The World is a Village–And We’re All Connected

By way of travel, trade, finance, policy, or just connecting online, every human is closer to one other than ever before.  This is mostly good, but it does threaten our moral preferences.

***

Some years back, a Lutheran mission worker in Tanzanian met a smart, industrious young Tanzanian man. That mission worker helped this young man attend university in the U.S. He did well in school, became a software engineer, married, settled down in Minnesota, and then decided that he wanted to give back to his home country. So he asked everyone he and his wife knew and raised enough money to break ground on a school in his home village in Tanzania. Minnesotan donors wanted to see this school with their own eyes, so they traveled out to East Africa. Then one day this now-grown Tanzanian father of two met a Minnesotan writer looking for an opportunity to go abroad. The Tanzanian man said his school needed computers, so the Minnesotan took 12 laptops across the Atlantic and helped start a computer lab in a place with no electrical grid. This writer has since been able to share his stories from almost anywhere to almost anyone.

All of the elements of this story were made possible by a world that is more connected than ever before. And this is just one of countless examples and potential ways that far-flung people and places are connecting. It’s easier to travel to Africa. It’s easier to ship manufactured items from China to the U.S. It’s easier to hire a web designer–and possible to hire a personal assistant–from India. It’s easier to spread ideas, organize movements, and harder for people in power to get away with what they used to.

In short, through both physical and virtual accessibility, it’s easier to leverage the ideas, talents, resources, and art of a much more populous and diverse pool of people.

It’s awesome.

There are downsides, of course. We can have our identities and personal information abused; we are spied on; jobs are lost when more efficiency means they don’t need you anymore or when they find a cheaper worker across the globe. We regularly acknowledge these consequences of connectedness. I want to address one that I think goes under the radar: you can’t separate yourself from things you may want to. But there’s an upside to that as well…

An evolving U.S. financial system consolidates and intermingles investment vehicles. This distribution allowed toxic assets causing the 2008 financial crisis to infect a broad array of institutions–domestically and internationally–and thus it brought entities from Chase Manhattan Bank to the government of Ireland to their knees. It took the connectedness of government and banking to bail the banks out, and this meant that all of us U.S. taxpayers had to donate money to the largest banking institutions.

The U.S. government offers financial support to all sorts of places, not just because it has deep pockets and zealous people at the controls, but because the system is so intertwined. The UN, the World Bank, the World Health Organization. All these entities are funded by the U.S. This makes our moral convictions and preferences to not pay for things we deem immoral somewhat irrelevant.

One day my mother expressed her disdain for the idea that her tax dollars pay for abortions in the U.S. I agree she shouldn’t have to support something she deems immoral, but the truth is, the U.S. supports abortion internationally already. The UN backs China’s One Child policy, and abortion is a common method of enforcement.

Don’t like circumcision? US AID funds circumcision programs in Tanzania.

Don’t like China? Look around you. The items you see were likely made there.

Don’t like Syrian militants? Surely, we can avoid supporting these guys. Well, this plumbing company from Texas found out recently that their old truck is now being used on the front lines of the Syrian Civil War.

 

Things are so intertwined that we don’t have the clean-cut ability to keep our hands clean in the way we’d like. Society has evolved too far; we’re simply too connected for this vehicle of peace of mind–unless you want to live in a cabin in the mountains or become expats to rural Guatemala or something.

But though one might say then that no one is innocent, I also think that this oneness was inevitable–and that the benefit is that this creates a vibe of “all being in this together.” We’ve got skin in a lot of games. This should cause humanity to care more about more. So not only can we work together through increased connectivity, but we’ll be inspired to. With such global involvement and support–sometimes as watchdogs, sometimes as donors, sometimes as trading partners–we can all work together with these modern methods and means to cure diseases, uncover scandals, bring peace to war-torn regions, to grow economies, to build relationships, and overall, to improve the world to a point where we won’t have the need for those controversial uses of money anymore.

Arusha, Tanzania: The Streets, The College Campus, The Food Market

Last week was a lengthy word story, this week is a story of pictures.

As covered last week, on my way to see the bus company that had damaged my luggage, I met Innocent, a college student dressed in hip urban clothes and whose round, always-half-smiling face gave the impression that he lived up to his name. But he apparently lived by the philosophy of walking softly in his Sketchers but carrying a big stick. And his “stick” was his brother, a locally-known tough guy, who Innocent “swung” when threatening the bus company  if they didn’t refund me some money.

I didn’t know this at the time. I just thought my new companion was simply relaying to the bus company guy was that I thought it justified for a customer to receive some compensation from the transport company when the cargo was damaged on the way.

Very funny, Brandon.

This is East Africa. A little arm twisting goes further than a plea of moral reason.

So with my customer complaint saga behind me, and gleaning the lessons of the way business gets done around these parts, I could now focus on a more standard draw for a visitor–checking out the city. This week’s is about life on the streets, the food market, and the college campus of Arusha, Tanzania. Next week will cover a unique tourist attraction outside of town.

***

After Innocent helped me get my refund, I took the good, arm-twisting Samaritan to lunch:

Innocent at the eatery

After munching on the Tanzanian favorite, chipsi mayai–eggs and potato wedges, the young man had his education to attend to. Specifically, he attended Arusha Technical College and was studying to be an engineer. He just happened to have these couple of hours this day to kill before his classes started–sometimes things just work out like this when improvising on the road.

Since he had been hanging with me up til now, I thought I’d escort him to his class. (Plus, I wanted to see the college.) On the way, we walked through the heart of Arusha.

It’s one of Tanzania’s larger cities and definitely one of its more technologically and stylistically modern and clean cities. It’s fancy third world living, but that’s no put-down. Arusha had a downtown of 3-4 story office/retail buildings; clean, bricked sidewalks with plenty of foot traffic and sidewalk peddlers; equally clean streets with vehicles driving by in a more orderly fashion than I was used to in other areas of the country; roundabouts centered with green grass–one I saw centered with a old tyme street clock and another with a statue of a rhino. Indeed, tourism is a factor in this city’s status–both in how the city caters to the preferences of the foreign visitors and in how these visitors bring their spending money. One section of town we passed on the way to Innocent’s university had a couple of towering, fancy hotels.

But this is still Tanzania. So things like traffic lights are noteworthy. (Iringa, the city I lived near and boasting a population approaching six figures, had none.)

Here are some shots of Arusha:

Efforts were made to keep the city clean. Too bad the bottom fell out of this attempt.

For the American tourists, Arusha has a recognizable shopping center:

Thought they didn’t have a Walmart, they did have another department store chain out of Kenya called Nakumatt that had all the usual offerings of a department store in the U.S. Clashing with the corner store-like places shown above–which is all Iringa had–this department store located in shopping/restaurant section of town was a brightly-lit open space with shiny merchandise neatly displayed with a variety of produce, breads, meats, dairy, snacks, and even some electronics and clothes–and all of it cheaper than at other places.

Streets of Arusha were bustling.

Police or military in the back of this truck

A single, fighting corn plant–a foreshadow for the market I’d visit the next day and that we’ll see at the end of this post.

For now, Innocent and I approached one of the post offices:

We saw signs of tourism:

Nearing the university, we passed by a quieter, park-like area of town. A rough-looking mural was made along a concrete wall to our left:

It depicted the stages of humanity.

