In but a fortnight I will be departing this place. I was reflecting yesterday on this, my last week teaching at Fanaka. As many people might, I have fears and regrets--or at least those garish seedlings which might blossom into the bright, poisonous flowers of potent regret. But I am of a mind that nothing should be regretted, only learned from. If I am afraid some action or inaction today may lead to regret tomorrow, then I should take care to remedy the situation presently.
I fear that I have not done all I could have; that I could have listened better, been more proactive, organized better... however it seems that so matter how effective I may have been, I would have had those feelings still. It is in my nature to feel guilt easily.
I acknowledge there have been many--too many--times when I have been lazy, have taken the easy way out, or have accepted defeat too easily. I have made excuses for myself to others in order to slip away for a bit, have made excuses of myself to myself in order to placate my “tsk”-ing conscience. I have made a lot of excuses.
I don’t want to pretend that what I’ve done here in Tanzania, in Bunju, at Fanaka has been extraordinary, or even very useful. Maybe I just meddled in a bunch of business which was never mine to begin with in order to satisfy a selfish impulse to feel that I have Seen The World or Learned a Valuable Lesson about Humanity or Different Cultures (all of those generic big ideas which merit the use of Capital Letters). Maybe it was all an attention seeking ploy, an elaborate way to have something interesting to say over drinks or as I purchase an expensive sandwich.
I don’t know if I have done any good. But I think--I hope--that doing good was my misguided intention. I have messed up some of my relationships for this, deserted friends in need, put one very important one on hold--left it teetering on a dangerous precipice--and needlessly worried my sister and mother. I have encouraged people to trust me with their money and asked them still to give more. I have poured almost $8,000 or more of my own money into traveling and living here, and forsaken good jobs with all-too-understanding and kind employers. I don’t know how these decisions will affect my securing of a job or apartment or a place in the graduate school of my choice.
I do not imply that my funds have been misspent, my time ill-allotted, or that I have deceived my generous family, friends and donors in any way. Nor am I fishing for reassurances or pity. I have made choices. I detest excuse-making in my coworkers and students (which they will tell you emphatically, especially when those excuses involve being late to class because “cows were in the way”), and hold myself to the same standard. I only follow this thread of doubt in my monologue because, well, its how I feel right now, and its an important part of my reflection and experience here.
I must square with myself my doubts and insecurities. I have tried to do my best by my family here and at home, my friends and donors. I believe that I have used all funds honestly. I can say that in my nervousness to properly administer and budget these funds I have kept more meticulous and accurate track of expenditures than ever before in my life. I was also inspired by The Merchant of Venice. (Witty reference!) In that regard, I have learned a great deal about the administration of finances, and hope to come away with a more keen eye regarding my own fiscal issues; the monitoring of my personal assets has always been a little, well, lax, to say the least. I have seen myself develop in incredible and surprising ways from a volunteer with tyro ambitions to a more practical administrator with a shrewder eye for the longevity of projects and our organization. I have grown a bit more cynical, but no less passionate for the mission of the Tanzanian Education Project, my family here, my students, or this country.
I have begun to understand my limits, which apparently I do have (as much as it chafes me to admit it). I have trembled and shouted with righteous indignation, and fought back tears when my anger was chalked up to “female” passion, and laughed at. I have learned to choose my battles, having accrued a greater amount of understanding about differences which can or cannot be surmounted. I have learned another language, one whose existence I was almost entirely ignorant of barely a year ago. I have (sort of) learned to accept changes in my body and lifestyle with a bit more grace than I once possessed. I have gotten malaria- thrice! I have learned to accept facts, practices, and foods, which once may have shocked or startled me, with an unruffled sense of calm. It is now difficult (except in cases of a violation of human rights- der) to faze me.
I have discovered a world, a family, and a culture of which I was not two years ago entirely oblivious. I wanted to help, to do something good, but mostly I just wanted to go somewhere. So I travelled, and returned, and have travelled again. I have stories and pictures aplenty to share and proffer as evidence of my having Done Something, of having Made a Difference. My experiences could be summed up in a heartwarming epigram and perhaps a corresponding heartwarming photo. But like most human experiences, there is always a different side of the story to examine, an new light under which to consider it.
Have I done all I possible could? No. Have I done my very best at all times? No, not even that. Do I have grave doubts about my usefulness and effectiveness? Yes, grave doubts, the like of which Meryl Streep’s would pale in comparison.
Again, though, these must be squared with myself. They cannot be allayed by congratulatory claps on the back or sincere handshakes. Though my doubts are brought on because I have been prey to some of the most common pitfalls of the human condition, I cannot make excuses for myself. I must accept my humanity, my character flaws, and reconcile them with the good I have done. I must not regret them, but must learn from them, and attempt to make some adjustments. I cannot be perfect (nor should I strive to be, for perfection is wholly uninteresting after a time), but I can continue to try to improve.
