An Open Letter to Anyone Who Has Yet to Visit East Africa

Musings on my first 24 hours in Tanzania and why ignorance is not always bliss.

 A very poor quality photo of me circa 2008 with my African Mama!

A very poor quality photo of me circa 2008 with my African Mama!

“A hasty person misses the sweet things: Mwenye pupa hadiriki kula tamu”

- A famous Swahili proverb

  • “Why would you go to Africa?”

  • “You must be going to South Africa”.

  • “Be careful”.

  • “Watch out for Ebola”.

  • “Where is Tanzania?”

  • “Did you get the malaria vaccine?”

  • “ Come back in one piece”

These are some of the questions and comments directed at me as I recently prepared for my temporary move to my favorite country in the world, Tanzania. In 2006, I had the opportunity to visit this beautiful country and I eagerly returned in 2008 (for the long-haul). Leaving Tanzania in the beginning of 2009 was one of the hardest things I ever had to do. I love the people, the smells, the rains, falling asleep to the loud chirping sounds of bugs and animals at night, the simplicity, the hardships, the beauty and the generosity of this fine culture. Sure, Tanzania has it’s own set of problems, but let’s be honest the United States is in shambles. People in the U.S. are angry, bitter, competitive, and can no longer consume iceberg lettuce. For the past few months I was so busy wrapping up things in the States that I did not let any of these comments or questions about my journey to East Africa bother me. I get it; a white girl departing to Tanzania for her third time is not normal (to many Americans), especially when our fine President declares this part of the world a “shithole country”. But after my plane touched down at Kilimanjaro airport and I planted my feet on African soil, the first thing that hit me was the smell…the smell of dampness in the air, the sweet memories of people I adore, trees, and burning trash (which is apparently illegal now); a smell that only Africa has and to me in that moment, I was SO happy to be back. I took a long inhale, savored the smell and thought to myself, “I am finally here and I wish others knew the truth about this part of the world”. While standing on the tarmac with my carry-on bags and passport in hand, I reflected on all the comments and questions and I became upset. Upset because these questions and remarks were stated in way that made Tanzania look dangerous and dirty. Of course, many of these comments and questions came from dear friends and family members who in no way had any ill or malicious intent but for some reason, I was and still am deeply bothered by these words. Instead of taking a defensive stance against these questions or correcting these false statements, I want to share snapshot moments of my first 24 hours upon arriving in Tanzania.

 My bed, and yes, I brought my pillow from home. This a mosquito net, a very common necessity in many countries that have diseases transmitted by mosquitos. It reminds me of sleeping in my princess canopy bed as a child haha.

My bed, and yes, I brought my pillow from home. This a mosquito net, a very common necessity in many countries that have diseases transmitted by mosquitos. It reminds me of sleeping in my princess canopy bed as a child haha.

The awkward name card

 Upon arrival at the airport, my good friend Erick (who was supposed to meet me at the airport) informed me he was on a business trip to Dar es Salaam but has arranged his good friend Raymond to collect me at the airport. I trust Erick with pretty much every fiber in my body and thought it was very kind to arrange my airport pickup, when in reality I could have easily taken a taxi to my house. After I collected my 80 pounds of luggage, dragged one of my 50 pound broken suitcases off the conveyer belt and did a quick currency exchange; I walked outside holding my breath to a sea of taxi drivers and random people holding name signs in hopes of quickly finding a sign with “Kristen Fuller” written on it. I did not have my glasses on, so there I am walking up (in way too close of proximity) to random strangers just so I could read the names on their sign (this is always such an awkward experience for me and I dread it upon every international arrival). Within minutes I found my name and I quickly introduced myself to Raymond and within seconds I recognized him. I met him a few times on my past visit to Tanzania and we picked up our conversation where we left off 10 years ago. In the car we called Erick on speakerphone and we all laughed because lo and behold, we were all old friends.  Raymond told me that he drove to the house where I was staying earlier during the day to make sure he knew where to go and that he was tracking my plane throughout the day in case there were any delays (my parents won’t even drive me to the airport, let alone check my flight status). My heart silently exploded and then I realized, “Ahh yes, THIS IS Tanzania”. He offered to take me into town the next day in case I needed anything and told me to contact him with any questions. I am pretty savvy with the public transport in Arusha (old school VW minibuses called dala dalas that cost equivalent to 25 cents per ride) and planned on spending my first day re-acclimating to my old stomping grounds. My plan was to take a dala dala into town, go to the central market to buy food, purchase malaria prophylaxis pills (there is NO malaria vaccine) and take in all the sights and sounds.