Then on the right was a graveyard:

Christian gravestones with a cross; Muslim gravestones with a crescent moon

Then straight ahead from this graveyard, we bumped into the roundabout with the rhino statue as well as a large digital display:

Beyond this lovely scene is the high point of Arusha, Mt. Meru, the second tallest in Tanzania behind world famous Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Innocent’s college was near. But first how about some footage of life on the streets of Arusha–a street spar:

We entered the grounds of Arusha Technical College. Soon after entering through a gate along the sidewalk and making our way onto a walkway over campus lawns, Innocent bumped into another young man he knew. This guy had news for Innocent: class had been canceled. Innocent promptly removed his thinking cap and put on his tour guide one and showed me around his place of study:

Dorms

Soccer field with Mr. Meru beyond

Lecture halls

After the campus tour, we went to that department store, Nakumatt. I bought some ice cream to thank Innocent for the company and for showing me around.

***

The next day Innocent wanted to continue being tour guide for his new American friend. Like many places I’ve been, I received abnormally warm (and occasionally abnormally cold) treatment for being an American. In East Africa especially, though, many did consider it a treat to befriend an American. I suppose white people are the ones they see on TV, who come here with all the money.

Before we took off for a striking tourist site Innocent had in mind, I came back into Arusha on their local van transports to see more of the city before we met up in the late morning. This gave me time to see the food market.

It wasn’t the biggest market I had seen in the country, but it featured a lot of the same elements: the produce, sacks of beans and rice, and the cramped conditions of narrow walkways through the tarp-covered stalls. One new element–for good and bad–was a couple of young guys approaching to compete for my business. But they weren’t selling food. They just sort of stuck themselves to my side pointing out certain aspects of the market and telling me I had full access to the market with them as my guides. They didn’t mention money, but I knew that if I didn’t shake off them, that I’d be expected to pay. One in jeans, blue button up, and baseball cap said he was a student at a local college. Who knows? He could just as well have been like the men who try to get you to their bus company at bus stands for the sake of a small commission and/or a score of the drug they’re addicted to.

I didn’t shake him. That was a good thing. He turned out to be a nice and knowledgeable fella. We even played billiards. :)  Here was the market:

Uh oh, potato sack was too full I guess.

Next were the rice, beans, and such:

Then my guide showed me a display of the Maasai tribe’s traditional medicines. Like the witch doctor I visited in the southwest corner of Tanzania, this display was an offering of plants, tree barks, roots, and even some antler to cure your common ailments:

Finally, in the center of the market was a two-story concrete structure with a restaurant of fried food, a couple of bathrooms, and a lounge with a couple of pool tables:

The guys playing stepped aside to let my guide and I play. I said we should wait. They insisted I play. Whether this was because my guide had clout or because this was the kind of local hangout where a white outsider turned heads, I don’t know. If so, this market demonstrated the classic Catch-22 of finding the local nooks of a foreign country: getting to see a more genuine slice of life, but people reacting to you being there.

My camera turned off a couple of vendors who wished I wasn’t there. But here we got in a good game of pool:

Here’s a little footage of the market and our billiard game:

Soon after shooting pool, Innocent arrived. I thanked my guide and gave him some money. Now I was eager to see the attraction that local insider Innocent said had snakes and camel rides.

He turned out to be wrong–or at least incomplete. The place had snakes, camels, and much more…

 

The 2014 Human of the Year

Time Magazine just announced their annual award for Person of the Year. They’ve been doing this for so long that the award gets attention no matter how right or wrong people think Time is in its choice. It’s like the Oscars. They have that popular momentum. Even those making Time’s publicized “short list” for their award will make headlines like Oscar nominees.

All the attention surrounding this isn’t so much about Time getting it right, as it is about starting the conversation about the people who affected the world the most in 2014. That’s a fun conversation to have and ponder. And that’s why it has such staying power. Time Magazine is just the chosen catalyst for this discussion.

But while getting it right isn’t the most important thing, I do think it’s important for the magazine to live up to what the award is supposed to be for. Over the years, they seem to have drifted from their purpose: to recognize the man, woman, group, or concept that, according to Time, “had the most influence on the world during the previous 12 months.”

They aren’t doing what they’ve set out to do. So here at the The Periphery, I’m going to give it a shot.

I considered doing this last year. The Pope was awarded ahead of who I thought was the clear choice: Edward Snowden. But I understood the reasoning behind Pope Francis being picked. His presence did mark a monumental shift in the Catholic Church, and it seems every month he says something that turns lots of heads and gets the world talking.

This year, though, I can’t give Time the benefit of the doubt. Their “Person of the Year” went to a handful of people who fought the Ebola virus. Nothing wrong with honoring these heroes, but this award isn’t about the heroic; it’s about the influential. And the answer to the question of influence, to me, was already becoming clear since last spring and only crystalized as the year progressed. My choice did make Time’s short list, but that doesn’t necessarily mean much. Also making this list was NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who has zero influence outside the U.S.; Taylor Swift, who has zero influence to anyone over 35; and the Ferguson protesters, who’s influence is so new as to be impossible to know if they’ll even have any at all.

So for the sake of truly picking the most influential on the planet for 2014, ThePeriphery.com selects as their Human of the Year: Vladamir Putin.

This isn’t an honor. I’m not a Putin fan. But his actions last spring behind the scenes in invading and annexing Crimea flew in the face of the most powerful countries on the planet–right under their noses–and tested the policy and international relations of these nation’s politicians.

The whole Western world was put on alert with borderland, and largely powerless, Ukraine in the balance. This nation had already had been under popular turmoil at the beginning of this year. Known as the Ukrainian Revolution of 2014, their protests and riots took down their leader. The cause for this was the classic battle of Russia vs. The West. Did the Ukrainians want a pro-Russian leader or a pro-Western one? To the those living on Ukraine’s island, Crimea, their choice was made for them when pro-Russian forces took over the administrative centers of the local government with military force.

But then the people in Crimea voted and allegedly did so with a whopping 96% in favor of joining Russia. If even close to accurate, this was an interesting find, highlighting the allegiance of a lesser-known part of the world to a power infamous to us in the West. And so despite the supposed overwhelming desire of the Crimeans, political leaders in the West did not recognize their voice.

This wasn’t just about Crimea though. Nor was this just about the other regions of east Ukraine that pro-Russian forces are also attempting to take. The annexations of these relatively small pieces of land represent something much bigger. They put into the forefront the days many thought were behind them–invasions of Western nations to settle Russia vs. Western conflicts. It put Europe and the rest of the West into a time machine back to scarier days of the Cold War.

Yet this is 2014 defined by the internet and an evermore complicated distribution and international reliance on energy, business, and finance. This is supposed to be a world of greys, not black and white borders to cross with tanks. It’s supposed to be diplomacy and policy, as such entangled partnerships of trade and travel makes military action seem crude and outdated.

Indeed, an evermore connected world of travel entered the conflict with what is hopefully its horrifying peak. On July 17, Malaysia Airlines flight 17, a passenger jet carrying 283 travelers from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was shot down flying over Ukraine by either pro-Russian or pro-Ukrainian forces.

In complete contrast to the plane attack, 2014 began with a Russian act of global diplomacy and good will: the Winter Olympics in Sochi. 2014 ends with raw confusion stirred up by the conflict that Putin seems to relish. Why take over these small chunks of land when Russia has so much undiscovered country to the east? Power, influence, unresolved history, because he can.

Putin’s behind-the-scenes actions aren’t just challenges over these pieces of land. They are the acts of someone putting pride before progress, reopening the wounds of an old conflict, and forcing the West to consider military in their backyards against an interdependent and powerful nation.

On Sunday I Visited My 100-Year-Old Great-Great-Aunt Olive Hendrickson

My great-great-aunt Olive was born in 1914, and her birthday is in June. That means she’s 100.

