Chaga, pt. 1

Clinging to the side of mighty Mt. Kilimanjaro‘s fertile southern slope, a people group thrives on practices of living that have survived millennia.

Their simple homes, easily entertained children, kind smiles, and sweat-inducing field labor — not to mention their almost complete lack of “modern technological conveniences” — speak to a society that exists in a way so diametrically different than those of the western world, yet is somehow surprisingly sustainable in a globalizing world.

As we followed the tiny dirt trail higher on Kilimanjaro and deeper into its lush jungle, we were introduced first-hand to the Tanzanian people group known as the Chaga. Our guide was a young Chaga named Oscar, who leads short day hikes and has served as porter for foreigners who come to climb the tallest free-standing mountain in the world. His clothes are simple, his footwear simply sandals made from old tires. He has a boyish face, his skin is dark and his smile is wide and white.

“This is my home,” Oscar tells us as we approach a tiny thatched hut. Dirt-caked children stop their playing and stare at us as we leave the trail and gather outside the home. Someone in our group disappears into an adjoining building to use the squatty-potty as Oscar offers a generic introduction to his family, in various states of busyness or play around their humble plot of land.

Oscar shows us some coffee plants that form a sort of border around his family’s home. He breaks off a couple greenish beans and rolls them around in his hand, explaining how the beans are harvested, the outer skin removed, dried out over many weeks, and shucked, before they are roasted for consumption or sale. It occurs to me at that moment that despite the fact that coffee is one of this people’s and nation’s largest exports, Oscar and his coffee plant are a long way – geographically and culturally – from the nearest Starbucks, where a pound of the mega-chain’s Tanzania Medium Roast is a hot seller at $12.95.

To Be Continued

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8 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Deb on October 3, 2007 at 2:33 am

    I hope Oscar won’t read this.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Cara on October 3, 2007 at 4:07 am

    Deb,

    Why?

    Reply

  3. Posted by Deb on October 3, 2007 at 6:48 am

    Cara –

    Sorry for the short answer. I hit send at the same time my phone rang.

    Here’s my awkward attempt to respond. I am so grateful that Steve and Chrissy got to visit Tanzania and their friends, and were able to have an eye-opening experience and a fresh perspective. I wish they could return and work with a Christian couple (an engineer and a nurse) from our benefice who go to Tanzania four months annually to work with their Tanzanian friends in their village.

    My feeling is that if Oscar were to read this, from his perspective, he might feel patronised and that his way of life was being looked at condescendingly. Or he might not care at all, and just say to himself ‘Another American who feels sorry for us, does not understand our way of life, doesn’t like my home, and wished my kids could bathe more often’. And what kind of smiles should people with dark skin have, and why wouldn’t they be genuinely happy in their life? A lot of people who work outside, Americans and Brits included, sweat. I know this is probably not how Steve wishes his written reflection to be perceived.

    One cannot equate the standards of living in the US with the standards of living in Tanzania. They are two totally different worlds. There are good things about both and bad things about both. Starbucks has always sold Fair Trade coffee, before it was trendy. It charges a lot because for it, as a global company, to make a profit and also pass on a profit for those growers like Oscar or my friends in Costa Rica, prices are set on the world market. That $12.96 is even more expensive here in the UK. For example, I get upset when I see a product written by my British friend, published by and sold in the Zondervan catalogue, that might sell for $50 in the US and then see Zondervan sell that same product to me for £50, which on today’s trade is $101.98, instead of the more equitable price of £24.51. Their high shipping costs just add insult to injury. And my friend might only receive $25 (£12.26) for all her hard-earned efforts. But there are probably some complicated world economic reasons that dictate to Zondervan how to cost the product/shipping rates, and greed might not even enter into the maths.

    Maybe I’m unfairly putting myself in Oscar’s place, because I’ve had the same experience when American friends come to visit. They can’t get over how small our British ‘Harry Potter houses’ are (their term, not ours). We’re just happy to get to afford to live in a ‘semi’, but I think some of our friends in America still feel sorry for us because we cannot, like them, afford to live in a comparable-sized, detached house (with our housing prices, they couldn’t afford it, either). If housing is so expensive over here, they reason, then why don’t we just move back to the US (not an option for my husband, in light of US immigration). They don’t like our taps (faucets), or that we don’t have mains electrics in our bathrooms, or use flannels (washcloths) to bathe/shower with, implying we don’t know how to really get clean. Most of us don’t have a garage, and if we do our car won’t fit inside. We don’t have as many restaurants, and the food portions are way too small. Our churches are old and cold and don’t have many creature comforts. We never have to worry about health care, but it’s not good enough for our American friends, because to them our health care system is socialistic, and that’s evil in their minds. I am slowly learning that I will never be able to fully explain my way of life here with those I care about who live a totally different life in the US. I wish more would come for a visit, because the more the do, the more they will understand (and I won’t miss them so much!).

    All I’m saying is that there are differences, and they will always be there. I guess I would rather know what Oscar and his family are really like as people, and hope that Steve’s observations could look beyond what he considers the material depravities and colonial physical descriptions – dark skin, wide white smiles, squatty potty.

    But I think I know Steve’s young, caring heart. The more he gets to experience, the more we will all benefit from his honest reflections. And the Oscars of the world will feel honoured.

    Keep writing, Steve!

