It’s been exactly three weeks since I left Tanzania and my mind is pregnant with vivid thoughts. I must deliver.
On an excursion made possible by the International Reporting Project of the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, I joined 11 brilliant reporters to travail the valleys and hillsides of the place called Tanzania. Here is where Julius Nyerere, the father of the nation, laid his socialist vision of ujamma. The vision produced a crumbled economy that failed to thrust forth the contemporary African utopia that Nyerere had in mind, but today, Tanzania is building itself up from the grassroots to the mountaintops and I can say that I was there to see it.
From Dar es Salaam where the Indian Ocean gently laps the beaches like an infant nestled in the arms of a mother, I smelled ripe bananas and salt water and met an overwhelmingly optimistic set of people. Tanzanians are famously laid-back and friendly, somewhat accustomed to the site of foreigners and white people in heavy backpacks presenting excited greetings of “Jambo.”
The relaxing bustle of Dar es Salaam. I was moved, observing in my usual shy way, prone to long gazes at women swathed in light chiffons and vibrant kangas, men selling watches on the sidewalk— like any other Africa urban center, yes, but with a touch of grace, less rambunctious, you see. Morogoro’s slopes along the Uluguru Mountains. Here, I met the Waluguru people, listened to stories of how albinos bring magic and good luck, visited a community garden and met boys and girls who told me they like to eat beans and ugali.
13-year-old Nasma and her friends Amina, Lelah and Faidha.
Yasin Issa and the boys.
Were these children any different from the ones I’ve met in Guatemala, West Virginia and Mali? I reckon not. Sure, the boys were stunted. 42% of Tanzanians are stunted, will never reach their normal weight and height levels and yes, there school could not afford to feed them, so they trek the dirt road back home to get food. The universality of children moves me beyond mountains. Fortunately, I’ve been able to take a step back in the places I’ve visited and wait for the children to come and surely enough they always do. I talk with them and laugh with them and I search in their eyes. Perhaps their charm will rub off on me. Whatever. I want to be fresh and young and jubilant as they are, so for me, communing with them, wherever I go is the best way I know how.
They reminded me of the jacarandas.
On the road to Iringa from Morogoro, my eyes brushed past dry shrubs and outcrops dotting the landscape. More dryness, shrubbery and rocks and hills and drynesss and shrubs and rocks and hills and of a blue sky lazily outstretched on a landscape of dryness and shrubs and rocks and hills and then purple.
A splattering of purple on a yellowy blue landscape grabbed my senses and shook, hard. The royalty of purple, the elegance of purple, the seductive touch of the color on my eyes lured me and I couldn’t stop looking. The jacarandas of Tanzania. Purple galore and God’s own kiss on this establishment of Earth, a tease for the wanton, a jolt in your stupor, nothing arrests you like beauty raw, unfiltered and then, right then and there, it was about the purple trees we call jacaranda. In a blur, the purple was gone and the car moved on.
Moved on until more purple drew closer and closer and the car drove on. A grove of jacarandas, I kid not, a grove of trees with leaves like the breath of angels and whispers of colored dreams in shades of lilac, lavender and deep purple.
The jacaranda tree is native to Brazil and Argentina, thus says the experts, and has been planted throughout much of the world’s tropical and subtropical regions. This tree was a major highlight of my Tanzania experience, even more so than the sighting of the giraffes.
A beautiful thing brought to Tanzania and there it is, thriving as if it’s been there since the beginning of time. Adaptable. In Tanzania, I saw people with an enormous propensity to adapt. Nyerere brought socialism and the 21st century has brought a wave of capitalism and privatization. Has this done any good? Tanzania is a shining light for Western aid dollars, but the millions of dollars are hard to find. I looked– at the school buildings, health dispensaries, local markets– yet, could not put a finger on where much of the aid money that Tanzania regularly receives is going. 34% live on less than $1.25 a day. The country ranks fairly low in Transparency International’s human development index, coming in third as the most corrupt country in East Africa, behind Uganda and Kenya.
Furthermore, much of the “good work” in Tanzania related to agriculture, food security and public health is being done by an invasion of Westerners, bright-eyed college graduates looking to get some field experience. These volunteers and staff “do-gooders” may not realize how much power they yield, how much responsibility is bestowed upon them when a poor farmer invests in a food dehydrator because a young American business graduate told him to do so, that it will help his family eat better next year, and that farmer puts all his trust and finances into the care of that young American and if all else fails, the American can go back to the U.S of A— the farmer will remain poor.
There seems to be a certain sense of experimentation going on with the recycled NGO paradigm. Here, Tanzanian farmers are the lab rats. Beware lest something blows up.
I don’t know if these “do-gooders” of the West know how much responsibility is in their hands when they become project managers of these NGOs in places like Tanzania. I don’t know if they realize that a power dynamic automatically sets into place when NGOs come into a community, especially when those “NGOers” come from wealthier nations.
Tanzania is young at heart. There is an urgent sense of growth here, where projects are kicking off in the spirit of nationalism (Nyerere’s lingering legacy, no doubt) for the good of the whole. E-trading, multimedia for farmers, hybrid seed technology, nutrition schemes, I became acquainted with them all, but I will go back to the children, because they are the future. And the jacaranda tree because it stands for everything that Tanzania can become –sturdy, thriving, a site to behold.
When children run alongside your bus in gushes of happiness just because you caught their eyes and waved your hand, your heart lifts.
Chika Oduah traveled to Tanzania as a fellow of the International Reporting Project.