Perhaps the thing I regret most about being in East Africa for most of this past year was missing her birthday party. I tried to make up for it on Sunday.

I drove down to her apartment in South St. Paul. She lives in a complex for the elderly, but not assisted living. I walked into a spacious, Christmas-decorated entryway that was warm in style and temperature. I then climbed the staircase to her second floor apartment. I entered a space of off whites with crocheted afghans and pillows in the living room and figurines on the windowsills. Ollie sat comfortably on one of her easy chairs. She looks good for 100.

After the usual welcomes, come ins, and nice to see yous, I presented a gift of a handkerchief from a church in Iringa, Tanzania which had printed upon it  a bible verse in Swahili.

Only I had forgotten the translation.

“Ollie, do you have a bible?” I asked.

“Hm?”

“Do you have a bible?”

“Oh yes,” she said excitedly in her old lady voice. “Let me show you something.”

So she hopped up from her chair and walked to her bedroom. She brought out a 60-year-old bible that had been given to her late son.

And I got busy looking up the verse on the handkerchief.

While I paged for the translation, Olive’s other company filled the void. I wasn’t the only one to visit this day. Her 53-year-old granddaughter was there. So was granddaughter’s son, Olive’s 28-year-old great-grandson. Finally, he had his daughter there bouncing around as two-year-olds do. She, of course, was Olive’s great-great-grandchild.

Grandma Ollie, as they call her, complemented her great-great-granddaughter’s shoes.

“Aren’t those pretty?” she said to her little princess, Ava.

There’s a lot one can consider when seeing a scene like this: five generations; the sea of change that has taken place in the world over the last 100 years, and so the vast differences in life experiences for these two; yet also the similarities and universality of the human experience and condition. They’re at opposite ends of the life cycle, and both get the chance to have this intimate look at life at either end by way of their family.

Ava is just two, so likely won’t remember this day, but Olive sure will. She’s sharp and physically able. Despite one of her daughter’s protestations, she enjoys taking the assisted transportation to Walmart. I think a big part of her ability to get around so well is her height. She was never even five feet when young. Now she’s four foot four. I imagine a six foot elderly woman having a much harder time getting around.

But she is 100, and she likes her silence. In between chats, she just liked to stare out her window or just generally around in the living room. She’d laugh at the random things said by Ava. She’s answer questions we’d ask. Otherwise, I wondered what she thought about. She’s lived such a full life with so many lives made possible and touched because of her. This counters the obvious: that it must be hard to age and become this distant with the fast-paced world outside her window. I wonder if she feels left behind.

Ollie still participates, though. At the end of the visit, she wanted to give me something in return. She pulled out her work, a bag of scarves she had recently crocheted. I got to pick out my favorite.

It’s amazing that I can have a relationship with the sister of my great-grandfather, that I can wear the scarf freshly crocheted by her 100-year-old hands. Then again, the verse on the handkerchief was Luke 1:37. With God, all things are possible.

*For more about my great-great-aunt Olive–life for her growing up in the Upper Midwest, what life is like for her now–here’s a piece I wrote 2.5 years ago after sitting down and interviewing her leading up to her 98th birthday.

Arusha, Tanzania: Relationships and Lawlessness

When I came up with my itinerary for my year-ending trek, I knew it would be a series of stops around Lake Victoria. But I also knew I’d be kicking off this trek with a stop off the lake: Arusha in Tanzania’s northeast.

Arusha had been mentioned by various travelers I met throughout my time in Tanzania. Indeed, it may be the most popular city in the country for tourism. And whereas “touristy” may turn some people off, I acknowledged that this label was established for good reason: The Serengeti, the Maasai tribe, and Mt. Kilimanjaro in the distance.

Yet I didn’t do a safari here; nor did I climb Kilimanjaro. I met a university student who showed me a lesser-known but more intimate tourist site. But first, he used his connections to get the bus company to refund my ticket.

***

I woke in Arusha in a comfortable king size bed with soft white sheets, a big white comforter, and thick wooden bedposts rising from the corners and hoisting a mosquito net around me. (These thin, finely meshed fabrics are a standard sleeping feature in malaria-ridden Tanzania. I always thought them to add a cozy feeling of being in my own little nook when sleeping. Then again, I hated not being able to just flop down on my bed because the net was in the way.)

But I had zero complaints this day. To stay in such a nice bed here in East Africa was beyond a mere pleasant surprise. For not only was it way better than I expected, but it came after a night of unpleasant surprises.

The rain fell over the darkened 13th and 14th hours of our bus ride into Arusha the night before. (This was where we left off last time.) This out-of-season rain sneaked up us. It also crept into the bus’s belly compartment. My suitcase was in there, on the receiving end of a shower spraying up from the asphalt. And it didn’t contain just my traveling belongings. It had all my belongings, because I was concluding this trek by flying back to Minnesota. Back up top in the bus, I was blissfully ignorant of my suitcase’s water torture.

As we rode into Arusha, I texted the person I’d be staying with. My host told me where to go once I disembarked at the station. The bus pulled in just far enough into the parking lot, so its butt end wasn’t in the way of the oncoming traffic. I walked off with my bag to see buildings surrounding the dark, open lot. But they were a fuzzy memory and backdrop for the traffic of the nearby busy street, the activity of the other riders crowding around the bus waiting for their luggage, and then the constant hassle of the rain. I made an acquaintance with a waiting taxi driver. He took it upon himself to help me with my luggage. So I walked under an awning of the nearby bus stop. My jean bottoms were soaked.

Soon the driver came over with my bag. It was just as wet. I just hoped it kept the water from getting inside. I put it in the trunk of the cab. Then I hopped in the back seat and we drove off.

We rode out of the lit up city streets to the quiet outskirts. After a couple of miles, we turned onto a silent, darkened dirt road. We got lost. The driver got on the phone with my host. I had texted him earlier on this ride to know how much a cab to his house would cost me. “10,000,” he texted back. This meant ten thousand Tanzania shillings–about six bucks.

With the woods at our side, my taxi driver was directed to turn around. We were lost, but not far from our destination. And soon we spotted in the taxi’s headlights my host standing outside along his driveway. We pulled up to the young man in t-shirt and shorts. He stood in the now-lighter drizzle just in front of the black metal gate of his property. I hopped out and greeted Manu, the thirty-something, average-statured, goatee-wearing, Chilean-born, Italian-blooded Tanzanian transplant.

I turned and asked the driver how much for the ride.

“Mmm, 35,000,” he said to me almost under his breath.

I responded with ten.

He went off.

“Ohhaahhh!” he moaned pitifully. “I took you all this way!” said the medium-built, middle-aged Tanzanian man now with anger. “I can’t even pay for gas!”

Manu stepped in. “Don’t treat us like we’re stupid! I live here three years. I pay ten whenever I go to town.”

I said I’d give fifteen. The man was still upset–or at least pretending to be. If so, I bought his act and gave another two on top of it.

As we entered the house, Manu asked, “You didn’t give them more than 15, did you?”

“I gave him 17.”

“That why they they do this. They know it works.” Manu responded plainly.

Manu was a true traveler. Home-schooled all his life as his parents bounced from country to continent. From childhood and into adulthood, Manu had traveled and lived in more countries that I have fingers and toes. He lived here in Arusha with his wife, Pru, an intelligent-looking, glasses-wearing Cambodian-Chinese woman whom Manu had met traveling in Cambodia. She was a good match, a woman of the world who globe-trotted right alongside Manu most recently throughout Africa and now settled in here in Tanzania. She worked at a nonprofit servicing women in need. He worked for an animal humane society caring for stray dogs. And in this city, that meant they were allowed to have this modern home of shiny white tiled floors and smooth white walls.

