Sunday, December 11, 2016

What Can a Developed World Urbanite Learn from a Rural Tanzanian Resident?

The other day, the author found himself at the street food market of the little highlands town that he calls home.  Severe downpours drowned out the streets while he was going for his brunch session on the streets.  Thankfully, the market is covered by thatched roof, leaving a whole group of locals stranded under it for a couple of hours.  There were some dismay, but little tension among the crowds.  All sat down in the foods markets' various stalls, picking up cups of tea, a few pastries, and some newspapers, whiling away the rainy hours with a few chats.

The author was, of course, the only foreigner in presence.  Locals asked him what he does for a living, the prices of fertilizers, and where he came from.  The conversations were simple, but pleasantly leisurely when done over a cup of hot, sweet tea sitting on a wooden bench.  Silences weren't awkward.  Stall owners danced to music blaring from handheld radios; elders shared their opinions of newspaper articles, and many simply stared at the heavy rain outside, calmed by the sounds it made when it hit the streets.  The author, joining this crowd, felt in no way out of place.

Yet, unfortunately, the author feels that he is the tiny minority of foreigners who can be at ease in such a situation.  Any other foreigner stepping into the street food market in the rains may be appalled by what s/he sees.  The dark, wet alleyways are crowded with running kids and piping hot cauldrons of oil frying up potatoes, plantains, and pieces of chicken.  The food quality is questionable at best, and their cleanliness is even more so.  Such an environment, for the image-conscious foreigner, is the true definition of the "cultural other," something that they will respect, but never muster the courage to assimilate into.

And this fear of "the other" is all the more strengthened if the foreigner has never experienced them firsthand.  Most developed world urbanites would not put rural Africa on top of their travel bucket list, purely based on an irrational fear based on the media's biased portrayal of the continent as one infested with crime and poverty with little to attract foreigners except the wilder parts with little human inhabitation.  They somehow, for some reason, assume that those problems are uniquely African.  They, living in their developed bubbles, need to self-protect by putting enough distance with these problems.

But are these developed world folks really all that different?  If the author's sitting-in-the-street-food-market-staring-at-the-rains story has any conclusions, it is that people here, there, and everywhere essentially behave similar ways under similar circumstances.  Sure, people here may not be sipping lattes in some designer cafes, but they relax in their own, very much suitable ways.  Just because they do not have as much money does not mean they do not enjoy themselves, in much of the same fashion that anyone in the rich world would do by spending much more money.

After more than a year of residence here in rural Tanzania, this is the primary piece of information this author can provide to his friends in the rich world without zero experience related to Africa.  He would tell them about all the times that the Africans were not so different from they themselves, enjoying the same things and behaving the same ways in same situations.  He would say that the differences in wealth and social environment, while visible and obvious, are not always the dominant force shaping human behaviors.  He would say that despite the media's exaggerations, Africa has the same, not more, of the problems at home.

Sure, there will be plenty of stories on the difficulties of getting things done around here.  It is, after all, what makes poor countries poor.  But it should be duly noted that these problems are systemic, born of complete and inexcusable incompetence of local governments and resulting exploitations of opportunistic foreigners, rather than anything related to the local people themselves.  If anything, the stressed workers of the developed world may find resonance with how local people here relaxingly deal with, and smilingly cope with, the systemic failures of governance that they face on a day-to-day basis.

It will be absolutely surreal when the author discusses these things in the comfort of Tokyo's homey restaurants and clean, well-lit streets in a few weeks' time.  And the author will be highly distracted by his sudden mesmerization with everything there after months after months of seeing uneven dirt roads and leaky mud huts.  Rest assured, however, that even among the neon-illuminated streets of urban Japan, a piece of the author's mind will stay with the street food market where teas were sipped over pouring rains.  Stripped down to the basics, the rural Tanzanian resident is no different from the developed world urbanite.

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