Culture clashes

IMG_6494We’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.

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Crazy how the weeks just pass. I wrote the last blog post a week ago and it’s suddenly Sunday again. As we’ve gotten settled in a routine here it’s become just like it is back home: Mondays morph into Fridays in the blink of an eye. But I wonder if it’s a product of age – doesn’t time just fly faster and faster as you grow old – or familiarity? Maybe heat plays a role too – doesn’t the predictability of each hot and sunny day play into these patterns that make our brains forget about time, about the fleeting uniqueness of each day, each passing moment?

And how can you slow down this proverbial train? The funny thing is that although we’ve of course been thrown off course by this profoundly humbling and deeply invigorating experience, leaving behind all that was comfortable and cozy back home, even dusty East Africa has become so familiar, so normal that our brains only wake up to the craziness of it all in moments where something extraordinary happens: like when Boogie had a positively ancient local doctor tell him “Una malaria, rafiki yangu” last week (“You have malaria, my friend”, and don’t worry – after a serious course of Malarone B’s oddly mild form of the big bad M seems to have been defeated and we’ll have it checked again next week).

And in a way as we approach the end of our trip we’re getting ready to say our goodbyes to everyday Africa before we get completely absorbed by its hypnotizing ways and seductive slowness. The heat’s been intense in these past weeks as the beautifully warm but crisp mornings inevitably turn into relentlessly hot days. As we mentally prepare to say goodbye to this mysteriously charged, life-affirming, happiness-inducing, yet completely maddening place, we try to absorb all its goodness in our minds and in our memories. We try to make sure that we’ll always carry a piece of Tanzania with us: a piece of this beautiful country that will see us through even the toughest and coldest spots back home…

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This little lady follows us to work every morning. We call her Twix.

This little lady follows us to work every morning. We call her Twix.

Life has found a new(-ish) groove here in Moshi with a move to our very own slice of suburban heaven, walking distance from Amani, in a slightly rough-around-the-edges-but-still-friendly area called Soweto (yes, that’s the same name as the notorious Johannesburg township). We’re sharing it with two of the other Amani volunteers, Jay and Annmaree (last featured in this wedding post) and finally have an en-suite bathroom (yay!), real windows (double yay!), proper water pressure (ah, how I missed you), and yes, the ultimate ‘piece the resistance’ in a tropical country: air conditioning.

We’re also now back to cooking and cleaning for ourselves (normal life, I know), and it’s actually so refreshing to be in control of our of environment again, and to be able to move around without calling a driver (a slice of the non-normal life that you can actually afford here) and to go to and leave work as we please, usually with our new doggy friend in tow. Walking to work we must end up saying ‘Mambo’, ‘Habari?’ or ‘Shikamoo’ (the three key greetings, used depending on the age of the person at the receiving end of it) at least 20-30 times. We get just as many stares – or even outright wonder – when kids scream out ‘mzungu’ (white person!) and run to us to say hello/bye/good evening. Though people here are shy and rather reserved, they’re also unfailingly warm and welcoming. They take the time to acknowledge each other (as Kristy said over dinner tonight), to make that connection – even if it’s with a stranger and even if it’s only for a fleeting second…

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Never in a rut and resilient as hell.

Never in a rut and resilient as hell.

The ‘pole pole’ (slowly, slowly) lifestyle has made us a little stir crazy. Maybe the shine and excitement of a new place has just worn out. Maybe there’s a bit of culture shock mixed in there somewhere, or perhaps the near-incessant heat has just worn our bodies and minds down. Somehow we’re just in a bit of a rut; not unhappy by any means, just not entirely in the flow of things either. Moshi has gotten too small, the heat too repetitive, the routines a little too set once again.

