“Nijui, mimi mzungu”: reflections from that foreigner walking down the street

Yes, I’m a white person. Yes, I’m a foreigner. No, I don’t need you to remind me. Thanks.

I have totally gotten used to people yelling out “mzungu!” or “wazungu!” at me and the other interns when we’re walking around town, or even in the more rural regions of Mwanza. I get that I’m visibly different and that there are connotations that surround my presence that makes people think they can remark on my foreign-ness. It’s not a big deal anymore. I guess it’s a little wearing, though.

Now, instead of glancing around wide-eyed whenever I hear that word, I keep my head down or look straight ahead and ignore it. I mutter “yes I’m a mzungu, thanks for letting me know” to whoever is with me. I chuckle a little. I wait for the persistent guy across the road to call me “dada” instead before I look over and tell him that I’m fine (I refuse to answer to people yelling “mzungu” at me, I’ve chosen to consider it rude). I roll my eyes and keep walking.

What I don’t like is when they start to talk about me. It doesn’t phase me as much as it could, I suppose. I can only pick out a couple of words in a whole conversation, so I really have no idea what they’re talking about. But I do know that they’re talking about me, or one of the other girls I’m with, or both of us. I usually suspect it’s both of us, interchangeably.

Like today. Nuri and I trekked to Buswelu so that I could meet with Maimuna about what she was looking for in terms of case studies and interviews (yay progress!). After a productive meeting, we decided to head back to town, get lunch, and then go back home to nap. Miraji (he works at MikonoYetu) was already going into town to go to the market (“sukoni” in Swahili), so he accompanied us on our dala dala ride. Probably ten minutes after we were picked up at our stop, the dala dala stopped for a few minutes to let people on. A few fine gentlemen poked their heads through the window and saw some wazungu. In a Swahili-English hybrid, they proceeded to profess their love to Nuri and me. Was I flattered? Not really. Miraji gave us the gist of what they were saying, although we knew they were talking and yelling about us. We understood particular words and could also tell who the topic of this lively conversation was by the entire population of the dala dala sneaking glances back at us and chuckling (or openly laughing, in some cases). They wanted to marry us, Miraji informed us. We were foreigners, and wazungu have lots of money. I laughed along, not willing to take these guys seriously enough to be traumatized, offended, or embarrassed. The dala dala rolled away to the sound of one guy shouting, “Mzungu, my name is [I don’t remember his name, what a shame] and I love you!”

I told Miraji that they were wrong anyways, we’re students and don’t have any money. I joked with Nuri that they’d only be inheriting our debt. But then I got thinking. Even if I’m not incredibly well-off in Canadian terms, my presence here makes me rich. My nationality makes me rich. Not even in the sense that I can afford this trip (although those kinds of power dynamics are still in play). I’m rich in the sense that when I go home, I return to a developed infrastructure that will support my employment. I have managed to pay for my university education and this internship because I have emotional support from family and friends and financial support from the industrialized economy that is in Canada. I was lucky enough to have access to my retail job at an independent bookstore, and likewise my parents have access to employment in their chosen vocations. That alone makes me a rich foreigner.

I realized all of this while sitting on the dala dala while Miraji taught us more Swahili and showed us pictures of his son (who is ten and has a great big smile in pretty much every picture).

Nuri and I went to a restaurant where we know we can get a relatively inexpensive plate of fruit for lunch, and then stopped by the bakery close by to grab some food that we could munch on for dinner. It’s the end of the week, and both of us are exhausted, so we opted to get our food run out of the way before we got home and parked ourselves in our rooms for the rest of the day. I got a few samosas, remembering that I had some extra chapatti at home from getting food with Iris yesterday. Then Nuri and I walked home.

We know where street kids tend to be by now. We know to expect them. We know what to do and what to say. I remarked to Nuri earlier this morning when passing by some particularly young street kids that I feel a little less like a monster if I talk to them and treat them like human beings instead of ignoring them whenever they beg. Still, our conversations are limited to me walking by and silencing their pleas for food by uttering “hapana” and “pole” over and over until they give up and move onto the pedestrians behind me. I usually try to smile at them, even as I tell them that I have nothing for them. Sometimes I get a smile back.

I had my bag of samosas in my hand as Nuri and I walked down the street in the direction of the hostel. Nuri’s food was tucked away in her backpack. As we walked by, a small child ran up to me with his hands outstretched and exclaimed “mzungu!” I was the foreigner that represented wealth again. This time I had my dinner in my hand, right where he could see.

I didn’t even think before opening the bag and giving a samosa. Another boy ran up and tapped me on the arm a second after I doled out the first bit of food. Before I knew it, my four samosas were gone and I was saying “pole” to the fifth boy that jogged up to me to get a bite of food. I’ll eat peanut butter and some crackers for dinner. Or I’ll see if the mango I bought a couple of days ago is finally ripe. I have options.

Walking away from the street kids, a thought suddenly hit me. What if, by giving anything to these children, I am only enforcing the image of the white, rich foreigner with a saviour complex? What if I’m harming their perceptions of people that are different from them? They identified me as a mzungu even before they asked me for anything. Do they see me as a compassionate person that is willing to give them the food she’s just bought, or am I just another mzungu that has resources to spare and will sometimes deign to give my leftovers?

I realize I’m a foreigner. This fact is pretty unavoidable. I stick out like a sore thumb when traipsing across town or shuffling my way to the back seat of a dala dala. I also have no problems with being openly recognized as a foreigner or being called out because of my obvious difference. I’m used to it by now. The issue is when I realize that there are characteristics that are attached to this “foreign-ness” that run deeper than just my skin colour. Characteristics that make me less relatable, a novelty, and a person with motives or attitudes that I don’t necessarily want to be associated with.

