"When I think about Father Zeno’s words, I become overwhelmed. I could tell you a story exclusively about poverty and suffering. Or I could tell you a different story."
It was our last night in Tanzania. The air was thick and muggy, and it was growing dark. After a long weekend of tears and goodbyes in Chipole, culminating in a 15-hour bus ride, we sat around a table and sipped Kilimanjaro lagers with Father Zeno Mtewele, our host in Dar es Salaam. He explained that the U.S. has a skewed perception of Africa. He explained that Africa, in particular Tanzania, has so much more to offer the world.
“Tell them about us,” he said.
When I think about Father Zeno’s words, I become overwhelmed. There are so many things I could tell you. I could tell you a story exclusively about poverty and suffering. Or I could tell you a different story.
Last summer, I was part of the inaugural Tanzania Service Immersion trip, which spanned from June 16-July 24. I was one of six students, including Sam Bingaman, Jaime Rosenberg, Briana Quintanilla, Niya Tawachi and Denver Garcia. Susan Leyster, Director of Service Immersion Programs, served as the trip leader.
The impetus for the trip began when Susan traveled to Tanzania in 2001 and was inspired to one day bring a group of students from Saint Martin’s University. SMU has been connected to St. Agnes through St. Placid’s Priory and Abbot Neal’s visit. Since then, SMU alumni have visited Chipole on their own; however, SMU did not have an official trip until Summer 2014.
During our visit, we spent a few days in Dar es Salaam and then devoted the majority of our time at St. Agnes Convent in Chipole. St. Agnes is home to more than 100 Benedictine sisters, as well as students, teachers and health workers. The compound includes an orphanage, primary and secondary schools, trade school, medical dispensary and numerous small business enterprises which enable the convent to be self-sustaining.
Sister Redempta Ndunguru, who holds a Masters in Education from Saint Martin’s, served as our main contact. Sister Redempta helped us find volunteer jobs at the convent. Jaime and Bri helped in the orphanage, Sam and Niya helped in the primary school, Denver worked in the bakery and I worked in the bakery and the medical dispensary.
The trip was full of very human experiences. Some moments were joyful. For instance, we attended the Jubilee Mass at St. Agnes, which celebrated the sisters who had served for 25 or 50 years. The event was filled with music, feasting and dancing. Sam Bingaman recalls, “This event was an incredible display of the word ‘celebration.’ ”
Other moments were eye-opening. The orphanage was home to about 40 children. When we brought candy to the children, the older boys helped the toddlers unwrap the candy and learn to eat it.
Bri explains, “All the kids took care of each other. The oldest kids of about 12 years of age had to grow up so fast in order to take care of the little ones running around.”
Still other moments were humorous. When Aslan attacked the White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia, the 100-plus children packed into the library burst into cheers and threw their hands in the air. After Brazil won a World Cup game, the men in the bar shouted and ran around, waving their plastic chairs above their heads.
During our five-week trip, we encountered a lot of poverty. I saw beggars on the street, 10 students hovered over one textbook and a child bedridden with malaria. At times, I remember feeling hopeless in the face of such quiet, day-to-day suffering. We gave what we could, including five boxes of medicine to the orphanage, but the poverty was part of a cycle that began long before we arrived and would continue after we left.
Amid these difficulties, however, there was a pervasive sense of joy. I saw it in the woman with polio, who smiled and greeted everyone. I saw it in Doctor Ishmael, as he laughed and chased a chicken out of the clinic. I saw it in Sister Gotharda, as she and other sisters danced into the dining room singing and drumming on empty buckets.
The Tanzania that we experienced was a place of poverty, but also resilience. It changed us.
“This trip has changed my perspective on life," says Jaime. "It has made me realize how much you can love someone.”
Niya reflects, “I knew I would fall in love with the people. However, I was not expecting the amount of love I received in return.”
"We met so many amazing people and were treated with the sincerest hospitality wherever we went," says Denver. "Tanzania is a fascinating blend of cultures and faiths living together in peace. I wouldn't trade my experiences for anything."
Looking back, I’m beginning to understand Father Zeno’s message. There is more to Africa than starving children, guerilla warfare and Ebola. There is more to Tanzania than its third-world status. Tanzania is the place where Nickson busted out his dance moves, where Sister Jackline sang to the radio, where Seline asked me to be her friend. This is the Tanzania I will remember, the Tanzania I will carry with me.