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"Cultural Windows" Essay

Mgeta Homestay by Adrienne Peters

After each of their homestays, students write a “Cultural Window” paper reflecting on their experience.  This essay was written by Adrienne Peters. 

A -adrienne -and -mgeta -mom -2Most children who grow up in the United States are told how lucky they are.  There are children hungry in Africa after all.  I grew up with the knowledge that I was privileged and take many things for granted.  One thing I have taken unknowingly for granted is my own culture.  In Tanzania I am obviously an outsider, but I did not realize how important belonging in one’s culture is until our Mgeta homestay. 

One of the main functions of culture is providing standardized communication, like what a handshake means.  Everyone with the same cultural privilege understands cultural touchstones, and subtext of interactions, humor, innuendo and basically any meaning that extends beyond just literal words.  It is so easy to navigate a culture – all you have to do is be born and raised in it.

In Mgeta I realized for the first time since being here how I was all right with studying in an alien culture only because I know I can eventually go back to the culture I can navigate and I have a solid identity in.  While I was lying in my lumpy, shared bed, surrounded by a culture that saw me in an entirely different way than I have been told I am by my own culture, I realized several things.  Here are two.  First, there may be little I hold more vital for a happy life than my culture.  Second, my entire belief system about myself is almost entirely dependent on cultural truths.

I realized that my culture is important for my happiness because no matter how long I live in another culture I may always be an outsider.  Humor, nuances of words, symbols and other culturally privileged information may never be learned.  In my homestay I was struggling to even understand commands, and I can’t pretend I even understand how much of the Waluguru society I don’t understand.

This entire semester has me questioning my assumptions about myself.  Before this trip I believed I could be in almost any social situation and feel comfortable.  I believed I could be funny to just about anyone, and I was universally friendly.  Through my Mgeta homestay it was made clear to me I was only the image I had of myself in my own culture.  Mgeta made me uncomfortable socially.  Instead of charming my family with social easing humor I was awkward and formal.  I was not the friendly person I always believed I inherently was.  I’ve learned I am not inherently many of the positive things I believed I was. 

I’ve been thinking of some things differently with my new found respect for the connection between a person and their culture.  When I was younger I remember not quite understanding why so many people stay in war-torn, poverty-ridden or politically unstable countries.  I wondered why it really was such a big deal for settlers to come to America, they just rode in a boat after all.  Feeling the loneliness in Mgeta when no one can understand my language, let alone how different their way of life is for me, made me understand a little better, definitely not fully, historical and current events relating to cross-cultural experiences.

 I don’t mean to under value the benefits of being exposed to other cultures.  I believe, like I have been experiencing, your world view can be drastically expanded.  During the homestay, though, I journaled that I imagined the USA disappearing before I returned and my heart hurt at the idea.  Exposure is beneficial, but exile is unthinkable for me.

During my homestay these thoughts were not superfluous to my family’s future.  I believe that if Mgeta’s practices of farming, high fertility and poor education continue, then the place the Waluguru call home may not support them in the future.

In a way the Waluguru society is as endemic as the species of birds that live in their forest.  There is no culture just like theirs – anywhere.  If they must leave the mountains due to poor soil fertility, overpopulation and desertification of the mountain they would not lose just their physical home but their cultural home, too.  They could lose their culture.

To think of Shedi, my three year old host brother, at one point in the future feeling like I did when I lived with his family, but with no hope of the comforting return to his home culture, it upsets me more than I thought possoble.  Everything he will believe about himself growing up could be taken away.  I feel like I might partially understand better why alcoholism was and is an issue with indigenous Australians and Native Americans.

Environmental conservation of the Uluguru mountains, of the land outside Tarangire National Park and fringing reefs of the coast is not just about maintaining ecological health but preserving the places that cultures are “endemic” to also.

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