‘going back’

During our homestay we spent the morning stooped in the kitchen building over a small fire stirring ugali, vegetables and chicken in the billowing smoke. After, as we waited outside for the table to be set, Kelsey turned to me and said, “It baffles me that in America we ‘go camping’ to go back to this.”

I’ve thought a lot about the concept of “going back” since then.

In America we are obsessed with the concept of progression, of development, of moving forward from a way of living that we seem to think is insufficient and unfulfilling. But as we moved further and further in modernity, materialism and ease we realized some basic cultural concepts as well as human needs and desires got left behind. Instead of recognizing that we had forgotten them, however, we addressed them as factors that needed to be added back in to our new life in new ways that fit our new model. God forbid we move backwards.

Tanzania has made these concepts and needs clear to me because the culture here never moved away from them. The two main concepts I am referring to are minimalism, and purity. The human needs and desires are nature, relationships, and mental health.

Minimalism in America is a new up and coming thing. Many people now see materialism as an evil, for reasons too numerous to name. You see cute thrift shops on popular streets. People bulk shop at health food stores that are ten times more expensive than convenience stores that individually wrap things. Reusable water bottles and bags are the hottest eco trend. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Well, there are no clothing stores in Tanzania, at least none that I have seen. Everyone buys their clothes used from vendors at markets if they haven’t had them handmade. Every local market is a thrifters paradise (and also explains why Tanzanian’s have a very, very interesting sense of fashion). In Tanzania, when you go to a small duka for things like rice or oil they are delivered automatically in bulk, measured out into reused plastic bags or plastic water bottles by necessity. One of the most baffling products in Tanzania is soda. All soda comes in glass bottles, all bottles must be drank in sight and returned to the shop owner immediately or the buyer pays a hefty bottle fee. As a result the soda is stupid cheap. In Tanzania minimalism make sense. You don’t waste more than you need to and you recognize that everything has value.

Purity is something we Americans are yearning for and the economy has decided to capitalize on it. All Natural, Organic, Local. People in Tanzania don’t even know what those words mean. At Moyo Hill everything we eat is local and all natural, not because its environmental, but because its cheaper. The way it should be. In America we decided that pure was for people with money, in Tanzania that logic makes no sense at all.

Nature is something, for a while, we disregarded as unrefined and backwards. When we started to miss it, instead of changing our lifestyles to include and celebrate nature we invented “camping” and “vacation.” Our relationship with nature became vacation, something only the wealthy can afford. In rural Tanzania nature is everything. It is how you cook, what you eat, where you get your money. It is what you look at when you walk out your front door, where your kids play because there is no such thing as a playroom. You go on a hike every time you go to the store. The weather sets your schedule and the sun is your watch.

Relationships between people lost footing as our obsession with money and individualism grew. More time is put into work and less time into family and community relationships. The idea is, if we have more money than our neighbors then our family will be happy. We created daycare and fences. The result has been depression, divorce, and the invention of counseling. In Tanzania, relationships are the most important capital an individual can accrue. Family is the center of everything and, most importantly, community is the foundation. If you don’t have people who care about you, you have nothing, and if you care about no one then you won’t survive. It is from these relationships that Tanzanians find happiness and success. It is love that makes life rich. No wonder people here are so damn content.

Mental Health. This one really caught me by surprise. In America our obsession with money and success has left us with a severe case of stress addiction. To combat this, instead of cutting out stressors, we found ways to help ourselves to handle them better: yoga, meditation, exercise. At home I do all of these things and more to keep myself relaxed. From the first day here when I went on a run I realized just how absurd all of it was. People in Tanzania don’t exercise, they don’t run, they don’t have gyms – they work, physical labor, and they walk, everywhere (and sometimes they play soccer). People in Tanzania don’t do yoga, they don’t meditate – they drink tea, they take breaks, they give themselves time to relax. Tanzanian’s don’t allow themselves more stress than is absolutely necessary, because when your potential stresses are as serious as theirs are you really should save all your strength.

America needs to rethink the “more, more, forward, forward will fix everything” mindset. Moving forward doesn’t need to mean moving away from the past. We need to admit that aspects of this life we have constructed are wrong. We need to admit that in some areas we have gone too far. We missed some crucial basics when we created this “modern world” and maybe fixing them by turning around isn’t necessarily admitting defeat.

More photos of the original homestay, cooking and relaxing over chai:

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4 Comments

  1. Dale Holden

    In church we talk about how everything we have is a gift from God, and that we are all to be good stewards of our gifts. With that belief, it is easy to be generous, and to give sacrificially for the good of someone else. Nothing is MINE – it is all OURS. And, based upon your blog today, Emily, KISS is a good way to live (“Keep it simple, Steward.” Love you lots, Nana Holden

  2. Dawne-marie Powers

    Oh Emily!!! You have become so wise beyond your years. Thank you for the wonderful observations. I love reading about what you are experiencing. You are a wonderful writer. Dawne-Marie Powers

  3. Dorothy Bowie

    Your blogs always give me so much to think about, reflecting on our own lives here, our family. I will miss reading them…yet I am so excited to see you! I look forward to having long chats over chai…continuing your blog topics in person. Love you to the moon…Mom

  4. Carrie Emmerson

    Bravo!! Thanks for the thoughtful and well-spoken words

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