Finding My Place in Tanzania

August 08, 2016
Melissa Watt, James Ngocho, and Olivia Fletcher
DGHI assistant professor Melissa Watt, study coordinator Dr. James Ngocho, and MScGH student Olivia Fletcher

By Olivia Fletcher, 2nd year MSc-GH candidate

Upon my arrival to Moshi, Tanzania, the first thing I noticed was the great kindness exhibited by all of the local people I came into contact with—from the immigration officer at the airport who let me change my visa after I’d already paid for a different one to the incredibly chatty and inquisitive driver who picked me up and drove me to the doctors’ compound at Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Centre, where I’ve been staying since I arrived. 

The warm and hospitable nature of the Tanzanian people seems to be embedded in their culture, where the Swahili word “karibu” is used as the general greeting for any of us who seem new. Karibu means “welcome” and isn’t just said in passing, as greetings seem to be said in the U.S. The people truly are receiving you; the greeting is almost an invitation to stop, sit down, talk and get to know one another—even if across a glaring language barrier. 

In addition to their warmth and kindness, the Tanzanian people are encouraging to us mzungus (i.e., foreigners). If we don’t know the proper response to something they say, they prompt us: “Say XXXXX.” And then they smile and laugh a good-natured laugh when we repeat after them in our American accents. 

Adjusting to a Slower Pace

Coming to Tanzania has given me many learning experiences. Though I’ve traveled to developing regions before, this has been my first time on the African continent and the longest I’ve spent immersed in a culture, job and place so unlike my own. 

I arrived in Moshi set to collaborate with a Tanzanian man—a medical doctor working simultaneously on his second master’s degree and his PhD. I arrived as the project I would be working on was still in its beginning phases. Being here during that point in the study has highlighted so many things I didn’t even realize I didn’t know about research. It has also shown me so much about working alongside others in a foreign environment. 

Things are slower here than they are at home in the U.S.—with both life and work. It’s nice, but it’s taken some getting used to. On days with little work, we just “work slowly”—something that the fast-paced American in me has had to adjust to. 

Being on the Ground Is Key

My mentor, DGHI assistant professor Melissa Watt, has been instrumental in guiding me through the challenges of doing research abroad and has graciously allowed me to collaborate with her on her study of postpartum HIV care engagement in the context of Option B+ in Tanzania. Early during my stay, she visited for a week and our time was filled with meetings, errands and introductions—specifically with the clinic personnel where we just began collecting data (yay!). 

The ways in which I’ve been able to help her by being here in Moshi and the numerous small but important tasks that we accomplished during her short stay here have also highlighted how necessary it is to maintain constant contact and how being on the ground actively doing the work is invaluable both to the research itself as well as to the experience. 

We’re All Just Collaborators

One of the defining challenges I faced here was trying to learn my place in this setting. Throughout my academic career, my “place” has always been defined; I’ve either been a student or a tutor or a leader or a peer. Coming here, things weren’t so clear. Though everyone couldn’t be nicer, I spent quite a bit of time and energy trying to navigate these relationships and find my place. But as my relationships with those I’m working with developed, I realized figuring it out wasn’t necessary because we are all just collaborators. There is an immense amount of respect between everyone, and trying to identify your position is futile. Between colleagues and equals, it simply doesn’t matter. 

Regardless of your place, here at KCMC, you just work alongside one another. Everyone’s opinions matter and are respected. No one person makes all the decisions. It is collaboration in the truest sense of the word. It’s something I haven’t experienced in the U.S., where tailoring your behavior to your particular position is often key to establishing positive relationships in the workplace. We could all take a lesson from the incredible camaraderie across strata as well as from the kindness shown to everyone in the workplace and in life. 

Lessons Learned

I’ve learned so much and will be so sad to leave. Many people have welcomed me and taught me and cared for me. I’ve grown while being here and from knowing them. 

I’ve learned about an entirely new culture. 

I’ve learned that research takes much longer than any of us expect it to because there are so many moving pieces and there are different ideas of timeliness everywhere. 

I’ve learned that you can never pay too much attention to detail. 

I’ve learned that celebrating small milestones is essential to keeping morale high. 

And I’ve learned that 10 weeks is long enough to allow you to become attached to a place and its people. 

I’m so grateful for my experiences here in Moshi and truly hope I will be able to return. There’s nothing quite like working and living in the shadow of Kilimanjaro.

Kwaheri, Moshi. Tuonane inshallah!