Where We’re Going
23 June 2018
For all of the places I’ve traveled, I have yet to meet Africa. Even saying that, I fall into what I know is a language trap: there is no single Africa, though it is convenient for us to say so and therefore think it. I can be more specific and write that we are going to Tanzania, but this supposes, too, that the naming of a nationality somehow captures the identity of a country still relatively new to that status (1961).
There have been numerous efforts to forge a unity inside that nation-state status, to either describe the common traits they share (among 120+ tribes/ethnicities and equal number of languages spoken) or to legally bind policy claims to that identity (like Nyerere’s socialist concept of ujamaa, an economic/development policy, but certainly one that impacted how Tanzania would define the roles of women and families and the purpose of work). I have to admit, after reading a fair amount about it, I really have little idea who Tanzania is.
But that’s perhaps the way it should be. I long ago learned that the more expectations I place on a new country, especially one so different from my own, the harder it is to learn from that place. My ignorance-conceived expectations for India might well have ruined that trip for me had I hung on to them for too long. A country we visit always has its own agenda; our job is to let it teach us what it will.
And I admit, too, that I am hyper-conscious of the role of tourism in the developing world, a role that too often coops traditions and reforms them to meet the paid expectations of Americans. Hawaii’s fake luaus or “visits” to indigenous villages where the people we meet sell us their crafts, then don Grateful Dead t-shirts at 5 pm and drive their motorcycles back to their homes in the cities–these are just a few examples.
“A country we visit always has its own agenda; our job is to let it teach us what it will.”
I’ve struggled for years with this question: what is the value of a ritual commodified and revised to meet the (much-needed) dollars of outside viewers? Most recently I was simultaneously enlightened but horrified that our travels in Rome found us in the Crypt of the Capuchin Friars, who had for generations built rooms and walls from the remains of their brotherhood: and we paid for entry tickets–no other criteria for entry required but our money–to gawk at their holy remains.
Of course, our placement in the Arusha region on Tanzania will offer similar challenges, I know. And I also know that the impact of Western thinking on Tanzanian history long predates our little trip. First Germany and the Britain held dominion over the peoples there, and we will spend our first week exploring that history.
Peace Hand of Tanzania
Our second week will involve a service project that has been defined by the local leaders–we’ll share in the work of bringing bathroom plumbing to a school there. Finally, we’ll spend our third week in the obligatory (but nature-conserving funding of) safari. We’ll meet the Maasai people, as well, and this might be one of the most interesting moments for me: to see how their resistance to full modernization manifests itself.
In all, however, we travel as a group with some common questions of the international politics of development. It’s a boon to have a Model UN team that has been well-versed in these issues from a macro view; now we will meet it together while sharing a common language of policy and our study of Tanzania history. And where we can abstract our politics, the discussions that emerge from our local concrete experiences are where meaning and purpose are made.