Before coming to Tanzania, I had a lot of questions about a lot of things, and so did most of my family and friends considering I had never traveled to Africa before and the longest I had ever been outside the U.S. was two weeks. One of the most common questions I was asked before coming was, “So, it’s a whole semester… you’re going with someone you know, right? Who else is going with you?” Each time I would sheepishly smile, shrug my shoulders, and say, “Actually… I don’t know anyone in my program yet. I mean of course I’ve stalked all their Facebooks, but looks are deceiving, right!” I’d nervously laugh as they would too, trying to hide their concern.
I’ve been in Tanzania for about a month and I can honestly say that leaping out of the Hope College bubble (just for a short time, I still love you Hope!) and coming here “alone” has been one of the best decisions I have ever made. The reason is simple: I am the furthest thing from alone here.
To begin, Tanzania has a VERY welcoming and friendly culture. Tanzanians are always greeting and yelling to one another on the streets. They highly value relationships with family and friends. Relationships are much more valued than productivity, assignments, and being on time… which personally is something I can get used to!! Tanzanians are incredibly hospitable, especially to foreigners like us. This often looks like home-cooked meals and incredible patience with our Swahili. They are so curious as to why we’re here and many are really excited to welcome us into their country. If you simply say hello, or “mambo!” most people will engage in conversation with you… even if it’s just fumbling back and forth between weak Swahili on our end and weak English on their end…we do the best we can!
While it’s awesome meeting Tanzanians, most of my time is spent with the 8 other people in my program. I just met these people about a month ago, but let me say it again: I am the furthest thing from alone here. As a group we have bonded and grown so close, and while there are many reasons for this, here’s what I think is the biggest contributor: our differences.
Among the 9 of us, we can cover almost all areas of the U.S. (and even a couple countries outside of the U.S.!) regarding where we’ve grown up and where we’ve chosen to go to college. We’re coming from the East Coast, the West Coast, the South, and the good ole Midwest; from cities, suburbs, and rural fields. We come from huge state schools like Indiana University and small private schools even smaller than Hope, like Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. We’ve grown up wealthy and we’ve grown up with financial struggles. We have tight-knit, together families and we have divorced and separated families. We have very differing political views and aren’t afraid to be vocal about them. Some of us are heterosexual and some of us are homosexual. We have differing religions- some of us are Christian, some of us are atheist, some of us are Jewish, some of us identify as spiritual. We have different passions, different hobbies, and came to Tanzania for a lot of different reasons.
You’d think with all these differences we’d be scratching at one another’s throats every day, and I’ll admit, I know there are times when we are tempted to. But what unites us and keeps us united is the unanimous respect for our differences and genuine interest in them. Personally, I have never been surrounded by so many people so different from myself and I’m learning SO much from it and find it so exciting. Because of all of these differences and our willingness to be open about them, I feel like I have 8 other sets of eyes to see the world through, which is an incredibly refreshing gift. Our community is stronger for it.
Differences aside, there’s so much we all have in common, too- from things as simple seeing how much white rice we can eat in one sitting and contracting weird illnesses that force us to talk about all of our bodily functions, to things as complex as learning a whole new culture and language as we adjust to an entirely new way of life. We recognize that this is new for all of us, and a lot of it’s not easy. Because we recognize this, I get to see and experience empathy and grace abound among us every single day. We all left our homes, hopped on planes with our baggage full of stories of triumphs and tears, and day by day we help one another unpack them, welcoming every belief, every pain, and every love into the new life we are building together. We’re all in this together, far from home but never alone.