test of living abroad (I had wanted to focus on challenges in this blog, and I can’t think of a better way to begin). In mid September, Katie started developing stomach discomfort. We had just returned from Zanzibar the previous day after a relaxing two day getaway. One of the few positives of this experience was that the onset didn’t occur until we got back to the mainland. Eventually, it got to a point where she needed to go to a hospital. I got the call at about 2 in the morning on Friday. “Michael, I’m in the hospital. I have appendicitis.” That was the start of a very long and taxing week. Katie had her operation at the “main” hospital in Dar. Before coming here, I wasn’t the least bit worried about personal safety, political uprisings, eating the food, or the difficulty of assimilating into a new culture. However, my absolute worst nightmare was needing to be hospitalized here and requiring emergency surgery. The health care system here (and probably just about everywhere else on the planet) is quite different from what we are used to in the U.S. This made for a lot of cross cultural stress between the hospital staff and the rest of us. Fortunately, we had support both in Tanzania and back home. Thank you for all of your prayers! A couple of days after her surgery, Katie was transfered to a different hospital in Dar with a more westernized approach to medicine. This made her recovery a lot more comfortable, both physically and emotionally. As I write this, Katie is still recovering, but she is feeling much better. Please read her blog for a more detailed account of being in a hospital while overseas.
While experiencing health care abroad presents its challenges, even forming and maintaining personal relationships can seem just as challenging. After I arrived in Africa, I wanted to keep an open mind about everyone and everything. I now know that this is unrealistic. Sure, most everyone seems friendly when you meet them, but it’s very difficult to ascertain whether they genuinely want to be your friend or if there are other motives at work. Fortunately, there are easy ways around this. At the Salvation Army compound in Dar es Salaam, I was connected to a staff I was able to trust from the day I moved in. If any of them had attempted to take advantage of me, it would have been very easy to handle by simply going to their superior. But what about people outside the safety of the gates? One evening, shortly after arriving in Dar, I was walking down the street to a restaurant all by myself (something that was acceptable because of our proximity to a police station and army barracks), when someone passing me by going the other direction stopped and began greeting me in English. He was very tall–I later found out 6’8”–and had just finished playing basketball. He told me his name was Apollo and that he was a soldier in the Tanzanian Army. It usually takes me about five seconds to assess situations like this and then decide either to keep moving or engage in a conversation to see where it leads. If I hadn’t been alone, I probably would have kept walking, but the fact that I didn’t want to eat alone and that he spoke English made me decide to invite him to join me. Besides, he had just walked out of the army barracks and told me that he was a soldier. I would have little reason to disbelieve that. This chance meeting led to him becoming one of my best friends in Dar, and I have never regretted inviting him to join me that night.
When I’m in the United States, I tend to gravitate toward people who are nothing like me. Here in Africa, just about everyone falls into that category. Following are a few more examples of the many relationships I have formed with people from different backgrounds.
One night, after having dinner with friends at a restaurant, I went to the restroom to wash up. After I walked in, a Masai warrior in full garb came in behind me. I greeted him with the one word in Masai that I knew and he greeted me back…in Italian!! He thought I might be from Europe and perhaps spoke Italian. I speak Spanish, so between my Spanish and his Italian we ended up being able to communicate rather well. It turns out the Masai, whose name is Kanavaro, is married to an Italian woman and goes back and forth between Tanzania and Italy. He invited me and my friends back to his table, and we proceeded to have a conversation in Italian, Spanish, English, and Swahili. Kanavaro and I continue to keep in touch to this day.
One of our go-to places for food and supplies in Dar es Salaam was a supermarket called Al-Jazirah (yes, that’s the actual name of the market). It was a Muslim-owned and operated store that had a bigger selection of items than most of the other local stores. One of the other nice things about going there was that we could get there on foot and wouldn’t necessarily need to take a taxi or daladala unless we bought more than we could carry. Every time I went there, I was welcomed warmly, and the staff there seemed to be as interested in learning about me as I was in learning about them. As I mentioned in my previous blog, there is a lot of tolerance among Christians and Muslims in Tanzania, which makes for more peaceful everyday interactions.
Early on in my stay in Dar, I met a street artist named David. I actually met David through James, who took me along one day to meet him. I was a bit leery of David’s motives at first for wanting to form a relationship, but I later discovered that David is caring for several orphans (many of them having lost parents from AIDS) and that he and a few others are teaching these kids to sing and dance. David, himself, was orphaned early on in life and is now selling his art to take care of other kids who are in the same position he once was. I have since learned that David has found a new home for the kids and that they have some potential benefactors lined up.
[If you would like to see pictures and video of these people, I will be posting them soon on my OCMC webpage. If you are on Facebook, connect with me, and you will be able to view my pictures and videos on my profile.]
In addition to interpersonal challenges, I have also been facing inward challenges. Anyone who has ever spent a significant amount of time living in another country knows that you need to check your ego at the door when you want to immerse yourself in a new language and culture. You will more than likely make a faux pas at some point, but you need to throw all that aside and forget about it. Otherwise, you’ll never make any progress. Certain things can only be learned through experience: bargaining for a lower price at a market, asking for directions, taking a daladala (public mini-bus). There are other things that can be easily learned ahead of time but can still be a challenge to nail down.
I previously addressed the art of the Tanzanian greeting. After a church service in Mwanza, I went up to a friend I have known since my last visit here in 2008. I immediately started talking to him about things, and he reminded me to say “Good morning first.” I had completely skipped over the greeting and went right to the matters at hand. I glossed over my misstep by joking to him that “I’m American and we just get right down to business.” Both of us laughed about it, but I was fortunate that he knew me and understood the cultural gaffe. A stranger may not have.
As a general rule, it’s acceptable for men to wear long pants in public and women a long skirt or kanga. Just about any type of shirt is acceptable. I wear long pants (mostly jeans) whenever I go out, but sometimes I just feel like going mzungu and wearing shorts. I have also learned that shorts aren’t as taboo as I thought, and that they are perfectly acceptable to be worn outdoors during exercise. Now, I just tell people that I’m exercising when I want to wear shorts.
Rather tricky here. Public displays of affection are frowned upon, even holding hands. If a man and an unrelated woman live together, it is assumed that they are married or well on their way to becoming married. Hugging very rarely happens between the sexes, even with relatives, but is much more common within the same sex. I try to respect this, but I have hugged both Tanzanian women and the women on my team and not developed a complex over it. One thing that has taken some getting used to is the fact that it is perfectly normal for two unrelated heterosexual men to hold hands. I knew this ahead of time, but I still get a little self-conscious when a male friend takes my hand. One night, Apollo and I were holding hands while running across a busy street. I actually wish someone had taken a picture of that.
We will continue to make flubs as we navigate through the assimilation process, but it seems as though the locals are extremely understanding and appreciative that we are at least making an effort to be culturally-sensitive.
Next stop: Bukoba.
Thanks to my support team.