Nkoaranga Village: two weeks of smiles and beans

Having taken a one-day safari break from farming, Ben and I were ready to meet our next host farmer, David, and get back to work. We knew that staying at our second farm would be a completely different experience than our time spent in the Pare Mountains because David also owned Tabasamu Orphanage (Tabasamu means “smile”) in addition to working on his parents’ farm. Plus, we would now be staying close to Arusha—a much more developed city with paved roads and stronger infrastructure, thanks to the tourism money that the surrounding national parks bring in from safaris.

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PrayGod was always so excited to style my hair

The night we met David, he was so happy to finally talk to us in person and was eager to bring us to the Tabasamu Orphanage in Usa River so we could meet the kids. We drove down an obscure, bumpy road, finally reaching a humble gated house with six excited children spilling out the front door. Before we could even exit the car, we were being pulled, hugged, and jumped on; we could tell we had been long-anticipated guests as the kids unleashed their smiles, giggles, and shouts of “mzungu!”. Somehow we made it inside and David introduced us to the six kids that slept at the orphanage. We were so impressed how well some of them spoke English. Of course, the phrases that most benefited them they knew best, like “pick me up”, “put me on your shoulders”, “sit here”, “let me do your hair”—basically just a lot of commands directed at us to assist in their fun. They were a rambunctious group of kids—the oldest was 8 and the youngest 4—and I can’t even put into words their excitement and playfulness. At one point, I think Ben served as an actual jungle gym with all six kids climbing, swinging, and hanging on him simultaneously.

 

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Ben playing with some of the kids

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We often had little visitors from the neighborhood peaking through our gate

David often has volunteers who stay at the orphanage to take care of the kids every day, but Ben and I were here to farm so he arranged a homestay for us closer to the his parent’s property, up the mountain in his home-village of Nkoaranga. We stayed with his friend Victor and Victor’s sister, Eva. They were both so welcoming and Eva was an excellent chef, serving us all the delicious traditional Tanzanian foods. Nkoaranga was a small village that we were happy to call home for two weeks; filled with tons of dirt paths to explore the mountains, the Meru tribe village offered spectacular views of Mount Meru (Mount Kilimanjaro’s “little brother”).

 

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Mount Meru peaking out over the banana trees in Nkoaranga

After breakfast each morning—which normally consisted of mandazi, fresh warm milk, and coffee—Ben and I would take the chilly 15-minute walk up the mountain to the farm. David’s father was a Christian priest, and David’s main job was actually teaching Philosophy at a secondary school, so David’s mom was the one in charge of the farm. They had cows, goats, and chickens and grew banana, coffee, avocado, mango and potato (potato was the most popular plant in Nkoaranga). But the task assigned to Ben and myself was to plant a field of maharage, or beans. Over the course of two weeks, with an old-fashioned hoe and a bucket of beans, we must’ve planted over a thousand of bean seeds in hand-dug holes. David’s mother did not speak any English, but you’d be surprised how much conversation we could actually have between each other’s little knowledge of the other’s language. She helped us expand our Kiswahili vocabulary, and we shared laughs when it took us 10+ minutes to figure out a simple phrase she was trying to tell us.

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Busy planting beans in the field (which also had coffee and banana trees)

After 3-4 hours of farming, Ben and I would eat a delicious lunch prepared by Eva, and then we would go to meet the kids after they finished school. Picking up the kids from school was a lot like arriving to the orphanage on that first day, times 10—because the other 50 or so students from school were just as excited to see us as the Tabasamu children, stampeding towards us ready to jump, tug, and hang on us. We would run and play in the field with all of the kids until Gift, one of the caregivers at Tabasamu Orphanage, determined it was time to make the long journey down the mountain to return to Usa River. It takes the children over an hour to get to and from school each day, a journey that requires two public bus rides and a 30-minute walk. Thus, on the walk home, the kids were normally exhausted (rightfully so, as they get up at 6am in order to make it to school on time), and Ben and I were often persuaded by their tired eyes and staggering bodies to carry them; luckily for our spines, only 4 were old enough to attend primary school, Azbetha (8), Exaud (8), Jasmine (7), and PrayGod (7). However, when we would finally arrive at Tabasamu Orphanage around 5pm, the exhaustion would magically disappear as they ran the last stretch of the way to enter the gates and play with the 20 other children who attend Tabasamu as a daycare.

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The kids playing and swinging in the yard

Ben and I spent our evenings at Tabasamu Orphanage hanging out with the kids. The daycare students often went home soon after 5pm, so we weren’t able to get to know them very well. But we did have a lot of time to play and talk with the 6 who lived at Tabasamu: the four school-aged students I mentioned above, as well as Issac (4) and Jennifer (4). They didn’t have many toys, but we played soccer, swung on the swing set, read books, sang, and exchanged Swahili/English vocabulary. Ben and I really fell in love with these kids; their smiles truly brightened our days and we cherished every moment we spent with them.

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The kids dancing together

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Gifti and Issac (they did homework sometimes!!!)

Because Ben and I did not sleep at the orphanage, we had to walk the 30 minutes to the main road in complete darkness. The sun sets at about 6:30pm and it is pitch dark by 7pm in Tanzania this time of year. Without any street lights and with dirt roads with awful holes and bumps everywhere, you never quite know where exactly you’re putting your foot down—you just have to hope you won’t be stepping in any puddles, or worse, chicken or goat feces (almost every Tanzanian owns chickens and/or goats, and they allow them to roam and wander through the streets during the day). To get up the mountain from the main road to the house where we were staying, we had to take a piki piki (motorcycle). With three people on a motorcycle, I always made Ben sit on the end because I was afraid of falling off. Part of the road going up was actually paved, but once we took the turn to Nkoaranga Village, Ben was at major risk of falling off due to the random potholes and makeshift speed bumps. Don’t worry, he always held on very tightly and never fell off.

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Baba’s Church

One Sunday morning, Ben and I attended the Pentecostal Church that Baba, David’s dad, preached at. We showed up at about 10am to a nearly empty church blasting with loud worship music. Gradually, families and single persons trickled in few by few until the church was filled with nearly 200 people. Through four different worship bands’ songs, everyone stood on their feet, sang, clapped, and moved throughout the church aisles as they danced to the music. The worship songs were played and sung through the speakers so loudly that our ears were ringing for hours afterwards. Baba’s sermon was obviously all in Swahili, so we didn’t understand much of it at all, but at one point Ben and I were asked to stand as they specially welcomed us to their time of worship and praise.