 A necessary drink before a 19 hour flight with a 90 minute layover sprint!

A necessary drink before a 19 hour flight with a 90 minute layover sprint!

Kitchens are where friendships form

 I awoke the next morning at 5am to the sound of a very confused rooster, checked my work email and realized work was piling up faster than I can say, “mambo”. I wandered downstairs to the kitchen to make myself 12 cups of coffee (jet lag is real) so I can tackle my work and catch a bus into town. Within minutes I was in full conversation with a sweet Tanzanian girl in the kitchen talking about all the words I do and do not (mostly do not) know in Swahili. She instantly reminded me of my Tanzanian dada (sister), Jackie (who I insanely adore and who just got married). An hour quickly passed, I was on my 5th cup of coffee and we both realized we never even introduced ourselves. She told me her name is Monica, she is in her early 20’s and bless her heart, she thought I was 26. She made me breakfast after a long confusing conversation of whether I should pay for meals or make my own food (I decided on both but we will see how that goes). She asked me about all the Tanzanian foods I do like and the very few Tanzanian foods I won’t eat and before I knew it, I had spent half of my morning standing over an entire pot of coffee and chatting with Monica while sending messages to my Tanzanian family informing them that I am back in town…a morning that will never be forgotten because within those few hours, standing in an African kitchen, a new friendship was formed. Within minutes, my entire African family, (Jackie, her younger brother Joshua, Mama and Baba) were all texting via WhatsApp arranging plans for me to visit (I now have full-fledged Christmas plans and standing dinner plans any night of the week).

Long story short, I didn’t leave the house until nightfall. I sat upstairs working away on my computer while listening to the rain. I made plans to go on safari to Terengeru National Park the following day (Thanksgiving) with Raymond, as he is a safari driver (I made sure we can purchase beer before entering the National Park) and around 6pm in the evening I ventured out for a walk (I needed water and beer).

 Tanzanian breakfast of champions! Eggs, cassava, a bread I cannot pronounce in Swahili and COFFEE all made with love!

Tanzanian breakfast of champions! Eggs, cassava, a bread I cannot pronounce in Swahili and COFFEE all made with love!

“I will bring back your bottle, kesho”

I found two shops within minutes of walking on the road (yes, I walked alone at night in a very safe city). Side note: the shops in Africa are amazing, they are basically tiny little buildings where you can buy anything from cooking oil, toilet paper, beer, water, pasta, a plethora of meats in a freezer box, matches and literally any random thing you can think of. If you can’t find what you are looking for at one shop, do not worry (hakuna matata), because there are 10 other shops within the next two blocks. I purchased two large bottles of water at the first shop with my broken Swahili (there is Typhoid in the tap water so I either boil my water or buy bottled water) and asked for a cold beer (bia baridi) at the next shop. The shop owners will hound you for a bottle deposit unless you swear to them you will bring the empty bottle back. I told the guy I will bring back the empty bottle tomorrow (kesho) and he asked me what time. I couldn’t help but laugh because I know how serious these guys are about their glass bottles. I told him he could collect a deposit from me if he wished but I am staying just a block down and will most likely be his favorite customer within a week. He was hesitant, pulled out two small cold beers and reminded me “kesho”.  I ended up returning the empty bottles back later that night and he then knew I meant business (and yes, he is now my go-to beer guy).

Setting the facts straight

 Within 24 hours of landing in East Africa, I met five people (this post is becoming too long to introduce you to the other 2 people) who showed me kindness and generosity because it is in their blood. These may be pointless encounters or simple conversations to many, but to me, these encounters are proof of the kindness that represents Tanzania. So before you wonder about safety, racism, crime, diseases, or anything else that is heavily portrayed by the media in these “shithole countries”, listen to the stories and experiences from people who have set foot within these countries, who have formed relationships with the people or better yet travel to some of these places yourself because I promise you one thing, your life will be changed forever. I am not “brave”, nor am I here to “help” people, but I am simply an individual who was stuck in an American box for 19 years of her life and consciously decided to spend everyday possible forming memories and relationships with people (and animals) around the world.

 I am off on safari in the morning (Thursday) and can’t wait to share photos. Happy Thanksgiving to America and to the rest of the world, Happy Thursday)!

Side note: These are literally the only photos I have taken thus far so I apologize as they are not as visually stimulating as my previous posts but just wait….

Happy hiking and hope to see you on the trails upon my arrival in 2019

Xx

Kristen