by Amy Carter
“I am going to Tanzania to learn.”
That’s what I told people who asked about my upcoming trip. I explained that Heifer International’s study tours are unique educational experiences. I hoped that I would be positively changed in some way, so that my time on the African continent would not be wasted. To be merely a tourist would be tragic; to be only an observer would be cause for shame.
My purpose was to be a student, as much as possible to be a tactile participant of a culture that had enamored me since I was a young girl asking Santa Claus for a globe, please. When it stopped spinning, gracing my fingertip was Africa.
Now, after having connected my flesh-and-blood feet with its earth — finally outside the boundaries of my imagination, a good book, or a film — I haven’t let go.
The landscape changed from green to orange and back to green within the span of an hour. The outdoor markets were filled with red bananas, yellow bananas, green bananas. The smiles were wide and welcoming, but there were also eyes that quickly turned away or avoided us completely.
It was the latter that made me sad, but I could only speculate at what could help provide a solution. The airplane that brought me to Tanzania was filled with mostly foreign faces. How many of them arrived to tour the land on safari, having been dropped in and later lifted out without appreciating the people who lay claim to the mysteries of the lakes, mountains and animals?
Although the objective of the study group was to engage with Heifer’s project partners, one morning we embarked on a game drive at the Ngorongoro Crater, the world’s largest caldera. Soon after our arrival into the crater, we spotted a pride of lions crouching in the grasses as two Maasai men herded their cattle toward them. The cattle clearly sensed the lions’ presence and ran in the opposite direction, disappointing the drama. The Maasai men held their spears quietly but aggressively against the threat hiding in the lion-colored grass, and we were protected spectators who were reminded, in that moment, that our leisure was someone else’s life.
It was a difficult line to distinguish, that demarcation between genuine interest and insensitivity. I continually found myself in this conflict, trying to remain grounded in respect when, for the price of a scowl, I could capture an image that would help to illustrate what I’ve seen and heard. One of the women’s groups encouraged us to practice the art of carrying bananas on our head. This was fun, and it whetted my curiosity, but have I also made light of a way-of-life?
That was never the intention. I returned home with many reminders of my visit in the form of photographs; a few pieces of artwork and jewelry; and gifts for friends and family. If only I could have also brought home with me the sense of community, rich cultural traditions, resourcefulness and connection to the land. Only then could I have given gifts of true value, found within the roots of a country I had the deep honor of experiencing for a brief time.
Those are qualities that I feel are in large part lost in my own culture, and it was these things that I tried to absorb by gazing at a strong woman carrying luggage atop her head with a baby wrapped against her back. I admired the man who pulled his cart of fruit that was covered not by a sheet of wasteful plastic, but by a mosaic of leaves and grasses.
Our group met a stingless-bee farmer, highly educated and renowned in his science, very friendly with an ever-present smile. His home was modest but indicated a relative financial success we hadn’t witnessed at other farms. He grew his own crops and managed some livestock. He was questioned about why he doesn’t market more of his honey and accumulate more wealth.
His tone indicated that the answer was obvious. I gathered that it must be the secret to his seeming peace and contentedness:
“Why, I am a simple man. I have everything here that I could need.”
His few, profound words embodied my study-tour experience. As my favorite journalism professor would say, it was my “take-away,” and it was achieved by listening to the rhythms and words of people living different but equal lives. I did not keep at a distance, nose pressed against glass peering at the stunning surface. Instead, I was given a view of the richness that lies below.
Amy Carter is a research and communications specialist at Heifer International. She recently completed a study tour of Heifer projects in Tanzania. You can read the previous posts of her travelogue here.
Maasai and cows in Ngorongoro Crater