Reflections On Foreignness and Belonging

I am used to being a foreigner. It seems that almost everywhere I go, I somehow stand out in some way. Whether I’m in Tanzania, Madagascar, Costa Rica, or even the U.S., I feel like an outsider. People ask me where I’m from, where my parents are from, or sometimes a plain “What are you?” Inappropriate micro-aggressive questions aside, I think a lot about what it means to belong.

So, when I discovered that a few people mistook me for Tanzanian, I felt an immense curiosity. What about me could possibly lead people to mistake me for Tanzanian? I do not dress, do my hair, act, look, or speak like other Tanzanians at all. In fact, in that context I was hyper-aware of my Americanisms, which is funny because I used to feel the opposite, especially when I was growing up.

In 2009, when I returned from Madagascar and was plopped in 7th grade with all of my peers, I made myself a promise, that I would give myself three years to “catch up”. Upon reflection, I’m not sure what I meant by that, but it was the same amount of time that I was abroad, so it made sense to me. Despite not attending school for two years, I was able to keep up academically, but I found myself struggling to relate to my peers. Not only had I missed out on iPhones and other technology, but I did not understand any cultural references. So, I reasoned that if I watched the same popular movies, books, music, and TV shows that everyone else knew about, I would eventually be able to fit in. I made a long list of cultural artifacts that I had to experience; Twilight, YouTube, The Hunger Games, Pokemon, to name a few. However, no matter how much media I consumed, clothes I wore, and terminology I learned, I was never quite like my peers. I never did figure out what I was missing, which brings me back to my experience in Tanzania.

I spent a lot of time sitting in the back of the dala dala, squeezed against the window, just watching people. People going to market, talking to each other, living their daily lives; and I would wonder what it would take for me to “fit in”. In order to be culturally competent, what would I have to do? If I changed my clothes, hair, language, mannerisms, etc; could I ever truly fit in? I don’t know. I would like to say yes, but then I remember my own experiences in the U.S. and Madagascar, and I am not so sure.

However, I did learn one thing, that thinking of culture in those terms is limiting. There is not one way of “being” Tanzanian, “being” Malagasy, or “being” American. Culture is not so uniform and unchanging that one could ever hope to learn all of the cultural background and somehow belong. No; belonging is an action. Yes, there is a time and place for observing (for me it was in pharmacies), but sometimes the only way to learn these things is to interact. Go talk to people! Embarrass yourself! Don’t take yourself so seriously! Maybe you’ll learn something, or at least have some interesting stories!

Our research group!

Issues in Translation

“How do you say ‘I walk my dog’ in Malagasy?”

Sometimes, I wish I had written down some of the things people have asked me to translate. Personal regrets aside, let me explain why this is a ridiculous question: we do not walk dogs in Madagascar. Almost no one really has a pet dog, at least not in the way some Americans do. Like Tanzanian dogs, most Malagasy dogs do not have owners. They are strays who fend for themselves; we do not give them names and we definitely do not allow them into the house. So, when I say I cannot translate that sentence, it is not because I am lying about being fluent in Malagasy, it is because the concept of “walking” something does not exist in our culture. In summary, I have experienced some translation issues before, but nothing that compared to the difficulties we faced during our summer research project.

Tanzanian strays. Adorable, but would I ever attempt to walk one? Nope!


Our group’s research project analyzed “Health Seeking Behaviors”, which consisted of asking people where they decide go to when they feel sick and why they went there specifically. The topic seemed straightforward enough, but we ran into more problems than anticipated, most of which had to do with translation. For example, one of our questions was: “Do you ever stay home when you feel sick?” Most people answered no, but upon analyzing the interviews, we found that many individuals waited several days before going to a health facility. I think this happened because people assumed that we literally meant “staying at home”, when the purpose of the question was to ask if the interviewee delayed seeking medical attention, and how long they waited before seeking treatment. Another example of mistaken translation was the case of the “First Aid Kit”. While analyzing written interview notes, we identified the phrase “First Aid Kit” and thought we had found something significant to our research and included the phrase in our final report. However, it turned out our Tanzanian research partner had simply used the phrase to describe people who went to the pharmacy first. However, failing to catch this early on had a heavy toll. We ended up having to edit and re-translate all four final reports. Unfortunately, we did not have enough time to finish the Swahili long report before the deadline, which was frustrating.

