"Cultural Windows" Essay

Mgeta Homestay by Anicka Meyers

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

Anicka -and -mgeta -momOne of my favorite quotes from Michael Tidwell’s book (The Ponds of Kalambayi) talks about coming to an underdeveloped country expecting to find out what it is like to be poor and discovering, upon reflection, that in fact you find out what it is like to be rich.  If richness and poorness were defined by a factor such as community instead of money and property, maybe my reactions to this quote would be different.  As it is, I can say with much certainty that I have stumbled upon the same realization in my time in Tchensema with my Waluguru family.  This discovery has left me questioning myself and wondering, “Who am I and what am I doing here?” in the most basic and fundamental way.  Though a clear answer still eludes me, by exploring my Mgeta experience more in-depth I am one step closer to establishing how I think and feel in relation to that so-called answer.

As a student studying the culture and the environment of the place I am living in I am programmed to observe and analyze what is going on around me.  I bring my “educated” perspective to the situation and use it to formulate analyses of this culture that is not my own.  After just a short time in Mgeta, I was expected to know some things about the place, the people, the culture and what it is like to live there.  And in some ways I did – I experienced a great deal in these four days.  But how well can I really be aware, particularly with the huge obstacle of language?  Who am I to pass judgment on this life and go so far as to infer the future?  I am an American, wealthy by these standards, educated young person, and I am using my position to further my own self-development.  I am here to view hardships, severe poverty, corruption, and environmental degradation as a way to learn about the “other” lives, and gain perspective on my own life.

Coming out of my time in Mgeta I certainly feel that these educational goals were fulfilled.  I have broadened my world view and feel as though I have a better understanding of my place in the world.  My family treated me as an important guest in their home and welcomed me fully.  The shared everything they had and sometimes more.  I will forever be grateful for their willingness to incorporate me into their lives.  I will remember all the beautiful and wonderful things about them, but overshadowing the positives is the pity and hopelessness I feel about the negatives.  How could I ever repay them for the kindness and generosity they showed me?  I used these people, whom I came to care about very much about, for my own personal benefit.  I have gained so much, as is the nature and purpose of the experience, yet have little to give back.  Yes, I did form connections and friendships with my family.  Yes, I may have given them some perspective as well, learning from each other.  And yes, I know it is an honor to receive guests in this culture.  But is this enough?  I still feel as though I have selfishly taken more, particularly as I am the one who came, stayed as a guest and was very much an imposition at times, and had the freedom to leave.

As much as I enjoyed my time in Tchensema, I dreamed of the moment I would be back to supportive mattresses with fresh sheets, enough light in my living space to be able to see 24/7, and water that is not visibly dirty.  I often consoled myself with the thought of returning to modern life in a few short days – my living situation was only temporary.  For my family, however, this escape is impossible and the guilt of the freedom that comes with my position weighs on me still.  Even now, as I have been living in the comfort I was wishing for for three days, the thought of my family and their future brings me down.  I am struggling with my responsibility to make a difference in the lives of these people I care about.  Is it my duty as a privileged, white American to affect change in some way, or is that a paternalistic idea as an outsider wanting to make things “better” in the way I feel is best?  After all this reflection and discussion, what can be done?  Is there anything that can make a difference in an appropriate way?

Without the experience of living with my Waluguru family, I may never have come to some of the realizations that I have and asked the really tough questions of myself and my role in Tchensema and here in Tanzania as a whole.  I cannot fathom how my four months spent here could not change my perspective on everyday choices.  I will remember this family as I strive to decrease my carbon footprint and involve myself in social justice movements in ways I have not been motivated to do so before.  I will consider them as I make financial decisions and contribute whatever wealth I attain in my future.  I will ponder the impact of elected officials on the global market, policy and climate change as I give my vote.  Somehow I do not think these actions could ever be enough, but perhaps they will have to be.  After all, would it be in my best interest, or my family’s, to not have come at all?  Definitely not.

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