Questions: The SST experience

Flipping through my SST journal from six years ago has helped to add some perspective to my current experiences in Tanzania. I’m actually impressed with my 20-21 year old self’s analysis and introspection, and I’m surprised by the threads that run through that writing and my current experience.

As I’ve stated before, I love questions. I had the wonderful opportunity in mid February to sit down with a couple handfuls of Goshen College students halfway through their TZ SST experience. They asked a slew of great questions. It was an intense late evening talk, and I am so honored the exhausted group took time to open up about our shared experiences, struggles, and anxieties.

This SST group is lead by Kathy and Paul – both professors at GC. I met them at the Meru House Inn after their long bus ride from Dar on the cusp of a safari before their vague and often daunting service assignments started for the next 5 weeks.

SST Group 2

Photo curtesy of the GC SST Blog

Here are the questions I jotted down as soon as I got home that night, along with my lengthy and more thought out responses:

Why did you come back to TZ? Was there some spark that drew you back?

  • SST was a journey of high highs and low lows. The students in the room with me asked this question and others with a sense of how low the lows really are. The good and bad of traveling and experiencing the challenges of a new culture complicates the questions of “Will you come back?” Clearly I answered that question with a “yes,” but why?
  • When I concluded SST back in 2011, my friend and peer Laura mused about returning to TZ in the future. The musing was  filled with apprehension and cloaked with the upbeat explanations of how great an experience SST was. All this made a return to TZ feel like a very distant and vague plan. To be honest there was nothing about my time in Tanzania that made me dead set on coming back. It was more a general knowledge that there is beauty, excitement, and opportunity available in TZ just as there is elsewhere in the world. Laura and I’s mutual interest in returning popped up periodically over the next couple years as we finished our undergrads and started life. Eventually the musing resulted in a conversation about the opportunity to fit a trip into the timing of both our schooling and careers. I don’t think I ever would have come back to TZ had it not been for our mutual interest.
  • But I also don’t think the final decision to make this trip happen was made out of the blue. My journey of returning from SST, finishing my nursing education, moving back to CO, working in postpartum care, and recognizing my interests in education and public health all influenced how I saw my connection to opportunities in TZ. We can never really predict how we’ll carry the experiences we have now and how they’ll surface and influence where we decide to go later in life.
  • How do dreams become reality? You turn the dream into a goal and get to work planning for it. The dream of returning to TZ became a goal with a timeline and checklists and google docs about 2 years before we boarded a plane. But Laura and I can be type A planners, so the decision could certainly have been much more spontaneous :)

How did you get connected or figure out what you will be doing here?

  • Honestly the internet is glorious thing. Google until you find something that peaks your interest and then send emails, Facebook messages, and phone calls. I found V4Y on an international volunteer database website, and I messaged the Mugumu Safehouse on Facebook. And though I figured out and committed to those organizations before I left for TZ, I knew that I would not have a clear idea of where I’d be living or what my work role would be until I arrived. And I was very right about that. This is Africa, you plan as much as you can and then wait and see what happens.
  • Also networking is huge. The more you travel the more you keep track of contacts you met once or twice and hold onto because they peaked your interest. Reaching out to GC professors or friends of friends or people I met once felt a little uncomfortable, but those loose ties are where the most fruitful opportunities can surface. Keeping in touch with people via email and social media can become part of your regular routine.

How do you feel about the length of time here, 9 months compared to less or more?

  • I wanted to be here for longer than the three months of SST. I wanted to feel like I lived in a place, which in my mind means at least 6 months. I was open to the possibility of a full year, but I wanted to start grad school in 2017 so 9 months made more sense. And to be honest the 9 month decision actually came from my application for a Fulbright Scholarship that lasted 9 months. I didn’t get the award, but I kept the time frame.
  • As I now come to the end of my 6 months in Arusha, I sort of wish I had chosen to stay the full 9 months somewhere (maybe in Arusha, maybe in Mugumu). I think it’s really valuable to commit to living, working, and being in a place for extended amounts of time. It’s a whole different experience to finally get the hang of getting around and how do be somewhere – which usually takes a couple months – and then be glad that you’re staying there to actually use that knowledge and those relationships, instead of moving on to the next thing.

What would you do differently the next time around?

