Culture is not a classroom concept; culture is an experience, a necessary firsthand look into the way things are and once were in a certain region of the world.
Being surrounded by Tanzanian culture as I learn the Swahili language has not only augmented my learning rate and capabilities of and in the language, but it has also made me recognize characteristics of cultures and the gaps that inevitably exist between one culture and another.
My roommate in my home stay here on the University of Dar es Salaam campus is a senior college student from California. Wherever we go and whomever we meet, we are welcomed with the Swahili greeting “Karibu” countless times. However, the reality is that no matter who you are – Caucasian or African-American, as we are – the blatant and prolonged stares you get as a foreigner are ubiquitous and surprising at first. Pedestrians, drivers, motorcycle riders, female, male, young, old – everyone stares.
Coming from a culture that is beautifully diversified and heavily speckled with individuals from cultures all over the world, I find that foreigners aren’t as much of a spectacle or a main attraction in the U.S. as they are considered to be here.
The staring versus the incessant welcome greetings we receive, filtered through our American perspective, cause us to see elements of Tanzania culture as conflicting. Staring in American culture is not considered “welcoming” at all. I’ve come to realize that culture is not as unadulterated as the study of language and semantics. It cannot always be translated literally and oftentimes simply cannot be harmonized as different cultural viewpoints come into play.
Culture is a tricky concept that is sometimes full of contradictions, similarities and differences. It is experienced by spending time with locals like my Swahili teachers and host family and co-workers. It has opened my eyes that the people in this country and most likely other Third World countries are unaware of the existence of poverty, unemployment, widespread disease, crime, and the other genuine harsh realities of the American life. All Americans, with no exaggeration, are considered to be wealthy in the Tanzanian cultural paradigm – wealthy and lacking any issues or problems.
This realization makes even more pressing my penchant for having as many firsthand cultural experiences as I possibly can in my lifetime. The misconceptions of the American culture that I have heard – from unbelievable to comically ludicrous – make clear to me my own preconceived notions about African culture. Some have been debunked, and others confirmed, proving that cultural awareness is a two-way street.
Frankly it is unfair to assume that life is either a utopia in one place or the complete opposite in another without experiencing the reality of the environment for oneself. Although there may be some truth to cultural stereotypes, they should never be generally applied. Culture should never be made into a secondhand story or tale; it is something that has to be lived in order to discover and comprehend all that it truly is.
No doubt, my new cultural experiences have brought about a greater appreciation of the simple things in my native culture, like the English language itself. I have never realized and appreciated how nuanced and complicated English is to learn as a foreigner, in comparison to a more straightforward language like Swahili. And other simple things – like timeliness and the fast-paced, organized-ahead-of-time mentality that I’ve now realized is most likely only a Western thing.
The intense language and cultural experience that I have had in the last month and will continue to experience for the next four weeks has been supplemented by an engineering internship – an experience of a lifetime here at the University of Dar es Salaam. I have recently begun working in the Mechanical Engineering Workshop, fulfilling one component of my internship under the guidance of the Director of the Technology Development Center.
I am working to implement the complete manufacturing process – from the design stage to the ultimate production – of a prototype of a simple apparatus that I conceptualized/conceived in order to make the jobs of the workshop workers more efficient as they fabricate different types of mill machines. The process of fabricating this prototype allows me to use my newly acquired skills of AutoCAD, welding, metal cutting/bending, and etc. in a conveniently practical way.
I also have had the opportunity to observe the legitimacy of bureaucratic formalities due to the lack of provisional infrastructure maintenance and supervision. This, along with my hands-on, interactive engineering experience, have augmented my passion. I hope to work in Third World countries using my engineering education and hopefully a plethora of cultural and language experiences to help decrease instability and invigorate nations toward steady progress.
Overall, the cultural experience thus far has been profound in more ways than one. It has blessed me with innumerable memories and stories that have given me an alternative paradigm through which I now view the world.