Exploring Nkoaranga Village was one of our favorite things to do. Unlike Usa River and Arusha, the weather in Nkoaranga was actually very cold, and I often needed to put on extra layers to keep warm at night. Even though these towns are extremely close, the difference in altitude explains the cold contrast in climate in Nkoaranga. So going on spontaneous hikes in the crisp mountain air was always a refreshing break from the stifling heat down in Usa River. One day Eva brought us all over the mountain, taking us to all the local watering holes, forest trails, waterfalls, and the best spots to see monkeys and lemurs.

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Eva – our exploring guide and incredible chef

On our last night staying in the Arusha region hosted by David’s family and friends, David’s parents hosted a huge dinner for us as both a welcoming gift and a farewell celebration. Everyone we had met during our stay gathered at their house to eat a deliciously prepared buffet-style feast of wali (rice), nyama and samaki in mchuzi (beef and fish in a sauce), chips (French fries—but really fresh French fries made from the potatoes the village grows), and of course, fresh fruits (watermelon, bananas, and oranges). I haven’t mentioned yet that forks do not exist in Tanzania; you either eat with your hands or with a spoon. At this goodbye dinner, Ben and I saw our first fork since being in Tanzania—but there was only one. I let Ben use it since he had taken more samaki than me (a fork-worthy food).

Our time spent in Usa River and Nkoaranga was truly memorable, and we have no doubt we will keep in touch with all of the friends we have made—including the watoto (children)!

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Ben carrying our bananas home for dinner 🙂

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Government and Politics in Tanzania

We hope we don’t get arrested for posting this!

*Some names have been left out for the protection of our friends.

I want to dedicate my life to government. That’s why throughout our Tanzanian adventure one of my favorite questions to ask has been: “So how about Magufuli?” It’s easy to delve into a political conversation because every single time we say we are Amerikani someone has to say, “Oh! President Trump! You like him?” Some Tanzanians are as opinionated about Trump as most Americans are. Most have even more to say about their own government. People are proud of their political opinions and many are happy to share them with us regardless of what party they affiliate with.

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President Magufuli

Before talking about our own experiences involving politics, let the political scientist in me quickly explain the structure of Tanzanian government, as I understand it. All of my understanding about everything I’m going to write came from conversations Shannon and I have had with Tanzanians for the past 6 weeks.

Tanzania is a unicameral republic with a Presidential-Parliamentary hybrid system, similar to France in that the real power lies within the Presidency. Unlike many of Tanzania’s neighbors, its democracy is relatively stable; although, like most new democracies, its democracy might easily collapse. Tribal divisions do not dominate society in Tanzania as we are told they do in Kenya and other African countries. Betol, Seraphine’s youngest son who Shannon wrote about, was the first person to tell us about Tanzanian government. He was brilliant, patriotic, democratic, and it’s my dream to see him run for Parliament one day. He explained to us that the first President told Tanzanians to keep their tribal bonds but to not let them interfere with the superlative nation. Tribes intermarry, mingle, and matter little in most parts of Tanzania, though they still remain a part of every day life here. Some local governments are based on tribal structure, but that is only true in the smaller villages.

Every five years Tanzania holds all of its national elections – the Parliament, the Presidency, and Governorships – unfortunately I don’t know anything about local government. A president can serve two, five-year terms. Significantly, none of the four past Presidents have ever exceeded their constitutional term-limit allowance. In fact, the Constitution has successfully maintained an admirable degree of veneration since it was adopted in 1961; only now is the current President, John Pombe Magufuli potentially exceeding his Constitutional powers (more on this later). The Parliament has historically held a decent amount of power, although that power is being drained by Magufuli who has been converting the Parliament into more of a rubber stamp than a governing body. The courts are also supposed to remain an autonomous check on the President, but the Justices of the Supreme Court can be appointed and dispatched by the sitting president any time, at will.

The current ruling party has been in power since 1961, when Tanzania first realized independence. None of the opposition parties have ever successfully held the presidency or the prime ministership. Even regarding the ruling party’s monopoly on power, elections for the Presidency and Parliament have remained nominally competitive (especially relative to other African ‘democracies’), though at times – including right now – the opposition’s ability to compete democratically has been limited by the ruling party.

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The ruling party since 1961 – CCM

The main reason for the continuity of the ruling party’s reign seems to me to be a fear of the opposition’s ability to rule. I have heard it said several times that people worry that because the opposition has never been in power, it will be inept or even dangerous if it was ever allowed to rule the Presidency or to control Parliament.

 

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An opposition party – CUF

Magafulli has served since 2015, and even where he was very unpopular, few deny their belief that he would go on to win his second term successfully in 2020. His unpopularity is rooted in a fear for the end of democracy and in disgust at some of his outrageous policies, which he enacts on a whim. His famous slogan, “Kazin Tu“ (Only Work), is privately ridiculed by his many opponents, while his admirers applaud it. Few would publicly denounce anything he says, however, for fear of imprisonment. Like some other notable global leaders, Magufuli considers the media dishonest and untrustworthy whenever they disagree with him. Unlike those leaders, though, he has the power and will to genuinely endanger his critics. Techniques such as unexplained disappearances, murders, and the imprisonment of journalists, musicians, and politicians who oppose Magufuli have been employed in recent years. Magufuli also effectively nullified the election of an opposition President in the semi-autonomous archipelago of Zanzibar and installed a leader from his own party. According to one friend who wants to run for Parliament one day, these authoritarian methods to retain power have scared some people out of running for office, but have also begot greater democratic action from students and some politicians who are worried about the death of Tanzanian democracy. This friend told us it was his dream to run for office one day, but he wouldn’t today out of fear.

“Kazin Tu” means more than just a commitment to a more stringent work ethic – it means the complete superiority of work over all other things; education, creative pursuits, anything aside from work, are all secondary. His passion for work is based on his belief that Tanzania can become truly independent from the rest of the world if only every one stopped being lazy. The separation Magufuli is driving between Tanzania and the globe – he’s only left Tanzania once – has been very purposeful. He is promoting a sort of ‘Tanzania First’ policy, at the risk of forsaking all of Tanzania’s economic development and global connections. In fact, any development organizations, NGOs, or foreign governments that disapprove of Magufuli’s policies are told to either say nothing or leave the country.

