Living overseas feels a bit like having a secret identity. Kind of like a superhero! But, disappointingly, without the superpowers. Tanzanian by day – Mzungu by night! (Mzungu is a word you will learn quickly if you ever come to Tanzania, as it will be your new label, meaning “Westerner” or “white person”)
Tanzanian me wears a skirt every day (knee length or longer, of course) and a shirt that covers the shoulders. Head covering optional, but desirable depending on the context. Tanzanian me also dresses extra fancy for church (the fancier, the better!) and wears brightly colored and boldly patterned cloth.
Mzungu me comes out every now and then and wears pants! Yeah! But only if I’m in the city or traveling, of course. Sometimes even jeans (although hot season and jeans don’t get along very well in my books). Mzungu me prefers neutral or plain colors and, shockingly, even wears pajama shorts (but with a wrap-around skirt close by in case I need to change to Tanzanian me in a pinch).
Tanzanian me eats rice almost every day, sometimes ugali (a staple food that is made with maize flour and looks like thick mashed potatoes), with Tanzanian staples like beans or a vegetable sauce or plantain bananas or a green leafy vegetable called mchicha.
Mzungu me gets spurts of desires for a taste of home and whips up tacos or hamburgers or spaghetti or barbeque chicken. Or chocolate chip cookies.
Tanzanian me buys local produce, whatever happens to be in season, and shops in the small dukas (shops) that line the roads here, where flour and beans are carefully weighed and jars of lollipops line the counter.
Mzungu me drives to the big supermarket every couple of months to buy things like ground beef! Cheese! Overpriced cereal! Butter! And, as a treat, whipping cream for our coffee (we call it liquid gold as the price is a bit outrageous).
Tanzanian me greets Tanzanians in accordance with the many levels of greetings in Kiswahili – “Shikamoo” for anyone older than me out of respect; “Habari” for peers or similar-aged people; “Mambo” or “Hujambo” for children. Tanzanian me knows the importance of exchanging a variety greetings back and forth for a while before talking about anything else and of making sure my children greet their elders with respect. Relationship building is the most important thing!
Mzungu me likes to greet everyone with the same informal greeting and get right into whatever we need to talk about. Time is money, people!
The missionary life truly is a life between two worlds (or more). We switch back and forth between the worlds but never quite belong to one completely. Try as we may to adapt to African culture, we will always, always, always be Westerners. And when we are engaging in the Western world, there is always a part of us that doesn’t quite fit in anymore because being part of a different world changes you. It changes not just how you act or speak on the outside, but it changes you on the inside – your worldview, your thoughts, your lens with which you see everything around you.
It is confusing and hard when you’re comfortably engaging in one world and then the other world comes in and crashes the party. It’s a dance that gets easier over time, but I reckon it will be a dance for as long as we live between two worlds.
But it is a blessing, truly, to enter another person’s world. It is a privilege for my children to experience a world so different from their passport country and find belonging there. It is an honor to be invited into someone’s home and someone’s life, as a guest and a foreigner. It is incredibly enriching to call someone so very different from you ‘friend.’
It’s a life worth the dance. Even without the superpowers.