This is not to say that translation should not be trusted, but I encourage everyone to understand how translation works, and what its limitations can be. I wish we had established what style of translation would work best for our research earlier, but mistakes like this are all part of the learning process. If anything, this experience has given me greater appreciation for translation and its nuances in a way I did not have at the start of this program.

The Case for Ugali

When I first saw ugali, I was less than enthusiastic about it. I mean, I had been told; no, warned about ugali. WARNING: When the Tanzanian students get here, you can still cook American food, but they are going to want to eat ugali and you are just going to have to compromise. It is rather bland and flavorless but they love it anyway.

Ugali (oo-gah-lee) is a product of corn meal boiled in water until it congeals into a thick paste. Then it is eaten by rolling it in between the fingers and palm with and dipping in sauce, or pressing a bit of greens or meat into a dent with the thumb. Eating it in any other way is simply wrong, and if you do try to eat incorrectly, you may be chastised or at the very least be stared at. As a main source of carbohydrates, ugali is very filling.

Rolling ugali

As a Malagasy, the only carbohydrate we eat is rice, rice, and more rice. There’s a joke my Dad tells about Mom when she first came to the U.S. After every meal, no matter what they ate, she would always say “I’m full, but I’m still hungry for rice”. Anyway, for a Malagasy, eating anything other than rice is almost unheard of, so I was a bit skeptical of ugali. Rice is widely available here in Tanzania too, so I could have avoided ugali, but where is the fun in that? And despite all the warnings, I enjoy eating ugali. It can be prepared quickly and easily, and with meat and mchicha (local greens), you have a full meal!

Lunch from our favorite spot in Tengeru Market. From clockwise from bottom left: mchicha, meat, ugali, beans, and avocado.

Don’t get me wrong, I will not be abandoning rice anytime soon. However, I think that everyone should at least give new foods a try at least once, no matter how scary other people make them sound.

Give the People What They Want

“What do you want me to bring you back from Tanzania?”

“I don’t know, something really African!”

I cringe a little at the words and sigh omgbutlikewhatdoesthatmean to myself.  I remind myself that a white woman marrying a Black man does not equate to culturally aware, she didn’t mean to turn the continent of Africa into an amorphous cultural blob.  Something unique, I translate, something that represents your trip.

I call and ask my Black father, who will surely give a better, more culturally appropriate response.  “A mask,” he says, “something really African.”


I stare at the piles of kitschy souvenirs in the Zanazibari shop that I am standing in and have a slight panic attack.  It’s hard to decide what is “African” when you realize how hollow the word is in this context. I am on Zanzibar, an island very culturally distinct from the larger country of Tanzania, which is distinct from other countries in East Africa, all of which are completely different from the rest of the continent. In this shop—one of many identical ones lining the winding roads in this touristy neighborhood—there are carvings of Maasai warriors (who typically inhabit Northern Tanzania, not Zanzibar) and masks in a dusty pile, some of which my teacher suspects are of Congolese design.  When I ask the shop keep for clarification on where a mask is from he can’t tell me, just assures me it’s “antique.”  I’m annoyed and then realize it doesn’t matter, this man is just trying to make a living.

Buying souvenirs shouldn’t be this big of a deal but getting a piece of meaningless Africana seems wrong, (vaguely) akin to spending a summer in New York and bringing back an “I <3 NYC” shirt.  It says nothing about my time here.  Even for a learned senior, coming to Tanzania was an education on the cultural diversity of Africa in general and East Africa in particular.  I don’t want to perpetuate the global commodification of Black and brown culture, yet here it is so easy and seemingly inevitable.

After contemplation (and another, panic attack), I decide.  For my father, two masks and a rosewood bowl, carved with various animals.  For my mother a small replica of a Maasai warrior’s shield (for her work desk?) and a kitenge (a long cloth that can be worn or sewn into clothing), covered in in a Zanzibari print which I will have made into a skirt for her on the mainland. I tell myself that I am making the best of a weird situation.  The masks and bowl were all carved here on Zanzibar, so I convince myself that I’m supporting local artists (which isn’t untrue and they are skillfully made).  Any sort of Africana to break up the monotony of oppressive whiteness will be good, I promise myself.  Besides, giving my father, who has never left the country, the chance to feel connected to “Africa” is important.

I bargain for the items but not as well as I should. I feel guilty not paying for what I’ve done.