Magufuli’s seemingly right-wing economic Tanzania First policy is coupled with an odd leftist twinge of extolling the poor and lambasting the rich. He believes that it is the rich who have failed Tanzania by selling out its people in order to make themselves wealthier. Socially, however, Magufuli is extremely far right, at least by American standards. He introduced a new law that determined that if a girl in secondary or high school is impregnated (including after rape) she must drop out of school so she can care for her child. One Magufuli supporter we met explained it like this, “If a woman has a baby and she is in school, she is distracted in school all day thinking about if her baby is safe and missing them and worrying, so it is better to just keep her from school and let her take care of the baby.” This law was adopted in our first weeks in Tanzania and was forced through Parliament with virtually no deliberation.

The same Magufuli supporter informed us about why so many people continue to love the President, regardless of his turn from democracy. It is undeniable that Magufuli is dedicated to ending corruption – even people who oppose him agree that he has been tough on cutting excess spending and on expelling corrupt politicians. He has saved the Tanzanian government millions and has used some of that money to build much-needed roads around the country and to clean the cities up. The President has also bred a patriotic (nationalistic) pride that few countries in Africa posses by lauding Kiswahili and constantly talking about Tanzania’s achievements and development. They also love him because they believe only what Magufuli says and nothing else. While having dinner with a Magufuli proponent, the news displayed a Member of Parliament from one of the opposition parties being let out of prison through a court order. Earlier that day Shannon and I asked this proponent whether it’s true that Magufuli locks up anyone who disagrees with him. With an angrily passionate voice he told us, “Anyone who says that is a LIAR!” At dinner, as the news came on, he explained what was happening but didn’t acknowledge that Magufuli was the one who imprisoned the MP.

Some of Magufuli’s achievements are incredibly commendable; he seems to be a dedicated environmentalist, he is giving teenagers more choice in their education, he is rooting out corruption, and he is creating a national ethos and pride in Tanzania. But for all the good he is doing, I believe that he is a threat to democracy and to development in Tanzania. He has undermined opposition politicians and media sources by creating his own “alternative facts.” He has sidelined education, one of the most basic necessities for the expansion of GDP, development, and for the personal growth of a citizenry, in favor of forced motherhood and work. He has strained Tanzania’s ability to trade around the world by antagonizing foreign governments and promoting a self-sufficiency that is impossible anywhere, let alone in an unindustrialized country. He has forgotten the poor farmers, who make up the largest portion of Tanzania’s workforce, in favor of business. Magufuli’s presidency, however, may be important in the long run for Tanzanian development so long as democracy is not forsaken. The patriotism he has instilled in his people is brilliant and the devotion to ending corruption will hopefully become a requirement of any person who retains the Tanzanian presidency for future generations.

As I traveled Tanzania and began understanding its government more, I found one comparison for it that I think is the best way to understand the government of Tanzania. It is astonishingly similar to a private university. In both organizations, the institution is responsible for the livelihood of a large group of people, but is also dedicated to making itself rich. Like a private university, Tanzania’s government sometimes shirks its duties to its citizens in order to make more money. Sometimes, Tanzania’s government spends money on bewildering projects that seem to have almost nothing to with the common welfare, but sometimes it uses its money for genuinely important things like roadwork or hospital repair. In universities and Tanzania, the citizenry is encouraged to vote but voting rarely impacts any actual changes to the system, and often times a powerless, farcical organization is touted as an important political power center (student government and Parliament). In private university, the best way to ensure you have the best things, or at least access to those in charge, is to become a part of the university administration itself through university employment—just as in Tanzania the best way to make money or influence things is by working for the government. And, personally burdening: international students/foreign citizens always have to pay so much more for things in both private colleges and Tanzania.

Tanzania is an amazing country with passionate citizens who are proud to live in what is the most democratic country in East Africa (according to Freedom House). After spending so much time here I know I’ll be paying close attention to Tanzanian politics for the rest of my life – especially in the coming years. While the current State Department of the US may no longer consider the promotion of democracy a part of its mission, I do and I know that Tanzania’s democracy is in a precarious position. Happily, most Tanzanians are incredibly optimistic about the future. Another friend believes that most Tanzanians are fed up with the current government and that they’ll empower themselves by changing it. What that means is he still believes that democracy works here, regardless of any challenges it faces. That hopeful message is one I hold dear. For now, I better get back to work.

 

P.S.

The literal day after I finished writing this Shannon and I took a bus from Lushoto to Dar Es Salaam (hopefully one day she’ll actually get that far in writing our adventures for you kind readers). The bus ride was supposed to be six hours, which meant we expected it to be about eight. It ended up being 12 hours long because three hours into our journey we were forced to stop in a large grass field with a few other buses. For about 30 minutes we sat, waiting for the okay from traffic police to continue forward; we didn’t think anything special was happening because waiting a seemingly interminable amount of time for traffic police to let you move is pretty normal. But after 45 minutes we started getting frustrated – especially Shannon. We heard whispers and questions and we heard the word “Magufuli” and “raisi” (President) a lot.

Eventually, after about 1 hour and 45 minutes of sitting in a bus, reading, watching Tanzanians embrace their free time by playing soccer, and nearly sweating to death, a kind man came up to us and asked if this ever happens where we’re from. We said, “Absolutely not.” He confirmed with us our thoughts about what was happening: President Magufuli was on a cross-country road trip celebrating the roads he was opening up and we just happened to be leaving the region he was entering.

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The line of buses halted for Magufuli

The problem with Magufuli’s celebration tour is that for all the great roads he built, there still aren’t enough to provide many alternative routes to take in case of unforeseen circumstances such as presidential motorcades. Every bus, car, motorcycle, and truck was halted somewhere on this road so that the President could pass safely. We were told that no one knew exactly when he would come because communication was poor so it might be another 3 hours of waiting!

Shannon and I thought we had left the motorcades behind in DC, but it turns out they must just follow us. For those of you who aren’t from DC, motorcades are not very cool after the first time you see one: they’re a 5-15 minute inconvenience. In Tanzania, inconvenience is a major understatement; Shannon might say they’re disastrous. We waited in that lot for 2.5 hours. But finally, I saw people gathering on the road and decided to join them. I have to admit, it was actually pretty cool seeing the President of Tanzania drive by and wave to his admirers. It also raised an interesting political question.

