Leaving Tanzania: Katy Merckel

by Amizade Global Service-Learning

This past spring, Katy Merckel and Becky Gailey– both Boren Scholars and seniors at the University of Nebraska- traveled to Amizade’s site in Tanzania to spend 14 weeks serving and learning with our community partners in Karagwe, Tanzania.  Each of them shared with us their reflections on their experience in Tanzania and their final thoughts as they say goodbye to their new friends and family in Karagwe.

Tanzania landscapeThe problem with travelling is that in the end, you are always just a visitor and you must go home. The world may be small, but a lot of places are pretty far away. This is the reality I am currently confronting, and if I thought about it too hard, I would probably not be able to take another step towards the door. I came here not knowing what to expect. I had already seen rural Tanzania, so that was no real surprise, but I had also spent three months in Zanzibar and made almost no lasting friendships. It wasn’t hard to leave Zanzibar. But here is different story. I don’t want to leave. I look around me and see how much more there is to do, how many more people there are to build and strengthen friendships with, how much there is still to learn. Up until my last day here, I will be meeting new people and learning new Swahili vocabulary. The more I say goodbye to people, the more I see that the structure of this society wasn’t built for people to leave. Besides having no solid word for “goodbye for a long time” the family is fundamentally integrated into the culture. Every woman is called mama or bibi, grandmother, every man called bwana, husband, every girl is called dada, sister, and every boy is called kaka, brother. By your very existence here you are part of a family; and family is everything. Your family is your identity, whether it is through marriage, childbirth, or death, when your family changes, you change. When someone in your family leaves to go somewhere you have never seen and you don’t know who is waiting for them there, you are not happy about it. Maybe yes, they do have wazazi, parents there, but now they are here and they are in your family and why do they want to leave?

This is the predicament I now find myself in. I have been here too long to even think I may be forgotten. I have heard so many stories of every visitor that has come before me, seen their pictures, so much so that when someone asks me if I know them, I almost have to say yes. Oh yes, Stephanie, Paul, Giselle, John, and so many more, you are not forgotten, and like the strange way a person who dies continues to live in the stories of others, your influence is still felt here. I know that I too, will join these ranks in the next week, as I leave behind photos and notes, my email address and Facebook name. I will become that lost sister, who had to leave. And when I say lost, I mean that… a common greeting to a person you haven’t seen in a long time (anything more than four days) is “Umepotea wapi?” or “Where were you lost?” But no, Tanzania, I don’t want to be lost! This place, it could be home, at least for a while. If I had a solid project here, if I was working every day to better this place, I could be happy here.

Maybe we like this place in the way that we do and as much as we do only because we know we can leave. The people here, I know many of them are for the most part happy, but their big family- inclusive of everyone-is something of a survival strategy. There is no denying that life is hard here. Everyone gets by, and day-by-day they are okay, but there is no luxury for planning the future, you are too worried about today. Get through today, get through tomorrow, someday our country will be strong. How is it that one continent can be the second largest land mass in the world, by physical might it could dominate, but the societal structure just couldn’t hold up to those from outside who wanted to change it, who saw it was different, and with one hand pulled them towards modernization, with the other hand crushed the traditional ways, and with both hands stole everything in reach? Everyone is quaking in the wake of this subtle (and often not-so-subtle) attack, and today it is still happening under so many different guises.

There is a stigma in the global North that referring to anywhere on this continent as “Africa” is so politically incorrect, that it is narrow minded and you have to realize that Africa is countries too, with their own cultures and languages just like Europe! That, for the most part, couldn’t be more wrong. Africa as a collection of independent countries is only a thing of the past fifty years, and these countries aren’t even of their own making. Before some (*cough* “western”) cultures grew in a different direction than here and decided they wanted everyone to grow like they did (I’m not even talking about German and English colonization, the Portuguese were already in Zanzibar in the 1400’s) what was here? People, living. Before there were roads there were networks of footpaths meshing the continent, tribes were the associative, and you maybe never went farther than a few days walk from your homestead. And that was Africa. So many languages, but everyone understood where the other was living and they were their own.

