My time working in a hospital at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro showed me firsthand what even the Information Age fails to articulate today. Among other things, one of my goals for this trip was to gain an understanding of this place so far away from my home. There are of course many ways to go about this, but when searching for understanding it seems telling to learn about the struggles of a group of people and work at their side to alleviate those struggles.
This is where my time at the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Centre comes in. Being my first time both living and working abroad, as well as my first time on the African continent, I entered the assignment with plenty of nerves and inevitable expectations. As soon as my feet hit the ground though, I saw it would be fun and rewarding to take part in this adventure for the next ten months. And it certainly became an adventure in every sense of the word.
On one of my first Saturdays in the town of Moshi, I received a phone call from my supervisor at about 7:00 a.m. As the lingering jet lag and morning malaise conspired to force me to ignore the Star Wars ringtone on this secondhand phone, something else told me to pick it up. His message was directly to the point: “We’re going to do an outreach clinic today. Leaving in ten.”
If the bumpy ride out of town didn’t wake me up, arriving at the primary school to see a line quickly assembling around the schoolyard sure did. That day I ended up taking over 200 blood pressure and pulse readings over six non-stop hours as villagers of all ages passed through the improvised screening clinic. Afterwards, I was blown away to learn that these people only receive official medical attention on the two outreach clinic days offered each year. Even though I spoke only about five words of Kiswahili at the time, this day of hard work served as my official introduction to the faces of Tanzania and the scale of the country’s medical needs.
Working as a data manager and research assistant in the hospital, I came in contact with the good, the bad, and the frustrating on a daily basis. Struggles with power outages and messy records paled in comparison with the struggles of the new mothers and babies across the hall, but in the end I feel that I learned from them all.
On the other hand, it was refreshing to meet so many bright, cheery, hard-working, and welcoming Tanzanian men, women, and children. The cynicism I observed on the part of many expatriates was a foreign idea to these people, who find joy in what they have and tend to tackle challenges with resourcefulness instead of complaints. In fact, as anyone who has visited Tanzania can tell you, the general pace of life there is like a nice country road compared to America’s busy superhighway. Coming out of four years of college where a gap in my schedule was a welcome relief, I learned to slow down and focus on the things that matter.
From teaching a Maasai warrior how to use an iPod to home visits in a mountain village and playing soccer with the local children, it goes without saying that my understanding of Tanzania was shaped by the people. It’s no secret that there are many ways in which the country can improve in the coming years, but getting to know children, taxi drivers, teachers, tour guides, medical students, and doctors presented to me priceless viewpoints that don’t typically reach far across cultural boundaries.
There were even added bonuses to living in that part of the world and having a chance to travel on occasion. I was able to make it to Kenya and Uganda to see the real differences between countries in East Africa, and how history plays a key role in shaping this. Trips to Dar es Salaam and Nairobi showed me firsthand the modern African city rising in the midst of slums, poverty, and crime. The peak of Mount Kilimanjaro and the plains of the Serengeti served as unforgettable reminders of the breathtaking natural beauty of Africa. None of this is easy to convey unless you have lived it.
These days it is becoming increasingly popular for young people to travel extensively with a checklist and a camera, seeing much of the world through the lens of a backpacker. While this surely beats an insulated lifestyle at home, I am extremely grateful to InterExchange for awarding me the Christianson Grant and giving me the opportunity to more fully experience a foreign country in a way that few do. Having met new people, seen new places, tried new foods, and heard new ideas, the trip many may see as a sacrifice will remain in my memory as a priceless learning experience.