I live in Tanzania, in a smallish city called Mwanza, on the shores of Lake Victoria. Tanzania is a country on the Eastern coast of Africa.
My work permit says I’m a missionary. The strapline of the organization I work for is working “where the need is greatest”. And as a result of these factors, where I live and what I do, many assumptions are made. I think it’s time to set the record straight.
Many people, when they hear I live in Africa, think that I’m a good person, or to put it more bluntly, they think that I am a better person than they are. That I have somehow given up on creature comforts and have dedicated my life to service.
This has always rubbed me the wrong way and not in an ‘I’m such a humble servant’ kind of way. In a ‘that is blatantly false’ kind of way. It’s just not true. I am definitely not a better person than you, it is highly likely that you are a much better person that I.
Since moving here, I have actively worked to dissuade people from this assumption when it comes up but until now I have never fully articulated why.
The truth of it is that I am not that good of a person, and definitely no better than you. I do live on the continent of Africa, but the relationship between that and my goodness is about as strong as the relationship between your goodness and your residence in some country in Europe or North America.
This correlation between place and goodness seems to exist when one lives in a developing country, but only really if said person originated in a developed country. People don’t feel the need to tell my Tanzanian husband that he is a good person for living in Tanzania, he’s just a Tanzanian. I would never tell a friend who moved to Germany from the UK that they are a good person for living there, they are simply an immigrant or an expat, depending on their reason for being there.
But I get special accolades because I live on this continent. There is a heroism that has been maintained for those of us who choose to live in these places. People picture me living in a small mud hut at the end of a dirt road that washes out every rainy season and can only be accessed by mule. I’m pretty used to weird assumptions about where I live having grown up in Canada. I have had too many conversations with uninformed people who assume as a Canadian, I live in icy conditions year round and have to hire workmen to help me to maintain my igloo.
I don’t deserve any credit for living in Tanzania. I live in a 3 bedroom apartment with my husband, with a rooftop balcony that looks out over Lake Victoria. Right now, I work part time and use my time off to pursue creative interests and to learn Swahili. I travel for long weekends to the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro or to the beaches in Zanzibar. I have seen a good percentage of East and Southern Africa, and had the chance to work with passionate and incredible people.
I do work for a charity that is trying to reduce poverty and this is always the kicker, the one that I struggle to wiggle out of when people talk about how good I am. And this one is tricky. People talk about how meaningful this work must be, how they would love to be able to do work like this. And yes, there are times when this work is meaningful, when you see changes in people’s lives and you are thoroughly grateful for the chance to have been a part of that story.
But most days? Most days it’s not like that. On a normal day, I am writing a proposal trying to get funds for a project. I am reading and editing reports to send to said donors. I am chasing down our field officers for updates on programmes, trying to reconcile budgets, pouring over monitoring and evaluation documents. Most often, I am trouble shooting or problem solving. Most days, I am wishing that my Tanzanian colleagues checked their email more often.
So yes, there are stories of families transformed and people who are freed from the grips of poverty, but there is a hell of a lot of mundane tiresome bullshit in the middle. There are frustrations of mismanaged funds, lack of honesty and poor organization. In short, it’s a job. There are parts I love and parts I hate, probably quite a lot like your job.
And if we really want to get into the gritty stuff, then there are days when I wonder what in the hell I am doing. Days when I wonder if any of these efforts make a blind bit of difference. There are days when I see those who seem visionary and full of passion for their work and I wonder what happened to mine, or if I ever had any to begin with. I wonder why I so often want to walk away from this job, to do something “normal”, to put down my white hat and stop trying to save everyone from the heartaches the world throws at them.
There are good people in the world. There are still the Mother Teresas and the Ghandis, don’t get me wrong, I do not claim that everyone is a common soul. I just claim that I am. Living a pretty normal life, in a pretty easy country, doing normal things and working an average job. Living here opens up opportunities that wouldn’t be available back home, not least of which is sunshine all year round and a lakeview home. Maybe I have a higher tolerance for limited amenities, poor restaurant service and traffic jams, but that’s about it.
So please don’t tell me I am better than you because I live here, I certainly am not. I am part of some good things, yes, but so are you. And if truth be told, you quite likely have more passion for it all than I do. I know people who work in Canada with people living on the streets, refugees arriving in Canada for the first time. I know people who save their own dollars to bring a family over from Syria. I know people who sit with addicts in the dingy corners of cafes and people who give their hard earned money to help those on their doorstep and those a world away. I know people who do these things for FREE, without pay, just because they care. These are saints, these are good people.
Most days, I want to pack it all in, build my house in a quiet corner and write stories for a living. Some days I think I just might. Some days I see glimpses of hope that make me hang on. Every day though, I feel grateful that this town has become my home, that these people are part of my family and my community and that I get to live this life. I ain’t no saint.
The view from one of my favourite coffee spots in Mwanza, okay maybe one of the only coffee spots, but it’s still pretty right? 😉