It is crazy that I have already been here a week. It doesn’t feel like it’s been that long, but as I type out all I’ve experienced in such a short time, it’s no wonder I fall asleep so early every night after action-packed days. So far, I’ve met dozens of incredibly kind people, tried five different modes of local transportation, been called a muzungu (white person) thousands of times, shadowed lots of occupational therapy patients, assessed a few behavioral therapy patients, visited a vocational training center for disabled adults, saw some giraffes and zebras under Tanzanias’ volcano called “the mountain of God” hiked to a waterfall and biked through some villages before trying some traditional banana beer, and attempting wood carving, and painting. I can also confidently say I know over 15 Swahili words but having a conversation passed through an initial greeting is still way out of my abilities.
To give this blog a little structure instead of a stream of consciousness, I hope to start each week’s blog with a quick recap before teaching a Swahili term/phrase or a Tanzanian philosophy to you all. Before discussing something new, I’ve experienced and highlighting something universal I’ve witnessed.
During week one, I’ve been trying to adjust to “African time” the Tanzanians say “Pole pole” which translates to “slowly”. Life in Africa is lived at a leisurely pace, meals are long and times are more suggestions. The only hard deadline I have is that the hospital staff bus picks the other employees and me in my neighborhood up on the main road at 7 am although some days it’s 6:50 and others closer the 7:10. Morning devotion begins between 7:45-8 and the worship choir and morning meeting end close to 9am. Everything that follows within the hospital is done at a relaxed pace. Patients will wait all day to see the doctors or therapists with no complaints; each appointment lasts as long as the treatment needs it too. It’s not uncommon that staff takes a breakfast and lunch break at the nearby cafes throughout the day before the bus leaves to drop everyone back home around 3:50. Compared to this new routine, the American medical system looks like a formula one race, and the thought of an 8-10 hour workday baffles all Tanzanians.
I have a few theories on why Tanzanians embrace pole pole, some in regards to how long it takes to get places, and some involve that the country sits very close to the equator making all days virtually the same length in daylight. But I think it mostly boils down to intentionality. When people have committed to something, the do it with their being and prioritize family and faraha or “happiness” above all else. Here an occupation is just that and not an identity and a persons importance is separate from how busy they are.
One of my favorite universals that I have witnessed everywhere I’ve gone is demonstrated mostly by children, and it’s play. One ball and a few active participants can transcend any language barrier. One of the custodians brought in his nonverbal 9-year-old son for me to meet in the hopes of helping him come up with alternative communication systems and drills to practice at home to grow his language that currently is just one-word “mama”. At the same time, the occupational therapists at the hospital speak English and are kind enough to translate. Most needs and wants of the boy were easily expressed through nonverbal communication like gestures and pointing. We spent hours passing a soccer ball, bouncing an exercise ball, and juggling. It was fun and filled with laughter but gave the physicians and myself a ton of observational data to work with we could assess fine motor skills, problem-solving skills, and cognitive reception all while playing. After we met with the parents and gathered more information discussed a few options for low technology communication devices like picture books or Swahili sign language and we are following up at his school to talk with his teacher in a few weeks. All this was done while the little guy played with balls and puzzles and just had fun.
I’m excited for another week of patients in the hospital but starting this week on Thursdays and Fridays, I will start going to the Destiny foundation a day program for children with disabilities and split my time between the two places and plan to participate in few medical outreach trips with other medical volunteers in my organization out in more rural villages.