Bursting the Bubble - A Trip to Tanzania - My Family Travels

As I stepped out of the truck, I knew that this was no American farmer’s market. There were three vehicles in sight; all were from our tour group. Instead of fancy stands, there were blankets, if the seller was lucky.

If not, the seller hawked their goods on foot or off the bare, dirt ground. A cattle pen was smack in the middle of the market; an auctioneer was shouting for bids in Swahili. And then, before I could take anything else in, the mob came.

They came shouting, thrusting their wares at my tour group, clamoring for attention. I had expected this; we were at a once-monthly market in Tanzania. Why wouldn’t they mob us? We were the only white people there, and to the locals, whites (‘Europeans,’ as they stereotyped us), were rich.

While sellers had been carrying water on their heads to their ramshackle houses, we had hot, comfortable showers at our luxurious ‘mobile tented camp,’ which was more of a somewhat mobile hotel than a campsite. While the locals churned butter and ground coffee by hand, we let our tour group feed us all sorts of fancy (at least by comparison) foods. And while they sold huge cords of rope at pennies each just to scrape by, we were trying to buy souvenirs.

As I realized this, guilt swept over me. Here I was, a 15-year-old kid, traveling luxuriously halfway across the world, and in front of me was a microcosm of the country, a country of people who barely eked out a living by Tanzanian standards, a country of people who would all be among the poorest of the poor in America. Yet these people weren’t at all distressed by what seemed to us extreme poverty; to them, it was life.

It was all so alien, so peculiar to me, but oddly enough, I think that made it all the more real. As we navigated our way through the crowd, trying to deter the most persistent sellers, a bull escaped from the auction. It made for quite an interesting scene; the tired, bored bull barely moving faster than a walk, and several angry men running behind it trying to stop the poor animal.

Not a soul (other than the handlers) was disturbed, except for a few people who had to move to the side to let the animal through. Nobody was in any danger, but I imagined what would have happened if that scene was replicated in the US. Let’s see…

People stampeding, news choppers, several lawsuits, one very dead bull (most likely with a couple dozen bullets and tranquilizer darts in it) and probably a few people hospitalized after the mass hysteria. An extreme overreaction? Definitely. But it would happen that way in the US! We are, whether we like it or not, a coddled society, unused to things that could possibly be minute forms of danger. Our ‘first-world’ society would be terrorized by something that doesn’t even merit batting an eye in a ‘third-world’ country. Strange, but true. 

After walking through row after row of people selling everything from souvenirs to pots and pans to firewood, we came upon a couple of tents on the outskirts of the market. Here, according to a sign that was posted in both English and Swahili, were informative videos. As we neared the crowd inside these tents, we saw what these publicly shown videos were about: AIDS prevention and stopping female circumcision. I couldn’t imagine walking in any public place in America and seeing this. It would be controversial, billed as obscene by some and unnecessary by others, the near-universal American consensus would be to remove the videos. Regardless, female circumcision is so rare in the US that it’s a non-issue, and AIDS is certainly not considered one of the pressing domestic issues of the day. Yet here I saw a rather large crowd of mildly interested locals watching the TV screens. These people realized that their country’s well-being partially depended on heeding the messages of these videos. Moreover, such ‘primitive’ issues, as they would be considered in the US, were of such importance here that a part of a market was devoted to information regarding these problems.

When we finally managed to reach our truck again (after exhausting large amounts of money to the particularly persistent hawkers), I took a moment to digest what had just happened. We had visited a scene from a world alien to us, but native to so many others. Americans live in a bit of a bubble, a mostly happy, well-off bubble. Yet here I was, outside the bubble, and immersed in the realities of the less fortunate. Even though these people were aware that there was a much richer world outside the one they lived in, it certainly didn’t seem as though they were terribly eager to join it. Maybe they had already realized what I had come to see; a bubble is an awfully isolated place to live in after all.

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