I arranged my stay in Arusha with this young couple via a travel community website called Couchsurfing. Simply sign up, request a place to crash when in town, and if able, put your own couch (or spare room) on the site for visitors coming to your town.

Of the 15 nights ahead on this East Africa trek, all but five would in the homes of perfect strangers. Of course, prior to arrival you communicate and examine your host’s profile. The glue binding the site together are these mainly young people interested in sharing their home with other world travelers and then–as was my case–an interest in a local’s angle on the place one is visiting. Oh, and typically the host doesn’t ask for a dime. That’s a pretty sweet deal for my volunteer’s stipend.

It was late, but before I could go to bed, I had to attend to my suitcase. Pru showed me the laundry room. I rolled my suitcase inside along the tiled flooring. I wasn’t eager to see what was inside. Unzipping its three sides, I flopped open the dripping wet top to unveil my collection of clothes, books, and a few electronics doused with the rainwater.

I told Manu and Pru that I was going to try and get some money for the damages the next day. They each exhaled a version of a skeptical “good luck.”

“Maybe if you went to the bus office tonight,” said Pru. But even then she wouldn’t count on it, she said. And now that I was waiting a day? Forget it.

***

I sat up from my king-sized bed, lifted the mosquito net up over my head, and readied for the day. Pru had gone in to work. Manu was still home and showed me their washing machine. So I washed my clothes and hung them outside on their wire clothes line in their yard:

Next I went into town. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a tour of it having me eyeing and taking in all its new aspects. I was on a mission. Precious time would be wasted on this likely fruitless attempt at a refund, but I was upset and, by the standards I had come to know from my life in the U.S., was owed a refund. Somehow I kept this entitlement mentality despite having been in Tanzania for eight months at this point. But I was also simply curious to see how they’d respond to a consumer complaint. I came from a place where the customer is always right and sometimes holds this thinking to an entitled fault. Here in Tanzania? Well, I paid the bus company. They got me here. So that was probably the end of it.

I hitched a ride back into town on a dalla dalla–the “town buses” which are old Toyota vans–from where our dirt road met the main tar road less than a mile away. After waiting alongside this intersection for only a handful of minutes, a van pulled up, and I was on my way into town. I squeezed in the middle bench and said hello to the young man to my right at the window seat. He had a gentle face trying to grow some facial hair. His shorter-stockier frame had on loose-fitting grey slacks, a designer black t-shirt, and a navy blue hoodie with colorful dot patterns and a neon green zipper. He definitely looked more “city” than the dusty, torn jeans and worn t-shirts from the young men back in my village.

I said hello. He said hello back and added, “Where are you going?”

Not wanting to explain my ordeal with the sopping suitcase, I just said that I was going to the bus station to get a ticket. He invited himself along to come help me get the ticket. I agreed as I didn’t mind the company. Then he introduced himself. Innocent was a student at Arusha Technical College.

“Your English is so good,” I said to him. “Did you go to English-medium secondary school?”

“Yes,” he said back, and then he shared with me more about his life. His parents worked for the government-operated electrical company, Tanesco. He himself was studying to be an electrician.

After just a few minutes, we disembarked having arrived into Arusha town center, a busy, but not cramped city of 4-5 story buildings lining the streets and housing restaurants, clothing stores, small grocers, money exchangers, and then a Samsung store with their latest smartphones and tablets on display. The tourism industry seems to have pushed Arusha toward the forefront of technological modernity in East Africa.

As we walked toward the bus station, I told Innocent what the real deal was. It didn’t deter his teaming up with me. In fact, is may have secured it. We approached the station, at which things suddenly got a lot busier. It was a large parking lot with dalla dallas and buses lined within. People were walking about as passengers; salespeople with drinks, snacks, and knickknacks; and the reliably aggressive men working for small commissions to reel a customer into a bus company’s office to use their service.

They see a white person, and they see green.

“Hello, sir! Where are you going?” one say rapidly as if they think you’re running behind. They also say this assuming all white people know English–because frankly, almost all do. Innocent and I ignore or said outright to the few men who approached that we were not here for a ticket. Then we walked up the steps into the office center for the bus companies.

Inside this solid, but dirty building in the middle of the parking lot were the storage unit-sized office stalls for these bus services. We found the service I used and entered. The same heavy set lady who acted as the bus’s conductor on my route from Iringa to Arusha was sitting behind the counter. Cool. She would be alble to verify that I was on the bus, as could my receipt. After she got done working with another customer, I approached the counter and explained the situation. I then whipped out my camera and showed pictures of the evidence–the books, the clothes, and the suitcase damaged.

She talked in Swahili to another guy standing around, who called another guy, who called over an older man. The chain of command was linked by a couple standers-around evidently. Finally, a shaved-headed man in slacks and a button-up walked in. He seemed like the owner or manager of the place. He looked at my pictures for 20 seconds of silence and then ruled that I would have to go to Iringa, as they were the branch responsible. I figured that might happen. I wasn’t surprised. In fact, I had been surprised that they had been this attentive thus far. But I still argued.

I said to the man that they are all the same company. So his branch should pay me, and Iringa can pay them back. He said that that’s not how it works, and I thought that as much a matter of institutional framework as it was a a lack of concern, I wasn’t going to get my money. But then a stout man in a green officer’s uniform came by; so did another man from another bus company, seemingly there out of legitimate concern rather than competitive muckracking. The officer apparently had some weight as he kept the bald-headed owner’s attention. They talked at the entrance of the tiny little stall vendor for a few minutes. These two new men saying things that the owner disagreed with. It seemed that they thought he should pay. I just sat down and looked a bit forlorn–figured it might help my case.

The owner came back to tell me that I needed to present the evidence. I had washed most of it. But I whipped out a couple of books. The ace up my sleeve. And then Innocent jumped in to talk in their language. They spoke for a good two minutes. I stood by and watched. Then the manager offered me 10,000. My ticket was 36,000, the amount I had asked from the start. So I said I needed at least 20,000. He meekly took out and handed me two pink 10,000 shilling bills.

I was happy. The owner, who somehow suddenly seemed to care what I thought, said caribou tena–”welcome again”–and shook my hand, and then I thanked Innocent by buying him some chipsi mayai (eggs and potatoes dish) at a nearby hole-in-the-wall restaurant.

Innocent at the eatery

I asked Innocent over lunch what he said to the bus company boss. He responded that the bus company gave me money, because he told them that if they didn’t give me some money, that we were going to stay there and prevent customers from coming in–that we’d already been doing that by being there as long as we did. He told me he also shared with the boss about his relationship with a guy a couple of years older (and a couple of pounds heavier) who he called his “brother.” This “brother” was also known to the bus company as a trouble maker. Innocent told me that he said to the boss that if he didn’t pay, then Innocent was going to ask his “brother” to come pay them a visit.

I stood listening to this with an expression entirely different from the passive, peaceful look on my face when Innocent was talking to the bus company boss in Swahili. I had assumed when listening to them speak that he was simply stating my case to them. Now at lunch I was hearing him describe how we were threatening them. I wonder what they thought of me standing by looking ordinary during this dialogue.

In a place lacking the institutions for consumer rights, it came down to people skills and who you know. Taxi drivers not metered will trying to squeeze out a few extra shillings where they can. Bus companies aren’t going to give out refunds. Why would they? Good will? Practically speaking, I had no recourse. I just got lucky and met a guy willing to help me out.

