Mutuality. Kinship. Community.
Every time I return from a trip, my dad asks me to describe the whole experience in one word. This is usually a tough task for me because I love words and finding just the right one is an important challenge. So, naturally for Tanzania I chose three. Mutuality. Kinship. Community. My main purpose in writing this blog post is pretty simple. I want to give you a glimpse of our experience and a fraction of what we learned from it. These three words intertwined in my thoughts throughout the whole trip and I continue to think about them today. Chocolate University gave me incredible new friends both abroad and at home, unbelievable mentors and role models, and a new story to tell. So here it goes.
When we boarded our flight from Ethiopia to Tanzania, I got the same feeling Dorothy got in The Wizard of Oz; the “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore” feeling. It made me feel nervous and a good kind of uncomfortable. We tried everything we could to not stick out any more than we already did. Even so, this “Kansas” feeling lingered awhile in my head. During the seven hour bus ride through the rolling hills and dusty road, I couldn’t help but wonder why we were there. What could I possibly learn from a country that didn’t seem to care if I was there or not. When we got to the village in Mababu, everything made sense. Everything made sense. We strolled off of our coaster bus with tired eyes, messy hair, and dusty clothes and were greeted like family. We shook hands with every farmer we saw and were looked in the eyes and welcomed genuinely. Even though we made fools of ourselves trying out our “shikamoo” swahili greeting, they went along with it and returned our words with a warm, “marahaba”. I got the same feeling that I get when I see my extended family at Christmas. Everyone gets a big hug from everyone and then it’s like no time has passed at all. Even though I had never met the people of Mababu, driving into the village felt like driving home.
Africa’s landscape is like a well-loved homemade patched quilt. The lumpy rolling hills of southern Tanzania are patches of different crops stitched together by a winding road. Then the land grew wider and flatter until it seemed like we could see a whole panorama without shifting our heads. The roads are lined with people: women in patterned skirts balancing impressive amounts of goods on their heads, children and adults riding and fixing bikes. We saw all sorts of people having conversations on the side of the road and grown men playing mancala in the middle of the day. We arrived on a Sunday and it was clear that everyone was running on what we like to call, “Africa time”. The concept of time in Africa is very very different from the way we perceive time in America. In Tanzania, it seemed like the next thing only started whenever the first thing was done no matter how late the first thing went. I love that everyone’s attention is fully in the present. I didn’t see people wearing watches and coincidentally, I didn’t see very many people in a hurry. The speed of life is slow, but purposeful.
I think the feeling of mutuality is what makes the Chocolate University program so unique. The farmers love seeing us and we love seeing them. There is an ongoing relationship that started with Shawn doing the right thing and has now extended to students traveling to meet some of his incredible partners. It’s not all about what Shawn can do for the farmers in remote places across the world. It’s not about building a schoolroom or digging a well and then never coming back. It’s not about saving Africa. It is about building a special kind of camaraderie. It is about mutual personal business relationships that rightfully benefit the farmers in Mababu and Askinosie Chocolate. We both have a true stake in the outcome of each other’s businesses. It’s about getting to know people that, in the grand scheme of things, are not that different from us. It’s about learning more about ourselves through the immersion in the lives of others. Most tourists come to Tanzania to see zebras and giraffes. Even though we didn’t see either, I believe that we got to see the heart and soul of Tanzania.
Every morning we met with the farmers in the Central Cocoa Fermentary, also known as the CCF in Mababu. Shawn started the conversation with the farmers’ vision for the cocoa bean processing co-op that they had written during a visit three years previously. Some of the ideas they had captured in their vision included building an office building, taking care of the widows and orphans in the community, and diversifying the business. As we sat in the recently constructed office building, they told us how the visioning process had helped them hope and plan for a better future. One man in particular stands out in my memory. Shawn recognized him out of the group as the man who visioned that he would wake up with a roof over his head and his family taken care of. Shawn asked him about how his vision was playing out and he answered that the next time Shawn visits, he’d like him to stay at his house and see it for himself.