[Note: This post was originally written on Friday, June 17th. I haven’t had wifi all weekend, so I decided to write down my thoughts and then worry about posting later]


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.

Charity Walk

Bernard Makachia invited us to a charity walk this morning (Sunday) for Foundation Karibu Tanzania, a rescue centre that rehabilitates child victims of severe domestic abuse. The foundation also counsels the parents of these children so that the kids can go back home after healing of their wounds. Their physical wounds, at least. Bernard wanted Iris, “his photographer,” to be there. So we hopped on a dala dala and followed Bernard’s directions to the FKT centre.

I wasn’t prepared for this morning.

We arrived and saw Bernard and his staff lining up a group of children. They were handing out water, carrying toddlers, and getting everyone ready for the 3 km walk. I had my camera ready to take pictures since Iris had committed to taking mostly videos. We weren’t quite sure what to expect, but the other interns and I had resolved without much question to be present for the charity walk and the ceremony afterwards.

We left with very full hearts.

Once everyone was prepared to depart, the children that are staying at the FKT centre and a group of children from another organization that seeks to get street children back with their families assembled behind an FKT banner. They lined up in groups of two or three, holding hands. Some pairs held posters reading “stop child abuse.” There were two police officers with us leading the way to direct traffic around our group. We set out walking, and I awkwardly took pictures and smiled at curious kids that stared up at me. As we walked, the children began to sing. I don’t know what they were singing, the only words I understood were “FKT tuna sema,” which I’m pretty sure means something like “we say FKT.” Walking with these children that have suffered in their few years more than I will ever suffer throughout my entire life, listening to them sing and seeing them smile and clasp each others’ hands, brought tears so my eyes. We weren’t even down the street from the centre, and this white girl was walking with her big camera and backpack, wiping away tears as they spilled down my cheeks. I couldn’t help it. These children were so precious, and my heart bled for them.

It still bleeds for them.

We walked for about an hour to a field where there would be snacks for the kids and speeches. On the way, I found a friend. I was walking near the front, and the boy walking beside me nudged the girl in front of him to move faster, as the lines were being shifted and he was bumping into her. This boy (I cannot remember his name for the life of me, although I did ask for it) was probably six or seven and full of life and curiosity. I inserted my hand between these two children. The boy grabbed my hand, and I walked the rest of the way holding the hand of this spunky kid that would periodically look up and smile at me. He didn’t sing along to the FKT song, so I sang for the both of us. I didn’t know the words nor what the words meant. I imitated what the children around me were saying, and likely got most of the words completely wrong. But I couldn’t not sing. I couldn’t walk alongside these children and not belt out the words of the song they had been taught. It was a song of hope, but also an appeal to whomever would listen: don’t hurt us. Don’t rob us of our childhoods and cause us to find ourselves in a rescue centre, being treated for physical and psychological injuries. Tears are in my eyes as I write this, remembering all of those children.

We reached our destination. The children grouped together under a tree to receive water. My new friend looked up at me and said something in Swahili. Unfortunately, my Swahili remains incredibly limited; I crouched down, looked at his expectant face, and said “sifahamu, pole” (I don’t understand, sorry). He ran away to join the others. I resolved to let the kids do their thing while I sat with the other interns and adults, but before I could make a step, the boy was by my side again. He gave me his water bottle, so I took the seal off, opened it, and gave it back to him. We had limited conversation, which did frustrate me. I snapped a few pictures of everyone in the field, and then crouched down to show him what I was doing. Then I showed him how to take a picture. Then I gave him the camera and let him play photographer. He took pictures of the other children across the field, of the people sitting down, and then took pictures of me. Before anyone thinks I just handed a random kid that probably has nothing to his name a camera that isn’t even mine, I made sure to stay close and had the strap in my hand most of the time. I also wasn’t worried about this kid taking anything; he looked like a bit of a troublemaker, but was such a sweet little one. After a bit (and a mental struggle to figure out how to ask for the camera back), I said “sawa, naomba camera” (okay, I ask you for camera). He handed it over with a big smile. I gestured that we should go over to where the other children were. He grabbed my hand and we went.

The kids had snacks, and my special little friend grabbed his snack bag and came right back to me. We sat among the other children while they ate through their bags of candy, crackers, and biscuits. I took pictures of their smiling faces, and they took turns asking me to open bags of things and saying things to me that I didn’t understand.

I like kids in general, but these sweet little things were so special.

It was around this time that I started to notice things. An FKT staff member carrying a toddler because her foot was in a cast. A little girl with mangled, shiny scar tissue covering half of her hand. A boy with a circular scar running around his lower leg. Many of the kids had gauze taped in various places. Many kids had scars and scabs on their heads. Bernard told us before the walk that FKT only takes “severely tortured children.” All of the children the FKT takes in are victims of extreme domestic violence, and the goal is to rehabilitate them for as short a time as possible and then reintegrate them into their homes again. He stressed that they can only take in the children that are severely abused.

Every single one of these little ones had suffered incredible abuse in their own homes recently. Pictures on FKT banners during the walk showed images of burn marks and open wounds on heads, backs, arms, and legs. A picture I was shown by an FKT staff member once we got to the end of the charity walk showed a child whose leg had been almost completely cut off.

I have no idea what had happened to my little friend to end up at FKT.

