Oftentimes, people who do not live here or have not worked in development ask me, “What’s the hardest part of the job?”
Could be a lot of answers to that one single question. Culture shock. Language barrier. Lack of amenities. Electricity cuts. Minimal bandwidth. Squat toilets. Eating foods that require you to use squat toilets whether you want to or not. Strange creatures, large and small, creeping and crawling, outside and in. Strange illnesses, severe or moderate, that hit you like a ton of bricks or linger on for weeks on end. Dust dust dust, or alternatively, mud mud mud.
But I think the hardest part of working in development is other people. Not to go all Jean-Paul Sartre on you or anything, it’s not because of the people themselves, but because of the communications and miscommunications among all the different types involved. Whether we are Westerners or locals, the problem is the same: communication – the act of conveying intended meanings from one entity or group to another through the use of mutually understood signs and semiotic rules.
When I first got here, Moshi was very different than it is today. I will not deny that I have seen a lot of change over the past ten years. Sky-high buildings with “offices to let.” Cafes serving barista-made coffee drinks with colonial-style wraparound porches. Nail salons and massage parlors. An enormous “superstore” selling everything from Heinz baked beans to flat-screen TVs.
But what has not changed is the way in which development occurs, or does not occur in this case. All the old gaps are still there, the redundancies, the lack of partnership, the bickering and squabbling in both the NGO community as well as the local government community.
Everyone seems to put some sort of proprietary sense of “my Moshi” above what really matters – communication – something of which I have been guilty at times too. When you look at it logically, “my Moshi” means something different to every single one of us, whether you’re an expat New Yorker looking for the meaning of life or a Chagga schoolchild trekking a couple kilometers to and from class everyday. I think it’s fair to say that if Moshi has room for all of us – so nationally and culturally diverse – so should we find a way to make room for “all of Moshi.”
Tanzania had a population of 45 million people when I first came here in 2007. Now it’s 55 million. The shilling was 1250 to the dollar. Now it’s 2250. Is it reasonable to assume that if we all worked together, if we actually communicated, the case might be different?
Among the Western community, it’s a shame because we pretty much all came here with the same purpose: to help others less fortunate than ourselves. But then sometimes we get wrapped up in our own narratives. Which is fine to some extent because this is how we have chosen to live our lives. But to another extent, there’s a selfishness, a need for others’ approval and platitudes. “What wonderful work you are doing!” “God bless you!” “You’re a saint!”
I am not a saint. For one thing, I’m Jewish. For another, I’m distinctly flawed. And that’s okay. Being flawed is human. Being human is real.
Among the local community, it’s a shame because there is still an overall lack of responsibility in the uplifting of one’s own nation. People don’t vote, have given up hope of any kind of fair governance, have lost faith in their nationhood. I still see the same people at the same places doing the same things talking the same game. There’s very little sense of agency, of movement. There may be passion simmering beneath the surface, but it hardly ever amounts to action. Complacency abounds. Communication falls short.
Kilimanjaro and Arusha in the Northern Zone plus Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar in the coastal region are basically the only places in which the country has any proper infrastructure. The tourism industry booms with safari, mountain-climbing, beach getaways, and any number of adventure sports.
Wazungu (foreigners) are attracted to these places because the rest of the country is basically one giant tumbleweed. Myself included. I make no bones about it; I am a city girl and need at least the basic amenities to get by, so I won’t even front. You will not find me roughing it in a Maasai boma made out of cow poop.
But the “real” Tanzania is a place I feel I have not even experienced. A place I would not even recognize. Sometimes, I chide myself for living “the good life” here in Moshi and not out in the bush somewhere where the needs are surely far greater than here. I mean, there’s pizza delivery in Moshi these days, for God’s sake!
But then, when I am tempted to reproach myself into a place of shame and guilt, I remember the individual stories, both those that I have heard and those that I have told over the years, and even though I do not live in a cow-poop hut, “my Moshi” is a story that matters. Really, a series of stories over the course of a decade during which people have touched my life, both mzungu and local, and I theirs. Communication.
So, I guess “development” is subjective as well as objective. Perhaps the country as a whole remains behind, still lost in a post-colonial and poorly-run republic. But what I, and others like me, came here to do cannot be underestimated. Nor can those strides made by those we seek to support, those individuals whose lives have been made better because we worked together. Because we communicated.