“Learn from yesterday. Live for today. Hope for tomorrow.” –Albert Einstein
February 17, 2010
My primary school has asked me to teach five days a week there this year. The dispensary wants me to be there two days a week. I am supposed to teach two nights a week at the bar and do infinite other things- at that schedule I have no idea how I would ever bathe, wash any clothes or eat anything. Suddenly, it has occurred to my villagers that August 2010 is practically right on top of us and Brie is leaving soon. I am literally begged to stay here. I have no idea what I have done that was so dramatic where the need me to live here forever more, but I must admit that sometimes it is a tempting offer.
Life here in Image is often splendid. I have my little dirty house, my village friends, reading in the evening and playing during the day. Who knew that I would ever view Image as an easy place to be? As opposed to reintegrating into fast-paced, materialistic America, Tanzania seems blissful. The Njombe girls and I often joke about how we dress, our habits (particularly in personal hygiene), the way that we talk… etc. would never fly in American culture. Yet it is so easy when you have four different outfits to wear and all of your friends do too so there is never any judgment. I try to picture living completely in America and mostly it seems really boring. I can’t wait to see my family- extended and immediate, but beyond that- America for years and years and years… Going to an office, watching television, cooking Trader Joe’s pasta over an electric stove, a warm shower at the turn of a faucet- where is the unknown? The adventure? It still amazes me that I was ever able to get used to no running water, lighting a fire if I want something to eat, and living with a million spiders- but I guess people are very good at adapting. About the spiders (this part is dedicated to you, Shanny), They are on everything that I pick up, so therefore, they are constantly on me. I can now ignore them. Although there are huge (I really mean huge), brightly colored ones that build their webs into tunnels under the eaves of my house. As long as they stay in their tunnels, I can ignore that they are there, it is when they come out of their tunnels that my skin crawls. This is basically my (and most of my girlfriends) rule of living in Tanzania- if you can’t see it than it doesn’t exist. So all those noises in my ceiling boards? I can’t see anything, so nothing is actually there. This works until you are my friend, Kate, and a rat runs through your hair while you are trying to sleep…
However, all that said, I will always be an American, some values and beliefs just run too deep. For instance, Tanzanians pay a lot of attention to skin color. In my opinion, way too much attention. The lighter you are, than the more beautiful you are. Every shop sells a million lightening products, which I don’t think could possibly work. Anyways, a man came to Image village to visit some extended family, and naturally was interested in what I was doing there. Of course, he had to start the conversation off with Obama. For some reason Tanzanians taking credit for Obama really pisses me off. They can be proud of him, but he is a full-fledged American product. This guy starts to insist that America has a Kenyan as president. I tell him, like I have to let all Tanzanians know, that he has barely been to Kenya, he doesn’t speak Swahili, he was born in America and even has a law degree- all of this adding up to someone who is definitely not an East African. Mama Max even adds, “His mom looks like Brie, so he is an American.” (All white people look the same to Tanzanians- don’t even get me started on this.) In Tanzania, tribal lines get passed down paternally- so you are automatically the tribe that your father is. By this reasoning, I understand the Tanzanian confusion, but this is not this guy’s reasoning. Instead he goes on to say, “No, he is black, so he will never be an American.” This makes me incredibly angry for some reason, but I try to stay calm because this is a stupid argument to have with someone who has next to no schooling and probably cannot find America on a map. Although, I am thinking take credit for Bush if you must, Obama is ours. So I take a deep breath and explain that a lot of black people live in America, they are either born there or marry an American citizen, both of which, make them an American. Color doesn’t have anything to do with it. The villagers who have gathered around to listen, look skeptical. So I go on with that I could still be white and a Tanzanian, if I had been born here. This just floors them, and the man says, “There is absolutely no way a white person could ever be a Tanzanian.”
For a white girl growing up in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon, I have never been a minority. In fact, you were probably the child of a professional basketball player if you went to high school anywhere in my district and were black. Today, I feel like that I can argue that I know what it feels like to be a minority. Now that I am used to living in Africa, it is generally really easy to ignore and sometimes even to forget about altogether. But sometimes being a minority is on the forefront of everything. I think that I could even argue that I have experience some racism and some reverse-racism or being favored because I am an American. Certainly, I could argue that my mugging over a year ago had everything to do with me being white. Probably also whatever village guy tried to come through my bedroom window had everything to do with my skin color. My PC friends and I are cheated on everything if we are not careful- we get offered bad prices on everything, fake bus tickets, broken cell phones, etc. because apparently dollar signs swirl around us like smoke. I hate being called a Mzungu (white person), I would never yell “black person!” at some person across the street in America. I hate being told that I am pretty because of how white my skin is. I hate that it takes a really long time to know if a Tanzanian is your friend or just using you. I hate that I am talked about like I am not there or too stupid to understand what is going on. That is why Image Village is usually my saving grace, because these days no one dares do any of that to me. I certainly believe that African Americans have a long way to go until they are perceived as equal in America- it was never more obvious than in the last election. (“Is America ready to have a black president?” I can’t even count the number of times in the media I heard that question and I still cannot believe how the average American thinks black and white people are any different. I have spent almost two years surrounded by black people- they themselves are not any different, Tanzanian culture is.) Tanzanians need to learn that white people are people too, not just a walking dollar sign. People are just people. It angers me that we have spent centuries trying to define and confine what is different and fear what we perceive is unknown.