We were trapped in that open field with approximately 70 other vehicles, many of which were buses filled to capacity. But when Magufuli passed there were probably 100 maybe 120 people on the road max. To me this meant there was a great number of people who had no interest in seeing the cause of their two-hour traffic jam. In fairness, we were going to the biggest city of Tanzania, which is notably opposition leaning, but still, the amount of people who didn’t come out to greet the rais was surprising. It led some credence to another friend of ours who told us that the President often pays people to cheer for him whenever he gives a speech so his crowds look much bigger than they actually are. (He probably would’ve been very disappointed by the 2016 US Inauguration crowd sizes).

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The “crowd” waiting to wave to Magufuli

Magufuli’s roadtrip also highlights another one of his greatest flaws. Though many of his policies are designed to save Tanzania money and to better his country, they are ill-conceived and have incredibly adverse side effects. Most of his economic beliefs are rooted in an admirable desire to do right theoretically, but once implemented they are really destructive to Tanzania’s economy. By driving across Tanzania, Magufuli is saving taxpayers hundreds of dollars on airfare. But he’s costing the economy thousands of dollars by holding people up for the entire day. Trucks and buses loaded with goods are stopped. People with places to go such as the airport are forced to miss their appointments and engagements. And, as Magufuli should find calamitous, people who should be working are forced to spend three hours sitting around doing nothing! This is just one example of the flaws in his economic policies, though it is recurrent throughout most of his ideology.

Regardless, I’m so glad we got stopped by his motorcade. It meant we were unable to explore Dar Es Salaam, but honestly aside from museums there’s not much to do there. So it was so much more worth it to see those 100 supporters (who I don’t think were paid) so excited to see their President. And it was really cool for me to see him too! His glass isn’t tinted so you can really see him in his car!

 

 

P.P.S

The literal day after we saw Magufuli’s motorcade we arrived in Zanzibar and saw the President of Zanzibar’s motorcade! He was much more considerate of traffic. All we had to do was pull to the side of the road for 1 minute.

 

Safari njema!

Because of the unexpected elephant invasion on our last night at Gonja Mwala, Seraphine and his family were forced to rush back to the lowlands at midnight—three hours before Ben and I were scheduled to leave for Usa River. After a sudden rush of goodbyes, the whole house was left to just Ben, myself, and sister Rosie. Ben and I slept for the couple of hours available to us before Rosie knocked on our door to wake us for our journey. We reluctantly got out of bed and walked down the mountain to get to the main road in complete blackness. The stars from the Pare Mountains are insanely bright, but with absolutely zero public streetlights of any kind, even the starlight doesn’t do much to alleviate the darkness (yet for some strange reason all of the drivers that take passengers down to the town at the base of the mountain insist on leaving in the middle of the night when they can barely see the sharp curves of the road ahead of them).

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We were so sad to say goodbye to the beautiful Pare Mountains

A Land Cruiser picked us up at the main road and we squished in with at least 15 other people (it was too dark for me to accurately count) to enjoy the two-hour roller coaster ride down the mountain. And although it might have been a bit uncomfortable to feel the bumps and curves squeezed so tightly together, it was much better than hanging on the outside of the vehicle in the cold, which—believe it or not—three young men were doing to catch the ride down.

A national park sits between the mountain range and Same (the nearest large town), so I was able to admire the peach- and rose-colored sunrise between the mountains and the desert while Ben somehow slept amidst the bumps, sharp turns, tight space, and loud Swahili worship music that the driver was playing. We had a Safari planned for the following day, but we actually saw wild elephants and giraffes that morning on our $4 (8,000 Tanzanian shillings per person) drive to Same—thanks to Ben’s keen (and well-rested) eyes.

Once we made it to the Same bus terminal, we still had to figure out how to get to Moshi, where we had planned to meet with our Safari operator. Our driver was extremely kind and helpful (like most Tanzanians) and escorted us directly to a dala dala that was going to Moshi (5,000 Tanzanian shillings/$2.50 USD per person). When we arrived in Moshi, the dala dala driver took it upon himself to locate our Safari operator and bring him straight to us. Basically, what I am trying to say is that Tanzanians really go our of their way to help us and give us directions—which we are incredibly thankful for given that we have no cellular service, no internet, and stand out a lot.

Our Safari operator was named Sam, and Seraphine was the one who connected us to him so that we could get a budget price (because Safaris are REALLY expensive in Tanzania due to outrageously high governmental park fees). Without Sam, we would never have been able to afford any type of Safari. Not only did he give us a discount on an all-day Safari, but he also escorted us from Moshi to Usa River where he welcomed us into his home for the night at no extra cost. Usa River is located outside of Arusha, where most Safaris leave from, since national parks surround the city.

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Our very nice room that Sam gave us for the night

After sorting out the complicated bank process to obtain a Tanzanian national park debit card, we ate a traditional Tanzanian meal at a typical outdoor restaurant with Sam’s younger brother Chris (wali nyama/rice and barbecue). Then we all walked to the nearest market to buy ingredients for dinner; however, since it wasn’t the official market day we were left with few choices. On our long, slow walk to the market we enjoyed talking with Chris about college, politics, and Tanzania in general—as he was our age and spoke very good English so it was easy to converse with him. One of the things he taught us was that there are 125 tribes in Tanzania, each of them unique in language as well as physical characteristics. Ben and I had been surprised to arrive in Tanzania, staying in the Pare Mountain region, because Tanzanians were extremely short! We bumped our heads countless times every day on the short door frames at Seraphine’s house in Gonja Mwala. But near Arusha, we noticed that Tanzanians were much taller—so it turns out that only the Pare tribe of Tanzania is extremely short, while the Meru tribe of Arusha and most other Tanzanians are taller. Chris also gave us interesting insight into Tanzanian politics, which Ben will write about in a later post.

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The one market window that was open on the unofficial market day

We stopped at a butcher window on the way back from the market to pick up beef. While Chris waited for the butcher to chop off meat from the unidentifiable piece of cow hanging in the window, Ben and I wandered over to a table surrounded by a group of young men. As we got closer, we found out that they were playing cards and gambling with Tanzanian coins. They were excited to see wazungu interested in their game, and Ben even joined them, betting 100 Tanzanian shillings twice. He lost both times.