Though I have doubts that I am loved (or even liked) by all of my students, I have to assure myself that a precious few have become my dearest companions. And though I can’t sum up my experiences here honestly in an attractive byline, I can say that I have learned a great deal. I didn’t accomplish- not by a long shot- all that I originally set out to do, but I have done some things. Our organization has planted a library, stocked and now well-functioning, where there was none before. We have ensured that a small, special part of a community has a renewable source of water, a resource so vital for daily life and livelihood. We have initiated projects whose aim is self-sustainability. This is a refreshingly practical approach which allows those we are helping to decide what systems will most benefit them and best work within their lives, and this revolutionary idea will ultimately assure the longevity of our projects. I have played a part in these projects and initiatives (Ah! A use for my theatre degree has been found at last!), I can be proud of these things.
I don’t know if I have been a good teacher, but at least I have been an amusing one, and a good example. I know because of the way “Triple G”’s (Godfrey Gordon Gabriel, Form III) eyes glitter and his pixie-like face lights up with glee when I make my exasperated noises, and from the way in which Pendo consistently seeks my counsel on improving her writing. I know that I have said something right because Arapha has finally stopped acting the ditz and acknowledged that she has something valuable to say. Swahiba has stopped whining (except to see me screw up my face and mimic her) and tries to compete with my appetite for devouring novels. Every day Peter wants to discuss Michael Jackson with me, or at least listen to “Dirty Diana” on my iPod approximately 174 times in a row. Denic has stopped ignoring me and walking away in annoyance and teases me into giving him a pencil, because his mischievous smile and occasional compliance is better than that dull look of smoldering disgust with which he used to grace me. The prefects has become effective organizers because I reward them when they follow through and tell them when they are slacking. They are dependable, affable, and constantly seek out my approval.
There are almost 200 students at this school, and I know about 90% of them by name, and the other 10% by face and level of irksomeness. I know their friends, whether their English is good or bad, if they are dancers, bookworms, footballers, troublemakers, coconut-tree-climbers, acrobats, cheaters, lazy, active, ambitious, hopeless, orphans, spoiled, sincere or just trying to weasel something out of me. I know which students will do anything to get their picture taken, which ones to ask for a favor or to deliver a message; I know which shirts they wear and even some of their incredibly ridiculous nicknames (Triple G is the most sensical one). I know that all of them will shriek at incredible decibel levels if one of the cows comes within 10 feet of them.
Though I have failed in many ways as a volunteer and teacher, when it came to my students, I cut no corners. I adore them all; good, bad, bright, dull, lazy, and ambitious alike. The more outgoing ones made quick and entertaining playmates, but the reticent, unsure or spiteful ones who eventually warmed to me will forever be some of my most treasured companions. The best relationships were formed not on activities and camera-ready moments, but times of heavy silence and one meaningful glance.
I have found a home here, but have also learned a greater appreciation for my native soil, both for its luxuries and its shortcomings. The family which I fear I took somewhat for granted during my college years I now know to be my most precious asset and resource- especially my sister, who has subtly changed from antagonist to dearest friend over the past year. (And of course it is not really she who has changed, but my understanding of her.)
I hope I have become a better person, more affable, more honest, more dependable and tolerant, more willing to speak my mind when necessary, and to hold my tongue when not. I have learned to walk a bit slower, and to say “Good morning” before barreling into my list of demands for the day. Perhaps I haven’t improved, and instead have deemed myself worthy by virtue of my travels, fashioned myself a false prophet, speaking with dignity and gravity, but out of the wrong orifice (I am speaking of the one on which I am now sitting).
Today is my last day of teaching at Fanaka, probably for ever. For though I see myself, at some point, coming to live here long-term again, I do not foresee myself serving in this capacity. It is one I have overall enjoyed, but its time will soon pass. There will come to be (I hope) more useful and varied ways for me to spend my time in Tanzania. It is better in the long run not to disrupt the learning process here with a lot of hullaballoo and language barriers simply so I can add something interesting to my resume. I can serve these children in better ways yet, and I intend to do so.
I don’t hope that my doubts will dissipate, for they drive me to work harder and continue to improve as a volunteer, administrator, daughter, sister, friend, fundraiser, activist and lover (Hahaha. “Lover”. Shyeah! Not. It sounded nice, though). I don’t intend to have any regrets though, and moreover, I don’t think I ought to.
I sometimes wish that a Wildean appetite for self-indulgence and self-flattery was still in vogue, for I feel that now would be an appropriate time to partake in a bit of it. However, as usual, I am merely attempting to report on my findings as a crazy, giant white woman in one small corner of the world. The interpretation, receipt and assessment of these convoluted and asinine observations, is always and forever, left up to you, dear reader.
Until we meet again, I remain absurdly yours. Live well, happily, and Party On.