For my STEP project I participated in a study abroad in Tanzania. With my group, a solar system was installed at an orphanage. We also went on several cultural excursions.
After my trip to Tanzania, I finally understood what developing countries sometimes look like. Obviously, I’ve only been to one area in one country, but before I had never left America, so this was eye opening. What I think was my biggest revelation was that we are all just people. At the core, we are all the same and should treat each other with respect. I have also found that I am now more aware of race relations in the United States, and generally how different groups of people have been oppressed in history and how that has shaped our current world, which is still full of oppression. I also found that sometimes the best and most important opportunities are unplanned.
When we were in Tanzania, everyone greeted everyone. There was a girl who stayed at the house we also stayed in, and she had dreams and concerns just like anyone else. She goes to advanced secondary school and wants to continue her education, but is concerned she won’t be able to for monetary reasons. I met an electrical engineering student; he wants to open his own solar shop, and has concerns about the state of the environment like me. Moses, one of our guides, brought us into his parents’ home and they welcomed us, strangers, as if we were old friends. When we were in Tanzania, people didn’t really treat us like strangers, more like friends. I think that’s closer to the way we should be acting as a whole world. Not everyone needs to be friends, but there should be a mutual respect between people.
Race and Oppression was a topic that came up a few times. I was asked if the police brutality in America was real. Moses had seen that on the news, but was not sure if it was “fake news.” He was appalled to learn it was real; it was a difficult conversation to have. I later had an even more difficult conversation. A man, Jacob, was asking why the African Americans he had met while he was in Ohio seemed hostile towards him. I tried to explain that in America, there are racial tensions that linger from slavery. But slavery wasn’t the only time black people experienced systemic racism, it is still going on today. What made this conversation difficult for me is that he said something to the extent of: that was over 100 years ago, they should get over it. This was very unnerving to me; I tried explaining that black schools are underfunded, neighborhoods are segregated, etc. But I don’t think he understood because his position did not change. Jacob is a wonderful man, and has a lot of love in his heart, but because he has not had much exposure to racism in America, I don’t think he could truly comprehend what black people in America experience on a daily basis. Having these conversations made me think much harder about how racist our country still is. We are very diverse, which is an asset, but we need to learn to respect each other despite racial differences. Slavery is a horrible part of our history, and we are still letting it affect us today! The racism needs to stop, and now that I have had these tough conversations, racial respect is on my mind more often.
Teaching emotional regulation skills was unplanned for this trip, but I think it was my most important contribution to the orphanage. We were in Tanzania to install solar panels, but I think my largest assistance to Camp Joshua was in teaching a short lesson on emotional regulation. I have struggled with mental health issues for many years, and recently learned a new tool for emotional regulation that has completely changed my life. One of our professors on the trip asked if anyone wanted to teach a short lesson, and my first thought was to teach about emotional regulation. He said yes and I presented the tool I had learned to the head of the orphanage, Mama Wambura. She was very excited and had me teach my lesson to a group of older girls. I was also approached by Mama Wambura’s son, who is in his 30’s I believe, after he learned about the skill I was teaching. When I was teaching Jacob and listening, I learned that there are so few mental health resources in Tanzania. He wants to start an atypical hospital/recreation space where anyone can get away from their problems. I never would have expected to have the opportunity to teach those girls and Jacob how to use the skill that saved my life. And I would say it is the most important thing I did in Tanzania.
Before visiting Tanzania, I already knew that respecting every person is important. But I think I better learned how to act on that and be more open with strangers. Racial relations have been something I have thought about in the past, but never as hard as I had to on this trip. I think that the conversations I had with Africans about African Americans made me remember that the fight for racial justice is far from over, and I really need to assist in that fight, even if it’s in small ways. Finally, I realized that not everything goes exactly to plan, and you can mold your experiences to turn out the way you desire. I think this will take me far in my career; it has made me realize sometimes you can create your own opportunities. It’s a bit like the idea that if one door closes another one opens. And sometimes the new door will lead to something even more fulfilling.