Wednesday, September 26, 2012

"Welcome home. Look around."

By Ashlie Busone '13

After a lifetime of looking directly in front of me, three months in Tanzania taught me to look around.

Twenty-five hours in the air, one night in a dirty Dar es Salaam hostel, three hours on a crowded bus with chickens and children alike being passed along my lap, a short dala dala ride, and a long walk to the end of a dark red dirt road . . .

There’s a wall there.

There’s a what, where? With over 50 pounds of donated school supplies and tie-dyed t-shirts, and a pack on my back full of three months'-worth of life . . . I wasn’t exactly prepared to scale a large cement wall. So my traveling partner’s stark observation came as an unwelcome challenge.

Sijui, she told me. I don’t know.

Well, that’s great, I thought, staring up at the wall that separated us, clay stained feet and all, from the house we were supposed to move into for the summer. Neither do I.

I contemplated pulling out my trusty Lonely Planet Tanzania guide and scanning the index for “what to do if there’s a literal wall between you and your home,” hoping to find some helpful piece of wisdom like “use the other half of your boarding pass and the dental floss your mother made you pack to construct a pulley system and hoist yourself over the thing,” or “call the Lost Backpacker’s Hotline and ask for Juma, the wall remover—remember to say ‘asante!’”

Instead we called Mustafa, a local friend who found us and laughed for just a few minutes in the traditional Tanzanian way before effortlessly hoisting our bag full of donations onto his head, and gently leading us around the wall and through a neighboring field, over a hill and into our compound. He acted as our gardener, our guard and our source of entertainment for the duration of our stay in Morogoro. Mustafa helped us navigate many more roads, and guided us down paths we never could have found in the first place.

It was the first moment he arrived, though, that struck me. Mustafa’s smile told me he understood our frustration. He could see past our smirks and into our fear. It was as if he could hear the little voices screaming inside my head. The ones that doubted my ability to teach, and laughed at my reasons for “giving up” a summer to volunteer, as well as questioned the validity of our purpose at SEGA, the school we’d be working with. He could probably even hear the jumbled Swahili–English phrases floating around in my mind that resulted in mass confusion (not just for me, but for all of my partners in conversation).

Yes, Mustafa could hear all those voices, but somehow they didn’t prevent him from understanding our attempts (in broken Swahili) to relate to him. He simply took our hands and led us to the place we could figure things out. He situated us among our fears, our anxieties and our challenges, and helped us cultivate a life of beauty for ourselves that made sense among the confusion and the chaos. This was mostly ironic, because we thought we had gone to Tanzania to help people like him do that. We had spent our lives looking up, but he had an innate ability to look around and help those wearing virtual peripheral blinders.

Mustafa’s gesture offered more than a guidebook. At first glance, the photograph above might look like any other: two friends in a field full of flowers in the East African bush . . . frolicking and “changing lives,” and all that it may entail. But in reality, this walk was the beginning of a beautiful adventure into a Tanzanian summer full of lessons. His was the voice that told us “you’ve come home,” and welcomed us as whole people—anxiety and all.

Along with how to eat ugali, how to fashion a headscarf out of a khanga, what to say in response to “habari gani?” and where to go to get a new passport, I’ve learned that when you reach a wall in your path, what you need is someone who will help you look around. The people you thought you’d come to reach will find you first. They will (quite literally) carry you home.

Instead of saying “kwaheri” or “goodbye” to Tanzania, I ended up saying “karibu,” which means “welcome.” Welcome to a new stage in your life, to a new place on the map, to a new way of thinking, loving, and feeling. Welcome home. Look around.

Ashlie Busone '13 is a a Pike scholar majoring in Spanish from Ballston Lake, NY, and is the founder and president of Hippies for Hope.

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