Disclaimer: Just to warn you in advance, this piece is ridiculously, but intentionally, long. I felt I needed to purge and expel some of the thoughts that have been welling up for, well, years. I understand that few of you will be able to stick with me as I meander through my thoughts, but I promise if you do, the content of this composition will prove relevant and connected. Now before we move on I also feel strongly compelled to note that the grit I end up getting to only signifies my own experience and strife. My intention is not to criticize or argue what others should do. I recognize that what is right for me is not necessarily right for someone else; I am simply sharing my personal progression of understanding and ask that you bear in mind I am not suggesting you should think in the same manner but rather question whether or not you happen to relate to or agree with such sentiments.
Shortly after rising from my slumber, I received a call from an indistinct number (a common occurrence during my time in Tanzania –pronounced locally as Tan–zAAHn–ia). I immediately recognized the voice but no face came to mind. After exchanging many of the typical pleasantries used before getting down to business, I inquired as to whom I was speaking with and learned it was the young tour guide from my hiking trek a few days earlier. We casually chatted for a bit; I asked him what he had been up to since we had last seen one another, at which point I became aware he hadn’t had any other clients since our tour… four days prior. In light of the fact that I spent five hours hiking with him, I had learned he’d been working as a voluntary guide for the past 9 months in the hopes of gaining a position in the park, relying solely on tips as a source of income, and hence, this news was entirely disheartening for me to hear. Nevertheless, I was happy to have heard from him, we wished one another well and that was the last time we spoke.
Days later though I couldn’t shake this lingering feeling of unease, a strong feeling I still possess as I have returned “home” and left behind the life I had lived, the people I met and the culture I had grown accustomed to for half a year. Discomfort and dismay has followed me as I wait in this familiar yet unfamiliar place and try to understand and come to terms with what I was blessed enough to gain some insight into. So I do what I have learned I need, taking time to contemplate and grapple with the disparity I felt and am persistently feeling between here and there.
During our hike I learned my tour guide friend had moved away from his home and his family in Kilimanjaro to pursue a college certificate in tourism management, explaining it was his best chance to earn money to send back to support his family and contribute to his two younger siblings’ education. He waits, hoping the opportunity for a stable, non-voluntary position will one day be granted to him. In the meantime, he does his best to line up tours despite their uncertainty and relies on tourists’ judgments of how much to tip after they’ve already dished out sizable amounts for entrance fees, flights, tour companies, meals, accommodations and transport, leaving him dependent on the margins of their uninformed generosity or stinginess.
It is this position I found myself in, albeit I was more fortunate than the average client as I was touring by myself and hence had the opportunity to hear him share part of his life’s story with me and become aware of the grave and tense circumstance I found myself in.
Even trying to make sense of it now is upsetting. I cannot begin to wrap my head around all the facets at play in this situation where he is reliant on the uncertain influx of tourists and their tipping discretion- colonialism, post-colonialism, systems of inequality, privilege, ignorance….
All the more confusing is that the circumstance represents a dichotomy for me, and is intrinsically parallel to the turmoil I have felt for years, the turmoil I think many of us, at one level or another, sense and feel each day when we face the interconnected mess and disparity that has enfolded and continues to enfold before us.
On the one hand I am utterly ashamed of even being in such a position of power and prestige in the first place– I don’t want it and I don’t deserve it.
I have done nothing to earn this fortune, this luck. Why is that I hold this position over him and he doesn’t hold it over me?
To be put in a position of judging how much to tip someone who has been so undeservingly limited, denied opportunities and faces such complex and deeply rooted systemic inequality. How do you be generous? How do you gauge what is right and fair? Any amount seems too small, especially when I think of the fact that the wealth I don’t deserve but have been fortunate enough to acquire has only been possible due to the exploitative systems of inequality that I benefit from. I have lived in such a position of advantage, with easy and abundant access to opportunities compared to my new friend of such noble character who, like so many others, has been placed in a position of disadvantage and inhibited from grasping his longings to actualize his potential and improve his family’s lot.
I’ve never had to worry about helping to pay for my siblings’ well-being with unstable tip money from foreigners.
I hate having found myself in this position.
I can’t handle it.
I feel he is far more deserving than I of everything I have, of everything I have ever had. I want to give it all to him. He is way stronger than I have ever been, way more gracious, far more passionate and has a curiously bright mind. I learned much about him in our five hours together. I have grown so fond of him, I’ve grown to admire him so. I bear witness to his raw potential; he is hungry to learn, he is smart and disciplined- he has learned to speak English in two years at a level where I had assumed he had been speaking for at least for the past seven. He has such a singularly valuable perspective to offer.
