It is an odd feeling, coming back to a place you haven’t been in years. Stepping off the plane and on to the tarmac, I was flooded with memories of my 17 year-old self walking into the same airport, wondering what was in store for me. The room in front of me is empty now, but as I walk I am filled with those memories from seven years ago: a group of people waiting for those arriving, me scanning the crowd looking for the “Cross Cultural Solutions” sign. There is no sign waiting this time, and for a moment, I almost feel lost. Luckily, I am with a UNICEF colleague, who quickly shuttles me towards the car waiting to take us to Moshi. The drive isn’t long – only 30 minutes. But as we drive down the highway, I see myself standing on the side of this very road, posing for a picture with my Mom in front of Kilimanjaro. I can still hear the driver asking me, as we drove to drop off my friend, whether I would be his girlfriend. It is a surreal feeling; like I am on my way home.
After arriving in Moshi, we did not have a lot to do. My colleague, Stella, suggests that we go to the Cross Cultural Solutions home base, so I can ask about my old school. A little flustered, I direct our cab driver outside of town in search of a building, down the red dirt paths, steering closer toward Kilimanjaro. Right away, I manage to surprise myself : I have found my way back to the same building, seven years later. Of course, the building is now empty. I go to the tailor across the street and ask if they knew where the wazungu have gone. No idea.
A bit defeated, Stella and I go back to the hotel. I start to get nervous about not finding the school. I vaguely recall where it was, but I still have this lingering doubt that I won’t be able to find it in the middle of the rain forest. But of course, in true Tanzanian fashion, the taxi driver gets back to me with news that he has found the Cross Cultural Solutions office.
Once again, we set out down the bumpy roads outside of Moshi. We finally arrive at the office. Of course, I open the gate, and there is Moses Polepole (meaning “slowly slowly,” because he took a long time to be delivered as a baby), the Director of Cross Cultural Solutions – Tanzania. His formerly skinny face is a bit plumper, and a bit more wrinkled, but he is exactly how I remember him. Right when he sees me, his eyes light up and he gives me a big hug.
“How are you?”
“Kate, you were here in — what, 2004?”.
I couldn’t believe he remembered me after 7 years! I quickly updated him on my life, how after volunteering in Tanzania, I enrolled in school to take international development. “I am now working for UNICEF in Tanzania.” His face lit up again. He had the look of a proud parent.
He showed me the new base and introduced me to all the volunteers. It felt a bit odd; here I was talking to a group of people my age about how I had been here 7 years ago.
“I can’t believe you were here so young”.
“Neither can I, really.”
Moses is wonderful, eventually he shows me how to get to my old school, Kimaganuni. We promise this time to stay in touch; now that we have cell phones and email, it will be a lot easier this time around.
The next morning, we head out to visit the warehouse, the reason why UNICEF sent us here. It went really well, but I was much more excited about going to see my school afterwards. After we finished at the warehouse, I called the same taxi driver and we were off down the dusty, red dirt road. We had to stop a few times for directions, but before I knew it, there it was: the church steeple, peaking over the trees. I had reached Kimaganuni.
The kids, in their blue sweaters, are spread around the court yard. Ifelt feels like I am 17 again. I look around, obviously I don’t recognize any of the children; seven years is just enough time for all the children from the grade 1 class to have finished school by now.
I recognize a few teachers, but all of them were clearly perplexed by my presence. I walk into the staff room and a teacher I don’t know greets me.
“Hello, my name is Katherine… I used to volunteer here, back in 2004.”
“Oh, okay. Welcome.”
It is only at this moment that I begin to realize how ridiculous this is.
“The headmaster is just right here.”
I move into the old staff room, still with the same desks, and the same faded paper plastered to the walls. I realize right away that the headmistress is the same women , 7 years later. My face lights up, but hers doesn’t change.
“Hi, my name is Katherine…. I used to volunteer here, 7 years ago.”
I put some pictures down on the desk; I suppose to prove to her that I wasn’t lying.
“Ahhhh. Okay. Yes.”
I can tell she doesn’t remember me.
“Welcome. Welcome. Come to my office.”
I see a few faces I remember around the room, “Hello. Do you remember me?” A few faces smile back, clearly not understanding what I am saying. “Unanikumbuka?” They all start to laugh. Obviously my attempts at Kiswahili are hilarious, something I am still getting used to.
I follow the Headmistress into her small office. Children stare but give the polite greeting to an elder “Shikamoo” (literally, “I hold your feet”).We step in, and she sits down.
“You know I do remember you. You were a teacher from Denmark.”
“Ok. Ahh. Canada. It is warm there?”
“No it is know for being quite cold.”
“I was actually looking for this teacher that I knew here. Her name was Celine or Selina. Do you know her?”
“Most of teachers you knew, have died now.”
She taps the figure of a teacher in one the pictures I gave her. I feel a twinge; this was a big mistake.
“But I think I know the teacher you are talking about. She was transferred.”
She starts to write something down on a piece of paper. She then gets up on her chair and puts her head out the window. I soon realize she is getting a student to run to the next school over in the forest to find Selina’s number. We wait maybe 15 minutes, until the student comes running in with another piece of paper with two numbers on it.
