The following is a journal entry I wrote about the headmaster of the primary school I worked in four weeks. My relationship with the headmaster was not only a crucial part of my experience in Tanzania but left a lasting impression on my perception of cross-cultural communication and collaboration.
“What were your expectations of Tanzania and how were they challenged,” the headmaster asks me.
We are sitting in the staff room where the teachers meet for tea time. The room is small, with chipping pale yellow paint and two long tables where all the teachers huddle together at the metal clanking of the morning school bell. I am taken aback by the directness of his question and have to take a moment to think. I respond that I was most taken aback by what I jokingly call “karibu (welcome) culture” – the unique ability of Tanzanians to welcome and show care for perfect strangers.
I have grown to look forward to the tea- time chats with the head master – to soak in his insights on world issues ranging from the Egyptian re-election to the issue of mal-nutrition among children in Tanzania. The headmaster is intelligent and well-informed – he peppers his conversations about world issues with obscure historical facts. A self-proclaimed geography and history enthusiast, he told me the elevation of Mount Everest and capital of Nepal when I first told him that I’m Tibetan.
“Come, I must show you something,” the headmaster informs me one day. In his office, he pulls out a book of maps and we pore over the pages, observing the brightly colored maps encoding different topographical features. He points at random countries, telling me about the Portuguese colonization of Mombasa to the evolution of the Iranian government. I point out the Tibetan plateau within China, tracing my grandparents’ footsteps on the world map through Nepal and West Bengal, India. It always strikes me how deceivingly uncomplicated the world appears in maps – how each country is neatly outlined in black ink.
Although I take pride in my identity as an American citizen, I also feel a strong affinity towards Indian and Tibetan culture. The trajectory of my story and all the cultures it encompasses is heavily influenced, like so many other narratives, by political or economic factors which play out on a global scale. The relationship I’ve developed with the headmaster has been a crucial part of my experience as it has contributed to my understanding of what it means to be a global citizen. Talking to the headmaster has made me aware of the importance of being well-informed about world issues and of being able to offer thoughtful opinions on current events. I realize that participating in a cross-cultural exchange means not only being able to tell your own story but being aware and informed about others’ stories as well. I admire his intellectual curiosity and his pursuit of knowledge as well as his nuanced opinions on government and corruption. My exchange with the headmaster encourages me to look beyond the narrow confines of my own concerns and to take time to keep up with global issues even during the busy school semester. I’ve learned a lot from the headmaster’s opinions on the Tanzanian economy, politics and other current affairs but furthermore, I’ve learned more about myself – about how Americans are perceived and how someone understands my culture. The headmaster has really solidified my view on the importance of understanding the historical and cultural context that precedes every individual’s identity – whether it be a Maasai woman living in rural boma or a Kenyan teacher working in a Tanzanian school.