I've finally arrived at the Care Centre in Kenya, but not before spending over thirty hours in what I can only describe as a 50-ft slow cooker and tenderizer. Officially, it is the Akamba Bus Line, which I took from Kigoma to Kakamega, leaving at 4am on Tuesday and arriving here on Thursday at 10am. The ride was wild thanks to potholes which sent my head crashing into luggage rack three feet above me and the angle of the bus as we swerved back and forth across the road, giving me the unnerving experience of looking down into the rack on the opposite side of the bus; it was facinating, however, thanks to glimpse into the future of Tanzania that it gave me.
This came firstly from the journey itself which took me from the banana groves of Kigoma to the cool aisles of Nakumatt, a Kenyan version of Walmart. Tanzania has always been poorer of the two countries, thanks to both colonial neglect and the more egalitarian socialist orientation of the post-independence regime (as opposed to Kenya's unfettered capitalism), but there is now doubt that it is entering the 21st century. Not only does every tin-roofed roadside stand carry cellphone credit, but new road construction is everywhere, and by this summer, there will finally be high-speed cable internet available in the region. The question, then, is what will a modern Tanzania look like?
At one of the towns along the way, two Maasai men stepped on the bus with traditional cloth cloaks, their long knives at their belts and with the long, looped earlobes, made particularly noticeable on one by the baseball cap he wore above them. Looking at this icon of globalization, I had to wonder how much longer the traditional knives and clothing could last, and how Tanzania could hope avoid sacrificing its culture for commerce.
On both buses, I sat next to high school boys on their way back to school, and asked their thoughts on the issue. The first, Ibrahim, eagerly predicted that soon all Tanzanians would speak English (Swahili is the national language) and could enter the world economy. The second, Ray, agreed that this was the trend, and went so far as to ask if I could help him get to the United States. "Tanzania is too poor". He said, emphatically, and I couldn't help but agree, as crowds of children swarmed the bus at each stop to try to make a few cents selling snacks to the passengers. But why can't development preserve local culture?
I'm not sure that it can't it would be patently false to say that Kenya has completely lost its roots, but as I sit here listening to Akon, I worry.
The good news is that I am beginning to make some connections. The first came with a woman on the bus who stole my seat. I came back from buying breakfast and she immediately stood up to return it, lifting the infant swaddled to her chest above the seat in front of here. Seeing the forelorn look on her face, I asked her to sit back down, and Ibrahim and I traded places in his seat for the two hours she stayed on the bus. The woman spoke no English, but her smile communicated a great deal, and immediately I felt that I was no longer just a muzungu, but the muzungu who gave her his seat, and she immediately became not just another Tanzanian woman, but a Tanzanian woman I could do a favor for. This, the boys on the bus, and the warm welcome I have been given here at the Care Centre give me hope for the ability for cultural diversity in a globalized world. We don't even need to share a language to share experiences and friendships, so perhaps the same is true at a macro-level. I'm heading back to try it again with 50 smiling children. Wish me luck!