“Slang is a weapon”: Positionality and Language

Walking through an open-air market in Arusha, we, a group of conspicuous foreigners trying our hardest not to get separated, caught the eye of a few young men who began walking along side us as “protection”. Noticing that we were uncomfortable, Professor Wairungu (our Northwestern Swahili teacher) talked to the young men and they left us alone. Upon regrouping on the street outside of the market area, Professor Wairungu explained to us that all he had to do was to talk to them in Swahili slang. “Slang is a weapon”. Professor Wairungu’s position in this situation is interesting because he is Kenyan, not Tanzanian. He knows street vernacular because as a linguistic anthropologist he studies slang usage among urban Kenyan youth (Sheng), and that knowledge gives him an advantage in situations such as the one we dealt with in the market.

Posing with Professor Wairungu (Mwalimu)

In every language, slang is the ultimate sign of insider status. In Madagascar, what ultimately made me an insider and accepted (to an extent) within the community was my usage of the Malagasy language. Everywhere I go I am called a foreigner until I speak. “Mahay gasy izy!” “She knows Malagasy!” She’s one of us. I am also unique because I did not learn Malagasy in a formal setting, but I picked up in the streets, so I know a lot of (old) colloquialisms. This has been advantageous to me while living in Madagascar, but it also carries a lot of negative baggage, as slang tends to do. Because I don’t speak formal Malagasy, I do not have the benefit of being recognized as a Malagasy speaker academically. I am marked as low-status, like many other speakers of slang. Professor Wairungu’s quip stuck with me because it was one of the few times that someone, especially in an academic context, validated slang usage. I used to be ashamed of my informal Malagasy, since being a speaker is one of the things that “proves” I am Malagasy enough. While in the future I will learn formal Malagasy, I will always remember that slang in every culture is important, valid, and does not make the speaker any less intelligent or worthy of respect.


You are studying abroad; you must prepare yourself to be confronted by vast difference from what you are familiar with. You will feel overwhelmed. You may experience culture shock. That is what the pre-departure materials tell me. This is what I signed up for.

Despite these warnings of difference, all I can think about are the similarities. Going through pre-orientation with Professor Sullivan, I expected to be excited by the prospect of new experiences. However, looking at a slideshow of pictures capturing dusty streets and open markets, a wave of nostalgia swept over me. It looked exactly like Antsiranana, the city in which I was born and Tananbao V, where many of my family members currently live.

My grandparents’ new house in Bemoko

Many study abroad students are excited to experience difference, but I am excited to re-experience old childhood memories. I cannot wait to navigate the markets, to eat street food, to ride in over-crowded buses. While these things may seem foreign to other people, I am comforted by their familiarity. It reminds me of my time in Madagascar. While in Tanzania, I want to focus on these similarities instead of the differences.

Even though Swahili is a completely new language to me, Malagasy words keep coming to mind, words I have not spoken in a long time. Unfortunately for me, Swahili and Malagasy have very little in common. However, a lot of Malagasy and Tanzanian manners are similar: respect your elders, don’t use your left hand, always offer your visitor food, be a courteous host, pretend you don’t have news when you do, and every time you greet someone go through an elaborate set of phrases with predetermined responses. I am curious to see what other similarities I can find in between these two different cultures, and reflect on my identity not only as an African, but an American as well.

Back at home

Stepping into the windowless, spotless, and crowded Turkey airport lit just as brightly as a Tanzanian midday, I marveled at the change. Shops with untouched merchandise twinkled under the steady brilliance of manmade lights. Although I expected the lights to putter out, they never did during the two-hour layover.

Coming back to said “developed” countries I noticed many habitual aspects of life: waking up and groggily and turning on the electricity without considering that the lights might not work; turning on the hot water for a bath everyday; walking across a pedestrian walkway; knowing I can have food delivered to my door if I don’t cook a meal; knowing that pushing the refresh button will ensure that the webpage will reload; putting clothes into the washer and dryer. I realized that at home, I had a lot more reliability and convenience in terms of electricity, appliances, and clean sources of water and bathroom.

Yet these aspects of life that I thought would restore comfort surprisingly did not. Rather, I missed going out to the supermarket to bargain for a pile of tomatoes. I also missed the simple “shikamoo” and “mambo” greetings that were considered a courtesy in Tanzania. Back at home, man made noises and objects seemed to have replaced a lot of nature’s sounds and pictures that I loved in Tanzania. At night, as I listened to the whirring of the car engines rushing by on the highway, I thought of the crickets and bullfrog symphonies that kept me up at night. Looking across the brightly lit city, I reminisced of the twinkling starry nights that nature gifted us in Usa River. As I thought back to the parts of Tanzania I missed, I realized that I learned to love a country that had a culture, language, and people that differed from my own.


