It’s weird to sit and write this blog entry from the living room of my home in a Chicago suburb. Tanzania feels (and is) a world away, but the memories of my experiences there are still freshly imprinted in my mind, and what I have found to be the hardest since my return home is how to articulate my experiences to my family and friends. It is weird that a place, culture, and group of people that became so familiar to me and that I grew to love are still so inconceivable and foreign to my closest friends and family. I find myself sprinkling my sentences with superlatives such as incredible, amazing, unbelievable, astounding, spectacular, and so on. I use them so generously that it must seem I am exaggerating, but in most cases I feel that what I said was an understatement. And so, please keep this in mind as I attempt to describe our final days in Arusha.
I would like to begin at our final reflection session. We met as a group once a week for a formal reflection session. During this time we responded to a question in a free-write, shared thoughts from our personal journals, and openly discussed, analyzed, and assessed our work with LTP and other experiences. For our final session we wrote about our favorite memory. This prompt seemed overwhelming. How could I begin to select one memory from the ocean of memories I had accumulated over my time in Arusha? I finally selected two memories and began to write.
Things took an emotional turn as we each began reading our favorite memories aloud. As someone who has never been good at keeping her emotions back, I was the first to break down as Lindsay read about her favorite memory: when we all walked back together, as a team, exhausted but so fulfilled after the success of FUN DAY!
We decided to put on a field day of sorts for all the students at Arusha School, where we devoted the majority of our time during our stay. We advertised the day as Fun Day and planned many fun games and activities for the students. The day certainly lived up to its name. The campus was filled with laughter, cheering, and shrieks of joy as kids jumped rope, played football, danced, competed in three-legged and other races, and came together for tug-of-war. They ran from one activity to the next and enjoyed freshly cut oranges and peanuts from local vendors we hired for the afternoon. We took turns manning the different stations and shared in the kids’ excitement. The positive energy was contagious and you could not help but smile.
The feeling we all shared as we left Arusha School after such a thrilling afternoon and many rounds of good-bye hugs was so special. Most of the memories were like this: a single moment or instance that may seem simple but meant so much. And as I sat there I was overcome by emotion. What a special thing to be a part of! I felt so blessed, yet also quite confused. How could I leave these kids and this place, both of which I had grown to love dearly? What did my work there mean if I just picked up and left? Would these kids view me as another fleeting pleasure in their uncertain lives? How could I take what I saw and learned in Arusha back home with me? In what ways should I change the way I live my life following this experience? How could I get people at home to understand?
One of the memories that I wrote about involved my after-school newspaper class. Lindsay and I worked with the 6C class to create a class newspaper, entitled 6C The Great (6C The Great PDF). For weeks the students worked on writing stories and eventually selected one piece to take through the writing process and ultimately publish in 6C The Great.
The whole process was very rewarding and I could not be more proud of the students’ work or the final product. One moment that struck me, however, was on our last class at the distribution party. We had a “6C The Great” cake made and passed out a copy of the finished, typed newspaper to each student. The cake was a surprise, and I was really looking forward to kids’ response. I was excited just thinking of how excited they would be! Their reaction, however, was different than I anticipated and was also very revealing. When we unveiled the cake there was a collective gasp and many smiles. We then went ahead to cut and pass out pieces. As I placed the first piece on a student’s desk, he did not move a muscle; rather, he remained seated back in his chair with his hands in his lap. The second and third students did the exact same and I quickly realized that they must be waiting for everyone to have a piece. Yet even after we served everyone, the students just sat looking at us. It was not until I said that they could eat their cake that they reached to take their first bite! I was speechless. I imaged how the scene would have played out at home: the kids would have each begged to get the first piece of cake and would have gobbled every bite long before everyone was served. I can even envision someone trying to con me into giving them a second piece by claiming they did not get one yet. Furthermore, after the 6C students started eating their cake they ate so slowly and carefully. I leaned over to Lindsay to say that they did not seem that excited, but she pointed out that they were savoring every bite. This appreciation is something I had not seen in twelve year olds previously.
My second memory was simply any time I shared a conversation with one of my fellow Duke Engagers. Whether we were reflecting on various encounters, situations, or circumstances, comparing and contrasting cultural experiences, or sharing personal stories about our pasts and hopes for our futures, I learned just as much from my fellow Duke students as I did from the Tanzanian people and from life in Arusha. Our personalities vary greatly, and we all have different interests and quirks; therefore, even though we all more or less shared the same overall experience, that experience affected each of us differently and our interpretations and the meaning that we drew also differed. This made our conversations rich and greatly enhanced our individual experiences. During our reflection sessions we sat down with the formal intention of reflecting; however, we often joked that we spent our whole time in Tanzania reflecting. I have never had so many enriching and thought provoking conversations in one period of time. Those conversations and what they taught me mean more than anything else because one can dive into a sea of incredible experiences but if one does not take the time to make meaning from them and to wrestle to understand them, it is all lost.
I expected my time in Tanzania to change me and the way I see and understand the world, but I failed to consider how the seven other Duke students could impact me so greatly. In Tanzania we were considered quite similar—we were all there with a shared goal; we were from the same university; and of course we were wazungu (foreigners), but had we not been together on this trip, we decided, it is highly unlikely that any two of us would have ever crossed paths or gotten to know each other at Duke. In Arusha we were in an environment that encouraged and stimulated great and interesting conversations and our circumstances facilitated our relationships, but we did not have to be in a foreign land to have such interactions. I plan to continue to seek out such conversations and relationships in the future. I certainly hope to return to Arusha and to spend much more time discovering different corners of the world, but there are also thousands of people in my everyday life who have much to teach and I am eager to listen.
I have never been good with good-byes and prefer to view them more as, “see you laters,” but, even though I hope to return to Arusha, I cannot know when, why, or how. And even when I do go back it will not be the same. The students who touched my heart will have grown and I will not be there with the DukeEngage group who grew to be my family in Tanzania. Of course all good things must come to an end, but I hope that in this case what I selfishly view as an ending may just be the beginning. Hopefully the time we spent in Arusha made some valuable impact on some students, some teachers, and maybe even the educational system as a whole. I know for certain that Arusha made an invaluable impact on me.