The book “Why Nations Fail” talks about how the institutions of the country determine its prosperity. They’d argue a place like Tanzania would benefit from a more formal structure of pricing and business policy. But that’s not the culture. It’s a wheeling and dealing kind of place, and I assume the other passengers just took their soaked luggage in stride.

I spent half a day on this, roughly a quarter of my time in Arusha. But I don’t consider it a waste. I learned about and experienced the fabric of their commercial institutions, learned about the Tanzanian culture as a result, and made a friend along the way. Indeed, I wasn’t just lucky to have him help me with my refund. The next day, Innocent showed me around to a more intimate tourist attraction in the area.

Ferguson and The Phenomenon of Myth

Myths are vital to the human species. We use them to encapsulate wisdom, to learn lessons, to be inspired, and to have heroes.

Most myths are quite old–the dawn of literacy. Others are only as old as our nation. Author Tony Horwitz’s great book, “A Voyage Long and Strange” examines North America exploration in the forgotten century–the 1500′s–between Columbus’s voyage and the Mayflower landing in 1620.

In it, he also examines the power of myth, because many people he spoke to when visiting Plymouth Rock–the site the pilgrims landed–believed that to be the start of America despite all the Spanish exploration in the decades before.

At first annoyed that these tourists were wrong and stubborn in not acknowledging the facts of their own history, he ends the book with one last visit to Plymouth Rock with a renewed appreciation for people’s beliefs. It’s not the dates and even the facts that are important, he realizes; it’s the belief in a story great and powerful.

The unique feature of the Ferguson saga is that we get to see the phenomenon of myth rolled out in real time, and so we also get to see butting heads between those who assume the mythical aspects of Ferguson and those like Horwitz–wanting the facts to be the most important aspect.

On Sunday, five St. Louis Rams football players exited the tunnel from their locker room to the football field. As they made their way onto the field, they thought they’d do something to show their support and solidarity for the nearby community still smoldering from the fires of the riot. They stopped and held their hands in the air–a gesture of being unarmed, innocent, and not wanting violence.

I believe in their hearts they were promoting a good cause rather than making a statement against the police. The police department of St. Louis, though, didn’t see it that way. From their perspective, here were five NFL players making the argument that a police officer shot an innocent man holding his hands in the air, and that this was a sign that they stood with the rioters.

The police were appalled at this gesture given the testimony in the recent case: “It is unthinkable that homegrown athletes would so publicly perpetuate a narrative that has been disproven over and over again,” a police spokesperson said. Then many reacted to this with cynicism that the police would object to a sign of peace.

But that’s the thing: this isn’t a disagreement over the facts or a disagreement that both sides want peace. It’s a confusion of perspective: whether one views Ferguson as myth or reality, a romantic morality tale or the sobering facts on the ground.

To a good number of Americans, the Ferguson case will go down as an episode in a series of injustices for the black community, a key point in the fight for equality. The facts of the case are largely irrelevant just as the facts of the Mayflower and the Pilgrims don’t dissuade Americans from enjoying Thanksgiving and all that it represents to them and their history.

There’s a discussion to be had about the harm this susceptibility to myth can cause, but first we need to understand that this is what’s going on here–not that the Rams players are willfully ignoring evidence to promote a cop-hating, riot-supporting agenda.

***

There is at least a potential for abuse when subscribing to things that aren’t true—superstition, stereotypes, or myths. And people of all political stripes and skin colors believe in their own. Certainly, store owners and their employees and Officer Wilson, the shooter in this case, will wish people to see the facts rather than view the case as a representation for something else.

I think like anything, if used by good-hearted people, the power of myth is used for good. But I also think that the more aware we become, the less we’ll need myths. We’ll realize that we can be inspired to work toward noble ends without having to invent a false narrative to motivate us.

Thoughts on Ferguson

A ruling, a reaction. We’ve seen this before. Violence, fires, businesses destroyed. Besides these obvious consequences, the negative effect of the Ferguson riots is that they will further polarize the country.

Watching the riots on television will elicit very different reactions. I can imagine one group seeing the fires and then thinking of the family of victim, Michael Brown. They’ll think about the people standing in the streets waiting for a decision from the jury, hoping that this time some justice could be realized for a harm against a member of their community—and then their letdown and anger that it didn’t come. This group will see the destruction from the flames representing the flames of racism at work in America.

They’ll shake their heads and think, “See, this is what happens in a racist society.”

But then we have a whole other group.

These folks will watch the looting and vandalism and wonder how this community can cry for justice all the while performing acts of wanton destruction. They’ll feel not pity for the black community, but the justification for targeting. They’ll see the specifics of the legal arguments at work in the grand jury’s decision, rather than it representing a larger theme.

They’ll shake their heads and think, “Look at what they’re doing to their own community.”

I think to come to an understanding of the problem (and maybe the start of a solution) you need to see where different perspectives are right.

You also need to consider other perspectives outside the dichotomy.

Most people see the riots as angry people responding to a jury’s decision. But I’m thinking that if you broke down the make-up of the rioters, you’d find a fair amount who are simply going along for the ride.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell said that humans aren’t looking for the meaning of life; they’re looking for the moments they feel most alive. Unfortunately, we seem to have a population of people in the U.S. who have such a need to feel alive (and such a need to let out anger) that they take opportunities from World Series wins to court cases to let it all out.

The Ferguson riots will make world news today, and the narrative will be that race relations in the U.S. are troubled and the situation is boiling over. But I wonder how much of it is really just a bunch of youths looking for a chance to break stuff.

Bottom Line:

Those sympathetic to the victims of racism are right. There is inherent racism. Perhaps if Brown had been white, none of this would have happened. It’s not fair.

But those less sympathetic and more analytical are right, too. The rioters are adding to the negative stereotypes of how black people are viewed. And Brown wasn’t the innocent victim those who are angry like to believe.

Seeing both sides is enlightening, but it’s also hard to come together. The more extraordinary the riots, the more polarized the reactions to it. It’s hard to reach or see across a chasm to the other side of the drama unfolding before you to understand how others might view this unjustifiable destruction.

“At least 12 businesses burned down including Walgreen’s, Little Caesar’s, O’Reilly Auto Parts, Auto By Credit, Beauty World, Sam’s Meat Market, Autozone, Public Storage, JC Wireless, and more.”

A friend on social media said yesterday, “I wonder what burning down the Little Caesers means… For the 50 or so people that worked there, it means now NO JOB.”

And he’s a proud liberal.

Ferguson shop owner

I’m hopeful that all the exposure and the cold (or ablaze) reality of how ugly riots are will allow America (and perhaps beyond) to get a grip on its tendency to break out into mob mayhem.

I think the reaction to the jury’s decision is as indicative of a problem with the U.S. as was the impetus for it.

East Africa: A Filthy, Beautiful Place

On September 15, 2014, my two-week, three-country East Africa trek began.

Though much of my previous activity in Tanzania had been off the cuff, these final two weeks were planned even before I left the U.S.–thus my departing flight from north-neighboring Kenya.

This grand finale tour of East Africa was to include all the countries. (“East Africa” means different things in different circumstances–geographic, political. I refer to the East African Community, a political affiliation of five countries. And I wanted to hit them all.) I knew that though we Americans have a stereotype of the region, that there was also great variety within this part of the world:

But I also realized about halfway through my time in Tanzania that getting to East Africa’s little sisters of Burundi and Rwanda was going to take more than a dream to realize. Like my mother often said when I was a boy about my eyes being bigger than my stomach and taking a plateful I’d never be able to finish, my adult travel self tried to swallow too big of an idea that–when faced with the reality of time, logistics, poor travel conditions, and financial restrictions–had to be parred down to a more reasonable effort: hugging Lake Victoria.