The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword

Post by Jacob Sherman

jacobchickenIn the first episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones, Ned Stark imparts upon his sons a piece of fatherly wisdom that stuck both with the characters, and with me: “The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.” He proceeds to chop off the head of a man found guilty for deserting his position as a member of the Night’s Watch. Ned Stark and his parable on death and responsibility was the reason I felt compelled to slaughter a chicken while I was here in Tanzania – something absolutely routine and benign in every Tanzanian household, but a gross and shocking idea for me. My task, in absurdly hyperbolic fashion, was to either take responsibility for the deaths I passively take part in everyday with my protein consumption or fail to swing the sword and never again eat meat.

So now, I will present a technical guide on how you can slaughter a chicken with none of the grace or power of Ned Stark. First, you should have your Tanzanian research partner (Filbert) accompany you to the market to buy a chicken. In order to avoid the wazungu (white people) price, your Tanzanian friend should do the bartering; even my presence with Filbert at the market was enough to drive up the price. It’s also useful to have a Tanzanian accompany you to the market because holding a chicken can be scary at first. They can help ease you into contact with the chicken and even help you comfortably take a selfie with it on your walk home.



From here on out, it’s absolutely necessary to have a Tanzanian friend assist you. Slaughtering a chicken is one among many useful life-skills held by every Tanzanian but stolen away from us device-dependent, soft-stomached Americans by the Capitalist Machine (maybe I’m being too harsh since a lot of hip people are raising chickens these days). After perhaps debating with your Tanzanian partner that that knife looks too small and it would be more humane to use a bigger knife to get the job done faster, you should probably just listen to him because like he’s said, he’s done this a thousand times. Try not to get lightheaded. Pin the chicken down on its stomach. With one foot on its legs, draw its wings together and place them firmly under your other foot (the chicken wasn’t necessarily comfortable but I wasn’t breaking its bones and I’m not sure it was even in pain, yet). Pull its head out to extend its neck. Pick a few feathers off its throat to create a point where you can easily access skin. Try to make that first cut – take a deep breath and try again. When your knife connects and you hear that terrible sound of tearing flesh, don’t take your feet off of its flailing body and don’t stop sawing (the word sounds so cruel to my American ears but that’s what it was, and that’s how I was told to do it) until you’re holding its head in one hand and a bloody knife that looks too small in the other. Drop the head because it’s still moving. Keep your feet on its body because that’s moving too. After a minute it will stop shaking.

The rest isn’t pretty but your color should come back and you can probably stop holding your breath. Put the chicken (head too, because a Tanzanian or a brave American might want to eat that) in a bath of scalding water. Have some friends help you pluck the feathers off. Lay it out on a tray and have a Tanzanian assist you in cutting a large slit down its chest. Widen it until you have access to all of its guts and stuff. Carefully remove said guts and stuff, taking caution not to burst the little sac by its liver holding its sour, gastric juices. Save the liver and the legs because someone will eat those too. From this point, most everyone can figure out what to do. It tasted good but noticeably different from any chicken I’ve had before, just like the Tanzanians said it would (if I’ve learned anything from the experience, it’s that in these kind of contexts, our Tanzanian friends are always right).




Now back to the larger, existential themes that lurk at the edges of my how-to-guide. I passed the task I gave myself. I was able to look the meat that I regularly consume in the eyes and take responsibility for ending its life. I felt I had earned the right to eat my dinner that night, and by some faulty logic, I even earned the right to keep eating meat in the future that I hadn’t slaughtered? I think I’ll try to not think too much about that one. But maybe it’s a problem that it’s usually so easy for me to not think about where my meat comes from. It’s comforting to hide behind the facelessness of the supermarket chicken breast, but being the one to step-by-step turn a live chicken into a meal adds a sense of immediacy to the question: where does your meat come from and is that ok? A girl on our program stopped eating chicken (for a week) after this episode. While I thought that was a tad dramatic, maybe her reaction is also telling; if we all saw where the meat we eat comes from on a daily basis, we might think twice about eating that meat and endorsing the way those animals were treated. In case this blogpost took too preachy of a turn, let me be clear that I can only be so self-righteous in my support for the ethical treatment of animals while I continue to eat them. So for now I’ll accept my faulty logic, thinking a little bit more (but not too much) about where my meat comes from and knowing that at least for a day, I would have made Ned Stark proud.

