Ah kijana Cameroon – “hello young boy Cameroon.” This, along with many other greetings received while walking around camp or the small cozy town of Rhotia, is the reason I have felt more welcomed in Tanzania than I have anywhere for years. As this semester comes to an end, I have been reflecting a lot on how this place has made such an impact on me and why it feels so different than back home.
Coming into this program, I did not have much of an expectation as to how my relationship with the locals was going to be. I was coming in as a minority and as someone who would stick out in the community. I certainly was not expecting what I got. The pole pole lifestyle in Tanzania – the slow, easygoing manner adopted by everyone here – has been a great fit for me personally. The best thing I can compare it to is a 3-and-a-half-month-long summer camp.
But the biggest difference I have noticed between Tanzania and the States is the smiles… The frequency of them and the quality of them is indescribable. A smile is a facial indicator of good humor, a good mood, or happiness. I have picked up on what a genuine smile looks like after being here for 3 months. It uses mouth, cheeks, and eyes to draw from a shared experience like a joke told, a conversation enjoyed, or it can just be triggered by seeing a specific person. It can be a sweet gift from one human being to another – to your mother, your friend, or someone you love. Sharing a smile with a stranger is a gift, because it triggers neurons in our brain, and the associated happy brain chemicals. The pure joy that I have seen in people here when they see me or another friend is among the most genuine happiness I have seen, which is crazy because half the people that are so happy to see me don’t speak English and with my sub-par Swahili they only know I am a student named Cameron (or as they say, Cameroon from America) but they treat me as if we have been best friends our whole lives. It’s like that with just about everyone. Even while driving down the road, kids will always yell “hello” and have the biggest smiles and wave so excessively it almost looks like it hurts.
I feel as if people back home can get caught up obsessing over everyone else’s lives through social media and other technology we have. Our social worlds can be so broad that we forget how to truly appreciate a simple smile or cultivate one-on-one relationships…maybe we need to focus more on the relationships we have with people that are actually present in our lives. I sometimes get a nostalgic feeling here and imagine that the social dynamic here is what it used to be in America: everyone together in town, two people talking over a glass bottle of coke or playing checkers, no phones – just people conversing with each other, kids playing simple games like a hoop and a stick (literally) or kicking a ball with a piece of foam wrapped in a plastic bag. So simple yet genuinely happy.
I thought I would end this blog post with a quote by the great Vanilla Ice: “Show me a smile, and I’ll show you one back”.
Hopefully I was able to give you a glimpse into what Tanzanian culture is all about, although I feel like it cannot be fully described and understood until one sees it. I hope you have been able to feel some part of what I have felt here, and who knows – maybe I was able to leave a few smiles on the faces of people reading this. If not, maybe some of these pictures can. 🙂