When I told my mother about going to Africa, she said, “Brandon! They do voodoo over there!”
I had to show her some videos of the school where I’d be teaching so she could realize that things weren’t as dramatic as the stereotypes she created from movies, The Discovery Channel, and National Geographic.
Another common belief, one that I held before coming here, was that I’d be the only foreigner around. That idea turned out to be as wrong as my mom’s voodoo belief (actually more wrong as I recently found out there is a thread of voodoo to the spiritual beliefs here. Never doubt Mom.)
This post is about the fellow foreigners I’ve met over my time here who’ve come all this way to explore, lend a hand, and get to know their world. Together, they reveal that coming here isn’t as crazy an idea as one might think–rather, it’s a darn good one.
Leah is my fellow foreign teacher at our village school. She’s also a fellow American—a Coloradan who came out here by herself 18 months ago for another opportunity working with wildlife, and when that work ended, came back out after discovering our school. She teaches biology and physics and started a tree-planting initiative on school grounds.
In the village, Leah and I are indeed the only outsiders–something never to be forgotten when walking around the dirt streets and hearing “Mzungu!” (white person) from the kids (and sometimes from the adults.) But 20 miles away in the regional hub, Iringa, I have discovered many others Westerners–some of whom are on vacation, others who are here for a temporary project, and others who’ve made this their home.
My second weekend in Iringa, I was at Neema Crafts, a restaurant/gift shop run by the Anglican mission and one of the more comfortable places in town. There, I met a young, blonde Englishwoman named Laura who was here in Iringa as a volunteer at the restaurant. She had plans that day for a weekly volleyball game that many of the local mission workers attend. She asked me to come along.
As soon as we left the restaurant I met Andy, a 50-something Englishman also here for mission work through the Anglican church. He was driving us to the game.
He was also the first of a handful of foreigners I’ve met who are so settled that they purchased an automobile. I had questions about auto maintenance and repairs in this city. Turns out he does a lot of the work himself. (Another day I’d see him biking along one of Iringa’s dirt roads holding a drive shaft in his hand.)
We made it out to the game which took place at an impressive property with blossoming trees, landscaped grounds, meadows, and thin woods. It was owned by an English couple in their 50s-60s. Walking up to the scene, a tall, thinly bearded younger man in summerwear approached and shook my hand with a big grin–and said hello with a big southern accent. This South Carolinian was here with his wife and three small children for their church’s mission work.
“You brought your kids to Tanzania?”, I thought.
Yep, he and some others.
It felt like a world away from the littered, dusty, ramshackle Iringa outskirts, which were just a few miles away.
While there, I also met these four American university students studying abroad for a term in Iringa:
This weekend set the stage for a half-year of introductions to the many foreigners who find their way to this part of the world.
Back at Neema Crafts the following weekend, I met these fine young folks:
They were Italian volunteers courtesy of an organization sending helpers to centers around Iringa housing disabled people and others with orphans. These volunteers come for about six weeks at a time, and I’ve met probably twenty of them by now.
Volunteers through the American program, the Peace Corps, stay a little longer, and I’ve very much enjoyed getting to know them as fellow common-culture individuals. Here’s one from Minnesota:
She’s holding her new water filtration device. The Peace Corps volunteers are troopers. They stay two years often in conditions without running water and electricity. Clean water is enough to make them happy.
Here’s another Peace Corps volunteer I met this year named Ben:
The Michigander came out here and really took the rhinoceros by the horn. More than just his science teaching to adolescents at his village school, he started a tribal language dictionary so future volunteers can learn the local language spoken around Iringa. Now in his final stretch (two months to go) he’s overseeing a water pipeline project linking the well-supplied school to the not-so-well-watered local hospital.
In all, I’ve met probably 20 Peace Corp volunteers as well.
It’s not just Peace Corps, either. Here are Sarah and Jessica from eastern Oregon and Simone from Austria who volunteer through another organization in the south of Tanzania:
It often seems people coming here for service work do so pre or post career. This older gent has honored me with several great conversations about life here and life back in America. It’s Louisiana John:
The retired electrician does mission work around Iringa and lives at the property behind him in the picture. Though uncertain about his decision to come out here early on (he told me he went online to buy a plane ticket to go home about two months in) he has since gotten used to things and even embraced the way of life here.
“I used to work all night in my dreams and wake up exhausted,” he said. Then added, “I sleep good now!–under my mosquito net.”
He credit the “pace” in Iringa, then capped it off with, “I like it here.”
I’ve also met a few post-career Minnesotans doing volunteer work through the Lutheran Church. Early in my stay, I got an email from a woman in Minnesota who had read this blog. She told me about a man, Randy, she knew living in Iringa doing mission work.
I met up with Randy–clean shaven, medium build, a good sense of humor, a youthful retiree–while he was dining with five of his peers who’ve all come to Iringa to be of service. One couple worked with getting technology to rural schools. Having been in the agriculture industry, Randy came out here to help local farmers with crop management.
After we ate, I walked with him back to his a three bedroom suite in a complex representative of the slow but steady development happening in Iringa. He was just a couple weeks away from going back to Minnesota. In the dark of night, but the warm, dry air of Iringa in February, he expressed his desire to come back.
I’ve always stayed at a guesthouse on my weekends in Iringa. This, not surprising, has been a revolving door of outsiders visiting. Recently I met Keld and Beathe, a Danish couple living in central Sweden.
When I say “central Sweden”, keep in mind that Sweden stretches well north of the continental U.S. These two live in the land of 24 hour summer sun. Some years back, they moved from Denmark to their small, mountain village during spring.
“We didn’t by a lamp until September,” Beathe told me. They didn’t need a light til then.
They were in Iringa because they work with an orphanage and a sister school of the school Beathe teaches at back home. Keld is a dog sledder–probably the last profession I thought I’d discuss in Africa. But we all had a lot to talk about: teaching, cold weather, living in a small town, activities in the snow, and Sven, Ole, and Lina jokes.
(By the way, Keld extends an invite to Sweden for any outdoor adventurer who wants to give dog sledding in Sweden a try! Here’s his email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
I could go on: Sean the lion conservation worker from Ireland; Sarah, the wildlife conservation worker from Colorado. Kathy is a retired gal from the U.S. who found love in Tanzania and now lives with her Tanzanian husband. I met a younger German woman who, too, married a Tanzanian. And together, they made this lovely girl:
There’s Hessen, the development researcher from Holland; Ray, the English researcher; nursing students from Sweden; a host of medical students from the U.S. and England; teachers from Greece; and escaping the Western world, there have been the volunteers here from Japan and Korea.
You get the idea.
All these people indicate the interconnectedness of the world today, how even in this relatively unknown city in the middle of this East African nation, there’s a strong foreign presence.
Ultimately, this is about how anyone can pick up, explore, fall in love, live, and be of service in a number of arenas, capacities, and locations all over the world.
What’s your destination?