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4 American Habits I Lost When I Moved to Tanzania

by Amber Kapiloff Jun 26, 2015

1. Needing personal space

Space is a funny thing in Tanzania. There were mornings that I walked across wide fields to get to work, the face of the Uluguru Mountains the only thing in sight. At other times I walked alongside my neighbor, Mama Hamissi, hand-in-hand because we were two friends heading in the same direction — so why not hold hands?

Most of the time space was not something I thought about, even on those excursions into town, where I found myself jammed with 10 other people into a six-passenger dala dala — silently praying to the torn seat in front of me that we would arrive safely at our destination. In those moments, I didn’t care that my shoulder rested in the crook of the sweaty armpit next to me. I didn’t care about the tightly twisted braids bouncing a few inches from my face. I didn’t even care that my left foot was falling asleep underneath somebody’s enormously heavy duffel bag. There was no point in caring because there was no way around it. So I learned to do what everyone else did. I learned to just snooze as our 14-year-old driver careened us down the highway.

2. Being grossed out by my own body

I left for Tanzania in February with a nasty, lingering Maine cold. My throat was sore, my body achy and my nose runny. Getting off the plane I felt the warmth of equatorial sunlight and the rush of relief from my limbs. I also realized quickly that I had no tissues. I paid 100 shilingi (about 4 US cents) to use the bathroom and rolled up as much toilet paper as I could find. But that was the last time I used that precious paper on my nose.

My Couchsurfing host, Simon, taught me how to blow snot rockets on the side of the road. From then on I would duck behind the closest mango tree and blow the Maine cold out of me.

It took some getting used to and once I even felt that I needed to apologize for a particularly noisy ejection of snot, but Simon just looked confused. “Why are you sorry? It’s normal,” he said.

And so I settled into my body. My razor collected dust in the corner of my suitcase. I didn’t wear sunscreen, seeking shade instead. I only used my dwindling supply of Dr. Bronner’s occasionally. I stopped wearing a bra. I pooped while squatting, often in the dark of a banana leaf hut, and didn’t worry about what insects might be curled in the corners.

When I first arrived, my first host family always commented on how skinny I was. They told me I needed to get “African fat!” When I went back to them to say goodbye, before leaving Tanzania for good, they said, “Finally! You look like a real African!”

The funny part was, I had actually lost about 20 pounds. But I was so utterly comfortable and confident in my skin that I was radiating, just like the Tanzanians.

3. Needlessly spending money

The average American spends $94 a day, excluding routine bills. In M’Sangani I spent an average of $3 USD a day on things like a cold soda from the military bar or oil for my lamp. Back home, I’d had no problem spending $4 on a coffee before heading to my second job. And a $10 six-pack of beer before heading home? That was no problem. A $15 book that I saw through a window and suddenly HAD to read? Duh. I’d get it.

In Tanzania, even my $3 a day was much more than what others around me were spending. So I stopped carrying money with me. In fact I didn’t carry much of anything besides a water bottle and a notebook. It was freeing, to spend my days without that constant monetary exchange.

Once I asked a friend of mine to climb a coconut tree and get one for us to eat. It was the closest thing to an impulse buy that I felt the whole time I was there. And the coconut was free, at the expense of my friend’s acrobatic exhaustion.

4. Relying on a vehicle

Growing up in rural Maine, driving was a necessity. I quit soccer in high school so I could take driver’s ed as quickly as possible. My nearest friend lived about five miles away. With my license and the heft of a Grand Wagoneer I was finally independent.

In M’Sangani five miles was nothing. Simon and I went everywhere on foot — it was never a question of whether or not we would get a piki piki. Every so often we would climb into the bed of a rusty truck and squat for some suspension as we jolted over the pot holed road into town.

But most days we preferred to walk and it turned into a cherished habit. We walked to visit other local schools. We walked to visit friends or parents of our students. We walked to seek out families with kids who needed to be students. We walked to soccer games, to tea huts, to the snake charmer’s house. We walked to greet newborn babies and to congratulate their mothers. We walked to check on elderly men tending their livestock. We walked to visit the sick and offer them our prayers.

One time the entire boy’s soccer team convinced me to follow them. I didn’t understand what they were saying, but I followed anyway. As it turned out they needed their soccer ball repaired. The 9-mile walk was a small price to pay for a game of soccer.

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