Everyone tends to have some sort of turning point; a moment that changes their perspective on life or even morphs them and their interest. My life has been a roller coaster even though its been comparatively short, I have already had one moment burned in my mind that changed me forever.
During the summery days of June, I sat in Orbomba, Tanzania, awaiting the news of what we were doing today. When we were told that we were participating in a walk to retrieve water, I was excited to get some fresh air, see some sights, and take a break from playing spoons and mafia inside the mess tent. I loved spending time in the savannah, with the wind looping through the sycamores and gently pushing the sand piles around.
The mothers of a local Maasai family joined us to take us to the water hole. They were stunning in their blue and red garb, the traditional Maasai colors. They had the stretched earlobes, a common sign of beauty in the area. One of them looked strikingly similar to my own mother, with the same facial features and different skin color. We even brought out a photo for comparison and the group agreed on how similar they looked. This was translated to the woman and she called me her daughter for the rest of her stay. The mamas gave us jelly jars, which were used to collect the water and before we knew it, we were off.
On the way, we smiled and laughed, enjoying the fact that we were almost as far away from home as possible. We joked around and pointed out the tracks in the sand from numerous critters. Eventually, we ran into boys, likely no older than ten or eleven, herding massive groups of goats and cattle. We had simple conversations, such as “how old are you?” and “what’s your name?” We smiled and waved goodbye soon after and continued on our merry way.
After a cheerful conversation and mountains of inside jokes, we arrived to our destination. The laughter was silenced, the conversations were muted, the comedy halted as we gazed upon a single sight: the water source. After our long walk, we arrived to little but a puddle. The water was so contaminated that you couldn’t see the bottom, except for the half inch of water before the shoreline. It was a surreal feeling, to see that this mud was their source of life. To further illustrate the uncleanliness of the water before us, the group leaders wouldn’t let any of the volunteers or non-locals touch the water or help fill the cans with water.
To add to the contamination, the shepherd boys had to bring their livestock for a drink. The water we gazed upon was crawling with bacteria from the cows that just waddled in and defecated, filled with sludge from being stirred up from all the life using it. There was no way this water would be considered potable, let alone safe to swim in, if you were going by US or European standards, yet the locals had no problem filling the jars up.
At this time, our guide took the time to tell us that little is done to purify the water in any way, except for occasionally boiling and mostly just scooping the settled water off the top of a large tank. We were also told that many times in the summer, this pool dries up and the women must walk further for water. Lastly, he gave us an anecdote of a Kenyan group who refused to drink the water from a newly installed well. When they water flowed, they were afraid that the volunteers were trying to poison them, since the only liquid they had seen with the same appearance was kerosene. They were so used to poor water conditions that they didn’t recognize the water that we find in bigger cities.
These facts and the mere situation was a blow to my fragile, “first world” country perspective. And that wasn’t even the end of the walk.
After collecting the water, we had to carry it to the house, which was a few miles away. This task was grueling as the water we toted was in cans weighing about 50-60 pounds when filled. We took turns with a partner to carry them, but the women leading us to their home carried it the whole way themselves. As it turns out, these women not only do it once, but maybe at least six or seven times a day. It is the largest part of their daily routine and is crucial for plants, livestock, cooking, cleaning, and drinking. Of course, this is all in addition to regular chores.
When we arrived to the homes, they were a traditional Maasai house of cow dung and sticks, which provides coolness from the sun and warmth from the chilly nights. The man of the household had six wives and thirteen children, which makes him fairly wealthy compared to the rest of his area, since men do not take a wife unless they can successfully support them.
The children of the family were ecstatic to see us and they loved my blonde hair, camera, and hat. Of this experience, I wrote in my journal: “The kids took particular interest in my camera and swarmed me, wanting to press the buttons and see themselves. They loved my hair and hat and loved to play with it. Even though they knew no English and we knew no Maasai, we were able to understand each other.”
This phenomenal interaction with the families distracted me from the water situation for a little bit, but then reality kicked in. It jolted my life into a harsh reality of how many people in this world must live. The United Nations stated that by 2025, two thirds of the world will face water scarcity and 1.8 billion will have no clean water access. Some believe that the next world war will be fought over water, due to how essential it is to our daily life but also so scarce. This is real life with real people, and this experience drew the veil back from my materialistic, first world view.
