I'm writing this column from a small office in Moshe, Tanzania, the takeoff place for many climbers of Mount Kilimanjaro.
On this trip, my second to Africa and valley resident Theresa Grant's orphanage, I am learning a lesson I thought I had already absorbed, actually now a cliché. First World powers, whether colonial or American, often confront the reality that countries they wish to "improve" often reject their expertise and advice, their ways of doing things. Of course, we all understand the negative impact of the misuse of a nation's power to subject another country (an understatement at best), but even the people who have and are now coming to Africa out of loving and idealistic motives often encounter a resistance to adopting what they view as more efficient ways. A caveat before I proceed: Yes, I am wary of generalizations, as I am only working in a very tiny part of this vast, multifaceted and polyglot continent.
A small example of the realities of "improving" the daily lives of women in Tanzania is the use of a broom. Americans sweep with a long-handled broom (or a vacuum until we get robots to do it for us). Most African women I have met prefer a short-handled broom, usually homemade with long bristles. Even if the long-handled one is at hand, they will use the one that necessitates stooping.
Sometimes I have the feeling that we volunteers bring the caretakers and children things that, out of good will, they pretend to like. So it is only barely surprising to return and find that many things are unchanged from two years ago. Our orphanage caretakers still use the same bend-requiring broom. They are uninterested in refrigerators or cupboards to store food: They do not want dependence on appliances that require electricity, often turned off for several hours at a time, and keep produce cooler near the earth instead of on shelves where the heat rises.
The more time one spends in another country, as I did in Thailand, the more one understands that we, as guests, need to respect the mores and patterns of behavior of those we visit. Newer is not always better, nor are we better than the people we visit; we are simply different.
That smug-sounding statement aside, I am amazed at how once again I absolutely must accept the place I'm in, both personally and with my host country. While one may hear snide asides about "African time," for example, it doesn't really alter the need to relax our Western rush to timetables and to judgment. Griping about necessary adjustments doesn't change a thing.
I must say that I have seen some positive changes (beyond the broom rejection). The 21 resident children at Kilimanjaro Kids Care support my contention that hard work and good motives can make a difference in people's lives, whatever the circumstances. Since I wrote for this paper just before I left, I may have mentioned the young boy at our orphanage suddenly confronting the symptoms and devastation of his formerly benign AIDS-positive diagnosis. I am happy to report that he is on good medication and rebounding from the ravages of this illness and a case of malaria. The rest of the Kili kids seem well and even healthier than the last time I saw them. They are experiencing the comfort of their extended family of fellow orphans, truly brothers and sisters together.
The three volunteers from the Wood River Valley, our fellow team member from Pennsylvania and Theresa went to two of the boarding schools that six of our maturing kids now attend. It's a privilege in Tanzania and much of Africa to have the financial means and scholarly talent to move up to this level of education. What a pleasure to reconnect with these fabulous young people. Carpe diem.