    Reply

  4. Posted by Deb on October 3, 2007 at 7:04 am

    Cara, I just realised you are who the Holts visited in Tanzania.

    I will read up some more on your blog when I get the chance. I briefly glanced at the one you posted when they were there (great photo of you two couples!). Am waiting to hear more about your ‘mishaps’ and fun adventures together. (Usually, things seem to go awry when we have guests from the States, too. Any great expectations we planned or had turn upside down.)

    (Are you and Travis related to Don and Gay Fry?)

    Reply

  5. Posted by Cara on October 6, 2007 at 2:07 am

    Deb

    I find it interesting that in your response to Steve’s “patronizing” post (which takes more imagination to see as patronizing than not) you managed to patronize Steve, Americans, British folks, and even Oscar to a much greater extent than Steve allegedly did. And I should be insulted that your friends who come for a few months out of the year and probably don’t speak Swahili are better people for Steve and Chrissy to visit than their own friends who live in Tanzania and do speak Swahili. And so you patronized us as well. I realize that you probably didn’t mean to do any of this, and we aren’t offended.

    This is actually a really good discussion, because it reveals so much about how the Western world feels about Africa. In a word—guilty. Hypersensitivity to things that no African would pick up on or care about is one of the more obvious expressions of this guilt. To be honest, though, isn’t such hypersensitivity in itself patronizing? Doesn’t it say (without actually saying it) that our views are more important than those of insiders? Doesn’t it say that expressing our wealth-guilt as Westerners is more important than trying to understand, or even than telling the truth? Westerners should be careful to jump to the defense of Africans (and anyone from anywhere else) in situations where Westerners would not defend other Westerners. Applying double standards in this way says that certain people aren’t capable of defending themselves while Westerners are. This is, to me, patronizing and, as a Westerner, somewhat insulting.

    It isn’t fair to project your assumptions into this situation. Think about it this way: Imagine the same description that Steve gave, word for word the same, except place it in Appalachia where it is describing poor white people, or maybe in lower class London about low income families. Would you think it patronizing then? You said that “One cannot equate the standards of living in the US with the standards of living in Tanzania. They are two totally different worlds.” You’re exactly right. They are. And if there is a problem with an honest description of those differences because we either 1) feel guilty about our wealth or something or 2) are unable to be comfortable with the actuality and scope of the differences, what does that mean? Have we have turned against ourselves and denied ourselves both the right to freedom of speech and the right to be honest in the name of what we think other people might think (even though we can’t know)?

    Reply

  6. Sorry, keep hitting the blasted ‘send’ button! Anyway, I am glad there are better people in Tanzania such as yourself and Travis, who can speak fluently Swahili and become one with the culture. Blessings abound.

    I do realise I was also patronising, and I truly did not mean to be. Many times it has been difficult to speak about the poverty I have seen in places where I have lived to those in the ‘Western world’ (to me that translates mostly to America) because, unless it was the trendy feel-good ministry du jour, most Americans don’t want to even acknowledge the poverty on the streets directly behind their huge, overblown church complexes, much less the ‘sub-groups’ (a patronising label itself) of the lower class in Appalachia. I learned to be quiet about my experiences a good while ago, because at the end of the day, no one gave a flying flip, guilt or no.

    I will pray about how to learn to better communicate my feelings and frustrations and experiences so that I will not be patronising to those I so wish to love, on both sides of the divide. There will still be those continue to not give a flying flip, God’s power and creativity is a lot bigger. I pray he will show me a better way to share a message that is couched more in love and is compelling. My heart is telling me to do that, I must completely and firmly place both feet in the culture which I now live. I cannot live peacefully with one foot here and the other in a continent across the ocean. It gets very lonely for me at times, because there are not any Christians from America, who I have any history with, nearby. So no visits or phone calls. And the longer I am away from these dear friends in Christ (who are not bad people for Westerners), the more I discover their ways are just grey mists. So I must finish my mourning for that way of life and all those years of training for the ministry — they have no relevance where I am now.

    I hope one day to redeem my sins redeem totally and you won’t ever have to spank me again!

    🙂

    PS: If we could only meet face to face, on friendlier terms, Of course, now you would rather not ever meet up. I admire your work, though, and will hold you and Travis in my prayers.

    Reply

  7. Cara, in my response when I hit the Send button prematurely for the second time, just wanted you to know that my friends who go to Tanzania are pensioners who go to Ngaramtoni, He teaches at a school there and she does her nursing. They had done the same in Sri Lanka several years ago, and then found this way to Tanzania through Mondo Challenge. Have you heard of it (is it a good effort)? They have been there a few times and will go again in January. While their Swahili is not as fluent as yours, they are learning and trying.

    Although my family used to live in Egypt, if I could I would return again to Kandahar, in Afghanistan, where my heart is. Hopefully before I am 60 things will become more peaceful and I can get a chance to embrace those sweet people in huge hugs (they like those better than my British friends). 🙂

    Reply

  8. Posted by Cara on October 8, 2007 at 3:26 am

    Deb,
    Sorry for my slow responses. We don’t get online that often. I have never heard of your friends or the work they are working with but admire anyone who is empowering Tanzanians through education or easing the sufferings of this a life a little through health care. By the way, I spent a semester studying in Cairo and loved it.
    Peace,
    Cara

    Reply

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