Now over two years later, I still hold this experience dear and remember it daily. It drastically changed my perspective on nearly every aspect of my life. Tanzania ultimately turned my life upside down and fueled my voracious appetite for travel and humanitarian aid. I have since felt compelled to make a difference in the world of water usage, whether large or small.
Before delving into that topic, I must digress. Some people, when I discuss this experience, begin to view Tanzania as only a developing country, which in reality, developing and developed are two weak words often used to describe people that merely live a different life. An example I always go back to are the Romans and Incas, since both civilizations were incredibly advanced and yet Rome always seems to get the credit for architectural wonders. Just because a civilization lives differently, it does not mean that they are simple, developing, or lesser. In fact, many “developing” countries have age old traditions or building styles or art that make them rich and unique. The moral of the story is “to each their own” and only that.
However, when it comes to water, some people are unable to have cleaner water that would promote health, reduce waterborne illness, and allow people to meet their goals and careers. It is not the fault of the people; water is a necessity often influenced by politics, economy, geography, and more. People often don’t have clean water because they can’t get to it, not because they are primitive or less civilized.
Now over two years later, I still hold this experience dear and remember it daily. It drastically changed my perspective on nearly every aspect of my life. Tanzania ultimately turned my life upside down and fueled my voracious appetite for travel and humanitarian aid. I have since felt compelled to make a difference in the world of water usage, whether large or small. I feel obliged to help the people that I know and the people that don’t, because this issue resonated with me so much. Its what fueled my blog and my future travels. It’s what fuels me.
And to think, this all started with a puddle of water!
Note: There is current dispute on the value of service projects abroad and the view of the culture that is being helped. My time in Tanzania focused on building a school in a heavily impoverished area, when, naturally, the social status is difference across the country. This was my experience and what I took away from it, but certainly not a generalization of the nation or its people as a whole.
On June 18 of 2016, I experienced the beginning of what would change my perspective on the world forever. Traveling to Tanzania was a dramatic change from my life at home, but experiencing the hardships of poverty was another detail that brought dramatic change to my life. This day was the first of many daunting tasks that put all of us into the trying situations the people we stayed with face on a daily basis.
Upon returning from a morning walk and eating a big breakfast of Spanish eggs, toast, cereal, chai, and fruit, our group was given a task to simulate the difficulties of poverty. We broke into groups and were given 10,000 Tanzanian shillings per team, which at the time was 5 USD and happened to be what the average family in the area lived on per week. The average family also happened to be seven people in size. With the cash, we were given an index card of our family’s scenario. My groups card was the poorest family and our index card required us to buy a jelly jar for water, soap, and food for the family.
Along with our instructions, we each paired up with one of our hosts to help the language barrier, as Maa is spoken in the markets and none of us are familiar with the language. Mollel was our guide and he was very helpful. He taught us words such as punguza, subuni,nahindi, and more, meaning less, soap, and maize, respectively. In the simulation, we did the bargaining and price determining, much as the family we were representing would have to. It was pretty tough to find products that weren’t crawling with bugs (especially cornmeal) or seemed clean. When we did find some that fit the criteria, it was usually expensive and almost not worth it. With the money we were given, we managed to divide up our money in the following fashion:
1 jelly jar: 3000 shillings
1 package of soap: 1800 shillings
A few kilos of cornmeal: 2500 shillings
2 avocados: 1000 shillings
12 bananas: 1500 shillings
While this seems fairly good for five USD, this is not a healthy lifestyle for seven people over the span of a week. Some families are fortunate enough to have a second form of gathering food, such as their own crops and livestock but not all are that fortunate. Some others are forced to give up food to send their child to school or so on.
What did we do with the stuff we bought?
The items we bought from real vendors was donated back to the camp staff and community around us to help with their nourishment and other needs. From this same market, we also bought a goat for our camp staff that would be ceremonially slaughtered in the proceeding days, as is a common gift.
So what was the takeaway?
This was the first of many lessons on this trip that taught me to be humble and understand how lucky I am. Having the food I need to have a healthy life (among many other things) is something I am more aware and grateful for having after this experience.
Additionally, I apologize for the lack of photos, but I didn’t take my camera as we weren’t in a touristy area and I wanted to respect the privacy of the people involved. Thank you for reading!
