I had only been in Tanzania for a week, everything was new – Swahili, Catholicism, the colorful patterns of women’s kangas and kitangas, and most of all the staring. As we joined the migration to the church I was uncomfortably aware of the glances, the giggles and the blatant stares. During the service I tried my best not to notice the turned heads. A little boy, no more than two years old, sat in front of me. He continuously shifted to look at me, wearing a blank expression. I made faces in an attempt to get a reaction out of him but he just stared intently. Then, half way through the sermon, he reached out and grabbed my hand. It wasn’t a gesture of acceptance or appreciation but rather one of a quizzical nature. He took my large white hand in his little black one and turned it over, again and again, grabbing at my skin in confusion.
I’m not African. This I knew from the beginning. I’m a mzungu, through and through. There is no fooling anyone. Despite this knowledge, when I first arrived in Africa, I found myself hyper-aware of my skin. I wasn’t used to standing out, to being different. I was uncomfortable going places with lots of other students and nervous about speaking Swahili. I cringed when kids screamed “jambo” and “mzungu” at me from inside their houses. The first time I met the Maasai a teenage boy asked me for money, when I told him I didn’t have any he replied, “but you’re a mzungu.” I didn’t want to be American. I didn’t want to be perceived as rich and oblivious. I was uncomfortable in my own skin. I wanted to blend in.
As the semester progressed I adjusted to being different. I stopped noticing the stares. I learned to return the sass. Learning Swahili and making African friends helped this transition immensely. I quickly fell in love with Tanzania, with the culture. I learned quickly that knowing Swahili earns you immediate respect and vowed to learn as much of it as I could. I spent increasing amounts of time playing cards, cooking, talking and playing soccer with new friends from town and the staff. I learned about Tanzanian culture, about how people treat each other and how they perceive the world.
My love for Tanzanian culture quickly turned in to jealously. I became frustrated with being American. I felt like I was on the outskirts looking in on a community more intricate than I could understand. My African friends make up a group built on appreciation, love, support and kindness. Everything people do is based around the needs of others. It is a community structure I hungered for, a way of life I wanted to adopt. I was fascinated by the concept of having a tribe as part of your identity. The hardest part of the semester was realizing that no matter how much I wanted to I couldn’t be a part of it, not truly. Instead of wanting to blend in I found myself wanting to fit in, but because I am American I felt this could never be achieved.
Then things started to change. First I started to miss my family. My whole family. I started calling my parents more, I reread letters from my grandparents over and over, I talked to my baby cousins on the phone, I started chatting with my brothers online. Then I started talking about them, all the time. When it was my night to present something about myself I chose to present about my family, showing pictures I hadn’t looked at in years. Then I started talking about Maine. I missed the ocean, the forest, running, swimming. I spent hours showing pictures of my home to my friends, African and American. Finally, I started talking about American culture. I found myself explaining why we shave our legs, why we have factory farming, what organic is, how our school systems work, what folk music is, why we run. The funny thing was, despite how absurd half my explanations sounded and the number of times I said “America ni kicha,” America is crazy, I found myself speaking with a tone of endearment.
America might not be perfect, but it’s mine, it’s who I am. In Tanzanian culture you are not only an individual but part of a tribe, part of a team. There are traditions and values that you are born into, that you willing surrender control over. This group identity gives Africans self confidence and strong senses of identity. In western culture this concept seems constraining, controlling. Yet, I wonder if the western idea of individualism has lead to a higher prevalence of insecurity among our people. If you are ashamed of your past you are ashamed of yourself. During this semester I learned not only how to accept who I am and where I came from but how to embrace it. The culture I come from is not only a part of my past but a part of who I am in a way I can never change whether I like it or not. I learned to recognize it and revel in it, to be proud of everything that has made me, me. Because of this I know I can now fit in anywhere even if I can’t always blend in.