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Sam’s friend Witson picked us up in the Land Cruiser that we would be taking the following day to Tarangire National Park for the Safari. We drove up a windy dirt path in order to get to Sam’s home, passing small farms that grew bananas, coffee, mango, corn, and avocado along the way. Following the welcoming customs that are so common in Tanzania, Sam’s family was there to greet us with hugs and smiles when we arrived. We were treated to a delicious dinner of an Arusha version of makande (corn and beans boiled with milk), rice, beef, and fresh fruit for dessert. The feast was followed by chai (tea) with milk—I should mention that Tanzanians LOVE chai, and have it at least three times a day with at least three tablespoons of sugar per cup. We went to bed early that night to get some rest after our long day of travel (remember we got up at 3am!) and because we had to get up early for the Safari the next day.

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Makande with parachichi (avocado)

Sam woke us up at 6am to a breakfast of fresh boiled eggs, cassava, fruit, and bread that was even accompanied with margarine. For breakfast, Tanzanians often eat mkate, which is just a plain loaf of bread with nothing on it, so having margarine was a really big deal (especially for Ben). We all jumped into the Land Cruiser, picked up our driver Witson and embarked on the three-hour journey to Tarangire National Park.

Our Safari experience was truly amazing—more than either of us could have ever hoped for. Standing in the Land Cruiser to look out through the roof to the never-ending flat Savannah, we saw wild elephants, giraffes, wildebeest, warthogs, zebra, impala, dik-dik (a type of small, adorable gazelle), baboons, monkeys, ostriches, intensely bright-colored birds, water buffalo, vultures feeding off of a carcass, and even a female lion keeping an eye on her prey! Witson was extremely knowledgeable and knew exactly where to go to find the animals by following their daily living patterns. For example, when we saw vultures he knew there had to be a lion around because the vultures follow the lions in order to feed off of their kills after the lions are finished eating. Witson taught us that African elephants are a lot larger and more aggressive than Asian elephants; once, he even saw an elephant become angry and tip over a Safari truck when it drove too close. So when we came to a grown male elephant standing close to the road, he slowed to a stop as not to upset it. The elephant and our truck still had a bit of a standoff of about 8 minutes before we could pass safely—he flapped his ears a lot and blew his trunk to assert his dominance but eventually let us pass. We ate our boxed lunch at a picnic area as we looked out over the swamp where all of the animals gather in the afternoon to drink the water. Ben and I could have stayed at Tarangire for a whole week if we could, but we only paid for one day, so we drove back through the park saying goodbye to all of the animals one last time and began our return to Usa River.

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Our Safari experience was so much more than we could have ever imagined thanks to Sam and Witson. Sam offered us such a discount price since we are students, even giving us a place to stay for the night and providing us with a delicious dinner, breakfast, and lunch. We will never be able to repay him for his selfless kindness, but we are so grateful to have made another lifelong friend here in Tanzania.

Sam is planning to start his own company to provide affordable Safari packages to those of us who don’t have thousands of dollars to spend on luxurious lodges, meals, etc. If you ever happen to be traveling to Tanzania and want to do a budget Safari that is incredibly worth it, here is Sam’s contact info:

Samwel William Mbise

samwelmbise770@yahoo.com

+255 782 031 995

 

 

Gonja Mwala Organic Farm

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Gonja Mwala’s banana trees

Gonja Mwala Organic Farm is a family farm located in the Pare Mountains of Northern Tanzania in Ntenga Village—which Ben and I called home for our first four weeks in Tanzania. When you think of Tanzania, I am sure you do not imagine green mountains home to a diverse jungle—but the Pare Mountains host stacks of thin, towering trees, plants with a variety of tropical-looking flowers, and a never-ending spiral of banana trees that weave throughout the mountain range. The jungle-like habitat facilitates the organic and permacultural farming methods that Seraphine (our host farmer at Gonja Mwala) strives to promote: by imitating the natural layout of the jungle, his farm is sprawled out across the mountain to maximize rainwater intake and heighten diverse output. The crops are not sectored into terraced fields, but rather, as you walk down the mountainside, you’ll pass by a mixture of fruit trees (banana, guava, passion fruit, avocado, and tope tope), small vegetables (white eggplant, cucumbers, carrot, yams, and hot peppers), herbs and spices (ginger, cardamom, parsley, and rosemary), maize, and coffee. One of Ben’s favorite tasks was climbing the tall fruit trees when they were ready to harvest, while I stayed at the bottom dashing to catch the falling fruit. Performing any daily task on the farm was strenuous work, as any movement required hiking up or down the steep mountain.

During our stay at the farm, we helped Seraphine build a “mushroom house” so he could begin growing, harvesting, and selling mushrooms; all of the mushroom profit will go to starting a Gonja Mwala daycare/preschool center for children in the village who are left at home alone while their parents work all day on their farms. With Seraphine’s wife Batista, her friend Anna, and his daughter Felista, we spent a week hiking across and up and down the mountain to cut down and carry tree trunks back to the farm to build the shelves for the mushroom house. Ben is now extremely handy with a panga (Tanzanian machete) and I have become all too familiar with the head pain that results from the traditional practice of carrying things on the head. I will admit that utilizing your head for carrying makes it easier to balance—especially when carrying tree trunks twice as long as your body—and increases your endurance to carry heavy cargo. Plus, by rolling a kitenga (a type of women’s clothing wrap) to serve as a head cushion, the weight and pressure wasn’t actually all that bad. Of course, I wouldn’t want to do it every day of my life like some Tanzanian women are forced to do with firewood and buckets of water for daily cooking and washing. Once we finished collecting all the wood and building the shelves, we planted the mushroom seeds in plastic bags filled with dried banana leaves. Ben and I left before the three-week growing period was over, but Seraphine promised to keep in touch so we’ll know how the mushroom harvest turns out.

Gonja Mwala Organic Farm has been in the family for four generations, and Seraphine’s father—who we called Babu (Grandpa)—lives on the farm as well. He is 80 years old and still treks up and down the mountain, climbs the trees to pick fruit, and chops down trees for firewood. Seraphine’s sister, Rosie, also lives on the farm; we often spent time in the outdoors kitchen cooking over the fire with her.