This article is unlike any of my others because for the first time ever I had the pleasure of featuring a fellow traveller on Walks of Namayani!
Chloe Braedt has attended the same school as me for the last four years. She has traveled around the world with her family every two years to places like: Costa Rica, Germany, India, Tanzania, Peru, as well as Austria and Italy! She is in love with traveling and meeting new people and experiencing different cultures in a multitude of ways. She also hopes to continue traveling in her near future, hopefully touring New Zealand in two years!
We traveled to Tanzania in the same year (2016) and found that there were many differences. I went in June (their winter) and she went in December (their summer) but the experiences differed far more than mere temperatures. We decided to compile a list of topics regarding this wonderful county and share each of our perspectives to give a broader idea of the country and also to see the differences in tourism versus volunteer work. Here were the results:
First Impression of Tanzania:
After a thirteen hour flight and a long wait for visas in Kenya, we finally arrived in Tanzania. The air was hot and humid, and full of an indistinguishable almost earthy smell, noticeable as soon as we left the plane. Driving on the opposite side of the road from the airport to our hotel was trippy! Honestly, my first day of Tanzania was a blurry, beautiful, overwhelmed, over stimulated, and an exhausted jetlagged blur. We arrived in Arusha, and drove to Arusha National Park to experience a Safari and I took a selfie with my brother while giraffes chilled in the background!
We arrived late evening to Kilimanjaro International Airport, where we were greeted by our guides, Charles and Deveney. All of us had our visas beforehand, except for one girl who had Canadian citizenship, rather than US. After customs, we grabbed our luggage and converted the currency (at the time 1 USD = 2000 TZS). The air outside was fairly humid and had a very distinct smell, although not a bad one. It smelt more earthy than my home does. I was immediately shocked by the traffic for two reasons: it was on the opposite side of the road and it was so busy and overwhelming. I was entranced by the differences from my city to Arusha and even though I was so drained from the flying, I noticed every single thing. Something that stood out to me was definitely the convenience stores. They seemed to be the social gathering of the culture. There were also a lot of ads for Coca-Cola too!
In Zanzibar I had the opportunity to tour an old slave storage prison. The air was hot and thick as we descending the steep stairs receding underground. After maneuvering through foul smelling tunnels we arrived in a small cramped alcove and discovered that more than twenty slaves would be crammed into this dark room for days, awaiting to be sold in Zanzibar or shipped off somewhere else. My tour consisted of 12 people, and the tour guide made all of us stand squished together in the cave for ten minutes to experience a small glimpse of what the African slaves experienced for days. It was suffocating. The ceiling was low, even while sitting on raised rocks, and there was a small hole that revealed a little glow of light, but ultimately it was nearly pitch black. It was an eye opening experience, and one I will not forget in a long time.
I actually did not have an experience with the slave trade history. My group was in a rural area, far from tourist attractions and historical sites. However, I wish I could understand this horrific experience further and am hoping to visit some sights in Morocco this June.
Treatment of the Environment:
Overall, the treatment of the environment was mediocre. Not nearly as dramatic as India, but trash was still noticeable on the sides of the streets, mostly plastic water bottles and plastic soda bottles. One memorable experience though was when we visited a small market place. There was a sign that stated something similar to, “Keep our environment healthy and clean!” and piled high around the sign was trash, ranging from plastic items, to old clothes, to dead carcasses.
I found that treatment of the environment was somewhere between good and bad. Personally, I felt that the people had a huge amount of respect for the natural world, but lacked the resources to actually take care of it. I never felt dirty or unclean, but trash was evident on the streets and waste didn’t seem to be adequately dealt with, although I am observing from a first world perspective. In terms of the animals though, I feel like the safaris were well maintained and clean, and the animals, though observed by tourists, were independent of humans and living a natural life.
Compared to India, the poverty I experienced was less, but still severe in more populated areas. Sellers, ranging from young teenagers to old men and women would come up to me and grasp my arm and beg for shillings, or shove a bracelet on my wrists, attempting to convince me to buy it. At one point this women roughly grabbed my hand and pushed a ring on my finger, rapidly speaking broken english that it was beautiful on my hand. I told her I didn’t want it and it took me several minutes to even pull it off my finger, I had to yell at my dad to help me. The people were kind, but also understandably desperate for money from white tourists.
