The Sustainable and Resilient Tanzanian Communities (SRTC) study abroad is part of a larger, international partnership known as Maji Marwa (Water for Marwa). Maji Marwa is a multi-year collaboration between Ohio State, the University of Dodoma, Kilimanjaro Hope Organization, and Marwa Village. The project aims to bring clean, potable water into Marwa Village and to improve enterprise, education, gender equality, and public health. As a member of the Women’s Enterprise and Education team, I was studying the lives of women and girls, the challenges they face, and the hopes they have for Maji Marwa. My team met with the women’s groups and school children to conduct interviews. By visiting fields, homes, schools, and markets, we saw and heard about the barriers to economic advancement and education, as well as hopes and plans this village had for the future.
After this experience, working in the rural village, visiting tourist attractions, traveling as an American in East Africa, my understanding of developing countries and the development process has evolved. I purposely don’t say that my understanding has changed. Prior international travel and my personal interest and research into colonial and race relations helped me develop a level of awareness that not all my peers entering this experience had. However, being in country challenged me 24/7. There was never a moment in Tanzania when I was not thinking about of my skin color, my economic status, my citizenship, and my education level. Being hyperaware of your identity and how it is different than those around you is exhausting and uncomfortable. However, the realization of my privileges, the insight into being a minority, has been eye opening and will serve as a reminder to be thankful.
Despite the differences, there was much beauty to be found in the sameness. Difference does not have to be difficulty. I didn’t need to understand their language, history, or culture perfectly. They didn’t need to understand mine perfectly. We were still able to connect over our shared humanity. You can find connection in a song who’s words you cannot sing, a dance who’s steps you will mess up, or a hand who’s work is very different than your own. Together with the people of Marwa we had on mutual respect and common purpose. Everyone had something to contribute, everyone had the same goal. We all want a brighter, healthier, prosperous future. I want the same opportunities and utilities for the children of Marwa as I would want for my own children. By working with each other day after day, proving our commitment to this goal, we found the common thread that outshone the differences.
There was a moment in Njakitai, a subvillage of Marwa, that made me so aware of my status (race, citizenship, education, etc) that it almost shut me down. Our faculty advisor, Mary McLaughlin, who spoke fluent Swahili, and had met with the women a few times already, was not with us. Six white, American, college students showed up in this very small, traditional sub-village. We were treated like honored guests, given food and milk, we waited and waited (as one does on ‘African time’) to begin our meeting, and by the time we did, found we had most of our answers. We looked out at these women who had hours out of their day, hours that would have been spent gathering water, fire wood, or food, who prepared food and tea for us. We looked at them, and basically said, well we got all that we need and we leave in 30 minutes, do you have any questions for us? And we sat there in awkward silence, while our question was translated through three languages, and then as their question was translated back across three languages. By the time the mama’s (woman’s) question made it to us, it was:
“What are you going to bring to us in Marwa?”
And all six white, American, college students’ minds went blank. We knew what we should say, we knew that we were here to gather information to pass onto the professors and KiHo (a local non-profit), to help the women get education and better access to materials and markets.
But when these women are staring at you, waiting for a response, after giving so much to you so selflessly, nothing we could have said would have sufficed. ‘Information gathering’ didn’t feel substantial enough to justify their hospitality. I felt like a sleazy politician, skirting a direct question, and not doing it well. Who was I to receive all this praise and attention? I certainly don’t have the credentials or the resources to be the solution to their challenges.
We did the best we could in an awkward situation. The villagers know that it is a slow process, that we were there for a short time, and that we were helping KiHo to help them. I was likely the one uncomfortable, not the villagers. It was a effective reminder that, yes, we are guests and being treated really well, and people are excited that we are here, but we go back to the US, and the people of Marwa go back to having very difficult lives. This is not a vacation. We may be celebrating, but there is much work to be done.
My all time favorite memory of Marwa, coincidently, happened that same day. After leaving Njackitai and returning to the Marwa Village town center, we were waiting for the other OSU students to return. While we waited, we sat with a group of mamas (women), who we saw every day. While I didn’t know their names, or how to ask them, we ate lunch together daily, and rode in the same van. When the mamas saw that we were playing Last Card, a popular Tanzania card game, they asked to join. I dealt them in. We were using a Harry Potter deck. Their reaction when they picked up the cards and saw the characters was priceless. They thought the cards were hysterical. I will never forget the one mama show a Mad Eye Moody card to her friend and both nearly fall out of their chairs. It was a light-hearted moment that I think illustrates not needing language to build relationships.
I am beyond thankful to have experienced Tanzania in this way. I am reassured in my goal of joining the Peace Corps. This experience has been a bit of a test run, and I believe I will be able to draw from it when applying, and hopefully serving. I have a better understanding of what it means to serve others, especially those very different than yourself. I will draw on this throughout my career as a public servant, trying to help those who need it most.
Visiting the village, the schools, the women’s groups, taking part in ceremonies and celebrations, it was truly once in a lifetime. Even if I return to Tanzania, next year, every year, in twenty years, I will not see a Maasai coming of age ceremony or be served milk in someone’s boma (home). I will not have amazing drivers and guides to teach me about Tanzanian wildlife, culture, and politics. I will not have the University of Dodoma students to learn with me. In two short weeks, we created close friendships with the UDom students. We formed short, but genuine connections with the people of Marwa villages. Finally, I have built amazing friendships with my fellow OSU students. We grew together and support each other through the challenges and celebrations of this trip. I know that our relationship, based off of this shared work and common goal, will provide a network of support in the future.
Meeting with the Njackitai women’s group and learning about supplemental income projects
Visiting the primary school in Lesirwai sub-village
Dressed up for the Maasai Moran (Warrior) Ceremony