  • I find that I’m a very roll with the punches kind of person. So when things aren’t exactly as I planned I tend to make do. I chose to do this trip as an independent volunteer without ties to a large or international organization. That has made this an adventure with flexibility that I’ve really appreciated. However, I now see the huge benefit of having an organization standing behind you on issues of immigration as well as housing or job placement. Next time I make may way internationally for work or service I think I’ll dig deeper into the plethora of international NGOs that do work in my areas of interest. Their connections locally and the personnel and cultural support they could provide is appealing.
  • I’d also definitely make sure that I had my own living space. Now that I’ve had the “SST experience” of living with a host family and again experienced the quirks of living with locals, I’ve found I can be really happy living in the challenges of TZ life, but I recognized my need of a safe and comfortable place of my own to come back to, unwind, rejuvenate, and process life here. I’m 27 years old and I’m done sharing a room with multiple people, sleeping in a bunk bed, and being woken up by everyone in my house everyday like I live in a dorm.

What’s it like to teach/talk about reproductive health/sexuality in TZ?

  • Discussing sexuality and reproductive health in TZ is fascinating, frustrating, humbling, exciting, and infuriating. As I discussed in a previous post (“Nothing about us without us is for us..”) I have thoroughly enjoyed some occasions where I was able to openly talk in detail with groups of young people about reproductive topics and field their many questions. But there are many challenges that provide barriers to those discussions. Even with my coworkers there are issues of translation and gaps in foundational knowledge when discussing biological processes and dispelling local myths and misinformation. There is also the maddening frustration of trying to understand and ultimately except community expectations that form barriers to positive change. For example limiting educational topics on contraception for “kids” under 18 or outlawing any discussion about LGBTQ because you can literally go to jail or get deported for LGBTQ promotion.
  • Even discussions on gender equality, which are gaining traction and popularity (see International Women’s Day) face challenges as youth still experience gendered norms like women’s work in the home, shaming for sexual activity, and even belief that a woman’s voice “softens” through puberty.
  • It’s impossible to come here boasting knowledge and imposing changes without embracing a heaping helping of patience and humility. I struggle with the humility it takes to meet people where they are at, see things from their perspective, and hear their expressed needs. I often question if I have what it takes to make the commitment to the understanding necessary to cultivate change in this Tanzanian/East African context.

How did you deal with numerous marriage proposals or the various pursuits of TZ males? What’s your advice for dealing with the unwanted advances?

  • This is was my least favorite part of SST and continues to be a frustrating challenge for me here. I received countless proposals on SST: mothers insisting I marry their sons, shouts on the street, and even a two page written letter from a peer asking for me to marry him.
  • While on SST I mostly shook off proposals with a smile and vague verbal maneuvers, but I really internalized the frustration of being an independent single woman whose independence was invalid to everyone I encountered. Now, years later, I’m more confident in my singleness so the advances seem more inane than frustrating.
  • My experience in Arusha contains few marriage proposals, yet I am still bombarded with the male gaze, the comments and greetings of male strangers, and the advances of twenty something locals who hang out at clubs with hopes of snagging a young white female tourist/volunteer. We affectionately refer to them as the “Arusha Boys.”
  • Methods for coping with such advances? I’ve tried lying about a fiancé back home or wearing a fake wedding ring, which just lead to statements like “you need an African husband.” Not to mention I hate lying, and it perpetuates the idea that the only way men respect a women’s “no” is if it’s actually respecting another man’s “claim” to her. I have also tried having honest conversation with peers who insist on the possibility of our marriage. It’s a fascinating dialogue but one that does not often lead to a change in their desire to “find a white wife.”
  • Ultimately I have found that this is one of those things I have to just let roll of my back. I have open conversations with friends when the opportunity arises, and though there are times when even a small comment will make my blood boil, I mostly just continue on my way as if I didn’t hear it.
  • When asked why I am not married, why I don’t have kids, or why I want to be single I simply say “Because I don’t want to right now” and leave it at that.

How do you address issues of loneliness or isolation within a strange new context/culture? How do you deal with the need to feel normal/excepted/included?