First stop: Arusha, Tanzania. The countries Rwanda and Burundi would have to wait.

Too bad, too. I heard wonderful things about the clean, lush, organized nation of Rwanda, a country only 20 years removed from incredible bloodshed, but coming out the other side with more order than ever before. The idea of such a place reminded me of Cambodia in Southeast Asia, whose own genocide in the 70s was felt in the population. I wanted to compare these small, scarred countries. I wanted to compare Rwanda to Burundi, a supposed real wildcard in the region–hard to get to and the ying to Rwanda’s yang according to a coffee shop owner in Minneapolis, who told me of his travels to the region to see where his beans originated. Crossing the border into Burundi from Rwanda, he said, was like entering a new world. Trash everywhere, poorer residents. I was curious.

But alas, I’d have to go without. And that was okay. There was plenty to see on the road ahead. This post deals with the trashy/lovely, yin/yang just within Tanzania.

I woke early the morning of the 15th of September, 2014, to catch the bus to Arusha, a city with much tourism appeal and a good first stop before starting around the giant lake. It wasn’t too terribly far on the map, but with Tanzanian roads, plenty of stops, and an indirect route, the ride stretched over 12 hours.

The bus was fine by most standards. It wasn’t as plush or spacious as some I’ve ridden in the U.S. and elsewhere, but it wasn’t bad. Here’s a shot of a similar bus I’d take later in this trip:

With 12+ hours of driving ahead, I guess the driver wanted to make good time out of the gate. With daylight breaking, a long construction zone greeted us just outside of Iringa. No matter. The driver took the temporary dirt frontage roads when need be so to not be interrupted by pesky heavy equipment or mounds of gravel. I was fine with the nonstop progress but did wish he would have progressed at what I would have considered a more reasonable speed. There were frequent weaves around the obstacles, the driver handing the bus “like a jeep,” I remember thinking. The tall, long vehicle had me worrying the thing was going to tip when going through shallow ditches between the frontage and main dirt roads.

As dark blues of dawning sky turned to lighter shades, I grew even more concerned as I could now see everywhere and everything the driver was doing. Rocks, overhanging tree branches–he swerved to miss, and I became angered at the stunt driving.

Thankfully, the construction ended after only a handful of miles, and when the day was in full shine, the asphalt road was once again the comforting foundation of our path. I could look out the window and enjoy the new terrain and new villages of new regions of this beautiful country.

And things in Tanzania change quickly.

My village just south of Iringa was wavy hills of crops. Here just north of the city, things were flat and more barren. Then came an elevation shift. Iringa sits on a giant plateau, and an hour into our journey came the winding road down to the central Tanzanian plains. Similarly dry and sparse as it was atop the plateau, it was nonetheless a novel experience being someplace new within Tanzania. After descending, we stopped along the road at a small town. Suddenly, people in the same clothes as those in my village, selling the same items as those I’d seen in Iringa, felt more objectively “Tanzanian.” I guess I had gotten used to the settings in which I lived the previous months, forgetting or losing the freshness of such a different home than the one I had known. All it took was a few miles to re-energize and refresh this idea that I was in East Africa.

On we went, mile after mile after village after bus stop.

Towns blossoming

Italians arrived in the decades past and brought to this central Tanzanian region their wine-making craft.

Salespeople congregated around buses to peddle food, drinks, and even vases.

Then came the filthy…

I’m not sure the exact point I recognized it, but passing through a town about halfway to Arusha, I thought to myself, “Man, there’s a lot of litter here.”

The space between the road and the buildings was peppered with plastic bags, styrofoam food containers, plastic bottles, etc. Just a bunch of trash–as normal in these spaces between foot and vehicle traffic as was the grass.

Immediate thoughts came to mind–”How do they live with all that trash?”–supplanted with imagining myself in their shoes and how normal it would be if having grown up in within this environment.

Though Iringa wasn’t this littered–and so having me realize not all parts of Tanzania were this way–this stretch of strewn trash also wasn’t restricted to this town. For a good hour to two, my eyes were peeled to take in the consistency of this decoration.

I looked out into the fields to a remarkable display of litter. I assumed it collected from passing cars. But perhaps it simply blew from the nearest town, across the road and then caught up in the first lucky bush. Thus, the bushes and trees nearest the road were the heaviest freckled with bags so regular, they looked like an uglifying, unkempt fruit. And litter so dense in the shallows of the fields that it seemed a crop to harvest as well.

Then came another town that upped the ante on the first and offered their own demonstrations of litter like leaves in the fall.

In all, I look back with a montage of memories, seeing more litter in any one plane of sight than I had ever seen outside of a landfill. And how it stretched! Mile after mile. More than once, I thought that it looked like a dumpster exploded. If so, there must have been a good thousand dumpsters in a row, set off in succession. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! Litter like confetti.

I had to just press record and shoot some video:

More likely than exploding dumpsters, this was simply a population with a way of life undeterred by what people in my culture would deem an offense to the senses.

I thought back to my time in China, where I also saw pollution worse than I was used to. I learned there that litter, and the distaste thereof, isn’t just an argument about health. It’s aesthetics. I thought the litter was ugly. The people in China and here in central Tanzania didn’t seem to. And really, a lawn of plastic bags isn’t going to hurt anyone.

But they certainly do clash with the aesthetic ways of the West.

Thankfully, there are also many areas of the country untouched by the hand of man, allowing for more varied beauty in one country and area this size than anywhere else I’ve been–perhaps ever will see.

As we continued north into less population and more structure, the land became picture-worthy for another reason.

Indeed, I would at this time text an American friend back in Iringa and encourage him to trek cross-country. The terrain was so lovely that my admiration for the landscapes blanketed any remembrance of the recent blanket of litter on the central plains.

Finally, we reached the northern plains: the Serengeti, as you may have heard of it as.

The day gave way to dusk. Darkness stole my views outside. But I began to look ahead through the windshield to see spattering glitter–rain reflecting on the lights of oncoming cars before being swept to the side by the windshield wipers.

Odd.

It was yet the dry season. I didn’t think that traveling to the north part of the country would alter the rainy/dry season rhythm I had been used to. It turned out it was odd timing on the part of nature to offer a shower. And it turned to be bad timing for my sake. Bus belly compartments aren’t waterproof. And my suitcase was also getting a shower.

After a good chunk of minutes, the darkness of night was interrupted by more than just oncoming vehicle headlights. Buildings were frequent as we entered the outskirts of one of Tanzania’s largest cities, Arusha. I texted the people I’d be staying with, a young husband/wife members of a Web travel community.

I’d have two days to enjoy this city of the Serengeti, the Maasai tribes, and the distant–though visible–Mt. Kilimanjaro.

The NFL is the New Sheriff in Town

There are two common responses to the Adrian Peterson suspension. One goes like this: “What?! Others players have done far worse and have gotten far less.”

The other side says, “Good. He got what he deserved.”

But both sides take the phenomenal leap of assuming that the NFL should be in charge of distributing justice–even taking priority over the justice system.

This idea is simply taken for granted. It’s not if the NFL should punish its employees, but how.

At first, this got me thinking of my father, a mechanic with a small business employing one or two guys at a time. A few years back, one of his employees got a DUI for the second time. What did my father do?

Nothing.

That’s why we have a justice system. But if his employee wasn’t able to come to work due to not having a license or being in jail, then my father would have to fire the guy. That’s how that worked.