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Babu showing us how to chop firewood

Preparing meals in Tanzania takes a LONG time, and because the family prioritizes daily farm tasks, meal times vary from day to day depending on what is being cooked and when they finish their farm responsibilities. Breakfast occurs between 8am-11am, lunch between 1pm-4pm, and dinner between 8pm-10pm. Between meals, there was always plenty of fresh fruit to snack on. Traditional Tanzanian meals often consist of either ugali or rice with sides of cooked vegetables, sauces, salads, and sometimes beef or goat. Some other dishes include cassava and beans, makande (corn and beans), unripe banana porridge, and chapatti (a type of wheat tortilla). Seraphine’s family loved the tiny, fried-so-much-that-there’s-no-meat-left, river fish called dagaa—which to me, looked like the small bait we use to catch real fish in the United States. Tanzanians eat the entire fish—scales, bones, eyes and all. Ben and I always left the special dagaa treat for the family to enjoy amongst themselves.

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All the different sizes of dagaa at the market

The last two occupants of the Gonja Mwala residence I have not yet mentioned are Gilo (2) and Thadei (5), relatives of Seraphine who he adopted as his own children. They sure were a handful, and when we weren’t farming, Ben and I tried to keep them as entertained as we could. Plus, they helped us expand our Kiswahili vocabulary through simple conversations and songs they taught us.

On Wednesdays, Ben and I would walk with Anna to the center of Ntenga Village for the sokoni (market day) to buy food for the week. Tanzanians walk unbearably slow, something Ben and I had to struggle to get used to since we are both very fast walkers. Walking through Ntenga was always entertaining, though, with tons of different little mountain paths that offered beautiful views. On one side of the Pare Mountains you can even see Kenya—something Babu taught us when he was telling us his tales of walking across Tanzania just to visit his siblings. Sometimes we would come across Stafelli trees, which produced a small sour fruit that Ben loved (probably because it tastes like candy). On one of our walks, Ben climbed a Stafelli tree—as we have seen many Tanzanian children do—successfully grabbing a handful of stafelli fruit. On our walk home, we ran into an older lady who we found out was a friend of Seraphine’s. After our very long and confusing conversation in Swahili to which Ben and I could only respond sijewela (I don’t understand), she ensued to take the fruit out of Ben’s hand, pop them in her mouth one by one, and scold us for picking “children’s fruit”. She did give us a stick of sugar cane in exchange, but Ben is still bitter about this crazy lady plucking his hard-earned fruit right out of his hand.

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Ntenga Village doesn’t come across many travelers/wazungu, so everyone we met around the farm, at the market, or on the road was always very excited to see and talk to us. Greetings in Tanzania are absurdly long, with at least four back-and-forth exchanges, even when just passing by someone on the road. In addition to Kiswahili, each tribe in Tanzania speaks their own language, so we also learned the greetings of the Pare tribe language. We always impressed the adults by knowing the corresponding responses to the greetings. Some of the kids were beyond excited to see us, shouting “mzungu!”, “we love you!”, and “good morning!” at any time of the day, while some—especially the younger ones—were terrified of us. So far, at least five toddlers have screamed and cried out in fear upon seeing us.

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On our second to last day with Seraphine’s family, we went on a two-hour hike down the Pare Mountains to get to his lowland farm where they grow four acres of maize. We spent the whole day harvesting the corn by hand. We departed three hours before sundown so that we could hike back up in the daylight. Ben and I have hiked a lot throughout our lives, and in many different places, but we both agree that this was one of the hardest hikes we have ever done—which is crazy because it is a trek that people from Ntenga Village and the lowland village hike often to transport and sell their produce at the market. The hike was an exciting challenge for us to accomplish while it is simply a part of daily life for them. That night, when we made it back to Ntenga Village at Gonja Mwala, we were packing our bags when Seraphine got a frantic call from Batista who stayed down at the lowland campsite. She told him that there was a herd of elephants that entered their maize field, and they were eating the corn! They received help from their lowland neighbors and scared the elephants off eventually, and luckily not a lot of corn was lost.

Ben and I truly began to think of Ntenga Village as a home because everyone in town was so welcoming towards us. We were even invited to a wedding and a confirmation party during our stay. Our four weeks there flew by way too quickly, but we hope more than anything that we can return one day to Gonja Mwala to visit our second home and family.

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One month in

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Since we have been in Tanzania as wazungu (white foreigner; singular = mzungu) for over a month now and we have a better understanding of life here, before I even begin talking about our time at Gonja Mwala Organic Farm and our wonderful host family, I want to share our list of 7 prominent aspects that are uniquely Tanzanian and that are essential to everyday life here:

  1. Bus stations – crowded, open parking lots that serve as the city center (or village center) where one finds transportation via bus, dala dala (mini-bus), piki piki (motorbike), taxi, or bajaji (mini-taxi). Walking into the plaza of a bus station can be very overwhelming; each bus and dala dala has a few men working to recruit passengers and persuade them to ride their particular bus. All you hear is shouts of the names of nearby towns as you resist pushes and pulls to enter the buses. When transferring buses, you are swarmed by a paparazzi of bus workers and people trying to sell you snacks, fruit, roasted corn on the cob, drinks, watches, wallets, hats, and cigarettes—especially as a mzungu. The sellers carry boxes of their products on their heads, and they will even walk right up to the bus window so you don’t have to get off to purchase any of the popular bus snacks to enjoy on your ride. When you finally decide (or are forced to decide) which bus to take, you wait for the inevitable fill-up and wonder who you will be sharing your seat with this time, as every single space is taken advantage of. When you think the bus is full and can’t possibly take more passengers and the driver revs up the engine to drive off, the bus workers signal that they have recruited more passengers by banging on the bus to shove more people in. Sometimes, the bus recruiters and even some passengers have to hang on the outside of the bus because there is absolutely no space for them inside. The worst nightmare of a bus driver is to be stopped by a traffic police, who will make everyone evacuate the bus if he deems it too full to be safe (which is every single bus in Tanzania).
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The center of Ntenga Village

  1. Extreme friendliness – Tanzanians are very talkative, full of smiles, and have an insane amount of friends. When walking on the road, they greet everyone they pass, choosing from a multitude of “how are yous”, “hellos”, and “what’s news” to have a genuine conversation. Their friendliness towards everyone they come into contact with explains the many friendships they have. They truly, sincerely care about the lives of their neighbors and community members—a concept that seems shocking to us Americans. Within a community or village, it is very common that only one or two households have running water. The neighbors without water are always welcome to come as they please to collect water for drinking, cooking, and cleaning. Their friendliness has extended toward us in the most sincere form. Everywhere we go people have been supportive, have engaged us in their several-minute long hellos, and have happily offered us assistance if we looked like we needed it. Our host families have become great friends, and we have been treated like royalty rather than just guests when we stay somewhere. Ben and I think it is safe to say that Tanzanians are one of the most welcoming groups of people in the world.

