Written September 16, 2019
How does one describe something that lives in the heart? It isn’t an emotion, but a feeling. It feels like walking into a familiar place, smelling freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, tickling your senses with nostalgia and comfort. It feels like getting a hug from someone you know and haven’t seen in a while, slowly and effortlessly melting into each other during your embrace.
It feels like tears of purification, happiness, and wholehearted gratitude every time I think about Tanzania.
Tanzania founds its way into my life and has dug a home in my heart. The complexities of my feelings around Tanzania and my experiences over the last few years is something I’ve tried to explain many times. This is my attempt to begin unpacking the intentions living in my heart.
You were not meant to be a one-time adventure. You have opened my heart in ways I know I could, but didn’t know how I would. You have brought me joy, faith, love, and hope. For this, I am grateful. For this, I am obligated to serve.
When I first traveled to Tanzania in 2016, I didn’t entirely know what to expect. Africa had always been a place on my bucket list, but it felt unachievable as I didn’t think I would ever be able to afford a safari and Africa was a wildly unknown part of the world. At the time, I didn’t know many (any?) people who had been to Africa, so my heart and mind were open to whatever was ahead.
What happened during my first trip to Tanzania was an awakening. My senses awoke me to the actualization of one of my purposes: to serve a community in a meaningful, sustainable way. Since my first trip in April 2016, I have been to Tanzania three times now. THREE TIMES. No, I did not plan to travel to Tanzania three times. Yet, this is where my heart and path has led me. This is my way to be connected to the world, embrace my education, and fulfill many of my personal missions.
This has also been my path to discovering my faith: understanding, feeling, and believing in the work of God and Jesus in all walks of the Earth.
There is a connection, a community, that goes beyond love and caring in Tanzania. It radiates something bigger, something other-worldly, and indescribable… yet palpable. Interacting with the people of Tanzania is like getting a giant hug and over and over again. Hospitality doesn’t even begin to encompass how it feels to walk the streets, greet strangers, and connect. You’d never nod and walk by someone. Every eye contact involves an exchange of “Hujambo” or “Mambo” – a greeting to find out how the other person is doing. With someone you know, you take the time to embrace in a hand hug and ask how they slept, how is their family, what is the news – even if you just saw them yesterday. There’s never enough caring. All people feverishly welcome me as a ‘mzungu‘ (literal translation=wanderer) with a constant “Karibu Sana” (basically, welcome always) and I truly feel that I belong. When I first arrived, it was as if I’d been there forever.
Tanzania feels like home and I am curious to know what this truly means in my heart and life.
On August 12, 2019, I sat at the Blue Heron Restaurant in Tanzania with our group of professionals and Student Physical Therapists from Stony Brook University. We were halfway through our volunteering time at Step-by-Step Learning Centre and Shanga, so we met to have a reflection session with Tanzania’s EduAfrica director, Adrian. We were given four prompts to write about in our journals, then we spent time sharing ideas. Our second question resonated with me deeply and I am still trying to answer it…
We were asked:
Do you have obligations to people in other countries? Why or why not, and to what extent?
My heart and gut responded immediately: YES. Undoubtedly yes. I wrote:
I feel personally feel obligated to people in other countries. To me, this is a God-given obligation to serve, to empower my neighbor. This comes from a Christian belief in kindness and strengthening relationships between self, community, spiritual intimacy, and God. As an economically rich country, I do feel we have the material ability to serve others. Yet, the extent to which I am obligated is NOT material. It is to serve using skills and knowledge, to empower and give confidence to those in need.– From my journal during the reflection session
As a group, we discussed our feelings around this complicated question. Most of us identified some degree of obligation being that we are all in a profession where helping people is the foundation of our work. Yet, we felt that not everyone can extend this willingness to serve in other countries because of personal barriers (time, money, work, etc.).
Most powerfully, we realized that not everyone can feel this obligation. Someone rightfully stated that “until you engage with it, you may not feel obligated.”
