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Living High, Living Low in Tanzania

The Volunteer

Perhaps this example of the (all-said-and-done) wonderful phenomenon called globalization is a good place to start. Picture this: The night before they venture into a forest-village on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro for a two-week workcamp, a Taiwanese-American undergraduate student, an Italian sailor, and an Indian college graduate are sitting in a bar in Moshi, northern Tanzania, with Kilimanjaro as the backdrop. The TV in this bar is screening an American soap opera (The Bold and the Beautiful, no less). The language barrier makes conversation stilted, Tusker beer notwithstanding, and the Indian is translating as best as he can so that the Italian and American understand each other – translating in Spanish!


No better place for a workcamp

The workcamp was in a village called Lole-Marera, an hour’s dalla-dalla ride from Moshi in the direction of the Kenyan border. There were fourteen volunteers in all, seven foreigners (from Canada, Italy, Finland, India, and the US) and seven locals. Only three of the locals spoke passable English but basic Swahili fortunately isn’t too hard to pick up. We were there to spend the fortnight working in the village and getting to know the area and culture through visits, presentations and interaction with the local volunteers. We all lived together in a little house on the church grounds, sharing the cooking and cleaning duties, and sleeping on a line of mattresses. Those on cleaning duty were up by 6am so they could clean and mop before the others surfaced. The only running water source was a tap outside the house. We had to boil everything we ate or drank, leading to the wry comment that we spent two weeks drinking warm water and taking cold showers. This is a little exaggerated: the cleaner ones among us only bathed every three or four days. Nobody shaved. The food (lots of ugali, green bananas and red beans) was superb at times and awful at others, but mostly we were too hungry to care. We spent our mornings doing manual labour, and the afternoons in the various cultural exchange programs. And we spent many an evening playing cards.


A volunteer distributing Canadian sweets

It was all very different from what we had been led to expect. On one hand, the village was more developed than we anticipated for we had come prepared to sleep in tents and use the bush as bathroom. But on the other hand, road repair was not what we had signed on for. The initial work plan had us planting trees and doing a variety of conservation work, something I was keen to learn about. The next shock was to find that the whole village was very, very religious. Almost every interaction with village folk was preceded by prayer or some interminably long (albeit quite catchy) devotional hymns. The one wall-hanging in the house was a garish pink poster proclaiming, “Ignoring Jesus is Choosing Hell.” Not the most comfortable atmosphere if you aren’t a devout Christian.

I volunteered to plant trees but found myself digging roads. Our primary project was repairing village roads – dirt roads, no asphalt – that had deteriorated in the just concluded rainy reason. Essentially, we dug up chunks of earth from the side of the road and used them to fill in the potholes. But we dug the earth out such that it provided a canal for future rain water to flow through beside the road rather than down it, and then flow out to irrigate the coffee and banana plantations that are the village’s lifeblood. It was an ingenious way of killing two birds with one stone. However, the effect of this work is very short-term. The roads need to be repaired this way every few months because of the amount of rain and traffic in the area. The work was muddy and sweaty, and given the transient nature of it all, I couldn’t help but wonder every now and then, “Did I come all this way just to give someone a day off?” That our labour would be ruined and repeated in a few months frustrated me no end. It seems my Buddhism professor’s homilies on embracing impermanence were transient as well.

We did eventually do some tree-planting, and this was the highlight of the camp. We walked deep into the forest until we reached the river that provides the village’s drinking water; a river fed by snow from the top of Kilimanjaro. The idea was this: in order to prevent the river water from dissipating into the ground before it reaches the village, we planted saplings of a particular tree along the banks of the river. This tree (and no one knew what it is called in English) apparently doesn’t retain water and holds the soil together so that the river flows on and continues to quench the village’s thirst. I was much happier planting trees partly because it was exactly what I had come to the village hoping to do, but mostly because the locale was gorgeous, the river cold and crystal clear, and the work simple, fun and with a more tangible and sustainable impact than the road maintenance.


Surrounded by village schoolkids

Working in the village made my previous job as an instructional technologist at Davidson College, NC, seem galaxies away, both in distance and time. One afternoon after returning from work we were taking turns pounding peanuts into a paste as part of the lunch preparations and chewing on raw sugarcane (really bad for your teeth but really good for your taste-buds). It struck me then how diametrically opposed all this was to my previous year. To go from playing with Tablet PCs and imaging Mac OSX computers in a cutting-edge educational institution to digging roads with a rusted spade in a village is indeed a radical change.

