June 24, 2005 – is a date stamped on my passport. It is not stamped in red but it should be. This was when I landed at Dar es Salaam airport, over a year ago. The airport is inevitably named after Julius Nyerere – Father of the Nation.

My first impression of Dar was unremarkable. It met my expectation of a large city in an African country. I soon came to like it. I found it very “liveable” and still do.

I immediately started work at HakiElimu, the NGO I was contracted to work with. About two months after my arrival, I was given a collection of Nyerere’s speeches on education to proof read. We had already published a first volume of his writings on education. Our annual work plan for 2005 promised a second volume.

On July 14 this year, this second volume of Nyerere’s writings went to the printer. We don’t have the printed copies yet but they are expected soon. Incredibly, it has taken nearly a year to produce this book, which was supposedly nearly ready to print when it first came into my hands!

This was frustrating process, but as I reflect back on my year here, trying to capture the lessons learnt, I think: maybe a year is the appropriate amount of time needed to produce this second volume after all. Who is to judge this and against what yardstick?

Am I beginning to get it?!

NGOs, donors, and the international aid business in general love “lessons learnt.” Some projects stipulate that we learn our lessons quickly and then rapidly adapt and apply them elsewhere. But learning is a continuous and life-long process. (The great Brazilian educator and activist, Paulo Freire has written brilliantly on this theme.) Deep reflection and profound learning take time. That is why projects with a long-term vision have a much better chance of success. This brings me to social movements.

It seems that there are multiple reasons why some social movements “work” while some NGO projects “fail”. In social movements, change comes from the grassroots, people actually want it and in fact initiate it, while some NGOs, specially in the past, imposed change.

I don’t want to give the impression that all is fine with social movements. I know NGOs more intimately than social movements. I have read about the latter, intersected with them at work and in my personal life, written about them as a journalist and known some people who have worked within that frame. Social movements can go horribly wrong. Yet those that have worked have delivered some amazing results: like a variety of human and animals rights legislation and practice. Democracy. Freedom of expression. Universal education. The list is very long and inspiring.

It seems sometimes as if some NGOs are conducting experiments which are not very well thought out. And whose impact is not well measured. There is no doubt that the goals NGOs set out for themselves, and which the donors agree to fund, are extremely challenging. There are few “reliable” answers to the question of how to bring about social change. NGOs operate within the context of some very complex, socio-economic forces. Possibly the lessons learnt have not dug deep enough, not been captured very well and have been hard to put into practice.

In my experience, some NGOs do not have a real willingness to listen and learn. They are run and staffed by mostly middle-class professionals who may be out of touch with the poor, marginalized, yet resourceful “beneficiaries”. The bulk of the people who work in NGOs are intelligent, skilled and committed (again in my experience), but the system within which they operate may not permit analysis that does really in-depth, real innovation and a rigorous self-evaluation and learning model.

So much for yet another Veena-style overarching critique! What have I learnt then about life, and about myself in this past, challenging and rewarding year? A lot of the things I am going to say next will sound like clichés, but hey, many clichés seem to have come alive for me here!

Soma Moja – Lesson 1
Take not anything for granted; judge not other cultures through your cultural lens

This is surely obvious, especially when you are in a foreign country. But the human mind uses patterns to keep going and tends to cling to beliefs acquired in other countries/ contexts, even in the face of the strongest evidence to the contrary. Of course this sort of clinging can only lead to distress.

Keeping an open mind is tough, in a “baffling” foreign country, but worth aiming for over and over again. It helps you personally and it helps the world. Win-win or what!

Soma Mbili – Lesson 2
Humans are emotionally rather than rationally motivated

Yah! I think our hearts, spirits, the so-called “irrational” parts of ourselves mostly guide our lives though some of us are very skilled at justifying this in rational terms!

Corollary: You cannot fake/force emotions

I have lived in 8 other cities and contexts besides Dar/Tanzania. Five of these were in India and three in Canada. I have felt at home in 6, though the initial entry in some was not easy. It seems that either you consider a place home or you don’t. (Of course there are rational reasons for this – ha ha – but they do not tell the whole story.) You can’t force that feeling of home, though you can learn to deal better with the alienation. Time, reflection, spiritual tools help.