I leave feeling satisfied. I realize something that I guess I always knew, even at 17: that my volunteer experience was not an attempt to save the world, but more to be apart of it. Even though I believe I had an impact while at the school, I expected that after 7 years and no contact, I wouldn’t be remembered. That trip was more for me than it was ever about making an impact.
I unfold the piece of paper, and throw it back into my bag. I didn’t want to have another awkward conversation where I explain myself and only get polite but blank stares. I didn’t want another conversation in which I’m not remembered. I didn’t even know if this was the right person. The taxi driver looks at me.
“Where will we go now?”.
“I have no idea.”
It is a horrible feeling. Where would I even go? Back into town to have some coffee? Maybe. Or maybe catch up with a few of those volunteers I had just met? But that felt hollow. I pick up the piece of paper again, and take a deep breath. I dial the number. The phone rings. Right away I recognize the voice.
“Hi, my name is Katherine. I was a—–”
“Oh my God! Katherine! I missed you so much! I didn’t have your address or any way of contacting you! I was just talking about you last week with a friend! Wow! Where are you?”
I suddenly feel as if I could just break down into tears. I take a deep breath: “Wow. I am in Moshi! Selina, Where are you? I will be right there.”
It isn’t long before we see each other. I have this amazing feeling, like finally find a piece of myself that has been missing for so long. She looks so much the same, although a bit rounder now, compared to her former stick-thin self. But her smile and laugh are exactly the same. It doesn’t take long before we sit down and begin to tell each other about the last seven years. It is surprising how much we remember about each other.
“What happened to those coffee beans my parents gave you?,” she asks.
“Oh, my grandma and I tried to roast them in the oven and we burnt them.”
We both laugh.
“What happened to your fiancee?,” I ask.
“Oh, we ended that. He was horrible to me. But we had a child, she is five and a half now. Her name is Ester.”
It isn’t long before I am at her house, meeting her daughter and house girl. They live just a few miles away, in a house with a small room, cramped with a bed, couch and small TV. All three sleep in the same bed.
“I moved to town so that Ester can be closer to school.”
Selina, however, has to walk over an hour every morning just to get to her school. I meet her best friend next door, who is nearly 80 years old, and her neighbours. Everyone we pass, we tell the story of how its been seven years since we’ve seen each other. How we are long lost friends, finally reunited.
We then make our way back into the forest to meet Selina’s family; she is taking Ester to stay with them. I remember meeting all of them a few years back, but her brother and sisters were very small then. But as I enter their yard, Grace and Amos come running out.
“Katherine! Do you remember me?”
They are both so tall. Grace is a young women and Amos is handsome young man.
“I remember you.”
“You have gotten much fatter and prettier.”
“Haha, I am going to ignore the first thing you said!”
Everyone laughs. I think just because we are all so happy, rather than them understanding my sarcasm.
I enter the house and see her father and mother. It was amazing to be sitting on their couch again, scanning the empty walls.
“Last time I was here, there were Christmas decorations everywhere.”
“Yes, we had to take those down.”
Everyone laughs. We go outside to take a few pictures. I take a family photo and we begin to discuss when I will be back again. Easter, we decide, for a family dinner.
After the photos, Selina says to me: “I was just talking about you last week with another teacher, Mrema. She misses you so much.”
She calls Mrema, and soon we are all together, laughing and nearly in tears about how we missed each other. “Naraha! Ninafurahi!” I am so happy.
I insist to take them out for dinner, and we sit down to eat, they only eat a small portion of their meals, saving the rest for their families. We start to go through pictures and they start to tell me what happened to the students. For most they would say, “Oh, I see him begging on the street.” She gestures her hands as if begging. “Saidia. Saidia.” Help. Help.
I begin to feel horrible. All these years I have had these pictures of happy children, and I never figured out what happened to them. I feel all of a sudden incredibly guilty, like I have exploited them. Like I missed an opportunity to at least make sure they made it to secondary school. Years after my first trip to Moshi, I set up a scholarship fund for children in Tanzania to go to secondary school, but because I had no way of contacting the school, the money went elsewhere.
Later, Mrema takes Selina and I to her house in the middle of town, a small, one-room house, with about six chickens running around. We sit down in the darkness. Mrema lights a lantern so we could see each other. After an hour, Selina and I head back to my hostel and stay up all night talking.
For the rest of the weekend we are inseparable. I end up getting all of my pictures printed, and the picture of Mrema, Selina and I framed for each of us. I also have Selina’s family picture enlarged and framed, which they put on the only nail in their wall – extremely close to the ceiling. Everyone had to stretch their necks upward just to see it, all laughing at each other’s expressions and clothes.
When I left, it felt like I was leaving my family. Selina does not own a computer or have an email address, but the explosion of cell phones in Tanzania (and Africa) will make it easier for us to stay in touch (she has two). And since I have come back to Dar, we have already spoken on the phone a few times.
I can’t help but think as a development academic, about the naysayers of “voluntourism”. I have heard all the cons, and I have no doubt, that in a lot of cases voluntourists can do more harm than good. But my experience as a volunteer seven years ago changed my life. I owe all that I have accomplished since then to that first trip. That experience went beyond just volunteering, beyond just making friendships. I feel like I have extended my family.