We’ve been back for three weeks now and all these sharp edges, clean streets, stern but efficient people, and endless days of winter seem at once odd and very normal. Neither of us felt quite like we’d expected to feel back in this hyper-organized and fast-paced world. We thought we’d both feel lost and alienated because it is so fundamentally different from the slow-moving, slow-going tropics of sub-Saharan Africa. But maybe six months was never long enough to become alienated in this way. Although we learned to love our new world in small-town Africa, we never lost our deep-seated connection to these strange, western ways. The ‘pole, pole’ (‘slowly, slowly’) of Africa may have gotten under our skin, but the umbilical chord of home was only ever stretched, never severed.
Yet something about this schism between Switzerland and Tanzania continues to strike me every day. Whether it’s the guarded Swiss children – in Tanzania we passed hundreds of shy but insatiably curious children every day on our way to work, while here they’re taught not to say hello to strangers – or the almost unbelievable efficiency with which official matters are handled – from buying a train ticket to sorting out taxes – I find myself slipping back into this world while trying to retain a connection to our slice of cool and chaotic Africa. I can’t help but to appreciate how organized and predictable life is here, but in many ways it is the cold, polar opposite of a life we came to love and feel comfortable with; a distant world only a 8-hour plane ride away.
While most Tanzanians spend their lives deeply embedded in the undulating flow of a life that is at once unpredictable and volatile, people here spend their whole lives trying to build up an illusion of control over it. We’ve become addicted to the idea of order and predictability, of a certain separateness from others, in the process becoming alienated from the truth that most people in a place like Tanzania simply have to accept: Life can and will make your plans and illusions obsolete in an instant. Judging by all the people with met during our time in Tanzania, from the kids at Amani to colleagues and friends, their quiet and dignified resilience in the face of the inevitable vicissitudes of life was both humbling and inspiring.
I hope to carry some of this humility, flexibility and sense of connectedness into the new life we’ll build here again. But as the snow falls and busy social and work routines take root, I already feel this feeling slipping. Although it’s been great to see friends and hang out with family (and do this and this), Africa now seems as faraway as the sun that came back from hiding today (it was gray for nearly a week in Switzerland).
When spring finally starts and I have my energy back again, I’ll have to find a way to return to these roots…