It can be challenging to see a different perspective and look beyond our lenses. We are exposed to poverty in many ways during our daily life, whether it be at work, on a walk in the city, or while waiting at a traffic light. We hear stories within our communities. We see volunteer efforts all around us. Soup kitchen, food banks, transitional housing. Yet, are we awakened to the needs of our communities? Not always. It’s not usually until we intentionally interact with those in need that we begin to understand why and how they need us. It takes even more effort to comprehend how individuals and communities in other countries could need us. Without being exposed, we may never know where the gaps are.
As I continue to travel to Tanzania, my understanding of the culture and people deepens. I cannot turn away from this service as I’ve developed a mutualistic relationship with those I have chosen to serve – I give and receive so much. I have developed friendships and heartfelt relationships with many people in Tanzania. These people never ASK for my commitment to continue serving them. Yet, I most certainly feel obligated to serve.
I am not alone in these sentiments. On this year’s trip in August 2019, I was joined by my coworker, Abby, from Seattle Children’s North Clinic. She was a gift to this journey as we now continue to unpack our experiences together. We had our own nightly reflections, sometimes ending in tears. When we returned from Tanzania, someone asked Abby if she’d ever go back. She mirrored my sense of obligation when she said:
I can’t imagine NOT going back.
So, what is the origin of our obligation? What does it even MEAN to be obligated? Well, the English dictionary defines “Obligation” as:
I do not have a formal contract with communities in Tanzania. Nor do I have a ‘debt of gratitude.’ Additionally, the first synonym that appears in the dictionary for “obligation” is burden. I don’t associate my obligation with any burdensome emotions, nor do I feel like I am ‘returning a favor.’ If this were the case, maybe I’d dread the travel to Tanzania. I’d feel like I ‘owe’ them something, that I am giving up all of myself to a cause. Yet, how could this be my sentiments when I am so light when I’m there? How could this be the truth when my heart and faith are strengthened with every passerby? How could this be the case when I witness God all around me, even in the eyes of those who are still making $1/day. How could this be a burden I have to carry?
I choose this obligation as much as it has chosen me.
The definition of obligation that resonates with me is the first: The action of obligating oneself to a course of action. The key word here is “oneself.” To me, this means nobody has to tell you that you’re obligated because it comes from within.
And yes, there is a course of action. It’s a course that continues to evolve. It’s like a rushing river that branches into smaller streams, each one getting stronger as more water finds its way. It’s like bodies of water meeting in confluence, diverging into one, as communities develop action plans and bind together in powerful, impactful ways.
I guess part of this obligation is seeing a future in this course of action. There’s still so much work to be done. At the end of our trip, our group was asked:
Did you accomplish all you wanted, or did you leave things undone?
I guess if we weren’t thinking long term, if we didn’t have some degree of obligation to serving those in Tanzania, we would’ve been satisfied with the work we’d done. Our response would have been, “YES! We accomplished so much,” and we may have forgotten about what is undone because we weren’t thinking about the future. But, that’s not how our story goes. We can see the future and how much more there is to be done. With every group that serves, there are more foundations and layers built. There will always be more to build on and that’s the beauty of life – we can never truly learn too much or do too little.
Our answer, then, was YES we accomplished all we wanted… for now. We left many things undone. As the culture shifts, need will continue to rise and evolve. Communities will come together to provide opportunities for children and adults with all abilities.
Truly, Tanzania has made me a better person. Someone who takes more time to listen, engage, interact. Someone who doesn’t rush all the time, but rather breathes and appreciates all that surrounds us with a grateful heart.
Every time I leave Tanzania, I crave the sense of connection I feel while in Africa. I attempt to replicate this human love in the United States, yet can’t seem to break through all the barriers of those around me. The busy lives we lead makes me ache for this connection. It’s no wonder we often feel alone, whereas I never feel alone in Tanzania. This often leads to periods of frustration back in the states, but through this frustration is growth. Though I can’t break through to all the people around me, the ones where I can are the ones that matter.
