I have a hazy memory from my childhood of sitting with my family in the living room of our old farmhouse watching TV. Nestled under my dad’s arm in my “spot” on the couch, we watched a PBS episode on the Masai culture. I don’t remember anything from this show except learning that the Masai would gauge their ears until the holes were big enough to put disks in and that they used rings to stretch their necks because they thought long necks were beautiful. I also thought all Africans did this. I was totally disturbed by the images I saw on the screen. I thought it was so weird to do that to your body, so bad, so different from anything I knew.
Fast forward almost twenty years and here I am calling Tanzania home. When I pass Masai people walking down the street or see them herding their cattle through the fields, I think nothing of it. I greet them the same as I do any person in Tanzania. It is normal now. It’s just life, and they’re just people. Their customs and adornment were never bad. I just had to learn it was different, accept that difference, and then fully appreciate it.
Today my counterpart came to my house. After months of her asking me to cook her “chakula cha Marekani” or American food, I invited her over and prepared to make banana and peanut butter stuffed French toast. What is American food anyways? I prepared all morning, walking around town to get all the necessary ingredients, lighting up my charcoal stove, and preparing some French press coffee. You can imagine her shock when I began mixing sugar, eggs, and milk together. When I dipped the bread in the mixture, her eyebrows shot up. “It’s not bad,” I said, and she had no fear that it would be. She was so excited, and had solid faith in my cooking abilities.
We chatted over the hot stove and she took extremely detailed notes on how to prepare this food that she was just learning to pronounce. Once finished, we said grace, poured a couple of cups of coffee, and I turned on the movie “Baraka.”
I chose Baraka for a reason, and if you haven’t seen it I urge you to go out and find it. The movie covers many countries from all over the world and shows people in all walks of life. The best part about it is that there are no words, so no matter what language you speak you can enjoy all of the beauty and chaos that makes up our incredibly large world. This was why it was perfect for Neema and I. Most people in my village have never had the chance to leave the surrounding villages, and this is the only life they know. A lot of people think I can drive to America and aren’t sure what makes me different from someone from China. This is why it’s so special to me when I get to share scenes from all over the world.
As the images on the screen unfolded, Neema kept widened eyes as she asked questions and guffawed in disbelief. We saw many different religions, ways to pray, landscapes, and rituals. There were many scenes where she would turn and say “this is bad.” “No.”I said. “It’s not bad, it’s different.” I shared my story about seeing the Masai as a young girl and thinking it was bad, yet the Masai culture is beautiful. She understood, and watched the rest of the movie with wonder. We learned about the Holocaust, about cremation, and about homeless people. She couldn’t believe how many cars are in New York, and she really couldn’t believe that people live “stacked” on top of each other in apartment buildings. “Where are their farms?” She asked. So then we learned about urban gardening.
We’re living in a time when there is so much hate. A lot of this hate is politically driven, or maybe the hate is driving the politics. I have come to see that we usually hate or think things are bad when we don’t understand them. I’ve had so many ignorant and rude comments made to me as I’ve travelled over the years by friends and family at home. These comments usually involve hatred towards Muslims, immigrants, and the “poor” people in Africa. I want to urge everyone to challenge this ignorance and see different cultures and customs for what they are: beauty. Without this diversity, the world would not be so complex and beautiful. Open your minds and hearts. We have so much we can learn from each other. It’s not bad, it’s just different.
Oh and by the way, Neema loved the French Toast.