I posted this argument on Facebook and some responded that the NFL is public, so the situation is different. But I don’t see movie studios not hiring actors because of their recent transgressions.

Nevertheless, when another NFL running back, Ray Rice, was caught on camera earlier this year hitting his fiance, there was public outrage because he let off without much punishment. But it wasn’t the justice system people were mad at–it was the NFL. Petitions were started to oust the current NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell. No petition for the prosecutor or judge who were the ones actually responsible for doling out justice.

The assumption on the NFL to act has become so ingrained that one popular media went so far as to say that the NFL “has condoned domestic violence for years” because it hasn’t always punished its players for their crimes. By that logic, my father condones driving drunk.

When did the NFL become the barometer of justice in America?

I think it got this way, because of the NFL’s size and influence. That’s perhaps a drawback to the power the NFL aims for. Becoming an entity with such gravity, the satellite of justice now revolves around it.

And being a high paid athlete for this entity isn’t seen as a job. (This is where my perspective differs. Why shouldn’t a man be allowed to work while a case is pending, or in the case of Peterson, after his case is settled?) However, for most of America, it seems, playing in the NFL is seen mainly as a privilege. And people who screw up shouldn’t be afforded such privileges.

Whatever the reasons, the NFL is looked at as a gauge for justice.

This is why Peterson was punished the way he was. The NFL has a brand to protect, and because popular (or at least the most vocal) belief equates the NFL’s response with the measure of justice, the NFL has to do what’s now considered right and take action.

So the question to ask is: where does this mean for American justice?

That the NFL is now required to punish their players in addition to what the justice system sentences indicates, I believe, a phenomenon of the public looking to entities outside the government for justice. Again, most people didn’t even care that the prosecutor and judge let Ray Rice off the hook. Along with the NFL’s growth and influence making them a bigger target for taking punitive action against their players, the increased connectivity of the internet fans the flames of people’s demands. And now, it’s simply more effective to demand justice from the NFL rather than from the government. Just look at how quickly the NFL adjusted its policy. One year they don’t punish a player for domestic abuse; the next year they do.

This has appeal. It’s nice to know one’s voice is heard.

But it’s also concerning. On September 18, the Arizona Cardinals football team, out of fear of the issue and the public outcry, released a player just hours after his arrest for domestic assault. To the degree that the NFL is malleable and able to change is going to be the same level of susceptibility to mob demands. And the NFL is the only game in town, so what can a player do? Playing for the NFL is a job. And now that player, who hasn’t even had his day in court, is (as far as I know) unemployed.

It’s also concerning because of the language used two days ago in the NFL commissioner’s letter to Adrian Peterson to explain Peterson’s suspension. The parental and scolding aspect of the courts that is sometimes criticized is now part of the job description of the NFL commissioner apparently. Referring to Peterson’s abuse to his son, Goodell stated to Peterson:

“…the injury was inflicted on a child who was only 4 years old. The difference in size and strength between you and the child is significant…”

Adrian Peterson

“While an adult may have a number of options when confronted with abuse — to flee, to fight back or to seek help from law enforcement — none of those options is realistically available to a 4-year old child.”

“…you have shown no meaningful remorse for your conduct.”

Roger Goodell

“The well-being of your children is of paramount concern.”

“In order to assess your progress going forward, I will establish periodic reviews, the first of which will be on or about April 15, 2015. At that time, I will meet with you and your representatives and the NFL Players Association to review the extent to which you have complied with your program of counseling and therapy and both made and lived up to an affirmative commitment to change such that this conduct will not occur again.”

Maybe these are words of a man guilted into saying all of this by public outcry. Maybe these are the first awkward steps in this infant phenomenon of the NFL being the new sheriff in town.

Last night on my way home from work, I was listening to sports talk radio and national personality Dan Patrick said he doesn’t like that the NFL is “going down this road” of micromanaging the players’ personal lives. But I think the trend will perpetuate.

NFL to MLB to NBA to NASCAR to WNBA to PGA to SAG to 3M…

The justice system of any society is designed to punish offenders and curb the offenses committed. With a more connected society than ever before, people–at least in these NFL cases–are bypassing their politicians and setting their sights on other means of seeking justice. Perhaps this is a social evolution of justice. Employment and social acceptance will hang over wrongdoers’ heads. Not jails or community service. But that would require the justice system to step aside or at least take a back seat. As it is now, people like Adrian Peterson are having to endure two modes of justice for their mistakes.

Goodbye, East African Village School

As a boy in northern Minnesota, we’d drive down to “the cities” on special occasions. On the way, we’d often stop halfway at a city called Brainerd. Back then, you had to drive through the city because there was no bypass. Mom-n-pop shops through downtown Brainerd were the roadside attractions, and a McDonald’s or gas station would be our halfway point pit stop.

Today, I don’t see any of those mom-n-pop shops. They may very well be there, but I wouldn’t know because I don’t drive by them anymore. A four lane highway gets me around all that, lined with new big box stores and franchised restaurants along this thoroughfare to the northern half of the state.

Besides all these new options for pit stops when driving from the Twin Cities back up to my stomping grounds of Blackduck and Bemidji, I’ll also keep in mind when driving through that this flourishing hub in central Minnesota is now also a place to share my stories about Africa and other topics.

I’m honored to announce that the Brainerd Dispatch is now subscribed to my blog, The Periphery. Happy reading, Brainerdites.

Allow me to introduce you to my stories from Africa…

***

After eight months of working on tech in a village in central Tanzania, East Africa, it was time to start thinking about home. But just like a grand finale in a fireworks show, the most jam-packed showing of scenery and experiences would occur just before things came to their end.

In the two weeks before flying home from Nairobi, Kenya on September 30, I would trek around giant Lake Victoria. Here was my planned route:

Starting from Iringa, was a five city, three country tour.

First, I had to say goodbye to the people and places that dressed my life the past eight months…

I arrived to Iringa, Tanzania January 25, 2014. Things were as fresh to me then as they would be to you if suddenly placed in this mid-sized East African city. Dirty asphalt streets lined with small vendors of produce, breads, and sodas; alleys filled with locals on foot and more vendors peddling clothes, sun glasses, cheap electronics, sandals made of old tires, and seemingly a million other things.

Iringa

All year long, this city would be my noisier, more developed weekend respite from the quiet and isolation of my village 90 minutes away. Here I got to know other foreign volunteers, a couple of expats making Tanzania their home, and some local residents.

After a few hours soaking in urban East Africa, I hopped in the rattle trap bus to my village, Magililwa. Out here, corn fields over rolling hills were interrupted by the occasional patch of forest. The village sat quietly on this land like a camp site. But instead of tents, were the mud/brick buildings with red dirt roads and trails as streets and alleys.

Magulilwa

I’d get to know a few of the villagers. But I got to know many more students and staff at the school I was working at.

Boys and girls 12-18 wearing thin, dark green sweaters, light green pants or skirts, and black shoes. Every pupil had buzzed hair–causing me more than a couple of embarrassing pronoun misspeaks when addressing my youngest classes.

Female students

Teachers were mainly young Tanzanian men, staff were a couple of women helping with student meal prep, a couple of men worked on maintenance, and a grandfather-figure was our headmaster.

In both the village and the city, there were jobs to be done and adventures to be had. In the village, helping set up the computer lab and teach computer classes was my priority–the reason I came to Africa.

