Lived experience, written and reflected upon, is the best education life can offer. It is a form of education that requires no classroom and no teacher, no curriculum or institutional framework. It is a radically open form of education that comes at no expense to anyone, and requires only a receptive posture towards the world and one another.
Traditional education — books, videos, and teachers — can add to these experiences, providing invaluable context and history. This is especially true when living in another culture, where friendly smiles and modern conveniences obscure the currents of history.
Life in Tanzania was a boon for my ongoing, lived education. The fine texture of experience provided more opportunities for a learning than any journal could possibly keep up with. My time abroad was also my first real engagement with the ideas of international development and their detractors; the accountants of the region’s past and future.
I share these five experiences as a newborn to living abroad. They are a reaching, searching, and grasping set of experiences, each initially a moment’s delight or despair but later an opportunity for inquiry, and with time and patience, growth.
- Letting a staff member go.
I discovered one of my staff members was stealing from our business. She was one of the more vulnerable of our staff — older, with a serious health condition. Stealing in Tanzania is a complex phenomenon, often tolerated by the development sector as part of the informal economy, yet brutally regarded by the Tanzanian justice system. The issue is morally complex and there was a lot to consider.
I let her go with one month’s severance. I didn’t report her to the authorities. To say it was difficult is a gross understatement. Letting her go meant putting her back out in to the precarious and vulnerable world that typifies life for many Tanzanians. I often dither and defer in the face of my unearned power as a white foreigner, ill-gotten and unearned, a cause for embarrassment and hand-wringing. On this occasion, I was able to regard my power as responsibility: burdensome and undeserved, but responsibility all the same.
2. Meeting Bernard Kiwia.
Bernard Kiwia is an inventor in rural Tanzania. I had the opportunity to photograph and interview him for Ujasiri, an initiative I’m starting to support African entrepreneurship. He had invented an outdoor fridge using earthen materials, a wind-powered water filtration system, and — incredibly — a machine out of old bicycle parts that could produce affordable drip-feed irrigation systems. The site for all this experimentation was his own home, which was completely off-grid.
His inventiveness spoke to a totally different way of doing innovation. Bernard’s experience cast serious doubts on the value of imported knowledge, expertise, and practices to accelerate development in East Africa. His ideas are not conventionally scalable but they are precisely germane to his environment. Beyond the rich soil of the slopes of Meru, Bernard demonstrated a resilient and inventive way of life beyond my imagination.
3. Visiting Dar es Salaam with Evaline
Evaline and I worked together in Tanzania producing reusable sanitary pads for women and girls. Early on in the business, we visited Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania, to improve the supply chain for our product. We took a bus there, and at one point we were talking about her & her husband’s plan to start a farm and the difficulties of crop cultivation in a changing climate. We spoke occasionally about a variety of things — life in Australia, religion, the business — punctuated by comfortable silences.
We were getting along, in spite of the radically different lives we lead. Individuality and solidarity can coexist. Indeed, Tanzania itself is a wonderful demonstration of vastly different belief systems finding common ground— the country is about half Muslim and half Christian. It’s banal to say, but deep down we are all very similar. If not in our stated beliefs then in our restless striving and groundless optimism.
4. Reading Room in Zambia
I visited a few friends for a festival over New Years in 2016/17. On the way back, we had a long bus ride from Livingstone on the Zimbabwean border to Lusaka, the capital of Zambia. I had bought a book— Room — about Jack, a child raised by his mother entirely in a small room. I read the whole book, around 300 pages, in one sitting. I am not a natural reader, and it’s been a long battle to have the presence and attention to sit and engage with a book for hours at a time.
It might seem a strange and non-African experience to highlight, but being more present was very much a function of living a life that was simpler and more attentive in Tanzania. It was not, however, the serene indifference of the Buddhist — but an animated, curious attenuation. Cheshire grins, not smug nods. Noticing not with detachment, but with immersion. Reading Room was a triumph of frugality — for eight hours, the window view of the expanse of Southern Zambia and the imagined room of Jack was enough.
5. Cycling drunk in southern Tanzania
I found myself in a small, unmarked town on the A104 highway in southern Tanzania, splitting a pint of bamboo wine with a local I’d met a few hours earlier. It was the furthest away I had ever been from “normal,” geographically and culturally. To my surprise, even the periphery is full of modernity. Normal, bottled lagers were sold in the bar. The bar man wore the unimpressed boredom of bar proprietors the world over. English Premier League played on the television, drawing in half the town’s men.
The whole experience spoke simultaneously to the vast reach of the international political economy and to the possibility of alternatives. The bamboo wine itself was the promise, delicious and local, still a commodity but one on the edge of the “commodity world,” the world of iPhones and fast fashion. I didn’t realise it was alcoholic until I got back on my bicycle: A machine which quickly lets you know if you’ve been drinking.
Hey! This post is part of a series. It started with Love and Work, and next week I’ll talk about my values.