Besides of course living and working with the local volunteers, our “cultural exchange” consisted of several meetings and visits. We met with a women’s group and a youth group, visited a vocational school and the weekly village market, and had discussions on issues ranging from international commodity trade to substance abuse among youth. All of these interactions were learning experiences but we also felt the picture was incomplete because everything we saw (or were shown) in that village was influenced by the church, and thus we wondered how representative our experience was.

We did, however, get some interesting responses on their image of the West. Almost everyone admired Western development, infrastructure, and especially education. They believe the West has a major role to play in bringing these things to Tanzania. But they are also wary of the impact of Western culture on local traditions. The difficulty, according to the women’s group, lies in teaching their kids what ideas to take from the West and what ideas to avoid. Usually the approach is all-or-nothing, and the kids aren’t able to weed out the negatives of Western culture (skimpy clothing, premarital sex, divorce, drugs etc) from the positives. I’m not certain that all these ‘sins’ can actually be laid at a foreign doorstep, but such was the prevailing opinion.


Pounding peanuts into paste for lunch

The camp proceeded smoothly but for one instance. A discussion about AIDS became a heated argument between the foreign volunteers and the locals. The local volunteers did not believe that condoms work and, being devoutly Christian, they argued that condoms promote promiscuity and should therefore be discouraged. We countered that condoms provide the best protection against AIDS (besides abstinence) and that AIDS was now enough of a problem that the church, as the principal authority in the area, should support AIDS workers who promoted condom use. The locals were horrified at the thought. Personally, I understand the church’s position but think it outmoded. Since ten percent of the Tanzanian population has AIDS, the church should no longer be ostrich-like, burying its pious head in the quicksand of high morality. How much longer can the church justify inaction by saying it is more interested in saving souls than saving lives?

Still, despite disagreeing, we made some progress. One of their arguments against condoms was that people get AIDS despite using two or three condoms at a time. This of course set alarm bells clanging in our heads. Eventually, I think we persuaded them that condoms are most effective when used one at a time. One of the funniest memories I have from Tanzania is Jon Wu, an American volunteer, chanting in Swahili, “Hapana tatu, hapana mbili, moja moja moja kondom” (Not 3, not 2, just 1, 1, 1 condom). The point I think was taken.

A few weeks after the camp, I met a Finnish couple who were studying the effects of AIDS amongst Tanzania’s urban poor. They had worked mostly in Dar-es-Salaam, which is a long way from the Kilimanjaro area, but had run across similar problems regarding the use of condoms. Since this had proved such a contentious topic in the village, I asked them to summarize their findings for me. They glanced at each other and then the man spoke, “Everyone knows the danger, but nobody cares.”

He elaborated, “They live in the moment here. Daily survival is what matters. They don’t think about the future. When you can die of malaria in one week, they feel that even if you get AIDS you can still live for years so why worry about it.”

One lovely evening, we were invited to play a game of football against the local school team. The match was energetic and very competitive. The volunteers won 2-0, although village boys playing in our team to make up the numbers scored both of our goals. More than the game itself, the scene was memorable. There we were, on a bumpy, sloping village field surrounded by banana fronds, ringed by hundreds of cheering kids (the girls cheered for us, the boys for the school team). And all this with the twin peaks of Kilimanjaro visible further up the mountain.   


Masaai in the Ngorongoro region

As discussed before, the Lutheran church is the principal authority in Lole-Marera. It is also the fulcrum of all social and community life. It’s no surprise then that the Sunday church service was thrice as long as any other service I’d ever seen. The mass began at 9am and lasted till well into the afternoon. On the first Sunday of the camp, all of us foreign volunteers were marched to the front and introduced to an appreciative village. The service was pretty typical until about half-way through, when all the unmarried congregants rose and walked out. The married folk stayed behind and we never learnt what was said to them because we were herded out to join the unmarried for their weekly lesson on marriage and issues relating to married life. That day’s topic was the rules of inheritance, designed to ensure that girls and illegitimate children are aware of and understand their rights. Property is typically divided only amongst the sons, which is local custom but goes against (Western-inspired) church doctrine, wherein the daughters are also entitled to their share. We trooped outside to a field where a novitiate preacher climbed to the top of a large mound of sand, from where he read some Scripture and then lectured, with some of the older youth interjecting comments. A healthy debate followed. The whole process was fascinating; a sociologist’s wet dream.