I was in an area devoid of markets or peddlers, but I was in an exceptionally rural part of the country. Where I was, the average family, which is seven people, lives on an average income of 10,000 shillings, which equates to five US dollars. No one was asking for money, but for help. Many of these people didn’t even have access to water or a safe shelter or the ability to read. They were making a small living off of what they could produce because selling to tourists was not an option. At one point, we took part in the local Maasai market, but even there, the people who had lots of supplies were struggling. It was eye opening to see how some of these people work so hard but barely make enough to get by. This deficiency in funds was a large focus of my trip because it begins to affect people physically, emotionally, and socially. I couldn’t fathom being in their place. Too many times, I saw the effects of poverty: malnutrition, starvation, dehydration, sickness, stunted growth, and no education. These people were so kind and gracious and it hurts me to think about how much difficulty they go through throughout the year.
In the majority of Tanzania it was difficult to discern the primary religion, however; in Zanzibar there is a huge muslim population which was very prominent. Zanzibar is a beautiful island with breathtaking sandy beaches and crystal blue water. Nevertheless, I don’t think I once noticed anyone swimming on these beaches besides a few very white tourists. Most of the locals living on the island are extremely conservative and covered up, especially the women.
I actually had the wonderful experience of being in Tanzania during Ramadan, a Muslim holiday. My area was predominantly Christian and Muslim, with a very even split. When we first arrived, we saw lots of people in Mosques praying and in the morning, we were typically woken up by the prayer calls. However, many people were Christian too and despite differences, there seemed to be no conflict over beliefs. Even though Ramadan wasn’t celebrated by half of the population, nearly everyone greatly respected it.
AK-47s. Lots and lots everywhere! Tanzanians would be sitting outside local restaurants with these massive guns strapped on their bags, casually talking to their neighbor. At one point my family and I were riding in a jeep across Zanzibar and several black jeeps full of men in military uniforms with AK 47s passed us with horns and sirens blaring. It was pretty terrifying, my mom saw the group speeding towards us and shoved me down behind the seat just in case something became violent. These guns appeared commonplace in both Zanzibar and the areas of Tanzania I visited.
AK-47s were very commonplace where I was. On our first night people would be laughing and smiling in the convenience stores with the automatic rifles propped up against them. There was no need or threat by them, they were just there. I wasn’t expecting it and it was startling, but I didn’t feel scared or afraid. There was no tension or present danger, they just seemed to be a part of daily life.
In Tanzania, we could only eat thoroughly cooked food and bottled water. We were strongly advised to avoid all meats and fruits in order to stay healthy. Overall the food was yummy! My family planned out all of our meals in advance so most of the meals we ate were “americanized” which was frustrating, but I never got sick so that was good. At one point we watched a man climb a coconut tree and harvest coconuts for all of my family! The coconut water was incredible, strikingly more sweet and crisp than anything you could buy here in the U.S. The coconut meat itself was a little slimy, but overall pretty yummy!
We had no recommendations about food, mostly because it was prepared for us. The volunteer company makes extra effort to coordinate safe food and water, but luckily we also got to experience Tanzanian food. Lots of their cuisine deals with natural fruits, meats, and grains. Corn products are common, as well as bell peppers, tomatoes, bananas, watermelons, and more. One day, we had a special opportunity to prepare our own meal. Together we made ugali, a sort of corn meal loaf, vegetable stir fry, and some other things and it was so good. I even make ugaliand stir fry at home now for special occasions. Another day we had a much more negative experience. We woke up and had to eat one of the more common local foods, which was essentially cornmeal oatmeal. Our group of nine had to finish at least one bowl and each of us had to finish a cup. It was one of the worst things I have ever eaten since it clung to my throat and mouth, was gritty and just all around awful. Our whole group was rather disgusted, but this meager meal of cornmeal and water is the primary food for the people in the area. They don’t like it much, but they eat as much of it when they can, while the supply is there, because for many, it will be their only source of food. Another interesting food experience was goat. We, as a group, gave a goat to our wonderful hosts as a gift, and because of that, we had the unique opportunity to watch a ceremonial goat slaughter. Only half of us could really stomach the event, but I was grateful for this true experience of culture. Later that night we had a celebration and ate said goat, which was a new food for me!
