Recently in Mwanza a group of expats and Tanzanian nationals have started up a group called Mwanza Storytellers. The aim is to allow people to share their stories on a chosen theme. So approximately once a month they have gathered at the Yacht Club.
Anita was asked to talk at the most recent (and her last) Storytelllers. She spoke on the theme of Change.
I share this as an insight into life overseas in this time of change for us, but it starts much earlier.
Tonight I’m going to be talking about Change in the context of moving to different countries and how it has been for me to adjust to living in different cultures.
In the early 90’s, I went to Canada for a three-month training course, to learn about how to live in a rural context within a developing country, in preparation for a two-year contract in Malawi.
I thought it would be much the same as the UK, apart from everyone speaking with a North American accent, so no big deal! Was I ever wrong! So many words and expressions that were very different, it was very strange.
I already knew that chips were called fries, and they called crisps, potato chips. But didn’t immediately get what was meant by “Are going to get your bangs cut? (bangs meaning fringe). And driving on the pavement rather than the road!! Directions were strange too – eg head out north and then turn east! when I understand left, right and straight on!!! But the Canadian people were very friendly and I enjoyed my time there.
The second part of my training involved going to Jamaica, because it’s a developing country and they speak English. Here, I was expecting it to be different and it was. I found it exciting and enjoyed the challenge of learning how to live in an environment with no electricity, no water and having to use a pit loo! I relished this change.
I naively thought that there wouldn’t be any communication difficulties. Well, although the people understand English, they also speak a Patois, which is based on English, however, if they don’t want you to understand what they are saying – you won’t and I didn’t!! eg: ‘me a go be-ad’ – means I’m going to have a wash!!
Now having completed my training, I moved to Malawi, to begin my two-year contract, teaching children preventative health and training a national. I again expected it to be different, and it was. I was now prepared for living in rural Africa, the Africa that everyone expects us all to be living in – mud huts, no electricity or running water, and a 2-hour drive from town – not like how I live in here in Tanzania, where I have all these things and life is much more modern in comparison.
I found adjusting to living in Malawi, exciting and I loved the rural life. The language was challenging, almost no-one spoke English and so I persevered with this strange Bantu language. Having no family at home and being surrounded by the language certainly helped in this regard.
Two years on, my contract completed; and my national partner trained and competent to run the health teaching programme, I was now ready to return to the UK. I was looking forward to picking up on all things that I hadn’t been able to do for two years eg: going to the cinema, TV, socialising with friends my own age and getting back to a life that would be familiar. I knew how to live in the UK and I thought that everyone would be really interested to hear about this ‘exciting’ and ‘novel’ experience.
Well, the reality was rather different. Having spent two years in a very rural village – the nearest town a two-hour drive that had a small high street and a couple of very small supermarkets, I was now flung back into the middle of a big city. I was used to seeing if a shop had shampoo and having no choice about brands or sizes. Now I would go to the supermarket and there would be a whole shelf devoted to shampoos and conditioners of different brands and for different hair types. I found it rather overwhelming. How do you choose which one? They all had different prices, is a cheap one rubbish or is it just branding? Mmmmm. I didn’t know what to do, so I copied the choice of the customer next to me!!!
Food shopping was another challenge. I had no idea what was good value. In Malawi, pasta was 4 times the cost of rice, so a luxury, but now they were the same price. So this was a surprising change and took a few visits for me to get used to it, very much like you get used to shopping in any new country. In many ways, I found that returning home, was not the easy fit I thought it would be. I had missed out on two years of UK news, music and TV programmes and so sometimes I felt like a ‘fish out of water’.
The most surprising thing for me, was actually the lack of interest. I’d had an amazing experience, seen incredible things, changed as a person, learnt a new language; yet actually most people were only interested superficially.
I have come to the conclusion that this is because most have never travelled and lived abroad (apart from holidays), so it’s not that they’re not interested, it’s just that they don’t know what to ask, and can’t relate to living in another country, so they’d rather talk about stuff they do know.
It took me many years to really accept being ‘home’ again, when all I wanted to do was get back on a plane to Africa. But eventually I did.
Now it’s 20+ years later and I move to Tanzania, this time as a family, with two teenagers. Living here with the internet and access to downloads and social media has made keeping up-to-date so much easier, but I have inevitably missed out on TV programmes and stuff that’s happened whilst I’ve been here.
Change is relatively easy if it’s something you want. You’ve got your dream job, or house, moving to a location you want to be in; it’s easier to deal with the challenges you’re faced with. But sometimes, change is forced upon us. We sometimes have to go places or do jobs we don’t want to do. Then change is hard.
I’m about to return to the UK. For me it was initially very difficult. It wasn’t what we planned, we were supposed to be going to the Seychelles for the next two years. In stead we will to return to the UK with no house, no job and a husband whose medical condition means our future is very uncertain.
Thankfully I have recently been offered a temporary job; some accommodation we should be able to afford and a school for our daughter to go to.
I am determined to make the best of it.
The serenity prayer has been very helpful for me.
“God, help me to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to tell the difference.”
I am thinking of the UK as a new place, that will take me time to adjust to. There will still be challenges, just different ones. I am not expecting most people to be that interested, and I will enjoy the few that will be.
Tanzania has changed me. I love the fact that birthdays here are not a major financial burden, but just time to spend with your friends. Kids are thrilled with a bar of chocolate or a box of coco pops. Life is more relaxed here and I am determined not to get too caught up in the rush of life back home, but always to prioritise people over things to do.