Bernard deemed the field we ended the walk in as unfit for the ceremony afterwards. It wasn’t the field that they had originally booked, and there was too much going on in the area. We packed the kids in two dala dalas that had been rented and hopped in cars to head back to the FKT centre. Chairs were lined up once we got there, and everyone took their seats. A government official (I think) served as the guest of honour, and speeches were made. While all of this was going on (in Swahili and too quiet for me to really hear anyways), I watched the children sitting all around me. They joked and played with each other. They traded packages of crackers for lollipops. My new little friend made sure he sat near me. I didn’t mind one bit.

The language barrier was frustrating, but the kids apparently didn’t mind me smiling and making undistinguished noises in response to their questions. I tried to get by with “mambo” and “ume shiba?” (“what’s up?” and “are you full?”). I couldn’t get enough of their smiles. I held it together without crying for the most part, only tearing up a little during the speeches when I thought about the prospects of these children. These kids will return to their homes likely in a few months. These children (none were over 8, I’m guessing) would go back to their families, who will hopefully have successfully completed counselling and will know that they cannot resort to hurting their children. They will also return to poverty. Bernard shared with Nuri and I his frustration with this; domestic violence often is a result of poverty. A hungry child will get into the kitchen and eat the food that is supposed to last the entire family the week. The child will not know any better. The child will get beaten. This particular story is one of many, but the common theme tends to be poverty.

My little friend will return to poverty and little prospects. That hurts me more than I can say. I don’t know what to do about that. I prayed over all of the children, but this boy especially. I asked God to keep His hand on this one. That’s all I can do.

Feeling so helpless and not even being able to relate to these kids in their language was disheartening, but I hope I made up for it in smiles and love. I hugged my new friend and told him that I would see him again (we’re hoping to go on an outing with FKT soon). I said “kwaheri” to as many kids as I could before we left. I rubbed little backs and held little hands and kissed little heads. I couldn’t get enough of these small humans. I already miss them.

I was thinking before we left that I didn’t know if I could say goodbye. I didn’t know how to. I didn’t know how to leave and possibly never see these children again before they left the centre and were reintegrated back into their families. I had established a limited relationship with them, but a relationship nonetheless. I have no idea how people can work with kids in other countries for a short period of time and then leave forever. That would kill me.

I hope to see my friend again. I also hope that he returns to a family that now knows how to nurture him and see that he grows into a man that knows how to love.

[Afterwards] I really struggled with this post directly after publishing it. I wasn’t sure if including pictures was ethical. These children have been through hell and back, and if you’ve stayed with me all the way through these posts you’ll know how I feel about images. Visuals are great things, and for people that aren’t seeing Mwanza like I am it’s difficult to truly understand what I experience, and therefore what I feel. Images are powerful, even if they can be skewed. I’ve kept all of the original images except for one; I feel like these images are all in context. I wrote about all of the individuals depicted in their own pictures, and don’t think that these children are shown in a negative or victimised light. That being said, I’m still struggling. I don’t know what these kids have been through. So who am I to share their smiling faces? Who am I to potentially encroach on their privacy and security? I’m a white girl from a good family in Canada.

This post was really hard for me to write. I needed to write it, but it was very difficult. I’m still processing everything that I saw and felt. I’m still reeling from small realizations that I had during the walk and that I am continuing to have. Domestic child abuse is something that should never, ever happen. I really hope I haven’t just capitalized on it.

Bernard Makachia
Iris and the kids
Ready for the charity walk!


My new friend
We’ll see them soon!

Speaking with a Veteran

You start out with zero. Then God adds a one in front of it. And then the rest of your life you keep adding zeros; 10, 100, 1000. This is what I learned from Bernard Makachia today.

I learned a lot.

Nuri and I left around 9:00 this morning and made our way to EBLI. We weren’t really sure what the agenda was, but this week is a week for work. We went and found Bernard in his office. We showed him the graduation video that Iris had made, and spent some time trying to upload the video to EBLI’s Facebook page (to no avail, apparently we don’t own the rights to Ne-Yo’s “Miss Independent”). We then sat down with some chai and discussed Nuri’s project. She’s going to evaluate the three programs that EBLI has (the secondary school for young mothers, the computer and business skills program, and the school-based program run at the local school), and see where the gaps are. We’re hoping to interview the young mothers, observe how everything is run, and assess what needs are not being met.

Or something like that.

Bernard himself doesn’t care how we do things. As long as he gets a short report at the end of our time here detailing how the programs can be improved and how feedback that we amassed can be used and included in EBLI’s coming proposal in the fall. We chatted about these things, and the theme kept shifting to gaps that Bernard has seen. Problems that he’s run into.

Like young mothers that have graduated and have been forced to turn to soliciting sex in order to provide for themselves and their children (Bernard stressed that this was the norm). Like how to teach graduates to create their own businesses and generate incomes in their own homes. Like funding. Like contraceptives being produced elsewhere in the world and exported into East Africa, causing the prices to be more than people can afford.

Bernard is the director of Education for Better Living (EBLI) [http://ebliorg.weebly.com/] and also runs Foundation Karibu Tanzania (FKT) [https://www.facebook.com/foundationkaributz/], an organization that rehabilitates tortured and abused children and reintegrates them into their homes. FKT also has a counselling branch that provides counselling for the parents of these abused children. Bernard is wise, contemplative, nurturing, and experienced in non-profit work. He is interested in helping others above all else. He has inspirational quotes and anecdotes all over his office, all about helping others and thriving in your own context.

Bernard is also tired, disillusioned, and angry.

