Something Intangible | Young Humanitarians in Africa

 When thinking about the perfect summer, a lot of teenagers might think that a sunny day at the beach or a night out with friends would be their cup of tea. And yet, a unique group of youngsters made part of their summer into the adventure of a lifetime, more than two thousand miles from home, in a foreign country; learning, helping, and understanding a culture so fundamentally intriguing. I had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with one of the adventurers, Kira Levin, a junior at Miami Palmetto Senior High, who described the summer 2011 trip into the Tanzanian landscape as a lifetime experience.
From the get-go, there were several questions I had in mind – where’d you go, how’d you get there, what did you do, and most importantly, what did you find? But I made the conscious choice to start from the very beginning: what inspired you to go on this African adventure? It turned out that a genuine fascination with world history was the cause; more specifically, a fundamental misgiving about the idea of imperialism upon the African continent. How can people just take other peoples’ lands?
Thousands of miles later, you found yourself in the middle of a Tanzanian village, having gone through so much to get this far, in the company of like-minded American teens who wanted more than just a safari tour through one of the most troubled regions of the world – they wanted to help. The idea of giving back to the community was not foreign to you – you’d already had experience mentoring little kids in the ways of tennis, here in sunny Pinecrest, Florida – but the surroundings made you feel out of your comfort zone. Through bus rides that lasted hours on end, through hikes that went on way too long, and through living conditions befit solely for the rampant globe trotter, somehow this spirit of benevolence towards a society well removed from your own persevered.
You told me about your experience teaching African youth, at Himo Primary School, about an hour away from the compound you and your fellow Global Leadership Adventures mates were staying at. It began as a frustrating venture: the kids didn’t understand you too well, and they essentially copied whatever you guys were saying. But as you and your mates learned more Swahili and were able to communicate better, naturally your students began to respect you more.
Another part of the trip was meeting your host family: a kind bunch, with a grandmother, a 22 year old named Carles, and a few other children. Here came a vital lesson – perhaps completely unintelligible by Western notions – in humility. This family – and by extension, much of Tanzania’s people – lack many basic things we take for granted. Food, a shower, a bathroom. And yet, their capacity for kindness and amicability is unsurpassed. Having yawned once, you were immediately offered to sleep in one of the family home rooms; having fallen by your own misstep, you were immediately offered aid as if someone else had to have made sure you weren’t hurt. Happiness, it seems, transcends even basic living accommodations, perhaps even to the point of folly – Carles has malaria four times a year, so pilgrimages to the hospital are mundane excursions for him and other Tanzanians.
Back home, well before your departure date, concern regarding your welfare on the trip was widespread: from your parents, to your friends, to your teachers. Many lampooned your expressed desire to go on this trip, others thought it fundamentally risky. It took a lot on your part, but also some on theirs, for them to be at peace with this very unique field trip.
And upon being put on a hike by the Masai tribesmen – rural folk well away from the townsite you and your friends were staying at – some of their concerns possibly rang true. These African tribesmen are used to walking through the desert at high temperatures for hours on end – but your “kind”, the white people, were reaching a dangerous point of exhaustion that Saturday afternoon as you kept walking through the sandy dunes and cliffs iconic of this part of Tanzania.
Surely, the way of life in a place like Tanzania is too removed from our Western way to even bear comparison. While some similar rituals exist – such as your experience strolling through the town market and being pleaded, almost, for your money in exchange for some salesman’s jewelry – the whole of it is color black to our white. Take the Chagga women, for example, and their experiences with female genital mutilation. You ask yourself, how can they talk about this so nonchalantly, almost cynically or sarcastically, when the subject matter is so genuinely appalling, disgusting? Why does it happen?
Yet other confusions are more cultural, more aesthetic in nature. You said people are happy there. I asked, is it simply because they don’t know there’s something better out there? Well, education is key to that, you said. Carles, for example, goes to school and is getting an education. He is aware of the problems that plague Tanzania, and that they are circumstantial in nature, not impossible to change. He agrees that education is almost solely the way to societal progress, particularly in Tanzania. If people knew that something better is out there, they would become cognizant of the relative condition of their lives.
So is ignorance what keeps these people happy? Perhaps it is. But you told me that there’s something beyond that. There’s another factor that may be what keeps these people in such good spirit. It’s something intrinsic, something intangible. When you had a Swahili lesson with Mama Simba, a local Tanzanian leader, she brought you all together when she said “we are all one family” and “you are all my children”. When you hung out with your host family, you were treated as another one of their children. It is such demonstrations of unrestrained love and companionship that both characterize these peoples and set them so fundamentally apart from our own Western notions of individualism and self-sufficiency, which, while economically sound, have visible social shortcomings. There’s something beyond the “ignorance” clause – something from the heart, something from the culture …if only we really knew what it was.
And as the last word, you told me, Kira, that this experience showed you what you want to do with your life. You named joining the Peace Corps and continuing to travel as some of your future aspirations. Less remotely, you plan to travel to India this coming summer. I can’t help but give my own positive evaluation of this. While you may not yet stand alongside the great humanitarians of our time, you’re definitely headed in the right direction. The realizations and experiences you’ve had as a result of this trip – before, during and after – are bound to serve you well in many ways beyond choosing a suitable career.
Yet the questions posed here remain unanswered. How can these people be so blind? Are they blind? Are they simply so strong-willed as to smile in the face of plight? Your experience, both for yourself and I, is but the beginning of a long road of understanding the world, of understanding its people. It’s sure to be a road worth traveling.
Tomas Monzon
June – October 2011
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