As I stepped from the plane that had just carried me across two continents, three countries, and more time zones than my body could recognize, all I could think was, "My life will never be the same." It was night time, but I could see the dusty dirt floors that carpeted the country of Tanzania, Africa. I could smell the terrain, a musty potent smell, the kind of smell that I can still recall if I bury my nose deep enough in my backpack. I could see the large moths that flew towards the light of the country's customs center; however, through the unfamiliarity, I saw beauty. I saw beauty in the country I barely knew, and it wasn't until I walked on the dusty dirt roads did I understand why.
If I were to advise a tourist in Tanzania, I might tell them of the Ngorongoron Crater or the Cultural Heritage Centre in Arusha, but the one thing I would insist that someone do before leaving the country is to take a walk. I would have visitors take a walk on the various dirt roads that connect one village from the next because it is the walking and the dusty roads that I cherish the most.
Last summer, I had the wonderful opportunity to travel with a nonprofit organization, Friends and Family Community Connections (FFCC), to Tanzania, Africa. I went there because I felt called to help, yet little did I know of how the villagers in the village of Nkungi would help me. I spent two weeks there, creating friendships with people I now call my "rifikis" or friends in Swahili on the mile-long stretches of pure dirt.
I was initially scared of the language and culture barriers when first meeting those I encountered, but found that walking from place to place allowed the time to learn.
It was along those coppery-red dirt roads (that stain every piece of clothing, beware!) in which I learned of a culture, poor financially, but rich in love and community. Every time I walked, I met one more rifiki, and that’s why I would urge future visitors to walk. Walk and visit the Lutheran Church in Nkungi, or develop your own path in a village. Because cars, trains, bikes, and planes are just too fast.
For me it was on those dirt roads that I met Babu, when I cleaned his wound from a fall while playing soccer. I met Maria when she and I attempted to chase a mouse out from my lodge. I met Charles, a young Tanzanian man and aspiring doctor, when he and I walked from one house to the next installing water filters (http://ffccsd.org/Impact_H2O.html). I met Mike when we bumped around in his safari truck, as he told me how his father inspired him to help others in Nkungi. I met Mr. Kingu, Margaret, Nama, Luku, Steve, and many others along those dusty roads. Each time I grasped a hand or hugged a stranger, I grew to love Nkungi as much as I love my home in San Diego.
I walked 10 miles sometimes. My feet were always sore, but my heart filled with energy. On those dusty roads, I learned that it is people who matter, not the volunteering I do. I might never see them again, but I still call them my rifikis because they showed me love without words, and that’s what friends do. Nama once taught me to say, “Nakupenda” (I love you) while walking. You just can’t know Nkungi or my rifikis without walking, or feeling the hot dirt inside your toes.
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