The farmers were just as interested in our lives as we were in theirs. That’s what kinship means to me. It’s a type of empathetic bond that goes beyond friendship. The farmers feel like family. One of the very best parts of the trip was when we separated into smaller groups and walked to the farmers’ homes. That’s when I met Fred.
Fred walked us to his house through his banana trees, coconut trees, papaya trees, and of course, his cocoa trees. As we walked, he’d cut down each of the fruit for us to taste later. When we got to his house, Fred told us that his kids were the most important part of his life and because of Shawn, he was fortunate enough to send them to the best boarding school. He told us how visioning had impacted him, his family, and the entire co-op of cocoa farmers. Fred asked about our visions and the moment he understood what I was saying through a translator was one of the best moments of the entire trip. He smiled wide and told me that he loved that I wanted to bring smiles to children through stories. He said, “God go with you.”
It was the little things like Fred understanding our visions that kept the group up until midnight or later every night talking. We shared, evaluated and appreciated every little thing that caught our attention or made us feel something we had never felt before. We relived the small moments because really they were the most momentous. Every one of us talked about how each of our five senses had impacted us. We talked about sights like the mountains constantly looking over us, reminding us of where we were. We’d reminisce and think about the sounds of the children laughing, or my favorite, the adults laughing at us playing tag with the children. We talked about how the white, snotty-textured coating around the cocoa beans tasted sweet and felt strange in our mouths. Anything about the day was fair game. Something as simple as how a farmer’s hands felt to something as complicated as the hopes and dreams of the children in the school had real impacts on us. I loved hearing about the day from the frame of senses and moments of simple profoundness.
My favorite part of our evening talks was when someone would mention a “sixth sense” type of memory, or something that went beyond physical senses. I think Shawn would consider some of these moments, “glimpses of heaven”. These moments took the cake because there was an extra layer of mystery, and a sprinkle of something beyond ourselves.
One of the very first “sixth sense” moments was when we first stepped foot outside the airplane in Mbeya. Fresh air had never felt so fresh and the early morning breeze shocked me and made me want to stand at the top of the airplane steps and soak it all in. All of our traveling hiccups became adventurous afterthoughts because feeling the cool mountain air on my cheeks instead of stuffy airplane air fresheners, made me feel alive. I felt like the president stepping off of air force one. A president who desperately needed a shower.
Most of our “sixth sense” moments occurred when we were around the people of Mababu. One of mine was when we went to church in the village and the congregation spoke the Lord’s Prayer. The Lord’s Prayer is as universal as a smile and a laugh. It really shook me when I heard all of the people around me speaking the words in a different language, but knowing exactly what their words were. They spoke the Lord’s Prayer with gusto and it reminded me of how my grandpa used to speak it.
Another shaking moment for me was when we went on a hike to the mountains with Julian, the volunteer kindergarten teacher, and a bunch of children who decided to follow along. One child in particular left a powerful image in my head. He was wearing dusty, ratty pajamas as clothes and no shoes, but what really struck my attention was his toy car that he pulled alongside him. He walked his car on a pretty strenuous hike up to the waterfall with us. The car itself was made out of a milk carton and the wheels attached were bottle caps. He pulled it with a long bamboo stick. Even though it hurt my heart to see that this was the best he had, I could still see the joy that this toy brought him. He watched it closely everywhere we went and it was easy to notice the pride that he took in it. I’ll never forget seeing this particular boy and his innovative and beloved toy car.
We talked about the children often in our nightly meetings. They would run up to our bus when we pulled into the village common area in the mornings and swarm around us with smiles and greetings. A particular group of young boys knew that I keep a hackysack in my backpack and whenever they saw me they would yell out, “Mpera! Mpera!” which means ball in swahili and we bonded over kicking a colorful hackysack around in the dust. Leila would sing patterns to the kids and they responded with the same melody, Baylor and Alec played soccer with them, and Abigail and some of the others would take pictures and show them their image for maybe the first time ever. We really loved the kids. The school in Mababu put on a welcoming presentation for us including skits, singing, dancing, essay readings, and lots of smiles and I loved every minute of it.
