A week ago one of the volunteers working at Neema House shared with me some words of wisdom that she had received on a prior trip to East Africa. She said that a key thing to remember when trying to adapt to a new culture is, “It is not weird, just different.” I have been turning that phrase over in my head as I have thought of all of the things we are having to adjust to in our new life and I have come to realize that it is a subtle, but hugely significant shift of outlook. I wanted to share with you today some of my own, not weird, but Different experiences of the last month ( ONE month!).
I have two very healthy kids, but the night we arrived in Arusha, Camille started complaining, and by complaining I mean wailing in pain, over an obvious urinary tract infection. It was late in the evening, we had been traveling for 30 hours, the restaurant we wanted to go to was closed and my five year old was wailing that her private parts burned. Becka, the Fortson’s daughter and stand in director at Neema until we arrived, promptly handed me a bottle of antibiotics from the stash of antibiotics they keep in the medicine cabinet. Now I knew that antibiotics were sold over the counter, but I never imagined I would be so grateful for that fact the very night of our arrival. The internet was not working well that night, but a Google search did reveal, just from the website descriptions, a starting dosage and duration of that particular medication. Camille was better in seven days, although I did have to go buy another bottle of antibiotics over the counter, praise God, to finish out the course.
Speaking of illnesses, we all got SICK around the second week and stayed SICK for 10 days. And by sick I mean running to the bathroom every few minutes. We went through a whole role of toilet paper in a few hours! It is not weird, just different, that your body has to adjust to the food and water and that even when you use the best precautions you can, your entire family is still going to get sick. Every time I have talked about our experience with other expats, they get a knowing look in their eye and tell me that it does get better and eventually you develop guts of steel.
When we arrived, we expected to move right into the house we had rented, but the landlord had inconveniently sold that house. Not a problem, said the property manager. So we quickly found a new house, and when I asked about what to do to turn on the utilities, they could NOT figure out what I was talking about. Apparently, the water guy will come to my gate to collect the cash for the water I have used that month, this could happen at any time. Also, you buy a pay as you go card for electricity, kind of like minutes for a cell phone. No contracts, no bills, no name on an account, just a guy on a bicycle with a hand written bill. As for the trash, a man collects the trash everyday on his bicycle and we pay him $10 bucks at the end of the month, he even supplies the trash bags.
About a week after we arrived Tabitha developed some strange sores on her knees, and then another on her thigh. I kept applying different topical medications, antibacterial or antifungal or aloe on them, thinking the sores would go away, but they did not. So after three weeks of trying I decided it was time to go to the doctor. So I texted the pediatrician directly and he texted back and said to come in at 12pm that same day. We arrived a little late to the clinic, which is very typical by African standards, and walked to the front desk. When taking Tabitha’s information, the lady asked several questions that they would never ask in the States, like what tribe she was from (Eeh, Judah..) and if she was a Christian. We paid cash for the visit, a whopping $12 dollars. The waiting room was filled with ladies with kids or pregnant mammas, many tribal men with their giant knives, stretched earlobes and colorful robes. We waited 15 minutes, saw the American pediatrician, got a diagnosis of impetigo, filled a prescription for oral medication for $4 at the pharmacy in the waiting room and were on our way.
When I go shopping for groceries I go to a butcher for my meat, by produce from a woman selling veggies by the side of the road. You can get any fruit or vegetable you can imagine and all local and in season. There is an avocado tree in our backyard and a mango grove down the street. As you drive around you will pass fields of peppers or tomatoes or cabbages. Produce is very cheap, however many other food products like cheese, olives, tuna, canned tomatoes and toilet paper are very expensive. I miss baggies and paper towels, which are unheard of here. All of our clothes will come from a used clothing market which is several acres large and filled with very aggressive salespeople that want you to pay top dollar for their used items. You can get any textile item you want, but you have to expect to spend significant time haggling and threatening to walk away before the prices become reasonable
Driving is on the opposite side and very aggressive with what feels like hundreds of buses and motorcycle taxies called picipici’s trying to pass on both sides. There is no way to explain in words what it is like to drive down the road in this town. Many of the main roads are paved, but all the side roads are dirt and VERY bumpy. Tabitha keeps saying, “I am all done with the bumps”! As you drive you might see women with babies on their backs and huge loads balanced on their heads, children getting water from a drainage ditch, a group of tourists, people selling flowers or bread or t-shirts. You will see a herd of goats, a man on a donkey and then get passed by a Range Rover full of safari bound “Mzungu” (white folks). I find it hard to drive, because I still want to be able to look at all the sights as we speed past.
The list of things that are ‘not weird, just different’ could go on and on: the clothes, the smells, the sounds, the humor, the value of life, the meaning of family, the roles and expectations on women, children and men. Some of the differences are funny, some are frustrating, and some, like the treatment of women, are just infuriating. I am very grateful that God has called us here. It has been amazing to hold and love the babies and get to know the nannies. I constantly have to remind myself (and be reminded by my husband) that this real and we are in it for the long haul, so we do not have to accomplish all of our goals in the first month. Part of the adjustment period is realizing that we do, in fact, live here and that this is our new normal. I am sure that soon everything I find different will seem so natural.