18 April 2016

strangers in a strange land.

Last week, I had the privilege of socializing one-on-one with one of my LULU facilitators in our home.  The 25 LULU facilitators and I see each other a few times every month, but there's rarely time for a lot of chitchat, as we're focused on teaching our new members lessons on financial literacy, health, relationships, handcrafts and all other sorts of good things.

So it was a special treat when last week, a LULU facilitator named Teddy stopped by. I hadn't seen her for awhile because she had taken time off for maternity leave. I was happy to catch up with her a bit and see her adorable new baby (and even a bit proud when she told me I was meeting the baby before people in her own family!). But it turned out, for me, to be more than a simple social gathering.

While we were telling each other stories, we got upon the topic of adaptation and adjustment. I told her how difficult living in Tanzania was for me in the beginning - from small things like how I had to dress to big things like speaking a whole new language.

"Yeah, adapting is a really difficult thing to do but really necessary," she responded. "Without it, you can't live."

Teddy began to talk about how she and her family had to adapt to Tanzanian culture when they moved from Rwanda. As she was talking, I remembered the fact that she wasn't naturally Tanzanian but because she looks and talks just like a Tanzanian (at least to me), it's a fact I often forget. Teddy spoke about how, when she first came, wearing skirts and dresses was very foreign to her. "Even around my male elders," she told me, "it was very normal for me to wear shorts!" She also told the story of how she didn't even know how to greet people in Tanzania. "I saw girls bending down on their knees to greet elders, and I didn't know how to do that!"

As we continued our conversation, I watched the scene as if I was a fly on the wall. Here we were, in a house in Mwanza, Tanzania, a Rwandan woman and an American woman speaking Kiswahili, both wearing conservative tops and skirts. I was serving tea and food without being asked, as is the custom in Tanzania. When she went to leave, I walked her out past our gate like a Tanzanian instead of saying goodbye to her at the door, like an American. We were both making a life in this place that we wouldn't naturally call home.

And from that out-of-body perspective, I saw me and Teddy differently than I had before. We weren't just together in LULU, although I cherish that. And we weren't just together as friends, although that's important to me as well. We were and are strangers together in a (somewhat) strange land. She understands more than most what it's like to arrive in a new country, to shy away from speaking for fear of making mistakes, to feel like an outsider and to ultimately, adapt to its ways of life.

One of my missioner friends here in Mwanza has said, "Sharing life with the locals is a beautiful thing." And as I watched Teddy walk away that day, that statement came back to my mind. On the surface, Teddy and I are so different. I'm from a Western, privileged background. She's from an East African, economically poor background. I'm college-educated; she didn't graduate from high school. I don't have any children; she has two. Of course, the list could go on.

Most of the time, we focus on those differences, on the differences between me and that other person. But being with Teddy and all the Tanzanians I've been lucky to know so far has shown me that we feel stronger and more joyful, and thus create more strength and joy in our relationships, neighborhoods, and communities, when we focus instead on what we have in common.

That's how life is truly shared.

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