He is tired of seeing young mothers with no options. He is tired of investing in young women and then seeing them become victims of rape and reduced to poverty. He is tired of nurturing tortured children back to health, only to bring them back to poverty at home. He asked us what one person is to do, help children, or work to alleviate poverty? We didn’t have an answer.

He is disillusioned, he shared with us. He feels like a single drop in an ocean. His efforts aren’t helping, and no one is interested in creating lasting, real change. He told Nuri and I that the best thing we could do for him was find a crazy guy that is interested in helping him make real, tangible change. Bernard would like to partner with someone as crazy as himself. He realizes he’s screaming in a silent forest; does anyone but the trees hear?

Bernard shared with us that he is angry at the donor community. He is tired of sitting with outstretched hands. He is upset every time an organization has been brought back to square one because its funding has been relinquished (he gave us a few examples of organizations that Western Heads East has worked with in the past). Nobody in the donor community wants to invest, he said. They give money and then stop. They make Africa worse off than before. It’s not sustainable, the way things are now. It’s not working.

He explained that in Rwanda, the government gave each household a cow. The government subsidized sheet metal roofs to replace thatched roofs. The people were invested in. They were given resources to invest and thrive on. Rwanda is one of the fastest growing economies in Africa (if I’m not mistaken) and is the most developed in East Africa. The Rwandan Genocide was just over two decades ago; the country went from a divided, hostile space to a thriving, cohesive nation. Because the government decided to invest in the people. And invest in the long-term.

Aid doesn’t do that. I know that. I’m a student of International Relations. I study this. I love studying this stuff, as upset as it makes me feel sometimes. Foreign aid has been an industry ever since the 1980s. Money has flooded into African countries since even before that.

Africa as a continent is also rich in resources. Mwanza itself has numerous goldmines. But no one in Mwanza sees that gold. The world of foreign aid and international development also tends to perpetuate poverty even as it looks to alleviate it. We have created dependent states and peoples that must export all of their wealth in order to receive unsustainable, insufficient funds, loans, services, and material aid. This hasn’t changed because the organizations, countries, and individuals that are providing the aid are benefiting.

Nuri and I know this. Bernard knows this.

I almost cried as I listened to Bernard speak, though. It’s one thing to read about this. It’s one thing to discuss perpetual poverty and sustainable development in class. It’s another thing to sit across from someone and have him tell you that he’s tired of Africans not having a chance.

This is a man that has seen hundreds of young mothers graduate and become owners of their own bodies and futures again. This is someone who is so troubled with young women who can’t read and write that he has devoted his life to teaching them how. This is the man that created an organization that has rehabilitated 300 children that have been horribly abused, and has had only five children who have returned to the centre because they were abused again.

Bernard is an astounding person. The few times I’ve met with him and spoken with him, I have soaked up his wise words and his father-like demeanor (w.c.). He has come so far, from a 10-year-old out on his own in Kenya, to a director of two organizations that help dozens of Tanzanians every single day. He has accomplished so much. The young mothers at the EBLI graduation had so much love for him, the man who has devoted his life to giving them a second chance. I have so much admiration for Bernard.

Nuri and I didn’t know what to tell him. We couldn’t share that the reason resources are being chronically exported out of Africa is because of power politics and stronger nations dictating the world order. We couldn’t tell him that our chances are so much higher of succeeding simply because we’re born in a different country (he knows this, and told us as much). We couldn’t bring ourselves to offer much to the conversation.

Bernard wants investment. Not hand-outs. Not one-time donations. He is a seasoned grassroots development worker. He is an advocate for women’s and children’s rights, and realizes the need for these populations to have options (women that have incomes can send their children to school; this keeps being reiterated to me and it’s really making an impression). Bernard wants someone to help set up a loan system for young mothers to create businesses. He would like someone to give funds for a greenhouse so that income can be generated and invested for organizations.

He wants real change. And realizes that in this world, only crazy people truly want to make that happen.

Because he’s tried and thinks he’s failing.

I write this and tears well in my eyes. This morning has shifted my views, and has made some of my convictions more urgent and real.

But I’m also only one drop in an ocean.

But, on the other hand, God has added His ‘one’ to my life. I can add zeros, that’s all. But zeros with a one in front can amount to quite a bit, at the end of the day. I just still have to figure out what to do with those zeros.

Ups and Downs

We got back from safari and went straight into our first real work week. So this week has been awesome.

I woke up on Tuesday feeling uneasy. Nuri and I were going to MikonoYetu for our first real day of routine work, but before heading all the way out to Buswelu (where the MikonoYetu centre is) we planned to visit a couple of potential venues for our event in August. On our way to the first venue, we passed by the office where we booked our safari. Jibraan, who owns the travel company, saw us passing and invited us in. We chatted about how our safari went (my response: “we saw animals”), Ramadan, and where to get good food after 6:30 pm. We were there longer than I had budgeted, in terms of time.

I try to embrace “Tanzanian time.” I appreciate the “pole pole” kind of thinking, and have really tried to go with it. I love that real interaction and conversation trumps personal time limits and agendas here. But I was anxious that morning because I felt like I was going to MikonoYetu with nothing to show. I had nothing to offer Maimuna, not even a clear understanding of what she wanted. So when we had been there for about half an hour, I slipped into the conversation that we should probably get going. Jibraan asked where we were headed today. We told him our plans, and Samira took the opportunity to ask if there was an office we could stop by at the first venue we were going to inquire about. Jibraan picks up his phone and makes a call. Soon enough I’m on the phone with one of the board members for the venue, and he’s telling me to stop by his shop (which was a couple of blocks away) to chat with him about our event. Hemal was more than helpful, booked off the dates we requested, and didn’t even seem frustrated that I didn’t know the answers to most of his questions. Pricing is flexible since it’s a charity event, the space is perfect, and they’d be happy to work with us. Maimuna was happy with the space and willing to take Hemal’s advice to shift the dates a bit. One half hour conversation and a couple of helpful, connected friends later, I had more to bring to the table than I ever thought I would have.

