Writing: Vaishnavi Ramu
Illustration: Paola Valentina
When I stepped onto what would be a nine hour flight from Amsterdam to Kilimanjaro, the inside of my stomach became an emulsion of excitement, fear and – admittedly – slight nausea from the pungent plane fumes. However the strongest feeling was from an encounter when I came to sit down, with my friends, naïve of the journey ahead; and what would proceed to become the most uncomfortable experience of my two week excursion to Tanzania.
A loud howling came from behind me. It sounded like the incessant wailing of an incredibly irritable baby; my friends and I exchanged glances in response, irked by the sound. A man, who we assumed to be a flight attendant, was being incredibly attentive to us: asking how we were, whether he could take our hand luggage for us, or if we wanted a drink, and so forth. We responded accordingly, expecting to be left alone; but once we were settled, we saw that this man wasn't leaving. He introduced himself as some sort of police officer, explained the baby's crying behind us, and apologised for the noise. As soon as I was aware of the situation, his words drowned out, along with my ignorant irksomeness, as I turned around and saw that it was not a baby, but a fully grown woman, getting deported - and, quite literally, screaming for her life.
She was lying across three seats, her head being pinned down onto a woman's lap, her mouth being covered by a latex-gloved hand to conceal the noise. Tears streamed down from her tightly shut eyes, scrunched up like a used tissue; phlegm ran from her nose all the way down to her mouth. She was being treated little better than an animal. A lioness, distressed and in pain, being pinned down by the people in charge as they tried to calm her down, perhaps with an injection of some drug. In a cage. Surrounded.
The only difference? The latex-gloved hand was not such an effective drug. It was a graphic sight, and one I was completely unprepared for.
As I reflected after, I realised that this woman could have been anyone: a murderer, a thief, anyone. Yet my first and strongest instinct, in that moment, was that this was a woman who left her country of origin for a better life, to escape the clutches that her country had held her in.
It was then the irony hit me like sour milk in my mouth. A woman, who had been failed this opportunity of a better life, was sitting behind rows of middle class children (including myself) who were about to go to her country to make people’s lives better - to make lives, like hers, ‘better.’
This was the first of many uncomfortable juxtapositions that I encountered during my otherwise insightful expedition to Tanzania.
The first day saw us go to the money exchange, to change our tens of pounds to thousands of shillings. Support the local economy, they said. Help the people, they said. You're here to contribute. But no, don't buy from the street sellers. I appreciated the reasoning: we were school children and street sellers often charged ridiculous prices to foreigners. Yet when we sat in our white vans, elevated from the ground above them, I couldn't help but see the supposed ‘superiority’ of us rich tourists: the power we had, even as students, to contribute to a grown man's wages. We shooed them away like they were mosquitoes, fanned and dictated from our thrones - yes, we could buy from supermarkets and malls, but not from the locals who made up the rest of it all. One student even teased a seller into almost selling something, and then said no at the last minute. Yes, we're here to help, but not help you.
When I looked out the window daily on our journeys to and from the work sites, I saw the wealth of rich vegetation of the country. A patchwork of different shades of green covered the landscape: jade, olive, and pea. Banana plants flourished with their large, shiny leaves; sugar cane stood tall with pride; corn, yams, potatoes and tomatoes were all in sight.
Though the people themselves, who lived off the land, wore little more than rags and worn out shoes. A country so rich, but rich in the wrong currency.
On the roadsides, people sat cross-legged and asked for money. Some sat behind their stalls as they tried to attract rich tourists. Some slept with little more than their clothes, as busy night time traffic raced past them, constantly putting their lives in jeopardy - all without a home to protect their frail, thin bodies.
Also, on these road sides, about every ten metres, were signs that advertised: ‘4G, now available!’
People, who claimed their desire was to enrich and immerse themselves in Tanzanian culture and the locals, taking photos with children at the orphanage and wanting little to do with them afterwards. People, who greeted the Maasai tribe with great respect to their faces, slagging off their culture and art with their backs turned, their long tribal clothes swinging behind. People, who vowed that their first world problems would never haunt them again, complaining about their cameras dying and Wi-Fi whenever they could.
Juxtaposition, juxtaposition, juxtaposition.
Tanzania changed me for the better, and I would do it again. However, I remain uncertain about some of my fellow students. Of course, we had our moments: the landscape deep into Ngorongoro crater that left our mouths as dry as the arid landscape inside it; our hearts racing as fast as the lion chase we saw when we passed bricks along in a chain; the satisfaction we felt at the sight of the near completed homes we built.
Perhaps I was naïve not to expect these juxtapositions on the trip. After all, wasn't the whole trip a juxtaposition? Children, going to a country to improve the lives of others, while still benefitting from a system that oppressed these very countries?