From walking with lions in the bush to dodging bombs in Tanzania’s largest city, psychologist Susanne Rheault recounts with candor and humility a few lessons learned during a life working to help impoverished communities in Africa.
African safaris are magical. For Westerners who have seen wild animals only on a Disney channel, the trip is powerful, indelible. But these visitors have not truly seen Africa.
Safari goers are coddled and catered to. They sleep under huge tents with wood floors and flush toilets, slim resemblance to real life for natives. Hours spent looking through high-powered telephoto lenses yield fabulous animal shots but they do not help to understand the big picture, the culture, the traditions and the realities for Africans. Furthermore, Africa is not a country, it is a continent with fifty-four distinct countries. I have spent the last ten years working and living in six of the fifty-four.
Here is a snapshot of some of the lessons learned.
- Friendships and relationships matter. These connections are the bedrock of everything. If you make a friend in Africa you have a friend for life. Friendships don’t have a timestamp and they are not sustained by a few Facebook likes. When I go back to Ethiopia after an eight-year hiatus I will be welcomed with the same warmth and authenticity that greeted me the first time. In the US friendships wax and wane with moves and career changes. Our longtime friend Patrick in Tanzania tithes 10% of his annual maize crop for the kids in the orphans home even when his own yield has been sparse. This he will do year over year as a gesture of friendship and support for us.
- A favorite Swahili proverb goes like this. “Haraka, haraka hyena baraka.” “If you go too fast you will miss God’s blessings.” Life in the West has done nothing but speed up over the last years. We barrel along heads bowed over our devices. We text while we drive and the scenery goes by in a blur. Life in Africa is outdoors and on foot, in the searing sun or the rain. It demands an acceptance, a resignation, a slow pace. This pace can be adaptive on the one hand and challenging on another. Nothing ever starts on time. Time is an approximation and no one wears a watch. In fact, Swahili time begins at dawn so if you are talking across differences 10 o’clock in the morning is for a Tanzanian four o’clock in the I make a plan to get together with my Tanzanian friends we joke about whether we are meeting on African time or muzungu (white peoples) time. Usually, we meet somewhere in the middle. I am still learning to try and park my type A impatience.
- Death is no stranger in the small village we know well… AIDS, cancer, heart disease, childbirth complications, malaria, diabetes….. countless medical conditions that could be treated if there were more doctors, more clinics, more medicine available. The news of death travels very fast in the village. Schools and shops shut down for the day to honor the deceased. Then generations of practice and custom kicks in to plan the burial ceremony which must take place within days. Everyone within a huge radius is expected to attend and to contribute. No exception. Neighbors must immediately scurry to offer up a small financial contribution. This often is no more than 25 cents but everyone pitches in. This is how a family who may live on a $1.50 a day can feed, seat and welcome as many as a thousand guests for an all-day affair. A few strong young men dig the grave in the backyard of the family home, a coffin is built and the family begins preparations for the service which must include copious food for all. Tents are erected, chairs rented and pastors imported from all the neighboring villages. Anyone who wishes to give a speech praising the deceased may do so and they do, at great length. The service may begin at ten in the morning and still be going strong by midafternoon, the ladies beginning to wilt in the sun in their long and colorful Kitenge dresses.
- Shared rituals lend meaning and grace to daily life in the poorest of African outposts. A gift of a can of soda can occasion a lengthy prayer of thanks. Every meeting begins with prayer. Passing one another in the street necessitates a call and response greeting. Hi will just not do it. Instead, the flow sounds somewhat like this: How are you? How’s the family? How are the kids? Sorry for your troubles. (for those working hard or carrying heavy loads on their heads). Pole Sana you say and their response is Pole na wewe.” I am sorry for you too”. The first time I heard this I was nonplussed. The condolences offered to me were because I was walking, a choice to exercise rather than my only option. It is unheard of not to greet and acknowledge another person in close proximity. And for the elderly, a special greeting is expected. Shikamoo the younger person greets the elder. “I kiss your feet”. And the requisite response: Marahaba, “It would be my pleasure.”
- To be without family in Tanzania is to be truly bereft. Your family is your social safety net. When you are ill you will be cared for at home. If you are sick in the hospital your mother will camp out behind the building to build a cooking fire so that you might have food. If you run away from it all and many do, your grandmother will care for your children, perhaps forever. Family is the place you come back to for all the important holidays, Christmas, Easter, graduations. And if you cannot succeed enough to get your own property, your father will dig a hole in the family backyard then use the dirt to build and bake the clay bricks to build you a house.
These customs and rituals are deeply embedded with one powerful result. They build and strengthen a sense of community and connectedness. I am ever grateful and cherish every experience I have in Africa.
Previously Published on Thrive Global