I was 22 when I went to Tanzania. I was fresh out of college, slowly realizing more of the real world with each morning I woke. It felt like walking through the woods after winter thaws, when your boots keep getting sucked down into the mud. My days kept moving forward but my feet were slow to follow.
At some point I got a little cocky. I felt pretty brave. I had an amazing group of friends who I thought for sure I was going to spend my entire life with. I pictured us all lined up in rocking chairs on a big porch somewhere, drinking whiskey into our 80s and laughing at our own hilarious jokes. I had a small amount of money saved from my summer making bagels, my student loans hadn’t started collecting yet and I had nowhere specific that I needed to be come September. It was liberating. My biggest commitment was a $50 phone bill.
I remember thinking, I’m either going to get a dog or go to Africa.
When I found Simon on Couchsurfing, an optimistic teacher living in M’sangani and trying to start up a school, we started emailing and my decision was made.
I don’t remember being scared. I was flying halfway across the world, to a country I knew nothing about. I was young, female, and relatively introverted. I was putting 100% trust in a man who I had merely emailed with a handful of times. I had some money, but not enough to buy an emergency plane ticket home if need be. It remains the bravest thing I have ever done. But I don’t remember thinking of it that way at the time. It just felt like what I needed to do in order to continue trudging into the real world.
I experienced a lot of cultural fascination in those first few weeks living in M’Sangani. It was all exciting, even the uncomfortable — especially the uncomfortable. On my first morning I was woken in the dark by the loudspeaker of the mosque next door — a man’s wavering voice singing the pre-dawn prayers. At first I found it to be annoying, our house was directly behind the mosque and it felt invasive. But after a few days I got used to it and even looked forward to it. I loved the man’s voice and even though I’m not religious and didn’t know what he was saying, I loved the rhythm of his words. I would lie in bed listening to his prayer as my host family began to stir — pots clanging, a match popping into flame. Their Swahili words twisted through the air like the moths bouncing off my mosquito net. I devoured the wide canyon of differences between the two cultures. I felt like a kid at a new playground, running from slide to swing to monkey bars. I wanted to do everything, touch everything, hear, taste and smell everything. Nothing slowed me down.
It wasn’t until I returned home that I truly experienced shocking cultural differences. Shocking like sticking your finger in an electrical outlet. Or jumping from a rope swing into a river in April and losing your breath from the iciness. You open and close your mouth at the air but can’t inhale.
My first weekend back I drove immediately to Orono, Maine to see my rocking chair, whiskey-drinking friends. I had had maybe five beers total during my five months in Tanzania. Drinking alcohol wasn’t something I was interested in with the extreme heat and my general dehydration. Plus, it was expensive and frowned upon by almost everyone around me. Getting wasted just wasn’t a part of my routine there.
In Orono it was the weekend of Chicken Fest — an annual, springtime party in the woods organized by the students. There were college bands playing Grateful Dead covers, impromptu “food trucks” before food trucks were a thing — selling grilled cheeses for $1. There was camping, sex, pyrotechnic experiments, tons of alcohol and tons of drugs.
At first I just felt awkward. I was suddenly surrounded by young white people spending their biweekly paychecks on hallucinogens and gallons of PBR. Maybe it was because of that awkwardness that I dove head first into the festivities. After five months of being sober in Tanzania, I proceeded to drink as much as humanly possible. I smoked every joint that was passed my way, tripped on mushrooms and topped it all off with MDMA.
For awhile it was fun. I performed some fake tribal dances around the fire, hooting and hollering and freaking my friends out, who were also tripping. I pretended to be Rafiki from the Lion King for awhile and would only talk in short, baboon-wisdom sentences. I don’t know why. At that point I was so far gone that Tanzania didn’t exist to me. Therefore my experiences didn’t exist, the things I saw and heard about didn’t exist. That man’s bloated body being washed up from a flash flood didn’t exist. Salamini’s shrinking frame being raged at by Malaria didn’t exist. My 45-year-old, pregnant neighbor hunched over in pain from her untreated urinary tract infection didn’t exist. The true hunger didn’t exist. The dead dogs on the side of the road didn’t exist.
Then I walked by a guy crawling through a puddle, hollering for a friend, so fucked up that he couldn’t hold his head up and it all came slamming back. I sat belly sobbing at the base of a tree as my friend squatted in front of me holding my face in her hands. My memories from that party are gauzy from the drugs and alcohol and nothing but firelight bouncing around between the tree trunks. I remember hating myself for going. Hating that I felt privileged enough to just zip in and out of such an extremely different world. It was painful to think of how easy it was for me to get on that plane and leave. It was always a choice for me — not for my students and neighbors.
Two days previous I had been in a place where children were dying of Malaria because their parents couldn’t afford the medication. Where a mother pregnant with her fourth child had come to me asking for rice for dinner because there was no food and no money. Everywhere, there was no money. A family photo was a prized possession.
My friend held my hand. I cried and I think she cried too. She kept holding my hand and I’ll never stop being grateful for that weight as I waded through the true culture shock of that moment.
It sank deep within me. I’m not claiming that my experience was any less or greater than anybody else’s. But it did something to me. I wasn’t expecting the shock. I thought that I had a pretty good grasp on what my life was like in Tanzania vs. what it was like at home.
I think real culture shock happens when you are least expecting it — just when you think you’ve got it. I thought that waking up to the Muslim prayer was culture shock but it wasn’t. That was just culture. It wasn’t shocking — it didn’t send me spinning into questioning what my role is in the world. It didn’t make me confused or angry. It was simply a prayer to help get rid of the night’s terrors and start the day with renewed hope.
Even now, six years later, I still have hesitations about drugs and ragers. I cringe when people ask me to sign petitions to legalize marijuana. It’s not that I’m straight edge or that I DON’T believe marijuana should be legal. It’s just that there are so many bigger battles in our world that need our energy and time — that need our fight. When I feel angry at the world it is because there are still so many places where women can’t vote or get a safe, trusted abortion. Because there are children being given guns and being beaten into believing that it’s right. Even in our own country, there is deathly racism and inequality happening everywhere. We have a long way to go before legalizing marijuana will be the battle I choose to partake in.
It will be a long time before I stop picturing that field of wasted masses of college students. Not only wasted in mind and body, but in energy, money, motivation…and for what? Yes, the Grateful Dead covers were fun to dance to. Yes, the grilled cheeses tasted delicious under that starry sky circled around a fire with your closest friends. But it was all gone the next morning, while my Tanzanian students gratefully eating a small bowl of flour-mush were not.
My particular culture shock forced me to grow up. In the following months I felt alone a lot of the time during that continuous trudge into the muck of adulthood. I lost my footing several times. Lost friends, lost my path, lost courage. I dwelled in that scary, unsure place of questioning the world for maybe a little too long. It’s a gravelly slope, that unsure place. But I came up, much like bobbing up from that April river, trying to swallow in air until finally it came.
My time is precious here in this life. What I do with it is completely up to me. How I spend my energy, my fight, my love, my money, my breath — it’s all within my control. My culture shock at home has embedded vast amounts of appreciation into my bones. If nothing else, my privilege of getting on that plane to leave Tanzania has led me to to a place of appreciation and intention with my short life here.