After a long and uneventful bus journey from Dar es Salaam to Moshi in Northern Tanzania, I settled into Kili Backpackers, a simple but popular joint in the centre of town. Moshi is situated at the foot of the glorious Mount Kilimanjaro (which was disappointingly wrapped in clouds the day I arrived) and thus is often full of adventurers preparing for a trip up Africa’s highest mountain or decompressing upon return.
I didn’t meet any such adventurers (it wasn’t the right time of year or something). However, I did meet two Peace Corps volunteers, Americans who teach at nearby local villages for the period of a year. They had come into town for the weekend and were staying at the backpackers. After endless conversations late into the night and from early the next morning, I found both Sarah and Kathy to be fascinating individuals, passionate in their roles and humbled by the opportunity.
Sarah, who was a couple of years older than me, was from Arkansas, though born in Chicago, and was instantly noticeable for her completely shaven head. I learned later that this was so she could teach better: the kids, especially the girls, often got distracted by her long golden locks, and wanted to play with it given that most of them had never seen anything like it before; she also admitted that she had always felt that her hair to be her best quality, such that she wanted to take it away in an effort to test herself.
When I met her at Kili Backpackers, she was in the middle of sketching a self-portrait, back to a time when she had her hair. “I like big portraits, usually I paint them for other people. I like using big bold colours and different shades. But now I just have one pencil!! It’s actually really frustrating…” Her sketching arm, the right one, was full of intertwining tattoos with bold colours and differing shades, somewhat offset by her easy-on-the-ear American accent and a sweet, comfortable smile. She had deep, striking blue eyes that confidently held your gaze while you spoke to her.
I heard a little of her background – how she studied in America, and then studied and worked in Costa Rica, before finally heading to Namibia as part of the Peace Corps programme towards the beginning of 2014. I asked her what convinced her to apply for Peace Corps.
“I used to be engaged in America, before Namibia. So I was planning a wedding and all that. But then my fiancée got into bad drugs. So the wedding was called off.” She spoke very matter-of-factly, pausing between big strokes with her one-dimensional pencil to look at me. It was an escape, I thought – an escape to a new environment to get away from problems at home.
“And then, in Namibia, shit went down…” She looked at me again, almost sizing me up, debating internally whether she should continue her story. I stayed quiet. “I was gang raped one night in the community. I went out with friends, we were all drunk, and my friends went home and took the car because they thought I’d left. I was still with a male friend, but we had to walk home. Then 7 men approached, knocked my friend out, and took me around the corner. Luckily, my friend woke up and managed to call someone. It was a good thing that help arrived in time - I don’t think they planned to keep me alive.”
Her matter-of-fact tone held steady throughout this recollection. She continued to stroke the pencil up and down the page in front of her, tilting her head from side-to-side.
“I wouldn’t change it for the world,” she continued, thoughtfully, through my shocked silence. “It’s been a real test of my spirituality. I’ve always lived by values of love and forgiveness and peace but it’s easy to do when you have nothing to forgive. I’ve come out stronger. I’m going back to Namibia soon to testify in court. 4 of the men are in jail. But I will face them and I will talk to them. You know, if there is no morality in the world then humanity will destroy itself. There’s no point in holding onto hatred.”
Then she almost laughed: “Also, I was almost raped in America and in Costa Rica so, I dunno, maybe it was destined to happen.”
We spoke a little about the aftermath of the incident. The Peace Corps quickly organised her a trip home, though I soon found myself wondering how the hell I had come to meet her here, back in Africa, less than a year after such an ordeal. As it turned out, Sarah said that she quickly chose to re-join the Peace Corps and was placed here in Moshi.
“Did everyone think you were mad to return?” I asked, somewhat incredulously.
“Yeah. It was hardest on my parents. They took it worse than me, I think. But my dad knows me, he knew I had to return. My mum… she wanted me to stay at home, for selfish reasons. But she still supports me.”
I was astounded by her courage and, even more so, her commitment to herself. The things that she did were all in an effort to test and develop her own spirituality while she simultaneously held an insatiable care for humanity. I was inspired by her positive outlook and the morals she steadfastly stood by, and regretted boxing her earlier as someone who ‘ran away from their problems.’
One of Sarah’s great friends, and a constant source of encouragement, it seemed, was Kathy, an American lady in her mid-60s from Michigan in America, and the second Peace Corps volunteer at Kili Backpackers that weekend. Her age, however, was by no means reflective in her nature: she was a lively, bubbly and extraordinarily funny lady, with a penchant for well-placed pearls of wisdom when the opportunity presented itself.
Having recently retired as a teacher of maths in Michigan, Kathy sold everything she owned (her house, car etc.), using what she needed to get here as a Peace Corps volunteer and leaving a little back home for her return, while giving the rest of the money to her children. “I said that they could use the money for only two things: the first was for visiting me in Tanzania and the second was for college fees!”
“What differences have you noted in teaching here and teaching in the US?” I asked her at one point during our conversations.
“Well, ag, kids are kids,” Kathy said. “Some are really interested, some are not. I worked at a state school in Michigan so we didn’t have all that much resources, and we certainly don’t have all that much resources here. One difference is that, here, the teachers have to move from classroom to classroom between each lesson while the kids stay in one classroom; in the US, each teacher is assigned a classroom and the students move in between. I asked them why, and they said that ‘The kids would run away as soon as they could if they moved between classrooms,’ and you know what I said? I said ‘Let them! Let them run away!’ The classes are big enough as is; I will then teach those who want to be taught.”
She did, however, reiterate many of the notions that James, our host from Mbeya, hinted at about the Tanzanian people.
“Tanzanians are among the best people I’ve met,” Kathy stated, stubbornly. “They’re kind-hearted and honest.”
“But are they hard-working?” I asked.
“Ah, you see, that is their own downfall,” she admitted. “They are not hard working. They always say, ‘I wish I lived in America, so I wouldn’t have to work hard and everything is easy.’ But Americans do work hard! And let me tell you, they work hard so that more can be done, not so they can do less. That is the difference. They work hard so they can be more productive. Tanzanians would happily stand under a tree and do nothing all day.”
The thing that struck me about Sarah and Kathy was that they knew exactly who they were and they weren’t afraid of it. They embraced it and actively looked to exercise in whatever way they could, in this case resulting in a year’s work in Tanzania. They were both a wealth of experience and a source of inspiration. During one of our last conversations, at breakfast before I left Moshi to continue my trip up into Kenya, Kathy said something to me that I don’t think I‘ll ever forget: “I think that we all change the world in some way, just to a lesser degree than what we might think when we were younger.”