Venue, check. And not how I expected.

Since Samira and Iris are going to have their hands full getting the yogurt kitchen at SAUT up and running this summer, Nuri and I will be working on the MikonoYetu and EBLI projects together. The company while travelling and the combined brain power make splitting our time more than worth it. Tuesday was our first real work day, as I mentioned above, so after grabbing lunch we made our way to the dala dala stand to catch a dala dala to Buswelu for an afternoon working at MikonoYetu. By ourselves. This was the first time we were walking to the dala dala stand without Kato, the first time we didn’t have Samira to speak Swahili for us, and the first time riding the dala dala as a pair, as opposed to a group of four.

We did well. The independence was encouraging, and I think exactly what we needed. We walked to the dala dala stand (probably about a 20-minute walk, but I’ve never actually timed it), and reasoned the entire way that no one was out to get us, and if all else fails we can just chirp “Buswelu?” and hope that someone helps us. We were super ready for this. We had to be ready, we’ll be doing this multiple times every week.

We got to the stand and stood there, having no idea what to do. Luckily, a nice albino man who spoke a bit of English gave us a hand: “Sister, where are you going?” We got on the right dala dala and made our way to MikonoYetu. We got off at the right stop. I made a point of not texting Maimuna that we had arrived so that she wouldn’t send Miraji to bring us from the stop to the centre. Nuri and I wanted to make it there completely by ourselves.

The independence was great.

The meeting at MikonoYetu went well. We filled Maimuna in, I showed her the letter I’d drafted for partners and sponsors, we looked at some branding options for the event that Iris had cooked up, and Nuri made me talk to Maimuna about when I’d be starting my other project (I had vented to her about my frustration earlier). Apparently I can start interviewing whenever, she had a few women in mind and there would definitely be more as the summer wore on. I finally felt like I was accomplishing things and connecting with the projects and the MikonoYetu team.

And I finally had enough things to do to make a few to do lists. It felt so good to have tasks laid out in front of me.

Nuri and I took the dala dala back to town without incident, and were excited to have things to do and were looking forward to a quieter day on Wednesday (Maimuna told me I could work from home). We picked up some fruit for dinner and buckled down to get a few things done. I spent the rest of the night picking out courses for next year and engineering my academic schedule in preparation for course registration soon (another thing to knock off the to do list, which was awesome).

I had no motivation today (Wednesday). Nuri and I hung out in my room this morning (her fan is broken, which in this heat is a problem). I had windows opened up on my laptop, showing me all the things I should’ve been working on. I didn’t get much of it done. It wasn’t exactly a bad morning; I looked up a few more courses for next year, chatted with Nuri about fasting, sent off some emails, and ended up researching some graduate programs (ultimate stalling, grad school is in the further future for me). At quarter after 12:00, Samira texted me telling us to come downstairs. They were waiting. We had said that we’d go out and run some errands at noon. Nuri bought a phone to put her SIM card in, we took out money to pay rent for this month, and I stopped to speak with Hemal to confirm booking the venue.

Nothing special. Iris and I chatted about Mwanza feeling more familiar now, and how we’re definitely more comfortable with our surroundings. We passed by people that stared, spoke to us, remarked on our foreign-ness, or begged.

So when a couple of street kids badgered us on a busier street, I kept walking. But then they grabbed my arm.

I have resolved to not give anything to every single street kid out there. It breaks my heart to see them, but giving a few hundred shillings to a boy on the street is more likely to keep him on the street. I’m focusing my resources on more sustainable projects.

I help when I have food, or something in my pocket so taking money out won’t potentially put me in danger (I’m not about to go fishing for my wallet when surrounded by street kids). I try to be pleasant to these children, and not treat them like pests. I pray for them and hope that any small acts that I do commit have a positive impact on whomever I give to.

These two boys grabbed my arm and kept walking with me, though. I was surprised, but more surprised afterwards with how calm I was. I repeated “hapana” and “pole” (“no” and “sorry” in Swahili), and pulled my arm away gently every time they grasped it. A white arm. A part of a person that represents wealth and probably inequality.

I understand why it happened. If I’m honest, I’m surprised it took three and a half weeks for something like this to occur. But I don’t really want it to happen again.

The rest of the day passed pretty uneventfully. I stalled some more, did a bit of work, and have officially resolved to be more productive tomorrow.

This evening was the first evening of interviews for this coming year’s WHE fundraising and education executive committee. As one of the co-chairs for the committee, I’m putting the new team together along with my fellow co-chair, Nafisa. So come 5:45 pm, I made my way to the hallway where I know I get better wifi than in my room.

Of course the wifi wouldn’t connect.

I am very privileged to have fast and reliable internet access in Canada. I am very privileged to have internet access in Canada in general. I’m also very blessed to have internet access at the hostel. But when I have an interview scheduled for 6:00 (11:00 am Eastern Standard Time) and I can’t even tell Nafisa to go ahead with the interview because my laptop won’t reliably connect to the wifi, it’s a little trying. I missed the first two interviews. Nafisa was a champ and went ahead with them on schedule, filling me in later. Luckily Iris got a hefty data package for her phone a few weeks ago. I crashed in her room and leeched off of her phone hotspot for the next two interviews. I felt bad and owe Iris for helping me out, but amidst the frantic clicking to connect to the hostel’s wifi, I did have some time to reflect on something: pace.