  • This one is a big deal for anyone spending more than a month in a totally new context. I find it often doesn’t get much attention in conversations about traveling or living abroad. It’s hard to admit that in this “exciting new context” we can find ourselves longing for the familiar. It’s exhausting learning a new language, and it’s exhausting having attention constantly drawn to you as the foreigner and the mzungu. It can quickly and easily feel isolating, and I have many times felt very alone while sitting in a room full of people.
  • I’ve found I just need to give myself a break sometimes. I always have a book with me – paperback or on my phone – and when I find myself alone in a crowd at a stranger’s baby shower, on a loud bus, or even in my own living room, I take a break from trying to act interested in the endless conversations that refuse to be in a language I can dicipher, and I read my book. I try to always be open to someone who reaches out to me with a question or an attempt at inclusion, but I’ve stopped trying to make myself feel guilty for not always being fully engaged in situations that exhaust me. The same is true of the challenges of everyday life. Sometimes heading downtown to the air conditioned cafe that serves great coffee milkshakes to sit on my computer or chat with “westerny” friends is a necessary part of maintaning balance here. And I know that opportunities like that are unique to Arusha and larger cities like Nairobi and some in Dar es Saalam. In a couple weeks I will be in the much more rural Mugumu where coffee, let alone a decent milkshake and wifi will be luxuries I may only get to dream about. I know especially there I will have to find other ways of maintaining the balance of living somewhere that pushes me to embrace challenges and different ways of living, while still recognizing my own needs to feel “normal.”
  • When my surroundings are so different and challenging, I find turning to people who can relate to my experiences helps. Not necessary people just like me, but those who have a deeper understanding of western life and the challenges and paradoxes it often presents. I tend to gravitate to East Africans who have traveled outside of East Africa and those who have more business or education experience. The conversations and mutual desire to understand the other’ perspective helps nullify those feelings of being isolated or different. Unfortunately the things I just mentioned are characteristics of great privilege, and I certainly have to work at not taking those privileges for granted and I have to avoid surrounding myself with only those who share that privilege. It’s about finding that balance of new challenges and comfortable belonging. But sometimes I feel like I’m doing it all wrong…

We certainly didn’t just talk about tough stuff. We also shared some highlights of our time here in TZ.

  • All the SST/traveling cliques: people can be so welcoming and hospitable, the excitement of learning to get around in a new and different city, and the joy of making friends that could last a lifetime.
  • The SSTer’s I sat with shared about connecting with strong women in their host families and enjoying fresh mangos from their front yard.

How can we better prepare people for the challenging experience of international travel/living? How can we better share our experience and cope with the experiences as individuals and a community afterwards?

  • At GC and beyond, it is vital to discuss the challenges, the struggles, and the disappointments along side the joys and the successes of all our adventures. The unique thing about GC is the campus community that has so many who have shared experiences in vastly different places around the globe. There is also the GC SST Stories Project that invites people to share pieces of their travel that have stuck with them. I think finding ways to continue sharing stories and keeping conversations open about the ups and downs of travel before, during and after is an important way to take care of each other as a community as well as to help us individually and collectively process and learn from our experiences.
  • I personally have chosen to write this blog while traveling to share and process my time abroad. Journalling is also my go to method for self-care and my go to nugget of advice for others.
  • I challenge each of us travelers and those back at home to be active in their proces of story telling. Let’s all strive to ask better questions! SSTers past and present dread responding to generic inquiries such as: How was Tanzania? What was it like there? Will you ever go back? Etc. Let’s all get a little more honest and creative. No one can happily sum up the whole of an experience abroad in just a couple minuets. Ask something specific like: What is something you are going to miss from being there? Did you learn to cook anything new? What was one of the unexpected challenges you dealt with?

Where are the places in our own country and culture that people may feel the fear/discomfort/confusion/vulnerability that I have experience abroad?

  • This question has knocked my socks off. I think of it often and hope to continue asking it when I get home. This question may sum up the whole reason I think every person should travel, even if only for a week or two here and there. The challenges I face in Tanzania as a minority (albeit a very privileged one), as a person with limited language capability, as someone with visa issues, as someone without a car/drivers liscense, as someone without a good understanding of government and local laws, and as someone foreign are all challenges that people experience in my own country and every country around the world. If nothing else traveling and becoming the “other” helps you exercise your empathy skills for when you get home. How can I better recognize those around me who may need to feel less like the “other” and more like a fellow human? 

If you’ve made it this far in this post, thank you for your interest and your time! There are even more questions I hope to address as time passes. I have contemplated many of these questions over my months here, and I’m thankful for the opportunity the SST group gave me to work at articulating my thoughts throughout our discussion as well as here in writing. I hope people share some more questions and thoughts on this post too!

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