I am in Tanzania for almost 4 months now and it is an amazing journey. It feels as if someone has carefully designed every step along my pathway and each experience comes with a challenge, eye opening moment or deeper understanding. At the moment I am struggling with something which has been growing from the moment I arrived.
I came to Tanzania to challenge and develop myself and to completely immerse in a different culture. I did not come here to help. I want to learn from the people I meet and hopefully they learn from me as well. When you meet someone and there is true interaction both will transform. When interacting and exchanging with people from a completely different culture in a completely different environment the learning curve will increase.
There are a lot of moments where I feel blessed but kind of guilty as well for the life, chances and opportunities I have had and will have simply because I was born in the Netherlands. At the same time I think there are many beautiful things here which we don’t have. The way the west has developed with its capitalistic outlook on life and self centred way of living is not necessary the only way or the best way forward. When going to a country with a different culture I think it is very important to acknowledge and respect this culture and to be aware that there might be things you don’t understand or have to do different from what you are used to. People come to Tanzania to help and I have seen some amazing projects and organisations working together with the local communities to make a sustainable difference. With some other people however, although wanting to help comes from a good place, I think this helping motivation is naive or even selfish. When someone gives money or comes for a short amount of time and tries to change things the way they think it should be without considering the cultural difference, the true needs of the local people and the massive scale of the problems the project will most likely collapse during or immediately after they left. They might leave with a good feeling but the local people are left with nothing but failure, dependence and wrong expectations towards other expat.
At the moment I am part of a local music group. They make traditional music and dance with a lot of drumming, singing and story telling. I love working with them and I learn a lot musically, socially and language wise. I think they like me and love working with me too but at the same time the two only single members of the band told me they are in love with me and want to marry me, they expect me to pay everything wherever we go and they think I will buy them new instruments and make them famous. I love to share my musical knowledge and experience with them and I can brainstorm and share ideas but I am not going to manage the band and pay everything. That would create a strange dynamic within the band, it would make them dependent and then when I leave everything would collapse. That is what I told them during the band meeting yesterday but they did not really understand what I was saying. The conversation was confusing and made me feel very sad because although I wish I would be an equal member of the band during my time here, I realised I will never be.
Here in Tanzania I am Geerte or Helena (my more pronounceable second name) but at the same time I am mzungu. I don’t feel mzungu and I don’t want to be labeled mzungu… but I am.
I have never been so aware of my skin colour as I am since arriving in Africa. I have always lived in the west and I have never consciously felt white. Giving, sponsoring and working for free sounds great but it also creates expectations. A lot of people look at me and call me mzungu and some ask me to sponsor their children, want to be my boyfriend or expect me to pay mzungu price. Most of the time there are no bad intentions behind it and they don't try to insult me or anything like that. There are simply not that many white people here and the expectations are high because we come from the west. I don't like it when they call me mzungu because it feels generalising. I am not mzungu… I am Geerte!
I think there is a strange dynamic between the expat community and the local community and I am not sure where I fit in. I enjoy hanging out with both! I would love to just work with people no matter which colour, age or background but somehow I am stuck between the boxes and labels. I sometimes wish to blend in for a moment and be the same as everybody around me. People treating you differently because of the colour of your skin, assuming things and generalising without even knowing you. I know you can't compare my experience here with the racism black people experience in the west but I think this is the first time I can kind of imagine how it must be to be judged only by the colour of your skin.
I am not sure what to do with the local band situation. I would love to keep playing with them as I learn a lot and it is an amazing experience for me but at the same time I am leaving soon and I don’t want to mess up the dynamics within the band just because of my own enjoyment. I believe in exchange but maybe I am naive and selfish as well. I will go back to the Netherlands or wherever I choose to go but they don’t have that freedom to choose and will have to stay here and continue to survive in the world they live in. Maybe in some cases exchange creates more confusion than enrichment leaving a messed up situation. Do I have to take that in consideration, is it just part of life or is it selfish again to think that my presence will have such a big influence on their lives? I don’t really have an answer to these questions and I don’t think there is one. I do think it is important to think about it and I will try to be thoughtful. At the same time I strongly believe that yes there is a difference, I have a white skin colour and I am born an raised in the Netherlands but lets embrace that difference and learn from each other. Besides that the only thing I can do is keep going, make choices and see what the future will bring.
Geerte de Koe