Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Culture (and my lack thereof)

Why are so many Americans left-handed?
- Fred's host father
Because we don’t BEAT them if they try to use their left hand.
- Fred

To: Everyone
Subject: Culture (and my lack thereof)
Thursday, 27 February 2003

The key to navigating in a foreign culture is small, shiny, made of brass, and I think my neighbor kid took it when he came over yesterday. Oh, wait, that’s the key to my bike lock. The key to navigating in a foreign culture is understanding that the people around you are doing what they do for a reason, even if you don’t understand what that reason is. Or if you do understand it, but think it’s really, really stupid. According to Buddhism, if you understand someone you can’t help but love them. Guess that explains why I hate so many people here. Only kidding, I don’t hate anyone. Or if I do I don’t let them know about it until it’s too late to stop me…

Sooo, yeah. Culture. Other teachers give me a hard time if I show up wearing a shirt that isn’t ironed (which is every day) but no one even noticed that I dyed my hair red. They make such a big deal about washing clothes and looking nice (traveling is something to dress up for here, even though it’s a dirty and dusty endeavor) but hardly anyone wears deodorant. I couldn’t understand this until a Volunteer friend of mine pointed out to me how cheap soap is, but how expensive and unavailable deodorant is. This knowledge made it easier for me to resist the urge to point out their body odor when they point out my wrinkled shirt.

Peace Corps insisted we be clean-shaven, but I’ve decided to grow back my goatee. I figure if the female teachers at my school can have facial hair, so can I. I’m not kidding, it’s really disturbing. Some of these women can grow a better beard than my brother (sorry bro, I just needed an example). I don’t know if that’s a cultural thing or not. Likewise, I still find it funny when I see a beautiful girl unabashedly picking her nose in public.

“Shikamoo” is a respectful greeting you are expected to say to everyone older than you. That’s pretty much everyone at my school, including about half my students I think. Greetings are so important here. People here are much more reliant on each other for survival than Americans, and therefore must maintain close relationships with the people around them. They can’t afford to offend anyone, since they might need help from that person in the future. Hence the numerous greetings.

Literally it means “person that goes in circles” because the first Tanzanians that saw Europeans pass by thought that it was just the same person going around and around. Apparently all white people look alike. I, for example, am regularly mistaken for the fiancĂ©e of the Volunteer I replaced, in spite of the fact that he is 6 inches shorter than me and has black hair. Tanzanians think it’s really clever to shout “Mzungu!” at any white person they see. Of course, I think it’s clever to reply, “[You can see. Congratulations].”

I know it shouldn’t get to me. It’s the Swahili word for white person, and I am white, but there’s just something about it that bothers me. There’s some resentment attached to the word. It’s as if they’re saying, “Hey, whitey!” Not horribly insulting, but not completely friendly either.

Kids on the street will often shout it, but when they’re smiling and waving I don’t mind. I know they’re just excited because to them a white person is a novelty. Other kids say it because they think I don’t understand, and they view it as a kind of joke at my expense. So when they shout, “mzungu!” I respond with, “[child]!” Hollie, another Volunteer, tried this as well, and she made some kid cry. Wish I could’ve seen that…

Tanzanians as a group like to categorize everything. They see everything as black and white, and have little room in their perceptions for grays. All white people are European. Everyone is either Christian, Muslim, or Pagan. Americans, on the other hand, are strongly individualistic and don’t like to be so arbitrarily tossed into categories. I don’t think there’s a single Volunteer that isn’t bothered by being called Mzungu.

So yeah, sometimes I get annoyed, but mostly I can smile (as I plot revenge). Some things are just bizarrely funny. This week I was in the midst of another chemistry lab when the melodic strains of voices singing, “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands” (well actually it was more like, “Eef your heppy ind you know it clrep yo hans”) came from a nearby classroom. It totally blew my concentration. It seemed so ludicrously out of place, all I could do was stop and smile.

All this is of course from my perspective. I’ve no doubt that a lot of things I do must seem pretty bizarre from a Tanzanian perspective. Of course a lot of things I do must seem pretty bizarre from an American perspective too. Like coming here in the first place. But as I said before, seeing a guy in hammer pants doing the hammer dance made the whole trip worth it.


Next time: What the hell am I going to do with 5,000 mangos?

            I’ve read a few books about Africa, and while a lot of authors make an effort to describe the cultures and customs of various groups, I have yet to come across a book that describes where the customs come from, and why the people behave the way they do.
            Therefore, I’ve decided to make an attempt at describing a bit of what Tanzanians do that’s different from how Americans do things, and why I think they do these things. So yeah, I’d like to emphasize that these are just my own ideas, so take them for what they’re worth. Anyway, here goes:

