We Americans complain about everything. The coffee is too hot, the ice cream too cold, the bus is late. One reason I travel is to flee the manicured and manufactured life of white middle-class America. My most recent trip was one month in the bush of Tanzania, outside of Ruaha National Park. The attitudes I witnessed there aren’t unique to Tanzania, they’re just different from general attitudes in the US.
The bus to Tungamalenga was stuffed with people and cargo. It’s common practice for villagers to have their friends in the town of Iringa put full gas canisters in the bus’ underbelly for the five hour ride. Empty canisters were always making the return trip because gas and other goods are cheaper in town. Whatever didn’t fit underneath would come up into the passenger area. I watched a mattress get transported to the back of the bus where some young men kept it pinned to the ceiling with their arms and heads for the whole ride. I sat with a 2×3 foot solar panel by my knees. There was no bathroom stop, no air conditioning. The child in front of me was in a seat with no back so he alternated between sitting up tall or slouching and didn’t complain once. I couldn’t help but think he will be a stronger person than the kids in the US who get sedated by video games if they’re in their plush car seats for a smooth 10 minute climate-controlled ride to school. Tanzanians young and old can sit calmly when life is dirty and hot. They don’t assume that they are entitled to a perfectly crafted experience.
In the US, events are full of gimmicks to lure you there. Free food! Swag bags! Any event in a public place will have seating and ramps, Porta-potties and security guards. In Tanzania, we drove around a village 30 minutes before sunset to announce through a megaphone that a movie, an environmental documentary called “Elephants in Peril,” will be showing in the village center when darkness falls. It was projected onto a white sheet hanging on the side of a brick building and, sure enough, 200 people of all ages gathered around. No one complained about not having a chair or a beverage. They stood for the whole movie, they stood through a discussion afterwards, they passed around the mic and gave opinions. Yes, there’s not much entertainment in the bush so their standards could be considered low. Is that what it takes to be open-minded, flexible, gracious and content? Maybe we should all lower our standards. Despite harsher living conditions, they seem happier in day-to-day existence than Americans.
The NGO I was working with also leads trips of villagers into Ruaha National Park at no cost to them (there is a grant from US fish and Wildlife Service.) The first few trips of the season were used to work out some kinks. On one trip, there wasn’t enough rice in the pot for all 8 passengers, the guide and the driver. Like any professional guide would, Abeli made sure the trip participants had enough food. That left him with no lunch. Despite working a 14 hour day and arriving back to camp after 9pm, he didn’t complain of hunger. He said, “It’s fine. I wanted them to enjoy themselves.” I was a guide for many years in the US and I would’ve gone hungry just like Abeli. But in my head, I would’ve been cursing and blaming the cook, wanting someone to be held responsible for my hardship. Tanzanians have more grace under pressure, as if hardship is just a part of life and there’s no reason to pay it any attention. We learn that in yoga class- when you’re meditating and your ear feels itchy, do you really have to reach up to scratch it? Maybe it’s just a distraction and doesn’t deserve your attention. Tanzanians don’t get unhappy or distracted by the disruptions of life.
A more dramatic example is the death of a child. Children playing in the bush can get bitten by snakes or spiders, the water might cause giardia and malaria is common. There’s no guarantee that each child will make it to adulthood. Parents don’t say, “Why did this happen to me? What did I do to deserve this?” They accept hardship as a way of life. No one is owed a long life. No one is owed anything. Within my first week back to the US, a child had entered a gorilla enclosure at a Cincinnati zoo (child lived, gorilla was shot) and a different child was killed by an alligator in the Florida swamp at Disneyland. In both cases there were precautions taken to avoid these accidents, but in both cases the parents will sue the establishment for negligence. The parents want someone held responsible for their emotional hardship. Losing a child is an unthinkable tragedy but perhaps life is fragile and we aren’t entitled to a safe, sterile, perfect existence.
In Southern California, I practice yoga daily in order to grow as a person. My life would be too comfortable without the physical poses providing challenge and discomfort, teaching me to handle adversity and be realistic. Life in Tanzania is usually physically demanding and the citizens don’t have the luxury of coasting through their days, but still, you will not hear them complain or pass blame.