It’s particularly interesting in Dar, as being back in the tropics is very comforting for me in a direct and tangible way. My heart lifts every time I look at the light blue day sky and the deep blue night sky, see green trees and flowering plants year-round, feel the caress of a just-cool sea breeze, catch a glimpse of the Indian ocean, walk along a sandy beach.

But under this is a layer of psychic discomfort, that “not at home” feeling. I spent some of last year saying to myself “I will feel at home here sometime.” Lately I have started telling myself though that I may not feel at home here anytime and this is OK too. This admission has come as a relief. Ergo you cannot force your heart to feel one way or another… At the same time you can try to move beyond the negative emotions and not get stuck in them.

Soma Tatu – Lesson Three
Language binds or separates

It obviously aids comprehension and its lack compounds confusion. Working in a mostly Kiswahili environment has led me to some understanding of how it must feel being disabled! You miss out on information, nuance, context, even if your colleagues fill you in and you strain to comprehend. I have made peace with my identity here as an expat. But I wish I had had more time and resources to keep studying Kiswahili.

Still I have managed to get work done here, and done it well, so I should celebrate that as well. And my situation has given me a better handle on the English-French language controversies in Canada.

Soma Nne – Lesson Four
Life can be so unfair!

I consider myself socially committed and hold the belief that life can become fair someday for most, even all, people. However, the appalling extent of “disempowerment” of the majority of Tanzanians has come as a shock, a slap in the face of the ideal of social justice.

I still believe strongly that social justice is worth working towards and fighting for. I believe that there is no alternative. But I feel I am facing the full complexity and challenge of the “how can this be possible” at a much deeper level than ever before. Right now I feel somewhat overwhelmed. All the more reason to keep going.

Some important questions to ask in this context: How do the people who NGOs are trying to bring justice to, see justice? What do they want and at what pace?

Soma Tano – Lesson Five
People are basically decent

Confirmed here yet again as it has been in all situations in the past. Given the tough lives most of them lead, it is surprising and heartening how much “humanity” they have managed to hang on to.

Soma Sita – Lesson Six
Count your blessings but don’t deny your pain

I am privileged. I come from a middle-class background, live better than the majority here and am an employed professional, amid a sea of poverty, want and powerlessness. Ergo I should always be thankful and I have absolutely nothing to complain about. Wrong!

I agree that money makes misery more enjoyable, as the saying goes! I escape to “wazungu” enclaves and treat myself when I am under stress. I know I am here for a finite time. But one cannot and should not deny that this kind of a move to an entirely new culture brings challenges, stresses and worries. It’s important to acknowledge the darker emotions, but not wallow in them. This is what Buddhism says: Become curious about your pain! Feel it, live it, but do not use it to cause harm, understand it, go beyond it.

Soma Saba – Lesson Seven
Nature provides continuity, beauty, comfort wherever I am.

A big hand then for Mama Nature who is so beautiful and bountiful, even though some of her children seem hell-bent on draining her dry! Hurrah for the environmentalists too!

Soma Nane – Lesson Eight
You can depend on books

To transport you to other worlds, other realities. I have really enjoyed and gained a lot from a variety of books from the wonderful HakiElimu library. I have read fiction, a range of how to books, including books on web writing and design, marketing and copy writing, books on development, education, management, and dazzlers like Malcolm Gladwell’s – “The Tipping Point” and “Blink”.

Soma Tisa – Lesson Nine
Living abroad makes you value and appreciate home better

Though I am told there will be reverse culture shock on return and a probable re-evaluation of home. (Hey – I’d rather just hang out at the beach than learn all these lessons, but oh well… there’s no escaping life or one’s self is there?!)

Soma Kumi – Lesson Ten
Being unhealthy really sucks

But you still gotta keep goin’! Health problems related to allergies to mould, etc., surfaced for me here.

But I have stopped getting worked up when I fall sick. Instead I actually laugh and get on with the caretaking. I have had to learn to do a bit less, pottering around the house some weekends and read.

ALL IN ALL, IT’S BEEN QUITE A RIDE! I have lost my sense of humour from time to time but mostly retained it and that’s been the greatest saving grace. Laughing at the various “situations” and my reaction to these has helped a lot.

Perhaps the final lesson should be – Hang on to your sense of humour. And don’t take yourself or life too seriously. This is particularly true of work. I have learnt to take pleasure and pride in smaller accomplishments, adjusting to the fact that it takes much longer here to get things done.