 

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The wedding band

  1. Celebrations – social gatherings here are always a party. From weddings, to religious confirmation parties, and even funerals, celebrations are always accompanied by loud music, dancing, singing, and abundant merriment. Normally, they are open invitations, spread by word of mouth through the community. Our neighbor’s wedding that Ben and I were invited to lasted three whole days—the music never stopped, constantly playing throughout the days and nights (except the few times when the electricity went out). Funerals bring entire villages together, but are barely sad occasions as people celebrate the life of their lost loved one and celebrate their departure to heaven.

 

  1. Sakoni (market) – whether located in a designated open area on a certain day or daily on the side of the road, this is where Tanzanians buy their food supply for the week. Those selling their products (normally women) will lay out their produce on blankets on the ground. Popular sakoni products include onion, tomato, white eggplant, avocado, ginger, yams, banana, oranges, mandazi (African doughnut), and daga (small, dried river fish).

 

  1. Ugali – a staple Tanzanian food made from water and corn flour that doesn’t really have an English translation but can best be described as “stiff corn porridge”. It is served to you in a big ball with sides of cooked vegetables, beans, and/or sauces. You break off a piece and squish it in your hands to form a clump, to then pick up a side dish to eat it with.

 

 

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(trying) to cook ugali with Anna

 

  1. Choo – the word used for bathroom that literally translates to “toilet”. However, it is not the type of toilet that Ben and I are used to, but rather a guided hole in the ground that requires a manual flush. By manual flush, I mean that when you finish going to the bathroom, you must pour a small bucket of water down the hole.

 

  1. Mount Kilimanjaro – the tallest mountain in Africa (it’s actually a volcano) that attracts hikers from all over the world. Almost all Tanzanians we meet ask us if we have or will climb the mountain, to which we always disappoint them by saying we can’t (it costs over $2,000). Needless to say, Tanzanians are very proud to call this mountain part of their home. And it is an incredible mountain—one that stands tall above the flat desert land and whose snow-capped peak trumps high above the clouds.

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    Mount Kilimanjaro (taken from Boma) 

Karibu Tanzania

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My original intention was to post updates on our experiences in Tanzania about once a week, but my spontaneous great idea to start a blog didn’t take into account the kind of adventures we would be diving into—ones that permit little free time and very little internet access. But this has proven to be one of the best parts of being here. Before leaving, we eagerly anticipated our embracement of Tanzanian culture—the people, the food, the language, the customs—to learn and absorb everything presented to us. But upon arriving, we discovered that we had been the ones who were absorbed by Tanzania, fully welcomed and transformed to grow. We have discovered that the most-used word in Tanzania is karibu, meaning “welcome” in Swahili; we are constantly welcomed to meals, to tea time, to work, to walk, to talk, to sleep, to sit, to ride a bus, to do anything one can think of! The hundreds of times Tanzanians say karibu throughout the day portrays their kindness and selfless attitude that has welcomed us so warmly to this incredible country.

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Hiking in the Pare Mountains 

We’ve been in Tanzania for three weeks already, which feels strange to say because time doesn’t seem to exist here. Sometimes it feels as if we have just arrived moments ago; new experiences and traditions always surround us. But other times, it feels like we’ve been here for months—as if it’s custom for us to eat ugali (“stiff corn porridge”) with our hands for every meal and as if it’s normal to carry a bundle of fourteen-foot long tree trunks on our heads through the mountains. The days here are not measured by minutes or hours but by the work that is to be done and the conversations shared while doing it. The memories we have already made seem impossible to fit in the time span of just three weeks. I will do my best to transfer the depth and purity and vividness of these memories to words, but I’m realizing now just how difficult that will be.

I have to admit that Ben and I did not do much planning or preparing for this trip. We’ve traveled together so many times before, and each time we’ve had an experience unlike any other (my mom always reminds me that each time I visit another country I say: “This is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been!” – so maybe the entire world itself is simply the definition of beautiful, and that seeing any one of its treasures with new eyes bombards our senses with the thrill of exploration and desire to understand and relate to the humans around us, our brains interpreting the unique feeling of this moment as an appreciation of the beautiful place surrounding us). So if every place is unique and beautiful in its own way, we’ve concluded that planning is somewhat of a contradiction to traveling—as our most memorable experiences have come from spontaneous day trips and advice from locals on how to spend our time. So we felt the task of researching a bit redundant, and a bit overrated. Planning was not our priority; we were just excited to finally be in Tanzania (we’ve been talking about doing this for over a year!). The two plane rides we took to the Kilimanjaro airport—totaling 22 hours—served as our interim period, a limbo between our faraway dream we’ve been obsessing about for over a year and the unexpected reality of it coming true.

We arrived at the small Kilimanjaro airport, got held up in customs (a small side room with a couple chairs, tables, and a computer that proved only half useful due to the faltering electricity), paid a border tax, met our host Seraphine, and arrived to his home in Boma via taxi where we met two of his sons: Thadei (19 years old) and Betolde (15 years old). These two boys seemed both younger and much, much older than us at the same time; it was a mixture of their innocent, eager, outlook on life and a wise cautiousness applied to the reality in which they live. They were aware of the flaws in the system they are forced to partake in, but they were determined to overcome these obstacles. Betolde has received a sponsorship from a foreign donor to attend one of the best secondary schools in the country and dreams to attend college outside of Tanzania; I have no doubt in his ability to do so. Thadei wants to attend college to specialize in environmental work—a passion that is close to my heart as well, and I’m confident in his dream to transform Tanzania.