More than one person has told me they think of themselves as an African before they think of themselves as a Tanzanian, or even as a member of the tribe whose language they speak. With the introduction of transport, intermarriage and tribal mixing has become common, so now only the generation of mabibi (grandmothers) can claim a pure tribal association. (And only for some of them is it true… the others claim it because they’re bibis and they can do whatever they want.) Now these countries exist for the purpose of internationally recognized governance. By the late 1960’s all tribal leadership and chiefdom had been abolished, and the Wanyambo suddenly found themselves being Watanzania. It’s well established and understood that Africa must build itself, but so much of what it needs to do so is standing on a foundation designed to help a select few and oppress the rest, and that hasn’t changed. How can anyone make real change in their country when they can’t get an education past the tenth grade? Globalization is a real thing, and there is no denying that North America and Europe are the leaders of the day. I will not argue ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ because there is no answer, only the way that it is. And that is this: if you want a place in the future, you need an education. You need to have a high school diploma, and to be able to read and write at least one language. It also helps if you can use a computer. And right now, that education is being denied to a lot of people, and maybe they are pissed off, but without an education, what can they do? North America and Europe have a functioning, successful educational system. Debate that if you will, you who are sitting there reading this. You almost certainly finished high school, and most likely have at least one college degree. An assumption like that here would be absurd. And that’s a problem.

I came here to volunteer with MAVUNO. In the beginning I was frustrated because I was being told so little, and so much was expected of me. Plan this, write a report on that, tell us what you need! I just wanted to explode, “I don’t know how to do any of this! I’ve only lived here three weeks, I can’t plan my own travel schedule for interviewing farmers!” But now I realize, with only a Bachelor of Science degree, I have surpassed so many in my level of education. Despite what I think I do and do not know, I know a lot more than a lot of people here. In the end, I presented to over 100 farmers the basics of nutrition. The biggest thing I think they took away from the presentation was that it is important for kids to eat vegetables, and the darker the color, the more nutrients it has. If no one has ever told you spinach is better for you than potatoes, and potatoes are cheaper, why would you ever buy spinach instead of potatoes? My co-worker, Hashim, did his portion of the seminar on types of vegetables (such as roots, leaves, seeds, things like this) and actually wrote it directly from what he had memorized in college (a step below university here) and then asked me to put it in PowerPoint for him. Your education is what you know here, there is no Googling to find answers to your questions, or recreational reading to learn about new topics. In a way, this is my justification for why I am here. For the most part, I know in my heart that the best thing for Africa is that we all just get the hell out of it’s way. But in many ways, it’s not there yet. We can’t do the ‘developing’ for it. That has been tried, and the bruises are still felt today. But what we can do is “kutia moyo,” to give heart. Sometimes you don’t even know you can do something until someone tells you that you can. A “donor-dependent” mindset is what the government of Tanzania calls it. Good that they recognize it, but where is the counter-action of a “self-dependent” mindset? That’s the goal now. Build citizens who can build themselves and in turn, build their country and their continent. I want to see Africa live like it should.

I hear the ideas of my friends still in high school here, and I am terrified for them. I am practically paralyzed with fear that the system will flush them out. About a week ago, we met with a friend we haven’t seen in awhile. When we first met him three months ago, he was waiting for the results of his Form 4 (approx. tenth grade) national exam. I won’t go into details, but this test determines if students will be able to continue going to school on the government’s bill, minus the school ‘fees’ that they will still be required to pay, at state schools. Private schools are much better but much more expensive. When we asked him what he wanted to do, our friend said he knew it would be difficult but he really wanted to be a doctor so he could come back and help the wazee, elders. The next month we learned he was one of six out of forty kids at this government school that passed the test. Unfortunately, they don’t have classes above the Form 4 level in his town; he would have to go to a boarding school somewhere else in order to continue his schooling, which is considerably more expensive. He came back to visit us last week. He is now working selling food at the Ugandan border. My good friend Fahim is in a similar predicament. He will be taking the Form 4 test this coming year, and realizes the total unfairness of his government failing to provide him a decent education. He said one day, “I have to do a titration for the practical section of the Chemistry test. I have been in the lab once. Once. I have done ONE titration in my life and I’ll be expected to do one perfectly in order to pass this test. What am I even supposed to do?”

I hope I’ll have an answer soon, although it will too late to help him. Becky and I have been plotting and planning, and big things are afoot. This is my justification for being here. I believe that Tanzania can help itself. The problem is that it’s not. Something, many things, are just not working. And somebody needs to take care of these kids until they can take care of themselves. This is my family, they are my kaka and my dada and I love them. My heart hurts so bad to leave, but I know with certainty that there is exactly enough time in the world to do everything you truly want to do.