I am in Doha, “enjoying” a 6-hour layover between the first flight from Dar es Salaam and the second one to Milan, and all I can think about is how to answer the questions I always get once back home: “So, how are you? How was 'X' (fill with the last location I was in)?”
Normally I would reply something like, “I am great, thanks! 'X' was good, I have really enjoyed my time there! So good to be home!”, and then a lot of superficial gossip would follow about new things tried, new friends met, new places visited, new food tasted etc. I have learnt well what kind of things to say in those first reunions with family and friends, showing pictures and projecting my excitement; I have always been the “bright-side” kind of person, taking the best out of any experience I have had.
However, this time I feel like this answer is not enough: Tanzania was not just the fifth country I have lived in for the last 3 years, but also an incredible and unsettling journey, impossible to easily sum up in words (read Part 1 and Part 2 of this series). Pictures cannot help me much either, as the places I visited were not always Instagram-able and a big part of the experience is in the photos I did not take. Yes, I have witnessed the most spectacular sunsets and sunrises in my entire life, I have enjoyed swimming in the clear waters of the Indian Ocean surrounding Zanzibar, I have seen the Milky Way in a sky full of stars, I have been welcomed by hundreds of hosts, I have felt incredibly strong and independent travelling alone, and I have been part of the team who has electrified some remote communities in the rural parts of the country. However, I have surely encountered more poverty than beauty, more injustice than funny stories, more moments definitely in which I was puzzled and discouraged than situations in which I felt at ease.
First, I felt frustrated in the daily work; the micromanagement necessary to get things done, which I had to endure, drained a lot of my energy and communication was definitely my largest daily struggle. For example, once I spent an hour explaining to the owner of a printing store that I wanted to print stickers of 1,5 cm x 1,5 cm of four different shapes up to a total of 500 stickers; in the end, we agreed that I would provide him with the images in high resolution and the quantities I needed for each one, and that he would bring a sample of the work to my office the next day. When he showed up holding three stickers A4 size, smiling all proud of the quality of the prints, I just wanted to cry. When telling this story, people could not understand how upset I was about it, but it is because they miss out on how I had to delay the scheduled fieldwork and restart from scratch the whole process (it took me days to figure out which store could actually print the stickers).
Often I felt overwhelmed: I am always eager to experience more, learn more, take more pictures and continuously connect with people. The exhaustion at the end of each day was a good reminder that receptiveness is a choice, an act that requires a lot of energy; especially during fieldwork there have been moments in which I wanted just to shut myself off and say, “I have had enough”. Too many stories, too many images, too much altogether. Somehow, writing notes helped me, even about stories I remembered halfway or things I did not necessarily understand; it was a way to empty my head of all the impressions I had. Once back home from the first trip, I first climbed up the mountain behind my house alone in complete silence and then went home, curled up in my bed, turned off my phone and re-read everything I wrote down. Certainly the book “The world beyond your head. How to flourish in an Age of Distraction” by Matthew Crawford really helped me out on the topic.
Moreover, I struggled with the concept of African time: I am not at all a patient person. Even if people warned me about it, I never fully pictured how it would have been to be waiting for a bus or a meeting for hours. After few months, I could be realistic when planning my schedule or when arranging a site visit, leaving long “just-in-case-Tanzania-happens” gaps. Yet I fully understood only when reading this paragraph of “The Shadow of the Sun” by Ryszard Kapuściński:
“The European and the African have an entirely different concept of time. In the European worldview, time exists outside man, exists objectively, and has measurable and linear characteristics. The European feels himself to be time’s slave, dependent on it, subject to it. An unresolvable conflict exists between man and time, one that always ends with man’s defeat – time annihilates him. Africans apprehend time differently. For them, it is a much looser concept, more open, elastic, subjective. It is man who influences time, its shape, course and rhythm. Time appears as a result of our actions, and vanishes when we neglect or ignore it. In practical terms, this means that if you go to a village where a meeting is scheduled for the afternoon but find no one at the appointed spot asking, “When will the meeting take place?” makes no sense. You know the answer: “It will take place when people come.””
Though, there is difference between understanding and being able to remain unaffected by it, and I realized this when I had to suffer through a 48-hour train ride from Mbeya to Dar es Salaam (instead of the 22 hours estimated): I just lost it. I felt trapped in that train carriage stuck in the middle of one of the game reserve without being able to use the toilets and with intermittent power; when looking at the face of my travel mates, it was plain to see who the tourist was.
Lastly, a bunch of other small situations impacted me in a way I could not foresee nor control. It was hard not to be able to wash my hair for days due to the absence of running water when I was doing fieldwork. It was heartbreaking to visit the local hospitals and see their daily struggle in dealing with the huge amount of patients. It was weird to be continuously observed when walking down the dusty roads to my office. Saying goodbye to my teammates was more difficult than ever (when will they get a chance, the money or a visa to visit me in Europe?).
In the end, I have stopped trying to figure out a short, provocative yet socially acceptable answer to the questions, “So, how are you? How was Tanzania?” I guess I will just look you in the eyes and reply, “It was worth all the efforts and thoughts I have put in it”, because anyways all the lows are erased by the all the gifts I have received and the wonderful souls I have met in the past 6 months! I am looking forward to sharing more stories and takeaways with you during my talk at AlumniUnite!
Asante sana, Tanzania! Tutaonana baadaye!
In Collaboration with The CommUnity Post
Silvia has a real love of people. She started with volunteering to foster education and social inclusion of the immigrant kids from her neighbourhood when she was 16 – and this spirit of giving back to the world community continues to this day with her work in designing and distributing appropriate technologies with the appropriate financing schemes in developing economies. She acquired the necessary skills to achieve her dreams studying the InnoEnergy RENE Master programme at Instituto Superior Técnico in Lisbon and Ecole Polytechnique de Paris and volunteering with Engineers without Borders.
The most incredible sunrise of my life
The most incredible sunset of my life
Dry season landscape
Shades of blue in Zanzibar
Kariakoo market in Dar es Salaam
The train odyssey
My way to the office