A class working in the completed lab

But I also had a way of following other curiosities to keep me busy. I photographed the life around the village: the traditional livestock and crop agriculture; the after-work social in the village square with old ladies selling produce, men playing intense rounds of some marble counting game, and others just socializing and drinking their sugar cane spirit. I would become their village portrait photographer.

On my weekends in Iringa, I photographed an incredible church service (blogged about a couple of weeks back), I befriended a young woman whose three-year-old niece lost her battle with malaria, and I found some time to help a couple of small businesses with their websites.

But like I said last week about stories being meaningless without someone to share them with, so are activities enhanced–even defined–by the relationships of those who shared in the experiences. All the activities and projects above were no exception. And a life split between the village and the city meant I had two occasions to say goodbye to those I came to know and care for.

The school goodbye was without much fanfare. This didn’t surprise me. It’s not that life in the village or at the school didn’t have its share of joy and celebration (soccer matches come to mind), but they didn’t punctuate certain occasions in the way my culture would. I remember my birthday in May–and it falling on the same day as one of the students, a boy turning fifteen on the 15th of the May. “Whoa!, it’s your golden birthday,” I exclaimed to him and his friends. I might as well have been speaking Chinese to these students. Birthdays just didn’t matter to them.

But though my parting wasn’t an occasion, I did have a couple of students recognize it. One girl said, “It’s your last day?”

“Yeah,” I responded. “But I might stay one extra day.”

“Stay two,” she shyly suggested.

Indeed there were many touching (and downright powerful) moments during my time at the school. I wanted the school to know this. So I printed pictures that best captured such moments and stapled them to a cardboard backing. My gift to the school was a reminder of the times they gifted to me.

Headmaster Mgongolwa and I

 

Now at the risk of breaking the vibe I have going on here, but for the sake of accuracy and painting a complete picture, there was another side of my departure.

Two days before leaving the village, the maintenance man, Busara, came by the teachers’ quarters. The 40-year-old, mustached, athletic, and good-natured man walked in the door of our dining space with his usual wide smile and dressed in his usual rubber boots, jeans, and worn green sweatshirt.

“Brandon?” he said as he entered.

“Yeah?” I answered while seated at our wood dining table.

He walked toward me holding out a limp wrist in the Tanzanian culture’s respectful gesture.  (It’s my job then to grab his wrist as I might his hand if offering the method of greeting I was more used to.) I stood up and held his wrist.

“You’re leaving,” he said.

“Yes,” I said touched that he came to say goodbye.

“When you leave, maybe you have a, uh, gif. A gifi.”

As I looked at him without response, he finalized it with one more pronounced, “Guifts.”

Oh, a gift. He wasn’t the only one. The day before, after a day dotted with student goodbyes, I was walking home in the dark of night after computer class. Between lit-up school buildings, a younger girl walking behind me caught up with a bounce in her step.  These being my final days at the school, and with a send-off vibe in the air this day, I welcomed her approach both because I was savoring each moment and because I figured she might want to say goodbye herself.

I couldn’t see her face in the dark. But I knew she was a younger student due to her size.

“Sa?” she asked lightly. (How they say “sir.”)

“Yes?”

“Give me my money.”

“What!?” I said with a mild but definite “ah, c’mon” surprisingly frustrated vibe. She wanted me to give her some cash.

In addition, my closest companion in the village–the older gentleman who I referred to as Grandpa Ndambo–offered a similar parting. What can you give to me? was his sentiment.

Back in the dining area, I explained to Busara that I gave him (and the school gave me) seven months of each others’ time. I said that gifts come as an unexpected and pleasant result of the effort and time and love you’ve offered. For example, I reminded him that I gave him a picture of himself earlier that year by surprise.

As much the philosophy of gift-giving, though, was this also a lesson for me in the way that Tanzanians stereotype white people as having money to give. They knew this school was mainly backed by white Americans. They knew the village water wells were also. Things to Tanzanians tended to be pretty black and white. And as much a lesson to me in how Tanzanians view people like me, was perhaps a lesson for Busara in the shortcomings of his stereotypes. He asked earlier in my year if I could give him a computer. I’ve had students ask me that as well–and since via email. But regardless of any philosophical breaches in his asking for a gift was the reality that I had nothing to give anyway. Not all Americans have money.

Feeling awkward, perhaps, he offered thank yous and your welcomes. “Asante…Asante…You’re welcome…You’re welcome,” he said while looking straight through my chest.

I tried to offer a reassuring smile, but it was a bit awkward for me, too.

In the city, Iringa, I had a goodbye dinner with the friends I made there. The occasion was the second time in eight months that I actually combed my hair. It was two nights before I would leave for that five city, three country, two week trek around Lake Victoria. Ryan showed up, a 27-year-old Peace Corps volunteer from Indiana. There was Leah, my one fellow foreign volunteer out at the village school. And there was Kathy, a Colorado woman who found love, a new career path as a safari guide, and a new home in Iringa. Both Kathy’s Tanzanian husband and Leah’s Tanzanian boyfriend showed up, as did other people I befriended along the way.

In two days’ time, I’d leave the village and city I called home for eight months.

***

Goodbyes are powerful for two reasons. We will miss that which (or who) we won’t see for at least a long time. The other reason is more subtle, but I also think more powerful and fundamental: goodbyes remind us of the temporary nature of things–and we don’t like this realization. Someone’s death, a break-up, a move, seeing your child go off to college. All these occasions have us reflect on the moments–the moments not to be had again–the moments we want to capture in a bottle–the fleeting moments that remind us life is short and temporary despite how much we want the beautiful to last forever.

There’s no remedy for this. There’s no escaping the fact that all things come to an end. But realizing this truth can help us cherish the time that we do have.

The day before I left the village, I walked the school grounds like it was my first day there. I just saw everything clearer, sharper: the buildings, the fields of tall grass. I felt the wind on the jacket-weather day.

Walking up the slight hill to the flagpole and administration buildings, I met Headmaster Mgongolwa at the top.

“Hello Headmaster.”

“Yes, Brandon,” he responded in that voice of his combining gruffness and warmness.

I stood and surveyed the school. Just him, me, the surroundings, and the elements. Shallow hills in the distance, village buildings decorating the valley below, school buildings closest to us. The cool air and cloudy sky filling the emptiness and setting the mood.

It felt like fall in Minnesota.

“Everything feels so fresh,” I said. Headmaster just listened. “Why is that things can’t be this fresh everyday? Why only when you are leaving?” Somehow it reminded me of the similar trait of only getting one’s butt in gear to get a task done when a deadline is looming.

I realized that I was present precisely because I knew the end was near. I could feel the end; I could see the temporary nature of my time here. This realization put me on a plane of presence.

But why not be on this plane always?

“We think things will stay the same.” I continued aloud. Indeed, when I don’t “feel the end,” I’m allowed to slunk down into a mode of being where I ignore my surroundings–or at least where they aren’t nearly as crisp.

“Presence is the recognition of impermanence,” I surmised to Headmaster.

Otherwise, we think things will be the same. Maybe this is good, a natural mechanism so that when we are in a place for any length of time, it allows work and productivity and project completion to take over in lieu of this plane of presence.

I wondered, though, if it was possible to have both.

Can I “feel the end” not just when a project is ending, or a deadline is looming, but just in general–knowing that I won’t live forever?

***

On the 15th of September, 2014, I started off on a journey. Presence was easy these two weeks as everything was always new. I learned, though, that sometimes presence isn’t pretty when facing the rugged reality of African travel.

Rugged, relaxing; ugly, beautiful; unique, universal.

So is East Africa. So will be the following weeks’ articles.

Goodbye village, hello Lake Victoria.