This photograph, taken for a student alphabet project, depicts the face of one of the students at Meru Primary School. The particular word was “nose,” and I remember having to use steady hands at an extremely short distance in order to take the photograph. I did not use the camera’s zoom feature or find a special angle to mimic nearness; instead I simply got close. During our time here in Tanzania, I have found that in order to make the biggest impact possible, we must embrace proximity – not only physical proximity, but cultural and relational closeness as well. It would be much harder to accomplish anything if we stayed in our comfort zones and kept the Tanzanian teachers and school children an arm’s length away.
Learning Kiswahili was one large step towards proximity. Godson, one of our Kiswahili teachers, reminded us almost daily that “language is culture.” By taking the time and effort to learn the language of the people we are working with, we are leaving our comfort zone and entering cultural proximity. Beatrice, our other Kiswahili teacher, reassured us encouragingly that even if we connect the bits and pieces of Kiswahili that we have been taught to English to make “KiswaEnglish,” we will be well received. At first this idea puzzled me; I thought that it would be better to use my obvious foreign appearance as an excuse to avoid having to stumble through my weak Kiswahili phrases than to butcher the language and perhaps come across as foolish or offensive. However, the more time I have spent here, the more I realize that Beatrice was right. Simply attempting Kiswahili demonstrates a desire to know the customs and lifestyle of the Tanzanian people; it achieves cultural proximity and ultimately brings us and the Tanzanian people with whom we’re working closer together.
I have also discovered the importance of relational closeness with the teachers and students that we try to teach. Simple things such as memorizing the students’ names and learning their personalities can make a large difference in the classroom. It is much easier to teach students who capture my interest and care than to teach nameless strangers because the teaching becomes about enriching a friend’s life, rather than being about accomplishing an agenda for myself. Though it would be quicker and perhaps easier to remain disconnected from the people we work with here in Tanzania, we would miss out on so much if we chose to stay distant. We are learning so much about the world and about ourselves through the interactions we have with Tanzanian people, and so though it may become tiring, I am learning that it is imperative that we dig deep and get close.