Most people who've never been in Africa, especially Tanzania, East Africa, can't fathom how different my life is now. Much to the amusement (and amazement) of my American family and friends, I must wear ankle-length skirts with tops, or long dresses at work all of the time to show respect for the culture. I'm incredibly grateful that the only mirror available to me in my room must have been installed by a Masai warrior (they are extremely tall) so it's never necessary for me to catch a full view of me in my traditional African wardrobe. In fact, the other day, I discovered I must REALLY need a haircut because I can now see the top of my overgrown head!!! I have, (unfortunately) seen a few pictures of me that others have taken and feel that these long skirts and loose tops make me appear as if I've gained about 50 pounds. But since the "fashion police" are seldom out, I'll probably survive! After work, and often on weekends, I DO wear slacks but always wear African tops and some African jewelry with them.
So many things are different here, it's hard to know where to start. I will admit that the nicest thing anyone's said to me recently is that I act more and more like a Tanzanian, and NOT like a Mezungo (American, or white person). I will even admit that my dreams have become African and in Swahili although I still struggle with the language. My "advanced age" (I'm considered elderly here) is often used to my advantage, so I'm not stupid when I don't know the right word -- I'm just old!
All restaurants have hand-washing stations in the main areas because few people use silverware (only the right hand is appropriate to eat with). I luckily found a tiny (safe) restaurant in our village that serves an African version of a "burger" that has little meat, but is served with grilled cucumber, onions, tomatoes, bell peppers, and carrots. Mustard is NOT available. Instead a very runny tomato sauce, or in the traditional yellow plastic squeeze bottle, a VERY hot tomato sauce! The burger is always served with grilled carrots and green beans, and sometimes an African version of chips (French fries). By the way, NO drink is refrigerated (I haven't had ice since May), so if you wish your Fanta (soda) or beer cold, this has to be a special order! Since I've been eating almost all vegetarian meals at home, there are really few things I miss. For you sweet eaters, sorry, unless it's a birthday, the only dessert is fresh fruit! I mentioned to a lady I know who runs a foundation, that there are only two things I REALLY miss. One is a light bulb that actually isn't DIM (when we have electricity) and the other is CHEESE. A few days later, I received an awesome gift -- a small chunk of cheddar cheese delivered by one of our drivers. It wasn't exactly "Vermont aged," but I was thrilled (and the head cook is hiding it for me to be shared ONLY with two close friends).
Public toilets (like those in restaurants) are definitely NOT made for osteoarthritis patients like me. There seems to be no such thing as handrails to hold onto, and toilets are called "squatters" for obvious reasons (so I've learned to monitor my liquid intake before leaving home!!) Many African friends have invited me to their homes for Chai (tea), or Chakula (a meal). Such an invitation in the U.S. would be ONLY for the invited; however, in Africa, the host considers it a MAJOR compliment if the guest brings along a minimum of at least one ore two surprise guests. The invited is expected to bring a small gift of a kilo of sugar, flour, or cooking oil. Definitely NOT flowers or a plant because to do so is wishing bad luck on the family. By the way, when receiving an invitation, it's vital to ask if it's for Mazunga time or Tanzanian, because there IS a difference of several hours!
Family "structure" is much different from that in America. A "family" is very loosely made up of anyone living in the same house, which could include mother, poppa, kids, cousins, grandkids, etc. and a wide variety of friends. I asked a very sweet Tanzanian lady I know if she had any idea how many people lived at her house. She just laughed heartily and hugged me! I've been asked to continue to live in Africa by many friends. When I replied that I had nowhere to live, I had immediate offers from at least 6 people and the Warden at the prison where I teach offered to build me a house on his extra land! When I asked "What would I eat?", I immediately received similar replies! When I said "I would have no money," it was quiet (briefly) and then, in true Tanzanian fashion, all said THAT could be worked out!!! These ARE interesting ideas, but I AM realistic and don't think I'd actually follow through!
Most houses have heavy painted wrought iron gates, window coverings, and doors outside the "normal" ones. Shoes are customarily left on the porch outside the door primarily due to rain and mud and also to show visitors you are home and visitors are welcome. Slippers of a wide variety are worn inside all houses.
When you want to ask someone a question, it is customary to ask how the person is, how they slept last night, how are the kids, etc. BEFORE getting to the real question!!! No one is EVER in a hurry -- in fact Tanzanians probably even slow down the birth of a baby!!!
I was just offered a FREE ride back to my Homebase, so will continue this epic at a later date...
I STILL know I'm where I need to be---I AM making a positive difference in someone's life
Mama Pati (1 of the Tanzanian names for me)
Published On: August 01, 2008