Paula Mian – Tanzania

Paula Mian cooking Zanzibari food
Photo of Paula in Dar Es Salaam

Before boarding the plane to Dar Es Salaam, in beautiful Tanzania, I truly had no idea how much my life was about to change. After having finished my first year in grad school, I was feeling overwhelmed and was more than ready to get away from the student life for a while and dive into a completely new reality.

It was my first time in an African country.

I still remember how lost and displaced I felt in my first two weeks in Dar. The time difference, the new language, dozens of bajaji rides, constant dusty feet, lots of bureaucracy and hand-shakes made me constantly tired as I was trying to grasp every detail of the new city I was living in.

By the third week in the country I started my new work routine at Twaweza, a local advocacy group focused on education that swept my feet away. I was constantly impressed on how hard my colleagues worked and how competent they were, which yielded nothing less but outstanding work. Our routine started early in the morning (in Swahili the expression for 7am is “hour one”, so you can imagine how early I am talking about here) and we spent most of our time setting meetings with governmental officials or anybody who was willing to talk to us about Big Results Now! It was a fun ride: a lot of waiting, a lot of small talk, more hand-shakes, a couple of coffee dates, and even a Skype call with Professor Habyarimana at 5am EST – with him in his garage in order not to wake up his kids. 

Photo of Paula Mian in downtown Dar Es Salaam

The result was tons of datasets and reports that kept us busy when we were not as popular with a full schedule of meetings. Apart from working for RISE, we also helped Dr. Kitila put together a teacher survey, which was very interesting! I also managed to give a presentation about Brazil’s educational system at Twaweza and advocate for more cooperation between developing countries – something I hope to see happening more often in my lifetime. From Twaweza I mostly miss lunch and all the other group activities that happened every now and then. I miss that table outside by the plants where we would have meetings..

I can’t end this post without mentioning some of the mundane, sometimes unexpected experiences I had in Tanzania that either taught me useful (and not so useful) skills, made me laugh or cry (among other emotions in between), or simply made me scratch my head and think a whole lot. Here is a good list I could put together:

I spent 2 months without wearing shorts (women there stick with dresses or skirts only) and went to the beach wearing pants (without seeing one single person in a swimsuit). I learned about Chimamanda Ngozi and read Half of a Yellow Sun. I had no roommates for the first time in my life – and had to figure out how to take care of moody cats that got trapped in the roof. I took dozens of hours of Swahili classes (with lovely Wendy, the best mwalimu in the world!) and by the end of the trip I could run errands and travel without having to speak a single word in English. I saw a baboon on the side of the road. I drove in chaotic Zanzibari roads and gave rides to little girls on their way to school. I went snorkeling for the first time. I started a new running routine and made Tanzanians laugh at the white girl with a kanga wrapped around her legs. I met Liberians, Chadians, Kenyans – and I taught them how to properly pronounce cachaça. I had to wait for 5 hours on the side of the road as my bus broke. I had the worst stomachache of my life. I learned a lot about myself, about others, and about the kind of work I want to be doing in the future. Ninakumiss sana kila siku, Tanzania.

Dar Es Salaam