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Ocean Apart. Close At Heart.


It has been exactly one month since end of training, saying goodbye to everything that has become familiar and moving into my (new) village. Waking up this morning in panic to the sound of heavy rainfall and thunder, alone in the heart of a foreign place. I lie awake, wide and alert as my mind begins to wander into universe. Thinking of everything familiar, comfortable, family and friends an ocean away. 


I’ve been experiencing a reoccurring dream that I am in Tanzania, then I wake up and realize that –I am in Tanzania. Most days I feel well-adjusted and comfortable into routine and days when it is all surreal, trying to accept that I am (literally) in East Africa. It is 3 AM. I lie awake. My mind begins to index images from first month. At the village clinic assisting the doctor with documents. Lines and lines of women, men and children wait for annual vaccinations. Witnessing children shivering, feverish and eyes bloodshot red. Heartbroken. I think to myself, how can I relate to their struggles? How can I touch a life that have experienced poverty, disease, death in silence and nights with no sleep? I am a twenty-something year old with some international experience, living, working and studying abroad, but for the most part I have been afforded a comfortable life in America. That moment I felt crazy standing there.



The doctor talks to me about the ten top diagnosed diseases. Malaria, he says, is the leading cause of death in Tanzania. Matter of fact, Malaria is the leading cause of death in the continent of Africa. Not war, not genocide –Malaria. Last year alone, 3000 people in my sub-village suffered from Malaria. How is such a preventable disease be such a major epidemic? 

He follows, acute respiratory infection, intestinal warms, asthma, and UTIs are in the top ten most diagnosed diseases. Environment plays a vital role in human health. In most Tanzanian village life, there isn’t a proper solution for waste. As a result trash is compiled and burned. Also, cooking is an outdoor activity over an open fire. I witness my neighbor’s starting fire with anything they can find; wood, plastic bags, or cardboard. Creating an unhealthy environment leading to many illnesses. Water is generally not a major issue here relative to many other regions in Tanzania. During the dry season, however, and a village population of 16,454, water becomes a problem. Leaving people in search for water in the most unsanitary places. 

I arrive to Tanzania with grand ideas for projects to introduce to my village. As I integrate into my community I begin to realize how their priorities are different from mine. This is all important to as a volunteer. Understanding the challenges my village faces and how we can work together to create a solution. During an official village meeting, the Head of the village speaks about important projects. From building a secondary school science laboratory, water catchment, to environmental sanitation. I lay there thinking of all the ways I can contribute small efforts toward bettering this community. 

It is 4 AM. I hear the sound of rats dancing on my metal roof. I think of how much Tanzania have impacted me. Just last week, I was standing in the middle of the market arguing over the price of mangoes and watermelon. And the friendships. The laughter. The Welcomes. And the time a large bus almost ran through me in speed and how I thought it was perfectly normal. Then I index images of first visit to secondary school, witnessing children physically punished for low grades –it was perhaps the saddest moment in my life. I then think of the night I cried and laughed and sat in silence in a dark room alone reminiscing about home. And days I wake up full of sunshine, laughter and rhythm and days I find it difficult to breathe. 


Last night, I attempt to carry water buckets on my head while women laugh at me for being unable. I cook chapatti over an open fire and wash clothes by hand, make jokes with Tanzanian women about never leaving this place. Friends from out of town come visit. We do “American” activities and laugh about awkward moments in Tanzania. Like how Americans are too private and Tanzanians are overtly affectionate. How often we never understand family structure and hand gestures and facial expressions and we joke about differences. Overindulge on “safi” food and go for walks at midnight. Despite the challenges here, I find home in everyone I meet. In their laughter and comfort in their words. 

It is 5 in the morning now. I hear the call to prayer over the loud speakers. Cattle passing by. Roosters alert. I make morning coffee, and sweep my front porch as my Tanzanian mother always reminded me. Listen to world news in Swahili over the radio and hear the neighbor’s kids knocking at my door. Every day, I am surrounded by so much affection and friendship. Enough to erase the distance, challenges and loneliness I lay awake in the middle of the night, sometimes, thinking about.

© 2020 Abir Ibrahim. All Rights Reserved.