Last weekend I leapt the Red River from North Dakota to Minnesota to share my experiences from East Africa to China.
Bemidji, Duluth, Brainerd, Cottage Grove: these were the final four destinations of my Life Learned Abroad speaking/book tour, each with their own unique flavor to absorb and remarkable individuals to get to know.
First up was Bemidji, my old stomping grounds. I grew up in Blackduck, so Bemidji was the “the city” as far as we were concerned, the place to get clothes and cars and see a movie. Last Sunday, though, I was the one showing the video…and photos and sharing stories from across the oceans to familiar faces from over the years.
Along with my supportive family and relatives in attendance, I was touched to see my first grade teacher, Mrs. Stomberg, arrive, as did my childhood dentist, Mr. Bengtson. (Thanks for the smile, Doctor:)
Bemidji Pioneer publisher Dennis Doeden arrived early to help set up and then introduced me to the crowd to get things underway.
My family and friends leaned forward to hear the stories and chimed in with feedback and questions about the topics arisen–the politics of Tanzania, the education system, and why is Tanzania a poor nation? By the end, at least one audience member, an older woman distant relative of mine, expressed more than gratitude for the presentation. She was inspired to donate $200 to the school at which I worked in Tanzania. I didn’t anticipate raising money, but sometimes such bonuses happen unexpectedly.
On Monday I sped along highway 2 to Duluth. The two-and-a-half hour drive was highlighted with surefire signs of northern Minnesota.
Then as I approached the eastern edge of the state, I entered a city with its own idiosyncratic imagery. The morning after arriving in Duluth, I spent some time soaking in its essence.
That evening, I was honored to share with Duluthians who came out to the gorgeous and historic Fitger’s theater at the Fitger’s Hotel and Brewery.
We had in house a middle aged female mission worker who’d been to Tanzania 20(!) times. There was another middle aged lady who, like me, had lived in China for a year. I asked where, she said “Zhuhai, near Macau,” and I stared at her for two seconds as that was the very city in which I had lived as well.
Then we had an older guy in the crowd. He raised his hand during my presentation to clear up a point about Tanzania’s political history. It was 1964 (after Zanzibar joined Tanzania), he said, not 1961 when Tanzania’s current ruling party was formed. He would know; he was from Tanzania.
The next morning, I visited the woman in the audience who’d been to Tanzania so many times. She’s done so because of her mission work. But even when home, her mission continues…at her store downtown.
Meet Beth. In the early 90s, she started to raise money for micro loans to Tanzanian women. In $50 increments, she gave these women–selling crafts, salt, or food–a jump start. Perhaps most successful was the salt operation, where the men and women in this desolate part of the country could now rent an ox cart to carry 200 pounds of salt to market. These loans were more than advances in pay; they started a small movement of development.
“It was a culture,” Beth said.
Today, Beth still operates her store Touched by Africa (touchedbyafrica.info). Her sights are now set in the Kenyan slum, Kibera, where proceeds from the store go to help a school. Stop by or go to the website to obtain these handcrafted items:
Brainerd was next on the docket. This one was a wildcard. I didn’t know what to expect. Brainerd is a smaller city where I knew no one and whose newspaper only recently started featuring my writing.
But lo’ and behold, it ended up offering one my biggest audiences.
I was sitting in the empty conference room at the Northland Arboretum at twenty minutes to showtime wondering if anyone was going to come. Then, a lady of about 80 with a thick accent slowly walked in. “Is this the right place?” said Ingrid from Sweden. She shared that she loves talks about the world, that she recently saw a Somali woman speak at the college.
Then another worldly retired couple waltzed in, followed a father/daughter, followed by another couple, and another. Five minutes to showtime, I was in a quiet room down the hall prepping but distracted by the sounds of the outside door continuing to open to newcomers.
I held back a surprised smile as I entered the full room.
Brainerdites asked about women’s rights in Tanzania, about differences in culture from one East African country to the other, and about the courses taught at the village school. It felt more like a classroom, and I tried to educate as entertainingly as I could.
At the end, we took some photos.
It was an honor to present for such open-minded, inquisitive folks.
Finally, on Friday the 2nd, I returned home to the Twin Cities…but the tour wasn’t finished yet. On Saturday, I held my homecoming and final event in Cottage Grove.
At Park Grove library, I was honored to have old college mates, a former (and a current) boss, current Toastmasters fellows, and some relatives I hadn’t seen in ages fill the seats. They asked questions about the diet in Tanzania, the price of schooling, and origins of the Swahili language.
This latter question was answered succinctly by a special member in the audience, the man whose image also happened to be the first photo in my slideshow:
He’s the founder of the school at which I taught in Tanzania. His name is Evaristo Sanga.
It was another great event and a fitting finale to the tour.
What began as a tour to share the beauty and life of East Africa and China, ended as a survey of the beautiful scenery, culture, and people of the upper Midwest. Connecting the dots from city to city, I realized just how special these places are and how fortunate I am to get to share my stories with you all.
Gratitude bursts for all who helped: Forum Communications for getting the city newspapers on board, the city newspapers and their staff who helped arrange the stops and promotion, Ron Wacks for professional support, my friend Wone Vang for volunteering her time for the fundraising, all those who chipped in for the fundraiser; my hosts, my family, and of course, the attendees of all six events.
I was nervous to get this tour off the ground. So many “what ifs” and opportunities to back out thinking it would fall flat. I almost arrived late to my first stop in Fargo, but after settling down, that event–and each subsequent one–got easier. By the end, I felt great sharing my writing and stories from across the Atlantic and Pacific. Now that I’m versed in these stories, it’s just a shame that I’m done presenting them!
Well, I’ll share them again when I write my book about Africa, (and you can get my China book on Amazon.) I also hope to use this tour as a springboard for wider audiences and further opportunities to share with others the lessons of Life Learned Abroad.
In the meantime, I encourage you to consider sharing your stories to the people of the upper Midwest by way of Forum Communications’ blogging platform, Area Voices. There are countless stories and voices within the communities I visited. More people should hear what you have to say.
It’s fun to share your voice.