Even further, I sometimes feel smothered by my life of comfort in the United States. I feel suffocated by material things and capitalism, the need for more, more, more. There is a lack mentality that plagues so many of us. We feel that we never have enough money, status, friends, love, education, ___(fill in the blank with anything). Somewhere in this, we lose our appreciation for all we do have.
When I think about what we are told to be grateful for in the United States (clean water, shelter, food), I find myself thinking deeper. What if we didn’t have clean water? Where is our gratitude best directed?
The truth is, there’s so much more in life than material, physiological needs. Though much of Tanzania does not have access to clean water (27 million of the country’s population of 53 million lack access to clean water according to this site), there is an overwhelming sense of gratitude for all the people do have. They thank God and Jesus every day for his grace, support, and love.
…I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.– Matthew 25:35 (NIV)
In Tanzania, I don’t just see poverty. I don’t just see unclean water. I don’t see the LACK. Instead, I see incredible abundance of the things that REALLY matter in life: love, faith, family, community.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs indicates that if our most basic, physiological needs are NOT met, we can’t proceed up the pyramid to other needs. However, Maslow later discovered that this is non-linear and we can jump levels based on personal and cultural values. Honestly, I see many people in Tanzania living in a state of self-actualization through their love for God and Jesus.
Our needs can be met in many ways, and I love the way communities in Tanzania support each other. There is a permanent state of love and belonging, a permeable sense of connection to others. People are respected, welcomed, and seeking strength through the power of our creator.
We sing many songs of praise in Tanzania and I’d like to share one I interestingly discovered on America’s Got Talent, which brought me to a choir in Tanzania via YouTube. I cry every time I hear it, even when it’s on repeat (like right now… haha). It is the “Our Father” in Swahili (“Baba Yetu”) and this is the love of our creator that lives in the hearts of those I choose to serve and work alongside.
In 2016, I wrote a promise to return to Tanzania. I promised to return to Tanzania in order to visit Step-by-Step Learning Centre and be a part of the shift towards disability awareness in Tanzania:
I will undoubtedly return to Tanzania… [There] is a shift happening in Tanzania where previous, traditional perceptions of individuals with disabilities are changing to a more positive light. This means there may be more opportunity and demand for rehabilitation services, and therefore more room for Physical Therapists like me to make an impact. Perhaps rather than children with disabilities ending up in isolation and without an education, they will be given the same potential as an able-bodied individual. This vision needs support and resources for its success, but I can certainly see this revolution happening in the near future.– Written in 2016 in this blog post
This promise still lives in my heart and it has evolved, even deepened, over time. Now that I have been blessed to work alongside the teacher at SSLC for three years, I am understanding more of the big picture. I am seeing how empowering others through education and collaborative workshops is having a butterfly effect across various communities, villages, schools, families, and health systems. The momentum is supported by locals who share an insatiable thirst for knowledge, advocacy for individuals with disability, and understanding of how to provide the BEST care for individuals of all abilities.
So, I deepen my obligations alongside those who I serve:
- I am obligated to grow in knowledge and understanding.
- I am obligated to sustainability, empowering others, and seeking answers.
- I am obligated to bringing students and professionals to Tanzania so they, too, can learn alongside the locals. There is so much to gain from a place like Tanzania. We can begin to break free from our poverty of being, renew faith, and find deeper meaning in connecting with people who radiate love.
- I am obligated to full the needs of the community in the appropriate cultural context, without the burden of my biases.
- I am obligated to welcome God and Jesus into my life and onto my team as I better understand my place in this world, God’s way, and His word.
- I am obligated to learn alongside the community that already exists so beautifully in Tanzania.
With my entire heart, I express my gratitude for the fact that I will never be alone in this journey. I have a tribe of people here in the United States and abroad who will continue to support the mission to break through barriers to care for children and adults with disabilities.
Thank you for listening to me as I digest these thoughts. Thank you for supporting me in every way.
Asante sana, from my heart to yours.
With love and gratitude,