            To start off, try and imagine what Tanzania was like before any outsiders came. And I don’t just mean Whitey, because coastal Tanzania has had contact with Asia since like the ninth century at least.
            Honestly, being here it’s hard for me to imagine. I mean, corn, bananas, beans and rice are pretty much the main crops here, and quite a bit of the land immediately surrounding Korogwe [the town where I live] is semi-arid farmland, but none of those crops are native to Africa. Corn comes from America, and bananas, beans and rice all come from Asia. So what the hell did people eat? I should go ask someone…
            Alright, my neighbors don’t know either. But anyway, a lot of tribes here have been traditionally agricultural for centuries, cultivating…something…and out of necessity very distinct gender roles developed. Basically, it was mostly the job of the women to look after the crops and animals, while the men were tasked with defending the village from predators and invaders. And that’s just the way it was. For centuries.
            And yeah, an ignorant observer might think the men were just lazy because they just sat around all day and did very little, but that too was out of necessity. They were conserving their strength and energy for when it would be needed to defend their homes and families.
            I was thinking about this the other day as I was waiting for a bus at the bus stand. In every single bus stand in Tanzania there’s always a bunch of young men just loitering. If they’re bored enough they’ll come harass me for a bit, but mostly they just hang out. Then, when a bus arrives, they all leap to their feet, shouting, jostling, loading and unloading baggage, and directing passengers to and from the bus. For their efforts they usually get a few coins tossed at them from the bus conductor, and once the bus is gone they go back to just sitting around.
            It’s not hard for me to imagine these same young men living hundreds of years ago, laying about until some warning is given, at which point they grab their spears and defend their homes with all the vigor and valor they’re capable of.
            Of course, it’s also not hard for me to imagine giant robotic amphibians gleefully blasting Korogwe into oblivion, so maybe it’s just me.
            But my point is that from a historical perspective, it seems kind of unrealistic to expect Tanzanian men to give up the lifestyle they’ve been accustomed to for centuries and adapt a more Western 8-hour-a-day work mentality without any resistance or difficulty. I think it’s going to take time.
            Tanzanians are very fatalistic too. A lot of them honestly seem to think that their actions don’t have any effect on the outcome of their lives. They don’t seem to understand the simple concept of cause-and-effect. And yeah, from a Western perspective it seems pretty stupid—and it is pretty stupid—but look at it from a Tanzanian perspective:
            Hundreds of years ago, you could be the nicest, most honorable Tanzanian ever, and you could still end up getting eaten by a lion or die of malaria. Or you could be a total asshole, sleep with as many women as possible, and your genes would get passed on. Or you could be a nice guy and be successful. Or you could be a jerk and get eaten by a lion or die of malaria.
            The point is, your actions do not determine the outcome of your life. Yeah. I mean, in the West we’re taught that if you work hard you’ll succeed because most of the time it actually does work out that way. Or at least often enough for it to be observable. And good actions generally have good consequences, while bad actions generally have bad consequences.
            Not so in Tanzania. Even today. The vigilante justice here is pretty brutal, but it’s also pretty random, so it’s not really much of a deterrent for criminals. And the actual legal system, as far as I know, is pretty ineffective. And while in the West, consistently overcharging people will most likely cause you to lose business to competitors, in Tanzania overcharging white people is fine because most of the time, you’ll never see the same white people ever again. Which is great for them, and perfectly understandable, but really frustrating for those of us on a Volunteer budget.
            One of the saddest things about this mentality has to do with mosquito nets. If every household uses mosquito nets dipped in a special chemical (which is harmless to humans but repels mosquitoes) an entire village can effectively be protected from malaria (the mosquitoes that carry it mostly come out at night. Mostly.) Various Western groups have tried giving out the nets and chemicals for free, but the Tanzanians turned around and sold them.
            Now my first thought when I heard this was, If the nets are being distributed into a community for free, who the hell are the people selling them to? I never did find an answer, but the point was that the people would rather have a few coins in the present than the dubious (to them) possibility of being protected from malaria in the future. And from a Tanzanian perspective, this is perfectly rational.
            But this is also why Tanzania doesn’t really have a functioning economy. Because while anyone would be willing to receive a loan from a bank, no one would ever pay it back. Even though that would mean they could never get another loan. So obviously, banks in Tanzania don’t give out loans. Which means there’s no means of getting credit if you want to do something; you have to have the cash. Which means very few can afford to try and start any kind of business. Which is why there’s virtually no middle class in Tanzania. Which is why the government can get away with being so corrupt. And so on.
            Tanzanians are very rigid thinkers. They like to put everything into discrete, inflexible categories: all snakes are poisonous; everyone from the Chagga tribe is smart; everyone from the Shambaa tribe is lazy; everyone from the Maasai tribe is fierce; all white people are rich, gullible, intelligent but physically weak, don’t speak Swahili, and are from Europe. And again, this way of thinking makes sense from a historical perspective. Assuming all snakes are poisonous isn’t a bad thing to do when you live in the same place as the Black Mamba—which they call “the seven-step snake” because if it bites you, you can take about seven steps before you die.
            Heh, this doesn’t have anything to do with culture, but one time I killed a snake outside my house with a rock, and then hung it on the tree in front of my door as a sort of trophy. One of the neighbor kids saw it and started screaming in abject terror, even though it was very clearly dead.
            That was funny.
            Anyway, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to make assumptions—especially when it comes to snakes—but the problem arises when you can’t revise your assumption based on new information.
            Like the time Aaron and I were having a conversation in Swahili with a Tanzanian guy, while another looked on. I swear I could almost see the diseased hamster limping on the rusted wheel in what passed for the onlooker’s brain as he tried to comprehend what was going on. Finally, when there was a pause in the conversation, he jumped in with, “Jambo, mzungu. Jambo. That means hello.”
            No shit. Jambo is, unfortunately, the first word every white person learns when they come to Tanzania. Mzungu, even more unfortunately, is the second. Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with the word jambo, but the thing is, Tanzanians never say it to each other. They only say it to white people. White people who they think don’t know Swahili. And they say it with such utter distain, you can pretty much tell they’re thinking, “You’re such an ignorant mzungu I have to say jambo to you because you obviously don’t know Swahili.”
            Of course, if I said every Tanzanian was like that, I would be the racist. And hell, if every Tanzanian actually was like that, I would’ve just quit and gone home. The fact is, I actually did have some good experiences with Tanzanians.
            Like when Sharon, my neighbor Mama Kitaly’s 10-year-old son, came to my house with the following note:

Kaka endru naomba ujakwenye bass day yangu itakayo fanyika saa kumi na mbili jioni
                                mimi ni Sharoni

            This took me a while to figure out. The only words I couldn’t translate were “endru” and “bass day”—until I read it out loud. “Endru” was my name—Andrew—and “bass day” was birthday. It was an invitation to his birthday party. Sharon was one of the kids who went hiking with me, and I liked him. He was always friendly and polite when I saw him. His mother was the head of the school’s chemistry department.
            Unfortunately for him, he didn’t really give me time to go get him a present, so I had to just grab a few random things from around the house. I didn’t want to give him anything too ostentatious for fear of the other kids getting jealous, so I settled on a mechanical pencil and some other small things. I brought my camera too so I could take pictures and give him copies later.
            Mama Kitaly’s house was constructed similarly to mine, but unlike mine it actually felt like a home. The wooden furniture was similar to what I had, but her cushions were covered in a nicer fabric that matched the curtains and carpet. And doilies. Lots and lots of doilies. Tanzanians love doilies. Obviously nothing they had was terribly expensive, but everything was clean and well-cared-for. Plus, just the fact that the place was full of happy children and I could smell good food cooking.
            I was a little surprised by how well-dressed the kids were, and how subdued as well. Sure they were smiling and talking, but not running around and causing havoc like I would’ve expected of kids that age at a birthday party.
            Not long after I arrived, Sharon assumed the role of master of ceremonies and officially started the party. First he thanked everyone for coming, then abruptly asked me if I would say a few words. I was completely caught off guard, and all I could manage was, “[I don’t know Swahili, but I know that Sharon is my friend].” But apparently that was satisfactory, as Mama Kitaly gave me an approving smile and brought out the cake. Sharon blew out the candles, opened his presents, and then we had cake.
            The kids played for a while, then Mama Kitaly sent them back to their respective houses for dinner. She invited me to stay to have dinner with her family, and there was really no polite way for me to refuse. Besides, after being around so many happy, lively people I really didn’t feel like going back to my bare, empty house.
            We had to wait for her husband to get home, which he did a little after dark. Fortunatos was a handsome man with a friendly smile and a firm handshake. He was getting a Master’s degree in Morogoro, and was sorry to have missed the party. But the kids were excited to see him nonetheless.
            Despite the fact that it was his birthday, Sharon eagerly helped set the table, and we all sat down to eat. It was a simple meal of fish with boiled potatoes, carrots, onions and spinach, but still pretty good.
            “I notice you are eating with your left hand,” Fortunatos observed.
            “Yeah?” I was a little apprehensive about where he was going with this, especially after my encounter with that creepy Vincent guy in Arusha.
“I am left-handed as well.”
Oh. He was just making conversation. And as it turned out, we actually did have a really good conversation. Even after the meal was finished, I stayed quite late into the evening, just hanging out and talking with him.
            The thing is, most of the teachers at the school were nice enough, but most were in their 40s or older, had their lives, families and children to worry about, and I just didn’t have anything in common with them. But Fortunatos was in his 30s, and interested in politics and economics and the world in general. We actually spent quite a lot of time talking about the problems facing Tanzania and what we thought could be done to fix them. It was fun, and interesting.
            I’d like to say that he and I would’ve become pretty good friends if it wasn’t for the fact that he was in Morogoro most of the time, but I think that would be a lie. The sad fact is, I was afraid to get too close to anyone in Korogwe. I was afraid if I became friends with anyone, they’d just start using it as an excuse to start asking me for stuff. I was afraid the only reason anyone wanted to be friends with me was so they could get stuff from me. And you can’t really be friends with someone if you’re constantly questioning their motives.
            The worst part though is that I honestly just preferred being alone to spending time with anyone in Korogwe. I know that sounds bad, but it’s the truth.

            And that’s about all I have to say about culture for the moment. Of course, my understanding of the situation and why people did what they did never really did keep me from getting pissed off and frustrated by it.