The Common Sense
The Other Chisnell
24 July 2018
We came down out of the Usambara mountains 2 days ago, leaving behind the pastoral, idyllic life many of us had become so enamored with, and the one that had raised so many questions about our own. Of course, we, well, okay “I” told myself that I was seeing all this clearly and not romanticizing the mountain villages. But of course I was. For a first-time traveler to the “developing world,” I’ve struggled not to impose my own values around the definition of the quality of life, but to listen–carefully–and to learn the lessons perhaps I haven’t even considered. But…
… But there are the pathways and stairs dug out of the red clay connecting one home to another, or to the road and the many rustic wooden kiosks to sell whatever one may, or perhaps to simply gather. There is the funeral procession along the main road, where every male in the village has come – some in their traditional hats and a jacket, some in University of Michigan sweatshirts and Chuck Taylors. There are the women layering various cloths of vibrant patterns for skirts and wraps against the misty chill. There are the farmers digging in the fields while the children run and laugh, and goats wander up and down the hillside. We meet the tea grower, balancing his crop atop his head, who stops to chat with our guide and me. He is dressed in sport coat for the morning rain, a button down shirt, pinstriped pants tucked into rain boots, and some sort of ascot worn and frayed, but still useful, He proudly tells us he has planted 5 hectares this morning. As our guide translates, my eyes grow wide and I turn to look him. He smiles back with a shrug, and warmly welcomes us to the Usambara.
So many paths through this tropical forest, and a story along each one. Then you realize that the path is part of a network of paths, and the village a part of a network of villages, and all these stories combine to form a people and culture. How does one not idealize it?
“We mourn what is lost or perhaps never known in our own society, and wonder if our life of comfort and convenience have driven us to be disconnected and without community.”
Perhaps because they do not. I’ve been so struck by the practicality and resourcefulness of the people. Items are used, reused, repurposed, and repurposed again. Need a mud flap? Lash a piece of cardboard behind the front tire of your motorbike. That crate the Pepsi was shipped in? Put a goat in it and tie it the back of your bike to deliver him to the next village. A machete has no end of uses from cutting a path through the vegetation, grabbing an avocado from the ground and slicing it open, or stripping sugar cane to get at the sweet fibers. A universal tool. Why had I never considered this? How would the people in Ann Arbor, Michigan feel if I started carrying a machete around?
All of this is just common sense. It’s what is needed, so it is what is done. How dare I find it charming, enviable. I rationalize my feelings by arguing to myself, it’s the warmth of the people I envy. Incredibly friendly, curious, and when they speak to you, they look you DIRECTLY in the eye. You cannot look away, and again you feel that connectedness to everyone around you. And the children. Oh my, the children. So joyful and wondering. Again and again, we pass, and there they are smiling and waving from behind a home, down a narrow path, or atop a hill. “Mambo!” “Poa!” “Hiyeeeee” “How are yooooouuuu?!” And delighted every time with any response we give. On several occasions they have followed us as we go, and we find we have collected dozens of them like REI-clad Pied Pipers.
In a few discussions among the group, we have wondered aloud if modernity will corrupt this culture, or how it will. Some members of the group have used words like “pure.” We mourn what is lost or perhaps never known in our own society, and wonder if our life of comfort and convenience have driven us to be disconnected and without community. Is there a tipping point in “modernity” and the use technology where a community goes from a society like we see here to shallow, success-driven individualism? What would it be? Sanitation? Education? Cell phones? Television? How does a society decide how much is enough? Is this society, this culture, resilient enough to withstand the pressures of the western world?
But I come back to the common sense. Again, the practicality of the Tanzanian people make me almost ashamed of my privileged soul-searching. We fear for the loss of this lifestyle, but impose these values on them because of what we desire, what we feel we have lost. I don’t think they would see it this way. This is already a society in transition. They are leapfrogging technologies – electricity through solar panels, communication with cell phones, bypassing landlines altogether. How much more will change in 20 years? Why do we assume the culture “can’t handle it,” and will “be like us?” What is it that they value? It isn’t the inherent corruptibility of technology that destroys a people, but its value system, what the community decides is important. (Ask me again next week about this, I may change my mind.) The danger is not the exportation of our modern conveniences, but the imposition and exportation of our values. How strange that the Tanzanians who leave the villages often want to emulate the West – eat fast food, and live in bigger homes. And here Westerners want to emulate the Tanzanian villagers- live more simply and know your neighbors.
“I will never again use the term ‘developing world,’ and wonder how that even got started.”
So we came down from the mountains. And as we entered a new landscape, the land flatter and more dry, the roads paved, the population more dense, the subsistence living that seemed doable above began to look like poverty below. More trash, the homes rougher, the people perhaps as well. I’m almost starting over. But not quite. I will never again use the term “developing world,” and wonder how that even got started. Are shiny skyscrapers and gleaming interiors the end game? This culture is not developing – it has developed; developed a rich culture that values its elders and community, that welcomes strangers, that approaches problems with unflinching practicality, that wants a better life for its children. What is the measure of the quality of life?
End note: There is the random chickenage in every village and town. You turn, and there’s a chicken. Look to your left, there’s a chicken. What’s that over there? A chicken. A chicken pecking along the path. A chicken in the schoolyard. No, two. Wait, three. Chickens outside the mini-mart. Chickens in the yard. People walking along the road carrying a chicken. A chicken riding on a young boy’s head. Totally random. Totally chicken.
I want to talk more about the relationship with animals here. The casual integration of livestock and the attitude toward them, but it is getting late and I have to turn in. Suffice to say, I believe the people here would be completely befuddled by goat yoga.
Want to follow our Tanzania blog during the trip?
Follow for the latest posts!