I’m your typical firstborn, type A perfectionist. I like things done the right way (i.e. my way), preferably by me, and on schedule. I’m anxious and easily stressed.

So what am I doing in Mwanza?

I was told that the pace here is an adjustment. I’ve found that plans are never made more than a couple of days ahead of time (much to my chagrin). It’s perfectly acceptable to be late. It’s perfectly acceptable to stay longer than expected. You stop and talk with people, even if you’re late or have things to do. It’s awesome.

But sometimes I can’t stand it. Maybe because I’ve been socialized to prize efficiency and timeliness. Maybe because my independent brain likes to think that the little plans it makes are always the best plans. Maybe because I’m not used to this way of thinking.

Maybe because I’ve bought into the isolated, workaholic, often cut-throat way of thinking that our North American society reproduces. Sure our economy is more advanced, but would I have ever stopped and chatted with Jibraan, and in turn gotten in contact with the very person I needed to speak to that morning, in Canada?

Probably not. Things just fell into place, because I begrudgingly followed Samira and Nuri into the travel office when I wanted to keep going.

We’ll see what the rest of the week holds.


Confession: I’ve had songs from The Lion King stuck in my head all weekend.

When I told my grandmother that I was going to Tanzania for three months to work for an NGO that seeks to empower disenfranchised women and youth in their local context, she was definitely supportive and excited for me. But all she really had to say in terms of what I’d be doing there was that, if I can, I must go on a safari. When her and my grandpa went, they had loved it. I remember being a little put out; I was going to a foreign country to work, and my social scientist brain made sure that mantras about ethical volunteerism ran through my head on hyperdrive in the months before I boarded the plane.

Grandma (I know you read these): I’m sorry.

We went on safari.

The other girls and I still haven’t done a whole lot in terms of our projects (a mixture of “Tanzanian time” and also the four of us being spread across three projects), and all four of us are also a little tight financially. So we decided that a safari would be our splurge. Our vacation.

We planned four days and three nights, so we’d make it through the Serengeti and to the Ngorongoro Crater, and then back to Mwanza via the Serengeti again. We camped to cut costs. We badgered Jibraan, who owns the safari company we went with, for discounts and advice (he was very helpful). I wrestled with being pulled away from our search for venues and sponsors for the Mikono Yetu event, but reasoned with myself that it was really just a long weekend, and we haven’t gotten into a routine quite yet anyways. Best get it out of the way now.

We hit the road Friday morning. We just got back, mid-afternoon on Monday.

I wouldn’t trade those four days for the world.

The Serengeti is absolutely stunning. It’s about a two-hour drive south-east from Mwanza, and mostly grassland. We’re in Tanzania through the dry season, so it’s not as dry and dusty here as it could be (yet), but it’s still pretty dusty. The dirt roads through the national park are narrow and bumpy, some more trodden than others. Upon entering, I couldn’t get enough of the scenery. You can see forever in some places, it seems, the vast plains stretched out before us only interrupted by short trees and patches of wildebeests. It was so surreal that we were here.

A Canadian girl hanging out in the Serengeti.

After only a bit of driving after entering the park on the first day, we drove past a group of zebras and wildebeests. I made a fool of myself, shamelessly snapping picture after picture and breathing “animals” but I’m over caring about how I’m perceived at this point. We spent the rest of the afternoon of Friday driving around the park, slowly making our way to the campsite. We saw so many animals, shooed away so many flies, and I managed not to get sunburned.

I said I would cry when I saw an elephant. Not completely true, but also not completely false.

Henry, our stellar guide and driver, brought us to a body of water where we could see some hippos and crocodiles. While snapping pictures and trying to will the hippos out of the water so that we could see more than their ears, Henry mentioned that there were some elephants on the other side of the trees opposite to us. I think I stopped breathing for a moment. Sure enough, we could see two elephant heads peak out on the other side of the river, eating leaves. Camera zoomed in, I took as many pictures as I could, until someone poked my shoulder and motioned to our right. An elephant was making its way to the river. I was looking straight at a real life, wild elephant. I was so happy.

It was also apparently not a huge deal. We saw many elephants this weekend, all of which I was excited to see and count as new friends (“nakupenda, tembo”). We were on the road for the sunset, and then made our way to the campsite to sleep in tents, in the heart of the Serengeti. Crazy? Yes. Apparently the only danger was if we had food in our tents; hyenas are determined little things if they smell food. Every noise we heard that night was a hyena in my mind, but luckily we didn’t run into any unwanted visitors.

On Saturday, we all got up and went for a game drive at 6:00 am, in time to see the sunrise. It was so peaceful. We saw the first and only male lion, perched at the top of a rock gazing across the plain. It was times like these that I felt very happy to have a camera with me that took decent pictures even when zoomed in (thanks Rachel, I owe you one).

We then joined a crowd of safari cars grouped around a tree — and a couple of leopards. One was sitting in the tree, the other on the ground. This one walked so close to the car. Having so many people around, binoculars and cameras glued to their faces (we probably looked the same), kind of took away from the experience, though. It felt a little more akin to a zoo.

We ate breakfast and departed to the Ngorongoro Crater, one of the seven natural wonders of the world. It’s a wonder indeed. Going from the Serengeti to the highlands of Tanzania (populated by the Masai tribe) was fascinating. The crater itself was amazing to see, as we descended from thick greenery to the enclosed grassy plain. We saw flamingoes, wildebeests, zebras, a rhino (from very far away, that blob is a rhino I promise), and found ourselves in front of a group of female lions with their cubs (!!!). We then made our way back up to the camp site. The time limit for being inside the crater is six hours, so the camp sites are all on the rim of the crater.