After a couple of days staying in Boma, visiting Moshi and Weruweru (to pick up mushrooms… more on that later), we set off to Seraphine’s farm that we would be working on for the next month. The daylong journey required a bajaji (a three-wheeled motorbike with a sitting bench), an hour bus ride, an additional three-hour bus ride, and a four-hour van ride up the questionable “roads” of the Pare Mountains. Each time we were presented with the next form of transportation, I thought it would be impossible to fit our bags and our bodies in the space available; each time, I was proven wrong, and we fit—sometimes a bit contorted, sometimes half-sitting on a lap, sometimes half-sat on by a stranger, but we fit. Our van that took us up the mountain could properly seat 8 people, but we had 13 passengers squished so tightly we bounced together as one organism up the windy, bumpy path to Ntenga Village. We had to stop twice because the luggage rack on top of the van had fallen off—thankfully no luggage was lost.

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Gonja Mwala Organic Farm – 4 acres of banana, maize, vegetables, fruit, and spices

We eventually arrived at Gonja Mwala Organic Farm and were greeted with hugs and cheers from Seraphine’s large family. They served us a cooked banana porridge for dinner and gave us our first chance to shower since arriving in Tanzania. I have never been so excited to see a bucket of warm water before in my life.

I know I’ll leave most of you wondering what exactly we’ve been doing still, and I promise I will share our experiences in later posts. There is simply so much to think about and talk about, I can’t include it all in a single post. Just know that we have been embraced by a loving, energetic, hardworking family; that we have been working hard to carry out the ambitious projects Seraphine has initiated for his farm and his community; that we are staying in a home located in one of the greenest mountains I have ever seen; that we are enjoying fresh fruits straight from the tree (including bananas, guava, and fruits that don’t even have a name in English); that we are picking up Swahili thanks to our wonderful, patient teachers Batista and Anna (Seraphine’s wife and family friend); and that we are having the summer of our lives.

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Walking to the duka (shop) while teaching/learning English and Swahili with Anna and Batista

 

P.S. – As part of the work that Ben and I have been contributing to the farm, we have built a website for the farm to spread the word about the incredible work happening here at Gonja Mwala to protect the environment, promote sustainability, and enhance community ties in Ntenga Village. You can visit the site at: https://gonjamwalaorganicfarmblog.wordpress.com/

 

An introduction?

A history of us? An explanation for this blog? An outlet for Shannon to write and talk and ramble? All of the above? I’m not really sure what to call this first post, but maybe if you read on, the purpose will gain some clarity? Good luck!

I can’t believe I just created my very own travel blog. And by “my” I really mean “our” travel blog, referring to the person that always travels with me/the owner of half of this web link. If you still haven’t figured it out, I’m talking about my boyfriend Ben. I almost didn’t allow him be a part of this because 1) he thinks it’s tacky/cheesy/silly and 2) he doesn’t want his claim to fame to be through a travel blog. But I’m dragging him along anyways because it would be a tedious task to deliberately exclude him from the stories, photos, and videos of our travels (plus, he’s one heck of a writer—way better than I am—so maybe he’ll provide special editions every once in a while so you all can have the pleasure of reading his work 😉 ).

So, since this is our first blog publication, you can read below about how our relationship began if you are really curious. Otherwise you can skip over the next couple paragraphs and just trust that our relationship is full of love.

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can you tell these were the “friendship” days?

For those of you who don’t know, Ben and I have been dating for a little over a year now, though our “best friend” track record is a much longer 3 years. We met a week before college at a freshmen program for community service and instantly became “best friends”. It was a friendship that seemed too real to actually be real, so we spent much of our first year questioning the other’s loyalty, which only undermined our own genuine care. Still, it was the most stable friendship I had throughout freshman year. After being tossed (willingly) into a new life in a big city, Ben was the one person I could just be myself around. We spent a majority of the year being each other’s “wingman (/woman)” and giving advice to help navigate the confusing world of college relationships. So we survived the outrageous ~petty~ scandals of our first year of college more or less side by side. I have two very vivid memories from freshman year that depict our melodramatic tendencies and infinite support for each other (*he is really going to hate me for this): 1) Leaning against a brick ledge on a D.C. sidewalk in the middle of the night rubbing the back of my sobbing best friend as empathetic tears rolled down my face too, and 2) Standing in a dorm room closet having a complete mental breakdown in the arms of my best friend who willingly comforted me against his favorite purple shirt—tears, makeup, snot and all.

 

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the REALLY “best friend” stage

Ben decided to study abroad in Australia during the fall of sophomore year, which had more of an impact on my life than I ever could have imagined. We didn’t keep in touch much at all, save a couple Facebook messages every other month (we have very different opinions as to who is to blame for this lack of communication). Needless to say, there was a very obvious hole in my life that semester. January 2016 he returned. We reconnected, and our friendship deepened, as did our love. We embarked on a cautious game of fulfilling an unquenchable desire to spend every waking moment together while trying to conserve, what we believed, was the greatest friendship any two people had ever experienced. We were scared of anything that might sever our friendship, and that included falling in love. This emotional balancing game continued until I unexpectedly kissed him as he was leaving from a Valentine’s Day party our friends had hosted. The physical barrier was broken, but we still spent an awkward month between the stages of friendship and dating. He finally asked me to be his girlfriend on March 25th…and again on March 26th, March 27th, March 28th, and every single day until I said yes on April 6th, 2016. 

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friends, dating, somewhere in between? who really knew at this point tbh

 

And now it is June 2017. We survived 7 months of distance as I studied abroad in Chile and enjoyed 6 months together in Washington DC. Even with our busy schedules, we were able to fit in week-long adventures to Colorado, Virginia, Colombia, and Thailand. We celebrated my birthday, our anniversary, and his college graduation (he’s truly the smartest person I know and graduated college in just 3 years!!!) I have never been so permanently happy in my life—and I’m not talking about fleeting bursts of happiness, but a perpetual feeling of contentment and excitement and satisfaction and gratefulness instilled in me at the core of my soul.

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But the reason I decided to start this blog is because we are embarking on a two-month adventure to Tanzania, where we will be living with a host family, farming, and, of course, finding some time to travel as well. Ben and I always have so many stories to tell after our travels, but sometimes we never find the time and place to share everything—which is why I’m sitting here typing on my laptop the day before we leave for this exciting opportunity. We’ll be sharing photos, videos, stories, conversations, beautiful sights, lessons learned, and anything else that we determine is worth telling the world.

And wow, this is super long. I’ll work on keeping it shorter next time. If you made it all the way to the end, good for you—maybe you can start a Ben and Shannon fanbase since you’re so interested.

Until next post! // Tutaonana baadaye!

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