It didn’t help that our plans for weekend trips fell through because of distances and overpriced hotels. We’ve had to postpone a few cool trips to next year, including one to the lusher-than-lush Usambara mountains, and by default rather than choice ended up spending a few too many weekends in small-town Tanzania. Work is still good – the kids don’t exactly have an ‘off day’, they’re always great and full of energy – but we’ve had a lot of weekend shifts in the past months and I guess our batteries are just near-depleted. Cultural discovery, adjusting, fitting in… it’s exhilarating, it’s exciting, but it’s also exhausting.

B’s wallet also went missing under strange circumstances a few days ago. Suffice it to say this didn’t exactly lift our spirits. It either dropped from his pockets when we were talking home from the taxi, or – more unbelievably and quite likely – was skillfully pick-pocketed by two young girls pretending to be fundraising for a local church right in front of our house gate. We’ll never know what exactly happened but I can’t seem to shake the feeling that there was something ‘off’ about those girls hanging out in front of our gate at sunset, only talking to us, not the locals and asking for donations in a hasty-cum-guilty sort of way. But then again, maybe I’m just imagining things. Maybe it’s the heat playing tricks on my brain.

But what do we really have to complain about? It’s sunny, it’s beautiful, it’s exciting in a subtle kind of way every single day. And our holidays are fast approaching: Zanzibar for Christmas and a second safari after New Years with my dad who’ll be visiting us. Lots to look forward to and lots to be happy about. Every reason to get over this rut, pronto.

Sending some of our over-abundance of pole-pole vibes your way. We miss you (you know who you are).


IMG_9622I come bearing gifts of equatorial Christmas cheer a day later than planned as our internet bailed on us last night and WordPress kept acting up (hence the messy formatting of this post). Although I feel a million miles away from the wintery vibes back home and even more distant from the mulled-wine-by-candle-light Christmas mood, Saturday was the annual ‘Kristmasi’ party for the Amani kids and neighborhood tots, complete with a borderline inappropriate Santa who was grinding his way through the audience, ‘giftis’ for each kid and mountains of local delicacies, washed down with liters of Coca Cola beverages.

The day was hot, action packed, fun and totally and utterly exhausting. (At one point I thought I was going to spontaneously combust, having run around in the blistering heat taking photos of hundreds of over-excited kids for hours.) All staff arrived at 8am to prepare the day all the kids had been given a new set of clothes the night before. Beaming with pride over their new outfits and fresh kicks they all had this amazing, confident swagger about them as they ran out to greet us.

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As our daily life in Moshi slowly settles into its pole-pole pace, complete with previously unheard-of pre-work breakfast/jog/reading-sessions (we work from 11 to five or six on most days), life back home with its busy routines and disciplined efficiency is slowly becoming a distant idea, a memory left at the über-clean and über-luxurious Zürich Airport just ten weeks ago.

It’s amazing to me how this time has flown by in some ways – Mondays morph into Fridays – while dragging itself out in others, making these past two months and a bit seem like years of a previously unimagined life. No one is in a hurry here and no one pushes; time is a non-issue and life unfolds at a pace dictated by the sun and the deep darkness of a powerless night.

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A strong coffee, a thought-provoking book and way too much downtime on a Sunday afternoon results in this (read below).

Let’s talk culture.

I hope by now that you, dear readers, have a fairly good idea about Moshi, Amani and our daily life here. Next big topic to tackle, even if only in a preliminary sense because I can’t claim to have gained any definite insights in a matter of seven weeks, is Tanzanian culture, seen through the prism of working life at Amani. I think you can really gain insights into how a culture operates when you live and work embedded in the day-to-day life of a country. Amani, from a personal perspective, has proven enlightening in this sense, a microcosm of sorts of the simmering clash between traditionalism, religion and modernity.

Before I start with my cultural rant, I feel I need to put in a little disclaimer: Treat these as the lazy musings of an opinionated foreigner, over-caffeinated and bored with her book. And please bear with me – I’m afraid you’re in it for the long-haul with this post (take breaks if you must and most definitely grab yourself a cup of coffee or tea before you read on).

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