The church should be lauded for taking the lead in educating about gender equality and property rights. But it also begs the question: are Christian ways eroding the local culture? Some would argue that even if local traditions fall apart, the dissemination of information and the provision of choice are always good. If a tradition can’t withstand the challenge of a new idea, then perhaps it shouldn’t exist anyway. For my part, I’m just glad the missionary work is being done by locals and not foreigners, which logically should reduce the risk of the kind of backlash against Christian missionaries that is happening in, for instance, India today.

Towards the end of the camp, my body decided that I wasn’t having enough of an African experience so it decided to seduce a malaria-bearing mosquito. Accounts written by travellers who caught malaria as late as the 1970s are frightening; stories of alternating icy chills and searing fevers are not quite bedside reading. Fortunately, I caught the symptoms early, so it didn’t get too bad. I recovered after three days of taking about five thousand pills. But those are three days I’d like never to repeat. As others have suffered and written before me, when you get malaria, your body plays tricks with you. When I got used to the dizziness and headache, along came fever and body ache. Then my stomach gave way. Yet, all of it would have been bearable if not for the nausea. The nausea was unceasing for three days, and even though I knew I wouldn’t vomit, I couldn’t ever be sure so I was on tenterhooks the whole time. And this is malaria-lite!


For all its novelty and the sharp learning curve, volunteering in rural Africa doesn’t entail probing an undiscovered frontier. These regions have seen countless international volunteers come and go, and the question of how much good they have done is indeed a fair one. In his latest book Dark Star Safari, the celebrated travel writer Paul Theroux savages international aid workers in Africa implying that they have done little of value in the last four decades. To some extent Theroux’s critique is pure polemic and he does seem to generalize a couple of unfortunate encounters with aid workers to the entire gamut of people who come to Africa to volunteer. However, his observation that little seems to have changed is not off the mark either.


Planting trees in the Kilimanjaro forest

As I plunged my shovel into the ground to make road repairs that wouldn’t last more than a few months, I couldn’t help but wonder why the village didn’t pave the roads or think in terms of a more permanent fix. Despite feeling that I may not have chosen this camp if I had known we’d be doing road maintenance, I wanted to be flexible and also to avoid giving the impression that I thought I knew better than the villagers what the village needed. The development sector already has too many policy wonks following their own agenda regardless of the local community’s needs, and I had no intention of being one of them. In retrospect though, I wish I had raised a dissenting voice, if only to learn why the village chose to employ our free labour on such an ephemeral task.

The frustration that my stint in the village produced little of lasting value is something I’m still coming to terms with. And the frustration wasn’t limited to the manual labour; the debate on what to do about AIDS got me tearing my hair out. The objections to condom use were so propagandistic that it’s hard not to think the village has been brainwashed by the church. I’ve often read and heard that field work is disillusioning and discouraging, and now I understand why. I felt a strong temptation to wash my hands off the problem with the thought that if they believe condoms are immoral, then they must bear the consequences.

But I can’t – I won’t – accept this defeatism, or succumb to hopelessness. Perhaps we planted a seed of doubt in one person’s mind; and that’s the thought that will keep me going. Nevertheless, the experience is a harbinger of what lies ahead if I seek to continue working in the non-profit/development sector. I’m reminded of Robert Heinlein’s sardonic observation in Stranger in a Strange Land, “I used to think that I was serving humanity… and I pleasured in the thought. Then I discovered that humanity doesn’t want to be served; on the contrary, it resists any attempt to serve it.”

While in the workcamp, I read Cervantes’ Don Quixote. I have no pretensions to literary scholarship but reading about the Lord of La Mancha through the lens of a volunteer experience made much of the book seem like a warning of the perils of idealism gone astray. The frustrations of the workcamp tested my idealism; and Cervantes’ hyperbolics – in Don Quixote’s phantasmal world, windmills are giants, inns morph into castles, and whores become ladies – served as a useful reminder that although idealism has its place (our world does need more gallant knights), it must be tempered by a strong dose of realism. We need to combat cynicism but also remove the rose-tint from our glasses.

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