Saturday, September 24, 2011



I spent my Wednesday afternoon this week shelling peas with the girls
of Form 3 at the secondary school. We had planned to teach, but what
are plans, really? When we got there the place was buzzing with the
excitement and work of another graduation; on Friday we would
celebrate the girls in Form 4. Sometimes I feel like we live
celebration to celebration here, the minute one is over, preparations
seem to begin for the next.

As I was sitting there, I thought, this moment is exactly what I am
here for. We just talked to the girls, helped them with their work,
experienced the everyday. We talked about music (Chris Brown! Rhianna!
Eminem!), what jobs they want to have when they finish school (a
pilot, a banker, a lawyer). We told them about our families and about
school in the United States. The most ordinary of things. It wasn’t
long, though, before the conversation shifted and the tough questions
began. They asked us about America, “Are people rich or poor? What
happen when they catch a thief, do they kill? What about women
oppression? Do you have genital mutilation? Female circumcision? Do
they beat the women? Is there racism? What your impressions of
Tanzania? Is this a rich or poor country?” Whoa. It wasn’t accusatory
or hostile in any way, they were simply filled with genuine curiosity.
Still, it was an incredibly difficult conversation to have. I wish I
could say I answered the questions with perfect eloquence and
diplomacy, but I am certain I did not. On the walk home, and even now,
I am torturing myself with “should haves.” Their interactions with
Americans are so few and the misconceptions are many, I could feel the
weight of opportunity in the conversation and it left me mostly
tongue-tied. Most of my answers were obnoxiously vague and ambivalent,
so much so that the girls jokingly began to call me “sometimes yes and
sometimes no.” I knew, somehow, that whatever I said would be taken
for truth and remembered probably for a very long time.  It may even
be the most some of them will ever experience or know about American
culture. I felt like no matter what I said, it would be inaccurate or
harmful. Yes, there certainly is poverty in America. But how could I
begin to explain how different it is? That while there are certainly
many more people with greater wealth, our social and political
structures make it nearly impossible for those who are poor to live a
life of dignity? That in America, you can work full-time and be poor
because the cost and standard of living is so high? That when they
would rely on family and community, we live in a culture centered on
fierce independence, making that less of an option? But then, with
everything I have seen here, and what I know to be true about their
lives how could I look at them and say that America is a poor country?

The questions they asked about the treatment of women were by far the
most difficult for me to answer. At one point it struck me that these
girls are probably around 15 or 16 years old. The things they were
talking about I didn’t have a clue about that age, much less have the
guts to question a total stranger about. In the end, I couldn’t bring
myself to say, “Yes, women in America are oppressed.” Having spent the
past few years of my life arguing that very thing until I was blue in
the face, this was incredibly difficult for me. I’ve always thought of
this as truth, and of truth as something absolute and concrete. I’m
learning here how contextual it is. How truth takes on different
shapes and adapts to an environment like anything else, but that this
does not reduce or dilute it.

In spite of these difficulties, as I was walking away, again I
thought, this moment is still exactly what I’m here for. Here for the
experience of being asked the tough questions, and for learning that
sometimes there isn’t a good answer.

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