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Be free.

It’s funny how sometimes there’s not a translation for words that are common in one culture, but non-existent in others. I just learned a great slang word, shikwambi, which means a person who eats cleverly (by smoothly mooching off others). There’s a  Vimeo video made by some kids in Iringa, not far from here, about how a shikwambi will go over to his neighbor’s house to tell a story, deny food that the neighbor offers him the first and second time, but then take it on the third offer, which was what he really was after all along!

Then there’s the words that have a translation, but don’t exactly mean the same thing.

For instance, I learned the word uhuru today—freedom. You’d think that would be a pretty simple idea. But I was thinking about what freedom means to me, and I don’t know so much anymore. It used to mean certain things—things that they drilled into us in elementary school about how proud we should be of our country. Our men and women have fought for our “freedom,” so now we can…what? Do whatever we want? Be whatever we want? Have whatever we want? After all, what’s more important than having what we want? We deserve it, right? We’ve worked for it?

 

I think we as an American society have taken this word, which has such pure and noble meaning, and twisted it into meaning something akin to privilege. I will be the first to say it: I don’t. I don’t deserve everything that I have back home. I don’t deserve the freedom that I have. There are lots of people in America, and lots of people around the world who deserve the things that they have, but there are also a whole lot of people in the world who have done everything they can to make their lives better, and DO NOT have what they deserve. There are a lot of people whose dignity is not acknowledged. There are people who care about their family and friends more than they care about themselves, but who still don’t have enough rice to put on the table to feed their 10 family members. There are those who have to decide which of their 5 children to send to school, and then those children who sacrifice the carefree moments of childhood to take on the burden of learning to provide for their sisters and brothers.

 

What have I done? Here I am, with the freedom to travel all over the world to learn about histories and cultures of places I’d only dreamed of before. My qualifications are underwhelming. Sure, I’ve worked hard to get to where I am, but it would be ridiculous to say that I’ve gotten to where I am today by my own merit. I’ve studied with the books that were put in front of me. I’ve applied for grants that are paid for with money given by generous alumni.  I’ve lived in beautiful places and never been asked to sacrifice for the things that I have and the love I am given. I do not have to fight for the respect of men. I am not a minority in my country. I have never seen a person die before their time, and not been able to do anything about it.

 

“Be free.” That’s what some of my Tanzanian friends and teachers have been telling me. Amazingly, they don’t judge me for who I am or why I’ve come to their country. They do not want me to be afraid to express myself for fear that I’ll say or do something wrong, and upset them. They don’t expect me to rush to class if I’m running a couple of minutes late. They ask me only to be open, to try to understand, and to be present. “Be free” is not a pass—it is not the same as “it’s a free country,” so I can do what I want. It is a way of life—of knowing that if you are among Tanzanians you are always among sisters and brothers. There is no pressure to be perfect, because what human is perfect? The very word implies mistakes to be made.   But to be free here means reasonable expectations of respect and neighborliness despite your shortcomings, and to welcome each other in your imperfections. Karibu, you are always welcome.

I wish there was something I could do in order to bestow upon the people here the freedom that I feel in America and the opportunities I have been gifted with. Today, I can’t do anything to change how things are for the people here. But all the same, here I am, trying my best to better understand the struggles and successes of this nation. I know that if I just open myself up to possibility, God will work through me in whatever way he deems fit. I will try to be satisfied in that for now.

After all, freedom does not encourage us to look behind, but forward, always leaning away from “what have I done?” and straining towards “what can I do?” Robert Louis Stevenson said, “Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant.” I’m taking solace today in planting seeds, and I will wait to see what blooms from these weeks and years of growth.

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This morning’s sunrise, on my way to breakfast.

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