Looking Back

It’s been a month today since I got up from a sleepless night to my first morning in Mwanza, Tanzania. I’ve learned a lot about my surroundings and about myself in this time. It’s been really good for me.

I’ve learned some Swahili; people still laugh at me when I try to speak but I’m getting more confident and learning as I go. My eyes have also been opened to how ineffective one is if they are unfamiliar with the local language. I can come in with all of my theoretical knowledge and superior schooling, or even just armed with my good intentions, but I still can’t relate to anyone that I interact with on the level that I would like. I sound like a broken record, but I never fully realized how little I can do if I don’t know the language. I’m more of a liability at times, as locals attempt to teach me words that I’m unfamiliar with and I try to get across what I mean with a dysfunctional game of charades. I’ve been reflecting on this over the past few days. I would love to travel and do this kind of work after I graduate and finish my schooling. I would love to figure out ways to do this kind of thing for a living. I have always known that I won’t end up living in Canada. But I’m also a writer. I’m a communicator. My strengths lie in my words, because if I’m honest with myself I don’t have many other skills to speak of. On the flip side, I’m a huge advocate for African countries to take back their local languages and dialects and find unity in their own unique diversity. Colonialism brought European languages into these spaces and caused them to be languages of power. There is a wide spectrum of this in post-colonial spaces, but for the most part English (or French or another European language) is the language of education, business, and of the upper tiers of the social hierarchy. These imported languages also come with historical baggage.

I don’t write in Swahili, or Hindi, or Farsi, or Mandarin, or any other language other than English. I love learning about other languages and am totally in love with Swahili, but will probably never be able to write fluently in the language and use my talents to make any lasting difference within this context.

This is turning into a whine-fest featuring my own existential crisis.

I’m tired of having limited conversation with passers-by, the people I work with, and the marginalized populations our organizations seek to help. I can order food, barter a little (although I’m not the bartering type even in the language I’m comfortable in), and exchange pleasantries. I can get by in Mwanza, Tanzania. I’ve been here a month. I know how to get places and if I don’t I know how to ask. I’m doing well. But I’m so tired of that being it. I’m tired of not being able to be innovative and reach out to people and listen to others and learn from people. I love learning from people, and I know the individuals I interact with have tons of things to say. But I don’t understand them. It’s so frustrating. I’m tired of being two steps behind and still not really knowing what’s going on.

Will I ever be effective in this context? I don’t know, but likely not. I will do my best, and I’ve concluded that if I do my job as effectively as I can then this will be a successful internship. I can lend my organizational skills to getting the MikonoYetu fundraising event off the ground, and can do my very best with developing interview tools and questions to bring out the stories of some spectacular women that have been through the economic empowerment programs through the MY centre. I know I can do that. I’m excited to finally know that I won’t completely fail this summer. I can contribute my skills to my projects here, and that is really encouraging.

But I don’t know if this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. Do I still want to devote my life to development work and helping others? Of course. I just don’t know how anymore. I don’t know if I’ll have to do it in my own local context or if I can go elsewhere and not be deadweight just trying to get by. I’m not necessarily discouraged or apprehensive. I’m not angry or worried. I’m going to wrestle with this for the rest of my time in Mwanza, and then afterwards as I integrate myself back into Canadian life. I’ll mull it over during the next year, two years, maybe more. I am so glad that I decided to come to Mwanza, Tanzania for three months to work for a women’s rights NGO. I am so blessed to have gotten an opportunity like this, and to come from a place where these kinds of international experiences are actually feasible. I have learned so much about myself and have benefited greatly from being outside of my own, familiar context. I love it here. I love the people, and have enjoyed getting to know everyone that I’ve met. This last month has been one of the hardest times for me, but it’s also been the best month I’ve ever had. I hope to continue growing and evolving and learning and working and building relationships. I hope my Swahili improves.

I just don’t know what I want anymore.

One thought on “Looking Back

  1. Amara

    Isn’t life grand? Just when you think that you have an idea of what direction you want to go, something happens to upend that idea completely.

    I think you bring up really good questions, is it a bad idea to teach English/ European languages when it was the language of their oppressors for years? However is it realistic to think that not learning English/ European languages will not be a hinderance in their life. I personally err on the learn the language to keep doors open, but that is because of the situation I grew up in, where I took classes to keep career paths open. However none of those classes decimated my culture (well maybe gym and my culture of lazy).

    I guess not knowing is something time has to sort out, before something out screws with your perception. All I can really say as an outsider is that it seems to me that a portion of the answer is that you may have to pick an area, learn the language and stay there for a long time. However I get all of my information from your posts so I really have no credibility.


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