Living alone in a small village in rural Tanzania is no easy feat. This is probably the greatest challenge of Peace Corps: for two years, you face isolation, loneliness, and the never-ending questions from “Host Country Nationals” (HCNs) about why you’re just so weird and is everyone in America just like you? It’s overwhelming! Not a day goes by that I am not lonely or homesick in some way. A year ago, my naïve self thought those feelings would eventually fade. Now I realize they’re just a part of the process, and I appreciate them for helping me realize how valuable my family and friends at home are. On the days when I’m really lonely and needing a friend to chat with, I head over to my friend Christina’s shop in the center of the village.
Christina is one of our two village seamstresses. She custom makes 90% of my clothes and does an amazing job, all for a very small price (skirts: $4, shirts: $3, Dresses: $6). Every morning and evening she can be found in the shop, sewing all the women’s clothes, repairing school uniforms for children, and sharing village gossip and laughs with many of the young women in the village. She originally learned to sew as a child so that she could make some extra money and help her parents. Then she fell in love with the work and wanted to continue. On top of sewing clothes, she is also a mother of an adorable two year old, and she runs a 3 acre farm with her husband, where they plant corn, beans, sunflowers, and squash every year. She’s also just the coolest person around.
The first time I sat in Christina’s shop I found myself surrounded by 9 Tanzanian mamas firing off question after question at me. I loved the experience because I got to really tell these women what Americans are like, why I behave the way I do, and explain the differences in the U.S. and Tanzania. I enjoy chatting with women in Christina’s shop because I know whatever I say will get out to the rest of the village quickly, so if there are rumors or stereotypes flying around, this is my best bet at shooting them down and relaying accurate information about myself.
If you want to know what kinds of conversation we have in her little shop, here is a sample:
- Why do Americans have more money than Africans?
- This is such a tough question and it always comes up! If only I could tell them that I spent entire college semesters in classes trying to dissect this very question. Because I live here, and I have witnessed the expectation of wealth on behalf of a foreigner and the dependency that has developed in Tanzanian culture, I try to explain that Tanzanians think foreigners have a lot of money because they meet the ones that have enough money to travel here, but there are many without money, and even without homes. They cannot believe our country would just let people sleep on the street!!! This is so unheard of and sad to them, because in the village it is just unfathomable that you would ever let someone go without food or a house. Anyways, once I explain that Africans who can travel to the US also appear to have a lot of money, but that doesn’t mean all Africans have money, they seem to understand. I will write another blog post soon about aid-dependency, but for now these are the conversations we’ve been having.
- Why do Americans only have two children?
- It is unbelievable to these mamas that mothers would choose to only have two children! I haven’t told them yet about families who choose to have only one child or no children at all. I try to explain that many families try to plan for the number of children they can financially support and still give a great life: education, food, clothes, etc. are expensive in the U.S.! But here children are viewed as wealth, especially because families are so tight-knit here that children often help out with farm work and if they get good jobs as adults, financially support their parents.
- What do you cook in your house?
- NOT UGALI THAT’S FOR SURE!!! But I don’t tell them that J
- Why don’t you have a family? Why do you like to live alone?
- This is always a toughie. Mamas love to tell me “umechelewa” which means “you’re late!” in regards to having children. It is unfathomable that a 25 year old wouldn’t have children or a husband. I think most of the time they’re trying to figure out what’s wrong with me that no man wants to marry me. Trying to marry me off is also a common occurrence in Christina’s shop! I can usually expect one eligible bachelor per day that the mamas present to me. I also try to explain that I actually don’t enjoy living alone, and that’s why I travel to town every couple of weeks: so that I can visit my friends! Somehow I think they don’t believe me, and they probably assume that all Americans live alone.
- Will birth control give us cancer?
- No, no, no, and no. We have this conversation ALL THE TIME and I will never grow tired of it because this is a widely held belief by women of all ages in the village. I also feel really happy that women feel comfortable enough with me now to talk about such taboo topics.
- Why won’t you stay for five years? We can give you land…
- This always is so sweet and makes me feel really wanted and welcome here. It’s also heartbreaking to know my time is ending so soon and it’s going so fast. It’s not fair to them to get to take someone from another country in as their own, help them out, suffer through their awful Swahili, give them gifts, show them love, and have them leave two short years later. But I hope they’ll forgive me and remember the good times we had in Christina’s little shop!
So many uplifting conversations have happened in Christina’s shop, and I can always expect to feel happier after visiting her. She sits atop her ironing bench, smiling down at me and asking questions about my life. She always hands me a chair and wants me to stay just a little longer. She is always my in-person reminder about body positivity: She sits full-figured and strikingly beautiful, confident, happy, always smiling, and asking if I want some food. She lights up the room, and people always want to come sit around her while she’s working, just to soak up some of her conversation. I’m one of those people.
When I explained to Christina I would be writing a blog post about her, and asked if she had anything she wanted to say to Americans, she smiled bashfully, cast her eyes downward, and thought for a bit. When she raised her head she had this to say:
“I pray to God for peace and happiness for your parents. I am so thankful to them and all Americans who sent you here to live with us. I have so much happiness living with you here.”
The feeling is so mutual.
A couple of skirts Christina has sewn for me!