It seemed I would never fit into life in Tanzania. But then I spoke Swahili.
By Gretchen Geerts, Arts ’09
Rev. Christopher Ahrends, theology professor for Marquette’s South Africa Service Learning Program, calls alumni of the program “American-Africans.” He believes participants go to South Africa for a semester to learn and serve in a different culture and return to the United States as changed men and women. I am one of those changed women.
Participation in the South Africa Service Learning Program my junior year gave me a greater awareness of injustice in the world and a better sense of who I am. Every time I walked into the doors of my service learning placement, a school, I felt more like myself than I had before.
My students and I connected on so many levels. We danced, cried, laughed and learned from each other. I left South Africa feeling as though I was leaving a piece of myself there and could only make myself whole again by returning.
Throughout my senior year, I knew what I would do after graduation. I would return to Africa. I researched a lot of different programs. I ended up applying to the Jesuit Volunteer Corps’ International Program because I wanted to be a part of a program that incorporates community and would shape me into a person living in solidarity with the poor. I was lucky to not only get into the program but also to be sent to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to teach at Gonzaga Primary School, a local Jesuit school. At the time, I knew absolutely nothing about Dar es Salaam. But I had two years to get to know it quite well.
I left for Tanzania in December 2009. Upon arrival, I found sweltering heat, a skyline of palm trees, foreign-sounding music being pumped out of various stereos and a language from which I recognized two words from The Lion King.
Those first days, weeks and even months were defined by all that was different from what I knew before. It seemed as though I would never find the sense of completeness I had found in South Africa and come here seeking.
But then I bought vegetables by speaking Swahili (the language of Tanzania) without using any of my notes. I made my way to town to pick up a package. I sang along to the music from my neighbor’s stereo. I began seeing beyond the differences. But what ultimately connected me to Tanzania was a birthday party.
It was late March, and I was busy marking exams and collecting my students’ grades at the end of the school term. My students were making my job difficult. They kept running into my office to ask me to come to our classroom. Over and over, I told them: “Not now. I need to finish my work first.” But they were impatient, and, finally, I followed them to our classroom.
The room was completely transformed. There were flowers everywhere. The blackboard was covered with handwritten chalk messages saying “Teacher Gretchen, God Bless YUO” (clearly, I needed to work on their spelling) and “Happy Birthday.” The desks were placed along the walls of the room, and my desk was in the middle. A bunch of flowers sat on my desk. My students sat at their desks, and, when I entered the room, they began singing Happy Birthday.
It was so cute, but I had to be honest with them. I told them it wasn’t my birthday and wouldn’t be for another four months. They looked confused and replied, “So?” They grabbed my hands and led me to my desk. I sat, and they lined up in front of my desk. They had prepared poems to perform for me. After the poems were done, they circled my desk and sang a song I taught them. It was the best non-birthday birthday party I’ve ever had.
The spontaneity of this birthday party seemed odd at first, but I learned there is a logical explanation. Many Tanzanians don’t know their birth dates because many births occur at home. Also, there are many orphans in the country. So if Tanzanians want to celebrate a person, they choose a date and make it his or her birthday. My students didn’t know the date of my birthday, so they picked this date and celebrated me.
My birthday party was the turning point in my time in Tanzania. It woke me up to the fact that despite the differences in skin color and culture, I was part of a community. Once I figured that out, I began to feel the sense of wholeness I came here searching for, and it allowed me to participate more fully in Tanzanian culture and life.
One thing I quickly learned about and began participating in after my birthday party was Tanzania’s “karibu” culture. Karibu means welcome. It is definitely the most used word in the Swahili language. You hear karibu when entering a home, when walking past a shop, when being served a meal, when seeing someone eating, and the list goes on and on. I always heard it when I walked past my neighbor’s house. Isaya and his sister loved welcoming me into their home.
One day, their welcome went beyond my expectations. They were sitting down to eat lunch and invited me to join them by pointing at their food and saying “karibu.” I put down my bag and sat on the floor. My heart and stomach did a little dance of joy when I saw we were going to eat ugali (an East African dish made of cornmeal and water that looks like mashed potatoes but is denser) and spinach. After praying and washing our hands, it was time to dig in. We each took a bit of ugali, rolled it into a ball and then scooped up the spinach with the ugali. No spoons were used — just our hands. We ate until the food was gone and our stomachs full.
When I walked home afterward, I realized that meal was truly different from any other I had experienced. Though the family owns plates and bowls, we didn’t use any of them. Each of us ate from the one pot set in the center of our circle. There was no sense of “my food” or “your food” because Tanzanians strive to live in and build community each and every day. Sharing meals is just one of the ways they maintain a supportive community.
One of the ways that my fellow volunteers and I built community with the neighborhood and our students was by opening our house to the kids after school and on the weekends. Each afternoon, the volunteers and kids would kick around a soccer ball, play UNO or erect a tall tower with Jenga blocks. Many of our “regulars” asked questions about America or gave us impromptu Swahili lessons.
One such regular, nicknamed Mr. Questions for his curiosity, courageously asked me a tough question during one of our walks home. “Teacher Gretchen,” he began, “why doesn’t Santa come to Tanzania?”
I was speechless. I had no response. I know I said something, but I honestly don’t remember what. I only remember the question, one that I know neither I nor any of my friends had to ask as children. As I think about his question now, I am reminded of how lucky I was as a child, not because I received gifts, but because I was blessed with the opportunity to believe in a story and in something larger than myself that felt magical and innocent. Mr. Questions never got the chance to live in such a dream world. Every day of his life, he has faced reality. I can never look at Christmas or my childhood in the same way.
Being in community with my neighbors, pupils and fellow Jesuit Corps volunteers was a daily lesson in love and humility, and, thankfully, I had the greatest teachers one could ask for.
After two years of learning, my time in Tanzania was up. I danced, played Jenga, ate more ugali and said some very difficult goodbyes to my Tanzanian friends. They wished me well: “Wewe ni Mtanzania (You are a Tanzanian).”
Now, as I readjust to life in the United States, I find myself striving to honor the people of Tanzania by incorporating the lessons I learned into my new life as a South African-Tanzanian-American. I do not know what my future looks like, but I do know that today and for the rest of my life I will celebrate each and every person I love (and often); live simply; and create community with those around me.