Ryan Arbow :: Tanzania
Arriving in Tanzania was the culmination of many months of preparation and anticipation to see the African nation. Before the trip I tried to not think about expectations in order to allow my experiences to develop and not be forced. I wanted to arrive with open eyes and not pass judgment on the new culture I was about to experience. There are many things I was concerned about before traveling to Tanzania. The country is one-third Muslim and although it has been peaceful for years, I knew I would stand out as white American. There is no way to blend in.
It is also one of the poorest countries in the world. With nearly 36% of the population living below the poverty line, I questioned the conditions of the state. I have heard about the high levels of disease and sickness, and knew that it would be something that would stand out in my experience in this a sub-Saharan nation. HIV prevalence, at nearly 7%, infects 1.4 million people, and has created a problem with orphans and vulnerable children. Reading statistics though was not enough, and only gave me the background to the country. It was time to see it for myself.
As I walked off the plane, it finally hit me that I was not close to home, signs were in Swahili, and there were many conversations that I could not understand. My host father picked me up, from the airport late at night. Although it was dark, I could see the impoverished state already. Dilapidated buildings, garbage in the streets, and run-down shacks lined the “industrial” area of Dar es Salaam. Driving into the village of Sinza also gave me the taste of an ongoing problem I find here in Tanzania. A lack of basic infrastructure is apparent and easily seen in the condition of the dirt roads. Roads provide transport for people and commerce. A problem that has plagued Tanzania is that because of the fact that the road conditions are so poor, especially in the rural regions, it makes trade difficult and time consuming. Employing over 80% of the population, Agriculture makes up 46% of Tanzania’s GDP. With nearly 75% of the population living in rural areas, a problem becomes radically apparent. The poor farmers struggle to transport their goods to the markets, due to the horrible road conditions. They lose money when crops do not make it to market on time, which in this country is their only means of survival. Recent reforms are supposed to work on this most basic of needs, because the economy and work force heavily depend on it. It has continuously fascinated me though, and the problem seems so basic.
I think the question of why spend money on roads arises when so many people are dying of AIDS. This is true and a valid point, but in my mind building roads would dramatically help fight against HIV/AIDS. In one way, it could allow transport of basic medicine to the areas that do not receive it regularly. Patients could be moved to better equipped hospitals, and doctors could visit patients in a timelier manner. Not only would this help medically, but also would help fight HIV indirectly. In Tanzania, HIV is most commonly spread through heterosexual contact. Commercial sex is a large problem in parts, mainly in areas outside the city. Truckers making long trips on bad roads take many stops in areas where, for some people, commercial sex is the common form of income. If roads we improved, I feel that there would be fewer encounters for transmission to occur.
Roads are one of the many problems here in Tanzania, but something that I try not to dwell on. Although poverty is everywhere, it doesn’t take away from the spirit of the culture that I am thoroughly enjoying. I feel very lucky to live with my host family in the suburb of Sinza and appreciate the “everyday Tanzanian” life I am living. I feel that I am experiencing a real taste of life outside the city, yet not exactly experiencing the rural villages. It is nice to live close to the city because I am able to experience Tanzania’s diverse culture. Tanzania is home to over 120 ethnic groups which many have distinct characteristics. The most famous are the Maasai, who are herdsmen from the northern region. I enjoy driving to work and seeing traditional Maasai men and women dressed carrying their spears and wearing their colorful attire. It is a new experience to have people define themselves, not by race or religion, but by tribe. It is very different than back home.
So far my encounters with Tanzanian people have been great experiences. Some are very welcoming, asking me to come to dinner and meet their family, while others seem to be less impressed and annoyed that I don’t speak their language. Being a white American, I of course stand out, and am subject to many stereotypes. The other day, as I walked to the store with one of my co-workers, a man selling shoes came up to her and asked if she liked anything. She stated she did not have money, and as we started to walk away, and he questioned why she didn’t have money if she is with a white person. She of course had to translate it to me, but it was another instance in which my skin color seemed to define how deep my pockets are. I seem to battle this constantly, which makes me very weary of exchanging money. Prices are rarely listed, so there are two price brackets: one for Tanzanians and one for white people (wazungus). I don’t like the feeling that I may be wheeled and dealed, but understand that they are trying to just make a money.
As frustrating as things can be sometimes such as the language barrier or feeling like I am being judged by my skin, I am extremely lucky and happy to be here. Dwelling on the superficial issues is not something I care to do, but am forced to recognize. The people and culture here are great, and I am looking forward to experiencing much more of Tanzanian life.