Submitted by Maggie Rodney, Global Ambassador in Tanzania, Africa
Jambo everyone! Just as a forewarning, this post may be a little long, but bear with me, I think that this is an extremely important message for anyone considering almost any study abroad program!
There are a lot of aspects of American culture that I’ve had trouble accepting. Things like our wasteful tendencies and lack of appreciation for what we have or our insatiable need to own the latest and greatest of everything. I know this could sound like a gross generalization, but I’m comfortable listing these things as parts of American culture because I am more than willing to admit that I myself have been a part of this plenty of times in my life – certainly more than I’d like to admit.
Yesterday, we did home stays with families in the area around our camp. Each of us was paired with one other student and stayed with the family from 8 in the morning to 5 that evening. Many of the families we stayed with were the families of the staff at Moyo Hill Camp. My host was not only the wife of one of our staff, but also the local tailor in town who has been working on making a pair of sweatpants for me! We spent most of the day helping clean the house, playing football with the kids, and cooking/eating traditional foods such as ugali (a maize-based food that is not quite my favorite) and chapatis (which is like a mix of a crepe, pancake, and fried dough, but that looks like a tortilla – I need the recipe for this one).
The amazing part was that, for the first time, I got to see a family of people who was truly grateful for everything they have, and don’t seem to spend time preoccupying themselves with the things they don’t have. I’m not like that. Between my severe shopping addiction and inability to sustain a savings account, I would have to classify myself as a “wanter”. I’m now much more committed to changing that when I get home – how could I not?
Today we visited a cultural Masai bauma – essentially a bauma is built as a tourist destination that caters to the industry and falls away from many old traditions. I saw a traditional house, bought some beautiful jewelry, and learned the basics of throwing a spear. However, overall, I can’t decide what I feel about this experience. While it was undoubtedly an awesome thing to see, and I had a fantastic time, it became clear by the end that at least some of the people in the village wish that they could live in the true tradition of their ancestors. It’s sad to me that they feel it necessary to cater to tourists, because many tourists prefer a watered-down version of their native culture. They don’t want to see, or cannot handle, the true cultural experience. To me, this is a sad truth to realize – that some of these native peoples can’t live how they want because of tourism; however, they need tourism to help provide for their families – a “Catch 22” situation, for sure.
And here’s what I consider the most important thing I will have to say throughout my entire blog: If you want a safari vacation where all you do is go on game drives and see cool animals, then I would probably suggest saving up and taking a safari vacation. There’s absolutely no problem with that – I certainly want to do that as well at some point. But, that is not what SFS wants to provide you with here, and I don’t think that they should. This trip is, and should be, a true cultural and academic learning experience. Try to take in and understand every moment of it, even if you’re in such culture shock that you feel like you’re going crazy. Admittedly, it’s very hard to be fully prepared to get thrown into a culture and lifestyle so different from the one you’re used to, but I think it’s SO important to at least be fully open to the experience. Most likely, nothing will be like what you expect, or exactly what you think it should be. The fact is, we’re getting to experience lifestyles first-hand that most people will never be able to see in their lives (and will only get to know through stereotypes portrayed on television and in movies), and I, for one, want to see the real cultures.
As a part of The School for Field Studies (SFS) and other similar programs, I hope that we can catalyze change in our own cultures that will allow the Maasai to live in the traditional way if they so wish, or, like the families here do, appreciate our own lives without a perpetual feeling of wanting and needing unnecessary items and to truly appreciate other cultures that have absolutely no similarity to our own.
As an American, I am excited by the prospect that new generations may learn to accept that we truly DON’T have all the answers. When I get home, I hope to grow and make myself a part of the solution, rather than exacerbate the problem.