Shedding Layers in Tanzania

by Brandon Blache-Cohen

This guest post comes from Professor Joseph Miller. Originally intended to debrief the recent Amizade spring semester study abroad course to Karagwe, Tanzania, it’s simply far too interesting not to share with the world.

Amizade’s Spring ’11 Semester in Tanzania has come to an end, and so has my first foray at teaching an international program, 10 years after I studied abroad myself in Tanzania. My learning these passed three months trebles that of my own experience of a decade ago, for one particular reason: witnessing the shedding oflayers. I prefer this metaphor to others that frequent the discourse of international education. Descriptors of experience, such as those found in the “industry literature” (transformative, life changing, eye-opening) or those loaded terms used between roommates upon return (amazing, awesome, incredible), fail to capture why studying in a developing country can shake you to your core and send you swinging between the extremes of discomfort and elation. That volumes have been written on this topic by people more articulate than myself, from Dewey to Freire to Guevara, shows perhaps that a simple metaphor can only go so far. But, as I reflect on the past semester, layers were shed.

Reading about colonialism, political economy, and the disturbing history of development is one way to challenge your perspective. Combining this theory with the action of living with marginalized, disempowered people goes a step further,and you begin to lose these protective layers, the layers that insulate you from the world, from the harsh reality that all of human experience is not like yours. My students began to question the very concept of universal good, and whether their situation of relative wealth was more correct or more natural than the lives of Tanzanians. Through working with local people, through challenging the false stereotypes of Africans as poor and therefore helpless, my students began to understand that, through their experience, materialism is not the answer to poverty,and that perhaps the lived experiences of Tanzanians are a pedagogy in themselves, imparting lessons exported to the States through my students on the superficiality of materialism and the value of friends, family, land, and hands. Through this, they shed protective layers, and began to let go of the idea that middle-class life in the U.S. is the one true apex where everyone should be heading.

The goal and the beauty of our experience here in Karagwe is that, once that first layer is sloughed off, a thirst for experiences continues to grow. From an overnight stay at a local hospital to that one conversation with an elder whose simple purityof understanding life sends shivers down the spine, a realization begins to take root: that all of reality as you know it hinges on your perspective and the shedding of your layers is a process of questioning that perspective and learning to value others.

Three of my five students remained in Tanzania for three weeks beyond the program. I met them serendipitously in Zanzibar, on their last night in country, and they said they were nervous to come home. I believe this is due to the metaphor at hand, as they are scared to know how the shedding of layers will affect their lives at home, how they re-enter a place where materialism rules the day, and consumerism justifies work and life. They told stories of their three weeks drawing on their previous experiences in Karagwe, getting from one place to another in the back of lorries, meeting dance troupes who they cheered on in competition before visiting their homes and families, and speaking Kiswahili in a way that draws smiles and pride from people who have been conditioned to think of their own language as backwards. And, as they told me of their nervousness to go home, their fear that no one around them will understand, that no one had shed the layers they had, I learned in this moment of story-telling that not only are layers shed, but they are grown, and that these students learned more than I or themselves could articulate. The real growing of new layers, however, has only just begun as they come home, learn to articulate their experiences and deal with some who lack the capacity to understand them, and, perhaps most importantly, learn to keep challenging their perspectives, shedding those insulating layers, and growing new ones as they continue to draw on their Tanzanian experiences in an effort to transform their own communities into more equitable and sustainable homes.