That doesn’t mean we didn’t see animals after we left the crater.

Getting to the campsite, Iris, Nuri, Samira, and I buckled down in the safari car for a bit. Samira and I weren’t feeling well (we’re suspecting food poisoning, it wasn’t fun), and because of the altitude it was getting pretty chilly. There was a group gathered around the kitchen building taking pictures, we assumed of the scenery.

It wasn’t the scenery.

Two elephants plodded into our campsite. Iris and I ran out of the car, alternating taking pictures of each other with the elephants, showing how close they were. We were quickly told to get back; elephants can be fast if they want to be. As I write this I get excited all over again. If five-year-old me knew that in the future she’d have an elephant in her campsite, she’d go crazy.

21-year-old me went pretty crazy.

The next morning, after bundling up and getting a pretty good sleep (despite feeling sick and once again being worried about four-legged visitors), we had breakfast and then departed for our journey back through the Serengeti. During breakfast we were visited by another elephant; this time I took picture proof at a safer distance away.

We made it to the Serengeti at around noon, giving us plenty of time to find animals before setting up camp for another night. We saw lots of animals again. It was fantastic.

By this time I think Henry, our guide, had decided that despite our silliness we were pretty decent Canadian-folk. The fact that Samira speaks Swahili and Iris, Nuri, and I try to speak as much as possible probably worked in our favour. He answered all of our questions in detail, told us his favourite animal, and genuinely tried to show us as many animals as possible, as close as possible.

Henry is also the gutsiest person I now know.

After seeing a lioness stalking a group of zebras from afar (she was unsuccessful), Henry drove us past some hippos and onto a stretch of road that was more overgrown. He told us to be quieter. We found ourselves a couple of metres away from three lionesses. Out came the cameras. Out came Iris’s selfie stick. The lionesses were so majestic and big, lazing around in the sun. One got up and walked away. One got up and returned with her cubs. We were ecstatic. Henry started the car again as they walked away in a group. He went back to the road. Then he turned onto a different one, where we saw the same group of lions. He had followed them. The cubs looked back at us, bold and curious.

It was so neat.

We drove around more, looked around more, and ended at our campsite around 5:00 pm. The other girls and I hung out for a bit, ate dinner later than any of us wanted to, and headed to bed. I hardly slept; the tarp on our tent kept blowing in the wind and hitting the tent right beside where I was trying to sleep. We woke up, had breakfast, packed up, and hit the road one more time. On our way out, we saw giraffes, wildebeests, zebras, hyenas, birds, and a plethora of others. We hadn’t seen a cheetah yet, though. Cheetahs are Henry’s favourite animal.

Henry spoke with a few other safari drivers passing by. One of them had seen a cheetah a little ways from us. Once we got to where the cheetah reportedly was, the other safari car driver that was there told us that there were cheetahs, but they were laying down. We couldn’t see them. So Henry turned off the radio, told the other driver not to tell anyone else, and drove a little off the road.

The three cheetahs that were hiding got up. They looked so powerful and lean. We didn’t stick around; we snapped a few pictures and then left them in peace.

I’m tired and my face is a little sunburnt. There is a thin layer of dirt resting on my skin (I decided not to brave the showers). My fingernails look disgusting. And I’m pretty sure there’s elephant poop on my shoes.

I also feel really unprepared for this week in terms of work. I’m volunteering, and experiencing the “pole pole” kind of lifestyle in Tanzania (“pole pole” means “slowly,” and represents the way of thinking here pretty well). But I’m still struggling to fully justify taking four days off and away from work and internet access, only three weeks into our time in Mwanza. I’m a hard worker, and take pride in that. I’m also a hard worker that allows herself free time (although arguably not as frequently as I should). This should be okay. It is okay, according to our partners. I know Maimuna won’t care.

Maybe I’m just uneasy about work in general. It’s not about being MIA, it’s about how I still haven’t found my footing, and where my particular role falls. I can’t bring myself to consider our safari unjustified, I am very happy that we decided to go.

I had a blast on safari.

The Serengeti
Monkey in the Serengeti
More baboons
Zebras in the Serengeti
Impala in the Serengeti
The elephant across the river
Monkey fam
A giraffe in the Serengeti
New best friend
A giraffe friend
Sunrise in the Serengeti
A lion in the Serengeti
A leopard in the Serengeti
The leopard jumping down, it got pretty close to us
The view from the top of a trail we hiked
The Ngorongoro Crater
Zebras in the crater
I promise this is a rhino
A ostrich in the crater
A buffalo!
Some of the lions we saw in the crater
A couple more lions from the crater
Our other elephant visitor, this time in the morning
Me being awkward taking a photo in the Serengeti
We came across a bunch of zebras migrating in the Serengeti
They were in our way
The lioness trying to hunt – she was outnumbered
A hippo in the Serengeti
Our lioness friend
The other two lionesses we came across
This is how close we were
She brought her cubs!
Lions in the Serengeti
Following the lions
A monkey in the Serengeti
More giraffe friends
The cheetah we found on our last day

A typical development post

Are you really an IR student if you don’t post at least something about macro-level development in the place you find yourself in?

The answer, apparently, is no. You’re not. So here I go. (Sorry in advance.)

