STEP Reflection- HIV in Context: Iringa, Tanzania

1. While completing my STEP Signature Project I traveled to the region and major town of Iringa in south central Tanzania. I completed a one month study-abroad program that focused on HIV in the context of Iringa- we learned about the history of the country and it’s influence on HIV, as well as the science behind it by participating in both in-class as well as experiential learning.

2. Traveling to a place half-way around the world, and one with a completely different culture than what I was previously used to left me in an originally uneasy place. I was unfamiliar with the language, Swahili (I didn’t even know how to introduce myself), unsure of how to act in a culturally-appropriate way, and was a little in shock of the cultural adjustment I had to make. I thought I had adequately prepared myself for living in a new country, but when I actually had to, I learned that my preparation would have never sufficed. I wasn’t prepared to feel as alone as I did when I first arrived there- I figured that being surrounded by the same core group of people each day would even make me sick of social interaction. This was far from the case, and the feeling of this loneliness was one that was on the back burner for the beginning of the trip.

I also wasn’t prepared for what I experienced. You hear about the stereotypical depiction of places in Africa, ravaged by disease and corrupt systems. In some areas, yes, this can be found. But what is more noticeable is a way of life that has been heavily cornered and changed by Western idealizations. In some ways foreign funding has completely overrun local environment, with most infrastructure and medical developments being completed by the United States or other developed countries. But in other ways the cultural and social aspects of Tanzania have persisted. With that, comes the harsh realities of the wealth disparities between developing countries and the West, which became more apparent as we traveled within more rural locations. It was hard to rationalize, and at times uncomfortable to think about, but was also something that became more apparent as my time in Iringa grew.

3. When the orientation sessions first began for my study abroad trip, our professors brought up things like “bucket showers” and “long skirts.” It went over my head completely. As I had once thought the bucket showers, ones in which you fill a literal bucket with water, use an external heating coil to warm the water, and then use a scooping cup to pour the water over yourself, were just used in times when the power went out. I thought that the dress code being “no pants, and skirts/dresses below the knee” was more of a suggestion. It wasn’t until I stepped off the bus after a long ride from Dar es Salaam to Iringa that I realized I was in for a shock. The dress code was extremely serious, and considering that our group of students were the only Caucasians on the campus, you didn’t want to stick out more because of wearing something inappropriate. The bucket showers were an all-the-time thing, rather than just being employed when the power went out (which, to my knowledge, never happened).

I think a huge reason why I felt the loneliness that I did was because of my unfamiliarity with the culture I was suddenly immersed in. The comforts of home, even being able to walk down the street and greet people as they passed were unavailable, as my Swahili lessons didn’t start for a few days. I also think that the daily interactions with the other students made me feel like this. I was never discluded, in fact the amount of time everyone spent together was a little overwhelming at first. It was hard because I was struggling with my surroundings, but didn’t know how other people were feeling, and didn’t want to complain for fear of their own feelings differing. Instead, I kept it to myself, and tried to be as social as possible. The feeling of loneliness only abated once I was alone myself, at a cafe we frequented for lunch. I just sat a table overlooking the mountain, and began to write in my journal. It was this huge feeling of relief to be alone for the first time in over a week.

I didn’t go into my study-abroad program blind- I was aware of the impact of foreign funding in Tanzania. I didn’t, however, realize just how noticeable it was. It was shocking to see how deeply the commitment to funding USAID and PEPFAR ran, and how affected the country would be if it was removed. In light of recent political change, this was a particularly sensitive topic to approach, as the continuation of the funding is still under review. For a weekend of our trip we visited Kilolo, a rural district outside of Iringa Town. While there we resided at an Austrian NGO, which funded an educational and vocational training program for AIDS orphans. Part of the trip included a visit to a dispensary, which served not only the local community, but also people from around 50 kilometers away. The dispensary was largely funded through USAID, and all of their medications were donated by PEPFAR. When the doctor giving the tour was asked what would happen in the case that the funding for ARVs is cut, he just stated, 5 times, in both Swahili and English, that “many people will die.” The reality of this is severe and can be overwhelming to think about, but it is one that is necessary to discuss.

On our final day in Iringa we visited an HIV Support Group- it was easily one the most emotional and moving experiences of the month spent there. The group was composed of 20 members, all who were HIV positive. The membership fee was a monthly sum of 2,000 Tanzanian Shillings, which is the equivalent of $1 USD. The money was pooled together and then donated to a person in the group who could use it for medication or transportation to health care. However, within the group there were 15 active members. The five that weren’t active weren’t because they couldn’t afford the 2,000tsh. The reality of not being able afford $1 in a month was heartbreaking, and as cliche as it sounds, really opened my eyes to the wealth disparity that third-world countries face as a daily realities.

4. I had never thought of myself as being a politically active person, or even one who was interested in it prior to this trip. I think that realizing the impact that our foreign policies and funding has on other countries was extremely significant, and was something that I can foresee myself having a future in. I also think that by experiencing more, and immersing myself in a country with a culture unlike what I was used to, I was able to have a different perspective of how these changes affected my own life. The experiential learning portion was a huge part of this; we were forced to have hands on experiences that let us with lasting impressions discussed the following day in classes, both to dissect and share these feelings. This social change connected with a more personal one for me, as they both furthered my knowledge and understanding, but also my willingness to get involved.

 

A view of the sunset from Ruaha National Park in Iringa Region (South Central Tanzania).

 

A view of the old house of Tanzania Chief Mkwawa who defeated the German colonial officers in 1891, and the tree of Miracles (Kalenga Town).