Back to Basics

Post by Rachel Onders

I’ve been reading a lot here. I usually read a lot over the summers, but here, in Tanzania, it somehow feels different. Perhaps it has to do with the unreliability of electricity – it’s hard to watch a movie or television when the electricity could be out or the wifi might not be working. Instead, I’ve been reading.

I’ve always been a bit of a book nerd. I grew up with Harry Potter and other adventure novels, playing pretend in the backyard with my brother. I had re-read the series countless times by the release of the seventh and last book. I hadn’t read them in a while until this summer, when I decided to read the whole series again, from the very beginning, since I had so much time for reading here.

Returning back to the books I had loved so much when I was younger is a different experience than I expected. Reading them here, with limited electricity and Internet, emphasizes the feeling of being a child again when I read them. It’s a back-to-basics type of experience, where fun and leisure comes from books and the people around you instead of the Internet or a television. My roommate even joined me in re-reading the Harry Potter series, so we can talk about each part with each other as we read through them. It amazes me how much joy I can still find in reading this series, supposedly meant for “children.” There is something simple and pure about the things that can amuse a child, and being here is reminding me of that.

Watching the kids run around the compound where we’re staying, or chase each other on their way to school, inspires me. They take the greatest fun out of the simplest things: running with each other, playing with an old bike tire and a stick, or seeing us “wazungu” – white people – and saying “Hi!” with a wide grin on their faces. This type of unadulterated excitement can feel nonexistent at times, under the pressure of school, responsibilities, or looming “adulthood.” After this summer in Tanzania, remembering my childhood through books, and playing with the happiest of children, I know that I’ll be able to recall the unabashed joy we felt and saw here for the rest of my life, and help others rediscover that feeling as well. `

The Words Behind All The Numbers

Post by Udita Persaud

Emmanuel motions for the mother to bring her young child to get weighed. The mother, modestly draped in a royal blue kanga with vibrant hibiscuses, approaches the hanging scale. She tenderly secures the matching kanga around her little boy. After tying two sturdy knots in the cloth, she hangs the kanga on the scale. As he dangles from the scale, the little boy with his big, dark brown eyes stares curiously at the contraption above him. Dr. Emmanuel meticulously pencils in the weight of the boy in the patient card and nods at the mother.

The number written in the patient card will travel from document to document. The information flows through a specific system: from the patient card, to the report book, to the national database, to the donor reports, and into the hands of a representative of a nongovernmental organization. As the number funnels through the different stages, it loses its personal value. The representative does not know the circumstances to obtain that single statistic. Little is known about the doctor, who attends to all the patients at the health center, and how severely overworked he is with little supplies and staff to aid his work. Information is lost on how mothers and children are sometimes not able to make it to the center due to transportation issues. On the flip side, the health workers don’t realize the potential that these numbers have in respect to their health center. The value of statistics at a large scale in respect to donors sometimes does not get translated for the workers.

Most people recognize that data is really important. However, data is not necessarily a “glamorous” thing to be worried about. At face value for health workers abroad, it is a bunch of numbers that have to get recorded and reported for the government and various organizations. However, a deep understanding of data reveals that these numbers have the potential to change how aid and support are allocated. Data is a type of currency. One gets the right to speak when there is data to back him or her up.

Alternatively, big governments and organizations sometimes lack to connect the people behind the numbers. When goals or targets are not met in summary reports, there are explanations for the downfall that do come to the surface. People and situations surrounding these people seem to become invisible when connected to data. Donors are not aware of the extenuating circumstances that hinder and sway data. As a result, sometimes even the final reports are not accurate.

I feel that no one really understands what data means on either side of the partnership. Donors are not aware of the true meaning of the numbers in practice, and health care workers are not aware of the value of data reports. After six weeks of research on data and its burden, I feel that I also do not have a complete understanding of data. Maybe the next step for data collection is not to get more or better data, but to actually understand the data we already have.

The hanging scale that is used to weigh babies in the Reproductive and Child Health  (RCH) department

The hanging scale that is used to weigh babies in the Reproductive and Child Health (RCH) department.