A post like this has been on my heart and in my mind for a while, I’ve just been feeding it over the almost-three-weeks that we’ve been here. I’ve been observing and listening. My social scientist senses have been tingling.

Our first weekend here, Mlola and Kato took us around town to look at different venue ideas for the Mikono Yetu event. Our first stop was the City Mall. It was big, modern-looking, and mostly empty. A Chinese building company has been working on it for about three years now, I’ve been informed. The rows and rows of vacant units are only interrupted by the odd clothing store (most of which looked like they held Indian-style clothing) or Asian phone shop. A supermarket took up a decent portion of the first floor.

We quickly ruled out City Mall as a candidate for our venue. It didn’t fit with the feel of our event, which will seek to celebrate African women and their natural beauty.

City Mall looks out of place. It looks like it shouldn’t be here. Maybe that’s because it shouldn’t be.

I remember walking through the mall, looking at all the unfinished, vacant units, and thinking about development. About the shortcomings of top-down strategies, specifically in African countries, that seek to bring these “underdeveloped” countries up to speed. About how these methods have failed time and time again.

Although I’m often a little more than a little overwhelmed at the marketplaces and by peddlers trying to catch my eye to sell me the various items they’re carrying around, I’ve been fascinated by the differentness in the work world here compared to in Canada. I’m having trouble articulating exactly what I mean by this. The people here start businesses left right and centre. Everyone has a shop. You either sell what you can or you don’t work, in many cases. Everyone is entrepreneurial out of necessity. I spoke with Samira about this about a week ago. I asked her if she noticed that in Mwanza the population was more business-minded (on a micro-level) and that the spirit of entrepreneurship was more alive here than in Canada. Her take on it made sense: people in Tanzania are resourceful. She found the same thing during her time in Madagascar, she told me. We then discussed how we in Canada still work hard, but we have many different work avenues to integrate into. We have life cut out for us, in the sense that our more developed economy can sustain and support us. We don’t have to go out onto the street and sell second-hand clothing from North America to put food on the table. We don’t have to sit on the side of the road with small grills, roasting corn for passersby.

I have a whole new perspective on the differences between developed, diverse economies and young, dysfunctional economies. It makes people resourceful, but it’s a little terrifying.

We ended up with company after having dinner for Iris’s birthday last night. We ran into Luqman and Collin at the Tilapia Hotel, and they joined us for cake. We met both at the pool party last weekend; the party was at Collin’s house. Naturally, the conversation slid to our upcoming safari (WE LEAVE TOMORROW), and then to Tanzania as a whole.

Collin owns a safari business and a car garage. Luqman has a foot in a couple of businesses, and I think he is a partner in a safari company (note: this guy is my age). Both are definitely in the wealthier tier of Mwanza. It was interesting getting their perspective.

Collin shared with us how business in Mwanza always goes terribly. Good restaurants and shops have closed down soon after opening. Tourism businesses never do as well as in Arusha or Dar es Salaam. Chinese businesses can easily push local businesses back or put them under entirely with competitive pricing.

Naturally, I wanted to know why. I pressed for answers, and mumbled my own theories and observations.

Apparently the issue is the people.

Buying things in Dar or out of the country symbolizes status. People are stingy with money and the only tourists that actually spend money are from Asia. I kept pressing for more of an explanation, and both of our guests insisted it was something wrong with the people in Mwanza.

Why is it that such a big, beautiful, growing city can’t hold onto larger restaurants and can’t fill units in a mall?

And why am I investing my time in microbusiness plans and in empowering women through education and business if this is the case in Mwanza? I wasn’t exactly questioning my presence here. I was just bemoaning the prospects of those that I would be interacting with. What did they have to look forward to?

While journaling through some of these ideas last night after getting home, I realized that the answer came later on in that same conversation at the Tilapia. I just didn’t really notice it then.

Collin and I ended up discussing the informal market. He said about 70 percent of the economy in Mwanza is in the informal market. I said that it was probably closer to 80 or 85 percent, and he didn’t disagree. The informal market is made up of any form of economic activity that is unregistered, unlicensed, unregulated. It’s shops on the side of the road, people selling things in stalls in the market, peddlers walking through the streets with a pile of men’s pants thrown over their shoulders.

Basically everywhere in Mwanza is informal economic activity.

Either Nuri or Iris asked Collin if he was part of the informal market. His way of answering was laughing and stating that he paid his taxes. His frustration with Mwanza and its failed economy was rooted in his business experience.

The formal sector is struggling and is mostly fed by the ex-pat community and tourist populations.

The informal market continues to flourish, unregulated and chaotic.

Some of my professors would likely cringe, but I think this is totally fine. Informal markets eventually turn into more sophisticated markets. History has shown that they do, time and time again.

I’m seeing organic development in action. I’m seeing a young economy grow. It will take time, but I’m all for leaving it be. It’s impossible to totally get rid of big business, and larger businesses should be welcomed (although responsibly welcomed). Tourism-based industries are neat if they contribute to the economy and benefit locals. You can’t really keep developers out, but Mwanza doesn’t need them to survive.

And the issue isn’t the people. The issue is how we look at it.

Globalisation is inevitable, and there will always be international influences (whether they be corporate or governmental). But the real issue is the standards that we hold developing countries to.

We think that if a city can fill a mall with stores, then it’s economy is sustainable. We think that if there are restaurants, hotels, regulated stores, and a strong consumer base, that a country is good to go.

Westerners are really good at thinking that if something is familiar, then it’s good.

All I’m really trying to say in this long, dry, rambly post is that seeing development in action is something I never thought it would be.

It’s 100 times cooler than I ever expected.