Not Always at the Beach

Maybe I haven’t been clear enough on what I’m doing here, but people usually tend to think I spend my life prancing around on the beaches. While I do get to enjoy the beach every once in a while, I am mostly not at the beach. So what am I doing?

The main part of our program is our Direct Enrollment classes at one of the campuses at the State University of Zanzibar. Or I should say the lack there of. We were supposed to start our classes on the 20th of October and five weeks have passed and we still haven’t really studied. Things are… disorganized. We are now on the third draft of the schedule and things are still not happening. That’s really the only way to put it.

Well, what is happening is constant confusion. The classes we have taken before now were for only foreign students and segregated from other Zanzibari students. Now, we are taking classes side by side with Zanzibaris and getting to experience their lives first hand. The university culture here versus in the States is.. different. Outside of the confines of the walls of our previous classrooms, which have been groomed and tailored to fit our needs and expectations as students accustomed to western education, I feel like the proverbial fish out of water. Ours is a culture that demands punctuality and organization. Schedules figured down to the minute, quick and to the point meetings, you name it we crave it. Work culture here is more relaxed. The notion of ‘Swahili Time,’ the expectation that you will late rather than on time, is never more evident. I’m not trying to pull a Robert Calderisi here. (Calderisi wrote a book titled ‘The Trouble With Africa,’ in which he generalizes an entire continent and pins Africa’s inability to develop amidst billions of dollars in aid solely on cultural ‘flaws’) These characteristics aren’t inherently bad or good; it’s just how life is here.

For the first two months, adjusting could not have been easier for me. I was in a class that was similar to the one I spent two months in last summer. I knew what was expected of me, where I needed to be and when. It sometimes felt as if I had never left. We had been warned about the chaos that is the Direct Enrollment classes, but I don’t think any warning could have prepared me. The first day we spent an hour wandering around two buildings looking for room number 11. We found all the other numbers, but room 11 literally didn’t exist. We had been introduced to the secretary, so we scampered to her with our tails between our legs and just in time were directed to our professor who was heading to class with the rest of the students clumsily trailing behind him. Professor Amour is a senior and is very traditional in his ways. He makes the men and women sit on opposite sides of the classroom. He repeatedly shouts out ‘mzungu’ when he wants one of us to answer a question and tells us he’ll learn our names at a later, unspecified time.

Our second class has been even more of a headache. The professor who was assigned to teach us, denied being our teacher and it turns out the schedule we were given was an earlier copy that no longer was correct. Our no longer teacher advised we simply wait for our teacher to show up. Hopeless and frustrated we stood by our assigned classroom, which was empty of any other students. Luckily, another student noticed and helped us find out who our actual professor was, called her, and figured out that our class was to meet the next day. Only it wasn’t. We wandered around yet again and eventually asked where this mysterious lecture was taking place. We were led to our professor who explained that our schedule actually had the wrong class number on it and we were supposed to have met at the beginning of the week. Only, she was studying for her PhD so she cancelled the lecture that day and asked the students to agree on a time for her to lecture, which we undoubtedly had no idea about.

The professors show up when they feel like it. Anywhere from half an hour to an hour after class is scheduled to start. There’s an obvious divide between us and them despite how nice and welcoming the other students have been. It isn’t often foreigners make their way to this campus so, out of two lectures, one with 70 and the other with 200 people, everyone knows Nia and Neema. But Nia and Neema could name maybe five of them. Individual interactions with other students are usually pleasant and they are not shy to offer us help and make sure we understood the lecture. Conversely, when it’s 200 against the two of us and the professor makes a joke about the wazungu, it’s hard not to feel picked on.

It was expected that things play out this way in the first and second weeks. It’s now the 5th week and we’ve missed two lectures this week alone. Once, because the professor had to reschedule (to Saturday. Rude.) and forgot to inform us like she promised she would. The second time, I received a text at 7pm saying that we were meeting for class at 8am the next day. We had already studied that week and after asking for clarification of why we were meeting again was told that we weren’t actually meeting. That next morning I ran into a classmate to find out that we actually did have class.

I was severely unmotivated for these classes to begin with. I’m burnt out of sitting in a classroom and I want to do something more worth my time. I want to get my hands dirty and I want to be able to see real results in the words and actions of other people. I’m pretty sick of the growing pile of essays sitting in the corner of my room. I kept telling myself to scratch the bad attitude, that this would be good for me. I might not be getting practical language use that I could later apply to my fieldwork and communication, but it wouldn’t hurt me.

Or so I thought. I haven’t been using Swahili outside of daily interactions as much as I would like. The small times I’ve used Swahili in the classroom or working with classmates have helped with communication, but I fear it isn’t enough to keep pushing me to the next level of comprehension. We have class one day a week and the last month has been a struggle to find things to keep myself occupied, things to give my life here a sense of purpose. It’s hard to not think about the degree that’s sitting at home waiting to be finished, the money that I’m not making while being here, and the family and friends that I left behind. I kept pushing in the first weeks to stay motivated and keep an open mind. Yet, as the weeks dragged on and when the disorganization continued class days were marked not by learning, but by trying my hardest not to cry when it feels like everyone in the room is against me, I started feeling an old friend come knocking at my door. Indicators of depression have slowly started rearing their ugly, yet familiar heads. I don’t necessarily want my old life back, but it’s been hard to feel fulfilled with my life here.

The Diamond in the Rough (And, yes, I almost wrote ruff on accident. English.)

I have been working on choosing and finalizing my internship site. I had an initial meeting with a social enterprise called Zanrec, which works on developing waste management programs with hotels on the island. They work with waste and recycling and are developing programs for schools and communities to educate people on environmental responsibility and how that leads to an overall better life. I had a follow up meeting this week with the director and was officially welcomed to the team. I will be working on developing these programs for implementation in schools as well as working on data collection for future projects, which means working on translating the surveys to Swahili and heading into the field to collect responses. Though technically not a nonprofit, Zanrec looks like a great fit for me. The company is only a few years old, so it is constantly changing and evolving, which means the learning curve is at the highest and it is a great stage to be involved with. I explained the class situation to them and they are understanding and very flexible. So, as long as everything goes to plan with SUZA (unlikely) I will be in the office twice a week.

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