Tourist level (especially in regards to culture):
My experiences with Tanzanian culture was more specifically with the Maasai tribe. We drove into a rural area and through our massive tour bus we watched the tiny dots of Maasai men graze their goats and cows. At one point I remember seeing a teenager, he appeared about my age (16) and he was gripping a tall spear and donning traditional clothing. What different lives we lead as teenagers. After driving down a long dusty road we arrived at a Maasai village. The village itself was primitive; with straw and mud huts and thatched roofs. The Maasai people welcomed us warmly, but honestly the entire experience was very touristy. The women performed a dance for us, and the men jumped in tribal dances. It was really interesting learning about their culture, but I could easily tell this particular tribe thrived off of tourism, which made the experience a little less realistic and personal. Overall though, I really enjoyed the Maasai people.
Unlike Chloe, I was not observing the Maasai culture, but was living in it. I was about three hours from the nearest city and our tents were near a local group of Maasai. We never witnessed any of the dances, but instead helped the tribe carry water to and from the source and visited a nearby family. None of these people were thriving off of tourism, but instead their funds were from agriculture. Their mud huts were their true home, equipped with feeble electricity and small fire pits. Many of them wore traditional clothing by choice, rather than to appease us and overall it was an honest and accurate experience, rather than falsified for tourism. The only “performance” that we experienced was when we finished working on the school, the students sang us a song, but it was much more of a thank you than a plea for money or attention.
Lodging in Country:
On my trip, my family and I stayed in lavish hotels and glamped when we were on the Safari part of our experience. One thing to note, the “fancy” hotels that we stayed in were honestly what I would consider average hotels in the U.S. Tanzania has differing standards in regards to hotel services, compared to the U.S- understandably of course. The beds were always pretty stiff and the showers I experienced consistently possessed a slimy quality about them, the water was slippery and almost felt greasy which was a little unsettling at first.
Throughout my time there, we were almost always in our camp in Orbomba. We were in a hotel, The Outpost Lodge for only one night, of which the food and service was fantastic. Unlike most standard hotels we had three to a room, but each room was typically its own building. The beds were stiff but relieving after a long span of flights. I don’t recall any of us using the showers, but the hotel was super cute and clean. We were also provided with mosquito nets, which was also reassuring. The food was superb as well and overall it just felt warm and welcoming. It was certainly a transition though, as the first thing I noticed was a sign to not leave windows open due to monkeys (although we never had an issue)! Also, during breakfast the next morning, we saw lots of chameleons, which was super cool. For the the rest of the trip, we slept in tents near our volunteer site. Our camp was set up with one big mess tent and lots of tents fitting four people and their belongings. Staff stayed nearby and there was a makeshift kitchen, where our food was prepared each day. Bathroom and shower tents were behind us and the whole thing was fenced in. I felt super safe the whole time and actually quite close to nature. In fact, one morning we woke up to giraffes in our camp!
Oof. Difficult question! My travel to Tanzania was enlightening, exciting, heartbreaking at times but most importantly gave me a huge sense of perspective in the world. The U.S is one of the most wealthy nations in the world, and because of this fact, it’s easy to take opportunities and graces we receive on a daily basis for granted. Clean running water, grocery stores, cars, electricity: all functions we interact with constantly, but in places like Tanzania, this is obviously not the case. My trip instilled a permanent sense of gratitude, and even though my heart shatters when I think about the conditions the men, women, and children in places like Tanzania experience daily. I am able to reconcile myself by knowing that I will go back one day and impact these families in a positive way, which is something I hope everyone who travels to an impoverished countries feels.
Narrowing it down to a single thing is very difficult for me. Often times I think of my experiences with water there and how that one resource affects such a grand portion of life. Too often I feel guilt for having such easy access and I want to do something about it. The fact that I personally know some of the people that are being affected by drought and disease makes the global situation much more personal and heartbreaking to me and to the others in my group. My experience with carrying the water to the home enlightened me to what it is like to struggle with things we take for granted and someday I want to help those in need with their resource access. Additionally, I witnessed the effects of poverty in general, and I hope that one day that burden will be lessened for people globally. While this trip was a massive culture shock and a guilt trip, it also sparked a desire to help, a new sense of gratitude, and a better understanding of the world.