As we sat on the ledge of the waterfall’s second tier, overlooking the vast African landscape of sugar cane; maize fields and winding light brown roads against the lush mountainous backdrop, stretching farther than I knew possible, he asked if Canada hosts the same animals that I had seen on my Safari the day before. I explained only in zoos and showed him pictures of moose, beavers, elk. He gazed at the pictures for long stretches, meticulously reading the descriptions and information of each one. He then promptly put forward the notion of bringing North American animals to form a zoo in his country. Such a picture had never crossed my mind before. Some time ago I developed an uneasiness towards the concept of zoos but his statement made me better understand the ludicrous and absurd misappropriation and looting of animals- relocating creatures to a nonnative continent, climate and unnatural alien environment.
He gave me much to think about in the time we spent talking and trekking. He was extremely knowledgeable about the region’s local species of plants and trees; he was extremely insightful and hopeful. I genuinely appreciate meeting him and learning from him.
In spite of my feelings of undeserving ashamedness, I also find myself utterly relieved to be this position of power as opposed to the alternative of my life being defined by limitation and obstacle. I know I must come to terms with it and remind myself to respond with gratitude, to not fail to be grateful for the privilege I have been unduly granted.
But I also know that a response of gratefulness is not enough. It is lacking. A further response is desperately necessary to begin to reconcile this deep tension.
So now, we are back to the quandary. How much to tip?
How am I to measure this privilege of meeting him, hearing his story, learning from him, getting to see the diverse species of this majestic country. How can this be measured?
What is the appropriate response to this relationship of utter inequality. Can we trade? Can I transfer my privilege, my resources, my unlimited access to opportunities to him? Can I take his place; relieve his burden even, if only for a little?
Nothing I can think of even comes close to what I imagine to be fair. He wants to go back to school to upgrade his certificate to a diploma; he wants to learn German, he wants the very best possible for his family. He is only 23. I don’t deserve any of it and he would go farther than I ever could.
But I can’t take his place. I can’t rectify the injustices he and I were born into through this brief encounter, in this short circumstance. If only I had that kind of power.
So I find myself where I have been time and time again- questioning what I can do, questioning if I am able to play a part in diminishing this tension that eats away at me day by day, if I am able to play even a minor role in reconciling just one of the unbalanced conditions I have benefitted from.
It’s an overwhelming place to be in- a place admittedly characterized, at times, by manic uncontrollable convulsive weeping. It’s exhausting and excruciating to allow yourself to linger in the unsettling. I have often collapsed under the weight, felt defeated, useless, have given into the notion that it’s all just a hopeless cause.
It is easy to choose to live in ignorance, to choose indifference. It is easy to disengage, to live detached. It is easy to choose comfort, safety, security, to surround myself with only that which I already know, that which I have always known.
But it’s also boring, mundane, lacking to not push myself, to not give of myself.
“Life without sacrifice is abomination” – Annie Dillard
I believe choosing hope, choosing to try, is better than doing nothing.
I can no longer choose the easy. I can no longer handle extravagance. Since my return, I feel an immense weight, I feel so heavy. I feel surrounded by so much that doesn’t matter, so much emphasized and convoluted meaninglessness. So many unnecessary complications that detract from the simple truths and meanings of life.
So what can I choose to do?
I could recommend him as a guide to others, I can hope he will get a stable position, I can give him a tip all the while knowing no amount is sufficient. I can write about it.
But it’s not enough.
I don’t know if anything I do will ever be enough. But I think being aware, reflecting, asking questions, getting to know others, hearing their perspective, allowing them to change the way you see things, sharing these views with others, I think that is the first step.
I think what I want more than anything, truly and deeply, is to see that others are granted the same opportunities I have been.
Those, like my guide and many others I had the fortune of knowing during my time in Tanzania, they long for opportunities to learn, to improve conditions for their families, they are diligent and passionate, they make selfless sacrifices for their loved ones every day. They have so much potential and so much to offer, if only allotted the chance to thrive.
And that is what I want to choose to be a part of, to be a part of something that works to expand opportunities and access for others. It is going to take time, effort and many sacrifices and after all that I may not even contribute anything of worth, but at least I will have tried, and know that I chose to try.
If any of you ever find yourselves planning a trip to Udzungwa National Park, do let me know as I have his number and he is such a dear.