The children were especially incredible when we told them about the visioning process. We told them to think of things that made them proud to be themselves and to think about their future in a present tense, and to write like they know it’s going to happen. They described things like becoming pilots, teachers, businessmen and women. I even had a girl tell me she wants to be a poet. We talked about the steps we can take today to achieve our “visions of greatness” tomorrow and they told us about how they planned on doing well in school and keeping good relationships with their parents and family to stay on track with their dreams.
In our talks at night, we often got back to the thought of, “what can I do?” or “I want to make a difference, but I don’t know how.” or “there are children sleeping in the cold tonight and I’m about to crawl in my warm bed and I don’t know how I should feel about that.” It was really hard for me to enjoy the mound of rice that they fed us for lunch knowing that it might be the child next to me’s only meal of the day. We all reacted to these questions a little differently and I think the way the group thought about these questions revealed our vocation for our lives. Everyone in the group cared about the people surrounding us that are in need, but we all had different thought processes on what we can do about it. That’s one of the beautiful things about humans in general. We’re all wired for different things. We all have different visions for our lives. Founders of nonprofit organizations that help millions of people every year do incredible work for this world. Small businesses that partner with local organizations do incredible things as well. But not everyone is meant to start a non-profit and not everyone wants to own a business. I think that no matter our vocation and no matter our occupation, we can work towards the betterment of society, even if it’s on a smaller scale.
Right before we entered the airport in Mbeya for our first flight home, I had a conversation with Daudi Mssessemma, a friend of the Chocolate University program and local host who travelled with our group, that has stuck with me. He challenged me to use what I had observed and learned from the people around me; to not forget. We may never belong to a community like the communities in Africa and that’s ok. Americans don’t necessarily have the same vocations as the people in Africa. We can, and we should, learn from the Tanzanian culture and adapt our lives to open our self-centered bubbles to those around us. Tanzania taught me that people are people. We all like to smile, we all like to laugh. We all have big dreams and visions for our lives and we are all in this small world together. We have the power to build each other up.
Since I’ve gotten back from our trip, I’ve done a lot of observing of the people around me. I think I’ve been searching for communities. We have them here for sure, they just aren’t as obvious. I saw community at my church when a middle-aged man reached out and grabbed the hand of an older gentleman, just to give him a little squeeze to tell him he was there. I feel community at my university; a special kind of camaraderie and togetherness. I felt community on the trip with my fellow Chocolate University students. We all learned to lean on each other through laughter, tears, hours and hours at airports, embarrassing language mistakes, and even coconut tree climbing injuries (ask me about it sometime). I think that as soon as we put others’ needs over our own, we’ve formed a community. It may not be like Africa, where the entire village is basically extended family, but it is something and I think that the little things are important too. I accepted Daudi’s challenge and I intend to keep living my life with community in mind.
I hope I’ve given you a snapshot of what we experienced in Tanzania and what Shawn experiences every time he goes on an origin trip. Askinosie Chocolate, in my biased opinion, makes the best chocolate in the world and I think it’s because everyone is on board. The farmers have a stake in the outcome, the factory employees have a stake in the outcome, and the chocolate is the cumulative effort of everyone working together. It’s a community. The people in Tanzania and the Chocolate University folks taught me that it’s important to be giving, be courteous, be thankful, be understanding, be fully in the present, to do the right thing, and to make it count.
P.S. To the future students of Chocolate University, please give Fred a good firm handshake for me and ask him how his kids are doing. Also do me a favor and ask John Taylor about the future of the fashion industry in Charlotte, North Carolina. He’ll be more than happy to enlighten you. Don’t ask Shawn what time it is. Love the rice while you’re there because you’ll miss it when you get back. Try the dried raw fish at least once and I won’t tell you how awful it tastes. Love your fellow students because if the Askinosie team selects people half as amazing as the people I got to meet, you’ll be in the best company. Appreciate every moment of your trip and savor the smallest details. Enjoy the ride (bumps and dust and all). Take a deep breath and open your heart, because it’s about to be filled with so much good.